- Joe Gross American-Statesman Staff
Warning: Spoilers for “Justice League” follow.
Like so much going on in 2017, “Justice League” arrives in theaters aided by audiences hoping — nay, praying — that it meets the lowest possible expectations.
Witness the troubled genesis of what was to be the coming out party for the first live-action meeting of the Super Friends:
Zack Snyder, the DC Universe head honcho who helmed the mediocre “Man of Steel” and the reviled “Batman v Superman,” was well on his way with “Justice League,” which many assumed would be as dour as either of the previous films.
When Snyder and his wife and producer Deborah Snyder had to step away for personal reasons, Joss Whedon (whose Marvel Cinematic Universe movies were far lighter in tone than Snyder’s DCU pictures) was brought in to oversee reshoots and post-production. Rumors of extensive reshoots ran wild, and suddenly nobody seemed to have any idea whatsoever what this movie would be like.
Well, it’s a little bit of everything. While the overall tone and look of “Justice League” is pure Snyder (muted colors, a grim worldview), Whedon’s jokey style and pacing are impossible to ignore. The two are a bit mashed together, and it’s genuinely strange in spots to see “Avengers”-type jokes come out of Batman’s mouth.
As to the plot: Superman is dead. The world is in chaos, and here is your montage of evidence: skinheads harassing Muslim shopkeepers, Lois Lane writing fluff pieces, the Kent farm foreclosed upon, a terrible cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Everybody Knows,” etc. We are told it’s because everyone, everywhere misses Superman.
Batman (Ben Affleck, surly as ever) calls upon Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot, the film’s linchpin) and decides to finally track down some other weird folks: a very surf-bro Aquaman (Jason Momoa), a guy called Cyborg (Ray Fisher) with a special connection to the Really Scary Technology that is aiding an apparent alien invasion, and the Flash (Ezra Miller).
The baddies: An alien conqueror named Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds, completely covered in CGI) whose goal is to assemble three Mother Boxes hidden on Earth into a machine that will turn Earth into his home planet. (There’s more than a little “Lord of the Rings” in this story.) He is accompanied by Parademons, greenish insect men who thrive on fear. Comics fans will know Steppenwolf and his expendable flying dudes as avatars of Darkseid, seeker of the Anti-Life Equation, partial inspiration for Darth Vader and one of the all-time great bad guys.
The new folks acquit themselves well. Momoa’s Aquabro and Miller’s Flash get the balance of the Whedonesque chatter: Flash is a somewhat Asperger’s-ish 20-something who seems nervous around everything (Whedon loves this kind of guy), while Aquaman doesn’t feel that far from Momoa himself.
As a pal put it, “If you aren’t thrilled by the sheer comic-book-ness of Arthur Curry (Aquaman) surfing on parademons over the skies of the former USSR, I cannot help you.”
Affleck’s Batman feels little but guilt for his role in Superman’s death. Bruce Wayne also might be a drunk; watch out for the full tumbler of Scotch he pours for himself in one scene. He is the de facto leader, but Affleck’s affectless lack of charm just makes one long for more screen time from Gadot’s Wonder Woman, who is easily the franchise’s MVP right now.
After a few rounds of Steppenwolf using everyone as super-powered punching bags, our heroes realize the have the technology to bring Superman back to life.
So, in spite of a few of them saying this is a Very Bad Idea Indeed, (SPOILER) they decide to do it.
From the moment Henry Cavill arrives on screen, the movie takes on a weird tension. Given the cranky trash fire that was “Batman v Superman,” the prevailing thought upon his entrance is, “How are they going to screw this up … again?”
Which is to say that for some of us, the biggest problem with “Justice League” is the premise itself, that Superman is such an inspirational and aspirational figure in “Man of Steel” and “Batman v Superman” that the planet just fell apart without him around, that other heroes put aside their lack of interest in being heroes and came together to honor the fallen alien.
Mind you, this is a perfectly valid plot, but even a casual rewatch of either earlier film reminds you that there is NOTHING in Cavill’s performance as Superman that has ever suggested that.
Even “Justice League” can’t quite solve this puzzle. Take this massively frustrating scene of Superman, pre-death, talking to some kids in a brief prologue.
When one of them asks, “What is your favorite thing about Earth?” the Man of Tomorrow looks away (with that Cavill scowl) and turns back to reply … only to have the video go dark in a haze of static.
While this is clearly supposed to represent the loss of this hero (and the idea that your conception of Superman can fill in the blank), it reads like a cop-out. Have him say anything: pancakes, the sun, the possibility that the arc of history bends toward justice, anything!
Again, Superman is denied the chance to inspire, to build the case that he can move those with super abilities to become actual heroes. For people who value these characters as symbols of truth, justice and the American way, “Justice League” never really feels like the start of something truly heroic.