By now, you’ve probably heard that in the comic-book world, it was DC Comics who first got the idea to put their superheroes together into a joint adventure, calling it the Justice League. Marvel Comics’ The Avengers, on the other hand, were late arrivals trailing in their wake. However, in the movie world, it’s been reversed, with Justice League hitting theaters a full five years after Joss Whedon’s The Avengers. The parallels are unavoidable because DC and Warner Brothers brought in Whedon to rewrite the script and reshoot some scenes after the death of Zack Snyder’s daughter forced the director to step back late in the filmmaking process. From the corporate logo depicting the iconic superheroes to the supervillain’s flying robot army to the post-credits sequence, Justice League takes its lead from The Avengers, and the comparison does not flatter the current film.
The story picks up after the events of Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice, as the world reels from the death of Superman (Henry Cavill) and crime threatens to engulf the world. In this environment, Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) approaches Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) to inform him about Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds), an overlord from another dimension who wants to take over the Earth and turn it into a volcanic wasteland. Sensing that repelling a full-scale alien invasion is too much for them, Bruce turns to some superpeople he’s been keeping tabs on from afar: Arthur “Aqua-Man” Curry (Jason Momoa), Barry “The Flash” Allen (Ezra Miller), and Victor “Cyborg” Stone (Ray Fisher).
The previous DC films have been almost entirely devoid of comic relief, so the introduction of snark master Whedon is as jarring as it is welcome. We get a fun gag when the taciturn loner Aqua-Man starts uncharacteristically spilling his guts to the group, but most of the laughs come from The Flash, whether he’s idly wondering why people go to brunch or widening his eyes in terror at the sight of the metal giant Cyborg. Miller has been cast effectively as creepy teens in We Need to Talk About Kevin and Fantastic Beasts, but he’s better suited to comedy, and his awestruck demeanor at the world of superheroes that he’s plunged into is something the series badly needs.
That said, Snyder doesn’t have Whedon’s comic sense (or indeed, anybody else’s), so the movie’s weighty and portentous parts don’t mesh with the lighter moments. Nor do they work on their own. The action takes detours to Themyscira and the underwater kingdom of Atlantis, and neither of those makes us want to linger in those fantasy worlds. Barry’s relationship with his convict dad (Billy Crudup) comes off like filler, as does Victor’s with his scientist dad (Joe Morton). This movie uses its actors inefficiently, and most Marvel films wouldn’t waste Jeremy Irons, Amy Adams, and J.K. Simmons (stepping in as Commissioner Gordon) like this movie does. Bruce also gets the desperate idea to bring back Superman from the dead to combat the deadly dull Steppenwolf, when it would have been nicer to have a movie where our heroes prove that they can cope without their strongest teammate. We can’t miss the Man of Steel if he doesn’t leave.
Justice League is a definite improvement from the previous DC Comics films, and if it leads to these superheroes lightening up every once in a while from now on, I’m all for it. It still doesn’t ameliorate the fact that Marvel not only staked out this territory first but also did it better. Until they rethink their approach from the bottom up, DC will always be a distant second.
Starring Ben Affleck, Gal Gadot, and Henry Cavill. Directed by Zack Snyder. Written by Chris Terrio and Joss Whedon. Rated PG-13.