For all the many problems with DC’s fledgling cinematic universe thusfar, there has usually — with the glaring exception of “Suicide Squad” — been an admirable effort to tell character-based stories. Those characters aren’t always easy to root for and don’t always act with common sense, but at the very least, their decisions drive the action. With that in mind and with the runaway success of “Wonder Woman” earlier this year, it was easy for fans to get excited for “Justice League,” the film that would finally bring the heroes of DC Comics together.
Directed by Zack Snyder (“Sucker Punch”) with extensive reshoots overseen by Joss Whedon (“Marvel’s The Avengers”), the film does away with all that promise almost immediately. After its opening scenes, it focuses its attention on underdeveloped characters, dragged from scene to uninteresting scene not by their own decisions but by an unfocused plot that never allows or encourages them to grow. “Justice League” does the greatest possible injustice to these legendary heroes it possibly could: It makes their first team-up boring.
It’s not that the story needed to be complex in order for the movie to be satisfying, but the narrative — which sees Batman (Ben Affleck, “Live by Night”) and Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot, “Keeping Up with the Joneses”) racing to assemble a team to combat the arrival of Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds, “Silence”) — is so rushed and simple that it almost feels improvised. It’s less a well-thought-out story and more a series of MacGuffins intermittently interrupted by impenetrable, confusing action scenes and capped off by a deus ex machina that all but negates most of the work the characters had done.
The problems with its story would have been easier to overlook if “Justice League” had focused more on developing the characters and the relationships between them. After all, it’s the promise of seeing these heroes interact that brings the majority of people to the theater. Unfortunately, there’s little room for conflict between the characters because most of them are thinly written in order to pave the way for their upcoming solo movies. When there is conflict, it’s once again forced by the plot rather than the characters. This reaches a laughable extreme when Cyborg’s (Ray Fisher, “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice”) enhancements accidentally fire on a member of his team and start a fight that doesn’t do anything but pad the runtime.
To the endless credit of the performers, their work gives life to the characters that the script does absolutely nothing for. This goes double for Ezra Miller (“Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them”) as Barry Allen, who injects so much humanity into his interpretation of The Flash that there are moments he feels at a total disconnect from the film around him. Unlike everything else in “Justice League,” he’s interesting to watch and has something vaguely resembling an arc. To watch him in a project otherwise devoid of appeal is befuddling.
But for all the goodwill that Miller’s performance generates, it’s offset by Hinds as the main villain of the piece, Steppenwolf. It’s hardly the veteran actor’s fault that the character comes off as forgettable and boring; Hinds has shown repeatedly that given the right material, he can lend gravitas to any role. In the absence of that material, however, Steppenwolf comes off as a “World of Warcraft” reject brought to life by effects that range in quality from “late 2000s video game” to “early 2000s video game.”
Perhaps to better diagnose the problems with “Justice League,” it’s worthwhile to look at the best moment of the film. It’s not a nerdgasm-inducing moment of fan service or a classic music cue meant to feed on our nostalgia. It’s a conversation between Cyborg and The Flash that actually takes the time to build camaraderie between the two and advance our understanding of their characters. It’s the kind of scene that the movie rarely has. Watching these characters come together should have been a moment of pure euphoria for fans like myself. Instead, as the film plodded inexorably along, crushing reality set in, and it was nothing but disappointing.