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Justice League is a jagged mess with a Batman and Superman problem

It’s better than Batman v Superman. But it’s more successful as a trailer for Aquaman or The Flash than as a movie of its own.

Ezra Miller, Ben Affleck, and Gal Gadot in Justice League.
Warner Bros.
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

Watching Warner Bros. pump out superhero flick after superhero flick over the past four years has felt a little like watching your favorite Olympic figure skater with plenty of star potential flub one triple axel after another.

At this point, Warner Bros. has developed a very close relationship with the ice.

The studio’s 2013 Superman flagship, Man of Steel, might as well have been made of tin, as it never figured out how to tap into star Henry Cavill’s charisma. But Warner Bros. brought back that same stoic Superman to fight Ben Affleck’s aging CrossFit disciple Bruce Wayne in 2015’s ultimately flat Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Then it decided to go screwy with a band of antiheroic villains saving the world in the fizzy disaster known as 2016’s Suicide Squad.

Wonder Woman, released in June, was Warner Bros.’ first certifiable critical and box office hit — the only triple it had landed since it started building out the DC Extended Universe. And for now Wonder Woman will retain that status, as the studio’s newest film, Justice League, fails to deliver anything beyond the primal fun of smashing action figures together. And that’s even with Gal Gadot in the mix as the gleaming and buoyant Diana Prince.

Gadot’s Prince — a character who fights for people who cannot fight for themselves, an Amazon who will brave a storm of German bullets to stand her ground, a princess who will continue to fight once everyone else has given up — has become the premier superhero in the DC Extended Universe. And though Justice League accidentally confirms that Prince is a prime character again (she gets a breathtaking, joy-inducing solo scene), it’s still very much focused on Affleck’s gruff, unfeeling Batman and his tenuous relationship with Cavill’s charmless Superman.

What made Wonder Woman so special is that we (and she) figured out that being superhuman doesn’t automatically make someone a hero. In that film, unlike in the other DC Comics movies in Warner Bros.’ war chest, we see what drives her, what makes her question her own ideas of good and evil, and ultimately where she stands.

But Justice League is seemingly unconcerned with all that, or with what differentiates Wonder Woman and her fellow heroes’ goodness from humans and from each other. Instead, the film serves more as a showcase for what they can do rather than what makes them heroic.

When the heroes aren’t pummeling CGI opponents into oblivion, they’re either trading inside jokes or offering lengthy explanation of what just happened or what’s going to happen next. We don’t ever really get to know the characters we’re supposed to root for.

The result is a dazzling, lawless spectacle, pumped so full of origin stories, redemption arcs, heroic introductions, orange villain flares, and blue lightning that it buckles under the weight of trying to cram around four hours’ worth of storytelling into two hours of celluloid. The only tight thing in this chaotic jumble is the Aquaman costume that strains to cover Jason Momoa’s Atlantean biceps.

But if there’s a silver lining, it’s that amid all the disorder, there are a few moments and performances so bright that they shine through the whirlpool of messiness. And even though Justice League fizzles out, it still somehow — for better or worse — makes you excited about the solo superhero flicks, like 2018’s Aquaman, that Warner Bros. will eventually produce.

Justice League suffers from a mediocre, mismatched script that undercuts its characters. But Jason Momoa and Ezra Miller make it work for them.

The film’s credited writers, Chris Terrio and Joss Whedon (who stepped in as Justice League’s director when writer-director Zack Snyder departed in May to deal with a family issue), have created a movie that feels like two different films happening at once.

The interaction between the characters is written in Whedon’s voice — almost everyone is witty, and most conversations end with punchlines that linger in the afterthought. If you’ve watched Marvel’s two Avengers movies, both of which Whedon wrote and directed, the dialogue, banter, and beats of the conversations in Justice League will feel very familiar.

What’s strange is hearing the quick, quirky banter against the backdrop of the movie’s overarching plot — a mythic, swirling, Tolkien-esque epic involving ancient alliances, history, and the end of days. Glib inside jokes flank the Armageddon, and it never feels like anyone is taking the impending destruction of Earth particularly seriously — including the audience.

The main story picks up right after the events of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Superman is dead, and the world is in mourning. Mourning, in this sense, means hanging giant black banners marked with an S on famous monuments all over the globe. But evil doesn’t cease just because Superman is dead.

Knowing this, Batman has begun assembling a team that is destined to fight to save humanity. Conveniently, Batman v Superman villain Lex Luthor kept neat, organized files on each of Batman’s metahuman recruits — Barry Allen, a.k.a. the Flash (Ezra Miller); Vincent Stone, a.k.a. Cyborg (Ray Fisher); and Arthur Curry, a.k.a. Aquaman (Jason Momoa) — making Batman’s job more like following directions on Google Maps than working to build the perfect group dynamic. Wonder Woman, who is shown to be more adept at both the recruiting business and saving the world, agrees to help him out.

Thanks to a conversation between Batman and Wonder Woman that exists solely to explain to the audience what’s going on, we find out that an invasion is imminent and that a big, bad, ax-wielding villain named Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds) wants to destroy the world, so Batman will have to get the gang together faster or else lots of people are going to die. Never mind that it’s unclear how this villain got the name Steppenwolf, why he wants to annihilate everyone on Earth, or what’s in it for him if he succeeds.

The team is introduced quickly, and each member’s background is rushed. It helps if, going in, you’re already somewhat versed in Aquaman’s exile from Atlantis and his strained relationship with its queen and his soul mate Mera (Amber Heard) that exists in the DC comic universe. Same goes for Barry Allen’s relentless quest to exonerate his father.

Justice League doesn’t care much about the details of why you should be rooting for these characters to come out on top; it’s much more focused on showing off their respective superpowers. That leads to at least one stunning fight scene, but also several scenes stuffed with little more than weightless CGI.

And the scenes where no one’s fighting are nothing more than comedic, quippy interludes. Since the film makes only a slapdash effort to introduce the characters and their backgrounds, it strands some characters with nothing really to do.

Fisher’s stylish Cyborg is a prime example. He’s stuck as a part-time narrator and is used as the movie’s built-in plot advancement device, which effectively turns the character into a version of Iron Man with all the impressive gadgets and gizmos but none of the personality.

And in less charismatic and capable hands, Aquaman and the Flash would have been soulless mercenaries — that’s the limited extent to which Justice League develops the two heroes. But Momoa’s gruff charm and Miller’s boyish, skittering awkwardness give their respective characters a verve and charge that go far beyond what the script has given them. They play off each other well, and create a believable and winsome team dynamic with Gadot’s Wonder Woman. Miller and Momoa also allow us to see a sunnier side to the brooding, grim DC Cinematic Universe.

The actors make the idea of standalone Aquaman and Flash solo films something to look forward to, rather than a threat. That’s an impressive feat.

Warner Bros. still hasn’t solved its Batman problem

Justice League is a completely jagged movie. The topsy-turvy script is distracting, but the movie’s main flaw is that Warner Bros. and original director-writer Zack Snyder (eventually replaced by Whedon) have no idea how to make Ben Affleck’s Batman a sympathetic figure.

In DC’s comic books, Batman is a master tactician and analyst. Give him enough time and he can take down any villain and superhero with a cunning plan. He doesn’t have the superpowers that the rest of his cohort do, but he makes up for it with his ingenuity.

Further, Batman also experiences grief and loss in the comics, and thus we see him develop and work through his shifting view of justice and the conflict between good and evil. Those grisly bits of humanity bleed into all of his relationships, including the ones he has with his teammates.

But Batman’s ingenuity and interiority were sloppily handled, if not altogether absent, in Batman v Superman, and they’re still an issue in Justice League.

Once again, Affleck’s Batman is just a brawler, a brooding, heaving sack of muscles. His vulnerability onscreen is almost entirely physical, as he’s more prone to getting hurt than the rest of the Justice Leaguers. And for large swaths of this movie, he’s off in a corner firing tiny guns; it’s entertaining in a way that probably isn’t intended.

Other than bankrolling the team, a constant inside joke of the movie, Batman doesn’t feel like a crucial member of the league. He seems expendable — and for a character who’s supposed to be the leader, that’s downright unacceptable. It serves to underscore that if you take away Batman’s humanity, as Justice League seems prone to doing with its heroes, you essentially rob him of what makes him great.

Snyder, who laid the foundation for Affleck’s take on the character in Batman v Superman, similarly struggled to make good use of Cavill as Superman in both that film and Man of Steel. In Justice League, Whedon has the same problem.

Before I’m accused of spoiling too much, let’s be clear that Cavill (and his mustache) has been an integral part of the Justice League’s promotional tour. It’d be silly to believe that he doesn’t appear in this movie, his death in Batman v Superman notwithstanding.

That said, you can sort of tell where Snyder’s darker, pained vision of Superman, the one we first met in Man of Steel, ends, and where Whedon’s more playful one begins. Whedon clearly believes that adding tiny bits of comedy and sizzling one-liners equals humanity. But even with a bit of Whedon wit, Cavill is as stiff as ever — and that’s a problem when he’s supposed to be the center of the DC universe, and the one character whom Affleck’s Batman is supposed to play off.

The fact that Warner Bros. has now spent three movies squandering actors like Cavill (who showed he can be disarming and charming in 2015’s The Man from U.N.C.L.E.), not to mention the mega-talented Amy Adams, who plays Superman’s soul mate Lois Lane, is baffling.

In Justice League’s midsection, Batman takes Wonder Woman aside and mulls out loud whether he can keep on superheroing, pointing out that his bruises are starting to pile up and that she could be the leader he could never be. She could save tomorrow without him, he theorizes. Being a pal, Wonder Woman shrugs it off.

The obvious takeaway — that this team would be better off without Batman leading it — isn’t the one that Warner Bros., Snyder, and Whedon, are going for. The idea of the Justice League existing without Batman is supposed to be a big rhetorical nope. In the comics, the league has always needed him as much as he needs it. Unfortunately for Batman, by the end of this film, the idea doesn’t sound half bad.

Justice League opens in theaters nationwide on Friday, November 17.

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