If you are not a fervent follower of superhero action movies, visiting the genre can feel like dropping in on someone else's soap opera. As the latest entry in the DC Extended Universe unspools, you can almost hear the diehard fan whispering in your ear: "So, Superman is dead, and Batman is kind of implicated, or feels guilty about it or something, but now he's found Wonder Woman and she's finished fighting the First World War …"
The First World War? Oh, forget it, you don't need to know. And the plodding Justice League, a movie that will only solidify DCEU's reputation as something less than the Avengers franchise, desperately needs to move on: Once they've got Batman and Wonder Woman in play, director Zack Snyder and his writing team still have three more superheroes to cue up.
There's Aquaman, who surfaces from ferocious waves onto some bleak Scandinavian shore; there's Cyborg, who emerges from a tragic accident in his father's lab; and there's the as-yet-unnamed Flash, a spectrum-esque youth who apparently got hit by lightning. No, there's no shortage of interesting characters with intriguing powers on display here, but there's frustratingly little space to tell their individual stories and, biggest problem of all, they lack a worthy opponent.
You aren't going to round up all these supernatural powers to defeat some common-or-garden villain with a plan to merely take over the world. Big guns demand a big plot and Justice League provides it in the shape of Steppenwolf, an evil god who has been locked away for millennia but has now awoken for some half-explained reason to do with three ancient and radioactive stone boxes. If he can reunite the three boxes, he will actually destroy the entire world. Why he wants to isn't clear.
Masked in a massive horned helmet and supported by an army of giant, mechanical flies, Steppenwolf (apparently the actor Ciaran Hinds is buried somewhere in there) is a creature of such overbearing violence and apocalyptic destructiveness that he remains fatally distant. He is removed from the mechanics of emotion and motivation to such a point he becomes more boring than frightening. The guy makes you long for some human company – say, Jesse Eisenberg's Lex Luthor (who started the hunt for the three boxes) or even Jared Leto's Joker. When Batman quips to his faithful Alfred that he misses those days when all they had to worry about were explosive wind-up penguins, the audience may want to agree.
In those central roles, both the increasingly fleshy Ben Affleck and a desiccated Jeremy Irons are starting to feel as tired as their dry repartee. Batman's romantic chemistry with Gal Gadot's sharp Wonder Woman might liven things up, but there's precious little time to pursue it. Similarly, the comic addition of Ezra Miller's nerdy Flash, the machismo offered by Jason Momoa in the role of Aquaman or the repressed sorrow of Ray Fisher's Cyborg as his body turns to metal all hold out dramatic potential, but there is never room to untangle their back stories or do anything more than hint at present predicaments. The script attempts to advance the notion that the Amazon herself must finally face her destiny and lead this league, but without the naiveté and idealism that lightened her character in this past summer's successful Wonder Woman, Gadot's performance becomes less engaging.
The movie lurches through various explosive encounters with the overbearing Steppenwolf before Snyder makes his largest mistake, a posthumous appearance from Superman in scenes featuring both Lois Lane (Amy Adams) and the hero's mother (Diane Lane). Elsewhere the director manages to balance some genuinely funny superhero comradery with his darker, louder action sequences, but the apparently un-ironic scenes featuring Superman and Lois are the most painful of the film as Justice League unfairly attempts to wring a second dose of emotion from Superman's death.
Don't rule out the possibility that a movie dedicated to Aquaman (on the schedule for 2018) or the Flash might be fun, but the Justice League itself needs to disband.
Justice League opens Nov. 17.