While watching “Justice League” you can easily discern which version of the film is Zack Snyder’s and which version is Joss Whedon’s, who was brought in late to finish the movie after Snyder had to step away due to a family emergency. Snyder’s picture can be found in the stylish slow motion action scenes and the muted, air brushed visual aesthetic. It can also be glimpsed in the thematic gloominess.
On the other hand, Whedon’s “Justice League” is contained mainly in the script: the silly one-liners and comedic repartee between our heroes that eases some of the gloominess. The movie doesn’t take itself too seriously. There are a few funny moments--one involving Wonder Woman’s (Gal Gadot) honesty lasso and the cocky Aquaman (Jason Momoa). But you can’t just tape some goofy zingers on top of a muddled and all around uninspired screenplay and expect a good movie to emerge. I laughed occasionally but I mostly groaned as the bland, messy narrative unfolded.
“Justice League” features yet another one-dimensional super villain, a mythical alien with a Viking helmet named Steppenwolf, (Ciaran Hinds) who wants to turn the world into a flaming hellscape, literally. His army of loyal demons resemble mutant zombie Man-Mosquitos and can apparently smell fear; a point that’s brought up twice and not really expanded upon. Steppenwolf uses portals to travel around the globe. He’s looking for three powerful energy cubes that will help him carry out his master plan. It’s obligatory for superhero movies to contain at least one portal and one meaningless Macguffin. “Justice League” has at least five portals and three Macguffins.
Anyway, while Steppenwolf is off doing his bad guy thing the rest of the world is in a dark place, due to Superman’s (Henry Cavill) death in last year’s “Batman v Superman.” The opening credit sequence is a sad montage of people being sad about Superman’s death, racists harassing an Arab shop owner in Metropolis and a homeless man looking sad with a sign that reads: “At least I tried.” There’s unrest and very little hope, a perfect environment for Batman, (Ben Affleck, looking like he doesn’t want to be here) Wonder Woman, Aquaman, Cyborg (Ray Fisher) and The Flash (Ezra Miller, whose entire performance consists of smart alecly comments) to join forces.
But they’re not teaming up to ease the pessimism and pain in the world, they’re teaming up to face off against a rote CGI villain in a climactic CGI battle and they have to recover three CGI MacGuffins. The apocalypse brewing at the center of “Justice League” is hollow and contrived. The comedic interjections further undermine the film’s serious intentions.
Maybe the most surprising thing about “Justice League” is that, at just under two hours not including credits, it’s not long enough. I’m all for action movies being leaner but this is clearly a big film that’s been severely abridged in the editing room. There’s a lot of ground to cover—establishing new bad guys, introducing new superheroes and having superheroes join forces. These are crucial narrative stages that have been squeezed into a small time frame and as a result the movie is in a constant state of fast-forwarding. So much of “Justice League” is rushed, convoluted set up that our heroes don’t get a chance to gel as a unit and find a consistent comedic rhythm.
“The Avengers” worked because Disney played the long game. There were five movies that focused on the individual Avengers before they teamed up. Warner Bros. is trying to force things and it shows. “Justice League” has to do the work of four movies. Brand new character Cyborg goes from being a conflicted outsider who doesn’t want to join the Justice League in one scene, to an essential part of the team a couple scenes later, taking on tasks like he’s been a member for years.
Chunks of the film are so condensed and disjointed. A section involving Super Man in particular feels gutted, like the remnants of a larger sub plot. Emotional scenes between Superman and girl friend Lois Lane (Amy Adams, in a thankless role) are sappy and tonally inconsistent. When the team enters a top-secret base there are awkward lapses in logic and continuity. Maybe a two and half hour Snyder cut wouldn’t have been better but this trimmed down version doesn’t work.
Ultimately, I walked out of “Justice League” feeling apathetic more than anything else. The movie sets out to establish the core unit of the Justice League and it does so in the blandest way possible. There is comedy, sure, but it increasingly feels strained and out of place. The blending of Whedon’s wit with Synder’s aesthetic doesn’t feel organic. “The Avengers” was a satisfying commingling of heroes we had gotten to know, the result of years of build up and anticipation. “Justice League” is like a dull, tonally uneven TV pilot. But Whedon can walk away from this experience saying, “at least I tried.”