Let's get one thing out of the way up front. Justice League is not a good movie. But it is the.most bearable movie Zack Snyder has made in quite a long time (and also his shortest since Sucker Punch. These things may be related). Whether that actually a good thing or more of a Trojan Horse to smuggle in more hyper macho battle scenes and slow motion sequences of giant mortar shell casings falling to the ground (because big guns are so awesome, guys, right?) in our future remains to be seen, but for now, it’s important to note that the experience of sitting in the theater in front of Justice League is not nearly as viscerally painful as that of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Suicide Squad or Man of Steel.
That counts for something. I guess.
It’s perhaps a little sad that “bearability” is the best trait I could cling to coming out of Snyder and DC’s newest assault on the senses. Warner’s attempt to cash in on that Avengers love comes after about half of the movies Marvel used to set up their big team-up, hoping that skipping a few steps will let them skip their way to the box office bank a few years earlier. And once Justice League is successful, these new characters get to have their own movies, and the cycle continues unabated until the sun burns itself up and the world is plunged into perpetual darkness. And the heat death of the universe will be filmed and set to a mournful pop cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Everybody Knows.”
The Avengers worked as well as it did precisely because the film itself didn’t need to do the legwork. Need to know what the deal with Thor is? There’s a whole movie for that. We don’t need to worry about that here. It doesn’t come as a shock, then, that the most well-realized characters are Batman (Ben Affleck), Superman (Henry Cavill in flashbacks) and Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), all of whom have had plenty of screen time to establish who they are and what they do. But we have the prospect of having to contend with three entirely new heroes, barely hinted at in Batman v Superman in the most insultingly perfunctory way: Aquaman (Jason Momoa), The Flash (Ezra Miller) and Cyborg (Ray Fisher). Each hero gets little more than a power and a trait. Flash runs fast and is the sarcastic comic relief. Cyborg has a bunch of poorly defined robot powers and feels he’s a Frankenstein-style monster. Aquaman...um...swims fast and doesn’t like people. Momoa plays Aquaman as a biker covered in tribal tattoos that drinks a bunch of whiskey and sardonically makes fun of people while walking in slow motion out of a bar with the soundtrack playing “Icky Thump” by the White Stripes. He’s the focus group definition of “cool,” and just as authentic as that sounds. Miller comes out of this the best, as he has enough comic timing to elicit a few chuckles (the first successful laughs in any of these Snyder-helmed movies), making him key in achieving the film’s baseline bearability.
Cyborg actually gets the most to do, as his powers tie him directly into the mother boxes, the chief MacGuffin of the plot being pursued by Steppenwolf, the big bad voiced by Ciaran Hinds who could not be less interesting or engaging if he tried. Cyborg still doesn’t mean much, just like Flash doesn’t mean much and Aquaman doesn’t mean anything (apparently talking to fish gags are still the best we can do with that character in 2017), which points to how utterly backwards it was for Warner Bros. and DC to do the team-up movie before establishing half of the team at all in any way. Because of this, about two-thirds of Justice League is pure set-up. They have to get Bruce and Diana on the same page. They have to find these three new heroes for the team. They have to establish who these heroes are. They have to go through the push-pull of being reluctant at first and then coming along anyway. They have to establish the villain and his army of minions. They have to establish the MacGuffin everyone’s chasing. And they have to do the thing everyone knows they’re going to do even though it’s technically a secret. And they have to do all of that with time to have a giant CG battle in the third act in one hour and 55 minutes. It’s not sustainable. But making it longer would likely be considered a violation of the Geneva Conventions, so Snyder and Chris Terrio and Joss Whedon (brought on when Snyder had to bow out of the end of production due to a family tragedy; he gets a script credit but not a co-director credit) try to do what they can with what they have.
Justice League is the definition of a critic-proof film. At my screening, the audience hooted and hollered all the way through with barely the slightest on screen provocation via the tiniest reference to another DC property. They clearly had a blast. And good for them. That's what these movies are designed for, and Justice League was clearly designed to generate those exact feelings. It’s the oldest trick in the superhero movie book. Those little gooses paper over the cracks and become the first things you think about leaving the theater. Movies like Justice League are designed to generate a series of moments, whether it’s quips and gags from the Flash or callbacks to previous movies or nods to the grander DC landscape, and that makes it easier to ignore the preposterous slow motion, the dull (although marginally improved thanks to the introduction of red) color palette, the questionable CG effects (both Steppenwolf and Cyborg’s lips are maddeningly de-synced with their dialogue ever so slightly) and the messy, chaotic, impossible to follow action. These movies are marketing schemes first and narratives second, so nothing about this should be a surprise. It’s just frustrating, because you can tell that on some level, the creators of these films care. But that doesn’t translate to the screen. Justice League is not an insult the way Man of Steel, Batman v Superman or Suicide Squad were. But it doesn’t capitalize on the goodwill of Wonder Woman either. It’s just a loud, innocuous bore.