DC's first superhero team-up extravaganza has arrived, and while an improvement on last year's much-derided Batman Vs Superman: Dawn of Justice, Justice League suffers from many of the same problems that have plagued the DC Extended Universe. The two-hour running time is mercifully short, but with six protagonists (including three new heroes, all with backstories and supporting characters of their own) and a hokey world-destroying villain, the fifth DC film proves a persistently exhausting experience.
In the wake of Superman's death, the world has become a dark place bereft of hope. Wary of an ominous incoming threat, Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) sets out to assemble a crew of special individuals, tracking down Barry Allen (Ezra Miller), Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa), and Victor Stone (Ray Fisher) (better known as The Flash, Aquaman and Cyborg). Meanwhile, the supervillain Steppenwolf (Ciaran Hinds) appears in Wonder Woman's homeland of Themyscira, where he seizes one of three Mother Boxes. The others are located in Atlantis and somewhere else on Earth, so Wayne, together with Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) and their new recruits, set out to stop Steppenwolf before he can collect all three boxes and wield infinite power.
With numerous origin stories in play and a threat that combines the prologue from The Lord of the Rings with Marvel's infinity stones arc, Justice League immediately goes for broke, dashing off in several directions at once. At least Zack Snyder (with help from Joss Whedon in post and extensive reshoots) appears to be having a bit more fun with the material than he was in BvS, and the film is far more playful with its comic book staging. Absolutely everything appears to have been shot against a green screen - even a romantic stroll in a field - while the constant motion allows the story to get away with constantly jumping around, at least up to a point.
Many will be excited for Wonder Woman's return, following her stellar solo outing earlier this year, and the filmmakers wisely give her a generous share of the action. Batman may be the mastermind behind the Justice League, and Superman the world's shining beacon of hope, but when it comes down to the nitty gritty of their missions, Wonder Woman does the heavy lifting. Also, the film's most impressive action scene comes early on, with the Amazons putting on an impressive show during Steppenwolf's invasion.
Batman also seems to figure more prominently this time around, as he gets a Commissioner Gordon (J.K. Simmons in a thoroughly thankless guest spot, reduced to turning on the bat signal a few times) to join forces with Alfred (Jeremy Irons, while Superman's role is understandably scaled back.
Then we have the new blood, who are mostly in play to justify their own future standalone films. Ezra Miller is very excitable as The Flash, a motormouth consigned mostly to providing comic relief, while Billy Crudup shows up as his jailed father. Jason Mamoa delivers a very buff and cool Aquaman, but is given almost no definition. Lastly, Ray Fisher plays the very serious and conflicted Cyborg, brought back to life by his father. If anything, Justice League hints at a wave of daddy issues in future standalone DC entries - in stark contrast to the mother/Martha conflict in BvS.
The DC planners seem to have figured out that fans were clamoring for more levity in the franchise, and while they certainly attempt to infuse their new tentpole with plenty of wit, many of the jokes fall flat. Some of it's in the writing, as well as the excessive CGI feel of the locations, but most of the time it's Ben Affleck, whose talents do not seem to extend to comic timing. Or maybe he's just very uncomfortable in that suit.
A step up from the ramblings of BvS and Suicide Squad, but less focused than Man of Steel or as bombastically entertaining as Wonder Woman, Justice League just about manages to stand its ground as reasonable popcorn entertainment. Yet considering how many more DC films are in the pipeline, it's a shame Justice League can't generate more excitement for what is to come.