Review: ‘Justice League’ is a turkey that’s underprepared, overdone, and undercooked in its center

Note: TV-VCR sincerely apologizes for this review’s tardiness—a testament to the film’s resounding mediocrity. Happy Thanksgiving!

Save for a decent enough entry earlier this year (see: Wonder Woman), the films of the DC Extended Universe have landed with a thud on the narrow spectrum of “pretty bad” to “not very good.” The blame has popularly been placed on DCEU shepherd and tone-deaf director Zack Snyder, whose penchant for brooding histrionics and style-over-substance visuals pervades the franchise and made his two Superman pictures (Man of Steel, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice) near-unbearable chores. Warner Bros.’ stubborn dedication to Snyder continues with Justice League, though the prior complaints levied against him have now been corrected to a fault: the director famously exited the project, leaving Joss Whedon to rework, rewrite, or reshoot a good chunk of it, and as a result Justice League is a bland slurry churned out by so many cooks that the end product lacks any trace of a consistent creative voice—even Snyder’s unwelcomely dour one.

Picking up where BvS:DoJ left off, Justice League finds Earth down one Superman (Henry Cavill) and losing hope, as illustrated in a montage of worldwide crime and unrest set to a cover of “Everybody Knows” (an on-the-nose Leonard Cohen song, à la Watchmen, being one holdover of Snyder’s repertoire). As promised, Batman (Ben Affleck) and Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) begin putting together a team to defend the planet against some thinly defined threat, vaguely represented by a forgettable mo-cap villain (Ciarán Hinds) and yet another army of homogenous CGI creatazoids (see: Thor: Rangarok). Last glimpsed in Lex Luther’s graphically branded computer folders in BvS:DoJ, Flash (Ezra Miller), Aquaman (Jason Momoa), and Cyborg (Ray Fisher) unceremoniously join up after their abilities and origins are perfunctorily established. They all put on their little outfits to fight the winged, insectoid aliens in pursuit of three MacGuffins cubes That Could Destroy The World, sporadically peppering in lip service about the definition of heroism and forced, Avengers-style in-fighting.

This culmination of the broader DC superhero mythology is an ever-so-slight improvement on its predecessor, but only because of how overwhelmingly safe it plays. Gone are the dark, murky tableaus and the Hans Zimmer/Junkie XL score of BvS:DoJ. Here, those are replaced by brighter glamour shots and Danny Elfman cannibalizing his most legendary superhero theme for an otherwise pretty rote score. The action is characterized by relentless uninteresting battles for which there are are few stakes (to atone for this, the climax keeps cutting to a four-person family’s home in peril), because the bad guys are just bug-men that literally splat out green goo when defeated. It’s easy to spot when Whedon dusted off an old bon mot for a character to smirk (just look for when Cavill’s mustache has been distractingly digitally erased), even though he often shouldn’t have; when the film’s not in its repetitious exposition mode, a lot of the supposedly witty or weighty lines are truly groan-worthy clunkers. It’s mostly hokey, mundane stuff, but Justice League is fully serviceable in delivering what is essentially a child’s two hour war (complete with all of the playsets and vehicles) between six action figures and a mangled doll’s interchangeable army men. Even if the tone and approach are all over the place, the story is never anything but clearly, simplistically linear.

The characters are one-note cartoons (partly due to the sheer size of the cast) distilled down to uncomplicated, kid-friendly placeholders. Affleck, Cavill, and Gadot continue to be perfectly fine in their lead roles, even if their characters are just the CliffsNotes versions here. (Though this Batman could now rival his Schumacher era counterpart in one-liners.) The newcomers come in two flavors: stoic cypher and annoying comic relief: Fisher the former, Miller and Mamoa the latter (Specifically, Flash is the dorky, audience-surrogate comic relief, while Aquaman is the douchey, better-than-all-of-this comic relief. So, the embodiments of the directors.) The competent-but-marginalized holdover support staff (Amy Adams’ Lois Lane, Diane Lane’s Martha Kent, Jeremy Irons’ Alfred Pennyworth, Connie Nielsen’s Hippolyta, and so on) is joined by Hinds as big alien Steppenwolf and J.K. Simmons’ wig as an utterly pointless Commissioner Gordon.

The most generous thing to be said about Justice League is that eschews the sins of Warner Bros. and DC’s previous films by focusing on the basics, but there really isn’t anything else to the film. It’s a completely generic—albeit expensive—fight-the-bad guys action movie that wouldn’t suffer with a different property, collection of characters, or filmmaking era. (The A-to-B-to-C storytelling and unremarkable computer-generated villains indicates that Justice League would surely function best as a video game.) Lacking the strong guidance and vision of someone like Marvel’s Kevin Feige, Justice League is one more flail from an increasingly-desperate DCEU, continuously creating films purely in reaction to the negativity surrounding the entry that immediately preceded it. Hopefully, this means next year’s Aquaman just won’t feature its deeply obnoxious title character at all.

Grade: C-

Justice League
Director: Zack Snyder
Studio: Warner Bros. Pictures
Runtime: 120 minutes
Rating: PG-13
Cast: Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Gal Gadot, Ezra Miller, Jason Momoa, Ray Fisher, Jeremy Irons, Diane Lane, Connie Nielsen, J. K. Simmons

  • Jason Rogers

    Did you notice how, though expensive, terrible the CG was at some points? The purple thing shooting out of the ground looked as if pulled straight from a Syfy movie.

    • Kevin Knipstein

      Though I found the most egregious examples of shitty CGI to be mouth-based (Superman, Steppenwolf), there was a lot to dislike in the film as far as visual effects go: Amber Heard’s folding chair body; the aforementioned purple thing; sprawling, barren, green-screened environments; the end-of-the-level animations of the Mother Boxes…

      • HalSolo

        I know it isn’t CG related, but let’s not forget setting up that little Ukrainian girl grabbing the can of bug spray, but not even fulfilling that basic promise of her spraying a Parademon with it to save her family before Aquaman beheads it or something.

        • I fear that the point of it was JUST the semi-joke that she thinks they’re bugs. Like we’re judging these nebulous cyber-Nosferatus on being so insect-like. Another zinger from the team that gave us “Yikes, something’s bleeding!” or whatever Batman moaned.