Given the so-far shaky track record of the DC Extended Universe (the wonderful Wonder Woman excluded), I went into Justice League with high hopes but low expectations. It exceeded the expectations, but didn't rise to the level of the hopes.
The film, Warner Bros.' biggest salvo yet in the comic-book movie war with Marvel, serves as a direct sequel to last year's Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. While that story spent a lot of time asking if the world was really safe under the watch of the godlike Superman (Henry Cavill), Justice League opens by asking if the world is too vulnerable now that he's gone.
Fearing for the future as an army of buglike invaders approaches, Batman (Ben Affleck) is on a mission to assemble a team of heroes who can, he hopes, defend Earth together. He and Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) recruit the incredibly fast Barry Allen/the Flash (Ezra Miller), master of water Arthur Curry/Aquaman (Jason Momoa) and former athlete turned cybernetic supercomputer Victor Stone/Cyborg (Ray Fisher).
That recruitment process, frankly, takes up most of the movie. Yes, there's a villain -- Steppenwolf, voiced by Ciarán Hinds -- but he barely feels present in the events of the story. We learn that he can take out a small army of Amazon women on his own, yet somehow he can't manage to be appropriately intimidating.
While Batman searches for heroes, Steppenwolf hunts for the three "Mother Boxes," which hold alien technology that can alter the world. These boxes are treated like the Rings of Power in another (and more highly regarded) Warner Bros. franchise, The Lord of the Rings. One box was under the care of the Amazons, another the Atlanteans, the last the humans. Bring all three boxes together and the planet stops sustaining its current life. As scary as it sounds, the villain's plan and the solution to stopping it are pretty bland.
The lack of urgency can at be attributed at least partially to the lack of buildup. The number of superpowered protagonists here is a lot for any script to handle, and it doesn't help that we're meeting half of them for the first time. Unlike Marvel's cinematic universe, which fills the space between crossover event films with more focused movies that allow individual characters to shine, you don't get much time at all to meet, understand and ultimately care for characters like Aquaman. Sure, DC fans will be able to see a character who has two lines and say, "Oh! That's Mera!" and have their brains fill in a lot of gaps, but everyone else in the theater will be lacking context.
The actors do well with what they have, though. Gadot is outstanding as Wonder Woman, Affleck remains surprisingly good as a haggard Bruce Wayne, Momoa manages to make Aquaman seem at least slightly cool (yes, his shirt is off within minutes) and Fisher makes you feel for a character who is now more metal than flesh.
Miller's Flash acts as the team's lovable doofus and comic relief -- a far cry from the portrayal of Barry Allen you can see every week in The Flash on TV. While I'm all for tweeting #NotMyFlash about it, this version of the character has his moments. Frankly, he won me over with his views on brunch.
Justice League often tries too hard, offering viewers fan service in place of proper plot development. Leaning into Wonder Woman tends to be a crowd-pleaser (though the character herself practically acknowledges at one point that the rest of this ensemble is a bit beneath her), while other moments are likely to delight only DC superfans.
But give the movie credit for one major improvement over the last DC crossover. Justice League manages to give us one thing that was sorely missing from Batman v Superman: Hope.
Even in its brightest moments, that film was grim. Justice League has a much more optimistic outlook on life, making its heroes symbols of hope that you can root for. Beyond that, characters in this movie actually laugh. They crack jokes. Even the dour Bruce Wayne smiles on occasion.
Even with its many shortcomings, Justice League does have sequences that provide genuine fun. It doesn't fix the DC Extended Universe, but it at least tiptoes in the right direction.
JUSTICE LEAGUE (C+)
PG-13 (for sequences of sci-fi violence and action). 120 minutes. In wide release.