Warning: This post contains spoilers.
Justice League botches what could’ve been a transcendent pop-culture moment: the resurrection of Superman. A self-proclaimed symbol of truth, justice, and the American way, Superman has been interpreted as kitsch, myth, and a nation’s fantasy image of itself. His death (which occurred in Justice League’s predecessor, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice) connotes some sort of national disillusionment, a loss of faith in the values he embodied—anyway, that’s how it seems in the film, which opens in a dreary post-Superman America where the newspaper headlines commemorate a nation in mourning. Superman’s resurrection ought to carry a sense of grandeur, awe, or silliness, or maybe some Cecil B. DeMille-esque combination of the three. Instead the filmmakers treat the resurrection as though it’s nothing special: Superman gets on his feet, stoically greets the rest of the Justice League (who resurrected him), spends a few tearful moments with his adopted mother and Lois Lane, then it’s off to save the world with the rest of the superheroes.
One might argue that this workaday view of coming back from the dead is consistent with the nature of comic-book storytelling. Comic books are meant to be read serially—rarely do you linger on an individual page or panel, since you know there’s always something coming next. The suspense is more or less steady, with brief passages of catharsis to mark the end of an issue or narrative line. Justice League plays like a chapter of a long serial—it devotes little time to characterization, setting, or emotional dynamics while spinning out lots of complications to move the plot forward. If it isn’t as satisfying as a traditional feature film, well, maybe the sequel will be better.
The logic of structuring the movie this way might make sense to me if Justice League weren’t concerned with the resurrection of Superman and a battle with an intergalactic baddie who wants to wreak havoc on earth. These seem like big deals, yet the filmmakers don’t treat them as such. I can understand the perfunctory nature of the character development and the dialogue scenes—though I wish more time were devoted to exploring Bruce Wayne’s guilt over Superman’s death, which motivates him to form a band of superheroes. The film has big action set pieces to get to. Unfortunately the action scenes (whether directed by Zack Snyder or Joss Whedon, who reportedly reshot parts of Justice League after Snyder left the project) all feel the same. Each one is so quickly edited and full of useless visual information that it feels like the movie is operating at maximum intensity; but since the intensity level gets turned up so high so early on, the film becomes monotonous.
There are some nice interactions here and there. Ezra Miller, playing Barry Allen (aka the Flash), expresses some juvenile anxiety toward his superpowers, and he bonds with Cyborg (Ray Fisher) over their mutual feeling of being outsiders. Batman (Ben Affleck) has a nice rapport with his butler, Alfred (Jeremy Irons), who assists with his crime-fighting from a top-secret lair. Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) and Aquaman (Jason Momoa) seem to have little to do but bask in their godlike powers, yet they establish a certain chemistry with each other and the other stars. If only the filmmakers had developed a visual style to match their star power, then Justice League might’ve had some verve during its perfunctory dialogue scenes. Alas, these passages tend to play out in flat medium close-ups that convey little more than the filmmakers’ boredom.
Then there’s the routine nature of the film’s central conflict between the Justice League and Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds), the baddie who wants to do damage to the world. How many comic book movies in the past decade have a story line in which the earth is under threat by an evil space alien? Some of these films change the formula by putting the existence of a galaxy or even the whole universe at stake, but the plot stays the same: the heroes must summon incredible forces to stop this large-scale destruction from taking place. Yet when the stakes are so high, they seem abstract or unfathomable. This feature keeps these movies unbearably light, and no degree of charm or craftsmanship can overcome it.