“Justice League,” playing in the Keys, rated PG-13, two hours.
Film historians will one day answer the widely debated question, “Was DC Entertainment’s brand image ruined by Warner Bros. or was Warner Bros. torpedoed by DC Entertainment?” Until then it may remain unclear which came first, the badly plucked chicken or the rotten egg.
The erratic and fatigue-inducing “Justice League” will leave moviegoers wondering where to assign the blame — and where to find the exits.
Certainly it could have been far better. The opening sequence is a reconstruction of the mob bank robbery at the beginning of “Justice League” producer Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight.” With director Zach Snyder at the wheel, there are numerous apparently lethal wounds delivered as the bad guys, self-styled terrorists, gun down employees, security guards and customers on their way into the lobby.
This isn’t the sort of large-scale onslaught that seems like refreshing diversion in this time of mass shootings, but a silver lining soon brightens the cloud. That box office juggernaut Wonder Woman steps in to save the day. Once again, Gal Gadot is consistently delightful as she swings her battle sword, slaps flying bullets aside with her wristbands and gives the thugs a magical polygraph test with her glowing lariat.
It’s the best part of the film, a flash of wit that’s over all too quickly. No new ground is broken in terms of what is happening in this world, which is, as usual, menaced by an entirely unbelievable computer-generated deity. Almost everything else is broken beyond repair.
Soon after the entertaining beginning, this big-budget would-be blockbuster — which stars Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Gadot, Jason Momoa, Amy Adams, Ray Fisher and Ezra Miller — starts to feel like a mechanical, push-the-property venture. It was created to publicize a dream team of superhero characters who could draw fans into their own connected series, sucking up as much in ticket sales as possible and spitting out the legal minimum of delight.
Bad from the get-go
It’s an undertaking that has been troubled from the start. Its original director was Snyder, who gave us the claw-your-eyeballs-out bad “Man of Steel” and “Batman v Superman.” “The Lego Batman Movie” worked better with piles of plastic bricks than both those films put together.
Snyder receives onscreen credit for the finished film, but he did not see it to completion. Following a family tragedy, he stepped aside in May. Joss Whedon, who wrote and directed Marvel’s outstanding Avengers films, was brought in to rework the script and finish the project.
There are moments that feel like they were carefully polished by his hand. Miller’s lightweight novice hero the Flash tries to strike up a friendship with Fisher’s angst-shrouded, half-human cyborg, a novel premise that gets a quick and clever setup. Bruce Wayne is given a tone of humor that Affleck is comfortable with. Each important character gets a quickly stated emotional underpinning.
And Whedon supplied the film with touches of his impressive signature skills, developing intriguing heroes, slipping in clever comic moments and crafting technically polished action sequences. But Snyder’s gloom-and-doom tone, his narrative clumsiness and his fixation on Crazytown fight scenes crammed with hundreds of flying monkeys remain fixed in place. Momoa’s Aquaman comes across as Snyder’s idea of a tough guy, guzzling down a bottle of whiskey and giving the empty a forceful throw that shatters it on the ground.
As good as Whedon’s work is, it can no more save the building blocks of this mess than patching plaster troweled onto a collapsing chimney. Sideline characters like J.K. Simmons’ Commissioner Gordon, an underwater sylph in Aquaman’s unexplained Atlantis and a Russian family threatened at length by evil space bugs, appear and vanish for no earthly reason.
This is a development as disappointing for studio execs as it is for viewers. This summer’s imperfect but enjoyable super-hit “Wonder Woman” seemed as if the franchise might be moving toward a winning streak. Could it, observers wondered, approach the soaring multiplex success of its bitter rival, Disney-owned Marvel?
No, not unless they start paying attention to how the competition turns out one audience-pleaser after another. They shouldn’t take a shebang like Gadot and underplay her, leaving the audience feeling cheated. And it’s not going to help that “Thor: Ragarnok” has been dominating the box office, treating us to Tessa Thompson’s delightful supporting role as a hard-drinking, hard-fighting Valkyrie and giving us two real-life talents in Jeff Goldblum and Cate Blanchett as the villains. “Justice League’s” cartoonish heavy has none of their color and not much of their menace, though he does bellow at top volume a lot.
Most important, everything that happens in “Thor” defines the reasons that it all occurs. Here, things come off without attention to how and why they materialized that way. Most of “Justice League” comes off as if it was accepted after a long pitch meeting that left everyone too tired to reason clearly.