Justice League review: DC's superhero embarrassment is beyond saving

Robbie Collin
The Flash (Ezra Miller), Batman (Ben Affleck) and Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) in Justice League - Warner Bros Pictures.

Dir: Zack Snyder; Starring: Ben Affleck, Gal Gadot, Ezra Miller, Jason Momoa, Ray Fisher, Jeremy Irons, Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Diane Lane, Connie Nielsen, JK Simmons, Ciarán Hinds (voice). 12A cert, 120 mins.

“A man I knew used to say that hope was like your car keys,” quips Superman (Henry Cavill) at the beginning of Justice League, into a cameraphone clutched by a couple of flustered schoolboy fans. “It’s easy to lose, but if you dig around, it’s usually close by.”

Yet there’s no trace of the stuff in Warner Bros’ latest hapless attempt to jump-start their DC Comics blockbuster brand, which at this point looks less like a cinematic universe than a pop-cultural black hole, sucking up as much money and audience goodwill as the studio can shovel into it.

After a four-film build-up that began four years ago with Man of Steel, Justice League should have felt like a culmination, with Batman and Wonder Woman recruiting new heroes and bringing back Superman in order to fend off an extraterrestrial invasion, in much the same way the Avengers did for Marvel five years ago.

Instead, it feels like a sheepish feature-length retraction of the franchise to date. It’s consistently embarrassing to watch, and features plot holes so yawningly vast they have a kind of Grand Canyon-like splendour: part of you wants to hang around to see what they look like at sunset.

Batman and his alter ego Bruce Wayne are once again played by Ben Affleck, but his earnest, striving, Just For Men-box version of the character here is all but unrecognisable from the machine-gun-toting hungover gargoyle in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Then there’s Henry Cavill’s Superman, whose personality changes on a shot-by-shot basis, from blank-eyed demigod to lumbersexual funster faster than a speeding bullet.

Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) is perfectly recognisable from her solo film earlier this year – they’d have been nuts to tinker – although there’s naturally a lot less of her here, and without Gadot’s full-beam star power to light the way, the film frequently struggles to get through a scene without tripping over itself.

Its fundamental lopsidedness might come down at least in part to its unusually chaotic production. The rave reviews for Wonder Woman and pastings for Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad led to a series of frantic course-corrections mid-shoot, which were followed by the sudden departure of director Zack Snyder in unthinkably tragic circumstances, after his 20-year-old daughter committed suicide in March. (Both the remainder of the editing process and the substantial reshoots were supervised by Avengers director Joss Whedon, who receives a screenplay credit.)

Superheroes in danger: inside the $300 million battle to make Justice League

But for whatever combination of reasons, the end result is a broken film, swimming in bad CGI and forgettable mayhem, that you can’t imagine any number of rewrites or reshoots could have saved. It can’t even decide how to start, and offers up no less than five introductory scenes, including Bruce Wayne pony-trekking in Iceland, Wonder Woman thwarting a terrorist attack in London, and yet another instance of that DC franchise staple, the slow-motion funeral.

One of the film’s three new superheroes, Jason Momoa’s Aquaman – picture Marvel’s Thor crossed with the disgraced Olympic swimmer Ryan Lochte, holding a garden rake – is introduced twice, once trading Whedonian zingers with Bruce Wayne, and then again a few minutes later, with much Snyder-esque gurning and flexing on the prow of a sinking ship. 

Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman

Ezra Miller’s early scenes as the lightning-fast Flash bode a little better – as he visits his father (Billy Crudup) in prison, there’s at least a glimmer of backstory – but then he’s immediately reduced to the team’s fantastically annoying comic relief. As for Ray Fisher’s Cyborg, the film doesn’t seem to know anything about him: he has his hood up a lot, and that’s more or less all we get.

Meanwhile, gurgling away in the background is Danny Elfman’s score, which grabs at John Williams’s 1978 Superman theme, Elfman’s own Batman motif from the Tim Burton years, and Hans Zimmer and Junkie XL’s Wonder Woman cello riff, in a panicky fumble for something, anything, the audience might recognise or like. The result, as if it even needs to be said, is an incoherent din, and a total mismatch for Snyder’s images.

Aquaman, Wonder Woman, The Flash and Cyborg. aka the Justice League

At least the League’s inaugural mission seems simple enough. Three ‘Mother Boxes’, ancient gadgets with the power to end all life on Earth, must be kept out of the clutches of Steppenwolf, a computer-generated demon voiced by Ciarán Hinds, and his squadron of flying parademons.

Except even the basics of this turn out to be bewilderingly difficult. At one mind-boggling juncture, the team inexplicably leaves the final Mother Box unattended in a car park, only for Steppenwolf to beam down and make off with it while they’re doing something else.

For a scene that risible to end up in a $300 million blockbuster is no mean feat – but Justice League is a mess in ways cheaper productions could only dream about. A post-credits scene dutifully teases more to come, but the film’s heart just isn’t in it. After Justice League, there’s nowhere else any of this can go.

Justice League is released on November 17