“Justice League,” the newest DC Comics superhero jam directed by Zack Snyder, is looser, goosier and certainly more watchable than the last one. The bar could scarcely have been lower given that the previous movie, “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice,” was such an interminable slog. The superhero and villain dynamic is much the same (slayers going to slay, etc.), but there are a few fresh faces now and Wonder Woman has more to do than play backup. The story is a confusion of noise, visual clutter and murderous digital gnats, but every so often a glimmer of life flickers through.
The last time he fronted a movie, Superman (Henry Cavill) seemed to die, a plot twist that not even the most credulous viewer could buy. So, of course he’s back in this one, eventually, although first the band needs to get together. Having seen trouble on the horizon, Batman, a.k.a. Bruce Wayne — played with a sepulchral growl and bespoke stubble by Ben Affleck — takes the lead on this enterprise. He’s the insistent manager as well as the scowling host, the guy with the cool digs, smooth rides with blinking screens (“critical damage” reads one with great comic-book sincerity) and suave butler (Jeremy Irons as Alfred). He’s also pretty much of a yawn.
The pumped-up Mr. Affleck again fills out the bat suit from ripped stem to stern, but his costume remains grievously larger than Batman’s (or Bruce’s) personality. Bat-Bruce clearly has some kind of unrequited thing for Wonder Woman, a.k.a. Diana Prince (Gal Gadot, a charming super-presence), which leads him to stammer like a teenager. (She’s got other things on her mind.) He has money and a modest sense of humor, including about his wealth, which inspires one of the movie’s few decent laughs. Mr. Affleck, a generally appealing actor who can plumb the depths when pushed (“Gone Girl”), needs something more substantial (or just more jokes) if his Batman is ever going to work.
As it is, the little bit of bat brooding in “Justice League” feels unmotivated and unearned, and lacks the shading of the character in the “Dark Knight” or even in the Lego movies. That’s too bad, and would be dire if he played a more valuable role. But “Justice League” is about solidarity rather than flying and soaring solo, so the movie spends considerable time piecing together its newest parts: the Flash, a.k.a. Barry Allen (Ezra Miller), a zippy wisenheimer wreathed in lightning; Aquaman, a.k.a. Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa), an underwater tough with a chest full of muscles and tattoos; and Cyborg, a.k.a. Victor Stone (Ray Fisher), a machine man built from metal and serious attitude.
The original Justice League of America (as it was called) first convened in 1960; the movie takes place in the present or at least a facsimile of the same. The world is in mourning for Superman, and so is Lois Lane (Amy Adams, shedding tears and largely wasted). Everything is about to get worse, because of course it has to, leading Bat-Bruce and Wonder-Diana to round up a troika that was teased earlier. Some of the best scenes in the movie are of the introductions to these three newcomers, who step up beauty pageant-style to fill in some back story — one has roots in Atlantis, the other two are from hard-luck city — while flexing individual quirks and superpowers.
“Justice League” settles into a groove once it finds its gang. As Bat-Bruce moodily pushes and prods and Wonder-Diana smiles and smirks, the newbies jockey for position. The Flash gets most of the best jokes, and Mr. Miller makes most of them work, largely in the role of in-house fanboy with a touch of the Cowardly Lion. It’s golly-gee stuff, but it’s also human and Mr. Miller keeps you hooked, as does Mr. Momoa (“Game of Thrones”), who supplely shifts between gravitas and comedy. When Aquaman chugs a bottle of booze before plunging into an angry sea, the movie hits the comic-book sweet spot between deadly seriousness and self-amused levity.
Cyborg isn’t as buoyant a presence, which makes sense for a character who’s been partly cobbled together from scraps and a sob story that Mr. Fisher puts across with bowed head and palpable heaviness. The hoodie he sometimes wears, which can’t help but evoke Trayvon Martin, imparts a larger meaning that the movie doesn’t or can’t explore. Like the references to a coming world catastrophe that suggestively shudders with wider implications, the hoodie suggests filmmakers who are still struggling to keep an eye on the offscreen world while spinning a fictional universe that can somehow offer a brief escape from it.
Mr. Snyder remains regrettably committed to a dark, desaturated palette that borders on the murky, and this movie’s chaotic, unimaginative action scenes can drag on forever. But the touches of humor in “Justice League” lighten the whole thing tonally and are a relief after the dirgelike “Batman v Superman,” which he ran into the ground with a two-and-a-half-hour running time. (“Justice League” clocks in at a not-exactly fleet two hours.) Written by Chris Terrio and Joss Whedon, the new movie shows a series that’s still finding its footing as well as characters who, though perhaps not yet as ostensibly multidimensional as Marvel’s, may be more enduring (and golden). It has justice, and it has banter. And while it could have used more hanging out, more breeziness, it is a start.
Justice League (2017)
Directed by: Zack Snyder
Starring: Ben Affleck, Gal Gadot, Jason Momoa, Amy Adams, Henry Cavill, Ezra Miller, Jeremy Irons, Diane Lane, Amber Heard, Ciarán Hinds, Connie Nielsen, Lisa Loven Kongsli, Joe Morton, Joanne Batten
Screenplay by: Chris Terrio, Joss Whedon
Production Design by: Patrick Tatopoulos
Cinematography by: Fabian Wagner
Film Editing by: David Brenner, Richard Pearson, Martin Walsh
Costume Design by: Michael Wilkinson
Set Decoration by: Dominic Capon
Art Direction by: Lorin Flemming, Joseph Hiura, Christian Huband, Helen Jarvis, Paul Laugier, Samuel Leake, Keith Pain, Andrew Palmer, Hayley Easton Street, Helen Xenopoulos
Music by: Danny Elfman
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi violence and action.
Distributed by: Warner Bros. Pictures
Release Date: November 17, 2017