The critics have given the DC Cinematic Universe a pretty bumpy ride since Man of Steel in 2013, though the box office continues to be healthy. However the solo debut of Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman earlier this year not only racked up over $800 million worldwide but also earned glowing reviews, hence the Amazon Princess is front and centre for the long-awaited big-screen bow for DC’s premier superhero team, the Justice League.
Following the sacrifice of Superman (Henry Cavill) at the end of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Bruce Wayne/Batman (Ben Affleck) is determined to honour his fallen comrade’s memory by getting a team together to stop Steppenwolf (a disappointing CGI construct voiced by Ciarán Hinds) and his Parademon army from decimating the planet.
It’s a big ask, seeing that it took a combination of gods, Amazons and Atlanteans to banish the villain eons earlier. But Bruce and Diana doggedly seek out the characters briefly glimpsed in Dawn of Justice: speedster Barry “The Flash” Allen (Ezra Miller), the Atlantean Aquaman (Jason Momoa) and man/machine Cyborg (Ray Fisher), who has inside knowledge of what Steppenwolf is after. Alliances are made and battle is swiftly joined.
The familiar superhero beats are here but the DCU remains a work in progress. It may be invidious to still compare DC’s output with Marvel’s hugely successful movie franchise, but whereas DC’s rival keeps producing rollicking adventures with well-etched characters and easy charm, there’s a lack of assurance here, with an over-reliance on CGI and the narrative often feeling like a series of bolted-together sequences, especially early on when Bruce and Diana are gathering their recruits. Maybe the studio insistence on a two-hour running time explains these occasional abrupt shifts in tone and storytelling.
At least when the heroes do get down to the business of battering bad guys, these shortcomings can be parked. The dust-up in Metropolis between the League and one familiar super-powered adversary is a doozy.
Indeed, there signs of some green shoots for the DCU here: Miller’s nebbish-like Flash is amusingly gauche and wide-eyed; Momoa plays Aquaman as an ebullient surfer dude who wields a mean trident; and Gadot proves Wonder Woman was no flash in the pan (her terrorist-thwarting entrance is electric). The two post-credits offer much, too: one is a fanboy nod to an old comic-book rivalry between two League members, while the other is a mouthwatering hint of future conflict to come.
Series regulars Lois Lane (Amy Adams), Ma Kent (Diane Lane) and Alfred (Jeremy Irons) all pop up, and there’s a brief but welcome debut for JK Simmons as Commissioner Gordon.
Much has been made of the involvement of Avengers director Joss Whedon, who was hired to do reshoots after director Zack Snyder took a leave of absence due to a family tragedy. There are certainly humorous moments (a gag involving Diana”s magic lasso is a hoot) but this isn’t Marvel by the back door. The film is steadfastly a Snyder production, where serious superheroics trump knockabout and levity (certainly when compared with the joke-athon that is Thor Ragnarok).
And what of the Man of Steel? Well, that would be telling.
Justice League is released in cinemas on Friday 17 November