Justice League (2017)

121 min. Director: Zack Snyder. Cast: Henry Cavill, Jeremy Irons, Ezra Miller, Amy Adams, Ben Affleck, Ray Fisher, Jason Momoa, Gal Gadot, Diane Lane, Ciaran Hinds, J.K. Simmons, Billy Crudup.

The thing about these comic-book cinematic universes is that they train audiences to see the forest for the trees: “Trust us,” say the bigwigs, “It’s all a part of a bigger picture, so if this picture doesn’t quite come into focus, just hang in there.” But the best advice I can offer the legions of superhero fans heading into the hotly anticipated DC superhero team-up movie Justice League is this: enjoy the trees.

For the forest is a tad gnarly. Yes, Justice League does pay off some of the weirder threads from Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, and it lays some groundwork for future DC movies (first and foremost, Aquaman). And yet, problems abound in this passable, patchwork film whose directorial credit goes to Snyder but which was largely directed—in extensive “bless this mess” reshoots—by Joss Whedon (switching sides after directing two Avengers movies for Marvel).

The schizophrenic results are about 60% Snyder, 40% Whedon, and their sensibilities aren’t a good fit. In getting the DC all-stars together—Batman (Ben Affleck), Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), the Flash (Ezra Miller), Aquaman (Jason Momoa), Cyborg (Ray Fisher) and eventually the presumed-dead Superman (Henry Cavill)—Warner Bros. and DC Entertainment have entrusted Whedon to breathe life into spare parts, his rewrites earning him a co-screenwriting credit with original scribe Chris Terrio (Oscar-winning screenwriter of Affleck’s Argo).

Before delving any further, I give you the suspiciously-familiar plot: a power struggle over three mightily powerful cubes (the “Mother Boxes”), protected by our heroes and coveted by god-like alien Steppenwolf (voiced Ciarán Hinds). This very, very fake-looking CGI longhorn commands an army of flying monkeys—sorry, Parademons—and makes the least compelling villain this new wave of DC films has yet offered up. (Stick around to the film’s very end to get a glimpse of a couple of more interesting threats.)

In the film's pre-credit sequence, "archival footage" of Superman finds him confirming for a couple of kids that the S-shape on his chest means "hope." Like hope, the "S" "winds like a river; it comes and goes." And so comes and goes Justice League, taking our hope on a wild ride with it. Danny Elfman's throwback score charges in to accompany a couple of fine sequences that reintroduce Batman and Wonder Woman. The latter feels especially well-timed, as the heroine we need now, our feminist crusader, first fights injustice by deflecting a mass shooting in the making.

But once the film gets down to its relevant plotting, Justice League slows its breathless roll and starts trending toward the airless. With so many characters to serve (also including Jeremy Irons as Batman's trusty valet Alfred, Amy Adams as reporter Lois Lane, and Diane Lane as her almost mother-in-law Martha Kent), there's never a dull moment in Justice League's studio-mandated two-hour running time, but the mad dash means there's more time for quips than quiddities (and the most time allotted to ugly CGI-circus action), leading one to wonder if an "Extended Cut," as for Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, might mark a step up.

WB's shift to Whedon, officially predicated on family tragedy for Snyder, also signals a studio mandate: to chase Marvel's success by lightening up. Whedon obligingly whips up some yuks—mostly from the Spidey-style wisecracker the Flash, but golly if that ol' boy scout Superman doesn't make a funny or two. Whedon even slips in a bit of "meta" narration from Lois' typewriter: "This time, the light shone on the heroes..." In all honesty, Justice League is a pretty darn dumb movie, but it's nice to see a little optimism spill again onto what always used to be the sunnier side of the comic-book street.