The increasingly turgid tales of Batman and Superman — joined, unfortunately for her, by Wonder Woman — trudge along to ever-diminishing returns in Justice League. Garishly unattractive to look at and lacking the spirit that made Wonder Woman, which came out five months ago, the most engaging of Warner Bros.' DC Comics-derived extravaganzas to date, this hodgepodge throws a bunch of superheroes into a mix that neither congeals nor particularly makes you want to see more of them in future. Plainly put, it's simply not fun. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice grossed $872.7 million worldwide last year, apparently about enough to justify its existence, and the significant presence of Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman in this one might boost its returns a bit higher than that.
Fatigue, repetition and a laborious approach to exposition are the keynotes of this affair, which is also notable for how Ben Affleck, donning the bat suit for the second time, looks like he'd rather be almost anywhere else but here; his eyes and body language make it clear that he's just not into it. For his part, Henry Cavill's Superman, left for dead and buried in 2016's Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (we see the grave of Clark Joseph Kent more than once), isn't resurrected until the second half, and it takes considerably more time for him to snap into action.
That leaves things mostly in the capable hands of Wonder Woman, who's just as kick-ass as she was this summer but in a less imaginative, one-note way. The good news is that Jesse Eisenberg's embarrassingly misguided Lex Luthor from the previous outing is nowhere to be seen.
So what are we left with here? With all the characters that need to be introduced, the virtually humor-free script by Chris Terrio and Joss Whedon (who was brought on to complete directing duties after Zack Snyder had to leave for family reasons) less resembles deft narrative scene-setting than it does the work of a bored casino dealer rotely distributing cards around a table. Everyone is very downcast in the wake of Superman's unimaginable fate, and there's naturally a new villain threatening to bring the world to an end, a big meanie named Steppenwolf (voiced by Ciaran Hinds). So Bruce Wayne, with Diana Prince's assistance, must put together a new team to save the world yet again.
First it's off to Iceland to recruit Arthur Curry/Aquaman (Jason Momoa), a half-human/half-underwater creature who resembles a giant Viking of legend. He's yet another split personality, as is Cyborg (Ray Fisher), who's half-man/half-machine much in the manner of Steppenwolf. These two personalities seem like pretty standard-issue DC characters, but then there's The Flash/Barry Allen (Ezra Miller), an incredibly annoying kid whose one attribute is that he can run really, really fast. Since the character isn't very helpful in a fight, his main function is to provide comic relief, at which he is also spectacularly unuseful.
So that's the team, which is called upon time and again to thwart the evil designs of Steppenwolf to unleash devastating destruction upon Earth. Unfortunately, there's never a moment when, with all the pieces in place, the story suddenly sweeps you up to provide an exhilarating ride to the finish line; instead, it continues to look and feel like something patched together with parts from different engines and with no internal integrity of its own. It's a patchwork in which the stitching is all too obvious.
It might have been possible to acknowledge this distinctly inorganic quality and even use it to advantage, but this would have required a disarming sense of humor that this filmmaking team decidedly lacks; you get the feeling it was a chore to make, so it's a chore to sit through, too. On the bright side, at exactly two hours, it's a full half-hour shorter than its predecessor.
“We're not enough,” Bruce Wayne/Batman declares upon experiencing a setback with Steppenwolf. “The world needs Superman.” And so it gets him, well over halfway through the film. Suffering from psychological and memory issues, he needs to be reminded of who he is by the ever-earnest Lois Lane (Amy Adams) while he wanders around his native farmland, shirtless, until finally coming to his senses with the declaration, “I'm back now, and I'm gonna make things right.” Atta boy.
Snyder and Whedon guide it all with the usual heavy hand and with a visual style that's both gloomy and garish. Many shots are elaborated upon with effects-powered pools of disco-era lighting, zigzaggy electrical charges and visualized power currents that fill in the compositions in unattractive ways. One only has to recall for a moment the rich images that Christopher Nolan and Wally Pfister consistently created for the Dark Knight trilogy to realize how far these Superman films are from any kind of pictorial distinction.
Of the main performers, only Gadot pops from the screen at all. For now, her Wonder Woman looks to be the savior of Batman and Superman, though you may end up wondering why she's wasting her time.
Production companies: Atlas Entertainment, Cruel and Unusual Productions
Distributor: Warner Bros.
Cast: Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Gal Gadot, Ezra Miller, Jason Momoa, Ray Fisher, Jeremy Irons, Diane Lane, Connie Nielsen, J.K. Simmons, Ciaran Hinds, Amber Heard, Joe Morton, Lisa Loven Kongsli, Ingvar Sigurdsson, David Thewlis, Sergi Constance
Director: Zack Snyder
Screenwriters: Chris Terrio, Joss Whedon; story by Chris Terrio, Zack Snyder
Producers: Charles Roven, Deborah Snyder, Jon Berg, Geoff Johns
Executive producers: Christopher Nolan, Emma Thomas, Jim Rowe, Ben Affleck, Wendy Coller, Curtis Kanemoto, Daniel S. Kaminsky, Chris Terrio
Director of photography: Fabian Wagner
Production designer: Patrick Tatopoulos
Costume designer: Michael Wilkinson
Editors: David Brenner, Richard Pearson, Martin Walsh
Music: Danny Elfman
Visual effects supervisor: John “JD” DesJardin
Casting: Kristy Carlson, Lora Kennedy, Kate Ringsell
Rated PG-13, 121 minutes