In "Lisa the Vegetarian," the Simpsons take a trip to Storytown Village where they witness one poorly created childhood story after another. When watching the wolf pitifully fail to blow the three little pig's house down, Homer utters an apt line for most of what life is these days, while everyone else has an unimpressed face, "It was good, not great."
That’s pretty much the overriding reaction to DC's latest superhero free-for-all.
Justice League sort of just happens. It’s there and then it’s gone. What should have been a watershed moment in pop cinema, uniting these mythic heroes that so many have grown up with—Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, The Flash, and I guess, Cyborg and Aquaman?— is simply just another superhero movie.
It’s not an outrage, a betrayal, an overwrought slog that our meagre senses struggle to grasp. It’s a somewhat enjoyable mess of a film, a primer for better things instead of a culmination of a saga, with a schizophrenic tone that’s been desperately smoothed at the edges.
The misguided, dense and overcomplicated ambitions of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice have been replaced with a more comprehensible, straightforward narrative concerning Batman attempting to gather heroes to take down the force of Steppenwolf (Ciaran Hinds if anyone was asking, which was no one) who’s after the Mother Boxes being protected by the Amazons, the Atlanteans and the ‘tribes of Men.’
The stakes are non-existent, a paradox of world-ending narratives that swallow up any morsel of drama.
If taken in a vacuum, a lot of Justice League works, the clear positive is the casting and a more rounded set of superpower characters. Gal Gadot’s Diana Prince is still the shining the core of the series, Affleck still kind of works as Batman, though he suffers through four or five tonal changes and motivations that seem to disregard the events of BvS.
Aquaman (Jason Mamoa) and Cyborg (Ray Fisher) are little more than cramped backdoor pilot opportunities but they work with what minor details they get. Ezra Miller is the clear standout addition to the team, wandering in from another movie (or probably universe) an enthusiastic and very human bundle of energy that dares you not even give a begrudging smile.
However we’re not in a vacuum, and a lot of the beats, the motivations and moments don’t feel earned, or contradict what happened in previous films. There’s a distinct sense of on-the-fly adjustments: for example, Danny Elfman, who scores the film, uses his Batman theme throughout, Batman’s motivations throughout, the fact that in BvS humanity was suspicious of Superman but a couple year on they can’t stop mourning his death, and the more lighthearted tone (thanks to Joss Whedon).
There’s nothing inherently terrible about it, and it works just fine as passable entertainment, but it screams "missed opportunity." The third act battle is forgettable, there are subplots that are unceremoniously dismissed, Snyder tries to go full Lord of the Rings in a flashback about Steppenwolf’s earlier attempt to destroy Earth and you wish the movie just went full Jack Kirby. It’s the small joys I guess.
It opens with phone footage of Superman after he has saved the day (and not dealing with a Senate committee hearing), and he’s smiling while being asked questions by half in awe, half afraid kids. It encapsulates the film quite succinctly.
A lot of things feel shoehorned in, Superman’s resurrection for one is basically introduced, discussed and wrapped up in 10 minutes, and more often than not it doesn’t hold up under a closer inspection, but there’s a distinct sign of effort to build a more hopeful, optimistic and grandiose tone, and maybe make these characters have a film worthy of their history. It’s a step in the right direction, even if the movie itself is only worth a quick pit stop.