Not long into Justice League, we get a bird’s eye view of the streets of London, and as the camera tilts up, we find Wonder Woman standing on top of a golden statue of Lady Justice. “Oh, right,” I thought, “Wonder Woman was good! And Gal Gadot was great in it.” The movie was getting off to a good start. Before that, we had seen Batman doing some delightfully silly detective work on a Gotham City rooftop that looked like a set right out of an old-fashioned Hollywood movie. And even before that, we had seen Superman, shot through a low-fi phone camera be interviewed by a young kid who asked what it was like to be a superhero. I was reminded early that there is a reason why these three characters endure in the public consciousness. They mean something. You can tell stories about them. I decided to give Justice League the benefit of the doubt.
But maybe I shouldn’t have. The success of Wonder Woman this summer was the first sign that Warner Bros. and their D.C. Comics Extended Universe had any chance of fighting in the same league as the Marvel machine, which is so effectively calibrated to churn out stuff and make bank in return. At one point, Justice League was supposed to be director Zack Snyder’s even bigger follow-up to the already over sized epic he called Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. But then Wonder Woman happened, and then a family tragedy made Snyder drop out of the movie halfway through. If the Warner executive’s thirst for “Marvel money” hadn’t been sufficiently obvious, they replaced Snyder with Joss Whedon, the man who wrote and directed the first Avengers movie.
The result is what you’d expect, a cheap copy of The Avengers. A lame attempt to reconcile the lighter tone of the Marvel movies with the trashy-meets-Baroque aesthetic of Zack Snyder’s previous movies. The bad news is that the studio couldn’t even have the courtesy to drop a truly bizarre and disastrous movie on us, which is what Batman v. Superman had promised us. In case you don’t recall, let me remind me that movie had both a pee joke and an emotional climax right out of a cheap mid-century melodrama. It might have been trash, but by God if it wasn’t the most fascinating pile of garbage I had ever encountered. Justice League, on the other hand, is just plain boring.
You’ll be shocked to learn that the movie’s plot revolves around a CGI alien-monster named Steppenwolf, who in order to destroy Earth, must find three mystical boxes full of power like humanity has never seen or some such nonsense. This idea, of our heroes and villains both going after a box, a cube, or any other mystical artifact is what Alfred Hitchcock used to call a MacGuffin. This technique is basically an excuse to have a plot when the writer knows that the real reason people are going to the movies is not to see a stupid plot develop, but to spend time with great characters. This is something the writers of Justice League seem to have forgotten. There is nothing but stupid plot in this movie. Whatever signs of interesting character work were given in the first few scenes of the movie are abandoned pretty early on in favor of boilerplate pathos and unfunny banter.
Of course, there is a way to get around both a stupid plot and lame character work, and that is to go all-in on the set-pieces. It’s not ideal, but I’ve seen it work. Not in this movie, though. Have you heard the phrase “justice is blind”, well Justice League takes it literally. This might very well be the ugliest movie I have ever seen. It’s bad even for DC standards (and these are the folks who brought you Suicide Squad). What is particularly ugly about it? Computer Generated Imagery. Hollywood blockbusters have come to rely so intensely on the idea that computers can make anything “look real” on screen that they have forgotten the fact that that is simply not the case.
I won’t go back to the argument that a single practical, make-up, or puppetry effect feels a thousand times more real than any image generated by a computer (we’re sadly way past the point when anyone in Hollywood would entertain that argument). But even then, how is it possible that a movie that cost more than a hundred million dollars to make can’t keep a person standing in front of a green screened background from looking like the result of a 6 year-old using photoshop? How can anyone find any pleasure in watching brown blurbs underscored by loud noises? Why would anyone want to see Justice League? There’s nothing going on here. Just three of the most iconic characters of the 20th Century wasted on the plot of a bad Power Rangers episode.