Justice, Beleaguered: The team is assembled, but results are mixed

Courtesy of Warner Bros. 

Courtesy of Warner Bros. 

During some of the boring moments of the new “Justice League,” I caught my mind drifting towards times in my life when watching a superhero movie made me feel something.

I thought of when, as a child, I watched a VHS copy of Richard Donner’s 1978 “Superman,” and it filled me with awe in its portrayal of a selfless, indestructible force that represented the goodness and potential of human strength.

I thought of Sam Raimi’s “Spider-Man 2” from 2004, which I saw at a midnight screening as a teenager (a true midnight screening, not these Thursday-at-7-pm weak things we get now -- by the way, I shouldn’t complain about that change because I love it). I remember coming home from the theater that night, totally hopped up on adrenaline, having just seen a person with incredible abilities win the day. What I loved about “Spider-Man 2” was how real and normal he was.

And I thought of another one from 2004 -- Brad Bird’s “The Incredibles” -- which blew me away with its emotional richness, and which contains several scenes of such creative ingenuity it gave my brain shivers along with the rest of my body. The scene when the young hero Dash discovers he can run on water, with Michael Giacchino’s music building to a climax as he giggles with delight in his newfound power still sits among my favorite scenes of any movie of all time.

I even thought of a movie I saw this very year -- 2017 -- and the experience I had watching “Wonder Woman.” That film filled me with a profound, unexpected reverence and gratitude, seeing gender roles and power structures that normally dominate this genre flipped around for the first time. I aspired to be Diana Prince, and I found her kind of heroism to be inspiring and captivating.

As I sat in the theater watching “Justice League,” wearing my “Wonder Woman” t-shirt, and I caught myself thinking about these previous experiences, I realized, to my disappointment, that the movie I was currently watching was nowhere even remotely close to any of those other movies.

But that doesn’t mean it’s a bad movie.

Courtesy of Warner Bros.

Courtesy of Warner Bros.

In fact, “Justice League” has plenty of moments that aren’t boring. Well, it has some. As a moviegoing experience, it’s much more pleasant and enjoyable than most of the other movies in this particular superhero series (the obvious exception being the one I named specifically earlier).

Having Gal Gadot return as Wonder Woman in this obviously works in the movie’s favor, but it also sort of highlights the differences between the two films, and not in a favorable way for "Justice League." Patty Jenkins’ film had so much more heart and vision.

I cringed in the times that “Justice League” takes steps backward with the character -- making her Amazon sisters seem weak in battle, where their strength was an inspiration in their own movie; making the good ideas come from the male heroes (who even have an “I told you so, Diana” moment later on); making Diana more of a sexual (and comedically so) object a handful of times throughout the movie. It’s like “Justice League” takes this amazing progress of “Wonder Woman” and neglects to understand any of it in order to carry it forward.

But I can’t say nothing about the movie works. This movie has something that few DC movies have had (except “Wonder Woman,” which had it better): It has a sense of humor. The team -- which includes Batman, Aquaman, Wonder Woman, Cyborg and the Flash -- have witty banter, and a lot of it works. I think I almost smiled a few times.

Courtesy of Warner Bros.

Courtesy of Warner Bros.

The thing is, none of it is new. Nothing is fresh or original. Graded on a curve of the past failures of this franchise, it’s passable. But it’s not the climactic joining together it should be.

Part of that failure is due to the fact that of those heroes I listed, exactly one of them have had their own solo movie for us to get to know them -- “Wonder Woman.” So it doesn’t feel so much like a sequel to other movies as it does a bunch of sequels in one to movies that never happened in the first place. This series has been too rushed from the beginning for this team-up to have any real payoff.

Adding to the confusing homages to nothing is Danny Elfman’s score, which inexplicably references a number of other movies, including the “Batman” movies he wrote the music for with Tim Burton directing, and the John Williams “Superman” theme. It’s a terrible choice, because it highlights that “Justice League” is a sequel to nothing. Or, it’s as much a sequel to Tim Burton’s “Batman” as it is to anything.

Courtesy of Warner Bros.

Courtesy of Warner Bros.

At one point, Ben Affleck’s Bruce Wayne remarks, “I don’t have to understand the world. I just have to save it.” I get the sense that Warner Bros. had a similar impulse: “I don’t have to understand what makes an ‘Avengers’ movie work,” the studio seems to be saying. “I just have to make one.”

Derrick Clements is an independent arts reporter, podcaster, columnist and film critic. Follow him on Twitter @derrific and find all his work at derrickclements.com.

Review: 'Justice League'
Grade: C-
Director: Zack Snyder (with uncredited directorial help from Joss Whedon)
Starring: Ben Affleck, Gal Gadot, Henry Cavill, Jason Momoa, Ezra Miller, Amy Adams
Running time: 2 hours, 1 min
Rating: PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi violence and action