There’s a moment in Justice League, during a break from all the physics-defying alien-bashing, where the greying Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) and his even greyer butler/tactician Alfred (Jeremy Irons) pine for simpler times. “Those were the days,” sighs Alfred, “where one’s biggest concerns were exploding wind-up penguins.”
It’s an in-joke, obviously, most likely added by Joss Whedon who, in addition to overseeing additional shooting after family tragedy caused director Zack Snyder’s early departure from the project, is credited as screenwriter. But it suggests the Affleck Batman’s past is far closer to the Tim Burton films of yore than the straight-faced Nolan trilogy; a notion only reinforced by composer Danny Elfman (replacing Hans Zimmer) sneaking back a snatch of his original, ’89 Batman theme.
Justice League assumes a sense of titanic gathering that Avengers earned.
This heavily hinted-at reclamation of the caped crusader’s sillier cinematic heritage is symptomatic of Justice League’s concerted move away from the frowny stylings of Snyder’s earlier DC Extended Universe entries, towards something lighter-toned and, well, closer to the Avengers films. It’s almost so obvious as to not be worth pointing out, what with Avengers writer-director Whedon’s involvement and a plot about an alien baddie seeking to unite a bunch of obscurely depicted cosmic trinkets. But to be fair, it would be a tad tricky to maintain post-Nolan sombreness in a film where Bruce gets mixed up with insect-winged monsters, Amazons, a guy who’s half-robot and a big hairy merman who brings a pitchfork to a laser-gun fight.
To be sure, Justice League is supremely hokey stuff. After vibing a little on a 2016-shitstorm sense of a world horribly gone wrong (Superman’s death is wonkily equated with the passing of Prince and Bowie), it dives headlong into a scrappy, Swiss-cheese plot which, while true to DC Comics’ mix-and-match mythology, clumsily slaps together its disparate elements — including, in a brief flashback appearance, space-snot-wielding Green Lanterns. None of which is helped by sub-par VFX, which reach their nadir with an overblown final conflict involving lots of purple crystal wormy things, plus a lead baddie who’s so unnecessarily and sloppily computer-rendered he should be renamed Missteppenwolf: Dark Lord Of The Uncanny Valley.
Coming before most of the series’ solo outings, Justice League also assumes a sense of titanic gathering that Avengers earned. But there’s still some lightweight fun to be had. The cast play together well, with Ezra Miller’s enthusiastic, geeky Flash contributing a majority of the charm and laughs, and Gal Gadot unsurprisingly bringing gravitas as reluctant team leader Diana. Ray Fisher is solid as Cyborg, though the character itself remains frustratingly sketchy, while Jason Momoa’s Aquaman needs the most work, coming across as little more than a brash, occasionally letchy lunk who shouts “Dayum” and “My maaan!”
As for Affleck, he can be forgiven for looking a bit lost as the bruised, world-weary Bruce. Makes sense Batman would be perplexed by all this intergalactic, high-stakes nonsense, as well as literally left behind during some of the action scenes. Perhaps next time around he’ll get a nice, non-CG exploding penguin to play with.