DC and Warner Brothers’ Justice League enters the movie-sphere lugging a fair amount of baggage. Wonder Woman — 2017’s previous installment in DC’s extended universe — was a success but the two prior outings — Man of Steel (2013) and Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) — did little to flesh out the world beyond a couple of ill-shaped, somewhat moody, superheroes not quite sure of their place in the world.
While Superman, a.k.a. Clark Kent (Henry Cavill), struggled with his powers of supreme deliverance, questioning every ramification of his actions along the way; Batman, a.k.a. Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck), sought to bring about a fascist-like hold on the criminal justice system and the savior of Metropolis. As the title of the second film suggested, the two tangled, Wonder Woman, a.k.a. Diana Prince (Gal Gadot), showed up after a century hiding in museums and Lex Luthor’s creation, Doomsday, a.k.a. Poopasaurus Rex, was bested by the three but at the cost of Superman — a cost that weighed heavily on Wayne’s conscience.
Now, and with more light-hearted jokes, Batman continues to battle evil from the Gotham’s shadows while Wonder Woman protects Paris from terrorists. Director Zack Snyder’s running commentary from Bat v. Supes continues to question a world worth saving, even opening this installment with an awkward camera video of Superman failing to answer why the world is worth a damn. A few scenes later, a group of non-descript religious terrorists try to blow themselves and several hostages up in front of TV cameras, hoping to spark a greater reckoning. It’s a cheap ploy by the filmmakers, one they later lean on when their comic book bad guy, Steppenwolf (an unconvincing mass of digital effects voiced by Ciarán Hinds), plans to do the exact same, but with three power cubes in lieu of C-4.
Though this thematic echo helps connect Justice League’s glaring divisions between the first and second hour, the movie is a mess; albeit an entertaining one. Here, the problem isn’t the material, but the sheer volume of it. In addition to continuing the themes laid down in the previous installments, Justice League has to work fast to explain the barebones backstory of its other main characters: The Flash, a.k.a. Barry Allen (Ezra Miller, the best of the bunch); Aquaman, a.k.a. Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa, decent); and Cyborg, a.k.a. Victor Stone (Ray Fisher, fine), while simultaneously setting up Steppenwolf’s plan to wipe out human existence.
Writers Chris Terrio, Joss Whedon, and Snyder chew through the three’s origins quickly, almost comic book like — cutting between characters like readers turning the page of a comic book as if each transition stood in for that all-encompassing word: “Meanwhile…” While this favors brevity, it lacks emotional connection. That lack is felt strongest during the movie’s climactic battle: the limits and capabilities of each character lack definition and no one ever seems to be in any real danger.
But whatever, we’re not here for any of that nonsense. We want popcorn entertainment, Batman fighting alongside Wonder Woman and Superman, and another movie that set up unfathomable sequels and spin-offs no matter how little emotion they stir up inside. And no matter how bad they are, the audience returns for more, hoping this one will be just slightly better than the last. Much like James Thurber’s aphorism about martinis, comic book movies rely on a simple addictive formula: One is all right, two is too many, and three is not enough.