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Instead of simply feeding the franchise, DC should hit pause, step back and find a good story to tell.

Come Together

A few defenders of justice
A few defenders of justice

The biggest surprise about Justice League is – unlike director Zack Snyder’s other superhero efforts – this one actually has some brisk pacing to it. At least for the first half. Then Superman returns. And, boy, that Man of Steel (Henry Cavill, The Man from U.N.C.L.E.) still has the capacity to weigh down everything around him. His chemistry-deprived romance with Lois Lane (Amy Adams, The Fighter) gets more screen time than it deserves.

Okay. Maybe that’s a little mean-spirited. But it’s a sentiment borne of the frustration with DC’s ham-handed handling of characters beloved by generation after generation for nigh on 100 years.

Here’s the bottom line: The first half offers hope, the kind of hope Superman’s “S” now stands for; the movie even begins with a couple kids recording their conversation with Supes on their smartphone. They talk about the “S.” They talk about hope.

From there, this one stays agreeably light – not nearly as light as Thor: Ragnarok, but it’s clear DC’s getting the message Snyder’s heavy-handedness has worn thin. That’s good news. And, overall, the cast of do-gooders is likable, particularly Barry Allen, aka Flash (Ezra Miller, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them), and Arthur Curry, aka Aquaman (Jason Momoa, Conan the Barbarian). They provide the bulk of the humor (and counter-balance the already established, misguided characterizations of Superman and Batman); the standalone big screen adventures of Flash and Aquaman are already in the pipeline.

Overall, though, Justice League is a creative mess.

Where Is the Justice?

The most successful movies (creatively and commercially) in the superhero arena offer a careful balancing act between fantasy and reality. Unfortunately, watching Justice League – particularly the second half – is like watching two 10-year-old boys play with their superhero action figures, the crappy old kind from the 1970s, not the modern, richly-detailed varieties of today. As it happens, those two kids are now much older (physically, if not mentally) and they go by the names Zack Snyder and Joss Whedon.

Even Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot, Fast & Furious), once again the best part of this super collective, agrees when she says of her alpha male colleagues, “Children. I work with children.”

The story, bereft of any narrative heft, involves the invasion of Earth by a baddie named Steppenwolf. This CGI villain (voiced by Ciaran Hinds, Munich) wants to send the world back into the Dark Ages and a life of holy fear. He also continues the fall fashion trend of horny helmets, following Ragnarok’s Hela down the catwalk of pure evil in prickly style.

Steppenwolf and his army of flying bug creatures can smell fear. The primary odor coming out of this movie, though, is desperation from a troubled franchise looking to find the right tone. Despite the aggressive pacing of the opening half and the fact this movie clocks in at less than 2 hours (including lengthy post credits), it still turns into a long slog with loads of action that fails to generate much excitement.

And in the end, Steppenwolf’s fate is laughable, a cheap, unconvincing storytelling copout along the lines of Dawn of Justice and its silly “Martha” plot point.

Heroes in Jeopardy

Snyder and Whedon have lost sight of what they should be trying to accomplish. This should be the cornerstone of a whole new blockbuster franchise, but that’s all in jeopardy with uncertainty – at least through the grist and grime of the unreliable rumor mills – that Affleck’s days as the Batman are numbered and tumult behind the camera that saw Snyder depart this production in the spring in order to deal with a personal tragedy. That, in turn, led to Whedon jumping over from the Marvel camp, where he directed the first two Avengers flicks, in order to punch up and polish off Justice League.

That was late in the game, post-production work, supposedly. But Whedon gained a screenwriting credit in the process, so the true extent of his efforts isn’t really clear.

After the plodding Man of Steel, the semi-depressing Dawn of Justice and the irrelevant Suicide Squad, Justice League not only represents a franchise in transition, but a movie that started the transition in the middle of production. Maybe there’s still hope after all, but Justice League pays the price as another expensive, but middling, effort.

Maybe, just maybe, the powers that be are reviewing the lessons learned. And maybe the pieces are now in place to make the inevitable Justice League sequel really good and actually fun. With, preferably, a real story.

Hall of Justice

As for that story, why not shoot for something inspirational? Why not try to do something that matters, that leaves a lasting impact on the genre and storytelling overall? Continue the canon that’s lasted decades and do something with it.

Look at what Christopher Nolan did in the Dark Knight trilogy. Average human beings were part of the story. Driven by their own desire to accomplish good in the world and inspired by the work of a mysterious man dressed as a bat, they were empowered to take bold actions. In particular, consider the character arcs of James Gordon, Robin John Blake and Selina Kyle.

In Justice League, humans are pitiful and helpless (or sorely miscast, as with Jesse Eisenberg, returning as Lex Luthor in a post-credits tease setting the stage for the launch of the Legion of Doom). Those sad-sack humans drape international landmarks like Notre Dame in Paris with black banners brandishing the Superman logo as they memorialize the loss of the ultimate dreamer, the ultimate immigrant.

And, for that matter, in this dark DC universe, even the heroes are hurtin’. In the thick of Earth’s imminent destruction, Bruce and Diana Prince also confront their own frailties and losses while they attempt to help Flash and Cyborg (relative newcomer Ray Fisher) feel the love for their unnatural abilities. And Bruce broods about how Superman is actually more human than he is; after all, Superman lives in the world, he earns an income as Clark Kent and he managed to score a romantic relationship while also saving the world time and again.

Sigh.

The only person here who seems to “get” the baseline requisites of tone and heroism is Danny Elfman. He has fun with the score, resurrecting his own theme music from 1989’s Batman as well as John Williams’ super theme from 1978’s Superman. Unfortunately, the problems here run deeper than any musical score can solve.