In Justice League, the titular band of superheroes devises a plan to defeat a villainous monster that wants to destroy the world, and as they head into battle the audience understands what they need to do to defeat the monster and the role each member of the team plays in doing so.
That might sound like simple concept, but it’s something that was missing from each previous installment in the DCEU – Man of Steel, Batman v Superman, Suicide Squad, and even the critically lauded Wonder Woman – all of which climax with seemingly-immortal beings bashing the life out of each other until one stands on top, the audience given little insight into how or why.
The inclusion of this fundamental storytelling device is enough to make Justice League the best of the five DC movies (narrowly edging out WW), even if the mere suggestion of a world-devouring beast feels redundant at this point. But that isn’t anything even the Marvel movies have gotten away from, so its presence in DC’s answer to The Avengers comes as no surprise.
That monster is Steppenwolf, a CGI creature fairly indistinguishable from Doomsday or Ares in previous DC films (and also, in an unfortunate coincidence, extremely similar one featured in the most recent Thor movie), voiced and played in a motion-capture performance by Ciarán Hinds.
Steppenwolf wants to, uh, destroy the world. For some reason. And he needs three mystical boxes – let’s not call them tesseracts – in order to do so. The boxes, we learn in a neat flashback that includes some DC universe easter eggs, were long ago split up on Earth and protected by Amazonians, Atlanteans, and humans.
While the presence of a monster like Steppenwolf at the heart of Justice League is no surprise, his integration the events of the story is nicely scripted. The beast’s army of bugmen, last seen in a Batman v Superman dream sequence, sends off warning bells for Bats (Ben Affleck), and once Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) is alerted to the danger, they begin to form the titular team.
That team includes: Aquaman (Jason Momoa), the boy-prince of the Atlanteans with a massive chip on his shoulder; Flash (Ezra Miller), a socially-awkward loner with lightning-fast speed trying to do good by his convict father (Billy Crudup); and Cyborg (Ray Fisher), a teen who perished in an accident but was resurrected by his scientist father (Joe Morton).
All five members of this Justice League are perfectly cast: Affleck’s chilly persona makes for one of the big screen’s best Bruce Waynes, and Gadot continues a breakout streak as Diana. We already knew that, but Miller, Momoa, and Fisher all dive into their roles and create vivid personalities that leave us wanting to see them in their own features.
It helps that the film gives them fully-rounded characters with genuine arcs and specific roles in the climactic events of the film. Only Aquaman gets the short shrift in this regard, the studio, perhaps, shying away from molding the character too much in advance of his own film. And just what can this guy do on land, anyway?
The two other newcomers steal the show: Miller (We Need to Talk About Kevin) is perfectly utilized in the kind of lighthearted, humanistic role this universe has been sorely lacking, and Fisher, who played Muhammad Ali on stage, lends the film a surprisingly thoughtful touch through his cybernetic exterior.
Familiar characters from previous films show up in support, including Alfred (Jeremy Irons), Martha Kent (Diane Lane), Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielson), and I’m still wondering if they’ll ever give Lois Lane (Amy Adams) anything significant to do. New faces include J.K. Simmons as Commissioner Gordon, who’s fine, though better cast as J. Jonah Jameson.
Coming in at a lean 119 minutes, there’s little of the fat – and less of the visual flair – in Justice League than in director Zach Snyder’s previous films in the series; Avengers helmer Joss Whedon was brought aboard to finish the film after the tragic death of Snyder’s daughter.
What could have been another Suicide Squad, however, is a fully-satisfying affair that ought to please most critics and audiences. After the success of this and Wonder Woman, things are suddenly looking a lot brighter for the DC Extended Universe – and here’s hoping Affleck sticks around long enough for that standalone Batman movie.
Be sure to stick around through the closing credits for two additional scenes.