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A ‘League’ of their own

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DC’s top team arrives onscreen with “Justice League”

By just about any measure, it’s clear who’s winning when it comes to comic book movies.

While Marvel’s movies have achieved a level of commercial and critical success that has been both steady and significant, DC’s efforts to bring its heroes and villains to the big screen have been far more uneven. They’ve done fine at the box office, but they’re almost universally considered lesser than the MCU in terms of quality.

So how would their latest offering - “Justice League” - fare?

The success of “Wonder Woman” earlier this year offered a sense of potential hope. But “Justice League” was marked by trouble, with Joss Whedon brought in to rework some of Zack Snyder’s initial efforts. And the specter of perceived failure from “Batman v. Superman” was still hanging over the franchise. All in all, the deck seemed to be a bit stacked against this movie’s success.

And yet for all of that, “Justice League” is actually … not bad. It’s far from great, with plenty of flaws; it’s tonally inconsistent with a muddy narrative flow and some aesthetically questionable effects work. Even so, it feels like it might be a step in the right direction. Sure, the bar for this film to clear was set awfully low, but still – it was cleared.

The world is reeling from the death of Superman (Henry Cavill, “Sand Castle). People everywhere are mourning his passing, save the criminal element that is overjoyed with the situation.

Batman (Ben Affleck, “Live By Night”) sees that an invasion is coming, a sinister extradimensional horde of fear-sensing flying demons that have world-shattering plans for the Earth. He has enlisted Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot, “Wonder Woman”) as an ally; his plan is to put together a team of super-powered metahumans in an effort to stave off destruction.

These individuals – culled from a file left behind by the villainous Lex Luthor – will be familiar to any DC fan. There’s super-speedster The Flash (Ezra Miller, “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them”), an insecure young jokester. You’ve got the Atlantean powerhouse Aquaman (Jason Momoa, “Once Upon a Time in Venice”), a hard-drinking wiseass. And you’ve got the half-man, half-machine Cyborg (Ray Fisher, “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice”), who struggles to control the Kryptonian technology that saved his life.

Their foe is a being named Steppenwolf (Ciaran Hinds, “Axis”) that seeks revenge for his millennia-gone defeat by forces that saved the Earth from destruction at his hands. Steppenwolf has returned for the Mother Boxes, three immensely powerful devices that, when united, have the capacity to utterly destroy the world.

And all that stands in his path is Batman’s newly-formed team. The Justice League is going to have to find a way to do the impossible if they’re to have any hope against Steppenwolf and his massive army of Parademons.

“Justice League” doesn’t reach the heights to which “Wonder Woman” soared, but neither is it as grim and joyless as “Batman v. Superman.” There’s enough here for fans to find something to like; it certainly isn’t as bad as some critics would have you believe.

It’s got issues, for sure. The directorial handoff has resulted in some tonal dissonance throughout, with some sequences built around Snyder’s dark take on the story and others fueled by Whedon’s sunnier style. You can definitely see the seams where the two approaches were stitched together. It’s definitely a bit distracting. Also distracting are the shoddy effects; the CGI work here is weirdly sub-par. And the story is lacking in both narrative urgency and a compelling big bad. The stakes never feel all that high.

But there are some things to like here. The “getting the band together” vibe is fun; watching teams being built is an engaging way to introduce a group of relatively unfamiliar characters. The interpersonal dynamics of the group are often the most compelling aspect of films like this one, and while the banter and such sometimes feel a little forced, at least they’re making an effort.

I keep wanting Affleck to be stronger as the Batman, but it refuses to click. His Bruce Wayne is a bit better, but neither character is as magnetic as he should be. He particularly suffers next to Gadot, who is absolutely magnetic; you can’t take your eyes off her when she’s on the screen. It’s capital-C Charisma – she’s a movie star. Momoa does good work as the traditionally-mocked Aquaman, turning the character into a take-no-s—t badass. Miller is a bit much as the fast-talking Flash, but he proved capable of working the character’s tension-breaking moments. And Fisher is actually quite good as Cyborg, though he benefits from being the “new” character given the most substantial arc. Amy Adams is good in her limited appearances; ditto Diane Lane. It’s also worth noting that Jeremy Irons is delightful as Alfred, continuing the tradition of acclaimed talents embracing the inherent silliness of superhero movies with glee.

“Justice League” doesn’t measure up to the best that Marvel has to offer. Heck, it doesn’t even measure up to the best that Marvel has to offer THIS MONTH. But it’s definitely progress; this might be our first glimpse of what DC’s cinematic universe might become.

[2.5 out of 5]

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