This week’s blockbuster offers a lesson in the problem of judging a trilogy before it’s finished—what began in two installments as minor-key super heroics finishes in a pounded major chord.
But this engaging—even endearing—superhero movie in its brisk two hours is faster and funnier than both Man of Steel and the would-be opera of what could be called Batman Vs Superman: The Dawn of Superman’s Funeral. Was it Whedon at work? He told reporters that the ever-changing top-down studio demands of Avengers 2 “broke” him. If Justice League’s lightness is the result of Whedon’s influence, the filmmaker is apparently fixed now. The sport and wit of Whedon at his best, as in the brightest moments in TV’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer, is evidenced here.
Justice League commences with a charming moment worthy of the Christopher Reeve 1970s Superman films: a couple of off-camera kids corner Superman (Henry Cavill), filming him with a cellphone and urging him to not zoom away long enough for an interview. The question that stops him speechless: “What’s the best thing about Earth?” Blackout…
And then into a world still in mourning for the Man of Tomorrow, with a black banner hanging from London’s Tower Bridge, flowers rotting in the rain at impromptu memorials scored to an apropos cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Everybody Knows” performed by the one-named Sigrid. On the cover of a tabloid, Superman is flanked with Bowie and Prince. The Cohen music—not Hallelujah for a change!—seems piercingly apropos for today’s reliable disappointments.
In the last film, the end of Superman seemed like a sad gimmick, though B v S: Dawn of Justice had one sharp line. Watching a 21-gun salute over the fallen alien’s cenotaph at Arlington, his mother Martha (Diane Lane) said sorrowfully: “They don’t know how to honor him, except as a soldier.” The montage here stings; Lois (Amy Adams) reaching for the empty side of the bed, the Kent farm foreclosed upon, and a beggar on a Gotham street, on the blanket next to a cardboard sign: “I TRIED.”
Smelling blood in the water, an alien self-declared god called Steppenwolf (voiced by Ciaran Hinds) arrives by wormhole, or what the comics called a “boom tube”—both the grandly sonic-booming form of transportation, and this helmeted denizen of the hell-planet Apokolips are chimeras created by Jack Kirby. (Quite a year for King Kirby, the centennial man, between this and Thor Ragnarok.) All the Queen’s horses on Paradise Island can’t stop Steppenwolf—a cavalry charge is wiped out by this giant and his headsman’s axe. His troops are chittering, flying locust-men: on a Gotham rooftop, Batman (Ben Affleck) nets one and decides, “A scout.”
Steppenwolf is basically Sauron from Lord of the Rings, expelled in ancient times by a coalition of Amazons, Atlanteans, a few members of the Green Lantern corps, and men, He’s back to get three strange pulsating cubes hidden by the ancients—three boxes to rule them all. There are still undersea dwellers and Amazons today…though when learns of this history of war, Bruce Wayne has his doubts that men will rise to the challenge: “We tend to think that the Doomsday Clock has a snooze button.”
Still he recruits a defense team of meta humans, including the witty, self-doubting Flash (Ezra Miller), the fastest man alive and a self-described “attractive Jewish kid”; the insanely hearty barbarian of Atlantis Aquaman (Jason Momoa), the somber half-machine Cyborg (Ray Fisher), talented with computers, and the welcome return of Wonder Woman (the pert, tough Gal Gadot) first seen perched on the sword arm of the statue of Lady Justice atop the Old Bailey courthouse in London.
Let the fan boys mack on Gadot, but the magic in her return is all in the details she brings in: breaking up an act of terrorism, she takes an automatic rifle butt to the head; she turns around on her attacker, looking mildly cross. Gadot makes this movie—gives it stopping points, compassion, coolness and feminine strength. The arc is pretty easy to predict, and those allergic to all that superhero stuff will chafe to see how it goes on. Superman isn’t the kind of figure to rot in a coffin, though the problem of resurrection summed up by Flash in two words: “Pet Semetary” ; it’s easy can predict Superman’s victory over death, but maybe not as easy to predict moments along the way. One frightful one occurs as The Flash sees an angry Superman locking eyes with him in bullet time—here’s a creature he can’t outwit with speed.
Even this rapid yet smooth film has the time for breaks—the aging Bruce Wayne having an ear from Wonder Woman (“You can’t do this forever.” “I can barely do this now”); the two taking a walk around the lake on the Wayne estate to brood over the problem. You can feel that ideally Batman ought to have his solitude, and he ought to be a detective instead of an armored Navy SEAL—but it’s surprising how Affleck, generally an uninteresting, uninvolved actor, rises to this, moved by thoughts of the lost Superman (“He was more human than I am.”)
The weariness and second thoughts are as much a surprise as the final battle in a version of Chernobyl, where Steppenwolf is busy un-terraforming Terra. Gadot is especially glorious in slowed time, as The Flash tries to outrace gravity and retrieve her sword. The sight of the Batmobile roaring away with a cloud of flying monsters behind it is thrilling to any former kid who ever tied a towel around his neck and pretended it was a cape.