Comic book writers love their heroes, and are less likely to give love and attention to their villains. That’s human nature, I suppose, but boy does it hurt modern superhero movies. “Justice League” (2017), now available for home viewing, is the latest film to suffer from a bland, predictable villain, and it keeps a fun blockbuster from becoming something substantial. Steppenwolf – no, not that Steppenwolf – wants to destroy the world because, as a Geico commercial would say, “If you’re a supervillain, it’s what you do.”
The Justice League aims to stop Steppenwolf and keep the world in its merely miserable (but not blown to atoms) modern state. We know they will, that the temporarily dead Superman (Henry Cavill) will be their ace in the hole, and that the disparate team members will mesh just in time. So there are no surprises there, nor does “Justice League” try too hard to surprise us, nor does it pretend to be something more than it is. That might be the moderating effect of Joss Whedon co-directing a film that was conceived by Zack Snyder – known for the epically dour “Man of Steel” and “Batman v Superman” — who left partway through production for a family issue.
But it’s disappointing that the villain looks cheesy to go along with his cheesy goals. Steppenwolf is part veteran actor Ciaran Hinds (“The Terror”), but mostly a CGI creature whose lips aren’t quite in sync with his words. Superman’s face too often looks the same way: Because another production wouldn’t let Cavill shave his mustache, it was digitally removed from “Justice League,” but not well; I would’ve noticed there’s something funny about Supes’ upper lip even if I hadn’t been prompted to look for it. The landscape in the final battle in Russia looks like a pink- and purple-tinged video game; it’s not up to the standards of a movie year that included “War for Planet of the Apes,” “Valerian” and “Blade Runner 2049.”
Yeah, plot, villain and special effects are pretty big categories to fail at, but credit where credit is due: The league members themselves are a blast to hang out with. The screenplay by Whedon and Chris Terrio is a symphony of quippy dialog, with winners (“What’s your superpower?” “I’m rich”) easily outnumbering losers (“Boo-yah”).
There’s substance along with the quips. The film – the fifth in the DC Extended Universe saga — gives everyone a purpose and an arc. Granted, I could watch a movie simply about Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) taking on Steppenwolf, who was driven off by her Themyscirans and Aquaman’s (Jason Momoa) Altlanteans in ancient times. (She defeated the CGI nutjob Ares in “Wonder Woman” with merely human assistants, after all.) But all six league members are action figures brought to perfect life, with Batman (Ben Affleck) forming the group and The Flash (the Justin Long-ish Ezra Miller) and Cyborg (Ray Fisher) rounding out the unit.
“Justice League” acknowledges the issues between the established players: the uneasiness between Supes and Bats (who quibble in “Batman v Superman”), and Wonder Woman somewhat selfishly choosing to ride the bench for a century between “WW” and “BvS.”
It shows the value of teamwork; yeah, that’s basic stuff, but this is a mass-audience blockbuster. Batman is willing to back-burner his emotions and put youngsters like The Flash and Cyborg in danger, while also risking pissing off Supes by ripping him out of heaven or the Kryptonian equivalent. Wonder Woman takes her cue from Bats, and recognizes she can help humanity more as a leader than as a reactionary fighter. Superman – brought back to life in the same fashion as Zod in “BvS” — provides the inspiration to the masses as only he can, as an all-powerful alien who chooses to live among humans rather than rule them.
The three new members slot in nicely, and the actors are great at playing off each other; a highlight is when loner Aquaman begins a cynical speech that shifts into an honest one, thanks to Wonder Woman’s Lasso of Truth.
I would follow this sextet into future movies. But where do you go after saving the world from a nearly indestructible being? The smart play for the writers is to go to a smaller human foe, and the post-credits sequence indeed shows Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) beginning to form a league of his own. The trick will be to make the bad guys clever enough to overcome the fact that they aren’t ultra-mega-superpowered. On “Buffy,” Whedon managed to pull off the trick, following a God in Season 5 with three nerds in Season 6.
The secret is to keep it personal. I don’t know who will helm the next “Justice League” film; I get the impression that Whedon was a pinch-hitter here. But if they stay focused on the league members and what they mean to each other, there’s a chance that great films could follow this launch, which – despite flaws all too common in this genre — is the second-best DCEU film to this point, behind “Wonder Woman.”