“Justice League” (*** OUT OF ****) is a slam-bang, smash-up saga, but it doesn’t surpass last year’s “Batman Vs Superman: Dawn of Justice.” Mind you, as entertaining as “Justice League” is, it isn’t as exhilarating as Marvel’s most recent “Thor: Ragnarok.” At this point, the cliché about apples and oranges crop up. The DC Cinematic Universe differs from the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Nevertheless, despite their intrinsic differences, comparisons are inevitable. I grew up reading DC Comics and preferred them over Marvel Comics. Unfortunately, Warner Brothers hasn’t scored the same critical and commercial success that New Line Cinema, Columbia Pictures, Paramount Pictures, Twentieth Century Fox, and Walt Disney have with the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Ironically, Warner Brothers made history when it released the first “Batman” (1989) with Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson, but the esteemed studio—Warner Brothers introduced sound movies–hasn’t maintained the consistency and charisma that distinguishes the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
For the record, the first Marvel property to illuminate the silver screen was “Captain America” (1944), but it was a 15-chapter, black & white, Saturday afternoon, Republic Studios serial. DC Comics still beat its competitor to the screen with Columbia’s release of the 15-chapter “Batman” serial in 1943 and followed it up with a 1949 serial sequel. Later, these serials inspired Twentieth Century Fox’s live-action “Batman” television series, co-starring Adam West & Burt Ward, that aired from 1966 to 1968. Initially, the Marvel Cinematic Universe stumbled at the get-go with “Howard the Duck” (1986) as well as the straight-to-video versions of “The Punisher” (1989) and “Captain America” (1990). New Line Cinema’s “Blade” (1998), Twentieth Century Fox’s “X-Men” (2000), and Columbia’s “Spider-Man” (2000) struck pay-dirt on the big-screen. Disney has since appropriated the MCU from Paramount Pictures, and they have made it a cornerstone of their studio. Ultimately, the DC Cinematic Universe doesn’t have anybody like Stan Lee, the venerable Marvel Comics’ publisher and chairman who everybody recognizes and adores with his cameo appearance. Moreover, Warner’s has not been able to duplicate its stunning back-to-back success with “Batman V Superman” and “Wonder Woman.” The biggest problems facing “Justice League” are its $300-million price tag and its $150-million advertising campaign. Meaning, just because “Justice League” is a good movie, doesn’t mean that it will triple its investment like “Batman V Superman” and “Wonder Woman.” “Suicide Squad” was no slouch either with worldwide receipts amounting to over $745-million.
Meantime, any movie that resurrects the Last Son of Krypton can’t be all bad. “Watchman” director Zack Snyder and scenarists Chris Terrio of “Batman Vs Superman” and Joss Whedon of “Avengers: Age of Ultron” have not only brought Superman back from the grave, but they have also ushered the Flash/Barry Allen, Aquaman/Arthur Curry, and Cyborg/Victor Stone into the fray. Some may be disappointed to learn that this Flash (Ezra Miller) isn’t the same Flash (Grant Gustin) in the WB’s television series. Furthermore, Snyder and company shun frivolous romantic subplots since they have more than enough to keep them busy with the newest superheroes. Clocking in at two high-octane hours, “Justice League” doesn’t dawdle Surprisingly, even with Joss Whedon aboard, “Justice League” qualifies as strictly by-the-numbers with few surprises. The first third dispatches Bruce Wayne (former “Daredevil” Ben Affleck) to recruit Barry Allen, Arthur Curry, and Victor Stone because an intimidating the ancient extraterrestrial villain threatening Earth—Steppenwolf (voice of Ciarán Hinds)—is more than the Dark Knight can handle. Says Wayne to Aquaman, “I believe that an enemy is coming from far away. I’m looking for warriors. I’m building an alliance to defend us.” Steppenwolf looks and sounds sufficiently malevolent. This wicked superhuman warrior wields a nasty electro-axe and invades Earth with an army of google-eyed airborne predators called Parademons. Before he sets off in search of the new superheroes, Bruce Wayne reacquaints himself with Diana Prince (Gal Gadot of “Wonder Woman”). She sneaks into his ultra-security equipped Bat Cave without tripping off any alarms. Reluctantly, Allen, Curry, and Stone agree to join up, but Aquaman/Arthur Curry isn’t impressed initially with Bruce Wayne. “What’s your super power,” the oceanic warrior asks. “I’m rich,” replies Wayne.
Unlike “Thor: Ragnarok,” “Justice League” confines its humor to clever dialogue quips. At one point, Alfred Pennyworth (Oscar-winner Jeremy Irons of “Reversal of Fortune”) remarks to Wayne, “I miss the days when one’s biggest concern is exploding wind-up penguins.” This doesn’t keep the Flash from enlivening the action with his fleet-footed frolics. Ultimately, once the Justice League has assembled, and Steppenwolf has uttered his ultimatum, the second third ensues with the resurrection of Superman (Henry Cavill of “Man of Steel”), but he isn’t particularly pleased with the Caped Crusader and what happened in “Batman Vs Superman.” Wayne keeps a secret weapon in his arsenal to lure Kal-El back into the fold. Unless you’ve skipped Superman’s earlier exploits in “Man of Steel” and “Batman Vs Superman,” you should be able to guess what Batman has that can change Superman’s mind. Death hasn’t been too traumatic for Clark Kent. He has managed to preserve his magnificently muscled physique along with his incandescent laser-beam eyes. The final third pits the League against Steppenwolf, and this obnoxious hellion doesn’t go quietly into that good night. Of course, you know that the Justice League will thwart Steppenwolf, but he doesn’t go down with a fight.
The biggest letdown about “Justice League” are the segments that introduce the various superheroes. Surely, Snyder and his writers, particularly Joss Whedon, could have conjured up something more exciting and less generic. The confrontation between Wonder Woman and a criminal gang planning to plunge the world back into the Stone Age lacks the “wow” factor. The same goes for the other superheroes. Batman unveils some impressive gadgets, namely ‘the nightcrawler.’ Snyder relies again on CGI galore, as he did in “Batman Vs Superman,” but this is not surprising considering it depicts larger-than-life heroes and villains who perform the impossible. Altogether, despite its predictable plotting, “Justice League” delivers action aplenty and doesn’t wear out its welcome.