Why are the Warner Brothers/DC superhero movies such a stone drag? “Justice League” is an improvement over 2016’s “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice,” but only in the sense that a sinus headache is preferable to a migraine — it doesn’t really stand as a recommendation.
“Wonder Woman,” from earlier this year, is the only film in the current cycle that feels light on its feet — that has the excitement and fun and joie de vivre you want from a movie in which people can fly — and a lot of that had to do with the old-school star wattage of Gal Gadot.
Gadot remains one of the better reasons to watch “Justice League,” which gathers up a handful of iconic and lesser superheroes and molds them into a fractious team. The movie is the main event in the WB/DC entertainment strategy, the tent-pole to which movies like “Wonder Woman” and “Man of Steel” (2013) have all been leading, and it plays about as dutifully as that sounds. Corporate and box-office expectations hang around “Justice League” like a deadweight.
We pick up where “BvS” left off, with Superman (Henry Cavill) dead and in the ground, the world mourning along with Lois Lane and Ma Kent (Amy Adams and Diane Lane, both criminally underutilized), and Bruce Wayne/Batman (Ben Affleck) struggling under a load of guilt. The appearance of a supervillain named Steppenwolf — another one of those mythic beings from before time who wants to gentrify planet Earth into a hellscape — forces Bruce out of his funk and around the world to assemble a fresh fighting team.
Diana Prince, a.k.a. Wonder Woman (Gadot) is game, but three other members need convincing: Aquaman, a brawny, waterlogged surfer-dude played by Jason Momoa (“Game of Thrones”); Cyborg (Ray Fisher), a sort of human computer interface who’s sad because his scientist dad (Joe Morton) brought him back from the dead with spare parts; and The Flash (Ezra Miller), a wisecracking teen who’s clearly the franchise’s hoped-for answer to Marvel’s Spider-Man. At a certain point in the proceedings, a major guest superhero turns up as well.
“Justice League” may play well to hardcore DC cognoscenti, but if you’re not a fan, the movie’s failings are easy to enumerate. First off, the villain’s a dud. The credits say that Steppenwolf is played by the gifted Irish actor Ciaran Hinds, but the actor is obliterated under an ugly fossil layer of unconvincing pixels and generic dialogue. Steppenwolf bellows and he breaks a lot of furniture, but there’s no genuine sense of threat because he never seems real. (The character’s bug-like minions are scarier.)
Second, the filmmaking is just slipshod, with action sequences that swing in and out of coherence and dialogue scenes framed for maximum awkwardness. Director Zack Snyder had to deal with a family tragedy during post-production and Joss Whedon (“The Avengers”) was drafted for rewrites and reshoots; whoever is responsible for what, “Justice League” stomps around on two graceless left feet, with a production design that seems carved out of gray industrial rubble.
The writers have responded to charges that “Batman v Superman” was overly grim by livening up the script with humor. Regrettably, they’re not very good at it. The banter rarely feels less than strained, the macho catch phrases are limp, and someone here thinks that repeating a punch line makes a gag funnier, whereas everyone knows the Inverse Law of Comedy Thermodynamics proves the opposite. Some byplay with Wonder Woman’s Lasso of Truth gets a good laugh, but Miller’s nerdy wannabe superhero becomes awfully annoying over the long haul.
You know what works, though? Ben Affleck’s Batman, and it’s about time. With Cavill’s Man of Steel out of the picture for much of “Justice League,” Bruce Wayne comes curiously into his own as a weary upper-middle-level manager of wayward talents. I still wish he’d shave before he put on the cowl — the stubble just makes Batman look like he’s too lazy to go to the gym — and I’m not clear on when Alfred (Jeremy Irons, his eyes gleaming with more wickedness than the villain’s) became the franchise’s human Siri. But the scenes featuring Bruce/Batman and Diana/Wonder Woman, in costume or civilian dress, have a vibe that’s the closest the movie ever comes to relaxed. Better yet, Affleck finally appears at home in the movie’s dank playpen.
Now all the filmmakers have to do is convince the rest of us to live there.
Directed by Zack Snyder. Written by Snyder, Chris Terrio, and Joss Whedon. Starring Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Gal Gadot, Jason Momoa, Ray Fisher, Ezra Miller, Diane Lane, Amy Adams, Jeremy Irons, Ciaran Hinds. At Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs; Jordan’s Furniture IMAX in Natick and Reading. 118 minutes. PG-13 (sequences of sci-fi violence and action).