'Justice League' is kinda terrible and kinda great

DC's big team-up is more fun than a movie with this many flaws has any right to be, thanks to some lesser-known comic book superheroes.

Richard Trenholm Former Movie and TV Senior Editor
Richard Trenholm was CNET's film and TV editor, covering the big screen, small screen and streaming. A member of the Film Critic's Circle, he's covered technology and culture from London's tech scene to Europe's refugee camps to the Sundance film festival.
Expertise Films, TV, Movies, Television, Technology
Richard Trenholm
4 min read
Clay Enos

"Justice League" begins with a group of heroes assembling. There's the guy who had to CGI in Batman's unconvincing cape. There's the guy who had to CGI out Superman's  unwanted moustache. And there's the poor soul who had to edit this hot mess together.

Together, they combine their powers to make a movie that's objectively terrible, and yet also kinda fun. Yay teamwork!

OK, so the real team-up involves a selection of the finest superheroes in DC comics history -- plus some other guys. Batman and Wonder Woman lead the Flash, Aquaman and Cyborg into battle in the absence of Superman, and maybe that's all the film needs: a bunch of your favourite superheroes looking cool, bouncing dumb jokes off each other and bonding through punching stuff.

Seriously, if we started listing stuff about "Justice League" that makes no sense or is just plain inept, we'd be here all day. But in its favour, it's fast, frequently funny and comparatively short. Faint praise indeed, but I for one was overjoyed just to banish memories of miserable previous group outing "Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice".

Watch this: Comic-Con 'Justice League' sneak peek trailer brings a new age of heroes

Like "Dawn of Justice", "Justice League" was directed by Zack Snyder. His grim vision has steered DC's movies until now, but he was forced to step aside from "Justice League" late in production for personal reasons. It's not easy to spot the joins in "Justice League" between Snyder's grandiose nihilism and last-minute replacement Joss Whedon's quippy banter, but there's a much lighter tone on display than any of Snyder's previous DC work. It's not exactly "Thor: Ragnarok" level of yucks, but it's much less of a grueling slog than the ponderous 2.5-hour "Dawn of Justice".

DC is a few years behind Marvel, which made a point of introducing its stars in individual movies over the course of several years so that we already knew them all when they teamed up in "The Avengers". DC, by contrast, has to cram in introductions for several of its stars in this movie -- and yet it's actually these lesser-known characters who end up stealing the show.

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Flash -- aa-aaarh!

Warner Bros

The Flash is the most fun thing in the whole show, with Ezra Miller delivering a stand-out off-kilter performance and bagging (almost) all the best gags. And the best story arc goes to Cyborg, played by Ray Fisher. The character's glossy, poreless CG-enhanced face looks a bit weird, but it's a compelling twist to see a hero deal with superpowers that were foisted upon him and may even be working against him. Sadly, like pretty much everything else that's interesting about the film, that subplot is hurriedly set up and then completely forgotten about. 

Aquaman, played by Jason Momoa, fares less well. His big introductory scene involves Batman walking into a room and he's just standing there. The watery weightlifter does get probably the best joke in the entire film, although a cynic might argue he is the biggest joke in the film.

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Cyborg has the most compelling story in "Justice League".

Warner Bros

Of the top-tier heroes, Ben Affleck is back as Batman, and following the critical drubbing handed out to previous outing "Dawn of Justice", he doesn't look particularly happy about it. Still, his gruff, middle-aged Batman looks a lot less bewildered here than in his previous film. And finally -- finally! -- we get a Superman who actually feels like Superman.

It's good to see the folks at DC learning, even if the course correction after previous movies sometimes feels strained. Snyder can't seem to let go the criticism he received for glossing over the horrifying carnage that occurred in "Man of Steel", and when a random unnamed family of civilians keeps popping up during "Justice League"'s climactic havoc, you can practically hear Snyder screaming "See?! I can do the human persons!" 

If only they'd learned a bit more from this summer's "Wonder Woman", which did away with the grim'n'grandiose Snyder template and in so doing reinvigorated the DC movie project. A cynic might detect some sour grapes in the way Snyder has his snarling male villain casually sweep aside the powerful and empowered Amazons so many of us fell in love with this summer, while Wonder Woman herself is largely relegated to heckling Batman as the camera gawps up her skirt.

But I said I wouldn't list the film's faults. So I won't mention the perpetual bludgeoning CGI either. Or the stodgy villain. Or the criminally disjointed editing. No, let's just say "Justice League" is brisker and more fun (and shorter) than DC's previous efforts.

DC still isn't in Marvel's league, but at least they've finally done these characters some kind of justice. 

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