They say there’s strength in unity, but you wouldn’t know it from the handful of heroes who make up “Justice League.”
Yes, Batman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, Cyborg, the Flash and maybe even Superman, we mean you.
These combatants know they have to join together if the world as we know it is to be saved from the depredations of yet another horde of detestable aliens, but that doesn’t make it any easier.
For superpowers notwithstanding, these folks come fully loaded with enough gripes, grudges, issues and back stories to supply an army. They so get on each other’s nerves that being in the same room, let alone on the same team, is hard to manage.
As directed by Zack Snyder, and, more importantly, co-written by Chris Terrio and Joss Whedon, character is more than destiny here.
It is the key reason “Justice League” is a seriously satisfying superhero movie, one that, rife with lines like “the stench of your fear is making my soldiers hungry,” actually feels like the earnest comic books of our squandered youth.
Unlike the glib denizens of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, residents of the DC Extended Universe have always had a somber gravitas, a sense that the weight of the world’s troubles might all but crush them.
Though Snyder’s somber template is very much in place (he and Terrio share story credit), Whedon has loosened and humanized the story’s tone to allow for engaging moments of humor and fun, especially from Ezra Miller’s the Flash.
And in a film where introduction and delineation of characters satisfyingly take up as much time and space as slam-bang action, Whedon’s touch inevitably helps make the members of the League as distinctive and involving as they need to be.
Gone but very much not forgotten in the dark world of “Justice League” is Superman (Henry Cavill), who died at the end of last year’s “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice.”
A headline in an old issue of the Gotham Daily Planet records his passing, and we also see its effects in a grief-stricken montage featuring girlfriend Lois Lane (Amy Adams) and mother Martha Kent (Diane Lane) played against vocalist Sigrid’s version of the Leonard Cohen/Sharon Robinson classic “Everybody Knows.”
The Man of Steel’s absence is also revealed in a renewed wave of crime striking Gotham, something a grizzled Batman (Affleck, his voice down a growly octave) is doing his best to single-handedly combat.
But when he ends up taking out a ghoulish alien, one that resembles a flying vampire with gossamer wings, even Mr. B knows he’s up against something he can’t handle alone.
Half a world away, Diana Prince a.k.a. Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot, in full command of the role) also knows something is amiss: ancient warning fires on her home island that haven’t been lit for 5,000 years (really) are suddenly ablaze.
What happened on the Amazon’s homeland of Themyscira was the appearance of Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds, a long way from Jane Austen’s “Persuasion”), a supervillain from Apokolips initially created by the great comic artist Jack Kirby for his Fourth World universe.
Eight feet tall and pure evil, Steppenwolf and his alien horde are on the hunt for three mysterious Mother Boxes. The boxes don’t contain power, we’re told; they are power. You don’t even want to think about what would happen if they fall into the wrong hands.
In most films, the “Seven Samurai"-style recruitment of heroes would be only a prelude to the central action, but in “Justice League,” because the characters are so intriguing, they are the focus of our interest.
As vibrantly played by Jason Momoa, the fully tattooed Aquaman hangs out in the tiny Iceland town of Djúpavík (a real place), thinks anyone who dresses up as a bat must be a joke, and wants only to be left alone.
Similarly conflicted is Cyborg (Ray Fisher), half human, half technology, who is so plugged into everything in the universe he is all but drowning in knowledge and powers.
Then there is the Flash, a genuinely amusing portrait of comic earnestness and gee-whiz enthusiasm and naivete nicely done by Miller. When he cheerfully asks Bruce Wayne what his superpower is, the answer is a curt “I’m rich.”
As the Justice League ponders what it can do about Superman’s absence, viewers can ponder whether the marketplace is big enough for a superhero franchise that doesn’t begin with M. With yet another DC film promoted at the tail end of the “Justice League” credits, it would be nice if the answer is yes.
Rating: PG-13, for sequences of sci-fi violence and action
Running time: 2 hours, 1 minute
Playing: In general release