Twelve years later, we have an Aquaman movie, or at least a movie with Aquaman in it — DC’s “Justice League,” which arrives in theaters after its own series of misadventures. And the superhero movie industry has outstripped the grandiose vision “Entourage” laid out for it. The budget for “Justice League” reportedly climbed to $300 million after extensive reshoots. The Marvel franchise has made Robert Downey Jr., who plays Tony Stark, one of the most highly compensated actors in Hollywood; his salary for individual Marvel movies has climbed into the tens of millions of dollars. If directors haven’t entirely abandoned real actors, they are increasingly able to create shots digitally. And it’s hard to imagine that any promising young actor would balk at making a superhero movie, not with everyone from Benedict Cumberbatch to Michael B. Jordan to Brie Larson scrambling to get into their super-suits.
But if “Justice League” is a symbol of just how entrenched superhero movies have become in the Hollywood ecosystem, it’s also a potent illustration that success hasn’t necessarily artistically elevated the genre. It’s not just that, beat by beat, “Justice League” feels nearly identical to so many of the superhero movies that have come before, or that it features some of the ugliest, most pointless special effects I’ve seen at the movies in a long time. It’s that the darn thing feels depressingly haphazard and thoughtless, and that it’s guaranteed to make a ton of money anyway. Superhero fans are a ridiculously powerful market; they deserve better than this.
It’s worth noting that the weird mishmash that is “Justice League” probably reflects the circumstances of its creation: Zack Snyder, the film’s original director, stepped away from the project earlier this year after his daughter committed suicide, and Joss Whedon, who directed “The Avengers” and “Avengers: Age of Ultron” for Marvel, stepped in to reshoot and finalize the movie. The two men’s styles have little to complement each other: Snyder tends to do grim and gritty, while Whedon has a sunny streak, both emotionally and visually. Releasing “Justice League” in the form DC did does a service to neither one of them.
Given their distinct visions, it feels relatively easy to discern what about “Justice League” comes from Snyder — the ponderous plot and almost entirely incoherent action sequences — and what comes from Whedon — the jokes. Lightening up the DC cinematic universe isn’t the worst idea in the world, though it might have been wise to literally cut through the visual gloom that has a tendency to render the action sequences muddy. But with the exception of the Flash (a delightful Ezra Miller, one of the best parts of the movie), those jokes don’t necessarily feel grounded in what we know of individual characters, nor do they do much to deepen the relationships between this new superhero team. Is Aquaman (Jason Momoa) a bro? An ecologist? An exile? We never quite figure that out. And where Whedon used humor to break the tension in his “Avengers” movies, the relationship between the stakes and carnage of “Justice League” and the jokes the characters make in the midst of all of it doesn’t feel calibrated quite right.
A similar muddiness applies to the dynamic of the team itself. Batman (Ben Affleck) is driven by a sense of obligation to the city of Gotham and remorse over the death of Superman (Henry Cavill). Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot, whose face, like Miller’s, continues to be one of the franchise’s best special effects) is taking her place in the world after years of seclusion. Cyborg (Ray Fisher) is furious about the experiments his father (Joe Morton) performed on him to save his life after his mother was killed in an explosion and afraid of how the experimental technology that is keeping him alive seems to be evolving. The Flash is single-minded in his determination to free his father (Billy Crudup) from prison. And Aquaman appears mostly to have signed up so he can figure out if Batman actually runs around dressed as a bat.
These motivations could potentially lead to dramatically productive tensions, like the prickliness between Iron Man and Captain America (Chris Evans), or unusually sympathetic pairings, like the dynamic between the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson). But because “Justice League” is introducing three of its characters for the first time, foregoing the slower burn of origin story movies leading to a team-up, it’s simply too full to actually make time and space for those relationships to unfold. “Justice League” is constantly cutting from one location to the next, without necessarily stringing its scenes together in a way that advances the theme or creates intriguing juxtapositions from one moment to the next.
One of the threads that comes through is banal — Cyborg and the Flash are both lonely — another, infuriating. After the success of “Wonder Woman” this summer, it’s maddening for “Justice League” to suggest that both Lois Lane (Amy Adams, wasted) and Wonder Woman are somehow not doing enough to fight evil because of their grief. Batman, who literally set in motion the events that led to Superman’s death in “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice,” is the last person who should be lecturing Wonder Woman on this score, but there we are.
Writing a piece like this is sort of a depressing enterprise; sometimes reviewing superhero movies makes me feel like a lawyer filing a brief on behalf of a client who doesn’t really want my representation. People who love DC movies aren’t going to make a decision about seeing “Justice League” based on my say-so, and Warner Bros.’ isn’t going to suddenly see the light because I didn’t like it. And that’s fine! In fact, it’s probably how it should be. But everyone involved in making “Justice League,” and everyone who will eventually see it, deserved something better than this. The most dominant genre in movies shouldn’t be this muddled — or this timid.