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Film review: DC's story strikes out, comedy and energy play ball

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Preston Barta

Justice League

Rated PG-13, 119 minutes.

Opens Friday.

2.5 of 5 stars

A lot has happened with Justice League this year. Word got out the first cut of the film was “unwatchable” and star Ben Affleck seemed eager to hang up the cape and cowl before his solo outing as Batman.

With statements like this circling the web and the disappointing films leading up to this moment, how were any of us supposed to be excited about DC’s future?

Then Wonder Woman happened. And then former Marvel director Joss Whedon (The Avengers) jumped ship and came to DC’s rescue to do an overhaul and reshoot Zack Snyder’s Justice League. While the movie is admittedly an improvement on what's come before, it still has the Snyder stench that no amount of Febreze could dissipate.

One of the main reasons Snyder's Batman v Superman took a hit was its clunky and ponderous plot. At a nap-worthy length of 151 minutes, it sought to accomplish far too much. Justice League, especially in its first half, suffers from many of the same problems.

For instance, the opening of Justice League opens with a kid filming Superman (Henry Cavill, and his digitally removed mustache) in a Spider-Man: Homecoming kind of way, asking the Man of Steel what his favorite part of Earth is. Before Superman answers, Whedon cuts to black and shows Batman (Affleck) hopping around Gotham, only to discover that these “scouts” (bug-like alien minions) are collecting intelligence for the big baddie of the film, the otherworldly god Steppenwolf (a motion-captured performance by Ciarán Hinds). From here, the movie jumps from scene to scene, never slowing down to lay the groundwork for us to collect our own thoughts.

There are a lot of characters to establish — most notably Aquaman (Jason Momoa doing his best impressions of James Hetfield from Metallica), Cyborg (somebody named Ray Fisher) and The Flash (a terrific Ezra Miller) — who haven’t yet appeared in their own features. In the laziest habit of Hollywood, most of this backstory is communicated through computer screens; a serious shame, as the characters all deserve their own movies before their powers combine to form Captain Planet — I mean, the titular Justice League.

Speaking of letting powers combine, let’s talk about the bad guy’s mustache-twirling agenda and how the film’s overall plot directly lifts from The Avengers. Now I'm not sure how much influence Whedon had on this storyline, or how much it directly involves the original source material, but Steppenwolf has to collect all these cubes (stupidly called “mother boxes”) in order to conquer and defeat all that is good. If that doesn't remind you of the Tesseract or the infinity stones from Marvel’s world, I must be going crazy. The nearly direct comparisons to The Avengers don't stop there, either. Steppenwolf’s scouts have a striking resemblance to Loki’s expendable army.

What does work are a lot of the action beats and character moments, representing welcome breaks from Snyder’s signature melodrama. You can feel a little bit of Patty Jenkins’ (director of Wonder Woman) style seeping through when the story takes us to Themyscira, Wonder Woman’s homeland. During one well-rendered action sequence, Wonder Woman’s fellow Amazonians can be seen trying to protect one of the mother boxes using their bows and arrows to catapult it out Steppenwolf’s reach.

The MVP performance, without a doubt, goes to Miller’s rendition of The Flash. Like Spider-Man in Captain America: Civil War, he's so clearly the fanboy of the group, going through the typical superhero motions with tongue planted firmly in cheek. He cracks wise about the superhero habit of vanishing without a goodbye and reacts to extraordinary situations with an expression that mirrors Jim Halpert from The Office.

Despite being a mess in structure and plot, Justice League is surprisingly entertaining and funny. Wonder Woman may have been this franchise’s true step in the right direction, but this one dances in place, and that’s OK.

Critic’s note: Stay for two stingers during the film’s end credits, and be prepared to possibly Google what happens.

PRESTON BARTA is a member of the Dallas-Fort Worth Film Critics Association. Read his work on FreshFiction.tv. Follow him on Twitter at @PrestonBarta.

FEATURED IMAGE: The members of the Justice League assemble, from left to right: Jason Momoa as Aquaman, Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman, Ezra Miller as the Flash and Ray Fisher as Cyborg. Photo courtesy of  Warner Bros. Pictures-DC Comics.