2017 | rated PG-13 | starring Ben Affleck, Gal Gadot, Henry Cavill, Ezra Miller, Jason Momoa, Ray Fisher, Jeremy Irons, Amy Adams, Diane Lane, Joe Morton, Connie Nielson | directed by Zack Snyder | 2 hrs |

Studio Pitch: I can’t imagine there was a singular pitch, but an endless series of desperate meetings on top of meetings where Warner Bros and DC studio execs pounded the tables and demanded that “something be done” about Marvel.

{Contains spoilers for Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice and Justice League}

Some movies are disappointments that fail to live up to a promising premise. Some movies are pleasant surprises that take a seemingly tired concept and breath new life into it. Justice League is neither. It is right down the line exactly what it appears to be and exactly the movie I expected to see given the studio’s history of chasing trends instead of making them, their schizophrenic tonal shifts between dark & gritty to light & fun and leaked rumors of millions of dollars worth of reshoots done to recut and reassemble the thing based on the prevailing wind.

Justice League is a colossal Franken-film slapped together from a bunch of incongruous parts, not because director Zack Snyder had to step aside for personal matters and Joss Whedon came in for re-shoots, the damage occurred long before that when audiences reacted more favorably to the light and comical Deadpool and Guardians of the Galaxy than their dark, overstuffed, water-logged, completely convoluted Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice. Instead of forging ahead with a real vision, Snyder follows DC down the path of least resistance. Changes were immediately made to the ad campaign for Suicide Squad dropping in funky pop music and attempting to turn that movie into a rag-tag comedy, but there was still time to recut Justice League in its entirety for mass appeal. Editors sent into the color correcting bays to literally lighten up the film’s picture and actors sent into the recording booth to ADR one-liners over action. But Warner Bros and DC continue to learn the wrong lessons. It’s like someone that wants to replicate the success of Seinfeld, but interprets it as a show about 4 single people in New York.

For evidence of learning the wrong messages we can look at the one DC Universe movie that actually works, this year’s fun Wonder Woman. And Wonder Woman isn’t a wacky comedy full of self-referential one-liners. It works because it’s concerned about the character moments. It doesn’t look good because it’s light or brighter, but because Patty Jenkins shows a skilled-eye with shooting and staging the action scenes. Same applies to Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. Those movies feel like the work of storytellers, Snyder’s work here comes off like he’s selling a line of action figures. I’m not someone who dislikes filmmaking incompetence or enjoys poking out plot holes. What I have a hard time stomaching is when a movie feels like a purely commercial product contrived to appeal to everyone and ending up being phony, empty and lowest common denominator in the process. Justice League feels like a totally mechanical, assembling line production that was studio noted and focused grouped to death before it saw the light of day. It seems like the only reason – say – Amber Heard shows up in an air bubble at the bottom of the ocean to talk to Aquaman is because Snyder stood behind a 2-way mirror and heard some teenager in a Batman shirt in a focus group say he wants to hear Aquaman’s “backstory”.

The basic skeletal structure for Justice League isn’t much different than Thor: Ragnarok, X-Men Apocalypse or any other big superhero movie. Big bad God-like villain, Steppenwolf, comes down to Earth (somehow, from somewhere) hunts down 3 all-powerful ancient cubes that – like the floating teleporter Pillars in Transformers: Dark of the Moon – when combined form a portal that will transport Steppenwolf’s homeworld to Earth. The Allspark-like cubes were scattered among the worlds of the Gods given the movie a reason to involve Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot)‘s Amazon world and Aquaman (Jason Momoa)’s Atlantis. Batman (Ben Affleck) decides to form a team to deal with this and recruits The Flash (Ezra Miller, The Perks of Being a Wallflower) and Cyborg (theater actor Ray Fisher) who both acquired their powers due to terrible accidents we don’t see, Cyborg in particular being imprisoned by his. Batman can do all this because Alfred (Jeremy Irons) playing Lucius Fox is monitoring every security camera and computer in the city and Cyborg is monitoring all of Batman’s files. And there is a family living in the old Chernobyl fallout area in trouble. These 5 characters don’t meet-cute in clever ways where their stories intersect and when they do work together it’s very much like co-workers doing a job – there is nothing in Justice League that bonds their relationships like, say, the scene in Age of Ultron where the Avengers hang out at Tony Stark’s get drunk and try to life Thor’s hammer.

This movie has to juggle a lot of things, the building of the team and the character introductions, the independent villain story and the ramifications of the cliffhanger left by Batman vs. Superman – except… it really doesn’t need to. If we’re going to follow the Marvel formula at least pick up the thing they did right and craft independent stories for your primary characters before the team-up film. That isn’t ripping off Marvel, that is basic set-up to payoff storytelling. DC could have put together original films for the 3 new characters introduced in this film as well as a 3rd Man of Steel movie.

I do understand why they’re so quick to jump to Justice League: A) the Justice League has a bigger brand name than Aquaman and Cyborg and B) DC has been around the block with this way before Marvel cranked up. It might seem like superhero movies are never going to end, but for a major studio putting millions of dollars into movies that take years to make, striking while the iron is still hot – before the tide turns against Marvel and they have another Superman Lives on their hands – is a very real threat. Justice League is rushed and contrived I suspect out of that fear. Option C involves the reality that nobody was really that wild about Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel or Zack Snyder in general (after Sucker Punch) anyway. Why he was given free reign and not a series of different visionary indie directors is a great mystery.

One of the weirdest turns taken by Justice League stems back to Batman vs. Superman and that movie’s own rushed 3rd act choice to kill off Superman. That coupled with an ad campaign that doesn’t feature actor Henry Cavill at all is prime set-up for a real show-stopping, crowd-pleasing surprise treat when Superman finally comes back. What a moment that would be? Wait, no, there is Henry Cavill’s name 2nd billed at the beginning of the opening credits. So what does the Superman death lead to? I is one of the most bizarre things I’ve ever seen in a big studio tent-pole movie. Instead of anything clever, Batman comes up with a convoluted idea involving one of the power cubes, Kryptonian water and … digging up Superman’s corpse. This movie was so concerned with color correcting the sky and dropping in self-referential one-liners, it didn’t stop to think about how strange and tone-deaf the image of The Flash and Cyborg with shovels literally digging up Clark Kent’s grave would play.

All that and the Knightwing, Joe Morton (kind of like his AI scientist from Terminator 2), the requisite big CGI blow-out finale, the pay-off to that completely unnecessary alien bug nightmare from Batman vs. Superman; and a random scene where Lois Lane and Martha Kent talk in The Daily Planet break room so that people can argue over if the movie passes The Bechtel Test. It clocks in at 2 hours but has no pace or urgency. Snyder’s film botches one introduction after another, isn’t particularly funny or exciting and makes so little sense, bending and twisting itself to be all things to all people, that it’s distracting. It’s a big dumb, ugly, visionless mess starring costumes not characters. Without taking the time to set up half of their characters properly or in their own films, Justice League became a transparently lazy movie that wants all the benefits of  a superhero team-up movie but without doing any of the legwork to set it up.

Lastly, the three boxes. The boxes that drive the whole movie. We’re given vague descriptions like that they are “power itself”, energy itself, creation itself. This lets the movie do anything with them. Snyder would probably say the boxes are a McGuffin. They aren’t as important as getting the team together, but that’s a fundamental misunderstanding about the McGuffin. It’s an item that kicks off the story, yes, but it’s not nothing and anything. In The 39 Steps the 39 steps are still something.  In Justice League Snyder rushes through the box mythology so we can get to the superhero team up and then rushes through the superhero team-up to get to the search for the boxes. It’s just terrible.