Dramatically speaking, superheroes require supervillains. This is why, perhaps unfortunately, you don’t often see caped marvels thwarting homelessness, everyday bigotry or mortgage foreclosures. Yet those are three of the social ills that the opening scenes of Justice League blame on the death of Superman (as depicted in last year’s Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice). Well, those problems and also the return of a towering, bellicose alien named Steppenwolf and his thousands of demonic, winged minions, who are bent on remaking Earth in their unpleasant image.
The leadership void left by Superman must be filled by other DC Comics heroes, so Bat v. Supe survivors Batman (Ben Affleck) and Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) begin assembling a team to halt Steppenwolf (an axe-wielding CGI warrior voiced by Ciarán Hinds). The initially reluctant recruits include: Aquaman (Jason Momoa), not Super Friends’ pelagic Ken doll but a gruff, long-haired outlaw-biker type, with Atlantean superpowers; Barry Allen (Ezra Miller), a scrawny millennial geek with super speed, a.k.a. The Flash; and Victor Stone (Ray Fisher), a cyborg.
In a way that ties in with the larger plot — which turns on mumbo jumbo about three mystical, pulsing energy cubes — Victor, a.k.a. Cyborg, was built by his own father after a near-fatal explosion. In fact, most of these heroes have mommy or daddy issues — Flash’s dad is in jail; Aquaman was abandoned as an infant — and even Steppenwolf calls the cubic objects of his obsession “Mother.”
Director Zack Snyder weaves all this dysfunction into Justice League’s early funereal tone. But while its first half is entertaining enough, after a second-act moral dilemma, the film builds strongly to the requisite epic battle. With its screenplay by Chris Terrio and Joss Whedon, Justice League is a good balance of light and dark. Sequences depicting how Flash experiences the world — effectively in stopped time — are among the highlights, and Flash and Cyborg’s trials as superheroes-in-training are dependable audience-surrogate fun. The charismatic Miller stands out as comic relief, even as the fledgling League fights for the restoration of home, family and some level of global order.