By Rich Heldenfels

I went to “Justice League” with considerable dread. The joys of “Wonder Woman” aside, the DC Comics-based movies have tended more toward messy bores such as “Suicide Squad” and “Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice.” It is minor praise to say that “Justice League” is not as bad as I feared, but neither does it offer much to celebrate in its overstuffed and underwhelming attempt to move the DC heroes’ saga forward. And, of course, by forward I mean still more movies built around these and other DC characters.

“Justice League” aims to be DC’s answer to “The Avengers,” with the league containing Batman (Ben Affleck), Aquaman (Jason Momoa), The Flash (Ezra Miller), Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), Cyborg (Ray Fisher) and, eventually, Superman (Henry Cavill). (Another possible title: “Waiting for Super,” as this film takes place after the death of Superman in “Batman V Superman”; a great deal of time is devoted to the gloom following his demise before he is able to rise – and yet again invite Christ comparisons.) Joss Whedon, who did so much to make The Avengers work as writer and director, is among the credited screenwriters on “Justice League,” though the flashes of Whedon in the script are not enough to overcome its larger problems, notably the direction by Zack Snyder (who is also another credited writer).

Clint O'Connor: Gal Gadot soars and Ben Affleck broods in ‘Justice League’


Another major problem is how hard the film has to work to introduce its characters and to give them reasons to join forces – besides the usual global menace, in this case a creature named Steppenwolf (voiced by Ciaran Hinds). Backgrounds must be sketched in a way that the Avengers either took care of in other films or just let go. (Was Hawkeye ever necessary?) While we’ve glimpsed Aquaman, Cyborg and The Flash, we’ve not seen them fleshed out – unless you count the way TV’s “The Flash” uses the same basic backstory as “Justice League” offers for its incarnation of the speedster. Another is how morose it is, not in the dramatic way that the Marvel movies handle despair, but just bummed. The buming is especially tiresome when people start talking about their feelings while, hey, THE WHOLE WORLD IS IN DANGER.

Affleck’s Batman in particular is downbeat to the point of sluggishness, making one long yet again for Christian Bale to get back under the cowl; Affleck also looks bored – not a good attitude when the world is at risk – his Batman heavy not only with the weight of decades of crimefighting, but the weight of his expanded cheeks and jowls.

Because of this, Fisher’s comedic Flash seems refreshing amid all the grimness – although it’s hard not to think of how another young hero, Spider-Man, had the same purpose for the sundering Avengers in “Captain America: Civil War.” Although Flash is funnier.

Then there are the fight scenes: occasionally impressive but difficult to follow or even make sense of as they try to give all the characters something to do. Moreover, Steppenwolf’s level of power seems to rise and fall selectively as the script demands; like so many master villains in superhero movies, he appears more than able to snap some of his foes like twigs but repeatedly neglects to do so. And, in the film’s climactic battle, we again wait for Superman to make his entrance; what has he been doing before he arrives, waiting for a fast-food burger in a too-slow fly-through lane?

All of this would be less irritating if not for the hints that some of this material might have been used better in several other free-standing movies. Aquaman and Cyborg would each do fine on their own; the Flash has already demonstrated ample narrative potential via the TV series; Wonder Woman’s struggle with the personal loss she sustained in her own film could drive a lovely, feature-length meditation on grief and mortality for someone who is not mortal. Maybe something powerful could also be made of the death of Superman, but that’s not here. And, yeah, Batman’s around, just not very interesting.

Instead of embracing those ideas as separate ventures, “Justice League” mashes them together, draining away the drama in the process. For example you’ve got the great Joe Morton, as Cyborg’s father, an actor whose work on “Scandal” and other productions shows how much he can do – and here he gets almost nothing. Again, considering previous misfires, “Justice League” threatened to be much worse. But in comparison to the best of DC, and to most of Marvel, it still was not nearly good enough.