The thing about comic book cinematic universes is that they train audiences to see the forest for the the trees: "Trust us," say the bigwigs, "It's all a part of a bigger picture, so if this picture doesn't quite come into focus, just hang in there." But the best advice I can offer the legions of superhero fans heading into the hotly anticipated DC superhero team-up movie "Justice League" is this: Enjoy the trees.
For the forest is a tad gnarly. Yes, "Justice League" does pay off some of the weirder threads from Zack Snyder's "Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice," and it lays some groundwork for future DC movies (first and foremost, "Aquaman"). And yet, problems abound in this patchwork film, in which directorial credit goes to Snyder but was largely directed -- in extensive "bless this mess" reshoots -- by Joss Whedon (switching sides after directing two "Avengers" movies for Marvel).
The schizophrenic results are about 60 percent Snyder, 40 percent Whedon, and their sensibilities aren't a good fit. In getting the DC all-stars together -- Batman (Ben Affleck), Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), the Flash (Ezra Miller), Aquaman (Jason Momoa), Cyborg (Ray Fisher) and eventually the presumed-dead Superman (Henry Cavill) -- Warner Bros. and DC Entertainment have entrusted Whedon to breathe life into spare parts with his rewrites earning him a co-screenwriting credit with original scribe Chris Terrio (Oscar-winning screenwriter of Affleck's "Argo").
Before delving any further, I give you the suspiciously familiar plot: a power struggle over three mightily powerful cubes (the "Mother Boxes"), protected by our heroes and coveted by god-like alien Steppenwolf (voiced by Ciarán Hinds). This very, very fake-looking computer-generated longhorn commands an army of flying monkeys -- sorry, Parademons -- and makes the least-compelling villain this new wave of DC films has yet offered up. (Stick around to the film's very end to get a glimpse of a couple of more interesting threats.)
In the film's pre-credit sequence, "archival footage" of Superman finds him confirming for a couple of kids that the S-shaped emblem on his chest means "hope." Like hope, the "S" "winds like a river; it comes and goes." And so comes and goes "Justice League," taking our hope on a wild ride with it. Danny Elfman's throwback score charges in to accompany a couple of fine sequences that reintroduce Batman and Wonder Woman. The latter feels especially well-timed, as the heroine we need now, our feminist crusader, first fights injustice by deflecting a mass shooting in the making.
But once the film gets down to its relevant plotting, "Justice League" slows its breathless roll and starts trending toward the airless. With so many characters to serve (also including Jeremy Irons as Batman's trusty valet Alfred, Amy Adams as reporter Lois Lane, and Diane Lane as her almost mother-in-law Martha Kent), there's never a dull moment in the film's studio-mandated two-hour running time.
Warner Bros.' shift to Whedon also signals a studio mandate to chase Marvel's success by lightening up. Whedon obligingly whips up some yuks -- mostly from the Spidey-style wisecracking Flash, but golly if that ol' Boy Scout Superman doesn't make a funny or two. In all honesty, "Justice League" is a pretty darn dumb movie, but it's nice to see a little optimism spill again onto what always used to be the sunnier side of the comic book street.