As Bruce Wayne's private jet streaks through the skies high above Gotham, Jeremy Irons' steadfast butler Alfred quips: "One misses the days when one's biggest concerns were exploding wind-up penguins."
"The good old days" replies a burly, sentient frown in the shape of Ben Affleck.
"THEN PLEASE GOD BRING THEM BACK!" screams the audience's frustrated internal monologue from within its collective skull.
Welcome to Justice League, the least bad entry in the DC movie universe after this year's smash hit Wonder Woman – not that that's saying a whole lot. Given how low the bar has been set by the likes of Suicide Squad and Batman vs Superman, this superhero team-up flick would have to be truly abysmal not to offer some kind of improvement.
Just like its special-effects-laden trailer, Justice League feels like a CGI showreel shot almost entirely in front of a green screen. Its strongest scenes are also its quietest ones: a battered Bruce Wayne being assisted by a sympathetic Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot); Martha Kent and Lois Lane (Diane Lane and Amy Adams) brave-facing their way through hardships in a staff-room cafeteria; The Flash (played by a scene-stealing Ezra Miller) speaking with his incarcerated father. It's in these rare, intimate moments that the film's characters actually begin to feel like characters, each possessed of complicated personal histories, private anxieties and meaningful relationships. Sadly, it's soon back to aliens with lasers, fear-eating bugs, and buildings crashing down in clouds of debris.
With a story that feels like it's been lifted from Ghostbusters II, Justice League depicts an earth where hatred and cynicism have reached such heights that it compels the return of a great evil determined to enslave mankind. So arrives Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds), a CGI-monster of such poor quality he wouldn't cut the mustard in a cut scene from Gears of War. Steppenwolf is bent on reuniting three powerful Mother Boxes, magic cubes which, when combined, permit him to reshape any planet to resemble his barren home-world. The origins and power of these otherworldly McGuffins actually offers an enticing mystery to be solved in the film's early stages – which is why it's so disappointing when it's all explained away in a single expository scene.
The same applies to each of the film's new heroes. Aquaman (Jason Momoa) and Cyborg (Ray Fisher) arrive with such little fanfare or backstory that even comic book fans already in the know may end up feeling robbed. The exception is The Flash, who imbues the franchise with a long-overdue dose of comedy. The character, as played by Miller, is endearingly awkward, enthusiastic yet timid, and note-perfect in his fanboying around the other superheroes. Likewise, his action sequences are thrilling, amusing and innovative in what is otherwise a highly derivative film.
Perhaps the most egregious failing of Justice League, however, is its treatment of Batman. Weary, joyless and stammering, Affleck's Dark Knight acts more like a corporate recruiter than a caped crusader. A joke about his powers stemming from his wealth might get a laugh, but it also wholly undermines what makes the Batman character so compelling: a mortal, unexceptional being who still proves himself capable of holding his own in a world of gods and monsters thanks to his intelligence, discipline and unassailable belief in justice. In Justice League he spends most of the fights on the periphery, and quite often on his back; the superhero version of Lethal Weapon's Danny Glover complaining of being too old for this shit. It's a sad relegation for such a DC icon and speaks volumes as to how mishandled this franchise has been from the moment Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight trilogy) handed over the reigns.