Justice League
Opening Friday, Nov. 17

Earlier this year, after the death of his daughter, Zack Snyder—the de facto patriarch of the DC Extended Universe—stepped away from post-production on Justice League, which brings together Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman with other classic DC Comics characters. Enter Joss Whedon, who directed both Avengers films. The result is a Justice League that seems born of two fathers, combining Snyder’s bombastic iconography with Whedon’s crowd-pleasing wit.

Superman/Kal El (Henry Cavill) died at the end of Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, and his legacy is now the stuff of black bunting and tabloid rumors. God is gone, and in his wake, the world has become more despondent and lawless, with only archangels like Batman/Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) and Wonder Woman/Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) left to stem the rising criminal tide.

But Prince remains reluctant to take center stage, still harboring the doubts about humankind that prompted her century-long sabbatical after the events of Wonder Woman, while a world-weary Wayne blames himself for Kal El’s death. Wayne fills the void by assembling a band of enhanced outcasts to police the planet, an act motivated partly by a desire to protect and partly by an urge to psychologically displace his lingering guilt. The middle-aged Affleck’s bedraggled take on the Dark Knight adds a needed air of mortality, and I hope he remains in the role as the DCEU moves forward.

On cue, a baddie named Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds) emerges from the netherworld with a gaggle of cannon fodder in tow, bent on conjoining the three Infinity Stones—oops, make that Mother Boxes—to terraform Earth. Steppenwolf, a CGI concoction, isn’t particularly compelling or charismatic, an ongoing trend that plagues the villains of both the DCEU and MCU films, save for Thor’s Loki.

Batman and Wonder Woman throw their trio of super recruits into action. The best of the newcomers is The Flash/Barry Allen (Ezra Miller), a millennial misfit and wide-eyed wiseacre blessed with the most developed presentation of both superpowers and personality. Jason Momoa plays Aquaman as a snarky surfer dude, but the largely land-based setting leaves him looking a bit like a fish out of water. While Cyborg/Victor Stone’s (Ray Fisher) backstory has rich narrative potential, the particulars of his powers are loosely defined.

The landscape is dotted with callbacks designed to both thrill DC’s fans and intermesh its disparate movie galaxy. Lois Lane (Amy Adams) and Ma Kent (Diane Lane) return. J. K. Simmons assumes the mantle of Commissioner Gordon, and a member of the Green Lantern Corps drops in. I continue to enjoy Jeremy Irons’s Alfred Pennyworth, a long-suffering fussbudget who pines for the days when Gotham City’s worst danger came from “exploding wind-up penguins.” Even composer Danny Elfman gets in on the throwback act, sampling flourishes from his 1989 Batman theme and from John Williams’s iconic Superman fanfare.

Central to the film is a Lazarus story that Snyder probably would have lent more time and gravitas. Instead, it emerges like a half-baked take on Pet Sematary, a comparison the film explicitly, almost sheepishly acknowledges. But Justice League especially succeeds in the ongoing evolution of Wonder Woman, an independent and iconic figure who stands in sharp contrast to the comparatively peripheral role of women in the Marvel movies.

In an alternate universe where Snyder saw Justice League through to the end, it might have resembled his weighty, dour interpretation of another DC property, Watchmen. In a timeline where Whedon helmed it from the start, it might have been more like, well, The Avengers. In this mélange, their two approaches occasionally collide, but it also makes for a Justice League that gets some things just right.