‘Justice League’ races to catch up with Marvel

"Justice League," reflects the haste with which the parties rushed to create their cinematic universe and catch up with Marvel, leaping several intermediate steps in a single bound.

(CNN) — The success of “Wonder Woman” provided a golden ray of hope that Warner Bros. and DC had finally mastered this whole comic-book-movie thing. “Justice League,” by contrast, reflects the haste with which the parties rushed to create their cinematic universe and catch up with Marvel, leaping several intermediate steps in a single bound.

In one respect, this lavish superhero team-up is better than expected, yielding a few fun and clever moments, if one chooses to compare it to the bloated “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice” and “Suicide Squad.”

On the other hand, it’s at best workmanlike, and nowhere near as polished and satisfying as “Wonder Woman,” which had the advantage of being a straightforward origin story, stripped of conspicuous concerns about stringing together pieces to move action figures.

Warner Bros. made a choice years ago by essentially handing the keys to its superhero kingdom to director Zack Snyder, who put his stamp on “Man of Steel,” “Batman v. Superman” and now this. (Snyder stepped away from the film due to a family tragedy, with Joss Whedon helping finish it, though Snyder retains sole directing credit, from a script attributed to Whedon and Chris Terrio.)

Snyder is clearly a gifted visual stylist, someone who can bring what look like comic-book panels to three-dimensional life. It’s his characters that tend to be a little flat and somewhat humorless, a criticism that “Justice League” labors to address, with mixed results.

Although some of the groundwork was laid in “Batman v. Superman,” this latest movie still has to transact a great deal of business, setting up the individual team members, uniting them under the grumpy stewardship of Batman (Ben Affleck) and fending off an extraterrestrial threat.

The Dark Knight is joined by Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot, again a formidable asset), as well as the newcomers, who, almost of necessity, fall into convenient baskets. There’s the brooding loner Aquaman (Jason Momoa), tortured outcast Cyborg (Ray Fisher) and callow, nerdy Flash (Ezra Miller), whose just-glad-to-be-with-you-guys enthusiasm is designed, somewhat successfully, to deliver comic relief.

Plus, there’s the question of that other guy, the one with the big red S, who happens to be one of DC’s most recognizable commodities when the goal is producing big green bucks. (Like Warner Bros., CNN is a unit of Time Warner.)

The threat is somewhat generic, and has to be explained via a long, dizzying eruption of exposition, one apt to confuse those who aren’t reasonably conversant in DC mythology. It’s adequate — giving the budding team cause to come together, albeit with a fair amount of squabbling — if uninspired, yielding the obligatory demonstration of chaotic computer-generated mayhem.

Unexpectedly, “Justice League’s” most refreshing component is one of its hoariest — namely, its depiction of Batman, who Affleck plays with world-weary gravity. Older, bruised and solitary, he’s forced by a danger far beyond him to grudgingly seek out help others, even if that means lightening up a bit.

That is, admittedly, merely one component of a big, sprawling movie. Yet while “Justice League” endeavors to save the world — and plant the seeds to do so again — this is the sort of film, given DC’s track record, that should celebrate small victories where it can find them.