If "Batman v Superman" heralded, as the subtitle of that exercise in doom and gloom stated, the "dawn of justice," then the 2016 movie's sequel, "Justice League," suggests that it's still not quite morning in America.
To be sure, the latest film from DC Entertainment, the parent company of Batman and Superman's home, DC Comics, is measurably brighter and more fun than the last outing. That's due in no small part to the ray of sunshine brought to the franchise by Gal Gadot's Wonder Woman, an incandescent character featured only sparingly in "BvS" but who appeared in her own stand-alone hit this summer.
Yet at the same time, "Justice League" suffers from the apparent determination by DC Entertainment to double down on the darkness, ceding the battle to weaponize action and humor to its rival in the superhero trade, Marvel. Fans of the tongue-in-cheek tone set by Marvel's recent "Thor: Ragnarok" - which seems to get the root meaning of the term "comic book" - will find little to laugh at, let alone love deeply, in "Justice League," which, like many a political speech, is long, loud, self-important and overly expository.
Picking up where "BvS" left off, "Justice League" opens with an extended series of short, scene-setting vignettes, starting with a snippet of a video podcast interview, made by kids, with Superman (Henry Cavill), who, as fans will remember, met an unhappy end at the conclusion of last year's film. This flashback prologue to one of DC's marquee superheroes - one known for his sunny attitude, until he snapped the neck of an enemy two movies ago - is followed, in rapid succession, by several grim and confusing scenes: a rooftop encounter between Batman (Ben Affleck) and a winged, insectlike alien; a battle between Wonder Woman and bomb-toting terrorists; and, later, a visit by Batman's now-bearded alter ego, Bruce Wayne, to a fishing village in Iceland, where Bruce tries to recruit a long-haired, tattooed recluse called Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa) for an as-yet-unnamed alliance of vigilantes.
A world without Superman, it seems, is desperately in need of replacements.
Arthur, who is soon revealed to be the amphibious Aquaman from the lost underwater world of Atlantis, has been delivering fish to the starving Icelandic villagers in an act of altruism that seems, in hindsight, somewhat heartless, given that he can communicate with marine life. Would you eat something you can have a conversation with?
"I hear you can talk to fish," Bruce says, casting a quizzical look at Arthur, in one of the few instances where it's OK to chuckle at the dialogue. Later, explaining nothing, Aquaman states that it is the water, not him, that speaks to the fishies.
Other prospective members of the crime-fighting unit - which at this point consists only of Batman and Wonder Woman, who, despite a couple moments of goo-goo eyes, have zero chemistry - include the super-speedy slacker Barry Allen, aka the Flash (Ezra Miller), and the cybernetically enhanced brooding loner Victor Stone, aka Cyborg (Ray Fisher).
Did I say crime-fighting unit? The protracted formation of the movie's titular league may be the engine that drives the plot, but the foe that Batman, Wonder Woman and company are up against this time is no mere criminal mastermind, as Jesse Eisenberg's Lex Luthor was last time. Here, like Thor, he is the literal God Steppenwolf from the planet Apokolips. Voiced by Ciarán Hinds, Steppenwolf is a pure CGI creation: an ax-wielding giant in a helmet who has managed to assemble three alien "mother boxes" that will give him the power to destroy Earth, for reasons that remain murky.