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Josh Reviews Justice League!

Warner Brothers and DC’s new film, Justice League, is a milestone in their efforts to chase after the achievements of Marvel’s cinematic universe.  But whereas Marvel’s last decade-worth of films has seen a remarkably cohesive, gradual unfolding and expansion of a universe’s worth of characters and story-lines, DC/Warners’ efforts have been, well, let’s say a little more stumbling.

Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy was enormously successful, critically and commercially, but those films were a self-contained series.  Once that wrapped up with The Dark Knight Rises, DC/Warners began working to create their own interconnected cinematic universe.  Green Lantern failed, but Man of Steel seemed like a stronger first step, though that film was not quite the smash DC/Warners was likely hoping for, and it met with a mixed reaction from fans and critics.  (Overall I enjoy the film and I like a lot of the visual choices that Zack Snyder and his team made, though the film is undermined by several critical story-choices that don’t work and an ill-conceived ending.)  Whereas Marvel introduced its heroes gradually, though their own solo films, DC/Warners moved to jump-start their shared super-hero universe with 2016’s Batman v. Superman, which was intended to lead into the first part of a two-part Justice League film.  But while it made money, Batman v. Superman was roundly (and accurately) criticized for being an overly-long, overly-dour mess with an incoherent plot and flat characters.  (The extended version actually improves upon many of the film’s flaws, but not nearly enough to consider the film “good.”).  Suicide Squad was supposed to be a hip, fun shot-in-the-arm for DC/Warners’ super-hero film series, but I thought it was even worse than Batman v. Superman.  Only Wonder Woman was a true success, telling a fun, solid story with real characters that connected with the fans.

With their films failing to connect with audiences, DC/Warners began to curtail their ambitious plans that were laid out back in 2014.  Suddenly the two-part Justice League epic became a single film; who knows if we will ever see a sequel, or whether any of the other promised solo films (a Flash film, a Cyborg film, another try at Green Lantern, a solo Batman film starring Ben Affleck, a Man of Steel 2) will ever actually come to be.

Meanwhile, following Batman v. Superman’s critical drubbing, reports came out about efforts to rework and reshape Justice League, in an attempt to inject some of the lightness and optimism that has proven so successful with the Marvel films.  (The degree to which Zack Snyder, who directed Man of Steel, Batman and Superman, and Justice League, was on board with these changes is somewhat uncertain.  There have been a slew of reports that it was always the intention for Justice League to be a lighter film, but I am not sure I believe that.) Then, late in the film’s production, Zack Snyder stepped away from the film to deal with a personal tragedy, and he was replaced by Joss Whedon, the man behind Marvel’s Avengers.  Joss Whedon is a very different style of filmmaker than Zack Snyder, and that is putting it mildly!  The degree to which Mr Whedon could or would adjust Zack Snyder’s original vision for Justice League was a huge mystery.  Reports that Joss Whedon reshot huge chunks of the film clash with the amount of impact that one can reasonably believe a late-in-the-game shift could possibly lead to.  Mr. Snyder retains sole director credit on the finished film, while Joss Whedon now has co-writer credit.

So, after all of this behind the scenes turmoil and years of anticipation, what would Justice League be??  Has DC/Warners managed to produce a film that is any good?

Well, there is no question that Justice League pales in comparison to what Marvel Studios has accomplished.  The film is weakened by the weakness of the films that preceded it (especially Batman v. Superman), and it is weakened by the late-stage tonal and narrative restructuring, the seams of which are EXTREMELY evident in the finished product.

But, despite all that, the film is not bad!  It’s actually a good deal of fun to watch, far more so than I ever expected it to be.  It’s not exactly a good film, but it is a fun film, and it does give me some of the super hero jolt I’d been looking for in a movie called Justice League.

OK, let’s dig in.  (Beware minor spoilers.)

What works?

It is an undeniable thrill to see these characters brought to life on-screen, and anything that is good about Justice League pretty much boils down to this: these characters, portrayed by these actors, WORK, despite the often-times dumb move they are in.  It’s a surprise, because whereas Marvel has managed to boil down their on-screen representations of their characters into an incredibly faithful representation of the comic-book characters, these DC-movie versions are, in many cases, quite changed from their comic-book counterparts.  The Flash, Cyborg, and Aquaman look very different then they usually do in the comics.  Aquaman has been totally reinvented as a buff, gruff, “bro” dude.  Batman is presented as far older than he usually is in the comics.  (This representation borrows visually and stylistically from Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, which tells the story of an older Batman).  Batman and Wonder Woman are both presented as more militaristic fighters than they usually are in the comics.  On the surface I object to these changes, which seem designed to make these characters darker and “cooler”.  And yet, I must admit, it all works!  (Well, mostly!)

Ben Affleck’s depiction of an older Batman/Bruce Wayne was one of my favorite things in Batman v. Superman, and I think he is again great here as this grizzled version of the character.  I adore the look of the in-costume Batman seen here.  I love how broad they made this Batman look.  It’s unmistakably Batman, but he looks far more like a human tank than we’re used to seeing on-screen.  As noted above, this visual look is borrowed heavily from The Dark Knight Returns, but I think it works great.  I like that Batman is, for much of the movie, the driving force behind assembling the league.  Thankfully, the more violent aspects of this portrayal of Batman, as seen in Batman v. Superman, have been dropped.

Gal Gadot was fantastic as Wonder Woman in her solo film earlier this year, and thankfully the character has a lot to do here in Justice League.  Ms. Gadot is, again, just perfect in the part.  She embodies Diana’s physicality, of course, but also her inner nobility and honesty.  Coming after the way we saw Diana portrayed in her solo film, I’m not sure I buy the suggestion made in this film (based on what was established in Batman v. Superman) that she has been in hiding for the past century.  That doesn’t feel in character (and I wonder if it will be contradicted by the in-production Wonder Woman sequel, which will surely show Wonder Woman continuing to have adventures!).  I did like that the film mentioned Steve Trevor, and Diana’s grief over his loss; and I liked the idea that Diana had trouble seeing herself as a leader (both of the Justice League team, and also of humanity), because she was uncomfortable with others following her into battle, and potentially to their deaths.  That’s an interesting spin on the character, but it worked for me.  One of the many great things about Bruce Timm’s wonderful Justice League animated series was the development of a flirtation between Wonder Woman and Batman, and I liked that we got to see a shade of that in this film.  (I really liked the scene in which Diana gets a glimpse of a bruised, weary Bruce Wayne taking off his costume.)

Ezra Miller (who I first came to love for his work in the amazing The Perks of Being a Wallflower film adaptation) is terrific as the Flash.  This is a much younger, more discombobulated version of the character than I knew from the comics, but it works, particularly in contrast with the older, more seasoned Batman and Wonder Woman.  Ezra Miller has terrific comedic timing, and he gets a lot of great jokes.

The CGI visuals that bring Ray Fisher’s Cyborg to life are often dodgy (some shots look fantastic, while others look extremely fake), but Mr. Fisher himself is very solid as Victor Stone (a terrific character from Marv Wolfman & George Perez’s The New Teen Titans from the eighties, who was included in DC’s “New 52” revamp of the Justice League in the comics, and who I am pleased to see included in this film).  Mr. Fisher shows us Victor’s pain and isolation, but also his strength and determination.  Cyborg doesn’t have a huge role to play in the film, but every moment he’s in works.

Jason Momoa (Khal Droga from Game of Thrones) is fun as this revamped Aquaman.  I like the look of the character, and I like the way the film tries to play up his outsider status.  I don’t exactly understand his relationship, or lack thereof, with the undersea kingdom of Atlantis (that brief underwater scene with Amber Heard’s Mera was a little under-written and confusing — if Aquaman is an outcast, how could he swim right in to the secret chamber where the Mother Box was being kept?), but I can live with that.  I liked his banter with his Justice League teammates, especially Batman.  It could have veered into annoying, but Mr. Momoa played those scenes just right.

Yes, children, even though Superman died at the end of Batman v. Superman, the character does return in this film.  The method by which he is resurrected is fairly silly, but what example of a super-hero’s being returned from the dead isn’t a little silly?  I can say, at least, that I liked that Superman’s resurrection was something that the League had an active hand in, as opposed to it’s just being a coincidence or lucky chance.  And once Superman returns, wow, we actually sort of get — albeit briefly — the most faithful presentation of Superman that we’ve seen so far in this current iteration of the DC movie-verse.  This Superman actually smiles and, whoa, actually cares about civilians caught in the crossfire of their super-powered battles!  Wow!

Amy Adams and Diane Lane return as Lois Lane and Martha Kent.  I am glad to see these important supporting characters were not overlooked in this jam-packed-with-characters film.  While I like that the film explores their grief at the loss of Clark/Superman at the end of Batman v. Superman, I don’t love the idea that both of them sort of collapsed in the absence of the strong man in their lives.  Oh well.  The two actresses are so strong that I enjoyed their scenes in the film despite some questioning of how they were used in the story.  I was thrilled to see Jeremy Irons return as Alfred — I love this version of Alfred!  He is more of a true partner to Bruce Wayne than we’ve ever before seen on screen, and I love that dynamic.  I was also pleased to see Connie Nielsen reprise her role from Wonder Woman as Diana’s mother Hippolyta.  That sequence in which the villain Steppenwolf battled Hippolyta and her Amazons was one of my favorite moments in the film.  It was a spectacular action sequence, fun and clever as the Amazons desperately strove to keep the Mother Box out of Steppenwolf’s hands.

The film has a suitably huge scale, befitting a Justice League movie.  The film takes place in a variety of locations, from Gotham City to Metropolis to Paradise Island to the final battle somewhere in Russia.  I like the ambition of the film.  There are some amazing visual effects sequences (and also some that don’t work as intended), but I like that Mr. Snyder and his team have set out to create the giant canvas that this super-hero team-up deserves.

I was pleased to see Danny Elfman return to the world of super-heroes as the man in charge of the film’s score… and I was hugely surprised and delighted to hear the moments in Mr. Elfman’s score in which he utilized his own iconic Batman theme (first created for Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman film) as well as John Williams’ iconic Superman theme.  Wow!!  I was not expecting that at all!  These modern DC-universe movies have gone in entirely different directions with their scores, and have not utilized those famous themes in an attempt to stand apart as their own thing.  I understood that, but boy, did it send a tingle down my spine to hear those famous themes.  (If anything, I wish we’d gotten a MORE full-throated presentation of either/both of those famous themes here in Justice League.)  Mr. Elfman’s score is quite different from the work that Hans Zimmer did in Man of Steel and Batman v. Superman.  While I might have liked a little more continuity with the musical feel of those previous two films, it’s hard to argue with Mr. Elfman’s choices, and he turns in a propulsive, well-made score.  My one main complaint is that, while Mr. Elfman does briefly quote Mr. Zimmer’s “Krypton” theme for one or two of the moments on board the crashed Kryptonian ship, I would have liked to have heard a moment or two of Mr. Zimmer’s piano-based Clark/Superman theme, which was the best part of the Man of Steel score in my opinion.  The cornfield reunion between Clark and Lois was scored to that theme in the film’s trailer, and I missed not hearing that when that scene came in the finished film.

So… what doesn’t work?

Steppenwolf is a lousy villain.  I’d been hopping that Darkseid would be the villain of the first Justice League team-up film.  (My belief is that Darkseid was originally going to be the villain of Justice League part 2, but there is no certainty now that film will ever get made.)  Steppenwolf does look better than the CGI monstrosity glimpsed in that one scene of his that was added into the extended edition of Batman v. Superman.  (The character now has more of a face, which is good!)  But he’s still, basically, just a CGI monster who is evil without any other motivation.  It is without question cool to see Jack Kirby Fourth World concepts and characters like Steppenwolf and Parademons appearing on-screen in a big-budget live-action film!!  I never thought I would see that!  But whereas the main Justice League characters are interesting and compelling, Steppenwolf is flat and unmemorable, and once again we have a DC universe film whose climax involves CGI characters punching one another.

The film’s whole story doesn’t make much sense.  Why has Steppenwolf waited thousands of years to return to Earth to reclaim his Mother Boxes and conquer the planet?  (There’s a line somewhere about earth being ripe for conquest following the death of Superman, but wasn’t Earth ripe for conquest for the centuries BEFORE Superman came to the planet??)  Why don’t all three Mother Boxes re-activate at once?  Why does someone say that the Mother Boxes reactivated the night Superman died when 1) clearly we see them re-activate in this film, many weeks/months after Superman’s death, and 2) in Batman v. Superman, Luthor had footage of a Mother Box activating and transforming Victor Stone into Cyborg — that would have happened WAY before the death of Superman.  Do the Mother Boxes control the Boom Tubes (as in the comics), or are we meant to understand in this movie that Steppenwolf has that power?  (Why doesn’t anyone say “Boom Tube” in the movie??  Come on!!)  Why didn’t the ancient Atlanteans/Amazons/humans DESTROY the Mother Boxes when they first defeated Steppenwolf millennia ago?  I could go on…

I have praised the ambition of the film and the visual effects work, and indeed, there are many visual moments in this film that are worthy of praise.  There is also, sadly, much in the film that is stunningly bad.  I mentioned this above, but there are a number of shots of Cyborg that look unfinished, with the character not having the substantiality he needs in order for us to believe that he is really in the same frame as all the other characters.  But the worst CGI of the film is that used to mask the moustache that Henry Cavill had during the reshoots (which he apparently was unable to shave because he was still involved in filming his role in Mission: Impossible 6).  They decided to let Mr. Cavill keep the moustache for the reshoots, and then remove it via CGI in post-production, but the results are just terrible.  There are several moments in the film in which Superman’s face just looks wrong.  It sticks out like a sore thumb, and it’s just incredible that this happened in a major tentpole movie.

The film has a patchwork feel that is clear evidence of all of the behind-the-scenes turmoil and changes that went into the production of the finished product.  One egregious example: in an early scene, we see Batman fight a bug-like Parademon on a rooftop in Gotham City, and he then has a conversation with Alfred about assembling the team.  Then we see Bruce meeting Aquaman in the fishing village, except that now Bruce is sporting a lengthy beard. In the previous Batman scene he was clean-shaven!  I know that was a remote village, but seriously, it wouldn’t have taken Bruce Wayne a MONTH or more to get there, right??  Those shots of a bearded Bruce confronting Aquaman were in all the trailers, and I’d thought maybe that was a “grief beard,” a mark of how Bruce was struggling following his role in the death of Superman, which would make some sense.  Was the previous clean-shaven Batman scene a later addition into the film?  (I suspect it was!)

(There’s also a lot of footage from the trailers that didn’t make it into the film, a mark of a dramatic re-structuring during the editing process.  Here are some of those missing moments.)

The film chugs along at a rapid pace and, after the way-too-long Batman v. Superman (not to mention so many other overly-long blockbuster films from recent years), the just-under-two-hour run-time is a breath of fresh air.  On the other hand, I feel that a lot of character stuff and other important connective tissue might have been lost in the editing process.

Other thoughts:

* I loved J. K. Simmons as Commissioner Gordon.  I wish he was in the film for more than thirty seconds.  I hope he gets a meatier role in a future film.

* I loved the look of Gotham City in that early Batman rooftop fight.  It was a fantastic combination of the more realistic look we’d seen in Christopher Nolan’s Batman films and in Batman v. Superman, with the stylization from Tim Burton’s Batman.  The combination was beautiful and striking; I loved it and wanted to see more.

* I loved the glimpse of the epic Amazons/Atlanteans/humans vs Steppenwolf and the armies of Apokalips fight from millennia ago.  That was cool, and I loved seeing a Green Lantern in the mix (and was that Captain Marvel??).

* The post-credits scenes were solid.  I quite liked the humorous Superman-racing-the-Flash sequence from the mid-credits.  That was a very funny, light moment and a nice nod to the comics.  The end-credits scene was also interesting though not quite as great.  I’d been wondering whether Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor would appear in this film; they made us wait all the way to the very end.  I hated this version of Luthor as seen in Batman v. Superman, but thankfully Mr. Eisenberg played this scene fairly straight, without too much annoying quirkiness.  I like the idea of an assembly of villains to combat this new assembly of heroes, and that was a nice tease for potential future films.  At first I thought the masked villain with whom Luthor was meeting was going to be Will Smith’s Deadshot from Suicide Squad.  It turned out to be Deathstroke, who is a more notable character from the comics.  (Though the reveal of his face was an anti-climax, as I didn’t recognize the actor, Joe Manganiello, who was playing him.)

So, over-all, Justice League is a highly flawed film, but I was happy to have enjoyed it as much as I did.  It’s certainly head and shoulders above Batman v. Superman.  It’s more of a relief that DC/Warners has managed to bring this first wave of films to an end that is halfway-decent, than this is the triumphant culmination to years of careful planning that Marvel’s The Avengers was.  Still, if I put all of the other recent disappointing DC-universe films out of my mind and judge Justice League solely on it’s own, I can say that it’s a fun but somewhat dumb adventure.  This is not a great film by any means (it’s barely good, really), but there is plenty here that is worth of time of comic fans.  It’d be exciting to see this team played by these actors in a future film that was more confidently made, with less behind-the-scenes meshugass, especially if our heroes were taking on a more classic DC villain like Darkseid.  I’m not sure if that will ever happen, but we can dream…!

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