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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 … [continued]

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Josh Actually Doesn’t Hate the Extended “Ultimate Edition” of Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice!

So, yeah, I wrote a pretty scathing review of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, and also of the DC follow-up film Suicide Squad.  I wouldn’t have imagined that I’d be in any sort of rush to watch Batman v Superman again any time soon (or even ever).  But when I read that Warner Brothers was releasing a new cut of Batman v. Superman (I’m just refusing to keep writing out Dawn of Justice, OK?) with almost thirty minutes added into the film, I found that, despite myself, I was intrigued.  Thirty minutes is a lot of additional footage.  Was it possible that this longer cut salvaged the mess that I had seen in the theatre?  I doubted that this was a Kingdom of Heaven situation (in which a truncated to the point of being almost nonsensical version was released to theatres and was rightfully savaged by critics as being terrible; and then when Ridley Scott’s much-longer director’s cut was released to DVD we all discovered that the film was, lo and behold, almost a masterpiece), but was there a chance this longer version might salvage the film?  I was dubious but, like Fox Mulder, I wanted to believe.

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Well, I am pleased to report that the “Ultimate Edition” of Batman v Superman is actually, wait for it, not entirely terrible!  It is actually sort of almost OK.

Most of the major flaws of Zack Snyder’s film remain.  The film almost completely misunderstands the characters of both Batman and Superman, turning Superman into a dopey, wishey-washy moron and Batman into a criminal-murdering crazy-person.  The film’s version of Lex Luthor is lame and criminally disappointing.  The way glimpses of all the Justice League characters are inartfully shoehorned into the movie is painful, and Batman’s long dream/vision/whatever of a future in which Darkseid controls Earth and Superman is his lackey is head-scratchingly confusing and totally out of place stuck in the middle of the film.  The entire extended climax is a disaster, in which Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman don’t talk to one another at all while spending an inordinate amount of time punching an ugly, horrible CGI creation and Superman sacrifices himself for no reason when Wonder Woman (who doesn’t happen to be deathly allergic to Kryptonite) could have easily killed Doomsday with that spear.

But the new material provides a lot of useful connective tissue for the film’s various interwoven stories, and at last I can understand what Zack Snyder’s vision was for the film: a dark, complex epic that attempted to blend the ultra-serious and “grounded” approach that Christopher Nolan used so successfully in his trilogy of Batman films with more of an embrace of large-scale super-powers … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

Well, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice isn’t the catastrophe that I’d thought it would be based on the terrible trailers, but that doesn’t mean it’s anything approaching a good movie.  The film is fun to watch, in a brain-dead sort of way.  Seeing Batman and Superman (and Wonder Woman) on screen together is certainly a thrill, but the movie is such a disjointed mess, such a blatant advertisement for the next ten DC universe super-hero movies that Warner Brothers wants to make, that it barely functions as a movie despite (or because of?) its lengthy run-time.

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Let’s start with what the film does well.  Let’s not forget what a groundbreaking thing it is to have Superman and Batman on screen together.  In this age of the Marvel Cinematic Universe it’s easy to forget that no one has ever done what Marvel has so successfully done, creating a shared universe in which the super-hero characters can team up together in one another’s movies.  This is still a pretty cool thing.  A Batman/Superman crossover movie has been talked about for a while now — and Warner Brothers came very, very close to making one about a decade ago (I believe a billboard for that aborted project can be seen in the Will Smith I am Legend film) but it’s never actually happened until now.  This sort of crossover is commonplace for comic book fans, but seeing it happen in a live-action movie is still pretty exciting.  I love seeing these characters together (and wish that they were actually together more in this long movie, but wait, let’s hold my litany of complaints for another few paragraphs), and it’s great fun seeing Clark Kent use his super-powers to listen in on Bruce Wayne’s earpiece communications with Alfred, or to see Batman and Superman slug it out underneath the bat-signal.

This film’s biggest success is its depiction of Batman.  I absolutely love Ben Affleck in the role.  I think it’s a great choice that, rather than re-tell the Batman origin yet again, instead the filmmakers decided to give us an old, grizzled Batman, one who has already been operating in the shadows for years before Superman’s arrival on the scene.  This is a brand-new movie version of Batman, and it works like gangbusters.  Director Zack Snyder has borrowed heavily from the depiction of an old Batman in Frank Miller’s iconic, wonderful “last Batman story” from 1986, The Dark Knight Returns.  This is not a version of Batman that I ever expected to see on-screen, and I love it.  It makes a lot of sense to contrast a bitter Batman with the more noble, idealistic Superman (except that this movie’s near-total betrayal of the … [continued]

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Why Man of Steel is Good but not Great

It’s been fascinating, over the past few weeks, reading all of the varied reactions to Man of Steel.  It has proved to be a tremendously divisive film, with some loving it and some really loathing it.  Personally, I am somewhere in between.  I had a great time seeing it in theatres for the first time (an experience enhanced not only by the crowd’s opening-weekend excitement but also by awesome Imax 3-D), and my initial review (click here) written the next day was very positive.

I stand by that review, but in the days that followed when people asked me what I thought of the film, I found myself not being quite as excited as I had expected to be.  Nothing makes me happier than seeing an awesome super-hero film, and I remember how evangelical I was about the first Iron Man (click here for my review) and about The Dark Knight (click here for my review).  As much as I enjoyed Man of Steel, I didn’t feel the same way about it as I had about those other amazing films.  The more I thought about Man of Steel, the more the problems that I mentioned towards the end of my first review seemed to impact my over-all evaluation of the film.

I still think Man of Steel is a fun, enjoyable film.  It is very good.  But it’s not great.  Here are the two main reasons why:

1.  The film does not pay off its central question.  All of the trailers culminated with Clark’s question: “My father believed that if the world found out who I really was, they’d reject me… What do you think?”  The entire first two-thirds of the film is focused on that issue.  Clark allows his father to die because he honors Pa Kent’s wishes that he not reveal his super-powers to the world.  Ultimately, Clark decides to put on that super-suit, and he reveals himself to the world in spectacular fashion, with a super-fight that wreaks havoc on Smallville and Metropolis.  At the end of Man of Steel, the whole world knows that aliens exist, and that one has been living among them.

And yet the movie doesn’t bother to tell us what anyone thinks of that!  We don’t get any indication as to the world’s reaction to those revelations.  Do they love Superman?  Do they fear him?  After the death of Zod, there is one epilogue scene before we get to the film’s (great) final scene in which Clark enters the offices of the Daily Planet.  That scene is the jokey moment in which Superman tells General Swanson to stop trying to find out “where he hangs his … [continued]

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Josh Kneels Before Man of Steel

I love Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie from 1978, and for much of my life I thought Superman II was even better.  (My preference has swung back slightly, in recent years, towards the original film.)  Those two movies were a huge part of my childhood, and more than any Superman comic book I have ever read (and I have read a lot), they shaped in my mind the quintessential depiction of Superman.  I stand by my love of Bryan Singer’s homage to the Donner films, 2006’s Superman Returns (has it been that long since Superman Returns came out???  Crazy!!), and I remain bitterly disappointed that we never saw a sequel to that film.

I was excited, though, by the news that Zack Snyder would be directing a new Superman film, working with the Batman Begins team of Christopher Nolan (serving as producer) and writer David S. Goyer.  I love both 300 and Watchmen (particularly the super-long Ultimate Cut of Watchmen) — I think they’re both terrific adaptations of very difficult-to-adapt comic books — and so I was eager to see what Mr. Snyder could do when playing in the bigger sandbox of the Superman mythos.  I suspected he could bring a new energy to  the depiction of Superman on film, and his involvement certainly promised an increase in the action quotient (something that even I admit was sorely lacking in Superman Returns).  

My enthusiasm for the Superman reboot dipped when I heard that they were planning on re-telling Superman’s origin.  That seemed silly to me, as Superman has probably the most famous origin of any comic book character ever.  Why waste time re-telling, yet again, an origin story that everyone on the planet already knows?  Just cut to the chase and tell a great Superman story!  My enthusiasm grew again when the first trailers for Man of Steel began to surface.  I was dazzled by the visual spectacle, and really started to get excited for what seemed to be a very different depiction of Superman on film.

I just left an IMAX screening of Man of Steel, and I am delighted to report that Mr. Snyder and his team have delivered on that promise.  They have threaded the difficult needle of delivering a dramatic reinterpretation of the character and his origin, while at the same time presenting us with a depiction that is, without question, iconically Superman.

The film opens with Jor-El on Krypton, and we spend a lot more time on Krypton than I would have expected.  I loved every second, and almost wish we had a whole film set on Krypton, chronicling the breaking of the friendship between Jor-El and Zod.  (The idea that Jor-El and Zod … [continued]

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Josh Reviews the new Director’s Cut of Watchmen

Even before Watchmen was released in theatres, director Zach Snyder made clear, in interviews, that we’d be seeing his longer Director’s Cut released on DVD/Blu-Ray before too terribly long.  

Well, Watchmen: The Director’s Cut is indeed now available for all to see, and I am happy to report that it’s quite excellent.

This Director’s Cut isn’t a total reinvention of the film.  The film unfolds as it did in its theatrical form.  There are no revelatory story-lines or spectacular action sequences added back in.  This Director’s Cut isn’t going to change anyone’s mind about Mr. Snyder’s adaptation of the comic book masterpiece by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons.  If the film didn’t grab you in the theatres (and if you’re reading this while thinking to yourself, “twenty-four extra minutes added on to a film that was already two and a half hours??  No thanks!!”) then nothing I’m going to write here will cause you to think any differently.  But if you were as taken with the theatrical version as I was (check out my original review here), then this new extended version is a delight.

As I wrote above, the film hasn’t been dramatically re-edited (the way, for example, the first half-hour of The Fellowship of the Ring was entirely re-worked in Peter Jackson’s magnificent extended edition), and there’s no “Wow!  What a cool sequence that they’ve restored to the film!” moment (such as the astounding revised ending of James Cameron’s Director’s Cut of The Abyss).  No, what has been added back into the film are a lot of little moments, little bits of texture to the story from the original comic book.  Scenes now start a few moments earlier, or end a few moments later.  Many of the characters now get a few extra moments.  Bits of background detail are added.  These accumulate to result in a film that is a bit more leisurely paced than the theatrical version, but where the world of the story has been a little more fleshed out.  

One of the very first changes is also the most perplexing one, and really the only change I objected to.  There’s a little button added on to the scene where Rorschach investigates the Comedian’s apartment, after his murder.  Now, as Rorschach is leaving, a cop finds him in the apartment, and tries to shoot him.  For some reason, the bullets don’t seem to connect with Rorschach, and when the cop looks back at him, he is gone.  Whereas most of the rest of the additions in this new cut result in the re-incorporation of small moments or details from the original graphic novel, this addition is a complete invention of the filmmakers, and it … [continued]

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“Amongst Horrors Must I Dwell” — Josh Reviews the Tales of the Black Freighter!

March 30th, 2009
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“Delirious, I saw that hell-bound ship’s black sails against the yellow Indies sky, and knew again the stench of powder, and men’s brains, and war.”

So begins the Tales of the Black Freighter, the famed “comic within a comic” from Watchmen by Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons.  It’s one of my favorite elements of the graphic novel, and also one of the most bizarre (which might be why I like it so much!).  Starting in the very first panel of Watchmen‘s third chapter, and then recurring periodically throughout the remainder of the story, the horrific narrative of this pirate comic (being read by a young boy hanging out by a street-corner news-stand) weaves in and out of the larger story being told.

In the Black Freighter story, we follow the ordeal of the lone survivor of a sailing ship that has been ambushed and destroyed by the pirates of the Black Freighter.  Fearing that the pirates’ next target is his home of Davidstown, where his wife and children live, the survivor (whose name is never given) goes to desperate efforts to make his way home before the Black Freighter arrives.  Needless to say, things don’t go well.

In my review of the Zack Snyder’s movie adaptation of Watchmen, I wrote how I found it hard to believe that I was actually watching a Watchmen movie.  Who’d have believed that this brilliant, violent, weird graphic novel had ever been made into a film — and, even more incredibly, one so faithfully translated from the source material??  Well, as much as I had doubted that a Watchmen movie would ever come to be, it was positively inconceivable to me that Tales of the Black Freighter would EVER be included in such an adaptation.  In bringing such a large and complex work as Watchmen to the screen, surely the first thing to be done would be to determine what elements could be jettisoned, and surely the Black Freighter digressions would be at the top of that list!

And, indeed, the version of Watchmen released to theatres last month did not, in fact, include the Tales of the Black Freighter.  But, bless their hearts, Snyder and his team did actually adapt the Tales of the Black Freighter.  In order to capture the “comic within a comic” and differentiate it from the rest of the movie, they made the savvy choice to create it using animation.  And so the twenty minute Tales of the Black Freighter short film came to be.  It was released to DVD this past week, and it will be edited back into the Watchmen movie for a super-duper special edition DVD to come.  

So how is … [continued]

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“I did it thirty-five minutes ago” — Josh Reviews Watchmen!

It’s a bit hard to fathom that I live in a world in which there actually exists a film version of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s magnificent epic Watchmen.

Long considered completely unadaptable, Watchmen (originally published as a 12-issue limited-series by DC Comics back in 1985-86, and re-printed countless times in the subsequent two decades in collected “graphic novel” form) is a staggeringly intricate, layered work that is at once a ripping super-hero yarn and, at the same time, a complete deconstruction of the entire idea of the super-hero adventure comic.

What is fascinating is that the film version of Watchmen arrives at a unique time.  Over the past almost-decade (since the release of Bryan Singer’s X-Men in 2000), we have seen a flood of super-hero movies (a great many of them dreck, and a great many of them of pretty high quality).  This past summer alone saw the release of The Dark Knight, Iron Man, and Hellboy II, among others — three very different films, yet all examples of super-hero movies that were quite extraordinarily well executed.  We’re at a point now when the general public has become very familiar with a lot of the tropes of the super-hero movie genre — and so are perfectly primed to see those familiar characters and themes and story structures completely up-ended by the movie of Watchmen, the same way that the comic book audience had all of their familiar super-hero comic ideas up-ended by the original Watchmen comic.  This movie, I think, is being released at just the right time.

And it is magnificent.

It’s hard for me to imagine what someone who has never read Watchmen would think of this film, because I have read the comic so many times that it is impossible to imagine not knowing (and revering) the story beat-by-beat.  But it seems to me that director Zack Snyder has done an extraordinary job of maintaining a great deal of the depth and complexity of the comic, while also making it very accessible to a first-timer.  That is no easy feat.

Those of you who, like me, worship the source material, can rest easy.  Snyder’s film is a breathtakingly faithful adaptation of the comic.  The structure and story-line of the comic is replicated in great detail; almost all of the dialogue and narration has been lifted right out of the comic; and most importantly, the tone and atmosphere of the world that Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons created has been brought to life in a powerfully real, visceral way.

To begin with, the film is a marvel of casting.  Thinking about Watchmen in the months leading up to the release, there were a lot of elements … [continued]