Thursday, December 14, 2017

Review: Justice League (2017)

Justice League (2017)

Rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi violence and action

Score: 2 out of 5

Here lies the DC Extended Universe project. They tried so... well, they tried. Sorta. Kinda. Not really. More than any other, this is the film that demonstrates why Marvel and Disney have been so consistently whipping the hide of DC and Warner Bros. despite having started with (initially) a much less well-known roster of characters. Whereas the Marvel Cinematic Universe has effortlessly made me believe that freaks of super-science, various high-tech gadgeteer geniuses, space aliens, literal Norse gods, a World War II super-soldier reawakened in the present day (and his Soviet counterpart), a magician armed with secret ancient techniques from the Orient, and a friggin' genetically-engineered, intelligent space raccoon -- and that's not even getting into the TV spinoffs -- can all exist in the same universe, the DC Extended Universe has thus far failed to get me to do the same with three of the most iconic superheroes in the world. And yet, here they are, already trying to expand this thing into the realm of the cosmic, and landing flat on their face. This is the product of two directors whose very different visions crashed head-first into one another and with the assorted changes imposed by the studio, altogether producing a film defined by aggressive mediocrity above all. To paraphrase another film critic, Bob Chipman, this is exactly the film that Warner Bros. might have greenlit fifteen years ago right after seeing the box-office returns for X-Men and Spider-Man. It wouldn't have been a good movie then, and it certainly isn't a good movie now.

The plot is so bare-bones it's barely worth recounting. After the events of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Superman is dead, and unfortunately, an ancient, godlike villain named Steppenwolf is plotting to take over the world by finding three boxes of mystical science/magic power hidden across Earth. His motivations are not important; he's a generic doomsday villain with no goal beyond "because I'm evil and love to conquer stuff (and oh, I worship some being named Darkseid who's probably gonna be important in later films)". Bruce Wayne and Diana Prince, aka Batman and Wonder Woman, realize that, if they are going to take down Steppenwolf, they need allies, and set out to recruit people with various superhuman abilities for a league of superheroes. The first is Barry Allen, aka The Flash, a young man gifted with super-speed who agonizes over his father being in prison. The second is Aquaman, an ancient Atlantean who, in the human world, lives in the Arctic under the identity of Arthur Curry. Finally, there's Victor Stone, a former college football star who, after a debilitating injury, was accidentally turned into a half-man, half-machine cyborg by his father when an experimental procedure to heal him went horribly wrong.

No, I have not read any of the comics that this film is based on, and as far as I'm concerned, I don't need to and shouldn't have to. Yes, being a fan of the source material undoubtedly increases one's appreciation of a good film adaptation, and conversely, a film that "gets it wrong" can easily make it harder for fans of the original work to enjoy it on its own merits. It's a big part of why I loved the Hunger Games movies and Serenity (the feature film continuation of Firefly), and why I was so hard on World War Z and the 2013 version of The Great Gatsby. But as far as I'm concerned, unless we're talking about independent projects made for, and by, the fans with little intention of anybody else seeing them, or sequels that directly follow on from prior films and continue their stories, it should never be a prerequisite for enjoying a work. Kevin Feige, the man in charge of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, understands this well. You can walk into, say, a Thor or Captain America film having never read any of the Thor or Captain America comics, and perfectly understand most of what is going on -- because everything you need to know is explained in the movies themselves. (Another example of understanding this well: the makers of the James Bond films.) Hell, to go back to Serenity, that film was my introduction to the Firefly 'verse, and after I was done watching it, I wanted to check out the TV show that I'd missed -- yet it stood on its own as a complete feature film, even though, as a continuation of Firefly, Joss Whedon and co. had every right to make a film that relied on knowledge of the show and its lore. As a 9th dan black belt master of Google Fu, I know that Steppenwolf is part of a group of DC Comics characters called the New Gods, but outside of a handful of references clearly designed to set these folks up as bad guys for future films, I never learned why I should care about this. As a consequence, Steppenwolf was a hollow shell of a villain with the thinnest motivations. While Batman v Superman's Lex Luthor was a massive gamble that went bust, Steppenwolf felt like Warner Bros. taking all the wrong lessons from that failure and setting out to make the dullest, most generic supervillain they possibly could in order to avoid the same mistake.

Now that this film's awful villain is out of the way, when it came to the heroes, the Flash and Wonder Woman were probably the ones who came off looking the best, or the least bad. With the Flash, Joss Whedon's rewrites and reshoots are evident in the character's love of humorous quips and jokes, especially about the superhero genre in general and his fanboying over Bruce Wayne, as one might expect from a previously-amateur superhero who just got recruited into the literal Justice League. I get the sense that Whedon would love to work on The CW's The Flash TV series given the chance, or any other part of the Arrowverse, while Ezra Miller probably had the most fun out of anybody in the entire film playing Barry. Wonder Woman, meanwhile, is hot off a movie of her own that stands as, thus far, the only truly great (or even good) film to come out of the DCEU, and the mountains of goodwill she built up there carry over to this film. It was because I'd seen the standalone Wonder Woman movie that I cared at all about the battle between Diana's Amazon sisters and Steppenwolf's army, because otherwise, all I would've been watching was a battle between an anonymous horde of athletic Grecian women and another anonymous horde of flying demon monsters. Gal Gadot once more proves to be the most inspired casting decision in the entire DCEU, whether she's in or out of combat, and I hope that this film's box-office disappointment and derailment of the entire DCEU thus far doesn't kill her hopes for a second solo movie.

Batman and the other newcomers, however, don't get off so lucky. Ben Affleck had one mode of acting as Bruce Wayne, and felt like he couldn't wait to finally be done with this franchise (as rumors have suggested). Whereas his Batman was one of the saving graces of Batman v Superman, here he seemed bored more than anything. The other new superheroes introduced, Aquaman and Cyborg, barely registered. In what felt like an attempt to wipe away any embarrassing associations that the character might have, this film's take on Aquaman is a muscle-headed cross between a surfer dude and an MMA jock played with a distinct lack of charisma on the part of Jason Momoa, his backstory as king of Atlantis given the barest minimum development while leaving Amber Heard as his wife Mera in little more than a thankless bit part. Cyborg, included in the film almost purely because of the popularity of the Teen Titans cartoon, has even less personality, switching at various times between a cold, analytical machine-man and a cool, "street-wise" kid depending on who was in the director's chair handling the character. Henry Cavill's Superman also shows up, once more looking the part and getting a few memorable "money shots" but overall failing to walk the walk, with Lois Lane and Martha Kent in tow for only a handful of scenes between them seemingly just because you can't have Superman in your movie without them.

The special effects on display here could get downright ugly at points. Much has been written about how they had to digitally remove Cavill's mustache, the effect being a bit less than convincing, but honestly, compared to the CGI-heavy finale, I barely noticed anything wrong with his face. It is flat-out baffling how a movie that cost $300 million to produce was allowed to look this terrible, as color filters, post-production work, and the fact that two directors with very different styles both worked on this film all conspired to bring out the worst that the special effects had to offer. The big final battle takes place in a decrepit Russian Rust Belt town and nuclear power plant, and it looks even more drab than I'm making it sound here. The visual design isn't wholly irredeemable, don't get me wrong. The movie's filled with great money shots that, on their own, look spectacular, an unavoidable consequence of having Zack Snyder direct your movie. But when taken as a whole, none of it is in any way cohesive -- another unavoidable component of a Snyder film, made only worse by Whedon's reshoots.

And this is where I get into the biggest problem here: the fact that the visions of Zack Snyder and Joss Whedon go together like oil and water. Snyder is an outstanding visual stylist whose tendencies lean towards the grandiose, making films like 300, Watchmen, Sucker Punch, and his prior work in the DCEU that focus on larger-than-life men and women in over-the-top situations, from ancient Spartans at Thermopylae to a clique of badass action heroines in a video game/anime fantasy to, well, Superman and Batman beating the snot out of each other. Whedon, on the other hand, is a character guy. He's renowned for handing and fleshing out large ensemble casts on television and in film, and is known more for his particular brand of witty dry humor than he is for his visual style, which is usually rather unobtrusive and built more around letting the characters do their thing. In other words, in the event that Snyder were to drop out of a film due to a family emergency (namely, his daughter committed suicide), Whedon is probably the last guy you'd want to finish his work and handle the reshoots. Yet here we are, with a film where it is readily apparent that it was half-made by Snyder and half-made by Whedon. Characters go from dead-serious one moment (Snyder) to cracking jokes the next (Whedon). Personalities change at the drop of a hat from scene to scene, such that the characters felt like one-dimensional action figures. The Flash and Batman got the most coherent characterization, but Cyborg, as noted above, didn't feel like had a character at all. Even in the visuals, the distinctions are stark. Altogether, this felt like two different Justice League movies, one made by Snyder and the other made by Whedon, that had been haphazardly stitched together, and it is so easy to tell who shot what that it looks like Frankenstein's monster.

The Bottom Line

Such is this film in a nutshell: a Frankenstein's monster of elements lazily lifted from other, better movies with no real goal other than giving Warner Bros. and DC Comics their competitor to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Going by the box-office receipts, it looks like many of you already took the advice I'm about to give, but for the record: if you want to watch DC's iconic characters brought to life on the screen, complete with an extended universe, skip this and watch the Arrowverse shows on The CW.

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