Friday, November 17, 2017

"Justice League" review: Crisis averted

SPOILERS AHOY! This is my full review of "Justice League." It contains spoilers. So there, I warned you.

Before you dive in... I love superheroes, so much so that I write some superhero comics! I've currently got a Kickstarter campaign going for the second issue of my revival of Golden Age one-hit wonder, The Atomic Thunderbolt! If you like what I have to say about superheroes, or you just like good comics, please support the book and pledge today!

I’ll come right out of the gate and say it; I didn’t hate “Justice League,” I actually kind of liked it. I wouldn’t call it a great movie, it’s certainly not the worst movie – it’s actually not even the worst movie in the DCEU, that honor still belongs to “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice.” My expectations were pretty low to be honest, and I knew going in that the movie was kind of a mess and there was some serious course correction at play. But look, I love DC Comics and I want their movies to succeed the way Marvel’s do and the way DC TV does. So I can say with honesty, I was pleasantly surprised by "Justice League." It's a flawed film - I mean, hell, the franchise is massively flawed - but it is enjoyable and I can say I was pleasantly surprised.

That said, I realized around the time the final battle started what “Justice League” was best compared to: DC animated movie, not necessarily one of the bad or great ones... but one of the satisfying ones. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, either.

When it comes to the DC movies, for me a lot hinges on the treatment of Superman. "Justice League" does something to "Batman v. Superman" that "BvS" did to "Man of Steel." It changes a few key elements of the plot and story. Here, "Justice League" tells us that the world has fallen into chaos and hopelessness without Superman, but "Batman v. Superman" spent most of it's time showing viewers the world kind of hated him no matter what. "Justice League," however, places the previous movies in sort of a vague history. At times it seemed as though, yeah, that stuff happened, but only to serve the current plot, otherwise, it didn't happen the way you remember.

This ends up giving viewers an idea of Superman that is familiar to fans of the character and in line with the classic version, but not familiar to the Snyder vision. This is a good thing, especially when there's been a version of Superman on TV in the past year that has been met with rave reviews and demand for his own spin-off series.

"Man of Steel" is an abomination of a Superman story, and "Batman v. Superman" is an atrocity. Both miss the point of the character and give us a version that is misguided and fails to truly capture The Last Son of Krypton. The rumors surrounding "Justice League" involved Superman coming back as a bad guy, a two-part story and the darkest installment yet. While Zack Snyder stepped down as director following a horrific family tragedy, Joss Whedon took over and the reshoots began immediately following the critical response to "Wonder Woman." The end result was a pretty obviously reshot Superman, a film lighter in tone, a shorter and more generic story, and ultimately a course correction for DC. All of this coming amidst their overwhelmingly positive editorial move with "DC Rebirth" in the comics.

I can say with confidence that "Justice League" is the second best outing for the DCEU behind "Wonder Woman." Mind you, it's light years behind "Wonder Woman" in terms of overall merit as a film, but despite it's flaws, "Justice League" does have some redeeming qualities and it is somewhat enjoyable. Again, it's not necessarily a good movie, and it doesn't really break any new ground, in fact it doesn't really do much, but it's not offensive, dour or controversial in the way "Man of Steel" or "Batman v. Superman" was.

Okay, so I'll do this the way I do all my reviews, with a breakdown of three categories: The Yay!, The Meh and The Nope. Basically breaks down as what worked for me, what I was indifferent to and what didn't totally work for me.

The Yay!

Superman: Sure, he wasn’t in it a lot, but for the first time, we actually get to see Henry Cavill portray Superman. In his brief moments, he actually felt like Superman. He wasn’t the same brooding or melodramatic superhero we’d seen previously. This was the Superman with a smile on his face, a positive outlook and a general sense of wonder. He was there to help, he was less a angsty god and more a superhero. The very first scene in the movie is cell-phone footage of kids interviewing him, and in that one scene; I could tell this was a very different Man of Steel. Compare that to his intro in “Batman v. Superman” when he crashes through a wall and then (we assume) kills a guy.

As I mentioned above, I had read and heard the rumors that Joss Whedon’s biggest influence on the film when he took over was essentially rewriting Superman’s entire role. Given the amount of clearly visible CGI-ed mustache, this would account for maybe 90-95% of Superman in the movie.

I had a big dumb smile on my face when Superman shows up for the final battle - that's the reaction you want when it comes to Big Blue. I can honestly say that I'd love to see a new Superman movie with Henry Cavill (who I've always felt is perfect for the role, but has never had the right material), so long as it's this version and Zack Snyder is nowhere near it. (More on how I'd approach the DCEU going forward at the end of this).

As a lifelong Superman fan and someone who studies the character extensively, I was satisfied.

Wonder Woman: Once again, Gal Gadot was in top form as Wonder Woman. She’s really the highlight of the DC movies. When I reviewed “Wonder Woman,” I mentioned that Gadot didn’t own the role in that film as much as she did in “Batman v. Superman,” interestingly; I felt she owned it once again here – now I really wonder if that was by design. She’s confident in the role and does the best she can with the material she’s given.

Lois & Clark on the farm: This was easily the best-written scene of the movie. I believe it was one of the reshoots given the CGI-stache and Amy Adams almost looking like she was wearing a wig. Anyway, the scene had tremendous emotional weight between Lois and Martha seeing Clark restored. It also felt like a Joss Whedon scene. The DCEU love story of Lois and Clark has had ups and downs, but this was definitely a high point and I was pleasantly surprised.

Steppenwolf backstory sequence: I thought this whole sequence was pretty neat, mostly because of the inclusion of the Greek gods. We clearly see Zeus and a giant, and of course the Green Lanterns. While it was pretty generic in terms of “bad guys wants to conquer, ancient warriors stop him,” the inclusion of Zeus and others won me over.

Second post-credits scene: I joked with someone that the second post-credits scene was the second best DCEU movie behind Wonder Woman. Who knows if it will really go anywhere, but it was pretty neat. (SPOILERS) Deathstroke looked GREAT (and surprisingly similar to the CW version) and Jesse Eisenberg was actually a more recognizable Lex Luthor than whatever he was in "Batman v. Superman."

Classic themes: I’m curious how long Danny Elfman had to create the score for “Justice League.” He was announced as the composer not long before release. Let me just say that one of the high points in “Man of Steel” is the score. The “Batman v. Superman” score is also strong, if not a bit over the top. However, I really liked the inclusion of the classic Batman ’89 theme and the short instances of the John Williams Superman theme. To me it was a sign that Warner Bros. wants to present the more classic and widely accepted versions of two of their biggest characters going forward and frankly, those themes are iconic and have stood the test of time.

Mera: Um, okay. So they ARE making Mera a total badass. Nice. (Sidebar: Amber Heard is seriously one of the most strikingly beautiful people on the planet).

JK Simmons as Gordon: You know what? Okay. I’d watch a Batman movie with Simmons as Gordon. There’s really no reason for him to be here other than to move the plot along via some fan service, but okay.

Superman resurrection: While getting to the actual resurrection is kind of hamfisted, the fight between Superman and the Justice League is actually a really fun sequence. He's disoriented and really pissed at Batman. There's also a genuinely cool moment where Flash is running at super-speed and Superman turns his attention to him in bullet-time.

Batman’s tech suit: The suit actually kind of served no purpose, but it looked damn good on screen.

Team chemistry: Yeah, the team worked. The chemistry between the actors was solid and they all have their moments, especially in the third act.

No one gets murdered and the superheroes save people!: I can't believe I have to write this, but it was refreshing to see Batman and Superman not kill, because they shouldn't. Sure, they lay waste to some parademons - and Batman having some insane firepower is acceptable in this case - but they aren't snapping necks, shooting guns, branding bad guys... instead we get lots of punching of soulless creatures from Apokolips and Superman literally saving an apartment building. (THAT'S HOW YOU DO IT).

Between Yay and Meh

Flash: Inevitably, Ezra Miller’s Flash must be compared to Grant Gustin’s Flash. On one hand, Miller’s Flash brings levity to the film – as The Flash should - but the character is just so inconsistent. There are moments he’s genuinely fun, while there are moments where his awkwardness just comes off as forced and doesn't really fit Barry's character. Definitely a far cry from the acclaimed version on the CW.

Cyborg: I've never been a big Cyborg fan and I grew up with him as a key member of the Teen Titans, and here he mostly serves the plot. There isn't much in terms of character development, he's broody and angry, and portrayed as pretty stiff. The CGI on him looked decent enough, but the character was just kind of flat.

Aquaman: I like Jason Momoa. I like casting him as Aquaman. I'm just so indifferent to him here. He doesn't talk to fish, he just swims really fast and sort of manipulates the water. He's supposed to be the anti-hero, but he's just kind of there. He's got some decent one-liners and a halfway decent scene with the lasso of truth attached to him, but I wasn't left clamoring for his solo movie because of him. (Mera was really neat, though).

The Meh

Superman’s resurrection: As I mentioned, the actual resurrection is kind of neat as is the ensuing fight scene with the Justice League, but the reason and build-up is weak. I’m guessing Snyder’s original two-part version did have evil Superman being a result of the resurrection, giving the team some conflict. In the long run, it’s better that it was scrapped. But here the League has one fight with Steppenwolf, that more or less ends in a stalemate, and Batman essentially says, “screw it, let’s bring Superman back even though the last time someone used the Kryptonian ship we got that weird-looking Doomsday that couldn’t die.” This decision just kind of happens in the middle of the movie, out of nowhere. You know what? Whatever, fine.

Plot: The plot of the movie is pretty generic, which neither helps nor hurts the film: Alien comes for powerful MacGuffin to conquer the world, superheroes get together to stop him. Along the way there’s fighting with each other, figuring out how to work together, etc. Overall, there’s not a TON of conflict among the heroes themselves, which is mostly fine. They all pretty much just accept the fact they’ve got to do the dance and save the world. In the end, “Justice League” played it safe.

The Nope

CGI: The CGI is really inconsistent throughout the film, to the point where it’s distracting. I’m not just talking about Henry Cavill’s CGI-ed non-stache, but there was a clear dip in quality between Steppenwolf’s poor rendering and the rather neat display of Mera’s ability. Part of the CGI feels unfinished, Cavill’s CGI-ed non-stache is more distracting in some places than in others. And yes, Steppenwolf ends up looking like a video game cut-scene character more often than not.

Flash's awkwardness: Okay, so Flash was mostly just inconsistent, but there's one thing I noticed that kind of tied back into a more extreme critical view I had of "Batman v. Superman." Zack Snyder is an Ayn Rand acolyte. He's also into male power fantasies a bit (I mean, have you seen his other movies?!), and I've felt that he's a bit of a "bro" and both aggressive and resentful towards geek culture. When Barry meets Bruce Wayne, he comes off as really socially awkward, but there's an emphasis on his intellect and basically being a "geek." While it wasn't a recurring theme throughout the film, it felt as though this was Snyder again relying on a pretty ridiculous stereotype to make a commentary about "the nerds." But maybe it's just me.

Lois just yelling “Clark!” for all to hear: One of the things that drove me nuts about “Man of Steel” was Lois flippantly yelling “Clark! Clark!” when Clark was clearly supposed to be Superman. She does it again while standing in front of some cops when disoriented Superman is about to kill Batman. Look, I totally get why she had to do it here, and it’s a nice contrast to Wonder Woman calling him Kal-EL moments before, but it just made me think of “Man of Steel” and one of my criticisms of that film. Honestly, we don’t need the explanation how Clark comes back from the dead, and frankly, I don’t care. The sooner we can abandon “Man of Steel” and “Batman v. Superman” as any kind of canon, the better. But c'mon Lois, you're blowing up your man's spot.

Steppenwolf: You really need to do a decent dive into DC lore and the Fourth World to get to Steppenwolf. I understand the original intention may have been that he was a harbinger for Darkseid, but the final product is a generic level boss. I saw a comparison to Malekith in “Thor: The Dark World.” That’s actually really accurate, even though Malekith had a bit more of a revenge motivation. Steppenwolf was more like “I’m back!” Uh, okay. He mentions Darkseid and I’m assuming the Unity – or combination of the Mother Boxes – was meant to be the anti-life equation. But overall, Steppenwolf just served his purpose of being a big enough threat that the whole team was needed. And he’s not even on a mission from Darkseid or anything, he’s just there.

Overall tone: This is a symptom of the course correction and two directors, but the movie can't really decide what it is... at points it wants to be serious and deal with ethics and moral dilemmas, and at other points it just wants to be light-hearted superhero popcorn-fare. It struggles to sort itself out, but this is kind of what happens when you rush these movies into production when the predecessors aren't being well-received. This leaves the film feeling unbalanced and any themes or deeper meanings falling a bit flat. This is definitely a movie by two different people and it shows.

DC fans and movie-goers deserve better and this is a step in the right direction. Look, I love DC Comics and I want these movies to succeed. What truly separates the DC movies from the Marvel movies is curation. The Marvel movies aren't intended as cash cows first. They never have been. All of them follow a formula but they each fit a different type of genre. The DC movies have felt made by committee, corporate cash grab first, quality second. When Warner Brothers essentially gave Patty Jenkins free reign to do "Wonder Woman," we got a really great movie that didn't feel bogged down in studio mandates or one, singular dark vision.

"Justice League" was clearly on it's way to being a disaster, and I do think the disaster was averted. But we should have never gotten to this point where a movie has to CGI-away a man's mustache to reshoot his role. (Sidebar: I will never understand why it wasn't just easier for Cavill to shave and temporarily wear a fake stache for "Mission: Impossible" - maybe Paramount's contract lawyers are just that good). That's perhaps Warner Bros. greatest sin with the entire DCEU. Rushing production and putting out three movies that were critically panned and divided the fan base, then actually releasing a great film and realizing they needed to change direction. It really just shouldn't have gotten to this point.

It's funny, I've always said the success and quality of DC Comics hinges entirely on the success and quality of Superman. This literal movie rebirth of Superman kind of serves a greater metaphor for the DC movies as a whole.

Where does DC go from here? “Wonder Woman” was clearly the right formula and it easily one of the best superhero movies ever made. “Justice League” is not as bad as it was initial made out to be, the shift in tone and outlook is much better than the bleak hopelessness put on display by Zack Snyder. I think it’s pretty obvious at this point that Snyder’s vision was never right for the DC Universe. The casts are exceptional, the majority of designs were great and many of the visuals – Snyder’s strong suit – were memorable. But overall, “Man of Steel,” “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice” and “Suicide Squad” did not capture what makes DC great. “Justice League” wants to, but doesn’t fully take the leap, though it’s in the ballpark.

What I personally hope Warner Bros. does is take a step back and re-examine the DC properties, not as cash cows, but as modern myths and cultural icons. One of the things I kind of liked about “Suicide Squad,” and even “Batman v. Superman” to an extent, was the idea that these characters already existed in the universe. We aren’t tied up in endless origin stories and that does allow for a little more flexibility.

Many fans are assuming the forth-coming “Flashpoint” movie – if it happens – will be the full course correction for DC at the movies. Give the universe a reboot, Affleck an exit and erase the dour roots of the universe that were set forth in “Man of Steel.” It’s already been said that “Aquaman” will be more of a standalone film, as will “Shazam.” There’s constant rumors about the state of the next Batman movie, and a new Superman movie that has also been said to be “its own thing.”

To me it’s simple: adopt the Bond formula. For example, keep Henry Cavill as Superman – hell, keep that whole cast – but don’t tie it to anything that’s come before, don’t even acknowledge “Man of Steel.” Just tell a Superman story. Apply this to each of the characters and bring them together every couple of years. The universe doesn’t need to be connected like Marvel, and just play fast and loose with continuity.

In a way, "Justice League" and the return to a more classic form for DC is the final chapter in the New 52 experiment. As the comics have shifted back to more iconic and wondrous versions of the characters - away from the darker tones of the New 52 - "Man of Steel" was the first DC movie in the New 52 era and the darker, more brooding elements of the character were evident in the comics following the 2011 reboot into the New 52. As the comics have erased New 52 Superman from existence and returned him to true form, it seems as though the movies have as well - TV certainly did when Tyler Hoechlin played The Man of Steel on "Supergirl" - and "Justice League" serves as a book end to the editorial and corporate reimagining that was the New 52.

Overall, "Justice League" is enjoyable if you just take it at face value, and for me, I felt good about Superman at the movies for the first time in a long time, because he finally felt right. It's not the disaster it's made out to be, quite the opposite, in a way it ultimately works. Yes, I'm nit-picky as hell because I was a film student, but at the end of the day "Justice League" is fun.

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