Sunday, March 11, 2018

Movie Review: 'Justice League'

Title:  Justice League (Official, Facebook, Twitter, IMDB, Wikipedia)

I never planned on writing a review of Justice League.  I saw the film twice in the theaters and enjoyed it both times, despite its many flaws.  When it was released digitally, I decided to go ahead and purchase it (with the Blu-ray pre-order) and have since watched it three times.  It was during the second home viewing (my fourth up to that point) that I realized Justice League is a truly, disappointingly bad movie.  And this was not something that I wanted to admit.  I love DC Comics and these characters.  Superman and Wonder Woman are my two favorite super heroes of all time, yet I cannot in good conscious call this movie anything other than a hot mess.

Justice League is the fifth movie in the DC cinematic universe (unofficially referred to as the DC Extended Universe or DCEU for short) which was launched in 2013 with the Zack Snyder directed Man of Steel.  It was followed by 2016's Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, a film that was railed by critics and audiences alike and sadly set the stage for the failure of Justice League.  2016 also saw the release of the almost equally maligned Suicide Squad.  Things finally started to look up for the DCEU with the release of 2017's brilliant breakthrough Wonder Woman, a film beloved by both critics and fans.  My take on these films is as follows:
  1. Man of Steel is an excellent, modern origin of Superman that takes many cues from The New 52 and Superman Earth One, Vol, 1 but made some bold decisions that divided audiences.
  2. Batman V Superman Dawn of Justice Ultimate Edition is a great film that while far from perfect is leaps and bounds better than the version released in the theaters.
  3. Suicide Squad is kind of a mess, the characters and cast are fantastic but the story struggles and the villain stinks.
  4. Wonder Woman is freaking brilliant.
The story of the making of Justice League is a sad one that will hopefully be explored in some future documentary.  Most of what is out there is rumor but the gist of it is as follows--the executives at Warner Bros. were not happy with director Zack Snyder going into JL (thanks in large part to the "failure" of BvS) and wanted to let him go, but felt they couldn't because they were so far into pre-production of the film.  After Man of Steel, WB/DC announced BvS which was going to be closely followed by JL and its sequel (which was going to be filmed at the same time) thus getting the production balls rolling.  During the production of BvS, the executives got involved, cutting 30 some-odd minutes from the film to maximize the number of screenings per day.  This was the version released in theaters.  During this time Suicide Squad was also in production with these same executives getting their hands into the mix.  Director David Ayer has since admitted to being rushed, not knowing the characters/source material well enough, and picking the wrong villain (all of which he's done in a very classy manor, never pointing fingers or laying blame for the films flaws on anyone other than himself).  Thankfully and amazingly Wonder Woman director Patty Jenkins was left alone to make her movie.  During production of JL it was announced that they would only be working on one movie instead of two.  Early in 2017, Snyder was nearing completion of the project when he stepped away following a family tragedy.  Avengers director Joss Whedon had already been brought in to help with script re-writes and pickups and was handed the reigns of the film for completion.  Extensive re-shoots commenced and production on the film continued right up to its November 2017 release.  A release date that the studio refused to push back.  All of this is vitally important in understanding why this movie ultimately failed.  

Now keep all of this in mind as we look at the actual plot and story of the film.  Just to be clear, we're heading into deep spoiler territory from here on out.  If you haven't seen the movie and don't want to be spoiled, please come back once you've watched Justice League.  

The film opens with cellphone video footage of Superman being interviewed by some kids.  This was a scene added during the Whedon re-shoots that attempted to lighten the tone.  While a sweet moment it illustrates many of the problems with the film.  First off there's the issue of Superman's mouth.  After JL completed principle photography, Superman actor Henry Cavill went on to his next project.  No biggie, right?  Well for that film he had to grow a full mustache and since it was still in production when he was called back for the re-shoots, the studio refused to let Cavill shave.  Unfortunately the CGI used to remove said mustache just didn't work, thus making Superman's mouth and face look weird.  This wouldn't have been a major problem had only one or two of his scenes been re-shot, but it turns out the majority of the scenes of the man of steel in the finished product were from the re-shoots.  The next scene was very reminiscent of the open pages of The New 52's Justice League: Origin with Batman on the roof of a building in Gotham tracking a parademon.  This scene had some cool moments, including the first call back to the 1989 Batman theme by Danny Elfman, but it also didn't work because it didn't look at all like a real city.  Now yes I understand this is a movie about people with superpowers but hear me out.  The world of Justice League, it's looks and feel and aesthetic has been well established in four previous movies.  This roof-top scene does not look or feel like any location we've encountered in those previous films.  In fact, this set looks like something out of the 1989 Tim Burton directed Batman and while that was an amazing and beautiful film, it didn't look anything like the real world.  To borrow from one Robert Meyer Burnett, there is no verisimilitude in this scene to either the real world or the one established in Man of Steel and that's a problem.

The story of the film centers around Batman's attempts to recruit a team to defend the world against a pending invasion.  Said invasion comes in the form of Steppenwolf, one of the New Gods and an acolyte of Darkseid.  This is a plot similar to the previously mentioned New 52 JL origin story, the difference being the inclusion of Steppenwolf in lieu of Darkseid.  This choice may have gone back to the original plan of producing two films at once with the first centering on Steppenwolf and the second Darkseid but we'll probably never know.  The New Gods are a set of characters created for DC Comics by the great Jack Kirby that have a deep, rich history and mythology.  Adapting these characters for the screen is no easy task and sadly Justice League just didn't do them any, pun intended, justice.  Now ten years in to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, a set of films and shows that completely embrace the lore, nature, and wonder of their comic source material, we as comic fans have gotten use to films that treat the source material with reverence and don't shy away from the comic bookiness of it all.  In Justice League, the source material isn't given that same amount of reverence.  Obviously adaptations adapt and change things from the books but this film completely changed vital elements in what I can only assume was an attempt to make the story easier for mainstream audiences to understand.  Instead the film comes off like an insult to the viewers' intelligence by dumbing down the story.  Then there's the villain himself.  Steppenwolf is a completely flat threat that is out to conquer the world because reasons.  He is constantly talking to the Mother Boxes, calling them mother and yammering on about the "unity."  First off, none of it makes a damn bit of sense.  Second, this is one of those huge story element changes that just ruin the film.  But Jack Kirby is just too weird and out there for the average movie going public, right?  Oh really?  Just take a look at films like Thor Ragnarok, Black Panther, and The Avengers.  All three of those films are steeped in Kirby, they embrace it, and all three were HUGE successes (Black Panther just recently passed the $1 billion mark at the worldwide box office).

Another issue with the film is the tone.  One of the things Joss Whedon was apparently brought in to do is lighten the tone and he did do that.  Unfortunately, overall it didn't work.  There are moments and scenes that are brilliant but the film goes from dark and brooding one minute to light and quip filled the next.  The result is jarring and at times blatantly obvious which parts were Whedon written and directed and which was done by Snyder (brunch, I'm looking at you).  Here's the deal, Joss Whedon is a brilliant writer, director, and show runner.  Buffy the Vampire Slayer is one of my favorite shows of all time and The Avengers just speaks for itself.  Zack Snyder is a masterful director with an incredible eye for talent, makes films that always look incredible, and isn't afraid to make bold choices.  A movie helmed by these two should be incredible, right?  Maybe Justice League could have been had either one been allowed to actually make the film that he envisioned.  This movie feels like it was never allowed to be a Zack Snyder or a Joss Whedon film.  I believe this was caused by studio interference.  The executives at Warner Bros., or whoever was ultimately pulling the strings, completely ruined this movie.

Not everything in Justice League is bad.  The cast is outstanding.  Gal Gadot's Wonder Woman is strong and inspirational.  Ben Affleck's Batman is driven, obsessive, and pragmatic.  Ezra Miller's is fun, naive (in a good way), and is the voice of the audience.  Ray Fisher's Cyborg is complex and layered.  Jason Momoa's Aquaman is a total bad ass loner bro (which is amazingly a good thing).  And Henry Cavill finally gets to really be Superman, even if some of the dialogue is a bit hokey.  The group's chemistry is also off the charts as seen in the incredible scene on the transport where Aquaman reveals more than he plans thanks to the Lasso of Truth (my explanation doesn't do it justice but trust me when I tell you that it is great).  There's also the post credit scenes.  The first one is a fun race between The Flash and Superman and the second is this amazing set-up for a future film with Jesse Eisenberg reprising his role as Lex Luthor and Joe Manganiello playing Deathstroke.

In a lot of ways, DC's characters are harder to adapt to the big screen than Marvel's.  At their core, DC is fantasy and mythology while Marvel is science fiction and as we've seen over the years, adapting science fiction is much easier than adapting fantasy.  These characters are larger than life, godlike, and more that human, making them relatable isn't easy.  The DC character that has been the most successful in film is Batman and he's a regular dude (outside of the wealth and fighting/detective skills).  It's far easier to identify with Batman than Superman, for both the audience and the creators.  Characters like Superman and Wonder Woman are aspirational.  These are characters that, when done right, inspire you to be a better person.  They lead by example, hold people up to the light, give hope, and protect those who can't protect themselves.  The Justice League is comprise of the three greatest characters in comic book history, characters that are iconic and important, yet ones that aren't easy to do right.  In the case of Justice League, a lot of people understood these characters (especially the actors) but those who didn't seemed to have the final say.    Ultimately this film was wrecked by those in the studio that interfered, micromanaged, and didn't trust those they hired to do their jobs.  This is a film that showed tons of potential.  Just watch the footage that was Comic Con in 2016 (see below) and tell me that doesn't look awesome.  Sure the trailers for Batman V Superman also looked awesome but again that was a movie that was fucked with by the studio.

At the end of the day, it's hard to look at Justice League as anything other than a disappointment at best and an utter failure at worst.  Luckily there's enough good to not throw the entire thing out and start over; Aquaman is coming out in December while Shazam is in production and Wonder Woman 2 is in pre-production.  I want to see more of this world and these characters, desperately in fact.  It breaks my heart that Justice League was not good but I'm hopeful that the ship has righted its path and going forward things will improve. 

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