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Thursday, November 23, 2017

Justice League

Or, as I like to think of it: Justice League of America in the Case of the Uncanny Moustache!

Seriously, I know it's not politically correct or necessarily accurate to call it Justice League of America but "Justice League" always sounds to me like only half a title.

Yeah, things are probably about to get a bit nerdy...

Plot: With Superman dead and the world on the brink of facing a full-on invasion by an ancient evil, Batman and Wonder Woman recruit a team of like-minded individuals to stand for Truth, Justice and the American (?) Way!

Review: After Wonder Woman proved that films set in the DCEU (DC Extended Universe, for those not keeping track at home) don't have to objectively suck - and, in the case of Wonder Woman, could actually be pretty damn good - all eyes were on Justice League of America to see if Warners/ DC would learn from its recent success, or if Wonder Woman was just a fluke and we would be back to the low, low levels of Batman V Superman and Suicide Squad. And, to be perfectly honest, things did not look good.

Zack Snyder had already proven himself to be the wrong man for the job with Man of Steel and Batman V Superman so, for all of his promises that this would be lighter and more fun than the dour, tone-deaf nonsense of Batman V Superman, it already looked like Justice League of America was doomed to fail. Then tragedy struck and a truly horrible family tragedy caused Snyder to leave the project and the completion of the film was handed over to none other than Joss Whedon. This was not something to celebrate. Quite aside for it being thoroughly despicable and unspeakably inhuman to celebrate the tragedy of someone whose worst crime is making a bunch of bad movies, Whedon may be one of my favourite genre writers ever but I could hardly think of a filmmaker whose humane, witty and character-driven vision would fit at all with someone who is, charitably, all about style over substance. They may balance each other out but, more likely, their styles would clash on every possible level.

With all that said, the fact that Justice League of America doesn't actively suck is a huge achievement. I mean, it's not great. It's nowhere near as good as the many Marvel movies whose success it's trying to replicate, nor does it come remotely close to Patty Jenkins' wonderful work on Wonder Woman or Christopher Nolan on most of his Dark Knight trilogy. It ain't half bad, though - which may seem like damning with faint praise considering that it's a film that features some of my favourite fictional characters ever (and Cyborg) and that my ten-year-old self still can't quite believe actually exists - but considering both its production woes and that this is the same guy who all but destroyed Superman for a whole generation, "not half bad" is virtually a ringing, five-star endorsement.

The Bad

To end this on a bit of an optimistic note - which the film itself doesn't necessarily do with its return of a certain someone in its post-credit scene - let's get the bad stuff out of the way first.

Superhero films do not, by the greatest stretch of the imagination, have the best of plots; with pretty much all of them being much more about the characters themselves than the increasingly cliched stop-the-bad-guy stories in which they find themselves. It's why something like the espionage thrills of Winter Soldier was such a notable entry into the Marvel Universe - though, even there, it was still the characters that were the focus. With this in mind, I probably shouldn't hold it against Justice League of America (OK, I'll stop) that its basic story is such utter garbage but it's particularly guilty for two very important reasons.

First, superhero plots usually aren't great but what the better superhero films actually do with them can be and often are. Execution is the name of the game and with a strong focus on character and - in the case of real standouts like Wonder Woman - theme, the most basic and familiar plot could be as exciting and compelling as the most intricately woven political thrillers. Justice League does have some nice character beats (and more on that in a bit) but most of the good stuff done with them is either based on an action set piece or on some fun interaction; just about all of it is completely disconnected from the plot itself. Plot is seldom anything more than a skeleton on which superhero films structure themselves but Justice League's plot is so bad and the telling of it so disjointed (no doubt thanks to both its truncated running time and conflicting directorial visions) that even at its very best, the film feels like a connection of cool bits rather than a satisfying whole.

And, just to be clear, I find the idea that it's just like a JLA comic by Grant Morrison or Mark Waid to be utterly preposterous. It lacks both the disciplined storytelling of the latter and the sheer ingenuity and imagination of the former. There have been tons of virtually unreadable Justice League comics over the years, and this film is certainly better than them, but it's nowhere close to the best JLA/JLI/JLE comics by the likes of Waid, Morrison or Giffen and DeMatteis.

And this brings me to my second major problem with the shoddiness of the plot and much of the storytelling. Snyder, Whedon and co-writer Chris Terrio have dived head first into Jack Kirby's Fourth World and the fact that they can't find something interesting to do with one of the most epic and imaginative creations in all of American comics is frankly unforgivable. Along with Kirby's eye-popping designs, the New Gods and their primeval battle of good vs evil in the forms on New Genesis and Apocolypse is modern-day myth-making at its very best and should provide the perfect base for a visually stunning and narratively engaging (if, yes, potentially straightforward) superhero movie.

Justice League callously squanders all this. The ingenious Mother Boxes are turned into lame McGuffins, while all we have of the wonderfully colourful denizens of New Genesis and Apocalypse are the admittedly cool-looking Parademons and a needlessly CGI-take on Steppenwolf, who is already far from the best of the villains in that mythology but is just beyond lame here. Forget the bloody build-up. Where the hell is Darkseid when you need him? Hell, I would have settled for Granny Goodness and Kaliback!

See. I told you this would get nerdy.

The Ugly

As for the visuals, things lighten up a bit after the tone-deaf, monochromatic colour pallet of Snyder's previous DCEU films but it still has none of the imagination or colour of Kirby's vision - or even just doing something visually interesting with fictional cities like Gotham or Metropolis. And I really don't know where to begin with the costume designs in the film.

Batman and Wonder Woman unsurprisingly come out OK, Aquaman looks cool enough and I suppose I can even forgive the overly busy design of Superman's now much brighter suit but what the hell were they thinking with the Flash? It's not just that his costume looks a thousand times worse than the duds that Grant Gustin currently sports as the Flash but they have taken one of the top-5 superhero suits in comics and replaced it with something so ugly that its ugliness somehow even infects everyone else around them. As long as Flash is in the frame, those Justice League group shots just look terrible - even when literally everyone else on the team looks perfectly fine.

That this all comes less than a month after Taika Waittiti and his crack team did serious justice to Jack Kirby with the gloriously garish Thor Ragnarok, only reinforces how far the DCEU is from really capturing the comics. The fact that they mostly refuse to actually use those goofy codenames (Flash and Wonder Woman are never called anything but Barry Allen and Diana Prince, respectively) or even call the group the Justice League of America (sorry!) only reinforces their stubborn refusal to embrace the intrinsic, wonderful silliness of these creations - which, weirdly, just makes them look all the sillier because of it.

The Bad (Redux)

OK, we're almost at the good bits - as you can see, Justice League clearly had to earn those six stars - but one final complaint: with most of the League in good shape, could they not do something with Superman and Cyborg? Yes, Superman returns (there's a title in there somewhere). If you want to consider that a spoiler, knock yourself out, but come on, it's Superman! As I was saying, Superman returns and he is much more Superman-like in his few short appearances here than he was in the entirety of Man of Steel and BvS combined. What's the problem, then? Well, it's two-fold.

First, I'm sorry but Henry Cavill may look the part and he may well be a perfectly decent actor elsewhere but the guy doesn't have the right kind of charm, warmth, humour or charisma to convincingly play Superman. Brandon Routh is a more convincing Superman when playing the Atom in Legends of Tomorrow (incidentally, awesome show: just start with the second season ) than Cavill is even at his best, which, by all indications, he is at here.

Second, there's the mustache problem. For those who don't obsessively read movie and comics new sites, if you're wondering why the undeniably ludicrously handsome Cavill looks so thoroughly off-putting in most of his scenes, it's because he was sporting a huge mustache for another role when he was called back to do reshoots (or, as seems to be the case, just "shoots") for Justice League - and, instead of doing the obvious things of shaving and wearing a fake mustache for the rest of that other film, some genius decided that the way to go was for him to keep the mustache and to erase it in Justice League through the dubious magic of CGI. The result is every bit as bad as you might expect. It's the uncanny valley in microcosm and it's disturbing as hell.

And then there's Cyborg. The decision to include Cyborg as one of the founding members of the League is a recent one in the comics and it is quite clearly the result of forced "diversity". Throughout his history Cyborg has been a mainstay of the Teen Titans/ Titans and was used well enough there as one of that team's b-listers. This half human-teenager/ half machine has never been all that interesting in and of himself but he's been perfectly fine as a supporting player in the quite soap-operatic Teen Titans over the years with his constant quest to come to terms with his two halves.

Making him a founding member of the Justice League has done nothing but hurt the Justice League and the Teen Titans at the same time, as he is completely out of place in the former, while his absence in the latter has resulted in the Titans always feeling just a bit off. That he replaced J'onn J'onzz, the Martian Manhunter, as a founding Leaguer is especially dumb as this attempt to add diversity by adding a black character was done by removing a character that hasn't only been played by black actors in both the Justice League animated series and the Supergirl TV show but is a character who symbolizes the experience of black people in America almost as well as Superman symbolizes the immigrant experience of Irish, Italian and, most especially, Jewish Americans in the early 20th century.

This, of course, didn't necessarily mean that he wouldn't work as a founding member in the Justice League movie. Departures from the source material are to be expected with any adaptation from one medium to the next so there was no real reason to assume that Cyborg wouldn't work in this context. Unfortunately, he is every bit as out of place here as he is in the comics. Cyborg, as presented in this film, is at best extremely bland and at worst, a terrible "angry young black man" stereotype. And, despite not looking much younger than Ezra Miller's Flash, he still feels like he belongs to a much younger superhero team. Funny that.

The Good

At long last, we get to the stuff about Justice League that actually works. It's actually not as long a list as those things about Justice League that don't work but there are two things in their favour. First, they are, quite simply, enjoyable enough that they make up for at least some of the film's abundance of weaknesses. Second, they result in a DCEU film not named Wonder Woman that doesn't make me extremely angry and as a long-time DC Comics fan, that's not nothing.

What works about the film, in short, is its tone, some of its action scenes and (most of) its characters. It's nice to see that despite feeling quite separate from the rest of the DCEU, Wonder Woman's humour and sense of optimism was not a once-off occurrence and that it has made its way into a film that makes at least some moves to replace the dour portentousness of Man of Steel and BvS with genuine lightness and fun, as well as plenty of that optimism and humour that made Wonder Woman so great. It doesn't use them remotely as well as Wonder Woman and its two different directors do still create an uneasy tone but it's at least a step in the right direction. A fairly desperate, carefully calculated step, but a step nonetheless.

It also certainly can't be denied that for all of Snyder's many faults, he can stage a visually impressive action scene. They might be vacuous and lacking in any real visceral impact but, man, do they look cool. Wonder Woman and the Flash, especially, get some really fun stuff to do - even if most of these are before the inevitable CGI-overload of the film's final act. Plus, it has to be said, a particular set piece with Superman did get a huge whoop from the audience I was seeing it with, and if even this more cynical version of Superman can still elicit that kind of reaction, there may be some hope left in this version of the DC Universe after all

By far the best thing about Justice League, though, is the character interactions. Superman doesn't have much to do with the team and Cyborg is still meh, but the rest are just loads of fun. I mean, sure, you could just put them together in a room that has nothing to do with the sub-sub-sub-Kirby nonsense happening in the plotty bits of the film and you'd have much the same effect -  and, indeed, they do precisely that on more than one occasion, and these are, unsurprisingly, the best scenes in the film.

Ezra Miller's Barry Allen bears little relation to pretty much any other version of the character ever - it's interesting that Barry's slightly awkward nerdiness has been reinterpreted so differently here and in the TV show - and they could have dialed down his comic-relief schtick by about 20% but he is charming and he is fun and his interactions with Cyborg is really the only thing that salvages that character at all.

Aquaman has long been one of the biggest jokes in DC's stable of heroes but he has had a real renaissance in recent years and that definitely continues with Jason Momoa's take on the character. Mind you, that he bears the closest resemblance to Peter David's lengthy take on the character in the 1990s does show that the whole "Aquaman is lame" thing has always been blown out of proportion. Incidentally, the fact that neither Peter David nor Mark Waid are thanked in the credits is a perfect example of allowing politics to get in the way of giving credit where it's due. Momoa's Aquaman is much more of a meathead than any other version of the character but he's still a fun, rogue-ish element in the team.

Ben Affleck is, once again, very good as both Bruce Wayne and Batman, bringing a much lighter touch to the character than the ultra-intensity of Christian Bale, and the fact that he's not a cold-blooded killer this time around makes him work quite a bit better as the film's main male superhero. Seeing this loner trying to work with a team is a large part of the character dynamics in the film and it is, to both Snyder and Whedon's credit, handled very well. It's easy to overplay Batman as the ultimate Jerk so it's great to see that they don't go down that path here.

As for Batman's chief ally, the League's only female superhero and still, by far, the main star of the film, Gal Gadot's Wonder Woman, well, by now you should know exactly what to expect. She's not as good here as she was in her own film - the synergy between Gadot and Patty Jenkins cannot be overstated - but she is still the best thing about the film. She has, in effect, taken over the Superman role here as the most powerful, warmest, kindest and most aspirational hero in the League - all but one of which remains true even after Superman's return - and Gadot just kills every minute in that role.

The film is also full of A-list actors in supporting roles, though some (Jeremy Irons) and definitely better than others (the usually brilliant Amy Adams).

Saving the DCEU

Getting past the film itself, the big question is does it have a chance in hell of saving a cinematic universe that has done fine in the box office but, with that one obvious exception aside, been rightly derided by critics and disappointed many a hardcore fan as well. From where I'm sitting, the whole enterprise is in better shape than it was this time of year as Wonder Woman showed that loosening the shared universe aspect of these films can result in something pretty wonderful, while Justice League showed that even this shared universe isn't quite dead yet. Justice League is no glorious resurrection but it is a sign that it might be too early to write the DCEU off just yet.

At least, this is what I thought before the weekend's box office report came in. The reviews for the film weren't great, to be sure, but they were significantly better than Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad. What is "worrying", though, is that the film hasn't exactly been warmly embraced by the fans - indeed, a bunch of fans disliked it enough to have created a petition demanding a "Snyder" cut, despite that cut being woefully incomplete - and its failure to reach $100 million at the US Box Office (we should all have such problems) has no doubt made the studio bigwigs very worried about future instalments in this extended franchise.

I wouldn't be surprised if they keep Gadot's Wonder Woman, junk the rest and start virtually from scratch. And, honestly, however much of an improvement I found Justice League to be over its real predecessors, this is one case where the "suits" may just be right.

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