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Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Review: JUSTICE LEAGUE, a choppy course correction for the DC movieverse

Trying to write about Warner’s most important film of the year (not symbolically, but in a dollars and cents fashion) Justice League, is an almost surreal experience. I’ve spent the better part of four years writing articles about its casting, its up and downs, its re-writes, its re-shoots, and now it’s finally here as a living, breathing exercise in film craft.
The question of whose craft in particular is a notable one. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice director Zack Snyder oversaw all of the initial principal photography on this sequel that brings together Batman, 2017’s biggest action star Wonder Woman, and the subject of Lex Luthor’s early experiments in branding: Aquaman, The Flash, and Cyborg. Sadly, terrible circumstances forced Snyder to leave the production before reshoots were set to begin just ahead of post, and Snyder and the studio enlisted former Avengers front-man Joss Whedon to come in, knock out the reshoots that he himself wrote, and then oversee the final edit and vfx.
This unlikely marriage is not a graceful one, with more than its fair share of shaggy dog elements, but when the book is closed on it all – Justice League is largely a pretty fun time and the needed corrective this franchise has been desperate to receive. Not even Wonder Womanworked this hard to pivot the entire DC Films canon into a different, but welcome, tonal direction shift.
The story of Justice League is no great stroke of genius, it’s your standard superhero template. After coming face to face with a Parademon, Batman and Wonder Woman realize they’ll need to pull together the metahumans they’ve been keeping tabs on (please don’t ask me how this connects to Batman’s appearances in Suicide Squad) to fight a particularly garish looking CGI-version of Steppenwolf. Taking a page out of the “collect the stones” uber-premise of their chief rivals, this take on the Apokoliptian General is aiming to combine the three existing Mother Boxes that were individually hidden in ancient times by the Amazons, Atlanteans, and the tribes of humanity (all three of which had previously resisted him). Thanks to the civil strife that has appeared in the wake of Superman’s death, the world is again ripe for Steppenwolf’s return, prompting Batman and Wonder Woman into full recruitment mode. But will it be enough?
The premise as presented is solid and straight-forward, if pretty safe, which is fine. It’s relatively clear that Whedon cut quite a bit of the film down to its barest essentials. There’s one mention of Darkseid, Apokolips is only hinted at, and if you didn’t know better, you wouldn’t be blamed for thinking Steppenwolf was basically a lone agent. Just about all the other New Gods stuff, which presumably did exist in one form or another, was subject to the cutting room floor – including my favorite part of Batman v Superman, the “Knightmare/Batman in the desert/Flash travels to the past to warn him” sequence. It’s okay, Steppenwolf is deadly dull anyway, and it’s pretty clear Whedon (or whomever deserves that credit) realized that and the film takes a much tighter focus on the Leaguers and their interactions with one another.
One of my disappointments with the Avengers films, especially the first, is in how much time is taken to find ways to create conflict between teammates, eventually leading to a movie where the entire point is that conflict (a movie I liked a lot, but I digress). As the DC side of building this type of universe basically began with that conflict, this allows Justice League to luxuriate in the budding friendships between all these characters. It’s not quite what I’d call a “hang-out film” but there are times when it starts to butt up against it. Though a lot of the praise there needs to be heaped on Ezra Miller’s take on The Flash.
There was a lot of side-eyeing from fandom when it was announced that Miller would play the big screen version of Barry Allen, particularly from fans of his small-screen counterpart. But if there’s an MVP of this entire affair, it’s 125% Miller. With a constant sense of exuberance, enthusiasm, and a nice helping of deadpan, The Flash livens up just about every scene he’s in, be it his growing friendship with the forever boring Cyborg, getting tongue-tied around Wonder Woman, trading barbs with Aquaman, and his slight mentorship with Batman – Barry Allen is easily the most fully-formed character on screen and gets the most benefit from the film’s need to introduce three other heroes and induct them into the team before the action really begins. I can see why Flashpoint is being made a crucial film within the upcoming slate.
Aquaman doesn’t quite make as much of an impression, though he gets a few nice action beats and there’s nothing here that hurts his case as a solo film star. He also gets the movie’s funniest moment towards the kick-off of the third act. Cyborg though? Forget about it. Ray Fisher has the bad luck of having to play straight man, with an undercooked tragic backstory, while also looking like a cgi nightmare. I spent a good deal of the running time wishing Martian Manhunter was taking up this spot instead.
And yes, Gadot is still excellent, and well suited as the leader of the team, more or less. You could tell there was a man behind the camera though, as we get maybe just a few too many shots of her backside that we were spared in her own outing earlier this year.
But despite its individual parts, some better than others, the real core of the film is in how it attempts to meld Snyder’s action-centric chops with Whedon’s whip-smart ear for dialogue. Again, for the most part, it works. There’s a few insert shots that were clearly added by the latter to pump in just a little more levity, and sometimes there’s a few noticeable hitches in that process, such as slight differences in Affleck’s facial hair or weight, or the occasional flashes of green screen usage within an otherwise fully exterior sequence, but it’s a surprisingly smooth process, except for two clear issues.
  1. Henry Cavill’s digitally removed mustache is incredibly distracting when it appears, which is mostly in fleeting shots, but the movie actually opens with a full-on longer take where Cavill’s face looks like a cartoon. Not a great foot to start out on.
  2. Snyder and Whedon seem to have different conceptions of Batman in mind, with Snyder’s take playing a bit rugged and younger, while Whedon is pitching him a bit more tired and aching to hand off the reins to the new generation of heroes. These warring visions of Bruce Wayne never quite gel, and Affleck’s weight fluctuating between the two only serves to widen this gap. There are points where he just starts to look ridiculous in the suit, and if it wasn’t obvious already, it’s painfully clear that Batfleck’s time is coming to an end.
Not much can be done about the latter, but the former is bit of a shame, as this is the movie where Superman is finally done some justice. The color gradients on his suit are pumped way up, he gets to actually smile a number of times, and even crack jokes with his new teammates. This is the Superman you’ve been waiting to see on the big screen and Cavill finally gets to showcase just why he really is a perfect fit for the role. If you can look past the digital chicanery that crops up for him every other scene, Superman fans have a lot to look forward to.
In all, Justice League serves its purpose in transforming the formerly grim and gritty DC-verse into a brighter, more hopeful place – it’s not even subtle, it’s outright stated in the film’s text. It’s a mixed bag, but never not entertaining on its own terms. It doesn’t quite hit those same sublimes as Wonder Woman‘s middle act, but there’s a lot of pleasure to be gained in watching these heroes pair off and shoot the breeze. It’s the funniest DC movie, it has my favorite Superman in action moment on film maybe ever, and it paints an exciting way forward for the entries that will follow in its wake.
Also, for better or worse, this is the rare blockbuster I look forward in trying to analyze and get an even better sense of how its two filmmakers blended together. One of those examples where the process may be more intriguing than the finished product.

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