Monday, November 20, 2017

JUSTICE LEAGUE: a superhero all-star movie held back by low ambitions

Man of Steel Review
Batman v. Superman Theatrical Review (spoiler free) (spoiler discussion)
Batman v. Superman Ultimate Edition Review
Suicide Squad Review
Wonder Woman Review

JUSTICE LEAGUE represents the fifth film in the effort to mount a unified DC Universe on film, and as far as going forward, probably the most crucial piece of the puzzle. This isn't just another super-hero film - it's the all-star team of ANY superhero universe. Superman and Batman as individuals are more popular than anything Marvel has to offer and after this year, Wonder Woman is like right on their heels.

(Spider-Man has been consistently more popular than her throughout their publication history, and most of the former Marvel B-list has gotten a boost from the Marvel Studios films.)

The point is, WB if JUSTICE LEAGUE laid a major egg, it would have cemented the DC Cinematic Universe as a failure. As I compose this review, the final box office isn't in, and the financials of the film have very little to do with how good it is, so for now, let's exclude that from the definition of success. The real question that matters: is the movie any good?

Answer: Kinda? It's... okay?

Two weeks ago, I picked on THOR: RAGNAROK a bit for playing fast and loose with its structure and plot progression, but ultimately came down with the judgement that it was fun enough to still be a good movie. I won't be surprised if I see takes on JUSTICE LEAGUE that follow a similar path, but I think this film falls short in ways that undermine it more than THOR.

A failing of the film is a lack of attempt to reach for any higher theme. There are moments where the film seems to be TELLING us that it's about hope, but I never felt that emotion coming through on screen via the plot or the action. It's a very surface-level film. Though BATMAN V. SUPERMAN stumbled over its own themes, there was a very clear ambition to deal with how earth-shattering the existence of a being like Superman would be in political, social and religious issues. It's even the foundation of the Batman/Superman conflict in a way. I don't think it fully succeeded, and I won't even award points for trying but it shot for more depth than JUSTICE LEAGUE. It's a shame because finding those connections among the characters could have elevated the film. THOR: RAGNAROK might have had messy plotting at times, but the themes and characterization smoothed over those bumps.

The "plot" of JUSTICE LEAGUE is the most basic of any DCU movie so far. There are three "Mother Boxes" scattered across Earth and an evil villain named Steppenwolf has returned from  beyond with the goal of recapturing all three and assembling them, for doing so will unleash power that will destroy the world. Awakened to the threat, Batman and Wonder Woman go looking for other beings with enough power to fight Steppenwolf and his army of Parademons. This leads them to recruit The Flash, Aquaman, and Cyborg, who've all been operating under the rader until this point.

That's basically the plot - stop bad guy from getting boxes. Boxes end world. You might think this means we're getting a quest movie inside the film, but nope. Steppenwolf already knows where two of the boxes are and he easily reclaims him. Meanwhile Cyborg figures out where the third box is as soon as he's told about it, and the heroes almost gift-wrap that one for Steppenwolf to take.

Steppenwolf's plan is lacking in any sort of complexity, which is fitting because he's the thinnest comic book movie villain of anyone since the guy from THOR: THE DARK WORLD whose name I can't remember. Ultron might have been trapped in a weak movie, but at least he had a personality, a recognizable motive, and an ideology that made for interesting dramatic confrontations with our heroes. At this point, it's inexcusable for these movies to have paper-thin villains who are only able of challenging our heroes physically. They might as well have had Doomsday be the headlining villain for all the difference it makes.

There are three plots in play here:

1) Gather the heroes
2) Resurrect Superman
3) Beat up Steppenwolf.

They're not integrated especially cohesively. THE AVENGERS bent over backwards to not only make each team member's inclusion feel organic and necessary, it used their interpersonal dynamics to drive the plot forward, as when Loki starts messing with them. (For instance: Banner's included not because he's the Hulk, but because of his gamma radiation experience. The Hulk is what Loki uses against the other members.) Yes, AVENGERS also has an end-of-the-world plot, but Loki's a magnetic enough character to make the route there interesting. JUSTICE LEAGUE has a pretty decent handle on how our heroes interact with each other, but there's no meat to their dynamic with Steppenwolf.

The fly-by-night nature of the film is fairly evident in the gathering of the heroes. Batman is hunting powerful people (though really it's Lex who did the legwork. Bruce is just benefiting from it) rather than those characters emerging naturally from the story. Bruce goes looking for Aquaman and ends up running right into a huge clue about the Mother Box. I almost wish it had been the other way around, with Batman's Mother Box quest revealing Aquaman, and the result of that being Aquaman INSISTING on joining the team. It would have driven the story with more urgency and made Aquaman more proactive. I also feel like Cyborg could have been brought in via similar means, instead of Batman seeking him and him just happening to have a Mother Box connection.

That said, I like The Flash a lot in this film. He's the nervous comic relief, but he's played well as a contrast to Batman's stoicism and Wonder Woman's. Unlike Aquaman and Cyborg, I think this film works well as his introduction and there's a very charming scene just before the end credits that made me want to see this character on-screen again more than anything else. Weirdly, I think he's the only character to get anything resembling an actual arc, going from a guy who just "push[s] people and runs fast" to an actual hero who risks his life in battle.

The weird thing about Batman and Wonder Woman is that I enjoyed their screen time a lot, but they left me with very little to say about them. There's an interesting moment where the two clash and Batman points out that she spent a century in hiding. Of course, he immediately goes over the line in invoking Steve Trevor's name, but for a moment there I couldn't help but think, "He's... got a point, actually." I wish this movie gave us more understanding of why Diana went so public again and what it means for her to do that now. Maybe that's something being saved for WONDER WOMAN 2.

Now to talk about Superman. And to do that, we have to wade deep into spoiler territory. I don't want to get into half-assed autopsies about what was a changed, what was a reshoot and so on. There's a time for that talk, but the fact remains that this is the movie we've been presented with.

Learning about the power that the Mother Box has, Batman makes an INCREDIBLE leap to suppose that its power could be used to resurrect Superman. It's a jump that could have used more of an A-to-B thought process linking it. (Maybe the bad guys try to claim Superman's body for the same purpose and Batman figures it out?)

Batman's plan works... sort of. Superman is revived, but clearly not in his right mind. This facilitates a fight between the other heroes and Superman, including a really well-done moment where the Flash takes him on and realizes with horror that Superman can perceive him at super-speed. There's also an attempt at playing off of Batman's hate of Superman in BvS and how Superman might hold a grudge. It doesn't totally land because Superman's not in his right mind (and was allied with Bruce by the end of BvS) and Batman's turnaround from mistrusting Superman to embracing him as a symbol of inspiration and hope has never been all that clear.

The resurrection itself is a prime example of JL's low-stakes approach to things. Batman decides they need to use the Mother Box to jump-start Superman's dead body. To that end, they recover Superman's body and head to a gestation chamber in the crashed Kryptonian ship last seen in BvS. Flash activates the Mother Box, the energy hits Superman and instantly brings him back to life. See the problem? No obstacles.

I couldn't help but think of a similar resurrection sequence in the comic LEGION OF 3 WORLDS #4. In that issue, Superboy's dead body has been regenerating in a pod in Superman's Fortress. The Legion has gone there to complete the last stages of the process, which involves them choosing a very precise sequence of crystals. At the same time, the villain of the story, Superboy-Prime, has been told that if he and his team don't destroy the Fortress before the Legion is successful, Prime will lose.

So at that point there's an entire team of super villains bearing down on the Fortress, with the attack knocking out the one Legionnaire who knows how to use the crystals. Also, if the right sequence isn't activated before the countdown ends, the entire procedure will fail. So we've got two ticking clocks - a literal one and a "how long can the bad guys be kept at bay" one. The sequence is squeezed for maximum tension with the pressure from the battle forcing a decision inside without much contemplation.

None of that tension is present in the Superman resurrection sequence. There's a world-ending scenario going on and none of that urgency is brought to bear as they try this extremely unproven Hail Mary that forms one of the story's major turning points.

With that said, JUSTICE LEAGUE improves on BvS in at least one necessary aspect: it gets Superman VERY right. Cavill is finally allowed to be charming and relatively angst free. Superman is a friendly, heroic presence and the "boy scout" warmth that Reeve delivered so well is finally present in this Superman. His costume is even in the correct brighter shades of red and blue!

Superman gets too little to do, and it's a mark against the film that it fails to supply one truly iconic and heroic Superman image. (There's a moment that feels like it's aiming to be the equivalent of Reeve's "General, would you care to step outside?" but it falls short due to staging and score.) Even so, between the way he's handled here and the end narration, there's a clear message sent: "Okay, we get it. We know how to do Superman now. He's fixed." I left BATMAN V. SUPERMAN bummed that they had gotten Superman so wrong. Leaving this film, my attitude was: Bring on MAN OF STEEL 2.

While I'm on this kick, I think it's total bullshit that JUSTICE LEAGUE gives no resolution to Clark's "death." From the moment BvS showed that Clark Kent was as confirmed dead as Superman, I felt it was a mistake and could only be justified if there was an incredibly clever "out" that would explain Clark's resurrection to the world. JUSTICE LEAGUE instead kicks this can down the road for the next Superman to deal with, which feels incredibly unfair to a movie that should have gotten a clean slate.

(I should mention that basically NONE of the JUSTICE LEAGUE foreshadowing in BvS pays off, bolstering my contention that Bruce's two nightmares and the sequence of videos that Luthor compiled could have easily been cut out and kept the movie moving more efficiently.)

By the end of the movie we're left with a brighter DCU in general and a world that feels worth returning to. The only locked-in follow-ups at this point are AQUAMAN in 2018 and WONDER WOMAN 2 and SHAZAM in 2019. The fate of FLASHPOINT will apparently be decided soon. CYBORG and GREEN LANTERN CORPS have been said to be on tap for 2020, but no production has begun.

Jason Momoa was okay as Aquaman, in a very different interpretation from the comics. I'm not itching for an AQUAMAN film, but I'll check it out. I'd line up today for WONDER WOMAN 2, though, and Ezra Miller was enough of a delight as Flash that I'll be happy to have him back in either a lead or supporting capacity. Cyborg, I could take or leave, though.

In the end, I didn't get everything I wanted from this film, but I feel reassured that the people behind the scenes at last get what they should be making. Hopefully the future of DC films is fewer SUICIDE SQUADS and more movies like WONDER WOMAN.

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