Justice League – 2017
Directed by Zack Snyder, Joss Whedon
Screenplay by Chris Terrio & Whedon
Starring Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Gal Gadot, Ezra Miller, Jason Momoa, Ray Fisher, Jeremy Irons, Diane Lane, Connie Nielson, J.K. Simmons
The second saddest thing about the Justice League film is that they didn’t finish it. So much went into improving the flailing stature of the D.C. Cinematic Universe, its a shame that all the efforts went to waste. The success or failure of this film is secondary to the fact that the lead visionary of this universe is going through the most horrible time of his life in the wake of his daughter’s death.
What I can tell you about the story you can literally guess. A big bad guy takes the opportunity of Superman’s death to work his way back to the dimension / planet / etc. He needs to find the appropriate MacGuffins to pull off his big plan.
Batman (Affleck) gathers evidence that something big is brewing. As he works to figure out what is happening, he takes the evidence that Lex Luthor (Eisenberg) gathered in BvS: Dawn of Justice and tracks down the heroes therein to form a team to fight the oncoming doom.
There are several things about this film that are marked improvements over everything we’ve seen outside of this year’s triumphant Wonder Woman. To wit, the things that are better:
- Diana Prince / Wonder Woman (Gadot)- She’s taken the load of leadership in this film, and it helps immensely knowing that the lynch pin is so articulately and powerfully drawn. Yes, she’s a woman, and that’s great. She’s also a fleshed out character, thanks to her last film and at least they didn’t waste that by pushing her back. She is the Captain America of this Universe, and they’re playing wise by ramping that up.
- Barry Allen / The Flash – I had questions about the choice, even with his varied work in The Perks of Being a Wallflower and Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them. I sort of liked Grant Gustin, but there is no way they could mix the darkness of the features with the muted goofiness of the television world. Miller is great because he’s awkward and not too funny. Whether this is because of the script or his skill, he feels like he lucked into his spot on the team. This makes us feel like we are stealing our own way onto this team of giants.
- Arthur Curry / Aquaman – Jason Momoa was another stretch in my mind, until I saw him. I always pictured the completely Aryan Super Friends version who might as well have been the Professor from Gilligan’s Island. Every moment he takes the screen, Momoa redefines the role in a charismatic and inventive way. He completely wins every scene that he occupies.
- Batman / Alfred – Seeing them work in tandem shows that Batman in his advanced age needs all of the help he can get. Affleck’s Bruce Wayne has no business being in this group in his present condition. He gathers all sorts of pain with all of the wisdom he’s gained. It’s nice to see him handling the less powerful bugs instead of concocting some way for him to take on the big guy.
- Camaraderie – The conceit that brings this team together is actually not too bad. Giving us three MacGuffins, one held by the Atlantians, one by the Amazons and one by some random group of Anglos gives us a reason for representatives from all of the groups. I am glad they tied Cyborg in with this route. Overall, it is a tight and effective story line that doesn’t need tons of screen time to tie everything together. This is the primary reason the film clocks in at under 2 hours and still gives most of the cast some reason to be in the story.
- Bringing back Superman. I won’t tell you how they do it. What I will say is that the process contained some of the most wonderfully comic visions in the whole series. It was intense, well choreographed and the cinematography is spot on.
Now let’s get to what doesn’t work and – ultimately – why they should have put this film off for at least half a year instead of releasing it to meet a deadline:
- Steppenwolf – This character is the worst in a series of horrible animated nemeses. The reasons are many, but mainly because they have not learned the lesson from their previous films. Each big bad cartoon, from Doomsday to Enchantress, then Ares, seems like a challenge to make something more pedestrian and horribly drawn. This time, they’ve topped themselves. Taking the inimitably dark charisma of Hinds and hiding him behind something that, at best, looks like clay is just a horrible distraction. Marvel has its share of boring animated bad guys, but at least the animation looks half-way decent.
- Antagonists in general – so far, only the peripheral bad actors have been interesting. Lex Luthor, Amanda Waller and the pair of red herrings in Wonder Woman all work way better than the final boss. Even the fly zombies from this film are not nearly as bad as Steppenwolf. In short, the job of the antagonist is to create chaos, build a compound, roll off exposition, then wait to have it all undone, like so many villains from Scooby Doo. It’s a useless trope that takes any sense of urgency away from the protagonists and the plot. Maybe if they kept moving and were harder to find…no, they’d still be boring and proclaiming how it’s “Impossible!” in the end. We need more varied conclusions that don’t require such goofy effects. Think of the last two Captain America films, or even the latest Spiderman. Real people, up close. Feints that lead to subtle turns. Real stakes.
- Bringing back Superman – Look, it was stupid that they even thought to kill him off in the first place. At least half of the enjoyment of a film is thinking you don’t know what the plot is. Once he took the krypton spike, the second half of Justice League was written. At least when they killed off Spock, Nimoy was actually not wanting to continue the films for a moment. I won’t pretend that this was enjoyable at all. It’s lack of surprise left me more time to…
- Contemplating Superman’s mustache – Yep, as bad as Steppenwolf was, one had no problem discerning the re-shoots because every scene that had a weird upper lip just seemed funny for the wrong reason. I have come to rue the treatment of Cavill’s very capable performance, because I think he’s got a ton of talent.
- Contemplating the genius talent of Joss Whedon – I think there’s a reason he left his name out of the director credits and placed it in the screenplay credits for this film. He even liked a tweet where someone described Steppenwolf as the worst possible bad guy for the DCEU. What this provides Whedon is culpable deniability for not correcting the bad stuff while credit for doing good stuff for this film. It also makes him a douche, as well as a hypocritical gasbag. But we know that already. I will not deny his talent, but I won’t put him on my emergency contact list, either.
Look this film is a likable mess. It’s really got more going for it than it should. The real culprit is film release date mentality, which doesn’t forgive life events nor does it allow for course correction. It takes a strong studio to back their talent and push for good product. We’ve seen Star Wars push back release dates, and Marvel made room for Spiderman while pushing back some more developed material. They haven’t pushed out perfect films, but theirs aren’t struggling like DC continues to strain.
If they’d given the development of this film another year, what would have changed? We get Aquaman sooner. Maybe Flash. Maybe another way to resurrect Superman in his own film with special guest stars. It’s not like we didn’t know. Point is, this film only changes for the better if they give the team more time to create. It’s when you have to make a deadline that you get the stupid King of the Mountain endings.
Odds are we’re going to see a much lighter universe going forward. This isn’t even entirely due to the possible move to the background for Snyder. Gal Gadot’s push to get Brett Ratner out of the picture will make a difference, too. They’ve hung around long enough to find stuff that can work. The key is finding different creatives to move in and perhaps give more power to Patty Jenkins. She’s already shown her different lens has an appeal. Performance-based incentives should always be welcome.
I want to see more films with this cast. They are likable and they have something to offer. A deliberate altering of the path needs to happen behind to make that talent come alive.
(**1/2 out of *****)