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Justice League

I could write a whole ‘nother blog entry on all the behind-the-scenes drama surrounding this film. And to be clear, I’m talking about the 2017 movie — the failed attempt a decade ago is its own kettle of fish. I could talk about the frantic rewrites following BvS, or Joss Whedon stepping in to reshoot and rewrite the movie even further, after the heartbreaking suicide of Zack Snyder’s daughter in mid-production. (RIP Autumn Snyder.) Though of course, that was before word got around that Whedon had committed numerous marital infidelities with fans and colleagues alike. I could talk about WB and Rotten Tomatoes withholding the Tomatometer rating until after the film’s release. Hell, I could go into my own hypothesis about the November release date, speculating that WB/DC is jockeying for Oscar gold (the technical awards, if nothing else) on top of the box office take. And what about that whole scandal with the Amazonian costumes, all notably skimpier than they were in Wonder Woman?

I don’t want to write a whole blog entry on any or all of that, but I could.

As far as I’m concerned, it all boils down to this: If rampant behind-the-scenes difficulties were all that Justice League ever had to worry about, simply not being awful probably would’ve been enough. But no, this was a movie that fans had been anticipating for years. Moreover, it’s tied with the third Pirates of the Caribbean entry as the second-most expensive movie of all time (with a reported $300 million budget), not even counting all the hundreds of millions that went into a ubiquitous ad campaign, plus the shaky future of the DC cinematic superfranchise as a whole.

Anything less than “absolutely fucking incredible” was not going to cut it. And the film doesn’t come anywhere near that mark.

To be clear, none of the movie’s problems are dealbreakers. To start with, while product placement is still an issue, it’s nowhere near as obnoxious or ubiquitous as in the previous films. More importantly, the movie has obviously been color-corrected into oblivion to try and match the more brightly-colored Marvel films. It looks kind of obnoxious, and some of the action beats are still incomprehensible. That said, after so many years bemoaning the lack of color in these movies, I’ll gladly take this over more of what we’ve seen so far.

Likewise, while Danny Elfman’s score is serviceable, it’s still misguided. His original Batman theme may be a classic, but it’s way out of place here. And a symphonic arrangement of Hans Zimmer’s theme for Wonder Woman simply doesn’t work. That song needs to be played with the booming drumbeat and the wailing otherworldly electric guitar because those instrument choices perfectly symbolize this warrior from a strange land. Play it with more conventional instruments and it falls apart. Still, at least we were spared that godawful new theme for Batman, which distinctly sounded like Junkie XL beating his head against a keyboard in a frustrated lack of inspiration (DUUUN DUN-DUN-DUN DUUUN DUUUN).

Speaking of Batman, this whole interpretation of the character was definitely a mistake. I get the concept of an older, more cynical, more experienced and scarred Batman to clash with the younger and more idealistic Superman, but making him this huge tank of a man was an awful choice. Right up front in the intro, we see Batman zipping around every which way, and it doesn’t work nearly as well when the character is this huge. This is a Batman who’s clearly a straight-up brawler, which is great in a cage match with criminal thugs or even in a Kryptonite-fueled brawl with Superman. But in this movie, it takes pretty much everything Batman has just to take down a single disposable Parademon scout. Against so many massive hordes of them in the fight scenes, he’s effectively useless. His gadgets don’t even make all that much of a difference, even after his Batmobile has been rendered ungodly hideous by all the heavy artillery tacked on.

Last but not least, Ben Affleck goes through the whole movie looking like he would rather be literally anywhere else. It’s not that he’s a bad actor (though his fluctuating weight changes are conspicuous and annoying), it’s just that Affleck doesn’t seem all that invested in playing one of pop culture’s most iconic superheroes. And this is the guy that WB/DC entrusted with one of their flagship characters. Well, at least he won’t be around for Matt Reeves’ upcoming films, so there’s that.

Moving on, I’m sorry to say that Aquaman is similarly at a loss for much to do during the action scenes. Granted, a lot of that has to do with the fact that his powers are water-based and most of the action takes place on land. And he does have super-strength, so it’s not like he’s completely useless, but it still gets kind of boring to see him just whack any random thing in trident’s reach with no regard to strategy or creativity. To be clear, Jason Momoa is charming enough to hold the screen and he shows an infectious kind of fun, but he doesn’t have enough to work with here. Between the character’s obnoxious and paper-thin “lone wolf loose cannon” act and his regrettably unclear place in the society of Atlantis, the character is frustratingly opaque.

Then we have Cyborg. I still can’t believe we have a constant source of brooding, angst, and daddy issues to make Bruce freaking Wayne look good, yet here we are. That said, at least it’s written well enough and Ray Fisher turns in a surprisingly good performance under so much CGI. It also helps that the character has a nicely developed arc and the filmmakers found a lot of creative ways to keep him involved.

Next up is The Flash. While every character gets at least one moment of comic relief (an incident with the Lasso of Truth comes to mind), Barry Allen is typically referenced as the most obvious means of injecting more comic relief into the DC cinematic universe, post-BvS. Sure enough, he’s your typical geeky and awkward millennial stereotype who makes a ton of observational wisecracks. He’s very clearly a stand-in character for the audience, but gets away with that because he speaks with an authentic voice and Ezra Miller is quite a charming screen presence. It also helps that he’s got a wrongly imprisoned father (Billy Crudup, here sleepwalking through an imitation of John Wesley Shipp in the first season of CW’s “The Flash”) to lend a bit of pathos. What’s more, this iteration of The Flash is just clumsy and doubtful enough to hinder his godlike abilities (again, see “The Flash” on TV) while leaving room for development in later films.

And what of Wonder Woman? Well, I have to admit that it got really old seeing Wonder Woman clash her gauntlets together like that’s the only move she had. Aside from that, Gal Gadot once again proves herself in spades with this one. Wonder Woman quickly establishes herself as the heart and conscience of the team, though she still has to grapple with taking herself out of action for over a century after World War I. (Can’t wait to see how the Wonder Woman sequels get around that one.) Gadot is easily the most capable performer here, and the most comfortable in her role, with the debatable exception of Henry Cavill as Superman.

Yes, I hope I’m not spoiling anything when I tell you that Superman is indeed returned to life. I won’t get into the specifics of how, except to say that it’s rushed and stupid, though it’s not like there’s any good and sensible way of bringing Superman back from the dead. Especially so early in this franchise. What’s really disappointing in this movie is that Superman himself is nowhere near as interesting as everything surrounding him. Batman may have brought the team together, but he’s not enough to keep the team together. None of them are. They need a rallying point, some proof for others and themselves that they can overcome any obstacle in the face of impossible odds. And when they don’t have that, Batman proposes methods that are outrageous and extremely volatile, presenting a (thin and quickly resolved) dilemma of drastic times and drastic measures.

But when Superman himself joins the team, he’s just a blunt instrument. That’s it. I mean, it’s great to see Superman finally acting like his comic book counterpart, saving people and beating up bad guys with his incredible feats of strength, but it’s a disservice that Superman is more strongly defined by his absence than his presence.

We do get a few other minor characters here and there, but it’s not much. Jeremy Irons gets the lion’s share of screen time among the supporting cast, but even then, he’s mostly sitting behind computer screens and offering the occasional flat joke. Joe Morton is probably the highlight, bringing a sweet little performance as Cyborg’s dad. Elsewhere, we’ve got brief appearances from Amber Heard, J.K. Simmons, Diane Lane, Amy Adams, Connie Nielsen, and even a brief shout-out to Kevin Costner. And a couple of wonderful cameos in a can’t-miss end credits stinger I don’t dare spoil here. And while we don’t get any specific character or actor involved, the Green Lantern Corps is introduced in a very cool way. None of these performances are terribly memorable in themselves, but they do a decent job of expanding this world and reminding us of this superfranchise’s epic scope.

Which sadly brings us to our villain and his Big Plot.

First of all, Steppenwolf (Ciaran Hinds) is as generic as Big Bads get. He’s a tall and ugly guy out to destroy the world for the benefit of some even more evil power we currently know nothing about. I know we have to establish a whole team of superheroes, so it’s not like there was ever going to be a whole lot of time for developing our villain, but it still sucks that we ended up getting Ronan the Accuser (and even that’s being generous) when we needed a Loki. It doesn’t help that this superfranchise as a whole never made any attempt at building up our villain aside from a few half-assed dream sequences in BvS and some cryptic comments from Luthor that are never explained.

Then there’s Steppenwolf’s plan, which is every bit as underwhelming as Steppenwolf himself. Basically, he’s out to retrieve three Mother Boxes, which have been scattered throughout the planet. For those who aren’t aware, the Mother Boxes of the comics are sentient miniature supercomputers with omnipotence — like a smartphone for God, basically. How that translates into “MacGuffins of pure energy that can destroy the world when three of them are merged together”, I couldn’t tell you. It’s laughably contrived, especially since one of them is hidden on Themyscira and Atlantis got another (providing a convenient excuse to get Wonder Woman and Aquaman involved), leaving a third one for our heroes to find before the bad guys do. Still, at least that premise gets the job done in a timely manner.

With all of that being said, the movie does at least establish Steppenwolf and his Parademons as a legitimate threat, huge enough that all of our heroes put together might not be enough to take them down. And even if Bruce Wayne’s godawful dream sequences in BvS aren’t resolved, at least they never come up again either. Ditto for the entire Suicide Squad movie, which might as well have never happened, for better or worse. Moreover, the movie shows a clear thematic emphasis on living in fear and uncertainty. At its heart and core, this is very explicitly a movie about reclaiming hope in dark times. It’s presented in a timely and relevant way that shows a clear regard for what the fans have been clamoring for. Granted, we don’t get nearly as much of the imperative “superheroes inspiring civilians” angle that we got in Avengers, but there’s still enough here to get by.

But what’s probably most important were those wonderful moments in which we see these heroes as the Justice League. Granted, it doesn’t exactly have the same kind of oomph that it might have had if we’d seen these characters in their own individual movies before watching them team up or tear each other down. But for the fans who already know and love these characters in different media, who’ve been begging to see these characters on the screen and/or fighting side by side for decades, it’s still really satisfying to watch.

Weighing everything out, Justice League is just okay. At its best, the movie is amusing and nicely satisfying. At its worst, the movie doesn’t really commit any greater sin than a lack of originality. It’s obvious that DC is putting in a ton of effort to steer this superfranchise into a positive direction, and if the movie suffers as a result, it’s because only so much course correction is even possible within the scope of two hours, especially given how much damage has already been done.

That said, DC/WB have painted themselves into a corner. In trying to imitate Marvel, the absolute best that they can ever possibly hope for is a pale copy of what someone else has already done. And when it takes a $300 million budget (roughly $80 million more than The Avengers, by the way) just to get within swiping distance of what passes for “good enough”, what does that say about the filmmakers? Or the whole “superfranchise” concept? Hell, what does that say about the modern film industry in general?

Marvel Studios — or The Avengers, at least — got to be so massively popular and lucrative by breaking the mold and bringing something beautiful to the world that had never been done so well before. And say what you will about BvS (or Man of Steel, for that matter), but at least those movies made bold decisions and took some serious creative risks. The only difference is, Marvel took creative risks that actually panned out. So, would you rather have a movie that aims for greatness and fails or a movie that aims for mediocrity and succeeds? Personally, I’ll take the former every time.

Justice League is the latter, though the bar for mediocrity is admittedly quite high when it comes to trying something that nobody else except Marvel has had even moderate success with. Even so, DC/WB has yet to come out with the slam-dunk that justifies this whole experiment, and this movie won’t be the one to convince those who aren’t on board. Here’s hoping we get that slam-dunk soon enough.

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