Thursday 23 November 2017

Justice League (2017) - Movie Review

This is the film event of the year but for all the wrong reasons. After the far-from-impressive track record of the DC Extended Universe up to this point, we now have the big team-up feature to kick things into high gear. But then the production issues started to pop up: Avengers writer Joss Whedon was tapped by Zack Snyder to write scenes for reshoots, then Snyder left the project due to family medical issues so Whedon had to direct the reshoots himself... and then Snyder hit up the Internet after the film's release, practically begging the public to show interest in his original cut for the film, rather than the one in cinemas which was edited down.
Knowing how scattershot the production values of all the DCEU films have been so far, with the highly lauded exception of Wonder Woman, this kind of production background isn't making me hopeful that this will be the one to finally push DC out of the red. But, as I've said before, I've always had a soft spot for superhero and comic book-related films; hell, I still think that Suicide Squad is a decent, if flawed, feature. Maybe that will kick in again and I'll walk away from this happy. Maybe.

The plot: Alien conquerer Steppenwolf (CiarĂ¡n Hinds) has arrived on Earth, determined to find three Mother Boxes capable of turning the entire planet into a wasteland. With Superman (Henry Cavill) dead after the events of Dawn Of Justice, Batman (Ben Affleck) and Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) recruit Aquaman (Jason Momoa), Cyborg (Ray Fisher) and the Flash (Ezra Miller) to join forces and stop Steppenwolf.

We have an ensemble superhero cast here, and yet I can name only two characters here that stood out for any good reasons. Gadot is still solid as hell as Wonder Woman, assuming the role of leader without much argument because she is the only one here who truly feels like a superhero. The other, surprisingly enough, is Ray Fisher. Even considering the compressed characterization he’s been given along with the other new faces, he manages to channel a serious amount of pathos, personality and even humour through what he’s given. I can only hope that his acting career doesn’t die alongside the DCEU; this guy deserves a chance.

Everyone else, not so much. Affleck as this very blocky and tired version of the Dark Knight is weirdly one of the more lighthearted characters on screen… which makes literally zero sense, given what we’ve seen of him from Dawn Of Justice and his place in the group dynamic here. Momoa is basically a dude-bro version of Aquaman, and I’d be more annoyed at how much of his own backstory is glossed over if I wasn’t already not getting into his character at face value. Henry Cavill returns as Superman, which given the proclivity of a rather infamous bit of CGI work means that no spoiler warning is needed, and in the space of only a handful of scenes, we see a far more human depiction of the hero than we managed to get in two previous full-length films.
Jeremy Irons is still good as Alfred, Amy Adams returns to do little more than be an accessory for the main plot to utilize, and J.K. Simmons as Commissioner Gordon could have been a great bit of casting if he was given more than five minutes of screen time to work with.

And yet, we haven’t even reached the lowest point of the cast list yet. Or, rather, points because there’s two massive ones here. First off is Ezra Miller as the Flash, who is rarely if ever funny in his mannerisms and his status as the wisecracker of the group is undercut by how he probably has the least jokes to say out of the main group. I like how he approached the speed scenes, going for a form of clumsy and awkward movement that oddly works in those moments, but otherwise, he’s just bloody annoying.
And then there’s Hinds as our main villain. Over the last several years, comic book and superhero-related films have given us some amazing antagonists: The Joker, Magneto, Loki, Ultron, Vulture, Ego, even Bane from The Dark Knight Rises before his unceremonious exit. Steppenwolf might just be the single most boring villain I’ve seen in one of these films in a long-ass time, on par with Malekith from Thor: The Dark World if not succeeding him in dullness. No concrete personality, no interesting backstory, no drive beyond DESTROY ALL THE THINGS; this is not a good part, and much like Blofeld in Spectre, it’s made worse by how much is riding on this one performance. At least, as the villain of a film with this much self-supposed importance.

With Dawn Of Justice writer Chris Terrio returning and Avengers writer/director Joss Whedon both having a hand on the script at differing stages, how is the writing for this thing? Well, while it isn’t nearly as messy as I would expect from such a situation, it is also incredibly lacking in detail. We are presented with a lot of potentially good ideas: Cyborg and the Flash connecting over being the “accidents” of the group, Wonder Woman taking her place as the de facto leader, Batman coming to terms with his past actions and how long he’s been playing the hero, Aquaman as the sarcastic loner, Superman completing his Space Jesus arc and coming back from the dead, a colossal war between Steppenwolf and the combined forces of men, Atlanteans, Amazons and literal gods… and you’ll be lucky if you get another scene devoted to any of these notions outside of the setup. 
What’s more, whatever development is made usually only lasts as long as the moment itself. In a movie that had to be edited down to a two-hour running time, this is probably another “the extended cut explains everything” situation but that doesn’t change how this film in cinemas right now as I write this is painfully underdeveloped. We get moments of solid filmmaking, mainly through the dialogue (most likely what Whedon brought to the table), but never anything that meshes things together into something cohesive.

This is not helped by Zack Snyder’s approach to direction, which I think is both underrated and entirely deserving of its criticisms. Snyder has a real knack for fidelity to source material, or at least he did at one point in time, resulting in films that stayed true to their printed origins while Snyder translated them to the big screen. He was one of the first to pioneer the all-digital backlot with 300, something that has become extremely prolific in the realm of comic book-related films. This film ranks as the third most expensive film of all time, ranking just below two of the Pirates Of The Caribbean films, and it has effects wizards like Double Negative and Weta Digital on board. This should be amazing, at least in terms of visuals… and yet it never truly clicks.
A side effect of the lack of development is that, wherever our main cast are at any given time, the locales never feel like anything other than set dressing. It’s all dark and moody and in no way congruent with the mostly brightly coloured heroes. To say nothing of the action, which somehow makes superheroes fighting a swarm of psychotic insect-zombies seem incredibly dull, made worse by how the CGI isn’t nearly up to par with either the houses working on it or the monster-sized budget.

But the worst part of all this? This isn’t just dull; this is insanely underwhelming, which for a film like this is the ultimate death sentence. Justice League is meant to be the culmination of at least four years’ worth of build-up and planning, the debut for quite a few staples of the DC universe on the big screen and a bombastic finale of what came before it in the Extended Universe. From the marketing to the budget to the timing, this is clearly meant to be the big Avengers moment for this franchise.
Except let’s go over the first Avengers movie quickly for some comparisons. Up until that point, The Marvel Cinematic Universe had been in the works for about the same amount of time as this with five previous films to set up the characters, most of which were devoted to a single character in the main group of seven. While they differed a fair bit in quality, they all introduced different pieces of the puzzle, each bringing in themes and ideas that were vastly different from each other… but once it got to Avengers, they all slid into place. It was a cinematic event the likes of which come around once a decade, if even that often, and it made all the build-up worth the wait. Hell, they didn’t even stick to it all being build-up for one big event; the branding of ‘Marvel Cinematic Universe’ didn’t come in until the studio was positive that the public was at all interested in the idea, and quite frankly, I and quite a lot of the public were.

Compare that to the DCEU, where none of the above applies. Starting out on the worst possible footing with Man Of Steel, the Extended Universe had to both make itself known and catch up to Marvel, which had already given us Avengers by the time MoS arrived to cinemas. Rather than making the universe feel expansive, MoS, Dawn Of Justice and even Suicide Squad all felt like Snyder and co. were trying to recreate the dark moral questions surrounding superhero work from Watchmen and failing considerably. On top of that, we have had one film just for Superman with MoS, one film with Superman, Batman and a brief glimpse of Wonder Woman with Dawn Of Justice, a film as removed from the story set up by those two as you can get with Suicide Squad, and a film just for Wonder Woman that broke away from the pack and remains the single best thing this franchise has produced. Justice League had to introduce half of its main cast in its own narrative (and no, the glorified cameos from Dawn Of Justice don't count as "introductions"), and considering how well they did when they were focusing on only one superhero, you can tell things aren’t so good.
That is what makes this feel as bad as it does: Not only is it a very inconsistent sit, it doesn’t feel like the last four years’ worth of material were worth what we ended up with. It’s like Wonder Woman never even happened, as whatever progress was made there has largely been forgotten where this film is concerned. If this film’s status at the box office makes DCEU close up shop, I’m not exactly going to mourn that this dying experiment is put out of its misery.

All in all, this is basically every wrong-headed idea that went into creating the DC Extended Universe all rolled into one. It rushes through pretty much everything, sticking to name-brand value for things to actually stick out for the audience, it’s too maudlin for the action scenes to have any real effect or for the attempts at humour to pay off, and as a big capper for the last few years’ worth of cinematic build-up, it’s all summed up nicely by the existence of the villain Steppenwolf: Not all that enjoyable and it’ll be surprising if you even remember it by this time next year… or even next month, because goddammit, the villain here sucked royal. I know that this is basically more of a post-mortem than a strict review, but with something this clearly hindered by production troubles, I knew that this thing was dead on arrival and unfortunately, it seems that my scepticism was accurate for a change.

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