Super Saturday Review: Justice League

Justice League (2017)
Dir: Zack Snyder (& Joss Whedon)

When you’re on slippery ground, sometimes you need to course correct but run the risk of over-correcting and skidding off course even more. Warner Brothers have clearly been trying to course correct their DCEU, partly as a conscious response to criticism, partly due to unforeseen circumstances, either way they’ve still managed to end up in a bit of a ditch.

I saw this at the very start of December (notice not on opening night or within the first week) at the newest cinema in my area, a small boutique 60-seat single-screen cinema. There were just four other people there, two of whom were with me. Putting aside all the headlines the release has generated, if I had awoken from a coma that day and rushed straight to the cinema to see this film I’d been anticipating for years, in that one isolated experience I would’ve known that it has been a major disappointment for DC, though thankfully it’s not as big a disappointment to me personally as most other DCEU films have been.

It’s clear that Warner Brothers have been determined to not look like they’re following Marvel’s formula with their Extended Universe. The problem is, Marvel’s way of making solo movies to introduce characters and give us their origins, then later team them up while adding in one or two newbies really works, ‘Avengers’ being one of the biggest movies of all time clearly proves that. There’s an irrefutable logic to familiarising the audience with the characters in smaller simpler configurations before dividing their screen time in a huge ensemble. With this falling short of what a Justice League movie should have been, DC have inadvertently proven it too.

After the success of ‘Wonder Woman‘ I had a renewed optimism. Sadly, it turns out I was being greatly over-optimistic, this isn’t the turning point for the DCEU that I was hoping it would be. Certainly, it’s much brighter and more colourful than Snyder’s previous DCEU films. It’s also lighter in tone which is a needed improvement I’ve been wishing they would make for years, and so it has moments of being actually quite fun and enjoyable. To me, it’s much less of a disappointment than some of the preceding films were, which is almost the definition of ‘damning with faint praise’ but at least it meant that I left the cinema not wishing I had stayed at home.

Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman has got a lot of goodwill in her favour at the moment after the surprise success of her solo film. Audiences now know the character and what to expect from Gal Gadot’s portrayal of her, proof that my earlier statement is true, it’s better to be familiar with and emotionally invested in a character from their own introductory story before we lose them in the crowd of an ensemble. In this film, Diana takes the lead at times, pushed into leadership by Bruce Wayne, though in the second half at least she doesn’t do much that stands out, which is a shame after her first scene in which we get a look at what she’s up to in the modern day which is far more exciting and interesting than a lot else that follows.

The other casting highlight of the film is Ezra Miller who is frequently used as the comedic relief in his role as Barry Allen / The Flash and to be honest, he’s just on the right side of annoying, where he’s slightly immature and irksome deliberately for humorous effect. He’s a great actor, so I look forward to seeing (if it happens) his solo movie where a full range of his skills can be shown, though we do get a little of that in this film with a couple of scenes touching on his life and origin story. The trailers gave a glimpse of the character that did divide people on whether or not he’d be any good. In this film the decision has clearly been taken to make him the most free-spirited member of the team, over-confident with youth, making his speed akin to ADHD at times. It’s a very different take on Barry to the CW version played by Grant Gustin who is often fun but much more reliable and stable. I think Miller’s version could be a good choice especially to make his film fun for younger viewers, he’ll joke around, prank people with his abilities and could keep up the trend of making DC films with a lighter tone.

Even the least-known of characters, Cyborg, has some real potential to be a compelling character. There are dark and complex themes touched upon with his origins that will be further explored if the proposed solo film actually ever happens. He’s one of the more interesting characters conceptually, however, every time he is on screen I was distracted by how badly the CGI of his cybernetics clashed badly with Ray Fisher’s face. It became such an annoyance that it spoilt most of those scenes for me, especially as it’s another way in which the rushed and messy nature of the film undermines some of its strengths. Don’t even get me started on the other CGI issue, the infamous upper lip of Henry Cavill.

Ben Affleck’s older, tougher Batman, one of the most praised elements of the DCEU, is almost completely ruined in this movie. After his mistakes in ‘BvS: DoJ’ it’s understandable that he should have a change of heart but it’s taken a step too far, so much so that I think he’s now insipid. The change is so major it’s like he’s a completely different version of the character, losing almost all his edge and tries so much to be a ‘team player’ that this experienced hero, bankrolling their endeavours, fades into the background. Sure, I don’t want the ‘Dawn of Justice’ Bruce Wayne back in totality, though his grit and hardheadedness was not completely without merit, it set him apart from past Batmen and was indicative of his years of crimefighting at times alone or bereaved.

The big-baddie Steppenwolf (voiced with no distinction by Ciaran Hinds) is such a mess. He not only looks terrible like something from a video game trailer, but as a movie villain, he’s quite pathetic, one of the worst in years. We don’t get any more motive offered than he wants to rule the world and has awaited another chance at doing so since being foiled in his previous attempt. It’s one of those villain roles that critics often point at as being frequently disappointing and overdone in comic adapted films.

I don’t mind keeping things simple, especially as you could argue that the rest of the film has so much going on with an ensemble of heroes to give due time. Yet, there are scenes in this film where the superheroes literally drop the item that’s the reason for their whole alliance, forget about it while they deal with other matters (important though they are) and the villain simply materialises in the street, picks the thing up and goes. He’s so uninteresting that the biggest turn of events in the movie, the point where it all goes wrong, happen with hardly any tension or conflict at all. To me, it’s worse than the much-maligned ‘Martha’ scene from ‘Bvs: DoJ’, incomprehensible that the key moment of the film comes down to heroes leaving something of unimaginable importance lying in the street so the antagonist can just wander along and pick it up.

It’s a shame that this film hasn’t turned out a lot better than it is. It falls short of the quality Warner Brothers and DC are capable of, sparking rumours of a reboot for the whole DCEU. What makes that idea worse is that there are things that they’re definitely getting right but now there’s a risk of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. The financial underperformance almost certainly assures the loss of perpetually uncertain Ben Affleck (who has potential to be a great Bruce Wayne if given the right material somewhere between the tones of his two outings so far) but worse, potentially losing stars like Gal Gadot and Ezra Miller who are just getting into their stride with their characters.

Though the future plans seem to be largely unchanged so far, DC recently had a shake-up for their leadership which may spell significant change. They can’t possibly weather another failure without triggering an inevitable fresh start, so I’m hoping for major improvements and some good surprises that might pull this famous league of superheroes back from the brink of infamy.

‘Justice League’ isn’t likely to get any award nominations unless you want to count the many it will inevitably get at the Razzies! Where it could have hoped for a nomination, in visual effects, is one of the biggest failings of the undoubtedly rushed production. It’s a film that hits the mark only in surface ways, uniting the Justice League on the big screen and being passably entertaining, but it’s sadly not the flagship of the genre or the DCEU that it should’ve been. 

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