Review – Justice League (2017)

Superman. Batman. Wonder Woman.

Heroes like that need no introduction. With decades of pop-culture significance worldwide, gathering them together in a live action film was always a forgone conclusion. Never a question of ‘if’, but more so a question of ‘when’. Well, the Trinity (so dubbed in comics mythos) first appeared together in a live action film in last year’s Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice; in it, we also got a glimpse of Aquaman, Cyborg, and The Flash. Depending on who you ask, things didn’t turn out so well for all involved; critics largely agreed that it was a hodgepodge of elements that just didn’t come together well. Since then, Wonder Woman got a solo film to herself that delighted audiences and critics alike, so coming into Justice League, it was anyone’s guess if it all worked out.

The visions of Parademons in BvS appeared to be somewhat prophetic as they have appeared all over Earth in search of something. Their arrival precedes that of Steppenwolf (Ciaran Hinds), an ancient warrior from the cosmos who seeks to remake Earth into the hellish landscape of his original homeworld. The Amazons and Atlanteans of old teamed up and held his assault at bay, but he returns to finish the job. The ever-watchful Batman (Ben Affleck) sees the signs of a coming storm and does his best to assemble a team of metahumans to face this threat. With Superman (Henry Cavill) presumably dead in the grave, it is up to Batman, Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), and whoever they can enlist to make sure Earth has a fighting chance. The search brings them to the speedy Flash (played with an even quicker wit by Ezra Miller), the surly Aquaman (brought to life with “extra-brood” by Jason Momoa), and the reluctant Cyborg (Ray Fisher, impressively holding his own in his first blockbuster film). Can the team get the job done (or even get along)?

All-in-all, it’s fairly standard stuff, by superhero-teamup standards. There’s a stylistic reason Joss Whedon, director of Marvel’s first two Avengers films, in particular, was chosen to “finish” the film through reshoots after Snyder stepping back following the death of his daughter, and it all shows here. Ultimately, while I’d love to say that that’s a good thing, it speaks of the likely corporate oversight that permeates this theatrical cut. Reports for months have enlightened the world to the costly reshoots that were necessary to lighten the mood and broaden the appeal. From the vantage point of speculation, it all seemed a move to “Marvelize” the film, and with Whedon enlisted to assist, no one can blame someone for thinking exactly that. Ultimately, we’ll likely never be able to see what “could have been”, had director Zack Snyder completed the film from top to bottom. Still, what we’re left with is a tonal mish-mash and a patchwork of subplots and motivations. To further the Marvel comparison, I liken the original 2012 Avengers film that Whedon directed to be a plate at a potluck dinner from cooks you know and trust, the result of an entire “phase” of films that established characters and laid the groundwork for a team-up film plot over time. Who knew that this sidedish could wind up on the same plate as that entree, but somehow the meal just works. To me, Justice League turns out more like visiting a sample booth at the grocery store: there are a few good bites, for sure, but the whole experience comes from a stilted awkwardness that kills any comfort the food could bring.

That may sound crazy, and I get it. Some might read that as “anti-DC fanboyism”, but know that my longheld attachment has always been with these particular characters. I hold a far deeper connection with Superman, Batman, and all the team here than I do with the Marvel characters. It makes this film experience particularly weird, because I laughed in this film. I enjoyed many of the action sequences, and I liked most all of the character subplots, disparate as they may be. After all, the Justice League is finally here for the world to see! Still, it is that disparity I mentioned that attacks everything at work here. Not only do we have two directorial voices shifting throughout, we only have prior context (outside of the Trinity) coming from short dossier clips from BvS and that weird Flashpoint apparition of a future Flash from the same film. In the most basic sense, we quickly establish Flash as the jokester, Aquaman as the outlier, and Cyborg as a damaged individual processing his own identity, but we aren’t given much to care about with them, outside of the love we bring from reading of them for decades. Again, it’s all bite-sized stuff that’s served here as a meal, and while I enjoyed all of the characters at least on some level (despite some seriously bone-headed dialogue), the whole thing left me hungry for more, but not in a good way. Of course, I want DC to succeed on-screen; I love these characters. Still, I left thinking, “What just happened?” I’ve always wanted this film to happen, somehow and some way. I should have left fulfilled, but I was hungry for more FROM what I had just watched, not necessarily hungry FOR more to come. For the money spent and the talent behind it, a film like this shouldn’t have as many DOA jokes and quips. It shouldn’t have effects and costumes that look as cheap as what’s on display here. I don’t think I am a victim of over-inflated expectations; I do expect, however, good pacing and a singular voice throughout a film. I didn’t get these here.

This year’s Wonder Woman delivered a focused take with humor appropriate to the proceedings. It wasn’t focused on “universe-building”, but it was honed in on handling characters naturally to the story they were in. If losing sports teams review footage of why they are losing, I hope that Warner Bros. learn something and see that they can do these characters right. They have before, and they can again. Despite after-credit stingers promising more, I’m beginning to think that “this” universe of films should stop, or if it must continue, producers should focus on smaller, individual tales. DC has always existed as a multiverse, and maybe, it’s time to reinvent and rework it all. After 2013’s imperfect but respectable Man of Steel, I genuinely looked forward to a new, slow-growing film universe. In just four year’s time, the path to Justice League over several films has went all over the place, and with this film, it truly follows suit.

Content-wise, there is some language, but far less than I expected. Some of the prior films have said strange and inappropriate things, both for the film being made and for the expected age-range of audiences; this time, we still get some strange, but there is far less inapproriate dialogue (aside from a profanity-bleeped newsreel that just doesn’t work at all). Aliens bleed on screen, but the heroes rarely do. Shots linger on the female form, but there isn’t any sexual dialogue or situations that I can recall. With a movie of this type, one would hope to draw parallels to Scripture of God orchestrating individuals to being drawn together, despite their differences. Films like these can be used to relate people working together, and all that can be surmised here, but none of this is overt. Philosophical musings take a backseat here, especially compared to BvS, but they give audiences something to think about…for a moment, before the plot/tone shifts again.

It’s obvious that I was letdown by the film. That said, my nine-year-old daughter watched with me, and she enjoyed it. Coming off of her excitement from Wonder Woman, there were many moments for Diana that are highlights in the film. She emerges as a strong piece of the team. All the new teammates inhabit the characters as well as the material lets them, but I was letdown by Affleck as Batman. He had a fire about him in BvS that provided a boost to the lackluster film. Here, his performance feels phoned-in, and it’s just disappointing. There’s action-galore in the film, and all of it is fairly easy to follow in a visual sense. The color palette of the film, while still largely drab, is much more diverse than some of the prior entries. Still, despite moments and glimmers of greatness, the whole is held down by a sense of non-cohesiveness that just never goes away. I’m sure this isn’t the end of this series (despite the need); maybe, though, with some solo films to fill in the gaps, a JL sequel could be more fulfilling. Just as the film closes on a hopeful note, I do, as well. How long I can maintain that hope in rectifying it all? Who knows?

SCORE: 5.5 (out of 10)

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