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Film Review: Justice League

Justice League (2017; Directed by Zack Snyder)

Five films into the hastily-assembled DC Extended Universe (DCEU), Justice League, a massively expensive blockbuster featuring some of the most recognized and iconic superheroes in comics, has belatedly managed to ascend to the level of a lower-tier Marvel Cinematic Universe entry. Like, maybe Ant-Man or Iron Man 2, let’s say. That’s certainly better than it was when we last caught up with most of these characters, in director Zack Snyder’s frequently misfiring Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, but nowhere near the surprising heights reached by Patty Jenkins’ elevating Wonder Woman (which only came out this summer but already feels like a venerable classic from years before). Benefitting slightly from lowered expectations resulting from the DC Films stable’s weakness since Christopher Nolan finished his Dark Knight Trilogy, Justice League puts concerted effort into being a fun movie after several DC films with dour tones (not that the tone was their main problem). It largely succeeds, but lets down its characters left, right, and centre, while being saddled with no lack of other problems as well.

Chief among these problems is its stiff, planet-threatening supervillain (surely the nadir of this by-now common Achilles’ heel of the recent hegemonic wave of superhero films), the inadvertently-hilariously-named Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds). Descending from a column-like dimensional portal with a horned helmet, glowing battle-ax, and swarms of airborne, fear-sniffing, zombie-bug Parademons to do his evil bidding, Steppenwolf (I kept hoping that Snyder, well-known for his extremely direct pop music soundtrack choices, would just give up the ghost and let rip with “Magic Carpet Ride”; I hoped in vain) is in search of a trio of potent McGuffins, the Mother Boxes, which when brought together in “the Unity” grant him the power to reduce whole worlds to volcanic hellscapes. Encouraged by the uncertainty and weakness of Earth in the wake of the death of Superman (Henry Cavill) at the conclusion of B v. S, this deep-intoning baddie seeks the Boxes hidden on our planet: one guarded by Amazons on the hidden island of Themyscira, another underwater by Atlanteans, and another in the midst of a research lab erected on the site of the Kryptonian ship which figured in that last film.

In the (obviously temporary) absence of Supes, Bruce Wayne/Batman (Ben Affleck, beefed up and silver-haired but still faintly ashamed at this whole enterprise) pulls the trigger on the assembly of the planned super-squad hinted at in B v. S to counter Steppenwolf’s apocalyptic intentions. Diana Prince/Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), still undercover in the Louvre’s antiquities department and nursing the wound of the death of her human lover Steve Trevor (which, although it only happened in the most recent DCEU movie, was a century ago, after all), understands the gravity of the situation when Themyscira is hit and the Box stolen, and helps Batman with the rest of his recruits. There’s Barry Allen/The Flash (Ezra Miller), the young, brilliant, but socially awkward son of an incarcerated falsely-convicted murderer (Billy Crudup) who can also move at the speed of lightning; Arthur Curry/Aquaman (Jason Momoa), the gruff but charismatic heir-in-exile to Atlantis’ throne, whose underwater mastery is mostly employed saving imperiled fisherman in a remote Nordic coastal village; and Victor Stone/Cyborg (Ray Fisher), a deceased football-star son of a scientist (Joe Morton) who uses advanced technology to reanimate his offspring, most of whose body is consumed by alien metals and digital doo-dads. And, in what is probably technically a spoiler but has been so poorly concealed as to become common knowledge by now, they will also attempt to revive Clark Kent to aid the defence of his adopted world.

There’s certainly some good about Justice League, as intimated. Even without executive-level interference from Warner Bros. after B v. S‘s unfriendly reception to contend with (two films were reduced to one, among other reported and rumoured mid-stream alterations) and Snyder’s departure from the late stages of the production due to a family tragedy, it is clear that Snyder has clearly degenerated as a filmmaker from the painterly male-power-fantasy iconography of 300 or his flawed but still beautiful and fascinating Watchmen or the pulpy, problematic, but well-meaning wrestling with female agency and rape culture in Sucker Punch (and those films all contained hefty kernels of degeneration in their core ideas, however great they looked).

But Snyder can still craft grandly gorgeous aesthetics and superficially meaningful images: Wonder Woman standing astride a statue of Lady Justice, Aquaman walking into a crashing tumult of waves in slow motion to the sound of the White Stripes’ “Icky Thump”, Clark Kent standing in a Kansas cornfield at sunset, Parademons swarming like bees out of the cooling tower of an abandoned nuclear plant in Russia that Steppenwolf claims as a home base. His action sequences, too, are electrifying marvels, masterfully segueing from furiously fast clarity of movement to composed hero poses to elegant slo-mo; his action style is strong and defined but has somehow never slipped into self-parody. Battles with Steppenwolf and his flying undead legions on Themyscira, in tunnels underneath Gotham harbor, and in the environs of the Russian nuclear plant are, it has to be said, pretty hugely entertaining affairs, as is a briefer sequence of Diana Prince thwarting some hostage-taking terrorists In London.

The dialogue and inter-character work has improved from the stultifying utterances of B v. S as well, no doubt thanks to the contributions of Joss Whedon (credited as screenwriter along with Chris Terrio, Whedon wrote reshoot scenes and basically finished directing the film in post-production after Snyder’s departure), a man well-versed in superheroes (especially super-teams of them) on page and screen and generally noted for his skill with witty banter. It’s a little jarring at first to hear snatches of snappy Whedonspeak issuing from the mouths of screen figures more recently characterized by lead-balloon Nietzschean proclamations and stilted action-movie one-liners. Those latter lines haven’t gone away, mind you, but they’re certainly less stilted, and, when issuing in a bro-ish timbre from the swaggering Momoa, occasional rather delightful. Miller is the comic relief focal point, with Allen firmly Spectrum-ized and his nerd-ish social gracelessness played for laughs. A budding bromance with Fisher’s moody, Byronic Cyborg, his fellow outcast in the League, sprouts from the dirt they shovel together while exhuming Superman’s body, the kind of witty, humane, gallows-humour exchange that MCU films are full of but that earlier Snyder DCEU entries (or the execrable Suicide Squad, for that matter) could never have managed.

But there’s bad (or at least less-good) about Justice League, too. Whedon’s scrub-job on the dialogue does not transfer to the film’s invocation of social and political circumstances. In the wake of Superman’s demise (one too-cute gag flashes a tabloid headline in the Watchmen-esque opening credits sequence – soundtracked by Norwegian singer Sigrid’s cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Everybody Knows” – that crassly analogizes his death to those of David Bowie and Prince, asking if they’ve all returned to their home planets), the world is consumed by hopelessness, anxiety, and anger, with nostalgic glances back to a better time when the Kryptonian hero was still around. This tone, I think, intends to be contemporary and relevant, but comes across as a sub-Alan-Moore, what-a-crazy-world-it-is-these-days slice of lazy reaction analysis, like a crabby old man getting angry watching cable news (which is basically what the President of the United States is now, so maybe it’s more relevant than I give it credit for).

But some of the bad rubs off on the iconic DC Comics superheroes. The consistent low-simmer feminism and female-centric perspective that made Wonder Woman so refreshing and heartening throws the persistent male gaze of Snyder’s (and Whedon’s too, it must be said) camera in Justice League into sharper relief. Not only is Gadot’s Diana defined fundamentally by her relations to men in this film (Steve Trevor, Bruce Wayne, even Clark Kent), her visual objectification is greatly increased: her non-hero wardrobe is all push-up bras, plunging, cleavage-revealing necklines, and skin-tight pants, Snyder’s eye lingering ickily on every feature.

Affleck’s Batman, besides feeling bad about his role in Superman’s death and getting older, is barely held together by any prevailing principles. Certainly not his completely canonical antipathy towards guns, one of which killed his parents and made him what he is, psychologically, vocationally, and otherwise: in Justice League, Batman fires each and every gun he can get his hands on, without qualms (it doesn’t help either that his Alfred, played by Jeremy Irons, is such a black hole, devoid of the character’s usual loyal, humanizing, world-weary decency). Superman even goes out-of-control violent and hostile after his resurrection, requiring all the powers of the assembled League (and the love of his life, Amy Adams’ Lois Lane, another self-reliant woman defined here entirely by her relationship to a man) to keep him from going rogue and destroying the world completely before Steppenwolf can reduce it to a charred wasteland.

During that group effort, the nascent League laughably leaves the sole remaining Mother Box not in their world-threatening enemy’s possession sitting unguarded on the hood of a car, where it is easily snatched by Steppenwolf. Justice League, when parsed, is full of those kind of crippling oversights and under-developments. It’s a movie of half-realized, half-executed half-measures. If the result of its constraints and failures is not nearly as disastrously bad as it could have been, considering its creative pedigree and production history, then it isn’t nearly enough either. This movie needed to be a knockout to begin to span the wide gap between the DCEU and the MCU, to make up for lost time and lost ground. Justice League is no knockout; in both its mixed reviews and its catastrophically disappointing box office, it’s far from even a modest success. Indeed, the element of the film that is likely to be the most cultural penetrative and memorable is the extremely hilarious controversy over Cavill’s digitally-removed mustache, an effect that is distractingly non-seamless in at least a couple of scenes. The most interesting thing about Justice League is something that isn’t even present in the film, and it couldn’t even get that thing right. Not-quite-invisible mustache as defining metaphor: in the intermittently-engaging mess that is Justice League, that seems to basically sum it up.

Categories: Comics, Film, Reviews
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