You Can’t Save The World Alone
Following the events of Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice, Bruce Wayne (aka Batman played by Ben Affleck) has set out assembling super-powered individuals to combat an impending threat that he believes is on its way. At the same time we learn about Steppenwolf [Ciaran Hinds], an ancient alien general with an army of parademon soldiers, who has sensed the presence of the mother box (an intergalactic item split into three which has the power to overwrite the world’s design) and mounts an offensive to recover it. Steppenwolf’s arrival convinces Wonder Woman [Gadot] and Atlantean prince Aquaman [Momoa] to join the fight while the younger two heroes – Flash [Miller] and Cyborg [Fisher] – tag along for personal reasons of wanting to belong and saving his father respectively. Feeling their best efforts may not be enough, Batman believes they can use one of the devices to resurrect the deceased Superman [Cavill].
I wrote a very gushy love-letter of a review for 2012’s Avengers but I stand by that review and maintain that for all its flaws, what was achieved was a cinematic first; a stepping stone to be built upon and improved. I also penned a very hesitant and disappointed review for its sequel Avengers: Age Of Ultron, noting how the elements that didn’t work in the first film were magnified and a discordant feeling ran throughout. Justice League, for many reasons, feels like Age Of Ultron’s step-sibling, in that it gets a lot right with some solid performances and seems to have figured out where it’s going but is let down by a wealth of problems, nasty CGI, terrible music and identity baggage. But I’ll get back to that later.
For those who don’t know, this has always been a troubled release and it comes across in every single scene of this release. Tonally speaking we have Zack Snyder’s dark brooding take on the DC universe intercut with Joss Whedon’s light-hearted (and admittedly quite dated) jollity but unlike a project that has been scrapped and built from the ground up, this is a Frankenstein’s monster of a cobbling; patching together bits and pieces and presenting them as an unconvincingly intentional whole. If you can imagine cooking a roast chicken with all the trimmings but changing your mind mid-meal and making a pizza instead with the same ingredients, that’s what we’ve ended up with and it is very telling. Reshoots are fairly commonplace in big budget features but you’re not supposed to notice the differences. Sometimes it’s a shot or two, other times an additional scene but the stitching between the extra content should hopefully be largely seamless. Frustratingly, that’s less achievable when one of your leads has a moustache that he contractually cannot shave, so a CGI jaw and lips are generated and my God they work as clear signposts for the new material. Staying with the CGI for a second, this has been one of the most expensive films ever produced and the visual effects are frankly disgraceful. To the degree that the computer generated orcs from Lord Of The Rings look better than Steppenwolf and his battle scenes – and that technology is 16 years old! Steppenwolf invades Themyscira and Atlantis respectively and these assault scenes have some truly ugly visuals. The Amazons look, sound, move and feel nothing like the ones from Wonder Woman, Themyscira is presented as drab and lifeless and the fight between their army and the alien warmonger is laughably uninventive. But it’s a damn sight better than Atlantis, which dispatches a contingent of three or four people; subsequently the whole encounter lasts all of two minutes but holy hell those two minutes are a mess of murky figures, water particles, bubbles and indecipherable surroundings.
But let’s take a minute to discuss one of the key components of this release: the league members. First up is the weakest feature, Henry Cavill’s Superman. I stood up for Cavill in his first appearance believing it was possible that with the right script and director he could be taught how to be a good Superman. Unfortunately, with every passing release, he and his CGI jaw feel less and less appropriate. Everything about this film betrays the “show, don’t tell” mindset and steadily drums in that Superman is the best of us, that he makes the world a better place and is the glue that holds everything together; a fact which does not connect to the character we have seen in the previous films. In fact, if he was this Christopher Reeve-esque charmer his resurrected change of tone would have worked infinitely better. And while there are brief moments that prompt the slightest upturn from the corner of your mouth, they’re just as quickly replaced with a furrowed brow when you remember it doesn’t fit this actor or his performance; like seeing Tommy Lee Jones being warm and really friendly to kids – it doesn’t seem to work. And even if you make peace with Superman’s return and integration to the group, how would anyone go about explaining Clark returning from the dead? Superman I get but Kent? Next up is Batman. Affleck is still a great Batman and his scenes in Gotham are incredibly reminiscent of the popular Arkham video games. There’s also a great “Bat” moment when Batman exclaims “The world needs Superman” which is countered with, “What does Clark need? Maybe he’s at peace” to which Wayne responds, “He’ll get over it.” I could easily see that being a scene lifted from a Justice League cartoon with Kevin Conroy uttering those words. And yet the lack of franchise awareness means Bruce’s search for the league fails to align with the Luthor/Waller files already established. In one scene, wherein Wayne is trying to recruit Aquaman, he sees the three sections of the mother box scrawled on a wall but from the dialogue we are left with the impression that he simply doesn’t realise Arthur Curry is the Aquaman – which we know to be bullshit because Lex Luthor had video surveillance with Curry conveniently gurning for the camera. Equally, while Affleck continues to be one of the standout reasons to watch these films, he’s blatantly bored and desperate for a way out. Speaking of standout, Gal Gadot returns from (let’s be honest) the only successful DCEU film and stands out as the true leader of the group. As previously mentioned, everything that is said about Superman is displayed in Wonder Woman; there is no justifiable reason why she isn’t in charge or the most powerful individual.
Moving on to the new initiates, first up we have the Flash/Barry Allen played by Ezra Miller. He has already briefly appeared in BvS in a baffling cameo and Suicide Squad in another tiny cameo but this is his first extended on-screen performance. In truth, Miller is a great Flash and brings some much need lightness to the whole endeavour. Admittedly, sometimes it gets very sporadic and a little too chaotic (not to mention he comes off more like the third Flash, Wally West, than Barry Allen) but all-in-all the humour, levity, youthful exuberance, zeal and unprepared rookie-ness is a welcome distinct personality to the group. Having said that there were a few moments which were clear victims of late punch-up and added scenes that conflicted with what had already been shot. Silly things like Barry telling Bruce Wayne that saying “he’s fast” is an oversimplification but then explaining that he’s dubbed the thing that gives him his power the speed force – surely the greater oversimplification. Then there’s the nice moment when Barry freaks out before battle but this doesn’t alert the parademons who smell fear from seemingly miles away. Yet all of that melts away with simple moments like Barry’s panicked face as he runs around the recently resurrected Superman to catch him off guard, only to see the Kryptonian following him with his eyes at super-speed. I might go on record and say the film is worth watching for that bit alone. The other new young recruit is Cyborg/Victor Stone. Jettisoning classic team members, Cyborg is a contemporary addition who is an attempt to address both diversity and the changing world of technology and annoyingly this film fumbles with both. Fisher is criminally underused and despite his monotone style is extremely interesting but shelved constantly. So little is known about Cyborg that it was only after I watched the film that I learned his cybernetic body was constructed after a car crash (rather than the comic origin of a lab accident). I mean, this is a teenager who everyone thinks is dead and is infused with an alien technology, it should deal with coming of age drama, racial issues, identity crises, isolation, torment, self destruction, paranoia and overcoming fear but all we get is a strangely confident sounding young man who is dealing with his circumstances surprisingly well. Finally, we have Jason Momoa’s Aquaman. While I’m not a fan of Momoa as a person or all the “yee-haw, my man, alright” 80s pro-wrestler bullshit, there were a few moments that showed true promise. Aquaman became something of a joke for a while but the comics shifted and reminded readers of the kind of hero Aquaman could be – specifically an emotionally distant and complicated one. Snyder’s take on that was to cast Momoa and present a confident, abrasive, arrogant, self-centred jerk but strangely, that works. He may not be the Aquaman fans want but he’s a great reflection of our times. If we look at other superhero releases it’s hard to think of one that embodies Trump-voting Middle America so succinctly. In a way the Atlanteans, with their misguided isolationist motives and resentment but deep-seated decency (I’m sure it’s buried under there somewhere), presents something of a relatable scene, where good people are bitter and angry but too arrogant to realise their views are part of the problem. As such, Aquaman has the potential, with a really clever script and whip-smart director, to be a fascinating character study. But that’s very much wishful thinking. It is much more likely that we will get more of the same forceful bro-behaviour and misogynistic overtones with a weak plot about a throne that no one cares about – but it’s all speculation because, much like Cyborg, even with scant exposition I know so very little about this iteration of Aquaman. On the plus side we finally got a look at some Green Lanterns but this just adds further irritation as the Green Lantern Corps is a intergalactic police force, where were they during all this potentially world ending stuff?
At the start of this review I mentioned a link between this feature and Avengers: Age Of Ulton. With Whedon taking command of a wildly listing vessel, he’s defaulted to his last directing job and pulled several elements from there. This ranges from little things like feeling the need to follow one family throughout a chaotic battle that would be impossible for them to survive (it’s stupid when Michael Bay does it and it’s stupid here) to conversations in the batcave with the group bickering amongst themselves that feel eerily similar in content, setting and direction to those on the helicarrier in the first Avengers film. I find this rather hysterical as all of the mistakes made in this DCEU have been fallout of the steadfast and stubborn refusal to simply adopt the formula that Marvel proved to be both effective and profitable, only to end up with a feature indicative of one of the Disney-owned studio’s weaker efforts. What’s more, Whedon chose to ditch the established musical accompaniment and supposedly “give the fans what they want.” Personally, I really enjoyed Hans Zimmer’s triumphant soaring take on the Superman theme. I am very much a firm believer that exceptional music can elevate a mediocre performance or film and that score is a prime example; it had all the upbeat notes with an air of sullen modernity that inspired and chilled. On the other hand, his Wonder Woman guitar wailing theme seemed rather ridiculous and out of place but was salvaged in her standalone release and is referenced neatly here. Everything else is in the bin and Danny Elfman’s 80s Batman theme has been revived along with a few out-of-place notes from John Williams’ 1970s Superman theme. Everything else however is largely background and non-existent. Listening to the isolated soundtrack, nothing about it has any personality or presence. It borrows heavily from the melodies and movements we expect from a superhero piece but lacks the originality or uniqueness to stand out as anything memorable or meaningful. Admittedly, I doubt this is directly Elfman’s fault and think the work of hold music is to blame once again; leaching recognised themes from other films that the director effectively cuts the film to and presents it to the composer saying, “make it sound like this.”
But unlike Age Of Ultron, Justice League could have been so much worse. With all the chaos behind the scenes and a horrendously flimsy yet bizarrely convoluted premise, it’s amazing how much was actually salvaged. With all the issues of tone, direction, flow and sense to one side, the flaw that brings me the most grief is the soft-rebooty lack of continuity. Honestly, did no one making these movies watch the previous instalments? We go from Man Of Steel to Batman v Superman and the world and characters portrayed change but insist to the audience that what was presented in the first film was received by the on-screen population as counterintuitive to common sense. Then Batman v Superman gave way to Suicide Squad and the established rules and attitudes are abandoned and contradicted once more. Most recently we watched Wonder Woman take everything from the first three films and practically disregard it – a move which proved a major improvement – and now we’re at a film that physically can’t exist with these other established stories. As a small example, Steppenwolf sets up shop in some unnamed Russian location but when a huge bionic dome is erected and a red inferno conjured out of nothing, the world didn’t notice? I moaned about the absence of a Green Lantern member but no one thinks to send in the Suicide Squad or something (obviously I’m joking, those guys are useless)? But even in BvS, Doomsday was birthed and a nuke was launched within the hour!
If I was to travel back in time and explain to my former self that the “upcoming” Man Of Steel prompts a sea of chaos, panic and disaster to the extent that we have witnessed, I would have a hard time explaining my final statement that for all its failings, Justice League is ok. Not terrible, not good but ok. But with that minor positivity to one side I would like to illustrate all the problems with the DCEU with two prescient quotes from Jurassic Park. The first is, “I’ll tell you the problem with the scientific power that you’re using here, it didn’t require any discipline to attain it. You read what others had done and you took the next step. You didn’t earn the knowledge for yourselves so you don’t take any responsibility for it. You stood on the shoulders of geniuses to accomplish something as fast as you could and before you even knew what you had you patented it and packaged it and slapped on a plastic lunchbox and now you’re selling it, you want to sell it.” And while that poignantly rattles around your head, the second quote highlights why DC keep making these mistakes. I have no doubt that with every passing poorly reviewed, moderately financially acceptable, polarising release some executive says, “You’re right, you’re absolutely right…I can see that now. Now, the next time everything’s correctable…Next time it’ll be flawless. When we have control–” Rather than learning from their mistakes they plough on ahead, assuming a few random tweaks will rectify what has been done whereas every alteration adds more confusion. In the space of one year we experienced a shift from Batman v Superman being dubbed too dark and desperate to force a connected universe, to Justice League which crowbars a lighter tone but comes off flippant and without consequence and on top of that, DC/WB announce the films that follow won’t need to tie in to a larger universe. This destructive, poorly planned out, reactionary style of running a universe is frankly unsustainable but at least we are getting closer to something pleasing.
17th November 2017
The Scene To Look Out For:
Interestingly, I rather liked the title sequence. Over the credits we are shown a despondent, bitterly divided world in desperate need of saving. A people lost and without hope. That, depressingly, is a very relatable sight for contemporary audiences. From the thug arrested for assaulting the livelihood of the head-scarf wearing shop owner and her child to the homeless man staring into the distance with a cardboard sign that simply states “I tried.” Presenting a dark world in desperate need of Superman is wonderful.. but it also feels completely at odds with what we know of the character. At no point have we seen Superman do a great deal of heroic feats or earn that mass influence over people, so as much as it works wonderfully, it does not really belong in this film.
There is a janitor working at STAR labs. His name is Howard apparently and he’s played by Anthony Wise. What’s so special about this man? Simple, he’s a fucking mystery. In a film flush with disconnected developments, scene tampering, dropped cast, deleted footage and constant adjustments, he is the most fascinating. A character who should just be a badly written extra is elevated to a point of fascination thanks to two very small issues. Howard is on first name terms with the head scientist, joking about the time he’s leaving off work and offering his condolences for the loss of his family. Nothing especially out of the ordinary there. At that moment, however, I noticed that for some reason, his ID badge has a completely different face on it, that of an older man with white hair and prominent facial hair. Very unusual but I just assumed it may be a future development, some infiltrator or criminal element, possibly an unintroduced agent of the main villain. And yet he isn’t. Later we cut back to the janitor, somehow still mopping THE EXACT SAME section of flooring and his ID badge now reflects his face. What does that mean!? Are we to believe that the role was recast and Anthony Wise was used? Or that they simply didn’t have the right prop on that day but needed to film regardless. It’s amazing! Seriously, the janitor’s changing ID badge is possibly the biggest mystery of this film; more so than what happened to the mother box, does BvS’ dream sequence mean anything, why were the Amazons imprisoned on their island and why neither ancient race gave a shit about the return of Steppenwolf combined. Who are you Howard? I see you. I’m keeping my eye on you.
“Children, I work with children”
In A Few Words:
“A bipolar feature that is constantly at war with itself but comes out pleasingly average – which DC/WB should count as a win”