Sunday, November 19, 2017

Generic Justice League: How Warner Bros. Limped Across The Finish Line.

The Good: Moments of characterization, The acting is fine, Some of the humor works well
The Bad: Incredibly basic plot, Utterly generic villain, Painfully derivative plot development, Troublesome continuity, Familiar final battle sequence
The Basics: Justice League arrives and it is hard not to feel like it is a missed opportunity on almost every front.

It's tough to sit down to a film that has been built to in an inefficient way when there is such a good example of building a franchise the right way. The DC Comics Cinematic Universe, sadly, lives in the shadow of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. For all of the problems with the Marvel Cinematic Universe Phase 1 (reviewed here!), the franchise was built well over several years. The Marvel Cinematic Universe took a bunch of mediocre super hero films that were focused on (generally) a single character, loosely tied them together and when they were put together in The Avengers (reviewed here!), that movie succeeded largely because the scale was appropriate to the threat. As well, the essential characterization was already done in the foundation films, so The Avengers was able to illustrate just what those heroes could do, as opposed to giving out basic information about who was fighting.

Justice League has no such grace.

Justice League is the DC Comics Cinematic Universe answer to The Avengers and the immediate tragedy of it is that it comes so late to an already-saturated market (doing anything fresh in superhero films is tough these days!), the foundation work was not actually finished, and there were huge issues with the foundation films that go unanswered going into Justice League. Three major characters in Justice League were virtually unexplored going into the film: Aquaman, The Flash, and Cyborg. Cyborg, especially, suffers in Justice League because his backstory is done more or less on the fly and he ends up seeming like a generic super hero who is intended to fill the same functional niche in Justice League as Iron Man did in The Avengers. Indeed, it is hard for comic book and super hero film fans to not wince when Cyborg appears and to show off his evolving abilities, he levitates much like Iron Man.

The failures in the foundation work make Justice League a tougher sell than it ought to be. Wonder Woman (reviewed here!) left the lingering question: If the God Of War was defeated, how the hell do all subsequent wars on Earth actually occur? (Justice League might have been a conceptual smash if the history of the DC Cinematic Universe included a retcon that showed no wars in that universe followed World War I and Earth was left defenseless against the villains in the new chapter.) If the final shot of Batman Vs. Superman: Dawn Of Justice (reviewed here!) insinuated that Superman was still alive or there was still some form of power in his Kryptonian corpse, how did he let the Motherbox problem escalate to this point? [That question, at least, is satisfactorily answered in Justice League.] And if the parademon threat is growing so fast, would this not be the very definition of an "all hands on deck" situation? Where, then, is the Suicide Squad to help out with basic combat/demolition? It seems like they would have been ideal for the Russian front, at the nuclear reactor. And if Bruce Wayne had the vision of Superman being used by the same entities using the parademons, why would someone so smart attempt to resurrect the dead Kryptonian?

So, Justice League begins from a disadvantageous position where the universe of the DC Cinematic Universe is not fleshed out well-enough on screen (comic book fans have a distinct advantage going into the film, obviously) to absolutely invest in the film's threat. The best analogy I have is that it took until the commentary track for Return Of The Jedi (reviewed here!) when it was explicitly stated that the point of much of the dialogue in the final throne room scene was to sell the audience on the idea that Luke Skywalker could actually go over to the Dark Side and join the Emperor. I must have seen Return Of The Jedi thirty-five (or more) times before listening to that commentary track and the moment never once landed where that occurred to me. It was so ineffectively done that the suspension of disbelief did not happen. With Justice League, there is a similar sense of lack of suspension of disbelief to the threat: of course the one character not put into the promotions will show up in the film, of course the team will manage to come together, and there is never a doubt that the invading threat will be repelled. Warner Bros. is building a franchise: of course that reality would not be undone and remade in the first big team-up film.

But, there's Justice League arrived at without all the essential prep work and perhaps the real problem with arriving so late to the marketplace is that the parallels in narrative structure and character beg comparisons to The Avengers. No doubt, someone will soon do a comparative analysis that lines the two films up, side by side, and it would be unsurprising if the rampage in Justice League came about right around the same time in the film as the Hulk smashing through the helecarrier in The Avengers.

So, what is Justice League?

Following the death of Superman, the world has more or less fallen in to chaos. While Wonder Woman deals with street level crimes - terrorists attempting to blow up a bank - Batman is active again in Gotham City, combating a random parademon that arrived in the city. Encountering the alien invader, and having vague information about the Motherboxes on Earth, Bruce Wayne reasons that it is Superman's absence that is drawing the interstellar threats and that it is time to assemble his team. While Arthur Curry rejects Wayne's offer, a Motherbox on Themyscira becomes active. Steppenwolf arrives through a Boom Tube on Themyscira and attempts to wipe out Hippolyta and the Amazons, but the force of numbers causes Steppenwolf to beat a hasty retreat . . . with a Motherbox. Hippolyta lights a warning fire, which informs Diana that the invasion has begun and Diana meets with Bruce Wayne to tell him exactly what they are up against.

While Bruce Wayne easily recruits Barry Allen to his team, Victor Stone (a cyborg altered through a Motherbox and other technology in a scientific accident) reaches out to Diana. When Steppenwolf attacks Atlantis for the Motherbox hidden there, Arthur Curry joins Batman's team. Bruce Wayne believes that the only way to save Earth from Steppenwolf and protect the final Motherbox is to resurrect Superman using the Motherbox Victor Stone brought him. While Diana advises him against it, Wayne and Cyborg agree on the course of action and Barry Allen goes along with them. But when Superman is resurrected, he comes back wrong and triggers Cyborg's technology against Stone's directives. In the ensuing conflict, Steppenwolf is able to get control of the final Motherbox and he takes it to Russia where he begins rewriting reality in order to attempt to make Earth into a primordial wasteland that he can rule.

Within the narrative, Justice League suffers from being That Kind Of Movie. This is a big-budget super hero film and to make a threat worth assembling the biggest DC Universe characters, it requires something incredible. But the name is a misnomer. Justice League is not about justice; there is no higher principle in play in the film. Justice League is entirely preoccupied with survival as all of reality is threatened by Steppenwolf and the power of the Motherboxes. Like its predecessors, Justice League suffers mightily from leaving huge gaps in the narrative for a reasonable sense of continuity: the moment Steppenwolf stole the Motherbox from Themyscira, why didn't Hippolyta reach out to the Atlanteans? There is an allusion that a war occurred between the Amazons and the Atlanteans at least one generation prior to Aquaman's ascendance, but to stop Steppenwolf from getting his hands on the Motherbox in Atlantis, is seems like someone in the know like Hippolyta would have volunteered her forces instead of simply obliquely alerting Diana . . .

The lack of an underlying principle or theme in Justice League becomes painfully clear during the Motherboxes backstory. Justice League manages not to simply copy from The Lord Of The Rings (reviewed here!) with how the backstory is related, but the parallels in the stories are pretty obvious. Sauron, having created the One Ring, plans to cast Middle Earth into darkness, but he is repelled by the combined forces of Elves, Dwarves and Men . . . er, strike that, Steppenwolf brought the Motherboxes to Earth where he planned to rewrite reality, but the combined forces of Themyscirans, Atlantians, Gods, humans and Green Lanterns managed to repel him. The Motherboxes were then hidden, not destroyed, and apparently the governments became idiotic (the moment the Motherbox backstory was related in Justice League, my first thought was "the moment the space program began or Superman started exhibiting his powers, why wasn't one of the Motherboxes taken to the Moon?" and "Why didn't the Green Lantern for Earth get one of the Motherboxes off planet . . . the Corps must have known the three Motherboxes were there after they defeated Steppenwolf?").

So, there's no real thematic strength in Justice League and instead of any rhetorical argument, much of the film comes down to, sigh, yet another fist fight. Steppenwolf is an unfortunately generic villain for Justice League. He is characterized as the Destroyer Of Worlds, so what is his preoccupation with Earth? Earth was the site of his first defeat; what has he been doing since he was repelled the last time? If he's been out destroying worlds without his Motherboxes since he was first defeated, why does he rely upon their power again for his second stab at Earth?! And if he has been out destroying worlds, what the hell happened to the Green Lantern Corps? And if he hasn't been out wreaking havoc in the galaxy for thousands of years since his botched attempt to take Earth, doesn't that just make him the biggest poseur villain in cinematic history? The fact that these questions come up after only a moment's consideration of the adversary illustrates how flimsy his construction is within the movie.

And for a DC Cinematic Universe work, the final battle once again feels familiar. Night and darkness are used in Zack Snyder's films to hide details, which makes the special effects easier to execute, but make for far less complicated or compelling battle sequences. It's a pretty sad world where the attention to fine details is greater in video games than in major blockbuster films.

So, what works in Justice League? The snippets of character for the new protagonists all work. Barry Allen is characterized well and the fact that the defining characteristic for him outside his speed is his insatiable hunger is something that instantly sets him apart from the current television incarnation of the character. In a similar way, Cyborg is characterized intriguingly as a young man who is tormented by his own body and is not at all entirely in control of his powers, abilities, and technology. Aquaman delivers a decent assessment of the team before reducing Diana to a sex object (grumble. And, seriously - and I write this as a lifelong Wonder Woman fan! - Curry starts ogling Diana after leaving Mera under the sea; what does Diana have to offer Aquaman that Mera doesn't?!).

Justice League might not be a slam dunk of a film, but it puts its emphasis on far too many of the wrong things. The moment I enjoyed most was a simple exchange between Bruce Wayne and Diana. Wayne explains that he is getting too old for this kind of fight and he implores Diana to make her super hero alter-ego more available to the fights for which she is needed. It's a quiet moment, but a compelling one.

But, that's not what Justice League is about. It's about getting the team together, resurrecting a guy who can punch harder than the others (shouldn't Cyborg's technology have been able to evaluate Steppenwolf's vulnerability to freezing and given him an ice cannon?!), and making a giant effects-driven fight sequence to save the world from someone who never really had a chance to destroy it. The net result is a fast-paced popcorn movie that lacks resonance once it is over.

For other DC Comics Cinematic Universe works, please check out my reviews of:
Suicide Squad
Green Lantern
Man Of Steel


For other film reviews, please visit my Film Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2017 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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