Justice League: The World Ain’t Saving Itself

Warner Bros. and DC Comics’ attempts to emulate Marvel and Disney’s success with an interconnected cinematic universe of superheroes has met with mixed results, to say the least. They started off reasonably well with Man of Steel in 2013, before stumbling with Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad in 2016. They scored their first major hit with Wonder Woman earlier this year, and were hoping for another big hit with Justice League, the superhero team-up movie that is DC Comics’ version of the Avengers.

Image: Warner Bros.

Well, they’re back to the mixed results, since Justice League earned middling reviews and underwhelming box-office returns. It’s still a fun action-packed romp, but behind-the-scenes drama may have prevented it from being an Avengers-sized hit.

The movie is a flat two hours long, apparently a result of a Warner Bros. mandate that the film not exceed two hours in length, after Batman V Superman was criticized for being overlong at two and a half hours. The shorter running time of Justice League means that the pacing is better and the movie has a good sense of momentum, but the downside is that the characters aren’t as fully fleshed-out as they might have been given more time to develop them.

The movie was also subject to extensive reshoots, which were directed by Avengers maestro Joss Whedon after original director Zack Snyder stepped away from the film for a time for personal reasons. This means that Justice League was essentially directed by two different directors, although only Snyder is credited. Fortunately, the new scenes are integrated well enough that it didn’t seem to me that parts of the film were directed by different people, although I’m sure fans will have fun trying to figure out which scenes were shot by Whedon. I think Whedon was brought in to film mostly new dialogue scenes to help flesh out the characters and their relationships a bit, since “relationships” are not exactly one of Zack Snyder’s strong suits.

Snyder gets a lot of hate, much of which I think is undeserved. People just love to hate the guy for whatever reason. I think that he has a talent for eye-catching visuals and is a good director of kinetic action sequences, but the characters in his films don’t resonate as strongly as the visuals and action scenes. One of the best descriptions I’ve heard of Snyder’s work is that his films are full of great moments and memorable images, but good individual moments don’t necessarily add up to a great movie. This is a good description of Justice League as well, regardless of which director directed which scenes.

Image: Warner Bros.

But who are the characters in Justice League? There are six, and the identity of one of them could be considered a spoiler, since Warner Bros. kept him out of the film’s marketing materials. So, spoiler alert, I guess, although this character’s appearance will not come as much of a surprise for anyone familiar with comic books. When we last Superman, he was dead, killed by the monster called Doomsday at the end of Batman V Superman. He gets resurrected in Justice League, and I’ll keep the details of his resurrection a secret, although I will say that I thought it was handled pretty well, and that it was well-integrated with the rest of the film’s plot.

The other five characters, and the ones that the marketing focused on, are Batman, Wonder Woman, the Flash, Aquaman, and Cyborg. We already know Batman and Wonder Woman, but the other three are making their big-screen debuts (not counting their brief introductory cameos in earlier films). The movie has a lot of weight on its shoulders, since it has to establish these characters and set up a villain that will take their combined efforts to defeat, especially with the truncated two-hour running time.

When the first Avengers movie came out back in 2012, it had a distinct advantage over the Justice League movie. In that film, we were already familiar with the characters, since we had seen them in previous movies. Even the film’s villain, Loki, was someone we already knew well. In Justice League, three of the main characters are essentially new to the film’s universe (again, not counting those earlier cameos), as is the film’s villain.

That villain is named Steppenwolf, and he’s…underwhelming. He’s basically a harbinger of interdimensional doom who wants to unleash hell on earth and looks like he walked off the cover of a heavy metal album. He has an army of flying bug-eyed creatures called parademons and, look, the whole thing is pretty silly. The plot feels very compressed and viewers who aren’t familiar with the comic-book lore may very well wonder what the hell is going on. And while the big picture is clear (good guys must defeat bad guy before he unleashes hell on earth) the details are hazy.

Fortunately, I did like the good-guy characters. The movie has a better grasp of Batman (played again by Ben Affleck) than Batman V Superman did (Batman doesn’t kill anyone this time around), and Wonder Woman (the excellent Gal Gadot) is great. Aquaman (played by Conan the Barbarian Jason Momoa) and Cyborg (played by Ray Fisher) are fun characters, and the movie pokes fun at Aquaman’s much-mocked ability to communicate with fish. But the character who steals the movie is Barry Allen, aka The Flash, played by Ezra Miller.

Image: Warner Bros.

The Flash is easily the funniest character, and Miller steals every scene he’s in. Barry is a guy who really wants to do good in the world and is super excited to hang out with Batman and Wonder Woman and the gang, but he’s the first person to admit he may be in a bit over his head. “It’s great that you guys are ready to go in and do battle, but I’ve never done battle before,” he tells Batman. “I’ve just pushed people and run away.” The movie’s best lines all belong to him, and I’m looking forward to his solo film, although it’s still a few years away.

The special effects and action sequences are top-notch, which isn’t too surprising since Zack Snyder always delivers films that look and sound great, even if he struggles in other areas. There are a lot of fun superhero battles, and the movie has a much brighter color palette than previous DC Comics movies, which is nice to see. The characters look great and the costumes, weapons, vehicles and the like are badass, especially Batman’s awesome vehicles and Bat-tech. I also loved Barry’s wide-eyed reaction to seeing the Batcave for the first time: “It’s like a cave…a…bat-cave!”

The movie is much lighter in tone than Snyder’s previous DC films, which were heavily criticized for being too dark. There are a lot of jokes and funny moments (most of which belong to Barry) as well as a very funny scene involving Aquaman and Wonder Woman’s lasso of truth. I also got a kick out of Barry’s first meeting with Wonder Woman. “Hello, Barry, I’m Diana,” she says to him. Clearly smitten, he says to her, “Hello, Barry, I’m Diana. Wait, that’s not right.” It’s good to see Snyder having more fun with these characters.

Image: Warner Bros.

Justice League may not be up to the high standard set by the rest of this year’s comic-book superhero films, but I still enjoyed it. It’s hard to say how much the behind-the-scenes shakeups impacted the movie (there are several scenes in the trailers that aren’t in the film), but I still had fun with it. Maybe the Blu-ray release will include the director’s cut or something and we’ll be able to see some of the stuff that was left out. I still enjoyed Justice League overall, and while Wonder Woman remains the best movie in DC’s interconnected superhero universe, Justice League is quite a bit of fun, and 2017 was a much better year for DC movies than 2016 was, which is a relief.

Coming up next is something a bit different. For the past couple weeks I’ve been playing a lot of Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus. It’s a game full of Nazi-killing and ridiculous sci-fi shenanigans, but underneath all that is a game that cares deeply about its story and characters, and has a surprising amount of real-world relevance, despite the ludicrous robot-laser-space Nazis. Join me next week for a discussion of one of the most provocative video games to come around in quite some time. See you then.

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Wonderful Wonder Woman

After the twin disappointments of Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad last year, DC badly needed a genuine hit. Sure, both those films made plenty of money, but received awful reviews which hurt their long-term prospects, and led to a sharp drop-off at the box office between their first and second weekends. Fortunately, Wonder Woman is here to save the day, and her first-ever solo movie is one of the best-reviewed films of the year, and should have more staying power than her predecessors.
Wonder Woman first appeared in 1941, so it’s a little ridiculous that it took 76 years for her to finally get a movie of her own. It wasn’t until Batman V Superman last year that she even made her big-screen debut. When Israeli actress Gal Gadot was announced to play the character, fan reaction was mixed to say the least, but Gadot has proved the naysayers wrong by delivering a powerful performance, equal-parts badass warrior and believer in the inherent good of mankind, which is an attitude the world could always use more of these days. She’s just awesome.

Image: Warner Bros.

One of the advantages of not having had a solo film before is that a Wonder Woman origin story feels fresh. How many times have we seen origin stories for Batman, Superman, and Spider-Man? How many times have we seen Bruce Wayne’s parents die? So…many…times. The origin of Wonder Woman is a story that has not been told onscreen before, and even though it follows some familiar beats, it still feels lively, original, and heartfelt.
Wonder Woman’s real name is Diana, and she was born and raised on the hidden island of Themyscira, which was created by Zeus to protect mankind from Ares, the god of war. Diana is the daughter of Hippolyta, who is the Queen of the Amazons, and was raised as a warrior, initially against her mother’s wishes. Her life is turned upside-down when a plane crashes in the water off the coast of Themyscira. She saves the plane’s occupant, who just so happens to be the first man she’s ever seen in her life. The man’s name is Steve Trevor, and he brings the Amazons grave news from the outside world. He tells them of a massive war, of millions dead, and of weapons capable of killing millions more men, women, and children. Again going against her mother’s wishes, she resolves to help Steve and goes with him to London. The year is 1918, and the war is World War I.

Image: Warner Bros.

Steve is played by Chris Pine, who has to be one of the most likable actors in Hollywood today, and the chemistry of Pine and Gadot is one of the movie’s great pleasures. Diana is a fish out of water in the modern world (modern by 1918 standards anyway) and there are very funny scenes of her attempting to understand this strange new world she finds herself in. Soon after she meets Steve, she asks him, “Are you considered an average example of your sex?” to which he replies, “I’m…above average.”
The movie was directed by Patty Jenkins, whose 2003 film Monster earned Charlize Theron an Academy Award for Best Actress. This is Jenkins’ first directorial feature since then, and she nails it. A character like Wonder Woman (although she’s never actually called that in the movie) can be difficult tonally, meaning that it can be hard to balance the more serious aspects of her character with some of the goofier ones, like the Lasso of Truth, which is kind of silly. But Jenkins makes it easy to care about Diana and Steve and the larger conflict unfolding, while also adding the right amount of humor. One of the biggest complaints people had with the previous DC movies was that they were too dark and joyless, but Jenkins’ film tells a serious and coherent story that is also a hell of a lot more fun than its predecessors.
It also nails the action sequences, providing thrilling action set pieces that are every bit as good as the Zack Snyder-directed action scenes from earlier films (say what you will about Zack Snyder, the dude knows how to film a fight scene) and are significantly better than the choppily-edited action scenes from David Ayer’s Suicide Squad. Seeing Diana in action is an absolute blast, she kicks all kinds of ass. The movie takes the potentially-absurd sight of a beautiful woman in a brightly-colored bustier striding into the no man’s land between trenches and turns it into something stirring and powerful. And give a lot of credit to Gadot for all the fight training she did, she makes Wonder Woman a butt-kicking force of nature.

Image: Warner Bros.

This is Gadot’s first real starring role, after supporting roles in Batman V Superman and the Fast and Furious series, among others. She gives Diana an almost-childlike sense of wonder at the world, and an eternal optimism that cannot be dampened. She’s naïve at first, but her character matures organically as the film progresses, and she comes to realize, with Steve’s help, that things aren’t as black-and-white as she thought they were. There’s also a great moment early on where Diana starts to realize just how powerful she is, and her little gasp of joy is perfect. Not since Sam Raimi’s original Spider-Man has a superhero film captured that sheer sense of joy that comes with discovering you’re more powerful than you thought you could be.
One weak point is the film’s villains. The performances by Danny Huston and Elena Anaya as the Evil German General and Evil German Scientist are fine but the characters are generic and don’t do much other than glower and cackle. There’s also a third, hidden villain, but I won’t say more about this character in the interest of avoiding spoilers. I will say that this character’s appearance makes the climax of the film a bit silly, but it’s a minor complaint. The lackluster villains aren’t a huge problem, since the film overall is very good, but it’s a bit disappointing that the bad guys are so bland.

Image: Warner Bros.

But it’s hard to complain when the rest of the movie is so good. It’s got great action and special effects, it’s more fun and less dark than other DC movies, and it has two terrific lead performances. We’ll be seeing Diana again later this year in Justice League, which hopefully will take more of its leads from this film than Batman V Superman or Suicide Squad. We’ll have to wait and see, but in the meantime we can all be happy that Wonder Woman is here to stay.