JUSTICE LEAGUE Review

I guess I should start out by saying that I am and always have been a fan of Zack Snyder. Without much effort I can recall sitting in the theater and experiencing Dawn of the Dead along with that moment when it clicked that this wasn't just a fun horror flick, but it was a good movie. I can remember seeing 300 several times if not for the admittedly thin story, but for the ways in which the director was pushing the boundaries of the visual medium. My heart almost dropped out of my chest upon first glimpsing that opening credits sequence to Watchmen in glorious IMAX and with Man of Steel it felt as if Superman had never been so epic; that the whole scope of his being had been presented, warts and all, even if most didn't agree that Superman should have warts. I loved Man of Steel and to a certain degree, I loved Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice as well. I'm not one to say that film is without its flaws, there is a convoluted nature to the proceedings that are unnecessary and it devolves into a CGI crapfest for the last forty minutes, but for me BvS was very much a personal film and one that was as grand in scale as it was deep with heart and rich with themes. Though the marks against it have their validity it is a film that arguably has more to say and more at stake than any other superhero film produced in the last seventeen years and certainly in the last nine or so since Marvel has streamlined the process. This brings us to Justice League, a movie that is hard for me to even call a Snyder film for, despite having the trademark look of the director during certain sequences, is undoubtedly the least Zack Snyder film to have ever been produced. It's sad and disheartening in the way that Justice League, or what Snyder began in 2013 and has been building through to up until recently has culminated with this, a vanilla action film with people dressed like characters we know and love, but to the benefit of a story that is paint by numbers if not the simplest example of such, a barrage of unfinished CGI and shortcuts, with no real stakes to be felt. Say what you will about those civilian casualties or the lack of awareness for them in previous films, but they added a weight to these proceedings that reinforced that in order for evil to be avenged evil first has to occur. Warner Bros. and Geoff Johns have gone out of their way to ensure Justice League took into consideration the complaints from previous endeavors and it does, resolving it to be the broadest and most generic theater-going experience one might have this year. The masses will no doubt love it.

Commissioner Gordon (J.K. Simmons) discusses the latest attacks on Gotham with Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), Batman (Ben Affleck), and The Flash (Ezra Miller).
© 2016 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc., Ratpac-Dune Entertainment LLC and Ratpac Entertainment, LLC
Everything requires balance and while I may not be a fan of this new direction the DC Extended Universe is shifting toward if all of their movies are going to feel as safe as Justice League (here's looking at you, James Wan)  I can at least appreciate that they are searching for that balance. They may have gone a little too far to one side with this one in the wake of the complaints lodged against BvS, but Wonder Woman certainly proved there can be a happy medium. Where this first needs to come to some kind of resolution though is in the storytelling. I'm a fan of mythology and in both Man of Steel and BvS there was a sense that something bigger than ourselves was taking place; that unknown entities and unknown consequences for their actions would come to pass while also suggesting that there was a bigger purpose to all that was happening even if some of the characters and much of the audience couldn't yet comprehend the complexity of it. This mythology lent these Snyder superhero films, despite being so broody and dark in mood, an outlying ethereal tone that very much kept these heroes, and in turn myself and at least a few other audience members, aware that there was a level of perfection being chased after; a goal of peace, if you will. Unfortunately, this mythology that made the previous films feel inherently epic is gone in place of a straightforward narrative that makes no qualms about depth or substance around the action that is taking place or the events that are occurring. To be clear, there isn't anything wrong with having a simple, throughline plot that goes from point A to point B and resolves itself nicely at point C, but the best examples of the medium are films not solely concerned with or about what you see happening on screen, but the ideas and transformations that you see through the characters and what is happening around them. With team-up films in general it was always going to be tough to accomplish as much for all involved and especially in Justice League as three of the six main heroes have yet to be introduced to audiences. With a script developed and written by Chris Terrio and Snyder that was then undoubtedly wrangled in and streamlined (there's that word again, huh?) by the presence of Joss Whedon who was brought in to re-write and finish directing the film after Snyder had to leave the project due to a family tragedy, it feels as if this thing has been stripped down to its bear bones and is now being hung out to dry in hopes of pleasing the focus groups and internet trolls. Still, in the opening credits of Justice League it proclaims this both to be a Zack Snyder film and is directed by Zack Snyder. While there are shades of what Snyder's original vision for his Justice League film might have been, what we have in front of us is a movie that is quick to identify its main players, quick to define the threat to earth in one of the worst CGI villains in super hero history, and seemingly even quicker to cut all former ties with story threads that have come before it. In doing so, the mystique and grandeur of Snyder's visual sense and the raw intensity of both his construction of action and dramatic sequences are diminished to passable entertainment that is, given the rocky production, admittedly more coherent than expected.

If you weren't a fan of either Man of Steel or BvS, but agree that Wonder Woman helped put the DCEU's best foot forward (I think we can all agree on Suicide Squad) then odds are you will likely also enjoy what Justice League at least promises for the DCEU's future. And while I am certainly disheartened by the fact Snyder won't be able to complete his vision I like a lot of the ideas that Justice League proposes without actually executing and I look forward to the kinds of filmmakers Warner Bros. brings in to deliver on these proposals. That said, Justice League begins by feeling very much like an episode of the nineties animated series where Ben Affleck's Batman lurks around on Gotham rooftops, in a Gotham that very much resembles the forties inspired architecture with hints of the "dark deco" that defined that series' aesthetic while still functioning within the technology of the modern day. To boot, Danny Elfman's score and the utilization of the theme from that series and his Tim Burton's 1989 film only adds to the air of similarity Snyder and Warner Bros. were likely going for so as to hit the target audience square in the nostalgia; it certainly got to me a few times throughout. That isn't to say Justice League rises to the quality that Batman: The Animated Series often did, but rather that there is a clear objective to mimic that same style. At the onset, Affleck's Batman is tracking down small time crooks in order to produce fear and attract those pesky Parademons that he had a vision of in the previous film. Batman isn't sure what these giant bugs are or where they're coming from, but the Amazonian's, Atlantian's, and a certain Star Labs employee named Silas Stone (Joe Morton), father of Victor Stone (Ray Fisher) AKA Cyborg, might each have a better idea. We get a fantastic re-introduction to Gal Gadot's Wonder Woman via a classic bank robbery scenario that is arguably the best action sequence in the film in terms of both doing something interesting artistically and different in terms of how the action is handled. What this sequence does show is that after a century Diana Prince might be willing to put herself back out into the world as Wonder Woman. The film then introduces us to the main antagonist of Steppenwolf (at the very least voiced by CiarĂ¡n Hinds) who audiences might be familiar with if they saw the deleted scene from BvS, but otherwise feels like a really odd choice as the big antagonist for the first team-up of the super friends. Steppenwolf is introduced through his descent into Themyscira where he collects the first of three MacGuffin's, I mean Mother Boxes, which are items that don't contain power, but when all three are brought together embody power themselves. With the other two Mother Boxes having been hidden by the Atlantaians and the other currently being researched after it started acting up after the arrival of Superman it's not difficult to see why Batman AKA Bruce Wayne thought it best to gather the gang for this one.

Aquaman (Jason Mamoa) takes down a Parademon in Justice League.
© 2016 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc., Ratpac-Dune Entertainment LLC and Ratpac Entertainment, LLC
So what about the team itself? That's what we're here for, right? That's the point of all of this, correct? More or less, sure. Fortunately the interaction between the team members and the personalities established by each of the newcomers as well as carried over by the returning cast are what make up the best aspects of Justice League. Though the story may be slim, and the CGI ridiculously spotty for a film that cost upwards of $300 million, the interaction between the team members counts for a lot here. Beginning with Affleck's Bruce Wayne/Batman the actor (who has been consistently rumored to be on the outs since July) at least feels committed to the journey he understands he is meant to go on in this particular arc. There isn't much time to deal with the double life aspect or the running of a major business as twenty years into being the Batman are finally starting to wear on the caped crusader. Affleck plays this role with the appropriate amount of his discouraged scowl, but there is also a sincerity to his determination to find others who can save the world while coming to terms with the fact he is out of his depth and can no longer handle things on his own. Some may read this as Affleck being disinterested or tired of the baggage that comes with playing such an iconic character, but as in BvS we understand this is a Batman/Bruce combo that has been in the game far longer than we've ever seen represented on the big screen and thus understand his weariness and seeming anxiousness to not necessarily pass the torch, but of ensuring that someone will be there to save the world when he can't. As she did in the biggest film of the summer, Gadot carries this film with ease as well. It is her Diana that possesses all the charm, wit, and virtuous mentality that makes her capable of truly leading the team and this shines through most not when we're seeing Wonder Woman save the day or slice the bad guy (or be shot in more male apparent ways than what we saw in the Patty Jenkins-helmed origin story), but more when she and Bruce come to butt heads over the ethics of certain decisions and/or discussions around what it means to be a leader; the authority, but also the responsibility that comes along with it. In these two fleeting scenes where such quiet, but stirring conversations take place Justice League enters some of its most fertile terrain as it begins to dig into particulars of themes that might be allowed to breathe were they not so quickly stuffed out by the cutting to of the next scene. There are battling perspectives, opening the film up to the varied backgrounds of where these characters have come from with both how and why they see the world the way they do and, as a result, how they feel is the best way to fix it. Like I said, this is all quickly resolved as if Warner Bros. feared getting into too heady of territory and reminding fans of what once made Snyder's takes on these characters so much deeper.

As for the new additions, if you've seen the trailers know that you've more or less seen the entirety of the introduction of Ezra Miller's Barry Allen AKA The Flash. We do in fact get a few notable scenes where Barry interacts with his incarcerated father, Henry, as played by Billy Crudup, but otherwise this version of The Flash is a loner who is looking to find himself as well as still figuring out his powers and his potential to the point he's not much help to the actual team, but he could be. Miller is hamming it up a little too much for my taste to the point that he may as well be wearing a sticker on his forehead that tells the audience he's the comic relief, but that he more or less pulls off most of the one-liners helps. I'm anxious to see what a Flash stand-alone film will look like with Miller in the lead as we get a sense here that he is very much a supporting character and nothing more despite the fact there is seemingly plenty set-up for which the DCEU can explore. I only hope Miller can handle the weight of a solo film as his take on the scarlet speedster can hardly handle himself in the field in this first outing. All of that said, The Flash is a part of a pretty great post-credits scene that, if it's any indication of where the DCEU is heading, could prove to be a closer mix of that aforementioned balance this cinematic universe is still searching for. Next up is Jason Mamoa's Arthur Curry AKA Aquaman who is also the biggest departure from the character in terms of how he's been traditionally portrayed in the comic books. As Aquaman, Mamoa seems to be little more than a version of himself that also happens to be able to talk to fish. Meaning, this version of Curry is a badass metalhead who has parental issues that deal with his Atlantian mother dropping him off on the doorstep of his human father thus having forced him into a pattern of self-proclaimed selfishness while secretly keeping seaside villages fed when the water freezes on their shoreline and boats with supplies aren't able to get through for months. One can't help but feel with this iteration of the character that people will either love it or hate it. Personally, I've never had enough of an attachment to the character to care either way, but in his own words, "I dig it." Mamoa is a welcome slice of machismo and vulnerability that makes the sillier aspects of the character feel as badass as possible and making those already cool aspects even cooler. I only wish this film utilized him a little more as his personality gives the impression of greater influence over the movie despite being on screen less than Cyborg. And as for Fisher's Cyborg, he is certainly the one who gets the least development despite having as equally a tragic backstory as Allen. While the Justice League script utilizes Cyborg often for his skills and capabilities it rarely allows us to get to know the young man inside the machine past his initial reluctance to join the team out of an insecurity for still being alive when he feels he should be dead; a trait that is given a nice touch in the finale, but is seemingly forgotten throughout the middle section of the film.

Cyborg (Ray Fisher) comes reluctantly to the league of heroes after his father saves his life by preserving his mind in a machine.
 © 2016 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc., Ratpac-Dune Entertainment LLC and Ratpac Entertainment, LLC
Despite my fear for what Justice League could have ultimately been the final product is admittedly sounder than I expected. There are some great moments with the League itself, but this thing also sports a rather expansive cast that sees Jeremy Irons taking on our most involved Alfred yet, Amy Adams and Diane Lane not necessarily passing the Bechdel test (they're actually failing it miserably), but talking nonetheless in a quiet room about quiet things like loss and the inability to move on. Connie Nielsen reprises her role as Queen Hippolyta and is given the opportunity to lead another of the more sweeping battles in this effort (come to think of it, the action sequences become more and more dour and more and more darkly lit as the film goes on) whereas the likes of J.K. Simmons and Amber Heard are present and accounted for, but have very little to do. It's understandable that these things happen when your movie is centered on a core group of heroes yet each of those heroes have their own lives and their own people that must also be incorporated into the fold. Justice League does an admirable job of attempting to make sure these facets are at least included and this is kind of the mentality across the board. Justice League is an enjoyable theater-going experience. On the surface there isn't really much to complain about for, as far as the standard template for super hero movies goes, this thing fills it out adequately and delivers some winning dynamics between heroes whose stories we can't wait to see more of. That is essentially all one can ask of a big budget studio film made for the sole purpose of making more films in a franchise, but given this super hero resurgence has now been ongoing for nearly two decades that standard template doesn't always suffice. The genre has evolved and the heroes and movies produced within it have evolved as well. While many will undoubtedly feel as if Justice League is a step forward for the DCEU, and it likely will be in terms of public opinion, in terms of art and the championing of original, particular voices this is a big step backwards. Come what may though, Justice League may be remembered as the final corner turned before the DCEU finally found its groove and began focusing on its individual heroes rather than rushing them into their cinematic universe and I truly hope that happens as I will and always have been a fan of the mythology imbued on these modern day Gods, but chances are Justice League won't be remembered much at all.