Justice League (2017)

Look! Up on the screen! It’s big! It’s dumb! It’s loud! It’s Justice League!

And it mostly works. Mostly.

The very first scene of Justice League does some good work walking back the problems—and they are problems, not merely criticisms—of the first few non-Wonder Woman films in this universe. We see Superman as children see him, which is also the way that this franchise keeps trying to retroactively force its audience into reconceptualizing him: as a true-blue (literally, given the lightening of his costume) hero and symbol of hope. He’s kind, sympathetic, and, you know, Superman, as he’s supposed to be. And then, just as his life was, the video is cut short. This leads into a beautiful opening credits montage, a strength of Zack Snyder’s as a director (even those who hate his Watchmen adaptation, which I surprisingly don’t, are all but universally pleased with its Dylan-composed credits sequence).

This sequence is not without contentious issues, of course. First, there’s a headline seen in a newspaper box mourning the loss of David Bowie, Prince, and Superman, but not Leonard Cohen, which is pretty disrespectful given that the whole thing is set to a really, really terrible cover of “Everybody Knows.” There’s also the issue that we’re supposed to be seeing a world in mourning for the space god who showed them some truths about themselves, but if you’re going to enjoy anything about this movie, you’re just going to have to accept this retcon.

Consider the speech from Marlon Brando’s Jor-El in the first Richard Donner Superman film (and later repurposed for the trailer for Superman Returns): “They can be a great people, Kal-El; they wish to be. They only lack the light to show the way. For this reason above all, their capacity for good, I have sent them you… my only son.” This same speech was actually echoed by Russell Crowe in his turn as Papa El in Man of Steel: “You will give the people of Earth an ideal to strive towards. They will race behind you, they will stumble, they will fall. But in time, they will join you in the sun, Kal. In time, you will help them accomplish wonders.” Unfortunately, this franchise has made zero effort to actually follow through on these lofty ideals of the Superman-is-Messiah beyond paying lip service and a couple of “subtle” images in Man of Steel. The problem is that this was never present in the actual text of the film, which presented us with a broody, angry, super-powered alien whose only affection for the beings of his adopted world were his love for his mother and an office romance. He was more Tyler Hoechlin’s Derek Hale in Teen Wolf than Tyler Hoechlin’s Clark Kent in Supergirl (he’s killing it, by the way), and that absence has been sorely lacking in this film series so far.

But. But. Justice League, for all the baggage that its carrying from three bad movies and one spectacular one, actually works if you ignore all that needless, pointless, and out-of-place GRIMDARK nonsense that preceded it in the earlier installments. And it’s not just with Superman either; the scene that immediately follows the opening montage shows Batman out and about being Batman, and even uses some passages from Danny Elfman’s previous work on Tim Burton’s 1989 film adaptation (but which will always be a keystone for me as the theme music for the Batman animated series).

This first Batman scene is both good and bad. Your standard Gotham City burglar is exiting onto a roof at night, sees Batman, attacks the Bat, gets his ass handed to him, and is dangled over the side of a building to attract a Parademon (the foot soldiers of the film’s villain), which can apparently smell fear. Bats traps the Parademon in a net, tests out a series of sonic disruptions on it, and it dies, leaving behind a clue about the three Mother Boxes. It’s so, so dumb, but the combination of the old Elfman theme and the absurdity of the whole thing makes it feel like the cold open of an episode of the animated Justice League, where Kevin Conroy’s Batman would do something just like this: lure, trap, find weird clue that matches something he’s already investigating, detective it up. It shouldn’t (and for most people won’t) work in a feature film with live actors that is supposedly trying to take itself seriously, but that narrative works for me on a certain level. On the other hand, there are other elements of this scene that are inarguably bad story choices, like Batman just kind of grappling away from the scene to do detective stuff, completely disregarding the theft he just interrupted and leaving the burglar to his own devices.

The overarching plot of the film concerns the arrival of Steppenwolf, one of the members of Jack Kirby’s cosmic DC creations The New Gods, on earth. Millennia ago, he attempted to invade the planet and turn it into a “primordial hellscape,” but he was repelled by an alliance of Amazons, Atlanteans, the tribes of Man, and a couple of others that we’ll explore in a minute. Steppenwolf carrier with him three Mother Boxes, pieces of advanced technology that, when combined, create the terraforming effect that will make the earth his new home (yes, this was the exact same desire of the villains of Man of Steel). Now, after several millennia, he has returned in the wake of Superman’s death because mankind’s mourning of that great symbol of hope has made it ripe pickings for the invader’s crusade, and Batman has to recruit five superheroes with attitude to repel his forces (yes, this is essentially the same plot as the Mighty Morphing Power Rangers, and yes, I would love to see the trailer for JL recut with the opening narration of MMPR).

I’m not going to lie to you: this movie is clearly half-baked and it makes a lot of mistakes. Beyond the fact that Bats uses a street level criminal as bait and then ditching him without even notifying the police, there are other mistakes both big and small. For instance: the janitor working at Star Labs is seen bidding Dr. Stone good night, and it’s obvious (at least on the big screen) that the ID he’s wearing is for a different person, as he has dark hair and is clean-shaven, while the picture on the ID is of a man with a big bushy head of white hair and a glorious Mark Twain mustache. You can imagine sitting in the movie theater and thinking, like me: “Oh, he must be a spy who stole this ID, that’s a neat clue.” But no, it’s just a mistake; later, after said innocent janitor has been kidnapped by the villain, we see his belongings left behind in a pile, including an ID with an accurate photo. That’s this movie in a microcosm: when you think that it’s being clever, it’s actually just a goof.

When I was a kid, the DC comics characters were much dearer to me than Marvel’s. Although becoming an adult and becoming more socially aware has meant that I’m less inclined to love Batman uncritically (i.e., he’s kind of a fascist who spends most of his time attacking poor people out of his own sense of morality, rarely actually inspecting the causes of poverty and crime and trying to correct the problem at the root, although some of the best Batman writers have taken note of this and written him accordingly), he’s still the first character I think of when I think of superhero comics. The aforementioned Batman animated series was a defining piece of media for young Boomer, as were reruns of Superfriends, and I loved visiting the one aunt whose cable package included FX, as that meant I would get to see an episode of the Adam West Batman and, if I was very lucky, Lynda Carter in Wonder Woman. It’s for this reason, and not because I am a “Marvel fanboy,” that I’ve been pained to see this franchise handled so, so poorly in the past few years. Wonder Woman was not just a step in the right direction, but a wholehearted plunge into how to to this whole thing right (Alli may have given it a mere 3.5 stars, but that was a 5 star movie for me personally).

Justice League is having a harder time straddling that fence, seeing as it has to undo the immense damage done to the franchise as a whole by Man of Steel and Batman v. Superman. Sure, Suicide Squad was a terrible movie on the whole, but at its core it was a C-grade movie dressed up as a blockbuster, which is an aesthetic that I’m always a little bit on board for in spite of myself, especially when the actors really commit to the nonsense; additionally, the backstory and arc of Jay Hernandez’s Diablo contain far and away the most effective emotional beats of the first three films. It certainly didn’t fracture the fans in the same way as BvS, which some people are still defending for reasons that are unclear to me. Still, JL is trying hard to course correct, and the job that it’s doing is admirable, even if it stumbles every ten minutes or so. It works as a cartoon about the Justice League that just happens to be live action and have a tonally dissonant visual aesthetic from the text of the actions on screen.

The most important thing I can tell you if I’m trying to give you an idea as to whether or not you should see this film is this: Justice League works, if you accept it not as part of this franchise, but as an entry into the larger cultural understanding of Superman specifically and DC in general. What I mean by this is that the story it’s trying to tell, about a world without a Superman, does not work as a piece of the DCEU divorced from the context of the DC animated universes, or comic books, or even the earlier Donner and Burton films. But within that larger conversation, in which we do have a Superman who is a beacon of hope, truth, and justice, it does.

Additional notes:

  • I, too, saw all of the photos of Henry Cavill’s uncanny valley face online before I went to the theater, but I never noticed it when actually watching the movie. Maybe it says something about how my brain works that I completely overlooked it, but I’d wager it has more to do with the fact that if this were real life, Superman would have had to keep telling me “My weird face thing is up here.” You know what I’m talking about.
  • This has been addressed in other reviews that I’ve read and heard, but it is super weird that no one is at all concerned about maintaining their own or other’s secret identities in this movie. Aquaman calls Bruce Wayne “Batman” in front of a whole bunch of villagers, and Lois calls the newly awakened Superman “Clark” in front of several Metropolis police officers, which is only going to make it more obvious when he shows back up at work after having disappeared and reappeared at the exact same time as Supes did.
  • Ezra Miller’s Flash is charming, and I liked him a lot. A lot of his jokes fell flat, but I liked that they were overlooked in universe as well. I think that he’s probably the best addition to this universe since Wonder Woman.
  • Ray Fisher’s Cyborg is given almost nothing to do other than to be the machina that the deus exes.
  • All the stuff that you heard about Wonder Woman being more sexualized in this film is true, as I noticed the lingering shot of her rear, but she’s still Wonder Woman and still the best thing about this movie. I can’t wait for WW2.
  • The design for Steppenwolf is terrible. A stop-motion Starro would have been better, and would have made for a better villain overall anyway. Can you imagine a film where Starro the Conqueror appeared and tried to terraform the world into something more suitable to himself (i.e. covering the whole earth with the ocean)? There would be no need for the cliche sky beams, and instead there could have been the opportunity to discuss the rising oceans that are the result of climate change and Starro’s need to barely push humans into doing his will. The insistence on doing the New Gods stuff right out of the gate, especially after the imagery and ideas of Jack Kirby were so much better utilized in Guardians 2 and Thor: Ragnarok earlier this year, was a bad decision.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)

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I’ll start out saying this: I didn’t hate Batman v Superman … as much as I thought I was going to. I certainly didn’t hate it as much as I hated Man of Steel, for starters. Further, despite the fact that I found co-writer David S. Goyer’s script for the final Christopher Nolan Batman flick to be patronizing and transparent in its privileged take on income inequality, this film wasn’t quite so morally bankrupt in its presuppositions about audience attitudes. I even had a few positive takeaways from the flick, although some of those things were probably in spite of the filmmaker’s goals and not because of them.

I’m not a Zack “The Hack” Snyder hater, either. I know that hating on him is popular and easy, and he certainly deserves some of the criticism that is leveled at him. I’ve heard mixed things about Sucker Punch (although never anything that enticed me into watching the whole thing), and I find that the director’s cut of Watchmen is a decent adaptation of the source material. The problem with Snyder is that he knows and understands that film has a language, but he doesn’t know how to make that language work for him. Snyder just doesn’t grasp how to handle pacing and tension, so, instead of having rising action that grows at a steady rate up to a film’s denouement, everything is metaphorically cranked up to eleven at all times. Snyder knows how to make things look “epic,” but he uses that same technique in every shot; as a result, every action has the same dramatic weight, be it people fleeing in terror from collapsing buildings, potential warnings from the future, nuclear deployment, or uneventful board meetings.

Not all of this is Snyder’s fault, really; it’s the audience’s. The general public took 300, a film that revels in its consistently over-the-top nature and (arguably) succeeds as a narrative within that paradigm, and made it Snyder’s first real mainstream success. We taught Snyder the unfortunate lesson that this style was laudable and commercially viable when it’s actually exhausting. He’s like that classmate of yours who misunderstood the definition of a word from context clues and then proceeded to use it incorrectly all the time because it sounds good to their ear. It’s not that Snyder doesn’t have experience; he’s got several films under his belt now, each one more popular (or at least profitable) than the last. Snyder is simply living proof that sometimes a person can create a worthwhile piece of media without grasping the reason that it works. He understands that using a particular visual rhetorical strategy is something that filmmakers do to elicit a response, but he doesn’t seem to know why they do it. As a result, you can’t really say that there are any “quiet moments” here in Batman v Superman, just scenes and sequences that would be treated with some deftness and gravitas in another, more sensitive movie, a film in the hands of a more mature filmmaker.

Ironically, the audience is expected to assume that the immature Superman of the previous film has grown into a true-blue hero after a short montage of him rescuing people in scenes that appropriate the images of real-life disasters. Just as Man of Steel relied heavily on 9/11 imagery, so too does this film co-opt the images we have seen of the victims of Hurricane Katrina waiting for rescue on their rooftops. What’s more, it seems that the criticism of the previous film’s inappropriate use of this visual rhetoric resulted in an increase in it this time around, which is horrible. The audience is supposed to believe that Superman has learned his lesson about accountability and the value of life despite the fact that, metatextually, Snyder certainly didn’t. Further, he couldn’t figure out how to communicate that idea visually; you know, like making Metropolis a warmer looking place, or subtly lightening the blue of the Superman outfit in order to make him stand out as a beacon of hope in contrast to Batman’s more fear-mongering approach.

Of course, just because their names are in the title doesn’t necessarily mean that either Batman or Superman is really the main character in this film; Lex Luthor is. I wasn’t keeping track of the exact number of lines that each says in the film, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Jesse Eisenberg’s character had as many as Henry Cavill’s and Ben Affleck’s combined. Luthor’s actions kick off the plot, Luthor is behind the false flag operation in Nairomi (which provides the final catalyst for Bruce Wayne to come out of retirement), Luthor kidnaps Ma Kent in order to force Superman’s hand, Luthor creates Doomsday, etc. Luthor even collates the data about potential powered individuals for Bruce to later stumble upon. Every other character is reacting to Luthor’s manipulations, but Eisenberg’s performance doesn’t have the requisite gravitas to make the character work. Eisenberg has been in a few things that I’ve enjoyed and a fair few others that I have not. He’s not necessarily a bad actor, but he is one with a fairly limited range, and, in fairness to him, I don’t know that any performer could have played this role and pulled it off. Luthor is framed as some kind of wunderkind, but any menace that he could possibly embody is undercut by the character’s shrill, foppish affectations. I don’t know if that was a character choice made by Eisenberg or on his behalf, but it’s distracting and obnoxious. Overall, Luthor ends up as a non-threatening villain despite the heinousness of his actions.

Clocking in at just under three hours, Dawn of Justice seems interminable at times, and the above-cited problem with a lack of variation in intensity is only one factor. There are abundant issues with pacing as well. Something like 10% of the film’s 166 minutes, including the very first scene, is taken up with dream sequences (and dream sequences within dream sequences, and imagined conversations with dead relatives). I don’t want to go into too many details in case any of you reading this want to maintain some surprise when/if you get around to seeing it, but there’s a prolonged scene that occurs near the film’s climax which interrupts the preparation for battle to focus on a character watching a series of video files. This sequence exists solely for the purpose of planting the seeds for DC’s attempt to create a Marvel-style interconnected film franchise, and its placement  in the film is utterly baffling. There’s a basic misunderstanding of narrative at play here with DC’s embarrassing attempt to play catch up with the House of Ideas. I can’t tell if it’s a blatant attempt to differentiate their business model from Marvel’s or a stubborn unwillingness to take the time and effort to give individual characters the needed breathing room for an audience to get to know them before forcing an Avengers style team-up with the upcoming Justice League (Part I… ugh). Either way, Batman v Superman doesn’t work as a cornerstone for the building of this larger universe or as a notable film in its own right.

There are occasional hints of a better narrative throughout (for instance, having Lex act as both a corrupt businessman and a bit of a mad scientist, as he has been portrayed as both in the past/comics, was a good idea that was poorly executed). I would even go so far as to say that the first half of the film works surprisingly well, especially with Holly Hunter acting circles around every other person onscreen in her performance as Senator June Finch. It’s really all downhill once she’s no longer present, with the second half feeling like a completely different movie. Amy Adams’s Lois Lane spends most of the climax struggling to retrieve a kryptonite spear from an underwater location that she herself threw it into in an earlier scene; that’s a first draft plot problem if I ever saw one. In one particularly noteworthy scripting problem, Lois’s Senator informant tells the President that the monster Bats and Superman are fighting only gets stronger each time that they attack it. This occurs after they attack Doomsday only once; sure, the knowledge that Doomsday gets stronger with every defeat is something that certain parts of the audience will know because of a familiarity with the source material, but why does this character have this knowledge?

I am sure that defenders of this film will find ways to justify the problems with the narrative, just as there were many who bent over backwards to make excuses for Man of Steel and its poor choices. We live in a world where there are people who will look you in the eye and defend the Star Wars prequels, so there’s no possibility that I could ever again be caught off guard by individual tastes and perceptions, no matter how alien they seem to be to me. This is an objectively bad movie, but I’m certainly not here to judge (I’m writing this next to a DVD shelf that contains both Dead Heat and Astro Zombies, after all). I will say, however, that I cannot fathom getting sufficient enjoyment from this movie to merit dealing with the long swathes in which there is nothing that could offer the smallest amount of filmic pleasure.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should cite the film’s good elements. I mentioned Holly Hunter’s strong performance above, but Gal Gadot does good work here with the limited screen time they give her, and there really is nothing quite like finally seeing Wonder Woman on the big screen for the first time (not counting The Lego Movie), and I gave the movie an extra half star for her appearance alone. The guitar-heavy track that serves as WW’s leitmotif is strange, but it does effectively differentiate her musical arrangement from Clark’s and Bruce’s even if it is an unusual choice. I also appreciated that the film trusts the audience to infer that Bruce was once the Batman and has since retired, even though Snyder apparently felt the need to show the Waynes getting gunned down in an alley for approximately the millionth time, complete with falling pearls, as if this wasn’t the most well-known origin story on the planet other than the birth of Christ. There’s a fun cameo from a Major Ferris (i.e. Carol Ferris from the Green Lantern comics) as well as some other Easter Eggs, and I’m always happy to see Lauren Cohan (Mrs. Wayne) getting work.

If you were already planning to see this movie (or not), one more negative review on top of all the others that are floating around isn’t going to make much of a difference to you. Still, even if you (like me) are enticed solely by the prospect of Wonder Woman, don’t waste your money trying to catch this flick in theaters. Like the Luthor character, Dawn of Justice is less interested in being clever than it is in investing time in making itself seem more clever than it really is, and ultimately ends up being incoherent for all its effort.

Random Remaining Questions (spoilers for both this film and Man of Steel):

● In the trailer for the film, we see Bruce getting a piece of hate mail that says “You let your family die,” and we see this same scene in the film. In context, this makes no sense, as no members of the Wayne family were killed during the showdown that ended Man of Steel, just Wayne Enterprises employees. So what was the point of that, other than to mislead people with the trailer?

● At the end of the film, Lois is hanging out in a bedroom in the Kent farmhouse. From the look of it, it seems like it’s supposed to be Clark’s room from before he left for college. So did Ma Kent really have the house recreated so exactly after its destruction in the first film that they duplicated this room, right down to its rural teen aesthetic?

● When will TV and films realize that an atmospheric detonation of a nuclear weapon is exponentially worse than one that occurs on the ground? Heroes got called out for doing this same thing ten years ago at the end of their first season; was no one listening?

● This one was pointed out to me after the fact by my friend who saw the film with me: was Luthor intercepting Wally’s mail for eighteen months before he used him to infiltrate the senate subcommittee? My reading of the situation was that Wally was returning his checks to Wayne Enterprises for all that time and then came to Luthor’s attention following his public arrest for vandalism of that hideous Superman statue, at which point Luthor approached Wally to help him. But later Luthor seems to admit that he sent the final piece of mail to Bruce personally, implying that he was behind the returning of checks this whole time. So which is it?

● I know that the locations of Metropolis and Gotham City are not fixed and as such they sometimes are close to each other and sometimes further apart, but putting them across the bay from each other really bothers me for reasons that I can’t quite put my finger on. I guess I feel that you shouldn’t be able to see one city from the other? Like, if any random person in Metropolis could look toward the waterfront and see the Bat-Signal in Gotham City, it really strains credibility that these two characters would have never interacted previously.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond