Thursday, 16 November 2017

IN THEATRES: Justice League

Following the death of Superman,  Batman gathers a team of super-powered peeps to take on an interplanetary threat that could destroy the planet.

Here it is - the latest holding action in Warner Bros campaign to bring their DC properties to the screen.

This movie is not a masterpiece. This movie is not a disaster. This movie is a stopgap that tries to fix or ignore what happened in the movies that came before it. Just as BvS was a reaction to Man of Steel, and Suicide Squad was a reaction to BvS (and its own trailer), Justice League feels like a reaction to all of those movies (including Wonder Woman).  

Re-written, re-shot and re-colour-corrected, Justice League is a mixed bag. It's vaguely entertaining and possessed of a certain pace (it comes in at 121 minutes, which is nice), but there is not much else to it.

Directed by Zack Snyder and an un-credited Joss Whedon, the movie feels like someone started with one idea, and then was replaced by someone else with a different idea that kinda, sorta fit with the earlier idea, but not really. To be honest, I was seriously considering ignoring this movie, but with all the backstage hijinks and tinkering, morbid curiosity got the better of me. The spectacle of two diametrically opposed filmmakers being pulled together sounded like a dare: Would Snyder's over-saturated excess sync with Whedon's penchant for character dynamics over set pieces?

Watching the movie, I could not really tell. The tone is certainly more dynamic than Snyder's previous movies. But while the re-shoots probably helped, the story still feels clunky and the characters feel half-baked. There are beats that are clearly Whedon, but the character stuff never really gels in a way that feels cumulative.

As far as the catalyst for bringing our heroes together, Steppenwolf is one of the most uninteresting and generic villains to come around in a long time: he is just a generic CG god-ling, with no interesting motivation or characterisation to speak of. Ciaran Hinds is always good value (he's great in Tomb Raider 2), but Steppenwolf is such a colourless villain you could have cast anyone in the role. His design is not even that interesting - he looks like a minor character from a Ray Harryhausen movie. He never feels like a genuine threat for the team, and honestly he does not feel like the right villain for the medium: he feels more like the bad guy in a TV pilot - he's just there so the good guys have a reason to come together.

Our heroes are not much better.

Superman, such a non-entity in the previous movies, is here presented as a symbol of hope. It does not stick because the movie does nothing to make that feel believable. We get a neat flashback at the top (a child's iPhone interview with Superman) and an extended talking scene with Lois and Clark in a CG farm-scape. That's it: we're still stuck with two movies worth of backstory that boil down to four hours of filmmakers who do not know what to do with Superman. So when Batman talks about Superman being a beacon of hope, it rings hollow because he has never been shown to act like any kind of role model. When he makes his return in the third act, he may be acting more like Supes (i.e. giving a shit about people), but it never feels like a big catharsis for the group. It just feels like a plot point.

Batman's character is similarly hamstrung. He gets a good rapport with the Flash and a leaden flirtation with Diana (it might be a good idea, but not based on this chemistry).

One real bum note is Gal Gadot, who oscillates on an almost scene-by-scene basis from sparky and invested to wooden and amateurish (there's one confrontation with Bruce Wayne where she goes full-on soap opera). I chalk it up to the re-shoots and the lack of Patty Jenkins to help with the performance.

Because this is the first time most of the Justice bros have appeared onscreen, the movie has to stop dead to introduce them and their respective worlds. Of the new characters, the easy highlight is Ezra Miller as Barry Allen/The Flash. The scenes setting up his relationship with his dad, and his dynamics with the team all feel the most well-realised. It helps that aside from his powers, he is the most ordinary character in the movie (he even trips over at one point).

Jason Momoa's Aquaman will probably be great in his own movie. Here he is hamstrung by being only one of a group of surly bad asses. He is funny and charismatic, but he feels side-lined.
Ray Fisher's Cyborg needed so much more build-up. We are introduced to him too late in his evolution. He is already a CG-augmented character when we meet him, and it is difficult to feel the tragedy the filmmakers intend because we never get a sense of what his life was like before his accident. It does not help that his powers never really feel like a curse. This is a rare blockbuster that could have used more breathing room.

If you are looking for some cool action scenes to tide you over, you are out of luck. They are still airless collections of CGI poses. The lack of genuine scale and lack of tactile threats (and collateral damage) makes the movie feel really small. And because of the extended tinkering, there are a lot of really obvious green screen backdrops. And look out for Henry Cavill's CG lip - it is very weird and very obvious.

Overall, the movie is meh. It has some funny scenes, and has a better grasp of the characters' personas (character development, less so) than the previous DC movies, but it cannot help feeling like what it is: a studio mandate to have a superhero franchise. These characters do not belong together because they want or need to: it is because Warner Bros wants some of that Marvel money. It is a better movie than expected, but not much by much. If you are not a die hard fan, give it a miss till it comes out on home media. If you are in the mood for a big blockbuster, go see Thor: Ragnarok instead.

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