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Justice League (2017)

Director: Zack Snyder

Screenplay: Chris Terrio, Joss Whedon


Batman: Ben Affleck

Superman: Henry Cavill

Wonder Woman: Gal Godot

Aquaman: Jason Momoa

Cyborg: Ray Fisher

The Flash: Ezra Miller

Alfred: Jeremy Irons

Lois Lane: Amy Adams

Martha Kent: Diane Lane

DC has, despite mighty efforts, lagged behind Marvel in successfully bringing its superheroes to the big screen. I must admit to some prejudice in that I always favored Marvel comics in my misspent youth. I did enjoy The Flash from time to time, but the rest didn’t capture my hyperactive imagination. After all, what can be done with Superman, an essentially omnipotent, immortal, invincible being? The struggles of his writers to construct plausible peril quickly wore thin, as did a perpetually kidnapped and screaming Lois Lane. Kryptonite? Please. Green Lantern? While I actually enjoyed his most recent movie debut (with a few caveats), I was barely aware he existed back then. And Wonder Woman? I never read the comics. I enjoyed Linda Carter, but always thought she was far too girly, and the special effects of the time were cheesier than Cheetos.

Man of Steel was widely panned, though I found it, if not a bit ponderous, entertaining, and enjoyed the introduction of Henry Cavill in the role. Batman v. Superman was universally panned (including by me). It reminded me of someone who, after decades of striving, finally got to make his movie, and threw in every idea he ever had because he knew he’d never get another chance. One can only imagine how long the finished product was before it was cut down to a mere 2.5 hours. And of course, there was Gal Godot’s debut as Wonder Woman in that film…

But first, let’s take a look at what critics are saying about Justice League, beginning with The Telegraph:

Yet there’s no trace of the stuff in Warner Bros’ latest hapless attempt to jump-start their DC Comics blockbuster brand, which at this point looks less like a cinematic universe than a pop-cultural black hole, sucking up as much money and audience goodwill as the studio can shovel into it.

After a four-film build-up that began four years ago with Man of Steel, Justice League should have felt like a culmination, with Batman and Wonder Woman recruiting new heroes and bringing back Superman in order to fend off an extraterrestrial invasion, in much the same way the Avengers did for Marvel five years ago.

Instead, it feels like a sheepish feature-length retraction of the franchise to date. It’s consistently embarrassing to watch, and features plot holes so yawningly vast they have a kind of Grand Canyon-like splendour: part of you wants to hang around to see what they look like at sunset.

I’m not ready to go nearly that far, particularly in light of this:

Its fundamental lopsidedness might come down at least in part to its unusually chaotic production. The rave reviews for Wonder Woman and pastings for Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad led to a series of frantic course-corrections mid-shoot, which were followed by the sudden departure of director Zack Snyder in unthinkably tragic circumstances, after his 20-year-old daughter committed suicide in March. (Both the remainder of the editing process and the substantial reshoots were supervised by Avengers director Joss Whedon, who receives a screenplay credit.)

Suicide Squad. The less said about that embarrassing thugfest, the better. Joss Whedon, perhaps best known for Firefly, Serenity and The Avengers–the best ensemble superhero movie yet made–likely rescued Justice League. Without him, Justice League might very well have been as bad as critics claim. Whedon’s trademark, genuine wit and humor enliven significant portions of the movie.

It’s difficult to provide any meaningful character development in an ensemble film, and there is little in Justice League, but the characters of Aquaman, the Flash, and to a lesser degree, Cyborg, are introduced, and there is enough backstory to make them interesting. The plot is predictable: an evil, ancient force, seized by an awakened god-like, evil brute–Steppenwolf–who was surely born to be wild, threatens to destroy the planet and everyone on it. Ben Affleck’s Batman must bring together Aquaman, Wonder Woman, Cyborg and The Flash to fight Steppenwolf, even though he knows they’re not enough to stop him and save the world. When everything looks darkest, Batman hatches a plan, using magic/technology/the power of the gods/the power of the universe/etc. to resurrect Superman, and together, they prevail.

There are holes in the plot galore, but that’s necessary to the genre. What woman wouldn’t recognize Clark Kent as Superman, or fail to realize Lois Lane was dating him? Who wouldn’t recognize mild mannered museum curator Diana Prince was Wonder Woman? How can Lois Lane fly with Superman at supersonic speeds without mussing her hair or having every shred of clothing ripped from her? At least in this movie Batman has regained his mental stability, transforming from a psychotic, single-minded killer into a rational techno-whiz and great detective/thinker. Sure, there are things that don’t make sense, but it’s a movie based on comic books. Anyone seeking the secret of existence, or insight into the nature of the universe, need seek elsewhere.

Henry Cavill is becoming more human, less conflicted. He is saved, as all good men are, by the love of a good woman, and there is, for the ladies, the obligatory scene of Superman, bare from the waist up, in all his pec-flexing glory.

Gal Godot is simply stunning. Not only is she utterly feminine, she’s an entirely credible, super powerful warrior. She has screen presence rarely seen in these days of actresses famous for being famous. She does it the old fashioned way: by looking great and acting well. An early fight scene featuring Godot is visually exciting and few will be able to resist delightedly rooting for her.

Ben Affleck’s Batman is settling more into the great detective of the comics, and leaving behind–thankfully–the angst ridden, self-doubting vigilante of past films. His self-designed and built technology helps him work credibly with his super powerful allies. Perhaps the most interesting plot device is what appears to be the beginnings of an attraction between Bruce Wayne and Diana Prince, and Batman’s realization that unlike the others, he could easily be killed. He has one of Whedon’s best lines. When the Flash asks about his super power, he sardonically replies “I’m rich.”

Ezra Miller’s The Flash is young, nerdy, and a little goofy, but his wide-eyed wonder at being involved with the rest, and with Bruce Wayne’s techno-goodies, is endearing. His character, while not quite reaching dynamic character levels, actually grows onscreen.

Jason Momoa plays a character he has all but perfected: the big, brutish, perpetually angry, shirtless loner (yes, he gets to do some pec flexing too). However, this time he manages, one supposes with the influence of Whedon, not to take himself too seriously, and even shows a bit of humor, particularly in one scene when he inadvertently sits on Wonder Woman’s lasso, and engages in a bit of unrestrained truth telling, to the delight of Godot and the audience.

It is Ray Fisher’s Cyborg that undergoes the least character development. Much of his role consists of grimacing at this and that, and interfacing with powerful, mystical, alien technology, which brings us to special effects.

That’s much of the point of superhero movies, and until the development of powerful CGI technology, these movies were impossible to realize. The look and feel of CGI in Justice League is up to contemporary standards, though it does not demonstrate any obvious breakthroughs. It is a good-looking movie–particularly when Godot is onscreen–and the fight scenes are generally thrilling without being confusing. Closeups of the face of Steppenwolf demonstrate the limitations of the art, however. Early attempts at depicting human facial closeups never worked. The eyes always looked lifeless, the expressions two-dimensional, the subtle interplay of facial muscles incorrect and flacid. Despite having non-human eyes, the same problem is apparent in Steppenwolf, though to a much lesser degree than in the past.

Justice League, of course, sets up multiple sequels. There are a great many heroes yet to be introduced, though if DC is wise, they’ll run with Godot, being careful not to produce movies just to produce movies. She can carry a great deal, but any actor falters with terrible dialogue and a non-existent plot.

Those that criticize Justice League for a scattered, inconsistent plot may be missing the point. We attend such movies not to experience the complex interplay of subtle emotions and the dawning insight brilliant dialogue and writing might provoke. We go to see great quests, enormous, cosmic backdrops, truly evil bad guys and truly noble good guys, the world, even existence hanging in the balance–and particularly good girls. We want titanic clashes between the forces of light and darkness, archetypical, mythic battles, and the eventual, if temporary, triumph of good. Sacrifice for the good of others is a powerful force, and many Amazons and others sacrifice that others might live. Diana Prince’s realization that Bruce Wayne is willing to risk his life for others is likewise touching.

By the plot standards of the genre, Justice League is unsurprising. It’s not The Avengers, but it contains elements that promise better is possible in the future. It’s not great art. When the history of cinema of this century is written, Justice League will not be in the top hundred, but it is an entertaining movie, and that’s why, mostly, we go to the theater.

And there might be just a touch of something worthwhile: we may leave the theater thinking some things are worth saving; some sacrifices are worth making.

It is worth seeing in the theater, if for no other reason than Godot and her expressive brown eyes, and the thrilling special effects. It helps, if like me, you enjoy movie popcorn. However, life will go on if one waits, and it is certainly worth owning on DVD.