Going Through the Motions
A Film Review of Justice League
I wish you all a belated, Happy Thanksgiving and pre-season’s greetings as Black Friday/Cyber Monday weekend has passed and we can shift focus from rampant consumerism back to what really matters: entertainment. Just kidding, but seriously, one thing I continue to give thanks for in this day and age in Hollywood is the prevalence of comic book adaptations for fulfilling childhood wishes of yesteryear. I am thankful that the popularity of these films is not rooted in the intensity of the violence depicted, but rather a dedication to character and the ever improvement of visual effects. I am thankful that the DC/WB alliance has delivered us the first, contemporary, female, stand-alone, superhero icon for the silver screen in Wonder Woman as I am equally thankful for Gal Gadot’s performance doing that character (ahem) justice. I am also quite thankful for DC’s “Arrow-verse” which continues to find new and interesting ways to evolve and interconnect individual tales to each other, further enhancing the narrative overall. There’s a lot to be thankful for.
Then I sit down and watch an event film like Justice League, being mindful of all the expectations surrounding it, the expense paid to produce it, the creative minds behind it and the licenses that support it; and I cringe. Every quantifiable aspect of Justice League as a production demands an end result nothing short of spectacular fun for everyone. That is not the case for this film, but it certainly isn’t for a lack of trying. Production value is there. Special effects are there. There are some genuinely good to great moments that pop up incrementally during the runtime that makes the viewer feel like this is the moment the story is going into hyper drive, but then the movie stumbles over itself due to poor pacing, plot holes and poor directing. “It wasn’t bad.” “It was fine.” “It was good enough.” These are not the vanilla sentiments a production of this grandiosity should be garnering. What is going wrong?
The answer, in a word, is heart. You can have a blank check for your budget, the best names attached to your production, the best technology at your disposal and still fall way short of expectations. DC’s films not named Wonder Woman are more or less proof of this, not to mention being further proof of the effect that Hollywood mass production can have on any given production; i.e. no heart. Aspects of a film that can infuse a production with “heart” are things like story, theme, character, message, you know, the kinds of things that inspire the filmmaker to make a film in the first place. As noble a cause as “earning more money than The Avengers” may be, that motive doesn’t do much to inspire an audience to buy into the fiction DC/WB is trying to impress with.
The only number that resonates with audiences is the number of heart filled moments within a given film to make anything that happens during the movie matter to anyone watching it. Justice League egregiously glazes over key moments that could have so easily elevated its story with some genuine emotion. There is one moment towards the middle of the film, post resurrection of Superman, which has the Man of Steel return home to the farm in Kansas. The film does a perfect job setting up what would have been the most intensely satisfying instance of positive energy this entire franchise has ever birthed, only to prematurely abort it with a cut to wide-shot and then an immediate transition. I dare say that this specific moment in Justice League was the lynchpin for the entire movie. Allowing this moment to play out, fully resolve and allow for a dramatic pause could have turned this entire movie into something much more. The fact that this film dismissed this scene like it were some superfluous exposition that needed trimming is indicative of the top leadership behind the DCEU being absolutely clueless how to make superheroes great.
Superhero action features plenty of flying, running, swimming, punching, acrobatics, and stunts, not to mention a little gunplay here and there. I wish all the godly combat had a bit more choreography than haymaker hammer-blows left and right, but I guess this film was more about power than precision in more ways than one.
The frame is active enough in capturing the relevant action so audiences can appreciate as much content as they can process. These moments are particularly effective in Flash’s super speed/slow-mo sequences which aren’t quite as great as Quicksilver’s from X-Men: First Class.
The Trinity are the technical leads and as such, Gal Gadot continues to shine giving Wonder Woman the necessary charisma and drive to distinguish her character from the rest. Henry Cavill seems like he’s holding back in every single scene which may be part to blame on logistics and/or directing. His rage isn’t quite intimidating and his joy isn’t quite blissful. Speaking of just hanging around, Ben Affleck’s Batman/Bruce Wayne seems like he’s trying to convince himself as to the purpose of any of this film every time he speaks a line. His performance is vapid. I was having flashbacks to J-Law in Mockingjay Parts I and II.
Jason Momoa and Erza Miller play their 2D roles as tough-guy comic relief and wussy-guy comic relief as well as their limited screen time allows. Ray Fisher’s performance is completely obscured by the CG covering his whole body and if Cyborg was meant to come off as more robotic, then mission accomplished. Amy Adams, Jeremy Irons, Diane Lane and J.K. Simmons do the best they can with table scraps; now how many acting accolades do these folks have among them?
If you noticed some familiar tones in this movie, you should. DC brought back Danny Elfman who created the legendary, Tim Burton Batman theme that has been remixed and reused in just about every other successful iteration of the Batman character. The real question is whether it’s smart or pathetic to use musical nostalgia to get audiences thinking more favorably, even at a subliminal level, about these new DC heroes. I’d say a bit of both, but WB needs to do whatever it can to right the ship.
Sound effects were all right overall for this film, though I really found the Para-Demon shriek to be exceptionally annoying. I would have gone for a sound that was more creepy and visceral, but whatever.
“Moving” = 21/33
Visual effects have gone absolutely wild in this film, but there’s nothing here you haven’t already seen before in big budget blockbusters of the like. Watch out for weird Henry Cavill close-ups and his infamously digitally wiped mustache courtesy of Tom Cruise and the Mission Impossible franchise. Also, I didn’t care at all for the design of Para-Demons. Not to harp on the cannon fodder, but I was hoping for something more insectoid rather than humanoid.
Explosions, wire work and crashes don’t get in the way of anything. They blend seamlessly with the CG.
I plain don’t like Flash’s costume. It looks far too boxy to be built for speed. How good is Aquaman’s costume when Jason Momoa in ripped t-shirts and jeans are just as effective? Wonder Woman and Superman still have great duds. Batman still looks like Fatman. I thought Green Lantern taught us not to rely on fully CG costumes. Too bad for Cyborg.
Hair & Makeup
Serviceable, though I will say despite all the combat that’s going on, no one seems to show getting hit at all in their faces.
Cityscapes are actually more effective than open nature and that’s primarily due to the overall color scheme to the entire film being as dark as it is. Contrasting lights pop from the darkness more.
Dark colors and lighting force even interior shots to blend into the brown/black fog that is prevalent throughout. It’s not that the interiors themselves were particularly uninteresting, but that no one can really tell the difference.
“Picture” = 19/33
Batman’s gotta get a team together to fight an alien invasion [stop me if this sounds familiar] and his pitch is that he’s rich and it’s what he (Superman) would do if he were still alive. Superheroes can come together to fight threats other than alien invasions. Just sayin’.
We’re all fighting aliens, but we’re also fighting our own insecurities and inadequacies as the heroes we claim to be, but we can’t really get into that right now because fights, explosions and combat! BTW, who the heck is Steppenwolf? Oh a CG monster leading an army of CG monsters; got it. Get better villains!
There’s something wrong with using an entire movie as a setup for future conflict of an entire franchise. You would have thought they learned their lesson from BvS. Also, the first end credits scene between Flash and Superman: once again, totally unearned and technically executed incorrectly.
Why do I get the impression that every single line of dialogue is exposition rather than character building? Oh yeah, that’s because there was no time to establish any of these characters prior to this movie, thus every line had to be expository. Quality was sacrificed for efficiency here.
Very informative due to reasons listed above, but it also seems like the audience needs far too much information to understand any of this movie.
See the above for “Dialogue” and “Exposition” as to why characters are not permitted to develop as individuals, as sub groups, or even as a team. Every character is exactly the first impression they give and nothing more.
The one character I do feel a bit for is Flash for being the youngest person on the team with no combat experience. Everyone can identify with being someone new to the group and the apprehension that brings. He wants to belong, but doesn’t necessarily want to do everything the group is doing to achieve it.
“Story” = 11/34
Overall MPS Rating: 51/100
The underlying reason why Justice League is a mess is due to greed and impatience. My guess is that the executives over at the WB are looking at all these comic book adaptations turning into their own “cinematic universes” and they are fearful that the market is swelling to the point of over saturation. They want to get their hands on as much of this comic book movie money before the market implodes and the audience decides to sit out the next few regardless of the character(s) being featured. If DC/WB really had confidence in their own “cinematic universe” they wouldn’t be in such a rush forming it into reality. The results speak for themselves and even if you disagree with my general assessment that Justice League is the very definition of a “flawed film,” you cannot deny the raw economics of the box office, which of course is what this is really all about.
As a base action/adventure film, Justice League isn’t bad at all because there’s a lot of eye candy in terms of action and effects to be entertained by. However, when compared to its contemporary brethren, this film doesn’t measure up because there isn’t more going on within the story, characters or the world of the cinematic universe itself other than punching, kicking and screaming. That would be fine for your run of the mill shoot-em-up or Expendables sequel, but if the intention is to establish and expand a growing narrative through the course of several film productions; plot and character development cannot be afterthoughts.
What good is having a cinematic universe if you don’t allow any of your characters to actually live inside of it?