Thursday, November 16, 2017

Zaki's Review: Justice League

Less than a minute. That's how long it took for Justice League to win me over.

It happened before we even got to the title sequence, with some point-of-view footage of Superman (Henry Cavill) talking to a group of kids and explaining the significance of the "S" insignia on his chest. His suit is bright, blazing blue. He's smiling and happy and completely at ease with himself as he engages with his young audience. Here, finally, was the Superman I so desperately missed in last year's dour, self-serious Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice with its drab color palette and self-serious air of Götterdämmerung. Just the color of his costume thirty seconds into Justice League was telling me they had already begun to correct the course. And just like that, I knew what it was to hope again.

Man of Steel and Dawn of Justice director Zack Snyder is back again for his third (final?) "DC Expanded Universe" go-round, which was buffeted by a behind-the-scenes saga as fraught as anything we see onscreen, and arrives as kind of a patchwork crazy-quilt of competing visions and divergent tones. Yet somehow (and rather remarkably given the headwinds surrounding its release) it works better than it perhaps has any right to, offering a welcome culmination of the "shared universe" long game Warner Bros. has been playing since 2013 (let's just ignore 2011's Green Lantern), presenting a vision of DC Comics' premiere super-team that feels just as iconic as the one that's existed in comic books and animation for nearly six decades now.

As our story begins, it's several months since Superman (Henry Cavill) heroically sacrificed himself in battling the genetically-engineered Doomsday creature created by Lex Luthor (Jess Eisenberg). In the wake of his passing, the world continues to mourn, and Batman (Ben Affleck) and Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) are doing their bit to continue the hero's never-ending battle. But when an otherworldly threat called Steppenwolf (a CGI behemoth voiced by Ciarán Hinds) shows up with designs on conquering the world via three strategically hidden "Mother Boxes" secreted around the globe, the duo must rope in rookie heroes Aquaman (Jason Momoa), Flash (Ezra Miller), and Cyborg (Ray Fisher) to help throw down the gauntlet.

And also, oh yeah, Superman may not be quite as dead as everyone thought.

Like I said up-top, it took less than a minute for Justice League to win me over, but more importantly, it never once lost me after that. And believe me, I'm as surprised about that as you given how viscerally negative a reaction I had to Batman v. Superman eighteen long months ago. Without going into that all over again, much of my dissatisfaction with that entry centered on how it felt both overwrought and undercooked, grim for the sake of grimness, dark for the sake of darkness. As I said at the time, "There's something seriously damaged about Superman and Batman and Wonder Woman together in live action for the very first time in a movie you probably shouldn't take your kids to." 

Now, one can certainly understand Warners' franchise-building ambitions given how crosstown rival Disney has been minting Marvel superhero money since 2009, but between the critical drubbing of both Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad a few months later (which I was far kinder to than most, I should point out), it did start to feel like maybe things had gotten off on the wrong foot, like we'd taken a detour into one of those nightmarish alternate reality stories where you thank goodness the "real" universe isn't anything like that. Of course, that air of cynicism abated somewhat with the release of Patty Jenkins' Wonder Woman last May, which sure seemed to be pointing towards a more optimistic celluloid future for the World's Greatest Super-Heroes.

And now, finally we have Justice League, and it sure feels like they've learned a lot of the right lessons from the last few years. Running a breezy 121 minutes (shortest of any of the DCEU films up to now), it jumps from set piece to set piece and moves us through the requisite "team-building" tropes that have become familiar terrain by now. The gaps in the story feel less like lapses in logic than the simple assumption on the filmmakers' part that we know enough of the comic book movie shorthand by now to be able to keep up. Five minutes in, Batman is tussling with an alien creature called a Parademon. Fifteen minutes in, we're on Wonder Woman's island home of Themyscira and catching back up with her Amazon kin. A few minutes later we're in Aquaman's Atlantean home. 

I truly don't know how any of this will play to the completely uninitiated, but I guess this is where I show my biases as someone who lived and breathed the comic books for decades and had a big ol' grin on my face for big chunks of the runtime. Also, as a Superman fan first and foremost, I have to mention here that I simply could not be happier with how Justice League really does right by the erstwhile Mr. Kent and his alter ego, Henry Cavill, subtly addressing some of my nagging concerns from his previous appearances. While WB is doing its best to keep his presence some kind of a big secret, let's be real, it's no surprise that Superman will be back in action. What is a surprise is how much the movie makes you want it, and how well it pays off when it happens.

To that end, it's worth mentioning the contributions of Joss Whedon, who receives co-writer credit with Chris Terrio, and who took over directing during reshoots and post-production after Snyder was pulled away by a family tragedy. I have a feeling film scholars and fanboys alike will spend decades poring over the movie frame-by-frame in efforts to divine where Snyder ends and Whedon begins. And though I have no idea, the finished product bears the hallmarks of both (for good or for ill). But while Whedon carries over the same strong character work he imbued his two Avengers opuses, Justice League is still saddled with one of the more uninteresting antagonists in recent memory for this type of picture -- which is really saying something.

Created by Jack Kirby in the 1970s as part of his short-lived "Fourth World" comics line for DC, Steppenwolf is a footsoldier for Darkseid, who's been the preeminent baddie in the DC universe since at least the mid-'80s. Now, given Darkseid's visual similarities to Marvel's Thanos (despite predating him), I can entirely understand why Warners shied away from having the League square off against him (I think he's only ever alluded to in the final product). Plus, that gives you somewhere to go if you get the chance for a sequel. Again, I get it. The problem with Steppenwolf is how utterly uninteresting he is. Just a generic computer-generated giant. How hard would it have been to put some makeup on Ciarán Hinds and actually have him on the set as a physical presence? What a waste of a great actor.

That said, I did appreciate that Steppenwolf's plan was relatively contained to a specific area rather than the kind of world-beating thread that loses all potency for how vast it is. And while the third act does descend into the usual CGI wonderland that's become such a bee in my bonnet lately, I could at least understand the scope of the threat the League was up against. Speaking of the League itself, the team just works. From top to bottom the casting is effective, and the interaction between them is lively and engaging. I've previously praised all of the big three (Affleck, Gadot, Cavill), but the newbies earn their keep as well (it's also nice to see supporting players like Amy Adams as Lois Lane get a decent amount of screen and story time, as well as the introduction of J.K. Simmons as our latest Commissioner Gordon).

While I have a feeling Miller's socially awkward Flash will be a fan favorite, I was just as blown away by Momoa's Aquaman, who assumes the role so confidently here that his solo project next year is already feeling like a slam dunk. While we know that Gadot will be back in a few years with a Wonder Woman sequel, and there are whispers that Cavill may yet get a Man of Steel follow-up, all signs sure point to Affleck already having one foot out of the Batcave, which would be a real shame given that we've finally arrived. Justice League isn't perfect, but it's far closer to it than I would ever have expected. This is the League I grew up reading in comics and watching on TV. The characterizations are spot-on, the dialogue is fun and spritely, and it feels like all the pieces are in place for a DC movie universe that lives up to its proud legacy. B+

For more from the DC Expanded Universe, be sure to check out the MovieFilm Podcast's special commentary track on 2013's Man of Steel via the embed below:

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