Reel Talk

Justice League: Dawn of Mediocrity

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So far, the DC Extended Universe has not been for me. It’s clear that some people connect with these films, and as long as they’re not showering verbal abuse on people who dare to have different opinions than them, the more power to them. But, for me, these have been some of the worst superhero films, and big budget actions films in general, in years. We’ve been given give films in this series now, and really only one of them was any good. The rest have been cartoonishly violent, drab and grim, poorly edited, and reeking of severe studio interference. It’s been an incredibly reactionary series, each film trying to course correct from whatever horrible thing the previous one did. Man of Steel was one of the worst superhero films I’ve ever seen, with a radical misunderstanding of both Superman and heroics. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice attempted to be about five movies at once while getting none of them wrong. Suicide Squad was little more than a collection of montages that pretended to be a narrative. But then we got Wonder Woman. That film finally broke the streak, and became a movie that both understood heroism, its central character, and basic film-making. It was a signal that maybe someone involved in the DCEU had some idea what they were doing, and made it possible to hope that future entries could get it right too. But, I didn’t have a whole lot of hope for the next film down the pike, Justice League. The film was in production when Wonder Woman was released and proved to be successful, so there probably wasn’t a lot that they could do to fix Justice League. I know that the film has be absolutely plagued with issues, from the departure of its director in post-production all the way down to several entire characters and plots being cut. It’s a Frankenstein of a film, stitched together to form some semblance of a good movie. And, it doesn’t succeed in that. It’s certainly better than all of the non-Wonder Woman films in the series, but that’s not exactly a high bar to pass.

Justice League picks up some time after the events of Dawn of Justice. The world is mourning Superman, for some reason, and Batman has been travelling the world, trying to set up a contingency plan in case the aliens he learned about ever attack. He’s found a couple of these beings, Parademons as they’re called, and has been working to form a team of meta-humans in case it comes to that. He’s already worked with Diana Prince, Wonder Woman, but he’s also been keeping tabs on an Atlantean called the Aquaman, a speedster named Barry Allen who calls himself the Flash, and a potentially dead man who has been mostly replaced with robotics called Cyborg. No one, other than Barry Allen, are particularly interested in this League that Batman is proposing, and they mostly just move on and keep to themselves. Until the alien’s leader shows up. He’s a being called Steppenwolf and he’s a banished warlord from the planet of Apokalips. Eons ago Steppenwolf came to Earth with three massively powerful devices known as Mother Boxes in the hopes that he could combine them and use their power to burn Earth down to a hellscape similar to Apokalips. But he was beaten back by an alliance of Amazons, Old Gods, Atlanteans, and humans. They defeated Steppenwolf, sent him off to hide in space, and took the three Mother Boxes with them. One to the Amazons one to the Atlanteans, and one to the men. But, Steppenwolf is back. He arrives on Earth, kills scored of Amazons, and takes their box. But not before they get work to Wonder Woman.

She approaches Batman, and tells him that it’s time for them to get ready, because war is coming. Steppenwolf and his Parademons make short work of the Atlanteans as well, and quickly get a hold of the second Mother Box, before building a temporary headquarters in Russia. So, the League get together, and get to work finding the third Mother Box, which has been kept by the STAR Labs, and Cyborgs father. The League attempt to fight off Steppenwolf, and it doesn’t go well. He rather easily beats them, and then leaves to continue his hunt for the final Box. Realizing that they’re outmatched, the League decide to do something insane. They’re going to resurrect Superman. They believe that with the combined power of the Kryptonian birthing chamber that created Doomsday and the power of the third Mother Box, which Cyborg has, they should be able to bring Superman back to life. So, our heroes go rob Clark Kent’s grave, toss him in the fluid, and charge it with the Mother Box. And it works. Kind of. Superman comes back to life, but without any memories. He’s angry and violent, and ends up beating up the whole League, until he sees Lois Lane. Superman then stops caring about them, takes Lois, and flies off to Kansas. Oh, and while they were distracted with Superman, Steppenwolf showed up and stole the last box. So, he now has everything he needs, and he returns to Russia to complete the device that will destroy the world. The League suit up and head to Russia, fighting off waves of Parademons and Steppenwolf himself, while Cyborg attempts to deactivate the Mother Boxes and save the world. Things aren’t going well, until Superman shows back up, in his suit, and willing to help. With Superman’s aid they’re able to defeat Steppenwolf, and his army of Parademons turn on him and drag him back through a portal to Apokalips. The heroes are then successful, and go back to their old lives, while preparing to become a better team in the future.

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On the surface, Justice League really is miles ahead most of the other films in the series. It’s actually a more or less competent narrative, and it does feature some decent action and character beats. We actually see these heroes do heroic things. Most of them anyway, Batman is mainly just driving around in a tank shooting monsters with guns like he’s Hellboy. But we see Wonder Woman, Superman, Aquaman, and the Flash do heroic things. So that’s a serious upgrade. Cyborg really doesn’t do much in the movie, and really just becomes a walking/talking McGuffin, but that’s okay, they most work together well. I’m still not a fan of the fact that they formed the League not as a group of superheroes to do good, but as an army to kill monsters, but it’s at least got a touch of heroism to it. It’s just a shame that they weren’t given anything interesting to fight against. I’ve never been a huge fan of Darkseid and all of the Apokalips mythology, but the decision to have the Justice League fight Steppenwolf, a giant monster who growls barely understandable cliches is a shame. He’s just a big CGI creature who is evil for the sake of evil. He has no motivation, he has no chemistry with the heroes, and he might as well have been a meteor or some other inanimate object that the League had to fight. And it’s not just the villains that keep me from connecting with the film. It’s certainly edited better than Dawn of Justice, but it still does feel you’re flipping between several movies for the first half of the film. There’s just a lot of scenes that don’t relate to one another, and are chock full of exposition since they decided to rush this film before establishing a full half of the League before this movie. And, most of them aren’t that compelling.

Gal Gadot continues to be the best thing about these movies, and even though she isn’t given a lot to do here, she does it well. Ben Affleck seems completely checked out already, desperately running down the clock before he can bail on the franchise. Henry Cavill actually gets to act like Superman in this film, after he stops trying to murder the Justice League, but he’s really hurt by the absolutely insane decision to CGI off Cavill’s mustache in reshoots, giving his face a bizarre uncanny valley effect the whole film. I’ve liked Ezra Miller in other things, but his portrayal of Barry Allen feels more like he should be played by a member of the Big Bang Theory with all his stereotypically autistic tics. Jason Momoa is pretty damn fun as this weird frat-bro version of Aquaman, even though he’s the most two-dimensional of the League. And I guess Ray Fisher was fine with what he was given, which was mainly to mope around and complain about everything.

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I want to like these movies. I really do. I’ve always been a Marvel guy more than a DC guy, but these are some of the best superhero characters in existence. Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman all being in a major motion picture should be a no-brainer. They’re colorful and mythic characters that have had hundreds of excellent stories that could easily be made into films. The Flash has been made into an occasionally infuriating but mostly delightful television show. Aquaman and Cyborg are kind of wild cards, but with the right people involved could have been excellent. But, instead, this entire series has been one horrible decision after another. They’ve built the entire series on a foundation of appealing to a very specific and bizarre set of the fandom, people who think that these godlike beings should be dark, broody, and willing to kill. That’s not my interpretation of these characters, and I’ll never be interested in a story that goes in that direction, but they still could be competent films. Instead, the DCEU has been one example after another of what can go wrong with too much interference from the studios. These are movies that are taken from directors, turned from some semblance of art into pure commodities, and are chopped and stitched together to try and make something that will make people happy. And, they just can’t seem to get it right consistently. Wonder Woman was great. But it seems like that was the case because the studio expected it to be a flop, and didn’t bother meddling in it. Because otherwise they stick as much garbage into these films as possible in the attempt to make them as marketable as they can. Justice League is not a good movie. It’s frequently ugly, has pretty sketchy acting, is absolutely drowning in exposition, and still is plagued from the feeling like it’s several different films edited together sloppily. But, it’s better than Dawn of Justice. It was a rather boring film, because most of it was people explaining things to the viewer which should have been handled in separate films. Sadly though, boring and generally mediocre is a serious improvement over baffling and interminable, so I suppose the franchise could be pointed in the right direction. Or, even better, they could just pull a Dark Universe and shut this trainwreck down and focus on creating films people actually want to see instead of desperately chasing after the MCU, trying to do everything they do, but worse.

 

Justice League was written by Chris Terrio and Joss Whedon, directed by Zack Snyder, and released by Warner Brothers Pictures, 2017.

 

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