Sunday, November 19, 2017

DC Movies Watch: Justice League (2017)



I had no intention of seeing Justice League (2017).

It's not that I don't like the Justice League as characters or concept - I'm a comics guy who tilts toward DC Comics, and once had a complete run of everything from Morrison's JLA run in the 90's to 2011 (I sold if off during the purging of longboxes about two years ago*).  My bonfides include significant runs of Wonder Woman, Superman and Flash comics, reasonable Batman-cred, and having had watched the respective movies and TV shows featuring the JLA characters in a wide variety of live-action and animated incarnations (with exceptions which I can discuss but won't do here). I will happily test my DC Comics-Fu against any of you nerds (but not Mark Waid).

I'm on record regarding Man of SteelBatman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Suicide Squad and Wonder Woman.  One of these films was much, much better than the other three.  Let's just say 2017 was much better for DC than prior years.

It's no secret those first three movies left me a broken, bitter man.  The very ethos of the films was so far afield from the DCU I knew and loved, and the take on Superman so fundamentally broken (and at the end of the day, I'm a Superman guy), that I just didn't want to do it again.  I'd watch it on cable or when JimD sent me the BluRay against my protestations.

Then, as of Thursday I guess, trusted sources, such as creators Mark Waid, Gail Simone, Sterling Gates and our own readers including Stuart and JimD saw the movie, and weren't furious at it.  They had some nice things to say.  So, I got my tickets and I went to a 10:45 PM show on Friday evening.

Let's be honest:  Justice League has massive plotting issues, bizarrely genericizes and changes Kirby's Fourth World mythology in a way that makes it feel one-note to audiences who don't know their Granny Goodness from their Mister Rogers while also ruining the epic world building for fans of The New Gods (one of the most important ideas in superhero comics and comics in general).**  It has some terrible CGI, I hate the Flash's costume (a TV show should not be kicking your butt in this arena), and not nearly enough Amy Adams for my dollar. ***

But...

After three narrative and character misfires and one absolute gem of a superhero movie (you're my hero, Patty Jenkins), shake-ups in management at DC, a switch of directors, reshoots, a slashing of runtime by nearly an hour...  Some combo of people and factors finally seemed to care a bit about, at least, Superman.  If nothing else, they got Superman right.  And I cannot tell you how much of a difference that made to me as a viewer and what I was willing to deal with and what I wasn't in my superhero epic.


The Challenges


Watching DC be DC and deal with their past creative and editorial sins right there as part of a larger story has got to be super-weird for a film critic to bear witness to.  It's been interesting to see film critics slowly grok and finally put away their grievances about Marvel's world-building (manifesting as hand-wringing over the so-far-fictional "superhero fatigue").  Watching DC correct course in the fabric of their stories is something that's been baked into the DC formula since Barry Allen sloppily explained to Jay Garrick that there were two Earths and that he'd read Jay's adventures in comics as a child.  These messes certainly did not get cleared up with any event named "Crisis", which always just made the problems worse or kicked them down the road.  But those in-story editorial changes are something we've come to expect as DC readers.  And, frankly, we're all used to watching shows like The Flash or Supergirl react mid-season to viewer gripes online and their own intuition regarding what's not working.

From literally the first moments of Justice League, there's no question that (a) DC is out to set a new course for their movies and (b) this is going to be a bumpy but well-spirited ride.  In flashback, in a video that's artifacting hard to indicate that what we're watching is something a kid recorded on their phone, some kids talk to Superman, who - unlike the Superman we saw in BvS:DoJ - smiles and talks to the kids.  For any viewer of both movies, everything here is going to set a sub-routine running where you're talking to yourself about the movie.

Some thoughts:
  • This is clearly part of the reshoots where Cavill's mustache was digitally removed as Superman's upper lip can't seem to stop sliding around under his nose.
  • Which reminds you that this is a Joss Whedon bit, not a Zack Snyder bit
    • which in turn reminds you that there were decisions in post-production about how this movie was going
    • which makes you wonder how this movie was going
  • There are kids on screen, and they're not tormenting someone, which is new for this series
  • Superman is demonstrating kindness and talking in phrases that last more than two syllables at a time
  • Aside from a few glimpses (that were mostly Cavill) in Man of Steel, this is the first time I've seen a character I would consider to bear a resemblance to Superman and not a character bearing the same name and a similar costume who is not Superman
The truth is - a glaring weakness of Justice League is that, quite unlike Thor: Ragnarok, which held my focus as a singular thing (except when they played Willy Wonka music out of the blue and made me crack up), I couldn't ever turn off the conversation I was having with myself in my head about what was on screen.  Why did they do that?  Was this Snyder or Whedon?  Why is Amy Adams lit like there was no set-up?  Why did that happen?  Does that actually make sense?

It's a different sort of distraction from the "what time is it?" brand of failure for any production (if your audience is looking at their watch, you have a problem).  But it is a problem if I can't just engage with the movie while it's going on in front of me, if I'm always seeing the seams.  And everything about this movie was set up - from the tonal issues, bad CGI and Flash's costume - to make me start talking to myself instead of just paying attention.

Okay.

We pick up in an indeterminate amount of time since Superman died stopping Doomsday in the last reel of BvS:DOJ.  Maybe a year has passed.  And here the movie starts to do some weird things.

The character introductions of Batman, Wonder Woman, The Flash, Cyborg all feel...  weirdly un-cinematic.  As, frankly, does the introduction of the Parademons.  There's something in media res about it that doesn't quite work, denying us the joy of Barry Allen's discovery of his powers and removing the tragedy of what's befallen Victor Stone.  The movie removes the mystery and shock of the arrival of other-worldly invaders, making it feel like a mundane case of sorts for Batman by the time we join him.  We see neither Batman as detective working on a case nor Batman shocked to learn what's happening.  It's all in place, and we're just going through the motions here (there's a lot of that in this movie).

What does work is most of the visual representation of Batman in action, which is something we finally saw work in live action for the first time in BvS:DOJ.  And, of course, Gotham City.  But it all feels weirdly small.  If BvS:DoJ thought every burp and hiccup should resound with the thunder of the gods, the first hour of Justice League could be mistaken for well worn TV characters, portrayals and plotting.

Characters


DC definitely tried to reverse engineer Marvel's first Avengers film, and some of the stronger stuff of Justice League includes the character interaction, both in collaboration and conflict.  Seeing how the disparate and independent characters bounce off each other (with The Flash cast as the kid-on-the-learning-curve) makes for some fun.  It's a bit of a different take from how I tend to think of the core, "Original Seven" of the Justice League, whom I regard as consummate pros working in an alliance of need.  The Avengers of the comics were the characters who scrapped and debated like family at Thanksgiving while the JLA was more like a committee of peers who came together to solve a common problem, then went back to their lives.   But I think - since DC is refusing to give us stand alone movies first (even for Batman), the approach of tossing all the characters at each other is okay for bringing the public up to speed on who these characters are, but, perhaps, not ultimately fulfilling from a narrative standpoint.

Wonder Woman does get a pretty spectacular entrance, but it feels like a missed opportunity to tie her entrance into the overall plot.  This oversight feels a bit amateur-hour-ish, and I half wonder if the Old Bailey sequence wasn't part of the reshoots.  The actions of the bad guys provided nothing to tie WW's actions to the plot, so they just threw something at the wall to give you context for what she was doing in the wake of her last chronological appearance.  It feels like wasted narrative energy.  

One of the wonders of Wonder Woman as a film was that the camera saw Diana through eyes other than those of the male gaze, which is not a phrase I should have to define in 2017, but certainly the approaches to capturing Gadot between WW and Justice League are a case study in how this works.  In JL, the gaze works by setting the camera low and blocking Gadot's entrances as a slow walk into the scene, facing away from the camera in skin tight pants.  At every opportunity.  It was this sort of stuff that made me cringe my way through Gadot's appearance in her supposedly terrific turn in BvS:DOJ, but give me a shot of her as Diana Prince in that movie that isn't the lens trying to grope a woman in a skin-tight dress.  Between seeing WW manifested as eye candy and experiencing seeming sexual arousal at the prospect of battle inthe final reel (not to mention heavy reliance on swords - something I have mixed feelings about with WW in general), I'll take Patty Jenkins' and her DP's view of Wonder Woman coming over the trench every time.  (And, of course, the Amazons looked way cooler in Wonder Woman.  I don't know what happened there, even if I thought the scenes on Themyscira were well worth the time spent there.)

That said, I've apologized before and I'll do it now again (and not for the last time) for underestimating Gadot as an inexperienced actress who didn't fit the mold for Wonder Woman, whom  I thought should be portrayed as more of a Lucy Lawless-type.  Not that it matters to anyone, but Gadot has more than proven herself the heir to the role, I think, and this movie continues to impress that notion.

I don't have much to say on Aquaman.  I *like* Aquaman in the abstract, but I've seen so many takes on the character, and Momoa's take is just one more, that from a comics-nerd POV, I don't have much of an opinion.  It's probably closest, oddly, to the Batman: Brave and the Bold take on the character, which I did not see coming, but comes off a bit cheesier than they intended (always be wary of people in real life you say "my man!" to you.  They're looking for something.).  

Cyborg is a mix of the Geoff Johns version from the Nu-52 Justice League launch, but I'm old and think of Cyborg as part of New Teen Titans. He's replaced Martian Manhunter in the lineup, which is sad to me, but J'onn J'onnz is a nightmare to explain, so I kinda of get it.  That said - in the few moments they let Ray Fisher act - he's actually really good.  This is a promising guy, and while I think the Cyborg look itself is a mess compared to the George Perez design (which they keep intact on his face), they should have no problem improving it in-story for sequels.

The guy playing the Flash is lucky he's generally pretty likable, because he's working against a pretty well-regarded Flash TV show that already covered the Henry Allen storyline and milked the drama we're going to get out of the Reverse Flash wrinkle on the Flash's origin story.  It's weird that DC went more Wally West or even Bart Allen for an approach to presenting Barry, and if they wanted a young guy on the team, Barry is an odd character to pick. But I did like what they did well enough, if you ignore the goofy armored costume.  

You kind of have to feel for Ben Affleck, because that subroutine is constantly running.  There have been too many stories about Affleck trying to get out of being Batman, but, you know, he's got a really weird job here of not getting to be bad-ass loner Batman. This is "in over his head" Batman.  A Batman assembling a squad because he knows he kinda killed Superman, and that could be the thing about to end Earth.  But, like, I said, subroutines.  And you're kind of left saying "wait, your entire plan is to get, like,four other people?  Against an intergalactic conqueror?  Maybe you should call the army.  Yeah, definitely call the army."  But, if that's not what's going to happen because this is largely the same creative team that brought us the last movie.  Shit is just not going to be written in a way that necessitates actions that would otherwise seem kind of dumb/ irresponsible/ what-have-you.

But, I kinda like Affleck's Batman now that he's not murdering carloads of people.  While still not a hugger, he's at least not the grating alpha-jerk that so many writers think they need to make Batman in DC Comics.

Plot Issues Redux


Speaking of nonsense decisions - as glad as I was to see Superman return from the dead (something that the posters tried to hide from us but the toy aisle at Target decidedly did not, so... spoilers!)...  that whole part didn't work. At all. It led to a weird distraction in the middle of the movie that, plotwise, kind of seemed to be going somewhere and then did not.  It's hard to believe after the Doomsday problem at the end of BvS:DoJ, the supposedly brilliant Batman was like: "shit, let's do that exact same thing, only make it even more unpredictable".   As terrific as it was to get Superman back, I feel there were a half-dozen better and more emotionally satisfying ways that could have been done.

The villain's plot is pretty typical stuff that one would expect of any villain in a comics-based movie.  If the MacGuffin Boxes are all brought together and triggered, the world will be terra-formed to suit the villains' needs at a pace that provides cool visuals but spread at a rate that will leave a minimal footprint within the duration of the Boss Fight.

The Fourth World


Again, if you're going to do The Fourth World, DC...  just do the Fourth World.  It's not that hard,and you could have locked up Kirby visuals as a DC signature for movies to come, beating out Marvel on that one.****  But it is hard to ignore how utterly uninspired a "semi-organic Giegeresque" anything looks in 2017, if it wasn't played out by 2000.  And it all starts with Steppenwolf's  look, which is, at best, the sort of design you get when the people making the movie are embarrassed by the source material but lack enough creative juice of their own to improve it.  As near as I can tell, it's a watered-down version of the look of Steppenwolf from the Nu52 DC relaunch, which was also terribly embarrassed of the Fourth World characters and tried to fix them.

But you don't redesign Kirby.  You do your best to adapt what he did in pencil on paper.

Here's the original Steppenwolf:


Look, I tend to think Jack Kirby's Fourth World was an amazing tapestry of myths and legends with echoes of real mythologies.  Gods begat gods. Doomsday prophecies were always just over the horizon from fulfillment.  Functions for every diety seemed defined.  Stories working as parable even as they interact with mortals.  It's a weirdo sci-fi flavor of this sort of thing, but it works. And, of course, the movie gets details wrong that might have made for interesting bits further down the line, and gives no hint as to the true threat behind Steppenwolf.

It's interesting to see a Mother Box actually show up in the movie, but disappointing this was how it was used.  My introduction to Mother Box was in New Gods with Orion and his weird co-dependent relationship with his.

and, yes, of course I was disappointed Orion never showed up

I mean, pulling together the three items so the bad guy can rule the world was done in The Phantom (Slam Evil, y'all), and as things go, this was sort of a weird way to use them.   But Jack probably would have shrugged and gone off and created something else totally amazing.

What I Liked 

(Superman.  I liked Superman.)


So... I did say I kinda liked the movie, so let's talk about that.

From the first minute of Justice League, as we discussed, the movie is working towards reconciling and rebuilding Superman.  We'll never know exactly how much of that effort was Zack Snyder.  I'll be honest - I'm guessing not a whole lot.  It's not like he didn't have 70-odd years of Superman at his disposal when he sent Sad Superman moping his way through two movies and snapping necks.  I mean, anyone can work from a script, but he and Terrio wrote what was originally used before reshoots.

Of course I have a specific idea of what Superman is supposed to be like.  Reading hundreds (if not thousands) of Superman comics, watching multiple Superman movies, cartoons and TV shows will do that.  And I have a pretty good idea of what Superman looks like when the concept is off.  And, short that 2 minute bit at the beginning, it takes a long, long time for the movie to get back around to Superman as Superman.  But, better late than never, one supposes.

For the first time since Superman Returns this Superman fan found himself grinning while watching Superman perform Super-deeds and, more importantly, interacting with Lois, Ma Kent and his fellows in the Justice League - something we've only ever seen in animated form to date.  He's warm, funny, disarming and supportive with most people.  To the bad-guys (and this has been true since the first panels of Action Comics #1), Superman is a wise-cracking smart-guy, turning the tables on bullies and self-important tyrants.   He may occasionally crack-wise with his friends and collaborators, but it's always with the patented Superman wink.

In short:  By the self-imposed rules of these movies, Superman should stand for hope, and hope is something you embrace with optimism even when you are fully aware of the hurdles and challenges before you.  If a portion of the audience sees this as distinctly not-bad-ass and not what they want Superman to stand for, I'd point out - this is kind of more bad-ass than Batman's self-flagellation and moping.  Superman can know everything Batman also knows about "the way things really are", and believe those are obstacles to overcome, and it's okay to be the one providing the ray of light to point the way forward.

And, yeah, sometimes you still have to punch things.

Speaking of - it was also refreshing to see Superman's super-ness fully acknowledged on-screen.  While I think the post-revival JL battle was narratively tedious, it was interesting to see the filmmakers acknowledge what Superman brings to the table, both in that battle and in the finale.

And, of course, I clapped involuntarily at the first post-credits sequence.

On top of all that good stuff, the relationship with Lois felt right.  Frankly, that was one of the highlights of BvS:DoJ - Snyder and Co. did a pretty good job of showing the Lois and Clark dynamic, and that Lois is want to throw herself in harms way for both a good story and for Superman. It never hurts when you have an Amy Adams-caliber level of performance, of course.  And I think some of what we saw of her in Justice League were reshoots to fill in gaps, but she played her part.*****

In Conclusion


This is long enough.

The movie is deeply flawed and terribly assembled.  The CGI was a mess, and I'm not sure anything about the plot made sense.  But it was fun to see the characters themselves on screen, and the first real appearance of Superman in a movie in a decade.

Between the financial and narrative success of Wonder Woman and whatever results we got out of Justice League, it does feel like WB finally turned the ship around.  That I didn't leave the movie worrying about "oh god...  this is what 20-somethings think the Justice League is..." was a bit of a relief.  That it wasn't the absolute trash disaster that we got in Suicide Squad was deeply cheering.  You can take your kid to see a Justice League movie!  What a concept!  It may not be great (or even terribly good), but you can tell your kid "hey, those are Batman and Superman and they aren't trying to murder anyone", and feel good about it.

So, let's see what they do next.

Now, if we can get a Justice League movie that gets me as jazzed as this Cartoon Network promo bit from 15 years ago, I'll be happy.






Footnotes


*don't worry - I have the trades
**Yes, I heart The New Gods.  And you should, too.
***But there never is
****especially if the rumors of a Fox/ Disney merger have any water to them and Marvel suddenly has the Fantastic Four back.  Because if Marvel has the FF and *doesn't* go full Kirby with them, they're f'ing nuts
***** but, oh my god...  her yelling "Clark" in front of a dozen random people when she saw Superman was a terrible misfire and typical of how Snyder dealt with Superman's secret identity in the prior films

9 comments:

Simon MacDonald said...

Thanks for the review of the movie. It pretty much reaffirms my current stance and that is I will see Justice League some time next year, on a plane, when I'm out of all other options.

Ryan Steans said...

I did same with "Jonah Hex". It is better than "Jonah Hex". Which is not much of a bar, admittedly.

Paul Toohey said...

Bummer https://twitter.com/i/web/status/932768761291198464

Ryan Steans said...

Don't know what that was, but they're suspended at the moment.

Simon MacDonald said...

The public did not respond to this movie the way WB hoped they would. It's the lowest opening of and DCEU movie and behind both Marvel sequels this year (Thor 3, Guardians 2). I have to assume that won't be received well by the execs.

Ryan Steans said...

Sigh. Yeah. I wonder if they're seeing this as a single movie problem or if anyone understands the damage they've been doing to themselves the past five years... They've put out three movies that created a schizoid audience that showed up in good faith. Half were totally on board and half were totally turned off (MoS, BvS:Doj, SS) and I'd argue they weren't in a rush for more of same. If they want to blame a good-natured take on superheroes, Wonder Woman blew totally past their low expectations (and two wildly successful GotG movies are a sticking point). And *this* movie was cheery, too, so why...?

It's possible half the audience of BvS just wasn't coming back and part of the audience that liked edgy Superman was going to stay home and watch The Punisher on Netflix.

If the audience also has no investment in the DC shared universe, I'm not sure this movie does anything to get you more invested in Flash, Aquaman (honestly, I question their take), especially Cyborg.

and, also - the movie is a damn mess, and it'll be on cable in six months, so why spend $$$ to see it?

That said - they should rush a new Superman movie into production, one that gets around to just doing Superman on the big screen for people of all ages, before Henry Cavill tells everyone to jump in a lake.

Simon MacDonald said...

I like Cavill as an actor but I can't say he was given much to work with in MoS and BvS.

Ryan Steans said...

You saw some small flashes in MoS, like when he meets Lois. But, yeah. And it's crazy because when you see him in full Superman mode in Justice League, he nails it. You realize he always knew how this was supposed to work and was being asked to do something else. It's kind of depressing.

Simon MacDonald said...

Wow, that makes it even more sad. I will be interested to see his performance at some point in the future. I am also eagerly awaiting trying to figure out if the scene in question is digitally altered to remove his moustache or not.