MOVIE REVIEW: Justice League
JUSTICE LEAGUE-- 3 STARS
Since 2008, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has shrewdly enacted and methodically executed what this website has long referred to as a purposeful blueprint of interconnection and common goals. Save for fair calls of repetitiveness, their route has been a smashing success of safe simplicity. Warner Brothers’ DC Extended Universe might be drawing its plans with an Etch A Sketch when compared to the MCU blueprint. Good and bad comes from that.
Creating a work of art on an Etch A Sketch is challenging and risky. Choosing to be different by turning their dark and brooding drawing knobs, DC operates with a commendable boldness not to play it safe. In the words of a certain ocean demigod to be mentioned later, “I dig it.” However, the screenwriters, filmmakers, and execs involved do not have Buddy the Elf’s skill on the Etch A Sketch. Like the rest of us on that tricky toy, screw-ups and errors happen often and stick around until the artist gives up and shakes it clear.
Sticking with that analogy, Justice League comes across like attempted course correction done on that Etch A Sketch. The artist, or artists in this case, are trying to retrace old paths and smooth over past missteps with redrawn swirls, lighter hues, and a fluffy cover-up we call comedy. That effort on the cinematic Etch A Sketch indeed changes the initial picture, but only after unnecessarily tedious effort and some remaining messy results.
A world without Superman following the events of Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice has devolved into a hotbed of escalated global terrorism and cold fog of international mourning. The Batman (Ben Affleck) has encountered a winged Parademon scout of the returning warmonger Steppenwolf (performance capture by Ciaran Hinds) while continuing the good fight on the streets and rooftops of Gotham City. The ax-wielding agent of Apokolips feeds on fear and is in search of unifying the planet-purging power of three Mother Boxes found on Earth that eluded his grasp ages ago after being cast out by a unified army of men, gods, demigods, Lanterns, Amazons, and Atlanteans.
Carrying their own regret from the loss of the Man of Steel, Bruce Wayne and the returning Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) take the arriving forces as an call to activate their plans of putting an alliance together to combat the threat. A globe-trotting first act performs expositional shorthand to introduce and bring together Barry Allen’s spectrum-pinging speedster The Flash (Ezra Miller) who can apparently only be addressed with speed puns, Arthur Curry’s rough and belligerent Aquaman and heir to the Atlantean throne (Jason Momoa), and Victor Stones’ conflicted and connected Cyborg (Ray Fisher). Supported from the sidelines by the likes of Alfred Pennyworth (Jeremy Irons), Lois Lane (Amy Adams), and Commissioner Gordon (J.K. Simmons), this crew of champions is outmatched and searching for leadership.
LESSON #1: TAKING ON LEADERSHIP-- Batman is not a leader. He’s a loner working in the shadows as a vigilante for twenty years. Wonder Woman could be a leader. She is a heartsick and untapped symbol that has hid from public view for a century. In the absence of Superman’s exemplar figure and shouldered strength, both are thrust into a leadership role and the associated burdens that come with that role weigh on them. Both have to step up and the two lean on each other in an effectively aware relationship conveyed by Affleck and Gadot.
On many levels, it is plain to see that public backlash from Suicide Squad and Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice filled studio ears, leading the WB to throw a home improvement warehouse’s worth of kitchen sinks to attempt to lighten up the bleak and brash trajectory of the existing DCEU. The Flash, Aquaman, and Cyborg constitute reinforcements for that cause, yet deserve greater establishment than they receive here to endear themselves as equals to DC’s Big Three. Each bring a unique, but thin, character dynamic of quirk. Only Momoa’s Aquaman carries a slight amount of stature worth exploring in a future solo film (coming from horror director James Wan in 2018). The real Hulk-level showstopper, scene-stealer, and main event gamechanger for Justice League is Henry Cavill’s reinvigorated and worst-kept character resurrection secret.
Young cinematographer Fabian Wagner (Victor Frankenstein) turns up the dimmer on the camera’s colors and veteran composer Danny Elfman (Batman, Spider-Man) returns to the world of superheroes with a boost of musical sprite from the previous heavy operatics done by Hans Zimmer. Though appreciated in their attempts, when combined with egregiously substandard special effects for a film of this importance and budget, the aesthetic elements of Justice League feel like a step down from previous polish. They add to the Etch A Sketch’s messy lines.
The course correction slant continues into film’s narrative swings from the serious to the silly. For reasoning, look no further than the well-documented behind-the-scenes challenges of emergency substitution and reshoots. The concoction of styles between credited director Zack Snyder and his fill-in and credited co-writer of Joss Whedon might as well be steak sauce poured on ice cream. The flavors of Snyder’s meaty machismo for explosive bangs do not mesh well with Whedon’s penchant for playfulness. Their respective stamps on scenes are incredibly obvious and even obnoxious. Heroic frivolity was needed but too much of Justice League is discombobulated.
The substantial saving grace for Justice League is the fun factor. No matter how scattered the Etch A Sketch gets, the film moves well and spreads out its action pacing choices. The film hits on some truly shining moments of giddiness for the action junkies and fan service crowd. Snyder’s overused slo-mo was traded out for few more spinning displays of Whedon’s kinetic teamwork. Without the clunky dialogue in the way, that’s the one aspect where the directorial blend works to complement the talents.
LESSON #2: HOORAY FOR TEAMWORK-- In terms of conflict and resolution, nothing too abstract or complex looms over Justice League. This is a rallying call for good old-fashioned teamwork for a greater cause. These heroes are stronger together and better for the shared experiences than standing alone, nothing more and nothing less. Simplicity aside, there is a dearth here for something more dauntless and audacious that resonated the cores of Man of Steel, Wonder Woman, and Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice.
One has to wonder what a straight Snyder film of all steak or a straight Whedon version of all ice cream would look like for Justice League. The results would be very different with Snyder’s take furthering the established boldness and Whedon’s representing shaking clear the Etch A Sketch. Each would work in their way and be films well worth seeing. Chopped and combined though, it’s a bit of an entertaining mess that will divide astute and casual audiences to a sizable degree. The almighty dollar will decide the final question of whether the DCEU will stay the course or look at their outdated Etch A Sketch, give up on the doodles, shake it clear all the way, or even cast it aside to upgrade to a new toy altogether.