Monday 27 November 2017
Yay or Nay? My Thoughts on Justice League, Some Spoilers Ahead
In the first two drafts, I went too deep into the production issues that resulted in the film's issues. I then found myself talking more about the behind the scenes stuff than reviewing the actual film. I then thought about whether or not to wait for an extended Zack Snyder cut of the film like I did for Batman v Superman in order to give the film a fair review. After doing some research, it looks like we won't be getting one for this film, at least not for the initial Blu-Ray release. (Though if there is a strong enough demand for it, Warner Bros. might release a Zack Snyder director's cut further down the line.)
Having said that, I've decided for my third draft to just talk about the product that we have now and how I felt about the film after my two screenings. It won't be too spoiler-heavy, but I do discuss some significant developments for the film, so proceed at your own caution.
I would say the thing I enjoyed most about Justice League was the cast and their overall performances. I still enjoyed watching Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman, and she still brought a lot of the same charisma to her role in Justice League that she brought to Wonder Woman earlier this year. Ezra Miller's performance as the Flash was another I enjoyed. Though I would've preferred getting a Barry Allen who is closer in age to Superman in the DCEU, I do appreciate the attempt to bring age diversity to the cast. I also quite enjoyed the social awkwardness Miller brought to his role as well as his general geekiness.
Two other performances I enjoyed were those of Jason Momoa and Ben Affleck as Aquaman and Batman respectively. In fact, a lot of my favourite scenes in this film were between these two actors in the Iceland sequences. I felt Momoa and Affleck played off of each other quite well and I especially enjoyed seeing Arthur snark at Bruce during these scenes as well. I also enjoyed the very brief scene Momoa shared with Amber Heard's Mera in Atlantis, and I found myself wanting to see more of her and Atlantis in this film. I think the film established a pretty good setup for the Atlanteans in the DCEU that I hope gets followed through in next year's Aquaman film.
On Affleck's Batman, I consider his portrayal in this film to be a significant improvement over the last film. I was never a fan of Frank Miller's Dark Knight Returns nor his depiction of Batman in other comics like All-Star Batman and Robin, and always felt that using either of those works as inspiration for a new take on Batman on film was a wrong approach. I don't feel that either of those depictions stay true to the core concept of the character Bob Kane and Bill Finger created in part because Dark Knight Returns is more satire than a serious take on the character, and in part because this was never going to be a Batman that a more mainstream film audience would enjoy.
Frank Miller has his own passionate fanbase, but that fanbase is considerably small compared to the mainstream film audience who are more accustomed to the mainstream portrayal of Batman. As such, moving Affleck's Batman away from the murderous sociopath he was depicted as in Batman v Superman in favour of a more mainstream depiction was a smart move on Warner Bros. part. In contrast with Batman v Superman, the Batman we see in Justice League is much more heroic and nuanced in his depiction, while still preserving most of the developments from the previous film--namely the parts of him being a loner and having questionable methods.
I get that the point of the previous film was to show how far astray Batman had gone in the decades he's been fighting crime, but I still didn't feel like that was an appropriate use of his character. The film already had Lex Luthor as the main villain, and Lex already fulfils the role of "wealthy white guy who hates Superman and wants to kill him." There was absolutely no reason Batman had to fulfil that same role in the film, especially since his difference to Superman should've centred more on having a different perspective on crime shaped by different experiences, as well as different methods. The latter is what we see more of in Justice League.
One last performance I enjoyed was Ray Fisher as Cyborg. I liked that Fisher was believably brooding following his character's traumatic transformation from being a normal human being to a cyborg constructed out of alien technology. There was a natural sense of progression for his character throughout this film--first appearing as a loner who wants to be left alone to slowly accepting his new existence, as well as the friendship of Wonder Woman and Batman, along with the rest of the League.
Though these other characters don't have much screen time, I still enjoyed seeing Amy Adams again as Lois Lane and Diane Lane as Martha Kent. I also admittedly enjoyed Henry Cavill's more optimistic and hopeful portrayal of Superman, but I also felt like this wasn't handled in a way that felt like a natural progression from the previous films Man of Steel and Batman v Superman. I honestly felt cheated out of seeing him grow into becoming the Superman we all know and love because his reintroduction in Justice League was rushed. But this is now getting into the territory of discussing story.
Despite wonderful performances by all of the actors and the refreshing energy their presence brought to the film, the one thing that got sacrificed in this film was the story, and unfortunately, there's too much to discuss on this front beginning with Warner Bros. cutting the movie's run time to just two hours. Simply put, you cannot tell a good Justice League story in only two hours for the same reason you cannot tell a Lord of the Rings story in two hours. There are too many new elements introduced in this film that needed more time to be properly fleshed out in order to build to a stronger, meaningful climax.
To start with, the film picks up on the threat of Apokolips from the last film, but it doesn't successfully establish why the threat is happening in the first place. At best, the audience is informed on who Steppenwolf is as a character and what he has done in the past, but it doesn't elaborate on his homeworld of Apokolips, the leader that he actually serves (Darkseid), or the real reason that Darkseid invades and destroys worlds. So much of Steppenwolf's role in these invasions in the comics is always linked Darkseid's desire for conquest, which often times mirrors his own. All of those details are completely left out of this movie, effectively weakening Steppenwolf's threat as a villain. A DC fan can easily fill in the gaps on what Steppenwolf's role is supposed to be, but a casual film viewer will not, nor should they be tasked with needing to know DC comics canon to do so.
Another reason the significant cut to the run time was detrimental to this film is that it also cut down on the viewer getting a proper introduction to the three new cast members: Flash, Aquaman, and Cyborg. The viewer gets a crash course on the origins of these three characters, but the audience doesn't get to spend enough time with them to better understand why they would agree to work together beyond the immediate threat of Steppenwolf. We learn that the Flash in particular doesn't have any friends, but it would've been better to see how his life as a speedster alienates him from the most important people in his life (like Iris West) to better understand the importance of him accepting Bruce's offer to join the Justice League without question. Cyborg got a little bit of this development, which helps the audience to connect with him, but both Flash and Aquaman were significantly robbed of these developments.
In addition to needing to spend more time on the three new cast members in order to properly invest in their roles in this film, the film similarly needed to spend more time following up on the loss of Superman and how that specifically affected his immediate family: Lois Lane and Martha Kent. They are the characters who carry Superman's narrative during his absence and both women have been present since both Man of Steel and Batman v Superman in mostly prominent roles. In Justice League, they are greatly marginalised. It especially felt odd to me that neither Diana nor Bruce thought to check up on these two women following Clark's death since they were all present when it happened in the final act of Batman v Superman.
Equally troubling was the League's decision to resurrect Clark's body without involving Lois and Martha in that discussion, which felt wrong. Neither Bruce nor Diana had been friends with Clark long enough to make that call and the other Leaguers were wrong to not challenge their decision to resurrect him without consulting his immediate family. Lois was only notified of the decision as Bruce's back-up plan for in case things went south with the resurrection, which made Lois an afterthought. This was one of those bizarre storytelling choices that made me question how much of Lois' role was cut and rewritten from the original Chris Terrio script Zack Snyder worked with prior to Joss Whedon's involvement. (And one of the reasons I want a Zack Snyder director's cut of the film, to be honest, because Lois was one of the characters he got right in the previous two films.)
Speaking of Joss Whedon's involvement, another thing that didn't work in this film's favour was Whedon's revision of the script and reshoots. To start with, Whedon has a vastly different style of storytelling from Zack Snyder, right down to the use of humour. With Snyder, his brand of humour in the DCEU films tended more towards deadpan and subtle, whereas Whedon's brand of humour is none of these things. Whedon tends to be more crass in his "comedy" and his jokes are rarely funny as they always come at the expense of another (usually female) character.
One of the casualties on this front was Lois Lane in one of the few scenes she was afforded in this film when Whedon decided to sneak in a "thirsty/hungry" (for dick) joke, which was wildly inappropriate for the context of the scene being about two women (in this case Martha and Lois) mourning the loss of Clark Kent. Another casualty of Whedon's crass humour was Wonder Woman who was subjected to panty shots and sexual innuendos with both the Flash and Aquaman, all of which was gross and demeaning.
In terms of overall quality, this was where Snyder and Whedon's vastly different styles clashed in very obvious ways. You could tell which scenes were Snyder and which scenes were Whedon based on the presence and absence of nuance. In the scenes that showed profound character moments and nuanced characterisation, you could tell those were Zack Snyder's scenes. The scenes that prioritised humour (specifically ones containing inappropriate jokes), had Avengers-style action sequences, and over-the-top performances were Joss Whedon's scenes.
This clashing of styles was more painfully obvious in the scenes featuring Aquaman and Superman in particular. Aquaman in the first half of the film was snarky and badass, but not over-the-top. Aquaman in the second half of the film was more noticeably gross in his flirtations with Wonder Woman and behaved like a surfer, which was a significant change in characterisation from the earlier half of the film. The Superman sequences (from the resurrection right up through the final battle) were mostly (if not all) on Whedon. Much of Whedon's crass humour and lack of nuance were present in these sequences, along with the sudden shift in Clark's personality from the previous films.
At best, I will say I completely understand Warner Bros. desire to lighten up the tone from the overtly serious Batman v Superman, and truthfully it was a welcome change. But Whedon was not the go-to guy for this job if they wanted to preserve stylistic continuity and especially the dignity of Justice League's female characters, one of which is highly popular right now: Wonder Woman. If Whedon's atrocious mishandling of Black Widow in Avengers: Age of Ultron didn't tip anyone off at Warner Bros. of the way Whedon mistreats his female characters, his work on Buffy, The Vampire Slayer alone should've done that. (That in itself deserves its own post.)
If anyone should've been called to assist with lightening up the tone of Justice League while preserving stylistic continuity and integrity of the film's female characters, Warner Bros. should've gotten Patty Jenkins. Not only did she direct their more successful Wonder Woman film earlier this year, but she would've done a much better job at stylistically preserving Zack Snyder's original vision while keeping the film enjoyable and optimistic. As evidenced by her work on Wonder Woman, she is much more skilled at providing nuanced humour that is actually appropriate for a scene, whereas Whedon fails at this repeatedly in his attempts to be " ha ha edgy."
Justice League is not a terrible movie, but it isn't great either. It's a great film to watch if you want to have a good time at the cinema and you love DC Comics characters. It does, at least, satisfy on the front of being an entertaining film, and this is helped tremendously by the actors' performances. But as a film that more meaningfully picks up on the threads of Man of Steel, Batman v Superman, and--to a small extent--Wonder Woman with the same level of depth, it leaves a lot to be desired. There are nuggets of a good story in there that are sadly prevented from blossoming due to both a significant cutting of run time and a clashing of narrative styles between two directors.