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Tuesday, November 21, 2017

DAMN Good Movies -- JUSTICE LEAGUE


That's right, I'm back once again with another movie take, this time on the movie Justice League, the fifth film of the DC Extended Universe.  As always, if you haven't seen the movie yet and you don't want it spoiled for you, then please step back from your computer or whatever electronic device you're reading this on and stop reading now.  If, however, you're wise enough to know that movie reviews with spoilers are always more interesting than the ones without them...well...come together, right now.

It's been ten long years to bring Justice League to the big screen.  In 2007, Warner Bros. cancelled Joss Whedon's proposed Wonder Woman film and David S. Goyer's adaptation of The Flash, both of which gave way for a project called Justice League: Mortal.  The film would've branched out into separate sequels and spinoff films and even had Mad Max: Fury Road's George Miller slated to direct.  The project even made it all the way to the casting stage, with D.J. Cotrona as Superman, Armie Hammer as Batman, Megan Gale as Wonder Woman, Adam Brody as The Flash, Common as Green Lantern/John Stewart, Teresa Palmer as Talia al Ghul, and Jay Baruchel as the film's villain, Maxwell Lord.  Yeah, that almost happened.

However, the 2007 writers strike and various production delays doomed Justice League: Mortal, with Warner Bros. deciding to focus on developing individual films instead.  The first was 2011's disappointing Green Lantern movie starring Ryan Reynolds as Hal Jordan, followed a year later by the less disappointing but still disappointing The Dark Knight Rises, the final film in Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy.  In 2013, Zack Snyder's Superman reboot film Man of Steel, became a financial success, bringing in over $668 million worldwide, despite mixed reviews from both critics and fans.  The decision to make a sequel was obvious, which resulted in Snyder's Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice in 2016 as the second film of Warner Bros. new DC Extended Universe, intended as the DC Comics equivalent of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Unfortunately, Batman v Superman was widely panned, giving fans serious concern about Snyder's ability to direct the announced Justice League film as his next project.  Snyder ended up stepping down during post-production as a result of his daughter's tragic suicide, but Joss Whedon (remember him from 2007?) took over as director to oversee two months of reshoots, as well as write some additional scenes.

The movie opens with a kid's cellphone video of Superman, which unfortunately features some really bad CGI covering up Henry Cavill's mustache that he was contractually obligated to keep during Whedon's reshoots.  A terrible and depressing cover Leonard Cohen's "Everybody Knows" follows, as we see a world without Superman following his death at the end of Batman v Superman.  Things have become rather bleak, with racism, crime and a sense of hopelessness permeating everything.  And if things aren't bad enough, Superman's death somehow activated three dormant Mother Boxes, powerful supercomputers familiar to fans of Jack Kirby's Fourth World saga and the New Gods.

It turns out that thousands of years ago, Earth was invaded by Steppenwolf, a member of Darkseid's elite who attempted to conquer and remake Earth with the help of an army of winged zombie creatures known as Parademons.  (Yes, for those paying attention, these are the same creatures featured in the nightmare sequence in Batman v Superman.)  Thanks to a unified resistance comprised of humans, Olympian gods, Amazons, Atlanteans, and even alien Green Lanterns, Steppenwolf and the Parademons were repelled back to Apokolips through a very cool-looking Boom Tube, and the Mother Boxes were hidden across the globe.  Why didn't the Green Lanterns just take the Mother Boxes with them when they headed back into space, you ask?  Great question, if only we were given an answer.

Attempting to regain favor with Darkseid, Steppenwolf decides to make a second invasion attempt and retrieves the first box from Themyscira, home of the Amazons.  Queen Hippolyta warns her daughter Diana, better known as Wonder Woman, and Diana looks up her flirting buddy Batman for help.  As we learned from Batman v Superman, Bruce Wayne and Diana have been researching/stalking a number of superpowered metahumans for just such an emergency, so they set off on a recruiting drive.  Bruce finds Barry Allen, The Flash, in Central City, who eagerly signs up because he needs friends, but his attempt to bring in the brotastic Aquaman fails in epic fashion.  Wonder Woman, meanwhile, tracks down Victor Stone, better known as Cyborg, but also has trouble convincing him to help out until Cyborg's father Silas and some other S.T.A.R. Labs employees are kidnapped by Steppenwolf.

As we head into the Second Act, Steppenwolf makes a side trip to Atlantis to retrieve the Atlantean Mother Box, giving us our first good look at what the Aquaman solo movie is going to be like.  Now that Atlantis has been attacked, Aquaman finally decides that maybe Steppenwolf is something that needs dealt with, so he hooks up with the other four heroes and together, they rescue Silas and the other employees.  It's a solid geek moment to see the five Justice Leaguers in full action, although The Flash is uncomfortably hesitant and of little use for someone who moves faster than everyone else.

In an expected addition to the team's "To Do" list, Batman (who has spent most of the movie so far feeling guilty about his part in Superman's death) decides hey, let's resurrect Superman from the dead using the remaining Mother Box that Cyborg tucked away for safekeeping.  Even though Wonder Woman and Aquaman point out this might not be a good idea, Batman plows ahead and gets The Flash to charge up the Mother Box, which will do something sciency-wiency to the incubation waters aboard the Kryptonian ship that Lex Luthor used to create Doomsday in Batman v Superman.  Superman returns (See what I did there?), but isn't exactly himself until Batman brings in Lois Lane to help him regain his memories.  And while everyone's so preoccupied with the resurrected Superman, Steppenwolf just casually walks in and nicks the final Mother Box.

Wait...What?

The Third Act has our team (minus Superman) heading to a Russian village that happens to have a nuclear reactor to help Steppenwolf with his plan.  Here, we see another jarring contrast between Zack Snyder and Joss Whedon's directing styles, with the League battling Parademons left and right in pure Snyderian battleporn mayhem.  They eventually reach Steppenwolf, distracting him long enough for Cyborg to separate the Mother Boxes.  Superman finally joins the team during a great moment, with Henry Cavill finally being allowed to play a Superman who's more colorful and smiling.  Steppenwolf suddenly becomes fearful at the thought of being defeated by the League, or perhaps is more fearful of Darkseid's wrath, and his fear rings the dinner bell for the Parademons, who end up turning on Steppenwolf just as all of them are Boom Tubed back to Apokolips.

In the aftermath, Batman donates the ruined and not-so-stately Wayne Manor to the League to serve as their headquarters, with Wonder Woman teasing that there's "room for more".  Wonder Woman decides to finally step from the shadows as a public hero, while The Flash lands a job at the Central City Police Department that may prove useful if The Flash solo movie ever happens.  Aquaman returns to Atlantis because he knows he's getting his solo movie, and Cyborg goes off to explore his new abilities with his father and hope that he can someday get some decent character development.  The film brings us full circle with Superman, as Clark Kent rips open his shirt and flies off, presenting a much more hopeful and optimistic tone for the DC Extended Universe.  As Superman soars into the air, Lois tells us, rather fittingly, to look...up in the sky...

You can tell there was a lot going on here, with various DC Comics characters finally making it to the big screen.  Here are some of the things that stood out:

BATMAN/BRUCE WAYNE -- In his third movie as Batman (counting his Suicide Squad appearance), Ben Affleck doesn't seem any happier to be doing what he's doing.  Despite being paired with Wonder Woman, The Flash and Aquaman in some lighthearted scenes, Affleck feels like he's just going through the motions.  He's not a horrible Batman, certainly not in the George Clooney sense, but he's still not great.

WONDER WOMAN/DIANA PRINCE -- Gal Gadot, meanwhile, shines once again as Wonder Woman.  With her solo film being the strongest and most successful DCEU film to date, the decision to emphasize Wonder Woman was a no-brainer.  Diana finally gets to step up and be a leader, although maybe someday she can do that without the other Leaguers (except Cyborg) commenting on her appearance.

THE FLASH/BARRY ALLEN -- Like many Flash fans, I had some serious misgivings about Ezra Miller as The Flash and I'm sad to say I still have them.  Relegated to the Comic Relief role, Miller's Flash deviates far too much from his traditional depiction in the comics.  Initially introduced as squatting introvert for some inexplicable reason, we soon learn this Barry Allen is fearful and hesitant of just about everything and his only real contribution as a League member seems to be that he can relocate innocent bystanders from one place to another.  No rapid punching, no cyclone winds, no running on water...just awkward reactions to everything going on around him.  At least we still have the TV show with Grant Gustin...

AQUAMAN/ARTHUR CURRY -- Unlike Ben Affleck, Jason Momoa genuinely seems to be enjoying himself as Aquaman.  His laid-back "bro" version of the character also deviates from the comics, but Momoa's imposing frame and bad-boy look make Aquaman seem a lot cooler to people that simply dismiss him as "the guy who talks to fish."  Naturally, his underwater scenes are a particular highlight, but Momoa also has decent comedic timing as well, such as the scene where Aquaman unwittingly sits on Wonder Woman's lasso and unloads his true feelings to everyone.

CYBORG/VICTOR STONE -- Ray Fisher makes his full debut as Cyborg, but the character doesn't quite click enough to make you stop wondering where Green Lantern or the Martian Manhunter are.  I think it's mainly due to Cyborg being underwritten as a character, making viewers not as emotionally invested in him, along with too much of a reliance on CGI to depict him.  Fisher's Cyborg looks like a leftover overdesigned Michael Bay Transformer, with Fisher's face poorly animated by CGI to make even his human face come off as fake.

SUPERMAN/CLARK KENT -- In his best appearance as Superman since Man of Steel, Henry Cavill makes the most of what little screen time he actually has.  When not forced by Zack Snyder to portray Superman as a scowling sourpuss hovering above everyone, Cavill proves he's a worthy successor to Christopher Reeve.  The mid-credits Superman/Flash race scene is great showcase for Cavill, and a great geek moment for DC Comics fans.  

STEPPENWOLF -- Ciarán Hinds of Rome and Game of Thrones fame provides the voice of Steppenwolf, a rather underwhelming villain for the Justice League's first film.  Presumably, Warner Bros.' plan was to save Darkseid for the sequel, but with the way the studio keeps second-guessing itself, who knows if we'll ever see him.  Being a pure CGI character, Steppenwolf's face looks odd when he speaks, which makes him feel even less like a villain of substance.

LOIS LANE -- In her third outing as Lois, Amy Adams primarily serves as Batman's contingency plan to bring Superman around following his resurrection.  A great deleted scene shown in the trailers that was cut from the final film had Clark noticing that Lois was wearing his engagement ring, so I have to wonder what other great Lois and Clark moments were cut as well.  At least Lois is given the final narration as Superman flies off into the Metropolis sky.

MARTHA KENT -- Diane Lane returns as Martha, who became a popular meme following the derided moment in Batman v Superman when Superman and Batman both realize their moms have the same first name.  Martha is shown having fallen on hard times after losing both her husband Jonathan and son Clark, then losing the Kent farm to foreclosure.  She gets a nice scene meeting with Lois and considering Lois family, but I think the scene where Martha is reunited with Clark could've been a bit more emotional.

ALFRED PENNYWORTH -- Jeremy Irons' second appearance as Alfred comes off considerably better than his first.  With Joss Whedon lightening Terrio's script, Alfred feels more like Alfred this time and gets off a couple of good digs at Bruce while serving in his usual role as tech support.  

COMMISSIONER JAMES GORDON -- No longer at the Daily Bugle, J.K. Simmons gives us the most traditional take of Commissioner Gordon we've ever seen on screen so far.  He gets a rooftop scene where Batman (and the other Leaguers except for The Flash) abruptly disappear when Gordon's back is turned, then praises Batman for playing with others again.  

HIPPOLYTA -- Fresh from the Wonder Woman solo movie, Connie Nielsen reprises Queen Hippolyta and gets a solid action sequence where the Amazons are playing "Mother Box Keepaway" with Steppenwolf and the Parademons.  It was good to see her as the warrior queen this time, although I did wonder if Steppenwolf was going to kill her at one point.

HENRY ALLEN -- Billy Crudup, who played Dr. Manhattan in Snyder's underrated Watchmen adaptation, is the big screen Henry Allen, framed and imprisoned once again for the murder of his wife Nora by the Reverse-Flash.  Henry's role is to help set up the Flash solo movie and encourage Barry to do more with his life, something that wouldn't be needed if Barry was depicted as he should've been.

MERA -- Amber Heard makes her debut as Mera, the future wife of Aquaman and Queen of Atlantis.  In addition to help set up the Aquaman solo movie, Mera is the one who successfully goads Aquaman into stepping up and taking Steppenwolf's threat seriously.  Interestingly, Mera and Aquaman seem to have a rocky relationship, so it may be a while before these two make it to the altar.  And if you're an Aquafan, you had to really enjoy seeing Mera use her powers of water manipulation.

SILAS STONE -- Best known as the creator of Skynet, Joe Morton serves as Cyborg's supporting character and also provides necessary exposition about the Mother Boxes.  There are hints of the distance between him and his son Victor, but Silas' best moment is probably when he defiantly refuses to tell Steppenwolf where the final Mother Box is, impressing Cyborg as he watches from the shadows.

DEATHSTROKE AND LEX LUTHOR CAMEO -- Joe Manganiello and Jesse Eisenberg turn up in the post-credits scene, with Luthor having escaped from prison somehow with no one noticing.  Luthor mentions to Deathstroke that hey, maybe it's a good idea to form their own League, presumably teasing the Injustice League for a potential sequel.

All in all, Justice League is the film we've been wanting but not quite the film we deserve.  Warner Bros. made another misstep with its DC Extended Universe by inexplicably giving Zack Snyder a third attempt to destroy it along with screenwriter Chris Terrio.  Joss Whedon's efforts to lighten things up and salvage the film are successful enough to make it watchable and occasionally even enjoyable, but you have to wonder how much better it could've been without Snyder and Terrio mucking things up once again.  Unfortunately, with the movie's opening weekend being something of a disappointment considering the amount of money that went into making it, a Justice League sequel is anything but a given right now.  

And for those who may be wondering, here's the updated list of my Top 20 Comic Book Films:

1. Superman (1978)
2. The Dark Knight (2008)

3. The Avengers (2012)
4. Batman Begins (2005)
5. Logan (2017)
6. Captain America: Civil War (2016)
7. Man of Steel (2013)
8. Doctor Strange (2016)
9. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
10. Wonder Woman (2017)
11. Spider-Man 2 (2004)
12. Spider-Man (2002)
13. Iron Man (2008)
14. Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
15. Watchmen (2009)
16. Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
17. Justice League (2017)
18. Thor (2011)
19. Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
20. Thor: Ragnarok (2017)

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