From the Archives: Justice League review

From the Archives: Justice League review

In the interest of getting “hard” copies of my work under one roof, I plan to spend the next few weeks posting the entire archive of my film journalism here on ScullyVision. With due respect to the many publications I’ve written for, the internet remains quite temporary, and I’d hate to see any of my work disappear for digital reasons. As such, this gargantuan project must begin! I don’t want to do it. I hate doing it. But it needs to be done. Please note that my opinions, like everyone’s, have changed a LOT since I started, so many of these reviews will only represent a snapshot in time. Objectivity has absolutely no place in film criticism, at least not how I do it. 

Without further ado, I present to you: FROM THE ARCHIVES.

Originally posted on Cinema76.

Dan Scully: The long-awaited release of Zack Snyder’s Justice League is upon us! DC’s super group is gathered under one roof to defend the earth from an extraterrestrial attack, and to defend the DCEU from parades of detractors. This is a trying time for the superhero studio which always seems to find itself in second place. After a turbulent start and a bit of an identity crisis (on just one Earth), this year’s release of Wonder Woman gave even the most resistant fans a degree of hope. But in the eyes of many, the inaugural solo outing for the Amazing Amazon could just as easily have been a fluke, and it’s up to Justice League to either cement or reject that notion.

Ryan and I had a chance to check Justice League out, and since we’re both consummate nerds, we decided to share reviewing duties to give our readers as well-rounded of an approach as possible.

So let’s start there. I ask: in the broadest sense of the term, would you say that Justice League is good? I sure as hell enjoyed it, and while there are plenty of problems (more on that later), these issues are much more “garden variety” than the idiosyncratic problems of previous DCEU entries. At the same time, it registers for me as a bit of a weakness. One of the things I’ve loved about the DCEU so far is how un-machinelike a lot of it has been. Justice League, while comparatively unique when placed next to the MCU’s recent output, still feels like a movie by committee.

Ryan Silberstein: This is by far the “safest” film that DC has put out since Green Lantern. But of course safe doesn’t always mean quality. But it is sort of necessary based on where DC is right now. Revisiting Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice before this was a great reminder of how deeply weird that film is in terms of blockbuster filmmaking. There’s not really a main character, boatloads of exposition are delivered by people on television, and Superman’s story is largely underplayed in what should be his movie. Wonder Woman still had the risk of being the first major superhero film led by a female character since Elektra in 2005. By not laying the groundwork in giving each of these characters a solo outing before this film, down the middle filmmaking is practically a requirement here in order to win over new fans. Justice League follows the same pattern as the classic team up stories in the comics: a huge, apocalyptic threat is too much for a single hero, so they all band together to save the day. By trimming the exposition to a minimum, the film is able to give enough time to all of the new faces while giving fan favorites enough love.

So yes, it’s a good movie in that it succeeds in that gal, but also kind of bland, which I think actually works in its favor. I know you and I would appreciate a more idiosyncratic approach with its own sense of style, but this is going to get people to like Aquaman and bypass the need to sell audiences on a character they think is a joke. Justice League doesn’t have the confident voice or established characters of the first Avengersfilm, but this is the first film to feel like it takes place in a specific universe. Cyborg lives in Gotham and see can see the Bat Signal from his window, for example, and we see a bit of Atlantis and Wonder Woman’s home again. That Lord of the Rings prologue really helps too. Even which a much tighter running time, there’s enough room to make the film feel lived in, whereas BvS feels like 3 hour montage at times.

Do you think Justice League does its characters…justice?

Dan: I agree that this is DC’s safest film for sure. Almost every aspect of it seems calculated for broad appeal, including the characters. So yes, I do think it does these characters justice. To justify a team up movie, it has to be clear what each character brings to the team, and why their absence would be detrimental. Suicide Squad fails marvelously at this. Is there really any reason why Harley Quinn would be hired to quell extraterrestrial threats? It’s the hot pants, isn’t it?

The core characters emerge as Justice League’s biggest strength. With its exposition-heavy predecessor spending so much time chugging forward with a finish line-oriented narrative, it was nice to see this film open already waist deep in the plot. And while it is indeed weird for Batman to be back to “normal,” and relatively nonplussed by regular supernatural occurrences, a real-world story which would put aside time to explain this disinterests me. I’m here to watch the team come together and fight a villain, and Justice League wastes no time getting there. The slapdash way everyone is assembled ends up being what drives most of their interactions, all of which are a delight. And the fact that the villain is pretty weak (a superhero cinema standard) also helps. Steppenwolf is merely an obstacle. The real antagonist is the struggle to embrace teamwork, and every step of the way is earned.

What’s odd is that going into the film I had no clue what to expect. How did expectations/reality pan out for you?

Ryan: I honestly did not know what to expect going into this, which is odd for something this big that I’ve been sort of following the production of for years. Rewatching Batman v Superman reminded that despite it being an exhausting film, when Wonder Woman shows up, I want to stand up and rock out on my air guitar. I hoped that this film would succeed in making the other characters at least half as fun to hang out with as Gal Gadot’s Diana. And they mostly are!

My opinion on Affleck’s Batman varies from moment to moment, and Momoa’s Aquaman was a smart lift from Patrick Swayze’s character in Point Break, as you mentioned before, but I was really pleasantly surprised by the Flash and Cyborg. As an Ezra Miller fan since Perks of Being a Wallflower, I wasn’t sure about his casting, but her captures the nervous energy of an impatient young kid that the world is too slow for. In addition to providing the comic relief, he is in awe of the other character, the bright energy amongst all of these world-weary adults. I’ve never seen Ray Fisher before, but I know I’ll be seeing a lot more of him. His performance brings a real sense of tragedy and weight to Cyborg, which is easy to imagine going horribly wrong. So what I’m saying is that it totally blew away my expectations because the tone and characters worked far better than the stilted, over-serious film I had imagined this to be. Instead it was light and fun.

Is it weird that this film feels smaller than Man of Steel or BvS? Or sort of on par with Wonder Woman?

Dan: It is very weird that this feels smaller than BvSMan of Steel, and I’d even say Wonder Woman, but that seems to be the nature of DCEU’s ‘after the fact’ approach. As much as I enjoyed the movie, it does pain me to see that DC is broadening the appeal of their brand. This is good business, of course, but the homogenization of style feels a bit like a sell-out move (please note that the only entities I truly feel comfortable calling true sell puts are Green Day, Gwen Stefani, and Nickelodeon’s Doug). Alas, this is the nature of the beast.

Man of Steel and Wonder Woman are both efforts in mythmaking. BvS is an attempt at opera. Justice League has lower aspirations. If anything, it’s “Justice League Action Figure Playset: The Movie.” There’s nothing wrong with this, but I personally lament DC’s constant course correction. It’s great to see how responsive they are to criticism, and it certainly helps ameliorate many of the problems inherent to their brand, but it robs Justice League of personality.

So yeah, my expectations were both validated and subverted. I knew that I’d probably enjoy it no matter what. I knew that it would probably play to a wider crowd. I knew that any of its glaring problems would be congruent to those of ALL superhero cinema. What I didn’t anticipate was how much it would remind me of what could’ve been had we comic book fans not grown into such a fickle bunch of infants. I want Man of Steel 2. I want the movie hinted at in the latter of the post-credits sequences (which I sincerely hope we get — but why would I expect an absence of further course corrections?).

What I really didn’t expect was how much I’d love Cyborg. You said it: Ray Fisher is about to be in EVERYTHING. He brings an unexpectedly satisfying level of humanity to an almost full CGI creation. Maybe it’s his voice. Maybe it’s the notion that he sees his condition as a curse instead of a blessing (which leads to a lovely moment between he and Wonder Woman). Maybe it’s because, of all the players in the League, he’s the one I know nothing about. I should note that the Cyborg effects work much better in the completed project than they do in the trailers. Some leniency was obviously afforded to the FX team in the form of a gray hoodie that Cyborg wears throughout much of the film. And it’s not employed out of laziness either. The garb helps drive home the themes inherent to his character. He is, after all, still a human being.

The effects are a mixed bag overall, but even at their most clunky, they aren’t jarring. The Saturday morning cartoon vibe of Justice League smooths over most of the visual lapses. The creativity of the design does the rest of the work. As tonally and visually variant as DCEU properties have proven to be, there is a visual through-line which all of the films have adhered to. Even when Justice League hits sequences which are 100% rendered, there’s no mistaking it for an MCU entry. There’s a reason that the poster has Alex Ross’s visual stamp on it. To a degree, I think that’s what the DCEU is going for.

How did the visuals fare for you? Is there anything that worked/didn’t work particularly well? What say you, a much more educated comic book fan than I, to what makes a DCEU “product” unique?

Ryan: Other than Steppenwolf, I think Henry Cavill’s de-mustached face was the only thing that stood out as outright bad, especially since it pops up more in the emotive conversation scenes than in the action setpieces. Also, the early battle on Wonder Woman’s home looks like a video game, and not in a good way. Certainly, there are some shaky shots throughout. The rest seems to be going for style over realism, which is what I prefer. Marvel is always striving for a sense of “realism” and it’s such a relief to have DC just embrace that their characters can just fly and do insane things and the MacGuffin is a trio of Mother Boxes. That these DCEU films have been embracing that these characters can simply ignore the laws of physics brings me such joy. Snyder does this better than anyone, but scaling this movie back also works in its favor. Given all of the production drama, it seems like some of the things could have used a few more weeks in the oven, but that also seems to be sad standard these days..

Being a longtime comic book and superhero movie fan, I’m pretty inoculated to the need of having each movie represent my favorite characters perfectly. I’ve talked before about what makes DC different from Marvel, and how the operatic nature of BvS was perfect for that, but thinking about what makes this incarnation different from Donner, Burton, and Nolan is a more interesting question at this point. Donner and Burton both crafted cinematic worlds around their heroes, while Nolan went deep into bringing Batman into ours. Man of Steel follows the Nolan template, but by this film, it has pivoted to something else, which is bringing comic books to life. Affleck’s Batman moves around on rooftops the way the drawn version does, and by splitting the difference, it works as a weird mirror version of our own. I’m hoping it continues to get weirder as we see more of Atlantis, and space!

I do think the DCEU aesthetics are a mess, and it is the one thing that neither superhero lineup seems to get right. How do you think this fares as a whole look and feel?

Dan: I think it mostly fares well. It’s true what you say about style trumping realism at this point. Frankly, I’m not interested in studying superheroes in the real world. I love the Nolan trilogy as much as anyone, but trying to fit Batman into the real world is something that doesn’t interest me at all. The fact of the matter is that superheroes simply CANNOT exist in our world. This is a lot of why Batman Returns remains my favorite Caped Crusader outing. It has multiple elements of hard fantasy that, in their own way, keep the film grounded. The Nolan trilogy takes such great pains to anchor Batman in reality that by the time he’s zipping through the skies in his batplane it all feels like so much pretend. So yes, even if it means a few moments of wonky CGI, I’m down. Justice League (and BvS before it) bridge the gap between reality and artifice smoothly enough that the action has weight but doesn’t feel punishing. And Zack Snyder on a bad day is still adept at shooting with clarity, which has become a bit of a commodity as of late. It’s nice to see the fantastical promise of the Kryptonian opening to Man of Steel coming to functional fruition.

That mustache though. Ugh.

For readers not in the know, the reshoots for Justice League coincided with the production of Mission: Impossible 6, a film which requires Henry Cavill to rock a 70s porn stache. His contract stipulated that he cannot shave, so the Justice League FX team had to eliminate the offending caterpillar digitally. While I’m amazed that this is even possible (and it’s fun to imagine his co-stars having to ignore a bushy stache) I can’t deny that it looks like absolute garbage. And the fact that Cavill’s considerable expressiveness gets buried right in the center of the uncanny valley breaks my heart. Why oh why couldn’t they have just switched the requirement? Don’t we have almost a century’s worth of faux mustache technology to utilize here? Oh well.

Another element that helps smooth out some of the lesser CGI while leaning into the festive tone that DC is pushing toward are the costumes. They all look a little bit more, well, costumey. Everyone really does look like they were designed with action figures in mind, and even though it errs a bit too far on the side of silliness for my taste, the kid in me is going gaga for it!

Now that I’m writing this all out it’s becoming clear how many conflicting tastes Justice League is thanklessly attempting to serve, and how successful it is at doing so. The allegations that Zack Snyder hates his heroes is as unfounded as they come. As messy as it can be, Justice League very clearly cares about its properties, and uses as many tools at it can to nurture them into something both pleasing and marketable.

For example, the score. Danny Elfman is on board, and not only does he use the Zimmer/Junkie XL template to build something both new and old, he even invoked John Williams’ Superman theme as well as his own Batman theme from 1989. It’s magic.

How did the score work for you? Furthermore are there any elements of the film, both original or nostalgia-based that stick out as big positives/negatives?

Ryan: I feel like the costumes were designed as a set, rather than what each of them would wear for themselves. And the Flash’s costume makes no sense, really. It’s too busy for a nice clean line, but doesn’t nail the “homemade” look either. That’s probably the worst bit of aesthetic choice so far, though I quite like Affleck’s batsuit. I also can’t decide if Cyborg’s hoodie is brilliant or ridiculous. Speaking of those too, the scene where they bond over manual labor and the fact that they were both ‘accidents’ is a great idea that should have been fleshed out a bit more.

I love Hans Zimmer and Junkie XL, but Elfman really was the right choice for this project. His melodic touch added to the colorful tone on the film, and his use of the legacy themes was just about perfect. It would have been easy to lean on them more heavily and let them overshadow any new music, but accentuating some key moments in the film made it worth the inclusion. It’s time for heroes to have theme music again!

Justice League, as a film, is messy. Clearly assembled in the edit, it wisely keeps the number of things it tries to do to a minimum, and hammers the execution as much as possible. Not as solid as Wonder Woman or as clear a vision as Batman v Superman, but it makes up for that by just being entertaining. But it’s also a success because it has affection for its characters, and it fleshed out the world of this universe beyond Gotham and Metropolis. Even while understanding all of its flaws, it won me over because I had fun watching it.

Any other standouts for you?

Dan: I’ve got to defend the hoodie. Not only, as I said before, does it anchor Cyborg in some type of humanity, it also makes his entirely digital torso feel tangible. It gives him size and weight where he could have easily had none. I’ve softened a bit in the Flash costume. It’s too busy for my taste, but my repulsion towards it has dissipated.

I think you said it best: Justice League is fun. It’s far from perfect, at times a total mess, and not at all the direction that I, personally, would like the DCEU to go, but it’s just so so so so much fun. And really, what has the chief complaint about the DCEU been since Man of Steel in 2013?

Not enough fun.

So on the one hand, congrats, fickle fanboys and fangirls, due to your insatiable whims, the world of superhero movies is further homogenized. On the other hand, welcome, fickle fanboys and fangirls, to a world where I don’t have to exhaust myself defending DC properties, and you no longer have to exhaust yourself cutting them down. Let’s have fun.

Side note: Affleck famously entered rehab during shooting AND IT SHOWS. But oddly enough it works. The drunk, broken Batman of BvS seems to transform into the sober, heroic Batman we all love right in front of our eyes. This is purely by chance that the cut reflects this, but it really, really does. He’s red faced and slurring at the outset of Justice League, but by the end he’s got his shit together. It’s kinda wild!

Any closing thoughts?

Ryan: I can’t decide if I am more excited for Man of Steel 2Wonder Woman 2CyborgFlash, or Aquaman. And that might be the best compliment to give this film.

Dan: Agreed! Justice League left me so enamored with the whole team that I’m ready and waiting for all of their solo adventures. But if we could front-line Man of Steel 2 and work up an ironclad facial hair contract, I will be most pleased.

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