Tuesday, January 9, 2018

The challenge of the super friends


JUSTICE LEAGUE

We'll see you next time, Zack.  God bless.

2017
Directed by Zack Snyder and Joss Whedon
Written by Chris Terrio, Zack Snyder, and Joss Whedon
With Ben Affleck (Bruce Wayne), Gal Gadot (Diana Prince), Ezra Miller (Barry Allen), Ray Fisher (Victor Stone), Jason Momoa (Arthur Curry), Henry Cavill (Clark Kent), Jeremy Irons (Alfred Pennyworth), Amy Adams (Lois Lane), and Ciaran Hinds (Steppenwolf)

Spoiler alert: moderate

First, I want you to imagine two waves of equal amplitude, with opposite vectors...

Justice League's opening credits sequence is, as a montage of imagery set to a dour pop song, at least a simulacrum of the Snyderesque.  It tells the story, because the rest of the movie ain't interested in it, of a world without a Superman, and how this world has been ineluctably diminished.  The hope's gone out—and, boy, does that sound about right.  Anyway, there's one particular image, a homeless man with a sign that says, "I TRIED."  It's right next to the directorial credit that awards authorship of the film to Zack Snyder.  We know that this is not entirely truthful, however, and we know that Joss Whedon, credited as a "co-writer" here (nominally "building upon" Chris Terrio and Snyder's story), was induced to direct a distressing number of new "fixes" to Snyder's film, after the man had stepped away from its production.  It's hard to know how to take this image, then, without knowing exactly who put it there.  Was it Whedon, or was it Snyder, after all?

Given these messy and contentious origins, I guess it's nice that Justice League is still mostly coherent, though its story, properly speaking, begins on a note of confusion so godawful that I had to have it explained to me after the screening, to which I responded, "That still makes no sense."  It's a disconnected cold open that sees Batman once again taking the fight to an alien menace, this time using a petty crook as bait for a parademon (that is, a buglike soldier of darkness in the service of the New Gods of the... how about we get into it later, okay?), because, apparently sometime between Batman v Superman and now, Batman learned 1)what parademons are (I barely know what parademons are!) (this is not true; I am a rabid nerd) and 2)that parademons fly toward fear like a moth to a flame, I guess.  This sounds like it might be correct—it sounds like something out of a Grant Morrison comic—but, like everything in Justice League, it's in service of its sketch of a plot, rather than the themes and emotions it doesn't have.

Okay, technically, it begins on a child's cellphone video of Superman, which is one of the film's vanishing few grace notes.  It sees Henry Cavill be about as pleasant and Christopher Reevelike as Henry Cavill can be; which, of course, amounts to "somewhat" and "almost not at all," respectively—though this certainly does not stop the film from relying upon Cavill to be a Reevelike Superman, at least as processed through Whedon's decaying ability to either write for character, or to write anything.

But it's certainly never so confusing as that parademon scene again.  Hell, Justice League is straightforward to an absolute fault, so straightforward it feels like sitting in a Warner Bros. boardroom while a chipper man in a suit explains a superhero plot by way of flowcharts.  Some of Justice League's CG backdrops may well have been rendered on the Powerpoint engine.

So: in broad strokes (and all Justice League's strokes being broad, this captures it entirely), Batman and Wonder Woman, having perceived a threat to Earth, based upon the vague rantings of Lex Luthor at the end of BvS, have gone into the business of trying to put together a superteam to defend our fragile planet.  So far they've tracked down Arthur Curry, "Aquaman," the exiled king of Atlantis; Barry Allen, "the Flash," the fastest man alive; and Victor Stone, "Cyborg," who died in a laboratory accident (or something), but was rebuilt by his father (or something), with the same maguffiny alien technology that the spacefaring warlord Steppenwolf has come to reclaim from its safekeeping here on Earth.

You can guess from the "Cyborg" part of that synopsis, at least, that Justice League, which inverts the one part of the Marvel Method that the DCEU had heretofore been following—that is, building up characters in their own movies, then slamming them together in a big team-up spectacle—gives you almost no reason to care about any of these people, and, in fact, scarcely seems interested in trying.  It's the kind of movie that casts Joe Morton as a Frankensteinian figure, with the added pathos that he's made a monster of his actual son, then gives the great character actor about five lines.  (J.K. Simmons fares slightly better as Commissioner Gordon; Jeremy Irons does too, as Alfred Pennyworth, though he's playing the same disappointed father shtick as in BvS, and for whatever reason, it was so much spikier and more amusing in that movie.)

The marquee actors, though—it's easy to read into things, but they seem disappointed, like they signed up for a movie that wanted to reach for the skies like BvS did, and, for better or worse, turn them into icons of violence and beauty.  Instead, they were asked to quip.  Ben Affleck's Batman is probably the worst offender, as he seems actively depressed (somehow, Affleck and his directors can't even make it work for the character, who ought to be depressed); it may have something to do with the fact that Batman's dialogue suggests, even though this is totally impossible, that Whedon has never read a single Batman comic in his life.  This depresses me, too, since Batfleck was my favorite last time.

The rest vary: Gal Gadot has flashes of the same greatness she had flashes of in Wonder Woman, and I do rather hope she eventually gets a screenplay that sets the actor up for more than just "flashes"; Ray Fisher acquits himself well simply by resisting the jokey tone of the film, though it has nothing else to offer him, and he comes off flat (and not helped one bit by Cyborg's overly-faithful and goofy costuming—there's an amazing Cronenberg-style movie about Vic Stone that we'll never, ever get to see); Jason Momoa at least manages not to come off as a predator as his surfer dude Aquaman, which I count as an accomplishment.  By far—by far—the best in show is Ezra Miller, and his "Barry Allen."  (The character has been correctly noticed to be far more akin to Barry's successor to the Flash mantle, his nephew Wally West; but, honestly, he's even more like Bart Allen, Barry Allen's time-travelin' teen grandson from the 30th Century.)  Written with the most definition and spark of any of the League—no doubt because he's the designated funny one, a comically-autistic people-pleaser—Klein also seems to be completely alone amongst the entire cast as both realizing what kind of movie he's in and actually wanting to be in the kind of movie he's in.

I'll grant, Justice League has the dubious strength of feeling like a comic book—the caption-block origins, the 24-pages-get-it-done pace.  However, I don't mean it feels like a good comic book, or even an acceptable comic book.  I mean a grim and perfunctory one.  And it is perfunctory from top to bottom indeed: from its basic character mechanics and backstories all the way out to the sweep of its mythology.  With half a heart, at best, this Justice League pretends to its epic scope, spanning from the egregious Lord of the Rings riff of its invented history to the modern day, from Themyscira to Atlantis to the doorstep of Jack Kirby's Fourth World... and none of it conjures the slightest bit of wonder, the slimmest sensation of grandeur.  Themyscira is a featureless green field that looks like a World of Warcraft screenshot; Atlantis, a single underwater temple; the starstuff of Kirby's New Gods is now just the ugly, boring grey menace populating the third act of every superhero team-up movie, led by a cosmic baddie who makes the Marvel movies' cosmic baddies seem well-characterized and properly thought-through.  (I could spend half this review trying to figure out why the representative of the evil New Gods is Steppenwolf here, and not Darkseid, one of maybe three non-Batman villains in the whole DC Universe to have any cachet beyond the fandom.  I almost wonder if Marvel literally paid them not to torpedo Thanos—who, and very much intentionally, greatly resembles Darkseid, to the extent that to distinguish the two to a layperson you'd be forced to explain the difference between "Death" and "Anti-Life."  More probably, though, Warner decided of their own volition to not try to steal Marvel's thunder, under threat of their own, original property being labeled the rip-off.)

Nevertheless, yes.  Steppenwolf is tall.  Agreed.

All along, Justice League is such a by-the-numbers adaptation that I guess it never occurred to either Snyder or Whedon that this little medium of "sound cinema" that they're working in might have something new to say about the New Gods' preferred mode of galactic transportation, which, while never named in the film itself, is literally called a Boom Tube.  It's symptomatic: this movie doesn't have the imagination, or the energy, to even steal from its source material; and naked visual thievery being Snyder's best trick of all, it makes one suspect that it was Whedon who did the bulk of the work here.  Whoever did it, he surely brought the same shitty, garbled sensibility that made Avengers: Age of Ultron such a wonderful time at the movies.

Virtually everything here is reduced to the most soullessly efficient version of itself, culminating with the resurrection of this franchise's overt Christ figure, exploited as nothing but a fucking plot point.  So, thanks Justice League: Superman spends an hour of screentime dead, then he comes back, and it ain't no big thing.  Neither is Steppenwolf, it turns out, though in fairness even I've never been able to keep track of precisely where Kryptonians and New Gods respectively sit on the Longwinded Nerd Argument Power Scale.  (For brevity's sake, let us simply say it is outrageously undramatic regardless, even on the bargain-basement terms Justice League demands we accept.)  Meanwhile, there are Silver Age imaginary stories that treat the death and rebirth of Kal-El with more gravity.  And all of them, I have no doubt, feature at least ten times as much dialogue from Lois Lane—because the one time where these screenwriters already have something ready-made for Lois to do in these movies, they still sideline the character who, by rights, ought to be the third or fourth most important person in the whole movie.

Altogether, it is a horrible waste of potential.  However, it is not, I'll grudgingly grant, a slog, at least after a very bad and unsteady first half-hour.  Through the same mechanism that makes Justice League suck, it's also not all that hard to watch.  Sometimes, it's even "good."  Forced as they may be, it does have fun moments: a non-zero amount of solid superhero action; decent comedic beats; one legitimately hilarious bit that's both at once, wherein the Flash realizes that Superman, addled and violent in the wake of his resurrection, also has super-speed; and sometimes those splash-page images come along and make it look like Snyder might have woken up, too.  I'm thinking of a few other glimpses of the Flash, or a particular silhouette of Aquaman against a crashing wave, or... actually, that might be it.  Damn.

Justice League was shot by Fabian Wagner, and it shows what happens to Snyder without a good cinematographer to help him (though Wagner, being responsible for the two best-looking episodes of Game of Thrones by an enormously huge margin, would seem to have the raw talent).  On the other hand, who knows who shot what: one would like to believe that they can spot the Whedon reshoots by how boxily televisual (and just plain ugly) they are—they tend to be concentrated in the first thirty minutes, and some close-ups are so badly-framed they look accidentally cropped, the better to keep the backgrounds out-of-frame and cost-effective—but there's a lot of the movie that's like that, and a lot of the stuff that's almost certainly Snyder's looks terrible too.  (The movie is production designed like ass: every quotidian exterior looks like a LEGO playset with no LEGO figurines, almost every interior looks like temporary office space, and when it comes to the fantastic, there is nothing of Kirby's boldness, though Justice League's ideas are somehow even more logistically perplexing.)

It all leads me to believe that the rot had set in even before Whedon came aboard; it might be why he came aboard.  After spending half a billion dollars to make a pair of movies that were some of the most divisive things the Hollywood blockbuster factory's ever released—this, on top of Snyder's very name having become, even before Man of Steel, something of an Internet curse word—I can't imagine that our plagiarist auteur still had too many chips left to bargain with against his corporate keepers.  And thus it is easy—maybe too easy—for me to say, in my guise as a Snyder Apologist, that he was already done before he filmed the first frame of Justice League, his own vision reduced to a collection of executive notes that read, in the aggregate, "make a Marvel movie."  Whedon, having experience in exactly that, was just brought on to expedite matters; while maybe the Snyders' personal tragedy was just what got Zack to finally go home.

The result, of course, is certainly Marvelfied, albeit in all the worst ways, in the inconsequentiality of its story, in the interchangability of its parts.  I have no outsized love for the DC movies as a whole, but I have always rooted for them, because they represented a competitor, a counterprogram, a genuinely different take on superhero cinema.  (Though, like many, I also wish Suicide Squad didn't exist.  For the sake of the grand, overreaching statement I'm about to make, let us all please pretend that it does not.)

Even at their worst, the DCEU movies have always been about something: Man of Steel, the feelings of 9/11 processed as cosmic horror, complete with the yearning for a savior who saved us with humanity, and not strength alone; Batman v Superman, the sheer operatic indulgence of watching superheroes abstracted to their very essentials, clashing like darkness against light; Wonder Woman, the stark contrast between an idealized representation of femininity and the most tragic of Man's World's failures.  Justice League, on the other hand, can't even be about itself; and that just makes me sad.

Score:  4/10

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