Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Injustice for All: Justice League

Ezra Miller, Ben Affleck, and Gal Gadot in Justice League.

If awards were given out for excellence in setting the cinematic bar as low as possible, like some kind of bizarro-world Hollywood limbo contest, then Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice would have run away with all of them. Everything was in Justice League’s favour to succeed where its predecessor failed. This was it! This one was for all the marbles. The marketing was proud to show us a confident new direction for the DC Extended Universe that would diverge from the dour, mirthless tone of its previous films, offering a new way forward with colour and levity and likeable characters, which was totally their idea in the first place and not at all based on the success of those other crappy comic book movies. The news of the recent tragedy in director Zack Snyder’s personal life, horrible as it was, came with a silver lining for diehard fans in the form of replacement director Joss Whedon, who was sure to steer the ship into warmer waters by injecting the film with his trademark self-deprecating humour and wry character work. The stage was set for a proper course correction, and the opportunity was ripe to subvert the expectations of everyone in the audience with a working brain.

That Justice League – in which newcomers Cyborg (Ray Fisher), Aquaman (Jason Momoa), and The Flash (Ezra Miller) join the established trinity of Batman (Ben Affleck), Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), and the recently “deceased” Superman (Henry Cavill) – does manage to subvert expectations, but in the wrong direction, is a whole new kind of disappointing. I thought I was spent; I didn’t realize there was still enough gas left in the emotional tank for this movie to burn through in a single flatulent spurt of acceleration that ended with me wrapped around a telephone pole. I thought it would be impossible to be disappointed by Justice League. I was an idiot, apparently.

There’s not much to celebrate here, so let me get the good stuff out of the way first. The mad scramble for script rewrites, hasty reshoots, and shoehorned comedy elements do succeed in making Justice League feel like a goofy, stumbling cartoon, which instantly places it in a much more comfortable context than the brooding “real world” murk of the previous DCEU films. (Unfortunately, this comparison doesn’t do Justice League any favours, since nearly all of the actual DC cartoons are executed with twice the intelligence and style.) Several key players light up the screen with their presence, namely Gal Gadot (whose Wonder Woman is the DCEU’s sole triumph, a marriage of well-established character and inspired performance) and Jeremy Irons (who plays Alfred less like a doting butler and more like a stoic sentinel, tasked with upholding the legacy and honour of the house to which he’s forsworn). The scene in which Superman is brought back to life (baldly advertised in the film’s marketing, to my endless annoyance) is strangely compelling – Cavill’s intensely unlikeable Kal-El stumbles around shirtless, unable to tell friend from foe, his cold ferocity actually feeling emotionally appropriate for once; when he’s retconned later in the film as a beloved icon, rather than the reviled figure he was in Batman v Superman, Cavill attempts to sell us on a total personality change that comes across like Christopher Reeve on Ambien, which I must say was almost equally enjoyable.  Finally, the Amazons of Themyscira, portrayed with such vitality in Patty Jenkins’s Wonder Woman, are once again given a chance to demonstrate their courage and badassery as they work together to keep a mystical MacGuffin out of the hands of the film’s villain, Steppenwolf (Ciaran Hinds), in an exciting chase sequence set on the plains of their hidden isle. It was nice to just be with those women for a little while again.

Everything else in the film is a total wash. Justice League fails to engage on every level, be it narrative, emotional, or visual; the only noteworthy aural component is the return of Danny Elfman’s Batman theme, which couldn’t have felt less appropriate. It lifts its plot wholesale from Snyder’s Man of Steel (an invading alien despot wishes to terraform Earth to make it more like his own homeworld), which has the bizarre effect of making that reprehensible mess of a film look much better by comparison. New characters are hustled into the movie wielding paper-thin backstories that are delivered in awkward spurts of expository dialogue, and old characters are equally underserved with no expansion, growth, or deepening of their own stories or relationships. The visuals are shameful in their ugliness, fruitlessly cranking the colour saturation on the same drab, instantly forgettable grey-and-brown environments that typify Snyder’s films. The lifeless cinematography and plasticky, inauthentic digital imagery are frankly unbecoming of a multi-million-dollar blockbuster tentpole film, with a villain who looks like a video game character from the early 2000s and an already infamous CG moustache replacement for Cavill, whose contractual obligation to keep his facial hair intact for the upcoming Mission: Impossible 6 results in an unintentionally hilarious (and deeply distracting) Uncanny Valley effect on the upper lip of everyone’s favourite Kryptonian. The film’s attempts at quippy humour – often delivered in singe-character cutaways that are clearly the result of reshoots – fall flat when delivered by the exhausted, puffy Affleck or the irritating, puerile Miller. In fact, the only quip in the movie that got a laugh from me was delivered by Irons, as Alfred was expressing annoyance at the sudden appearance of new heroes he didn’t give a shit about – go figure. Justice League is much shorter than Batman v Superman at only two hours, but feels equally slack and ungainly. It blazes along at a breathless pace, never stopping to settle on an emotional beat or pause for a laugh, as if desperate to escape the problems with each scene by chasing them into the next. It’s not intolerable, the way BvS was, but it’s deathly boring – which is almost worse. 

Batman v Superman was an educational experience for me. It taught me a lot about what makes a bad movie tick, and how to manage the confusing emotions that swirl around it. It made me angry, and I found it instructive to examine how and why I responded that way. I suppose the key difference is that Justice League didn’t make me angry, it just made me tired. It’s an empty, airless film, offering neither the morbid fascination of a Suicide Squad, or the shallow junk-food pleasures of a Fast and/or Furious. Its bald-faced attempts at continued relevance in a market utterly dominated by its competitors feel hollow and lazy. This isn’t a plucky underdog fighting for a chance; this is a massive corporate conglomerate failing to understand how to use the properties at their disposal, and failing to execute on the basic elements of filmmaking that result in an enduring brand in which customers will feel happy to invest their time and money. These trends aren’t cute or funny to me anymore. They’re exhausting. I’m no longer learning anything by studying the behavior patterns of the dying beast – now I’m just watching it die, and it’s bumming me out.

– Justin Cummings is a narrative designer at Ubisoft Toronto, and has worked as a writer, blogger, and playwright since 2005. He has been a lifelong student of film, gaming, and literature, commenting on industry and culture since his childhood cinema first installed an arcade.

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