Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Justice League

With Toasty taking an internet hiatus I better pull up my socks and post with regularity.  He's been keeping this thing floating for a couple years now, suppose it's my turn.  Come back soon David, I'm tired already...
2017, d. Zack Snyder (*cough*andJossWhedon*cough*)

Is this the real life, or is this just fantasy
Caught in a landslide, no escape from reality
The biggest problem Justice League had facing it was everything that Zack Snyder established before it.  Man of Steel was a big enough problem on its own: Snyder produced a decently interesting film, but his fundamental lack of understanding/dislike of the character made for a terrible Superman movie, one where a beacon of hope and altruism became a dour, glowering, brooding, put-upon Christ-like figure.  For the sequel, rather than tone shifting, Snyder basically doubled down on the brooding otherness of Superman, and pitted this sickeningly gloomy version of the character against a bitter and broken Batman.  If there's a bright spot to the 150+ minute Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justiceit was Gal Gadot's Wonder Woman, something even more recognizable when Wonder Woman finally got her own film on the big screen (in fact the only not great part of Wonder Woman was the wholly unnecessary prologue/epilogue that shoehorned it back into the Snyder-verse).

The events of Man of Steel are integral to the plot of Batman V Superman, and likewise the events of Batman V Superman are integral to the plot of Justice League.  But Warner Brothers, following the wild success of Wonder Woman, and the critical lambasting of every other DC Comics-centric film they have made, determined Justice League needed to course correct...and since Justice League had already finished principle photography by that point, it was like making a U-turn on a cliffside highway.  Snyder had a vision for a 3-hour Justice League acting as "Part 1" set-up for an even greater "Part 2" menace.  The 3 hour run time would have given enough time to properly introduce three core members to the cast in Cyborg, Aquaman and Flash (as well as establish their own smaller realities and supporting casts) while also running through the gathering of the team and (blowing yet another possible Superman solo outing) shoehorning in the rebirth of Superman. 

By the time Snyder left the project (due to a personal tragedy) this past summer, he had already expressed that Justice League would be lighter AND that it was no longer going to be a two-parter.  When Warner Bros. brought in Joss Whedon as a replacement to handle the reshoots, everyone became very aware that the Warners were likely undercutting, if not attempting to eschew entirely the Snyder aesthetic.  The film that made it to theatres bears that out.

Justice League is a hot mess.  It's a film that's less cobbled together than stripped down.  Gone is the 3-hour runtime, in place is a rather brisk 1h 50 (plus 10 minutes of credits).  The film opens with the world facing the weight of Superman's death (though what it signifies completely flies in the face of what Snyder established in films previous), it tries to catch us up on Batman, Wonder Woman and Lois Lane some time later, but it's all quite rushed.  There's no time to think about the weight of prior events, something else is happening. 

All the dream sequences and all the foreshadowing of Batman V Superman were not for naught, but almost for naught.  They have no real weight or relevance in this film.  What was supposed to be a tried and true sequel now feels like the cinematic equivalent of a U.S. politician distancing themselves from a campaign aide who was discovered to have ties to Russia.  They would just rather you forget about the past altogether, but it's hard when the past keeps creeping into the film.  Despite only having 4 months to reshoot, edit, score and animate, I'd guess about anywhere from 1/4 to 1/3 of the film is made up of the reshoots, so there's totally a rushed feeling to this at times.  I'm sure if this had been all Whedon's vision it would have been completely distanced affair from Batman V Superman.  Likewise if this had been all Snyder's vision, it would have been much more polished (and utterly laborious).

What Whedon brings to the table is an understanding of comic book superheroes and what makes them fun. Snyder wants them to be capital-i "Important" while Whedon mostly thinks you should enjoy their adventures.  What Whedon also brings to the table is relentless quipping.  Every damn character now has quips edited in as asides (Batman has far too many, and while it humanizes Bruce Wayne, it demystifies Batman), to the point where it's always obvious and often annoying (it was pointed out to me that these were probably extracted from longer scenes in the editing process).  Ezra Miller's Flash is almost all quips, with not much else to his character.  At the same time, I appreciate his enthusiasm.

Whedon also brings us a Superman we actually recognize.  Death was probably the best thing to happen to Snyder's Superman, because he came back a much happier, sunnier, uncannily-vallier person.  Almost every scene of Superman is obviously from the reshoots, as evidenced by the now infamous CGI mustache-mask (Cavill was working on the latest Mission Impossible as the villain when the reshoots call came in, and the MI producers refused to let him shave it, so the producers had to edit it out with not enough time to make it look anywhere close to natural).  But in spite of Superman's creepy upper lip, damn, this is the Superman we've wanted Henry Cavill to be for 6 years now.

In fact all the main Justice Leaguers wind up coming out of this okay.  Everyone's getting the short shrift, here, especially supporting cast, but of the main team there's enough there to like, and even want more of.  The same can't be said for the villain, however.  Steppenwolf might as well just be a sharknado that the Justice League is fighting, he's just a force of nature.  There's no personality, no defining traits, nothing remotely close to drive or real motivation beyond plot necessity, and almost no emotional connection for the characters.  Think of the worst of the Marvel Cinematic Universe villains... he's right in league with them, and probably beneath them. 

It's almost the worst case scenario.  While it would have been awful to have two bloated, Snyder-directed Justice League movies, at the same time at least it would be presented as a whole saga alongside Man of Steel and Batman V Superman.  No matter how bad it was, at least the vision would be fulfilled.  Like, imagine if Guy Ritchie stepped in for Christopher Nolan to complete The Dark Knight Rises... it's a flawed series but the consistency of vision makes up for it.  I don't even like Snyder's vision, and somehow I still kind of wish it were allowed to be completed.  Because otherwise we get this, where Steppenwolf, meant as the set-up for Darkseid, but is now just a generic nobody that closes out half of the damn point of Batman V Superman with such a whimper.

Justice League isn't a film you suffer through -- it's actually somehow kind of fun -- but I've been waiting for a Justice League film for almost 40 years (and others have waited much longer than I), and this is just barely serviceable.  This is a starting point, albeit a highly unfortunate one.  This is the WB recognizing that they were wrong and course correcting.  They messed up Superman, twice, they messed up Green Lantern, they've messed up the Joker, and they damn nearly messed up the Justice League (the box office is so underwhelming that, in reality, they did mess it up).  If it weren't for the resounding success of Wonder Woman (and the fact they have an Aquaman feature already finished shooting), I'd be certain they would plan yet another universe reboot in two years time.  But they're committed now.  They so desperately wanted to play catch up with Marvel that they've done just about everything wrong.  The fact is, even with the Wonder Woman/Justice League course correction, the entire DC Cinematic Universe is situated on an foundation that will always taint it.  No matter how good it might get (and let's be realistic, the odds are kind of against it getting really good), it's going to still have Man of Steel, Batman V Superman, Suicide Squad, and, yes, Justice League to answer for.*

(*unless the Flash-based "Flashpoint" movie completely reboots the Universe)