Skip to main content

I do… very competitive ice dancing.

Justice League
(2017)

(SPOILERS) Superheroes, and superhero movies, trade in hyperbole, so it shouldn’t be surprising that DC’s two releases this year have been responded to in like, only each at opposite ends of the spectrum. Wonder Woman was insanely over-praised in the rush to fete a female superhero finally leading a movie, crushing all nuanced criticism in its wake. Justice League, meanwhile, has been lambasted on the basis that it’s more of the same as Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, only worse – to the extent there have been calls for a Zach Snyder Director’s Cut, which is quite an extent, as extents go – as it’s guilty of being an unholy clash of styles, grimdark Zach scowling in one corner and quip-happy Joss pirouetting in the other. And yes, the movie is consequently a mess, but it’s a relatively painless mess, with the sense to get in and get out again before the viewer has enough time to assess the full extent of the damage.


The manner in which Justice League has been cut to the bone, excising anything that might be considered a subplot, with occasional scenes left here or there that might have amounted to genuine ones once – Martha Kent selling the ranch – put me in mind of other ruthlessly slaughtered turkeys that studios gutted and dumped in the forlorn hope of maximisng hiding-to-nothing box office through additional screenings per day. The Avengers, for example. That is, the 1998 big screen version of the British TV series. Justice League is duly replete with the necessary, expected elements – introducing the various team members, having them meet, squabble and finally unite as a very powerful CGI menace assembles an awesome object with which it plans to subdue, subjugate and overcome the planet – but they move by at such a clip there’s never a sense that anyone’s particularly keen on the story being told; they just want to get it over and done with and hope the takings are sufficient to call it evens.


Which is curiously appropriate to DC’s game plan, if you can discern a grand design to their hasty, catch-up cinematic universe, as Justice League is a two-hour equivalent of what Marvel, in their long-game wisdom, has taken half a decade to arrive at with their Infinity Stones. Both sport an oversized, all-CGI humanoid who looks pretty shit, let’s be honest (although Marvelheads will vehemently deny Thanos looks anything less than amazeballs), hunting down the items – Mother Boxes or Infinity Stones – that will confer ultimate power over all.


Ciaran Hinds plays Steppenwolf but deserves zero blame for how entirely forgettable the character is (I mean, really, the band would have been more threatening). His gibbering Parademons make more of an impact, although they reminded me unflatteringly of Katana’s imbecilic henchman in Highlander II: The Quickening.  Steppenwolf isn’t as ridiculous as David Thewlis’ head plastered onto a buff god of war in Wonder Woman, and he’s probably no worse when it comes down to it than a number of less than scintillating Marvel heroes (if we’re going to get into brand wars), but that doesn’t make him any more acceptable. No doubt, if the mentioned Darkseid ever makes an appearance, evidently planned as the focus of the now aborted Justice League 2, he’ll also be all-CGI, all-underwhelming.


The idea, I’m guessing, is that bad guys shouldn’t matter too much, as this is all about the team up. And to some extent, that isn’t wrong – I can’t say I remember the Chitauri, particularly – although the effectiveness of this quintet/sextet (depending on what point in the movie you’re at) is variable. Ezra Miller’s Barry Allen/ The Flash is easily the highlight of the picture. Barry has the most interesting arc – fearful and erratic in his skill set, learning to conquer one and hone the other – and he’s where Whedon’s po-mo dialogue and verbal diarrhoea actually fit the character. Much of that is down to Miller’s incredibly amiable, wired performance, hugely stoked to be with genuine superheroes and entirely humble about his own abilities. It’s inevitable that Whedon will reference Pet Sematary when talking about bringing Supes back from the grave, and have Barry worry that Cyborg will consider it “racially charged” when he offers a fist bump, but Miller’s giddy-geek-jacked-on-junk-food makes the material seem almost fresh.


If Ray Fisher can’t do much with Victor Stone/Cyborg, it’s because he’s encumbered on every level. The character occupies the realm of heightened body horror to an extent even Robocop was reluctant to explore, and it’s nigh impossible to move past that effectively into a breezier, more carefree superhero narrative. Early scenes do offer something of a sop, as he rebukes his father (Joe Morton) for turning him into a monster, but without that essential pain, all you have is a guy in a crap CGI outfit. And the CGI really is crap.


Jason Momoa’s boozehound-bro meathead Arthur Curry/Aquaman has plenty of personality, but unfortunately none of it is terribly appealing. I’m mildly interested to see how they’re intending to revolve a whole movie around him, as aside from a very Whedon scene in which he shares his feelings thanks to accidentally sitting on Diana’s Lasso of Truth, his whiff of alpha-dominance is faintly obnoxious (as for flying through the air killing Parademons: well, only Snyder could make something as ridiculous as that almost work). We briefly see his soggy undersea abode, and I’m none the wiser about any of it, particularly who Amber Heard is playing and why.


So it’s one hit against two misses for the newbies, which is the same ratio for those with whom we’re more familiar. Gal Gadot comes through the proceedings with dignity entirely intact, despite numerous arse-shots and an uptick in lowest common denominator impulses – Alfred, who clearly spends too much time on his own, talking up her potential to bachelor Bruce, Diana witheringly but indulgently noting she’s surrounded by boys rather than men – after the restraint of Wonder Woman.


Batfleck… Hang up the cape, Ben. The actor looks puffy and ill-at-ease when he isn’t in the suit, and when he (or his stunt double) is, there’s a consistent air of how ridiculous it is that his character is even attempting to impose himself on a situation where he’s entirely physically out of his depth (regardless of the number of wonderful toys he has). Indeed, it simply isn’t enough for Bruce to mention he’s already too old for this sort of thing, as we’re continually wondering why the hell he’s squatting on the edge of a girder from which he might trip and plummet to his death at any moment, or how shot his knees must be from repeatedly leaping great distances onto concrete. More damagingly, Affleck’s just plain uninteresting and uninterested. He brings nothing to the part aside from tepid competence.


In contrast, while I’d rather Henry Cavill didn’t stop being Supes, between his uncannily CGI-d out soup strainer, the incessant over-compensations for past sins against the character, and his rapid recovery from resurrection, he’d be forgiven for having had enough. The return from the grave is handled with almost amusing alacrity – at some point a subplot with a bad Supes in black was evidently dumped, on the reasonable basis that his character had already spent quite enough time glowering without yet suggesting him as discernibly Super-like – and not inconsiderable cluelessness; why didn’t the fledgling League simply bring Lois (or his mom) to see him straightaway? It would have saved multiple brutal beat downs. And then, it takes him a mere five minutes of standing around in a corn field and he’s good to go. Offhand doesn’t begin to cover it. Most wretchedly, Superman has a big old chuckle with Cyborg after defeating Steppenwolf, because, you see, Superman laughs now (see also his race with Barry; the guy’s really lightened up!) In the same vein, he refuses to stand idly by when there’s a bout city-wide destruction porn, breaking off defeating Steppenwolf to fly away and save a building full of people! Priorities, there. Ones that come across as pathetically pandering.


Justice League is every bit as garish and aesthetically distracting as the trailers suggested, but that’s Snyder’s palette of choice for you (albeit, as some comparable caps have shown, Whedon initiated significant regrading of the CGI action fest climax to make it look a little less two-tone). It’s also less frenetic than typical Snyder, probably partly because Danny Elfman’s not entirely sympathetic cues are married to the images instead of Hans Zimmer’s. 


I’m probably in the minority who considers the DC movies much of a muchness in that none of them are terrible good or straight up terrible – even Batman v Superman – and Justice League comfortably joins their ranks. While Justice League has abundant issues – and I’m not exactly itching to see whatever Lex Luther and a ridiculously bleach-blonde Deathstroke have planned next – there’s just enough Whedon pep and zip to make it a fun ride. Look, I’m fully cognisant of the guy’s creative shortcomings (putting his personal life to one side), and his undeniable talents with structure don’t really have a chance to come into play when attempting to “fix” a movie at such a late stage, meaning it’s his variable hit ratio with everyone-gives-good-gags approach to dialogue that’s to the fore (that or a moment where two characters tell each other what they’re feeling, laced with sexual innuendo, then giving a good gag), but he ensures this picture isn’t a slog. It’s probably been pruned more than was necessary, but there’s enough brio here to make the future of DC less foreboding.


Warner Bros isn’t happy, though. Very occasionally, perhaps not a silk purse but a fit-for-purpose wallet can be made out of a sow’s ear – World War Z was much better than it had any right to be, given the problems that plagued it, not least its director – so expecting miracles from course correcting Justice League by bringing in Whedon were unrealistic. And expecting audiences who’d been burned by Batman v Superman to rinse and repeat for something that appeared to nurse all the same complaints was likewise foolhardy. So they’re looking to restructure, but as long as they maintain the approach of wanting Marvel-level results “now” they’re probably continually set to stumble.


There’s a standalone Batman movie, unlikely to feature Batfleck, but the latest suggestion is that he will appear in the Barry Allen timeline reboot Flashpoint, which would make sense as an exit strategy, where WB/DC can pick and choose which characters they want to keep and who to recast (not that it really matters with a universe already as woollily built as this). Robert Zemeckis was being talked about for that one – he needs a hit – and Warners rightly perceives that Flash went down well in Justice League. On the other hand, they also seem to think Aquaman did. Well, they have to; his solo movie’s already in the can.



Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Your honor, with all due respect: if you're going to try my case for me, I wish you wouldn't lose it.

The Verdict (1982)
(SPOILERS) Sidney Lumet’s return to the legal arena, with results every bit as compelling as 12 Angry Men a quarter of a century earlier. This time the focus is on the lawyer, in the form of Paul Newman’s washed-up ambulance chaser Frank Galvin, given a case that finally matters to him. In less capable hands, The Verdict could easily have resorted to a punch-the-air piece of Hollywood cheese, but, thanks to Lumet’s earthy instincts and a sharp, unsentimental screenplay from David Mamet, this redemption tale is one of the genre’s very best.

And it could easily have been otherwise. The Verdict went through several line-ups of writer, director and lead, before reverting to Mamet’s original screenplay. There was Arthur Hiller, who didn’t like the script. Robert Redford, who didn’t like the subsequent Jay Presson Allen script and brought in James Bridges (Redford didn’t like that either). Finally, the producers got the hump with the luxuriantly golden-haired star for meetin…

He mobilised the English language and sent it into battle.

Darkest Hour (2017)
(SPOILERS) Watching Joe Wright’s return to the rarefied plane of prestige – and heritage to boot – filmmaking following the execrable folly of the panned Pan, I was struck by the difference an engaged director, one who cares about his characters, makes to material. Only last week, Ridley Scott’s serviceable All the Money in the World made for a pointed illustration of strong material in the hands of someone with no such investment, unless they’re androids. Wright’s dedication to a relatable Winston Churchill ensures that, for the first hour-plus, Darkest Hour is a first-rate affair, a piece of myth-making that barely puts a foot wrong. It has that much in common with Wright’s earlier Word War II tale, Atonement. But then, like Atonement, it comes unstuck.

Who are you and why do you know so much about car washes?

Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018)
(SPOILERS) The belated arrival of the Ant-Man sequel on UK shores may have been legitimately down to World Cup programming, but it nevertheless adds to the sense that this is the inessential little sibling of the MCU, not really expected to challenge the grosses of a Doctor Strange, let alone the gargantuan takes of its two predecessors this year. Empire magazine ran with this diminution, expressing disappointment that it was "comparatively minor and light-hitting" and "lacks the scale and ambition of recent Marvel entries". Far from deficits, for my money these should be regard as accolades bestowed upon Ant-Man and the Wasp; it understands exactly the zone its operating in, yielding greater dividends than the three most recent prior Marvel entries the review cites in its efforts at point scoring.

Dude, you're embarrassing me in front of the wizards.

Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
(SPOILERS) The cliffhanger sequel, as a phenomenon, is a relatively recent thing. Sure, we kind of saw it with The Empire Strikes Back – one of those "old" movies Peter Parker is so fond of – a consequence of George Lucas deliberately borrowing from the Republic serials of old, but he had no guarantee of being able to complete his trilogy; it was really Back to the Future that began the trend, and promptly drew a line under it for another decade. In more recent years, really starting with The MatrixThe Lord of the Rings stands apart as, post-Weinstein's involvement, fashioned that way from the ground up – shooting the second and third instalments back-to-back has become a thing, both more cost effective and ensuring audiences don’t have to endure an interminable wait for their anticipation to be sated. The flipside of not taking this path is an Allegiant, where greed gets the better of a studio (split a novel into two movie parts assuming a…

The simple fact is, your killer is in your midst. Your killer is one of you.

The Avengers 5.12: The Superlative Seven
I’ve always rather liked this one, basic as it is in premise. If the title consciously evokes The Magnificent Seven, to flippant effect, the content is Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None, but played out with titans of their respective crafts – including John Steed, naturally – encountering diminishing returns. It also boasts a cast of soon-to-be-famous types (Charlotte Rampling, Brian Blessed, Donald Sutherland), and the return of one John Hollis (2.16: Warlock, 4.7: The Cybernauts). Kanwitch ROCKS!

Never mind. You may be losing a carriage, but he’ll be gaining a bomb.

The Avengers 5.13: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Station
Continuing a strong mid-season run, Brian Clemens rejigs one of the dissenting (and departing) Roger Marshall's scripts (hence "Brian Sheriff") and follows in the steps of the previous season's The Girl from Auntie by adding a topical-twist title (A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum came out a year earlier). If this is one of those stories where you know from the first who's doing what to whom, the actual mechanism for the doing is a strong and engaging one, and it's pepped considerably by a supporting cast including one John Laurie (2.11: Death of a Great Dane, 3.2: Brief for Murder).

I freely chose my response to this absurd world. If given the opportunity, I would have been more vigorous.

The Falcon and the Snowman (1985)
(SPOILERS) I suspect, if I hadn’t been ignorant of the story of Christopher Boyce and Andrew Daulton Lee selling secrets to the Soviets during the ‘70s, I’d have found The Falcon and the Snowman less engaging than I did. Which is to say that John Schlesinger’s film has all the right ingredients to be riveting, including a particularly camera-hogging performance from Sean Penn (as Lee), but it’s curiously lacking in narrative drive. Only fitfully does it channel the motives of its protagonists and their ensuing paranoia. As such, the movie makes a decent primer on the case, but I ended up wondering if it might not be ideal fodder for retelling as a miniseries.

Everyone creates the thing they dread.

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
(SPOILERS) Avengers: Age of Ultron’s problem isn’t one of lack. It benefits from a solid central plot. It features a host of standout scenes and set pieces. It hands (most of) its characters strong defining moments. It doesn’t even suffer now the “wow” factor of seeing the team together for the first time has subsided. Its problem is that it’s too encumbered. Maybe its asking to much of a director to effectively martial the many different elements required by an ensemble superhero movie such as this, yet Joss Whedon’s predecessor feels positively lean in comparison.

Part of this is simply down to the demands of the vaster Marvel franchise machine. Seeds are laid for Captain America: Civil War, Infinity Wars I & II, Black Panther and Thor: Ragnarok. It feels like several spinning plates too many. Such activity occasionally became over-intrusive on previous occasions (Iron Man II), but there are points in Age of Ultron where it becomes distractingly so. …

You keep a horse in the basement?

The ‘Burbs (1989)
(SPOILERS) The ‘Burbs is Joe Dante’s masterpiece. Or at least, his masterpiece that isn’t his bite-the-hand-that-feeds-you masterpiece Gremlins 2: The New Batch, or his high profile masterpiece Gremlins. Unlike those two, the latter of which bolted out of the gate and took audiences by surprise with it’s black wit subverting the expected Spielberg melange, and the first which was roundly shunned by viewers and critics for being absolutely nothing like the first and waving that fact gleefully under their noses, The ‘Burbs took a while to gain its foothold in the Dante pantheon. 

It came out at a time when there had been a good few movies (not least Dante’s) taking a poke at small town Americana, and it was a Tom Hanks movie when Hanks was still a broad strokes comedy guy (Big had just made him big, Turner and Hooch was a few months away; you know you’ve really made it when you co-star with a pooch). It’s true to say that some, as with say The Big Lebowski, “got it” on fi…