Justice League: BOOYAH, or, how to exceed low expectations

Spoilers for Justice League and the greater DC Cinematic Universe are discussed in this post…

First of all, we need to discuss Zack Snyder (breakdown and review of Justice League follows).

I am bidding a not-so-fond farewell to the Snyderverse and its fanboys. I have defended Man of Steel, and Batman vs. Superman (to a point), and frankly, it’s exhausting. People just irrationally hate Snyder’s work, citing his film techniques, which is a ridiculous reason to hate a director. Likewise, the Snyder fanboys are ridiculous, countenancing no criticism, no matter how fair, on BvS or MoS. They incessantly post pictures evoking a “Saint Snyder” mythology on every BvS or DCEU-critical piece. I’m tired of their whining, and I’m tired of defending what is legitimately sub-par work because people can’t get past the term “grimdark.” There is nothing essentially wrong with gritty and dark, notably Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy and the Marvel Netflix shows are great examples of how this can work really well. We should judge Snyder fairly on the merits of his work, not just how his films look. But let’s examine Snyder’s role in getting us to where we are now, and why his films have disappointed.

zack snyder

Snyder has a distinct vision and style, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. In fact, judging by the reaction to one of his first really big films and probably his best, 300, people really enjoyed it. He uses dark colors, washed out palettes, and super slow-motion (to an almost comical extent). His style was very unique when he began his major film career, but as we saw, quickly played out. Snyder’s vision is true to what he wants as a director, however, it’s not what audiences want all the time.

The biggest criticism of Snyder’s next big film,Watchmen, seems to be that it was too true to the original work. Sucker Punch was likewise criticized (along with the highly suggestive nature of the costumes of characters who, by all rights, were mental patients) for following too closely to its source material. When Man of Steel came along, audiences were already tiring of Snyder’s shtick.  In reaction, Snyder seemed to overcorrect, deconstructing Clark Kent as more of a disaffected youth. Audiences and critics hated it, but mostly because it wasn’t their Superman. Not Christopher Reeves. Not Tom Welling. Not even Brandon Routh (who was delightful and perfect as Clark Kent).

And then Superman killed Zod! “Superman doesn’t kill!” is the common refrain expressed by those who are not familiar with the comic book version of the character. The problem here is reconciling a general movie audience’s expectations of a character with how the character is actually written. Most people had never read Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns and were baffled by Batman having guns and taking on a super-powered alien. But for the movie going audiences, Henry Cavill’s Superman had crossed a line that he’d never be able to erase, and that needs to be taken into account. Personally, I enjoyed Man of Steel (except for the Pa Kent tornado scene, just…no, it’s too ridiculous, Snyder doesn’t understand how to create emotional stakes in his films, let’s ignore it), I think some of the character work was exceptional. Lois Lane (Amy Adams) was shown to be a capable, clever, and brave reporter. Clark learned and grew from his experiences. Laurence Fishburne was perfect as Perry White, who, like all comic book newspaper editors, speaks only in headlines. I liked seeing some snippets from Krypton, and I liked Russell Crowe’s Jor-El. The third act sagged and turned into a typical CGI-fest throwdown of destruction and chaos, but at least it had consequences. But mainly, MoS lacked hope and heart, and Clark never became the hero we deserved.

WB, not learning its lesson, continued to engage Snyder when he suggested that the next film play off Frank Miller’s Batman in The Dark Knight Returns, which is admittedly a really interesting idea. Batman is older and angrier. He and Supes have a severe difference of opinion on how fighting crime should happen, fisticuffs ensue. People who aren’t familiar with the “Batman rule” questioned Bat’s ability to beat Superman. I recently re-watched Batman vs. Superman, and to me it still remains overall a pretty good bit of filmmaking (not a good film though). It has a vision, the camera work is solid. It certainly lacks subtlety. Batfleck is angry. Supes is sad (because some people don’t like him). At least Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman is glorious in every single scene she’s in, even when she’s just staring at emails. But what the hell happened with Lex Luthor (Mark Zuckerberg Jessie Eisenberg)?! Lex, whom I had given a pass to when I first watched BvS because I appreciate trying something different with a character that’s been played so many times (see also: Jared Leto’s Joker), really is the thorn in the side of the film. Don’t get me wrong, the narrative of the rest of the movie is so convoluted it’s practically useless, but it’s all wrapped around Lex’s weird plans so we have to spend a lot of time with him. Superman’s B-plot (bb-plot? I don’t know, there were like 17 plots) introduced a character who was apparently mad at Supes for the damage to Metropolis and his loss of legs, and is also mad at Bruce Wayne for not stopping Superman (or knowing his name, which is a bizarre ask from a corporate CEO). If I wasn’t familiar with the comics and animated versions of these stories I would have been lost when the parademons were introduced in the “Knightmare” sequence, apparently a flash-forward/Flashpoint vision.  The scene was really incredible, but where did it actually fit into this film? Additionally, the introduction of the other metas was clunky. Why is Doomsday in this movie? And that cringe-worthy Martha moment makes me sad every single time I think of it.

There’s a lot to criticize about BvS. But I’ll never criticize a movie for not matching MY internal understanding of what a character is. There are fundamental elements that must be taken into account, for example, Batman is a genius, master martial artist, single-minded force of nature, and basically cannot be beaten (with prep time, as the joke goes), dresses like a bat, has a few extra pennies to rub together. Superman is a boy scout, patriotic, fundamentally American, and a beacon of justice and heroism for humanity. Wonder Woman is strength, love, and hope. How you move on from there is up to the writer, artist, or director. Deborah Snyder told critics  invited to the London set of Justice League that they learned from BvS that people don’t like their heroes deconstructed. Fair, but I’d argue they also don’t like to see them re-defined. Therefore, what we’ve learned over several films is that though Snyder is visually engaging, he’s not a great writer or acting director.

He does seem to have some talent or luck with casting. Batfleck is surprisingly good, Gal Gadot is a breath of fresh air (I was an early detractor of her casting). Henry Cavill is going to be great if he’s ever given the opportunity to stretch.

Aquaman
Making Aquaman cool again required Jason Momoa

To sum up, Snyder is more successful with direct adaptations, not films in which he was given artistic license over the characters and stories.

Snyder, as we know, was sidelined from post-production of Justice League, sadly due to a death in his family. Joss Whedon was already working on scripts for re-shoots and had been tapped by WB to direct a Batgirl film, so it was natural to ask him to step in and finish up JL. And in this case, it might have been its saving grace. Though early cuts showed lighter moments in trailers, and early snippets shown to critics seemed to resonate well, the extensive reshoots started up another host of rumors. We know from past experience that when Snyder diverts from the original work he’s adapting, problems crop up in plot, narrative, and dialogue. Whedon, on the other hand, is known to be a punchy and engaging writer. Were the extensive reshoots an overhaul of the original film?

The current state of the DC Extended Universe (as opposed to the television Arrowverse) is a 1-3 record. Man of Steel, Batman vs. Superman, and Suicide Squad were all critical duds, and missed financial expectations.  Wonder Woman, however, showed the world that not only could the DCEU succeed, it could be brilliant. It could inspire girls and women, and everyone, around the world. Gal Gadot proved to be the perfect Diana Prince, at once confident and naive, beautiful and badass. And the film world got an equally badass female director in Patty Jenkins. This team is now, intentionally or not, commanding the WB brass. Jenkins negotiated a significant pay raise. Gadot requested Brett Ratner be removed from financing the Wonder Woman sequel. Geoff Johns is finally at the helm of the DC Cinematic Universe, and he knows where his future lies. I expect we’ll see a soft reboot of the DCEU in the image of Wonder Woman, starting with James Wan’s Aquaman. While the studio shuffles things around, we’re seeing the Shazam! cast come together, and the re-establishment of the Flash movie, now Flashpoint (a Geoff Johns’ joint), as a key element of the universe. We’re expecting more news about the Nightwing and Batgirl films soon, hope for a Teen Titans film, Wonder Woman 2, a Superman sequel, and Matt Reeve’s The Batman is already in pre-production (despite rumors surrounding Ben Affleck’s potential exit). The future is looking a little brighter for the DC films.

So what about Justice League? Originally two movies, eventually the product of two directors? How did that turn out?

BOOYAH.

Justice League is a bright, fun step forward for the DC films. It’s significantly better than BvS, but nowhere near as good as Wonder Woman. On a scale of Suicide Squad to Winter Soldier/Guardians of the Galaxy, it’s Age of Ultron+.

The villain is pretty bland and villain-esque…world domination, gather the mother boxes, destroy the pitiful humans, yada, yada, yada. He’s basic. The movie is zippy as hell, moving quickly from one scene to the next without much break in the action. The pacing feels like it may be the result of some severe editing. Some of the dialogue is clunky.

But it’s fun as hell.

Teamwork! (The red skies are a “Crisis” reference from the comics.)

The characters develop nicely and naturally, leveling up to Hero when they each see how their individual worlds are threatened. They initially rub each other the wrong way, as heroes do, but coalesce quickly as a team. Each character is recognizable from the comics or animated versions, even Mera’s (Amber Heard) brief appearance reminded me of the animated series.

I wish we could have spent more time with Aquaman and Cyborg, but we know we’ll get more Aquaman in his solo outing, and I hope to see Ray Fisher’s Cyborg in the Teen Titans movie. We get a few hints into what the Aquaman has been up to, which is mostly drinking things and saving people, awesomely (with background guitars). The Atlantis CGI wasn’t quite up to par yet either, everything looked fine but it was definitely too dark. Mera creating an air bubble to speak to Arthur wasn’t encouraging either. But one of the smartest things WB and Snyder and company did was to cast Jason Momoa as Arthur Curry. He may not look like the traditional Aquaman, but the character needed a rather serious public image overhaul.

talk to fish.png
“I hear you talk to fish.”

Cyborg is the appropriate level of existentially grumpy about his current situation somewhere between man and machine before he joins the team. Diana helps Victor realize his “gifts” will help him redefine his existence and make him a hero. With the help of his grafted motherbox-tech body, Cyborg comes up with the plan to resurrect Superman. His plan made sense within the context of BvS, in that they used the same tech that had resurrected Zod as Doomsday. After a year and a half of theorizing how Supes would come back it was something of a letdown, even though it made narrative sense. A little Kryptonian technology, some direction from the motherboxes, and a lot of power from Barry, brought Clark blazing back to life.

cyborg
I have no idea how to drive this thing.

Ezra Miller is so much fun as Barry Allen, aka The Flash. Not at all like Grant Gustin’s competent and buoyant counterpart on the small screen, this Barry is here for every second of this experience. Justice League may have made me finally enjoy Ezra Miller, whom I’ve never considered a particularly skilled actor. His weirdness gave Barry a naive and innocent quality. Barry Allen in the comics is a bit of a blank slate, it’s nice to see him get some personality. He’s excited to meet Batman, he’s entranced by Diana, and a little afraid of Aquaman and Cyborg. He’s actually afraid of a lot of things (including bugs) and he’s super clumsy. Miller’s natural charisma and twitchy expressions do him a lot of good here. You can also tell Barry immediately loves being a hero even if it’s against his nature, but the look of awe after the first time he saves someone nearly induces happy-tears.

flash jl
Afraid of bugs.

And if you’re one of those who complained about the state of Cyborg’s and Flash’s costumes, fear not. These heroes are at the beginning of their respective stories, Cyborg gets an upgrade by the (very) end of the film as he gains more control over his new body, looking a little more like his comics and animated counterparts, and I’d be willing to bet we’ll see Flash’s uniform evolve from the scrounged-up-parts-held-together-with-wire look in Flashpoint, or wherever he pops up next. Even Aquaman is going to have to work to upgrade to his trident.

Diana grapples with becoming a leader and a public hero. Bruce goads her, and prods her with memories of Steve Trevor (earning him a deserved solid rib punch, ouch!) to give up her reclusive heroic ways. Her early scene saving a group of hostages from a terror group is visually stunning and fun to watch. The world needs Wonder Woman.

And we get our Superman back. Not Snyder’s mopey, angry Superman, but a happy, heroic, joking Supes who describes his resurrection as, “itchy,” and is pretty happy to be alive again. Some reviewers seem unnerved by the CGI removal of his mustache, but I didn’t notice it and I was looking for it. I was annoyed by the CGI General Tarkin in Rogue One, it was far too uncanny valley for me, but this didn’t trigger any dislike even from sitting one row too close in an IMAX theater. But let’s all agree that making Whedon and WB work around facial hair was a dick move by Christopher McQuarrie and Paramount pictures.

The fight scenes were really fun, even the big boss showdown at the end with Steppenwolf. The flashback sequence to Steppenwolf’s first attempt to colonize the earth was gorgeous. We got to see the Amazon, Atlanteans, Humans, and the Old Gods (including a pre-fall Ares) alongside a Green Lantern force the hostile aliens off the planet. The League vs. Steppenwolf and the parademons under Gotham Harbor was likewise brilliant, and allowed Aquaman to make a dramatic (and useful) entrance.  The scene in which Barry taps Diana’s sword back to her isn’t any less impressive after having seen it in all the trailers. Barry really begins to develops as a hero here. When Superman’s return set off Cyborg’s defenses it leads to a League v. Supes showdown. The highlight being Barry’s attempt to help being thwarted by Clark who can easily clock his super fast approach. Eventually, Bats brings in the “big guns,” and calls for Lois, who manages to calm Clark faster than his friends ever could. Supes may have been initially annoyed to be brought back to life, but he quickly reconciled that with Lois and his mother, even telling Cyborg later, “I really like being alive.” The parademons, unlike Steppenwolf, worked well and were really cool (and terrifying), and I would have loved to see more humans being transformed to up the stakes for the team.

The final battle vs. Steppenwolf showcased each member of the League’s strengths. Batman’s initial plan was to lure the parademons away from Steppenwolf’s headquarters, but Wonder Woman realizes he’s not going to make it and sends the team to rescue him instead of following the plan. She made the call to keep her team together, showing her willingness to finally step into leadership. Bats and Barry focus on keeping the parademons away from Cyborg as he attempts to break the motherboxes apart. Arthur and Diana focus on Steppenwolf, and eventually Supes joins them. A common complaint of Superman is that he’s too powerful (these critics seem to forget that Wonder Woman, Aquaman, and the Lanterns (and Wolverine) tend to be his equals in strength and power), but this is what the character was designed for, to take down these galactic supervillains. However, Diana takes down Steppenwolf (as the daughter of a God) while Cyborg and Superman separate the motherboxes.

Parademon_JL
Oh hello, nightmare fuel! The parademons were scary, and cool, as hell.

I was bummed we didn’t get a “seventh” member of the League (from the earlier marketing of the film, “Unite the Seven”) whom we had been theorizing would be a Lantern. But we did see a Green Lantern fighting parademons in the beautiful flashback to Steppenwolf’s first attempt to conquer earth. Apparently, that fallen Lantern was Yalan Gur, an important part of their history. Geoff Johns has promised a Green Lantern Corps movie, so we’ll hopefully see an update to their story. There’s also rumbling that J’onn J’onzz (the Martian Manhunter) will join the gang in a sequel.

It’s clear that Joss Whedon had a lot of influence over this film. As somebody who has studied the Whedonverse for years, his fingerprints are everywhere, particularly in dialogue. He clearly wrote the Lois and Clark scene, it seems to me he also re-worked quite a bit of the final battle (confirmed by complaints about Clark’s jawline). I’m pretty sure he wrote both post-credits sequences too.

Danny Elfman’s score is appropriately epic, and if you listen carefully you’ll hear his Batman theme from the 1989 film, and John Williams’ score from Superman. Whedon brought Elfman in to score the film, replacing Junkie XL, probably a significant improvement. We did still get Junkie XL and Gary Clark Jr.’s version of “Come Together,” and “Iggy Thump” still made it in to tell us that Aquaman is definitely a badass (ok, ok, we get it, Aquaman’s cool now!).

Mid-credits sequence: jump for joy for the nearly traditional inclusion of the Flash vs. Superman(/girl) race! Flash definitely had a little confidence built up at the end of the film, and challenging Big Blue to a race shows he’s overcome his nerves as a hero. It would have been nice to see more growth from Barry, and spend more time with Clark as a mentor to the young hero (if I had everything I wanted in this movie it would be nine hours long), but this was something of a nod to the fans.

Post-credits sequence: OH JOE MANGANIELLO, YOU OLD SO AND SO. You had us going. Playing us for fools, “gee, I don’t know if I’ll be playing Deathstroke.” Well, somebody wanted to make sure he did (smart money’s on Whedon), and also toned down Lex’s flamboyance, and set us up for a sequel to Justice League or a Batman film. Deathstroke was looking a little old, and Bats was looking a little beat up and tired. With Batfleck’s public comments about his willingness to leave the character behind, and Matt Reeves’ revealing he’s already looking for a new Bat, we might soon see the end to our Batfleck. Geoff Johns has crushed the fan theory that Flashpoint might reset the timeline (dammit Barry!) to give us a new Bruce Wayne, so it could be a simple replacement casting…OR (*wild speculation*) Dick Grayson will soon be entering the cinematic universe alongside his colleagues. Perhaps Nightwing will be donning the iconic cape and cowl. I would like to add that I hope they continue to keep Lex’s flamboyance to a minimum, and remind him that he is the villain of this story.

Justice League was fun, bright, and a step in the right direction for the DC cinematic universe. I went in with low expectations, and came out quite happy with the result. DC films are working from a floor in the ratings department, they don’t have the built in slack we give to the MCU flicks, their hurdles are much more difficult to overcome. Which is why a film like JL with the same positives and negatives as a mid-range Marvel film can end up with a significantly lower Rotten Tomatoes score. Wonder Woman proved DC could do these characters justice, Justice League promises a move away from Zack Snyder’s dour outlook in Batman vs. Superman. Perhaps Jor-El’s prophecy applies to their fortunes as well, “…they will stumble, they will fall. But in time, they will join you in the light.”

So we bid adieu, one last time, to Zack Snyder’s overriding influence on the DC Cinematic Universe. He’ll continue on as executive producer and producer in future films, but his touch will be considerably lighter.  All hail the Geoff Johns and Patty Jenkins era. Bring on Aquaman.  RIP Snyderverse.

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