Sunday, November 19, 2017

Motivations, Not Origins - Justice League, Reviewed

Justice League, the long-awaited, somewhat dreaded cinematic interpretation of DC Comics premiere super-team, features some divergent takes on some of the characters it introduces, most notably Aquaman and The Flash. Aquaman is no longer a clean-cut square in orange and green fish-scale tights, but a long-haired and rebellious loner, at home neither on the surface nor under the sea, but oozing personal confidence and no small degree of sex appeal. Flash is not a fully matured man of science, but an Asbergerian teen dealing with both physical and social awkwardness as he comes to grips with his own considerable abilities, literally tripping up when he can least afford it. In some ways, the Flash's progression can perhaps be seen as a reflection of these first stumbling steps of the DC Extended Universe (DCEU), Time-Warner's answer to the far more successful and satisfying Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Everyone, is entitled to some missteps. Also, every studio, every creator, every manager of character-based intellectual property. Justice League, though flawed, corny, and in most ways inferior to what we are now accustomed to seeing from their competition, is an entertaining film that gives some long-established and much-beloved characters a chance to plant their feet and regain their balance after staggering out of the gate with an initial slate that was weaker than anticipated.

This is by no means intended as a slight against Wonder Woman, as either character that was the best of of Batman Vs. Superman, or the movie that successfully defibrillated the DCEU. Justice League makes great use of the momentum and positive energy built up by WW and builds upon it with a team motif.

In fact, one of my favourite things about JL is that an opening scene makes the Amazons of Themiscyra look even more badass than they did in their initial appearance in Wonder Woman. There is a genuine sense of risk, sacrifice, dedication and most of all, teamwork, as Queen Hippolyta leads her sisterhood in a knock-down, drag-out game of keepaway. It is a desperate struggle to keep one of three matter-transforming alien supercomputers known as maguffins - I mean, Motherboxes - out of the hands of Steppenwolf, the leader of an invading army of parademons, and say what you will about director Zack Snyder, but the man knows how to direct an action sequence.

Due to a family tragedy, Snyder was unable to complete the filming, and new DCEU colleague Joss Whedon (on deck to write and direct the upcoming Batgirl movie) was called in to finish the job. Whedon also wrote some new material for the film, earning himself a a screenplay credit, and, I suspect, humanizing the characters somewhat. I'm not sure we will ever know, however, as he is a good team player, and no one else is willing to go on record yet as saying, “This here was Snyder’s bit,” or “That part was all Whedon.” For my money though, Whedon’s thumbprints show up in the fractious formation of the team, the snippy comments and whimsical asides, but also in the reverence for the lives of innocents, something a lot of viewers (myself included) felt was missing from both Man of Steel and BvS.

For all the improvements though, Justice League still wears its flaws way out on its skintight sleeves where everyone can see them. As beloved as these characters are, you are never allowed to forget that their owners are in fact corporate, profit-driven entities, not artists. Nowhere is this made more evident to me than in the brutalist approach to product placement for Mercedes-Benz, highlighted by a pre-movie advertisement featuring the principal characters, just in case you miss the cars in the film itself.

And there is no chance of that: Bruce Wayne's roadster, a sleek silver coupe that is at least as distinctive as Bruce Wayne’s other ride, lingers lovingly in the viewfinder, the three-pointed star logo forming the focal point of the shot in a way that the bat-symbol worn by Ben Affleck can only hope to match. And while it makes perfect sense for a billionaire to drive such an ostentatious ride, seeing Gal Gadot step out of a Mercedes sedan as Wonder Woman’s alter ego felt far too opportunistic, at least to me.

At a crisp running time of two hours, there isn't a lot of time to introduce and develop three new characters (Flash, Aquaman and Cyborg), so some of that has to lay by the wayside. But fear not! They are each getting their own spin-off films, something which does not arise from intriguing heroes presented on screen that the audience is clamouring for more of, but is instead mandated by corporate fiat. The major beats are all touched upon though, as different as they are from their origins in the comics.

The weakest link is probably Cyborg, the only character in the batch whose origin I read off the spinner racks as an adolescent (1980, Teen Titans Vol. 1, #1), and he serves as both expositional reference and a Swiss Army knife for the plot. Commandeer a one-of-a-kind vehicle? You got it. Physically Interface with Kryptonian technology in two fewer attempts than it takes most of us to correctly insert a USB plug? No sweat!

On the plus side though, updating his origin to incorporate the Motherbox is a smart play, and adds a degree of discomfort that the body-horror of a full-body prosthetic just doesn't carry like it once did. Instead, Cyborg complains of having a language in his head that he does not speak (creepy!), and which undermines the confidence of his teammates.

From a nerd's point of view, there are a few points to discuss as well: I took a personal dislike to the more armoured appearance of The Flash, especially around the neck. And how is that supposed to get crammed into a ring for a future movie for heaven's sake? The tv series with Grant Gustin wins this one. And Aquaman's pentadent really does look more like a hayfork than a symbol of office. Also, I know Bruce Wayne likes to get his hands dirty and invents a lot of his own tech, but the idea of his wrenching up a transport vehicle the size of a C5 Galaxy is a bit much, even for me.

Bear in mind there are ten credited writers on this movie, bringing to mind the old jape of defining a camel as ‘a horse designed by committee’.Story-wise, there really isn't all that much to Justice League, and Steppenwolf is neither a sympathetic or particularly intriguing villain despite being portrayed in motion capture by Ciaran Hinds of HBO’s Rome and Game of Thrones. But does any of that really matter?

Justice League, in both the comics and the movies, is about teamwork, as it should be. It is about strength through diversity. It reinforces that one person, even Superman, cannot do it all, and that maybe the best man for a job is a woman. It blends together both legendary superheroes with somewhat lesser known (Cyborg) or less popular (Aquaman) ones. It mixes established Holllywod actors (Affleck) and more recent discoveries (Gadot) with relative unknowns (Ray Fisher and Ezra Miller).

If not for the overarching corporate need for a larger mythology and ongoing narrative to drive sequels and spin-offs, a Justice League story mightn't require much of a plot, or any villain at all, frankly. Is it so hard to imagine a story about a group of disparate but gifted people coming together to overcome a natural disaster? Isn't the meat of such a tale to be found in the interactions between the principals and not in the blows and banter shared with their adversaries?

In short order, what I appreciated most about Justice League is:
  • These beloved characters felt like they were properly treated, some for the very first time (yes, even sexy hipster Aquaman who causes my wife to sigh audibly).
  • Every one of them gets an opportunity to look cool.
  • Almost every one of them gets to be vulnerable too (the Mark of Whedon? Possibly.).
  • The focus is on saving the innocent, not just beating up bad guys.
  • When the bad guys do get beat up, it looks great, as do most of the action sequences.
  • They don't make too big a deal of the fact that Steppenwolf, hardly a legendary villain from the comics, has a far more frightening boss who we can be assured we will meet in a future installment.
  • Where many comic adaptations muse about how to become more 'grounded' or 'accessible', Justice League leans into the larger-then-life aspects of its source material, resulting in perhaps the comic-bookiest of comic book movies to date.
  • Best of all, despite the fact that the spin-offs and sequels are a mathematical surety at this point, I felt like I was watching a complete movie, and not just a trailer for the next installment (I'm looking at you, Batman v. Superman)

At this point, I would normally attempt to assess how much relevance or appeal Justice League might have for the non-nerdy audience, many of whom will be encountering some of the League’s charter members for the very first time, but you know what? The ‘Trinity’ of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman is so beloved and well-established in popular culture that almost everyone has a longing for and a vested interest in their positive portrayal.

Like this film’s iteration of The Flash, the DCEU has taken its share of slips, stumbles and downright falls in its early days, from an overbearing and unnecessarily dark tone to some brutal mischaracterizations. With Justice League, the rehabilitation of this universe which began with Wonder Woman continues apace, and like Superman’s chest symbol, the hope continues to endure.


  1. Justice League opens here this week, so I'm hoping to see it soon!

    Just one little quibble...I don't think that Ezra Miller is an unknown! He's been in Perks of Being a Wallflower, We Need to Talk About Kevin, and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. I've been watching him since his time on Royal Pains!!

  2. Fair point, well made! The biggest one of those hadn't been cast when he was announced as Barry Allen, so it still felt like he came out of nowhere to me. He is one of the best things in the movie though, so I hope you enjoy it!

  3. Did not see the movie yet, but your take will definitely make the movie much more enjoyable since I know what to look out for. Thanks Stephen!