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-[Film Reviews]-, Hollywood, NORTH AMERICAN CINEMA

‘Justice League’ (2017): The Blockbuster That Pleased Nobody

Directed by: Zack Snyder || Produced by: Charles Roven, Deborah Snyder, Jon Berg, Geoff Johns

Screenplay by: Chris Terrio, Joss Whedon || Starring: Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Gal Gadot, Ezra Miller, Jason Momoa, Ray Fisher, Jeremy Irons, Diane Lane, Connie Nielsen, J. K. Simmons

Music by: Danny Elfman || Cinematography: Fabian Wagner || Edited by: David Brenner, Richard Pearson, Martin Walsh || Country: United States || Language: English

Running Time: 118 minutes

Joining the ranks of high-profile Hollywood blockbusters plagued by extensive reshoots, suffocating studio oversight, and last-minute editing changes, including but not limited to Rogue One (2016), Fantastic Four (2015), Star Trek Beyond (2016), and the upcoming Han Solo film (2018), is Warner Bros. and DC Films’ latest controversial epic, Justice League. To say this latest DC Extended Universe (DCEU) entry fails to pacify ongoing scrutiny of its parent studios’ production strategy would be putting it mildly. This is the fifth installment of the comic book franchise, which started with 2013’s Man of Steel, and is the third to have been changed substantially following principle photography, along with the financially successful but critically maligned Suicide Squad (2016) and the positively received Wonder Woman (2017) from earlier this year.

Top: One of the few sequences of expository dialogue accompanied by visual storytelling, Atlantian and Amazonian soldiers battle Parademons in a flashback. Bottom: Aquaman (Momoa, left), Wonder Woman (Gadot, center) and Cyborg (Fisher, right) challenge Steppenwolf (off-screen).

Most film analysts concede the earlier DCEU films’ morbid tone and self-serious diegesis were questionable creative decisions on which to base a multi-billion dollar tentpole franchise clearly inspired by the generic but effective box office juggernaut that is Walt Disney’s Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU, 2008-present). Tasking inconsistent screenwriter David S. Goyer and divisive action director Zack Snyder to lead said burgeoning franchise was further asking for trouble. The DCEU has struggled to find solid footing as indecision at the executive level and fan backlash at the general audience level have left writers, directors, and producers running in circles to keep this recognizable yet unwieldy property afloat.

To say that Warner Bros. has becoming nothing but apologetic about its opening DCEU films would be an understatement. Wonder Woman was a veritable success, but Suicide Squad and Justice League are a different story. I lost much respect for Warner Bros. after they overreacted to negative reviews of Dawn of Justice (2016) by sabotaging Ayer’s Suicide Squad, and have now lost all patience with this makeshift Justice League (henceforth, JL).

JL plays like a handicapped Zack Snyder film that was wrestled into a Joss Whedon picture after the fact, which is what it is. Snyder’s involvement in JL and the franchise as a whole dwindled after the fallout of Dawn of Justice, and he would later leave the project altogether after the suicide of his daughter in May of 2017. Whedon, hired for script rewrites during principle photography, took over production thereafter, and you can see the difference. This JL is both an inferior copy of Marvel’s inherently generic Avengers (2012) formula and an embarrassing slapdash apology for Dawn of Justice (2016). I predict it will please nobody.

First and foremost is the predictable clash between the movie’s Snyder-base and Whedon’s post-production editing, both in tone and overall visual style. Most of the action scenes retain that characteristic Snyder “look” and feel to them, as do our heroes’ costumes and much of the set-design. However, numerous scenes are lit so awkwardly from either reshoots or post-production alteration that the “dark, edgy” elements distract from the bright, high-key lighting, and vice versa. These stylistic mismatches extend to various characters’ forced one-liners and cringe-worthy jokes, Henry Cavill’s uncanny valley mustache, and the jumbled, start-stop rhythm of the story’s pacing. We’re talking Fantastic Four (2015)-levels of reshoot sloppiness, here.

Whether through reshoots, rewrites, or the natural give-and-take process of film editing, most of the titular League members are underdeveloped, as is Ciarán Hinds’ villain, Steppenwolf. Jason Mamoa’s Arthur Curry/Aquaman, Ezra Miller’s Barry Allen/The Flash, and Ray Fisher’s Victor Stone/Cyborg all lack sufficient backstory or motivation, while their performances feel hallow and unfocused, likely a result of conflicting acting-direction styles between Whedon and Snyder.

Aside from the film’s lackluster supporting characters, uninspired villainy, forced humor, and haphazard visual style and pacing throughout, the entire first act of JL is arduous. Scenes unfold seemingly at random and without narrative cause or effect, while the first major battle sequence between Steppenwolf and Wonder Woman’s (Gal Gadot) Amazonian peers looks like a cartoon, a Dragon Ball Z (1989-1996) cheese-fest of terrible CGI, motion-capture, and distracting composite backgrounds.

What did I like about JL? A couple action set-pieces are well preserved despite the abundant reshoots. I enjoyed the League fighting Steppenwolf in a sewer sequence midway through the film, as well as the finale where Superman returns to pummel Steppenwolf into submission. The entire sequence where Superman is revived is also interesting, even if it is contaminated by awkward lighting and preceded by the far more awkward scene of Miller and Fisher literally digging up Kent’s corpse. You take what you can get. Perhaps the strongest aspect of JL is the chemistry between Ben Affleck’s Bruce Wayne/Batman and Gal Gadot’s Diana Prince/Wonder Woman. The latter’s acting has much improved since Dawn of Justice, while Affleck’s professional attitude toward this bland story elevates most every scene with him. Their combined dialogue feels genuine in a way the rest of the film doesn’t.

The Batfleck deserved better.

Despite these fun moments, however, Justice League remains a substandard, wannabe clone of a generic Marvel movie, but without the precise execution and brilliant production values consistent therein. DC Comics President Geoff Johns  and Warner Bros. CEO Kevin Tsujihara compromised whatever identity and style the DCEU had to distill a 118-minute facsimile of The Avengers from Zack Snyder action sequences, and for what — a $96 million opening weekend in North America against a $300 million budget and a 12% boost (relative to Dawn of Justice) from RottenTomatoes? I’ve come back around to appreciating Marvel’s consistency and deliberate marketing strategy, however bland or forgettable I find most of their individual installments. I’ll take that commitment any day over DC’s fickle, indecisive nature.

Say what you will about the controversial Man of Steel and Dawn of Justice — at least they tried for something different, and didn’t settle for cookie-cutter movies. Now, that cookie-cutter formula is the name of the game, and Marvel seems the only studio capable of executing it with precision. Justice League won’t receive any respect from me because its creators have no respect for itself. 

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SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Cobbled together from multiple versions of several different movies, Justice League is a crude amalgamation of generic superhero formula and quasi-Zack Snyder imagery. Digital color-grading and post-production edits stick out like a sore thumb, as do lame attempts at comic relief and supporting characterizations. Its overall story structure is so stilted, plodding, and by-the-numbers it makes Thor: Ragnorak (2017) feel innovative by comparison.

However… Ben Affleck and Gal Gadot remain the bright spots of a dim franchise, while some of Snyder’s charismatic action peeks through the studio-mandated reshoots.

–> NOT RECOMMENDED

? At least 20th Century Fox is still making interesting superhero blockbusters.

About The Celtic Predator

I love movies, music, video games, and big, scary creatures.

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