JUSTICE LEAGUE review by Mark Walters – DC’s big screen super-team is a fun but rushed ride

JUSTICE LEAGUE review by Mark Walters – DC’s big screen super-team is a fun but rushed ride
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After Marvel saw great success with their series of inter-locking superhero films, DC and Warner Bros. seemed determined to catch up, but some have argued their efforts are rushed and misunderstand some of the fundamentals of why their competitors saw such strong returns. The thing Marvel Studios did best was world building, introducing each hero one at a time with their own solo films, and organically growing to a team movie where they all fight side by side. It was quite brilliantly done. But the DC movies were coming off the highly successful Christopher Nolan trilogy for THE DARK KNIGHT, which while a hit with fans never felt like a universe that could share itself with other similar characters. One year after THE DARK KNIGHT RISES (Nolan’s third and final Batman movie with Christian Bale), we were given MAN OF STEEL, a gritty re-imagining of the Superman lore directed by Zack Snyder and featuring Henry Cavill as the titular character. It was a box office hit, but came under fire from fans for a variety of reasons – being too violent, being too long, and taking some unexpected liberties with the title character. Last year followed up that film with BATMAN v SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE, which introduced a new Batman in Ben Affleck, a big screen Wonder Woman in Gal Gadot, and offered brief cameos of other DC superheroes like Aquaman (Jason Momoa), The Flash (Ezra Miller) and Cyborg (Ray Fisher). It wasn’t an accident that all those characters showed up, as this was Warner Bros. way of priming audiences for a JUSTICE LEAGUE movie sooner than later, an idea many have called questionable. We also received SUICIDE SQUAD, but that movie doesn’t really relate to this discussion, oddly enough, other than brief cameos by Flash and Batman peppered in for fan service. In between that film and what opens this weekend came WONDER WOMAN, a big screen re-imagining of the popular female superhero that has turned into the most successful comic book movie of all time, and made star Gal Gadot a household name. In some ways this was a plus and a minus for the impending JUSTICE LEAGUE movie, as that film’s popularity was a big selling point, but the overwhelmingly positive response it received has set the bar rather high. JUSTICE LEAGUE also hit a rough patch when director Zack Snyder stepped down from finishing the production for personal reasons, and Joss Whedon (who helmed Marvel’s AVENGERS movies) took over with reshoots and editing… including adding new footage of Wonder Woman to the movie, because… well, she’s super popular right now. So does the end result keep the good vibes WONDER WOMAN created going strong, or prove to be a mistake of epic proportions? The answer is somewhere in the middle.

(Spoilers here if you haven’t seen BATMAN v SUPERMAN, which you really should before seeing JL)

JUSTICE LEAGUE opens with a reminder that Superman is dead, by way of some awkward video camera footage of kids interviewing The Man of Steel for their podcast. You may have heard Henry Cavill shot scenes for this movie with a mustache that had to be taken out with CGI… in this shot it is most noticeable. Cut to Batman (Ben Affleck) stopping a criminal on the rooftops of Gotham City, but with a specific motive, to use that man for his fear, which attracts an alien-like “Parademon”, which is a sort of flying bug-man. These creatures have been appearing in various places, and Bruce Wayne is trying to find out why. The movie then shows us Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) saving the day from a terrorist attack in London, before she and Bruce reunite to discuss this new threat. On the island of Themyscira, where Diana Prince / Wonder Woman is from, a giant imposing warrior named Steppenwolf (voiced by Ciarán Hinds) appears and violently steals a sacred box they’ve kept hidden for many years… this “mother box” is one of three across the world, and if he brings them together, he could effectively destroy all life – it’s a little convoluted, but that’s the basic concept. So Bruce and Diana track down three heroes like them, including a water-based God-like specimen named Arthur Curry / Aquaman (Jason Momoa), a super-speed loner named Barry Allen (Ezra Miller), and a cybernetically-enhanced human named Victor Stone (Ray Fisher) who has become a Cyborg with mysterious technological abilities. They strategize how to take down Steppenwolf, even managing to keep one of the powerful mother boxes out of his grasp, but Bruce knows without Superman alive to help they’re unlikely to succeed… you can probably figure out the next natural step.

I’ll be honest, and I’m sure there’s many who felt the same way – I fully expected this movie to be a disaster. The rushed storytelling, Zack Snyder’s questionable style at the helm, bringing in Joss Whedon to finish the film and add footage, extensive editing… it had all the ingredients to be an expensive and epic mess. But surprisingly it’s not that bad, in fact I’d go so far as to call it quite entertaining and fun at times. However, there are definite issues with JUSTICE LEAGUE that need to be addressed. It’s rather obvious the editing process chopped out a large part of the story and character development from the film, even leaving scenes where characters were clearly meant to have dialogue but didn’t, or well known actors who show up with no lines at all. To say there’s something missing from the final product would be an understatement. What is there is fantastic and well-staged action sequences, loads of special effects, and fun quips between the heroes that are almost certainly the work of Whedon. I was trying to describe the movie to someone yesterday and the easiest way I could put it was to say the following – it feels like you’re watching a really good superhero movie, but you’re only watching the fight scenes, especially in the second half.

The cast does a good job bringing their respective characters to life, especially Jason Momoa and Ezra Miller, both of them likely to become instant audience favorites. Momoa plays Curry like a street-brawling guy at a bar who also happens to have superpowers. It’s a fun twist on the Aquaman character, and really makes him one of the most likable aspects of the production. Miller is the comic relief for sure, playing Barry Allen as the unsure and untested hero in the group, just happy to be in the room… he’s not “The Flash” here, not by a long shot, but the way they stage his role is really inspired and engaging. Ray Fisher has some interesting moments as Cyborg, but this is definitely a character that could have benefited from a larger back story we never get. It’s a superhero I always liked in the comics, but imagined very differently here, and it works rather well more often than not. That said, he’s strangely the most serious of the group in many scenes, and I would have liked him to have a slightly more laid back personality. Perhaps that element will find itself in future films. Gal Gadot is still great as Wonder Woman, strong and confident, and looking stunning in every shot. I noticed one or two moments I’d call “extra Wonder Woman moments”, but they weren’t off-putting or unnecessary, just felt like they smartly gave her more to do. Oddly enough the only character the feels a little off is Affleck’s Batman, who was arguably the strongest part of BATMAN v SUPERMAN, playing a tortured and brooding incarnation of The Dark Knight that felt closest to the comics. Here, he’s a bit lightened up, and in some scenes even a little goofy. It almost feels like a different Batman entirely, and in some ways isn’t as cool when fighting side by side with the various super-powered counterparts. This may be the result of criticism toward BvS being too dour and dark, but it’s surprising to see what is essentially the Iron Man of this franchise not standing out the way you’d hope he would. He’s not bad, he’s just not as good as he was previously. And I’m afraid Jeremy Irons as Alfred must have fallen victim big time to the editing, as he seems to have very little to do here.

J.K. Simmons as Commissioner James Gordon is a welcome addition, but like many of the supporting characters has minimal screen time. Amy Adams is back briefly throughout as Lois Lane, but it’s hard to talk about her or Henry Cavill without getting into spoiler territory. I’ll just say this, as a huge Superman fan, there’s things they do with his character that are kind of frustrating, and other things they do they made me grin like an idiot. Diane Lane also appears briefly as Ma Kent, and provides us with one of the most emotional moments of ANY of the DC movies so far, but again, I can’t really talk about it without giving away major plot points. Ciarán Hinds gives an admirable reading as Steppenwolf, and the character does provide a somewhat worthy adversary for our heroes, but there’s some missed opportunities to make his rivalry a little more personal and meaningful. Most of his actions happen in geographical areas where the world wouldn’t even be aware, so it takes away from the “world is watching” sense of danger that could have been played up to make this story even more exciting. Another new “cast member” here is Danny Elfman, returning to WB superhero cinema for the first time in 25 years. Elfman’s score is pounding and powerful, and even utilizes the themes of John Williams SUPERMAN score, and his own BATMAN 1989 score during select moments. It’s a different kind of sound from MAN OF STEEL and BATMAN v SUPERMAN, which kind of helps and hurts the feel of the movie, depending on any given scene. I know it’s weird to say it, but the change in music almost makes this feel (at times) like an unrelated production from the other two Zack Snyder films… it’s funny how music can do that.

The strongest elements of JUSTICE LEAGUE are the action beats and team moments where they’re working together. I was surprised at how fun this movie felt while watching it, which is definitely a welcome change from Snyder’s previous efforts. It’s still missing a bit of the soul and spirit you’d hope for in a big film like this, and the edits may be to blame for that – the final product clocks in under two hours, which for a BIG comic book movie seems a little paltry and somewhat rushed. I can’t help but wonder if we’ll get a superior cut on the home video release, much the way Warner Bros. offered the far better and more fleshed-out version of BATMAN v SUPERMAN with its extended cut. But either way, this new movie is a visually striking and entertaining effort, albeit an imperfect one. There’s a stronger movie in there somewhere, but what we’re given will suffice for the time being. Be sure to stay through the credits for not one but two stinger scenes, including one that will give classic comic book fans an absolute rush.

Justice League hits theaters November 17, 2017.

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About the Author

Born and raised in Dallas, Mark has been a movie critic since 1994, with reviews featured in print, radio and National TV. In 2001 he started the Entertainment section of the Herorealm website, where he contributed film reviews and celebrity interviews until 2004. After three years of service there, he started Bigfanboy.com, which has become one of the Dallas film community's leading information websites. Bigfanboy hosts several movie screenings in the Texas area, and works closely with film and TV studios and promotional partners to host exciting events and contests. The site also features a variety of rare celebrity and filmmaker interviews, and Bigfanboy.com regularly covers the film festival circuit as well. In addition to Hollywood reporting, Mark has worked for many years as an advertising and sci-fi/comic book artist. Clients have included Lucasfilm Ltd., Topps Trading Cards, The Dallas Mavericks and The Dallas Stars. From 2002 until 2015 he managed the Dallas Comic Con, Sci-Fi Expo and Fan Days events in the DFW area. He currently catalogs rare comic books and movie memorabilia for Heritage Auctions, and runs the Dallas Comic Show conventions, but remains an avid moviegoer and cinema buff.