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Monday, 20 November 2017

Justice League

(M) ★★½

Director: Zack Snyder.

Cast: Ben Affleck, Gal Gadot, Ezra Miller, Jason Momoa, Ray Fisher, Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Jeremy Irons, Diane Lane, Ciarán Hinds, Connie Nielsen, J. K. Simmons.

"We've come for the head of Stan Lee."
Is there still pressure on DC? Has the goodwill of Wonder Woman brought them a reprieve after three duds? Or are their superhero films simply too big to fail?

Even when the critics (rightly) slaughtered Batman Vs Superman: Dawn Of Justice, it still took upwards of $800 million at the worldwide box office (although that was seen as somewhat of a disappointment when compared to the takings of The Dark Knight, The Avengers, Iron Man 3 etc...).

It took four films before a DCEU (DC Extended Universe) films scored better than 55% rating on Rotten Tomatoes (that was Wonder Woman, for those of you playing along at home), which basically said to the cinema-going public that DC didn't care if the films were bad - they were making the damned things regardless. None of the films had truly bombed at the box office, so DC (rightly) said "we're making money so critics can go eat a bag of dicks" (or something along those lines). It explains why the DCEU has about 20 films in development despite the underwhelming critical reaction to past releases (except the excellent Wonder Woman). They're in for the long haul.

All of this means it's going to take a real catastrophe at the box office to stop DC from rolling on, because critical slatings and bad word of mouth obviously aren't doing the trick.

Which brings us to Justice League. Five films into the DCEU, the DC brains trust should have their shit together by now. They should have an understanding of why their films are or aren't working as well as they could, ie. they should have some idea as to why Wonder Woman worked but Man Of Steel, BvS:DoJ and Suicide Squad didn't.

The short version of this review is this: Justice League is nowhere near as good as Wonder Woman, but at least it's better than BvS:DoJ.

The slighter longer version is this: this should have been the DCEU's Avengers moment, where it triumphantly brought together its biggest stars and connected some of its disparate plot threads, but it's not a triumph. It's a fun-but-awkward mess of a movie that smacks of a missed opportunity and that is somewhat weighed down by the baggage of what has gone before.

In the wake of one character's death in BvS:DoJ (I'm trying to keep this as spoiler-free as possible), Batman (Affleck) and Wonder Woman (Gadot) fear the earth is vulnerable to attack. Their concerns become reality when the god-like Steppenwolf arrives with plans to remake the world in the image of his own.

Realising they can't defeat such a powerful force by themselves, Batman and Wonder Woman recruit The Flash (Miller), the half-machine-half-man Cyborg (Fisher), and the Atlantean meta-human Aquaman (Momoa) to help save the world.

What works best in Justice League is the characterisations. These are popular superheroes for a reason, and they are well realised on the screen. Casting has never been a problem in the DCEU and again they nail it. Affleck remains a great Bats and Gadot was born to be Wonder Woman, but the newcomers are also stellar, instantly comfortable in their superhero skins, with Miller excellent as the twitchy shut-in who can run faster than, well, a speeding bullet.

Perhaps as a result of criticism about the oh-so serious tone of BvS:DoJ, there is far more humour on show here. Miller gets the bulk of the best lines although Momoa and Affleck trade a few zingers. While I don't agree that a lighter tone was necessary (tone wasn't the reason BvS:DoJ sucked), it works well.

Similarly, criticism also may be responsible for a mini sub-plot involving a family holed up in the vicinity of Steppenwolf's base. While most likely a direct response to the impersonal carnage of Man Of Steel, it doesn't work and feels completely tacked on. It doesn't give the audience a real sense of the danger the world is confronting.

Likewise, dialogue in the early stages of the film tell us the world has fallen into disarray since the death of a certain someone in BvS:DoJ. But we barely see this disarray. In fact, all we see is one angry man who knocks over a fruit cart (if I remember correctly), and one bizarre terrorist plot. It's hardly WWIII or one minute to midnight on the Doomsday Clock.

This underselling of the film's central idea sets the film up to fail. It also proves to be ultimately irrelevant because the film's threat is not from earth. These is no shortage of these kind of plotting mis-steps.

But where things really fall down is in the storytelling and structuring. The efforts of introducing new characters, existing characters' motivations, and the intricacies of plot (with its triple MacGuffin) is almost too much for the first half of the film. The film struggles to get any real momentum going as Batman and Wonder Woman try to put their team together, while slotting in some action set pieces, and detailing who and what the Big Bad is.

Justice League gets better as it goes on. The characters work together well, the re-emergence of a past character is interesting (for a little while), and the final battle has the giddy thrill of letting us see all these famed superheroes sharing the big screen for the first time and showing off their powers.

The fans will lap this up, but the reality is it's only the fans who will love it. Unlike the all-ages (and critical) love-in that surrounded The Avengers, DC's attempt at a mega-superhero rumble fails to meet the lofty expectations that come with sticking these much-loved characters together for the first time. Justice League struggles under the weight of its own story (and the previous DCEU films) early on and while it's slightly fun, it takes far too long to get any real momentum going. So much of it feels pieced together sloppily, in between the peppering of CG-heavy fight sequences that only sometimes look good.

It's another missed opportunity from DC.

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