Friday, November 17, 2017

Justice League: And so it begins...

Justice League (2017) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated PG-13, for sci-fi action and violence

By Derrick Bang

Seeing director Zack Snyder’s name attached to this film was not happy news, given the degree to which he ruined both 2013’s Man of Steel and last year’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.

Having responded to the bat-signal illuminated by Police Commissioner Gordon (J.K.
Simmons, far left), the newly formed Justice League — from left, Wonder Woman (Gal
Gadot), Cyborg (Ray Fisher), Batman (Ben Affleck) and The Flash (Ezra Miller) —
learn that Gotham City is, once again, in serious trouble.
Snyder has much in common with director Michael Bay, similarly notorious for the Transformers franchise. Both favor bloated, soulless, humorless slugfests that wreak havoc on landscapes and cityscapes, while casually snuffing hundreds (thousands?) of civilian bystanders. Their films are the very definition of mindless product over art.

On the other hand, I was cheered to note Joss Whedon as co-scripter on Justice League. As the writer/director of 2012’s The Avengers, Whedon established the template for solid, successful superhero epics. Fans have recognized Whedon’s gift since television’s Buffy slayed her first vampire, back in 1996: He has an unerring talent for blending action fantasy with a (frequently droll) human element, which eases our suspension of disbelief.

And is a helluva lot more fun.

It’s easy to spot Whedon’s touch in Justice League, which is most successful during its first and second acts, as the stage is set, and the players assembled. It’s equally easy to see that the third act belongs to Snyder ... but not entirely. Even here, we get the vicarious relief of the unmistakable Whedon touch.

Justice League picks up in the immediate wake of Batman v Superman. The latter is dead, having perished at the hands of a Kryptonian monster genetically engineered by the villainous Lex Luthor. The country (the world?) is sliding quickly into anarchy, humanity apparently having abandoned hope after losing its gallant symbol for truth, justice and the American way.

(Ah ... but is Big Blue really, truly dead?)

Bruce Wayne (Batman) and Diana Prince (the Amazon Wonder Woman) are doing their best to stem the lawless tide, but they operate in the shadows; they’re not “living symbols” in the manner of Superman. Worse yet, Batman has been encountering winged “parademons” — very hard to kill — that seem to be seeking something.

Mindful of the need for additional super-powered allies, in order to hold off whatever comes next, Bruce and Diana reach out to three promising individuals: Barry Allen (Ezra Miller), a twentysomething nerd transformed by a lightning strike into The Flash; Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa), dubbed Aquaman, and heir to the underwater kingdom of Atlantis; and Victor Stone (Ray Fisher), a once-promising college football player nearly killed in a horrific accident, and “saved” when his scientist father Silas (Joe Morton) employed alien tech to transform his son into the biomechanical Cyborg.

Each is a misfit. Barry is a geeky kid completely new to his super-speed powers, and obsessed with criminal justice, in the hopes of freeing his incarcerated father. Miller plays him as endearing and overly enthusiastic: awed by the meta-powered company in which he now finds himself, and uncertain of his ability to help in any meaningful way.

Arthur is the exact opposite: a loner somewhat embittered by his inability to fit into either the surface or ocean realms, who prefers to act as a reclusive, benevolent guardian in the remote Icelandic village where he hangs out. But his talents are many: Aside from enormous strength and resilience, he also can telepathically command all sea life, from the tiniest minnow to the mightiest whale.

That’s quite a gift, and one rich with visual possibility, in this age of CGI magic. Too bad this film fails to exploit it in any manner (which, frankly, is just daft).

That lapse notwithstanding, Momoa is quite cool in the role: a powerful, self-assured presence who smirks at the “toys” with which Batman fights crime, and who has little love for the surface dwellers who continue to pollute their planet. (Sadly, the nobility fueling Aquaman’s character becomes more relevant every year.)

Fisher has a tougher assignment, and not merely because he’s able to emote solely with his face and one eye, the rest of his human body having been replaced by hardware. Cyborg is an emotional wild card: not entirely trusted by the others, because he’s powered by what we discover is the very alien tech that soon threatens Earth. As a result, Victor constantly is at war with himself, his human soul trying to overcome the seductive evil that powers his biomechanical abilities.

Abilities that conveniently shift, morph and expand as a given crisis demands, which — it could be argued — is cheating.

The story’s “big bad” is Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds), an axe-waving, 8-foot-tall warrior from the nightmare world of Apokolips, who — along with his parademons — travels between worlds via a “boom tube” cross-dimensional portal powered by a “mother box.”

(Note for non-comic book fans: If that seems a lot of exposition to swallow ... it is. This film does a very poor job of supplying essential back-story details, under the apparent belief that the numerous little hints sprinkled throughout Batman v Superman were sufficient. They weren’t — aren’t — and all but longtime DC Comics readers are apt to wonder just what the hell is going on.)


Much in the manner of J.R.R. Tolkien’s rings of power, three mother boxes were the focus of Steppenwolf’s previous, eons-ago attempt to conquer Earth; he was stopped by a collaborative army of Amazons, Atlanteans and humans. The mother boxes were separated, each secured by one of the triumphant factions. The newly awakened Steppenwolf intends to reclaim and unite the mother boxes, at which point ...

... well, this film doesn’t really make that clear.

(Comic book fans know the answer: It’ll open the way for Darkseid, dread ruler of the aforementioned Apokolips. Who, we can assume, is waiting in the wings for the inevitable sequel.)


Hinds, all but unrecognized beneath pasty-grey makeup — although his voice is unmistakable — is suitably malevolent as the horned Steppenwolf. He’s haughty and supremely confident: genuinely amused by the antics of these mortals who dare oppose him. Hinds doesn’t have quite the superior smirk that Tom Hiddleston gives Loki, in that other superhero franchise, but he comes close.

Affleck gets considerable screen time as both Bruce Wayne and Batman, and does a solid job as this story’s anchor. Affleck remains a bit too stoic, but traces of humor do emerge at times; we also see flashes of apprehension beneath Batman’s grim features. This is a Dark Knight 20 years into his campaign against crime, and he’s understandably tired.

Gadot remains just as charming, capable and commanding here, as she was a few months ago, in Wonder Woman’s own film. She brings welcome heart to these proceedings.

Whedon and co-scripter Chris Terrio also make room for the familiar, continuity-demanding supporting faces: no small feat, in a film that clocks in at a (thankfully) economical 121 minutes. Amy Adams and Diane Lane supply plenty of poignant warmth as, respectively, Lois Lane and Martha Kent: those for whom the loss of Superman is most deeply felt.

Jeremy Irons gets plenty of snarky, bone-dry one-liners as Alfred, Bruce Wayne’s loyal and tech-savvy butler; J.K. Simmons is appropriately grave as Gotham City’s Police Commissioner Gordon. Dr. Silas Stone now has had time to consider the consequences of what he did to his son, and Morton delivers an intriguing blend of regret and pride. Connie Nielsen makes the most of her brief but telling action sequence, as the Amazonian Queen Hippolyta.

On the other hand, Billy Crudup’s presence as Barry Allen’s father is intriguingly open-ended: pointless in this film, suggesting more later. Amber Heard is completely wasted in a fleeting appearance as Aquaman’s consort, Mera, on hand primarily for an elevator pitch that quickly encapsulates her lover’s back-story.

The core characters come alive thanks to engaging, Whedon-esque chats that take place during quieter moments: Bruce and Diana contemplating the best way to augment their team; Bruce attempting to persuade Arthur to join the embryonic band, during a stroll along an Icelandic beach; Barry attempting to fist-bump and bond with Victor, having recognized that they’re the team’s two “accidental” superheroes.

Along with another warm and deeply touching sequence, set in the corn fields of Smallville, Kansas.

Even the (ahem) apocalyptic final battle, which takes place in the remnants of an Eastern European village hunkered in the shadow of a failed nuclear reactor silo, benefits strongly from an identifiable human element: repeated cuts to a terrified family that has sheltered in their barricaded home over the course of several days, while Steppenwolf and his parademons have destroyed nearly everything else.

The tech credits are terrific, with a particular shout-out to the clever manner in which visual effects supervisor John “DJ” DesJardin stops motion in order to convey The Flash’s ultra-quick movement: not a novel effect, but entertaining nonetheless.

Danny Elfman’s underscore too frequently drowns beneath bombastic sound effects and Snyder’s fondness for shrieking, techno-rock power anthems.

Justice League is by no means perfect, but it’s a welcome improvement over Snyder’s other superhero efforts. Fingers crossed, that it’s a harbinger of even better things to come.

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