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Film Review: Grasping at million-dollar straws

Fueled by his restored faith in humanity and inspired by Superman's selfless act, Bruce Wayne enlists the help of his newfound ally, Diana Prince, to face an even greater enemy • 3.5/5

teodor_reljic
Teodor Reljic
29 November 2017, 7:46am
Super friends: Batman (Ben Affleck), Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), Cyborg (Ray Fisher), Flash (Ezra Miller) and Aquaman (Jason Momoa)
Super friends: Batman (Ben Affleck), Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), Cyborg (Ray Fisher), Flash (Ezra Miller) and Aquaman (Jason Momoa)
So we have come to it at last: DC Comics’s most high-powered answer to the Marvel Comics movie franchise – the film that collates together a car-crash attempt to replicate Marvel’s success. Its most recent installment – Patty Jenkins’s competently handled and representationally right-on Wonder Woman – may have served up something resembling a ray of hope in what is otherwise a landscape riddled with awkward, morally questionable non-starters (Man of Steel, 2013, Zack Snyder), disastrous and virtually plotless behemoths of grimdark incompetence (Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, 2016, also Snyder) and rushed-into-production attempts at injecting some colour and levity into the enterprise (Suicide Squad, 2016, David Ayer).

Following all of this, Snyder then reported in for duty to direct Justice League – a keystone of the franchise and the answer to Marvel’s Avengers... aka, the film that brings together a bunch of DC’s heroes.

Quick wit: Ezra Miller’s Barry Allen/The Flash is the team’s comic relief
Quick wit: Ezra Miller’s Barry Allen/The Flash is the team’s comic relief
The seeds of such a union were contrived at the tail end of last year’s Batman v Superman, when Bruce Wayne/Batman (Ben Affleck) sidles up to fellow ‘super-friend’ Diana Prince/Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) to suggest that, with the recent passing of Clark Kent/Superman (Henry Cavill), it’s now more urgent than ever to rally their kind to combat future large-scale threats and raise public morale. Its a goal whose implementation gets an added jolt of urgency once the demonic Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds) rips through his interdimensional prison with an army of what look like zombie hornet-men that feed on fear, and begins his working through the various worlds that constitute the DC Universe’s orbit in order to find the ‘mother boxes’: mystical cubes that will help him gain dominion over the worlds in question.

With Superman’s death apparently allowing for the rip in time that made Steppenwolf’s entrance possible, the demon first works through Wonder Woman’s own Amazonian enclave, before swimming to Aquaman’s (Jason Momoa) underwater realm of Atlantis to snatch two of the three mother boxes. Earth’s remain stashed away... but for how long? Meanwhile, Diana and Bruce recruit the super-fast Barry Allen/Flash (Ezra Miller) and the Frankensteined-back-to-life young athlete Victor Stone/Cyborg (Ray Fisher) to help them on their world-saving quest... with the reluctant Aquaman slowly but surely joining their ranks. But with Steppenwolf’s army encroaching through the world with steadfast certainty, one dogged question continues to hang over the team: can they do this without Superman?

Snyder, the erstwhile curator of the DC Universe’s cinematic realm – a mission he unofficially began back in 2009 with Watchmen – was meant to enjoy something of a culmination of his labours with this big block of a universe-building project. For better or for worse (read: despite the critical and box office drubbing that both Man of Steel and Batman v Superman got) the man was determined to see this juggernaut through. But a heartbreaking family tragedy compelled him to pull out of full directorial duties on Justice League last May, with former Marvel worldbuilder extraordinare Joss Whedon being brought in to pick up the slack and oversee reshoots (Whedon still cedes full directorial credit to Snyder; he is listed as a co-writer along with Chris Terrio).

And it must be said that while there is some clear collateral damage in evidence, Whedon’s lighthearted touch – which worked wonders for Avengers Assemble (2012) but less so for Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) – must have been a good influence on the project all-round. Of course, we can’t exactly know where Snyder ends and Whedon begins – though the glaring CGI removal of a certain character’s contractually-bound mustache may offer some clues – but it’s safe to assume that the minimal presence of Snyder’s dark-brown lit world of superhero grit has been tamped down by the popular demands to “be more Marvel”.

Batman returns: Ben Affleck is getting the team together
Batman returns: Ben Affleck is getting the team together
This means there’s a tonal inconsistency that never quite goes away but, coupled with a comparatively lean running time, it also results in a zippy and refreshingly fun take on the DC movieverse. The last-minute rush to complete a project whose director needed to take a sudden leave of absence may have resulted in a movie that feels less coherent to Snyder’s “vision”, but it also means that the shortcuts give way to a kind of easy silliness that’s actually more in tune with the source material than anything Marvel have been churning out.

Marvel, riding the crest of a wave of success whose most recent upgrade has been the discovery of comedy, tends to rely on facile irony and undercutting so as to continually appeal to a wide-as-possible audience. This is great in its own way, and Taika Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok is a true blast, and most certainly the superhero movie you should be watching over this one. But in its desire to just get the trains going on time, Justice League serves up the same kind of delight you’d get from the animated versions of these heroes.

Big bad: Ciarán Hinds is Steppenwolf
Big bad: Ciarán Hinds is Steppenwolf
Yes, the tone is off and yes, flattening The Flash’s character into simply being a machine for comic relief is a tad disappointing. Yes, the fights are pretty much all unimaginatively choreographed and Steppenwolf is just a bundle of cheap-looking video game CGI. Yes, Momoa’s Aquaman is a non-character. And yes, the plot is just a loosely put-together collage of thumbnail origin stories and a frantic search for MacGuffins.

But for all of its attempts to ape the Marvel formula, Justice League is also, paradoxically, the one movie out of the entire recent phenomenon that offers a true counterpoint to the current Marvel model. It is a silly superhero film, that doesn’t hide its silliness – probably because the production was too troubled and time-pressed to come with creative ways to hide them, but here we are. You can sit back and enjoy this unwittingly nostalgic take on ridiculously costumed and superpowered men and women pitting their fists and wits (mainly their fists) against a lazily-designed supernatural threat. Provided you can see past the tattered seams of the show.

Likely leaders: Gadot (Diana Prince/Wonder Woman) and Affleck (Bruce Wayne/Batman)
Likely leaders: Gadot (Diana Prince/Wonder Woman) and Affleck (Bruce Wayne/Batman)
Justice League is certainly not the worst film in the DC Comics movie universe so far. But while that may be the very definition of damning with faint praise, neither does it mean it’s a waste of your time (though it might just be a waste of your money...). With Whedon brought in for rewrites and reshoots, what we get is a vanilla concoction that does away with Zack Snyder’s excesses... which also means it “robs” it of anything remotely distinctive. Take that as you will.

teodor_reljic
Teodor Reljic is MaltaToday's culture editor and film critic. He joined t...
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