On Justice League

Safe to say that Justice League has had something of a troubled upbringing, so to speak.   Previous movies in the series, intended to lead up to the big team-up, have had decidedly mixed receptions, ranging from highly negative (Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice) to the positively rapturous (the genuinely excellent Wonder Woman).    Problems have been fairly wide-ranging, but most of the negative aspects have focused on either a relentlessly grim tone or issues arising from what appears to be an excess of executive meddling.    It’s fair to say that Justice League hasn’t entirely escaped from such issues, plus has had its own share of behind-the-scenes troubles, most notably director Zack Snyder’s departure from the movie in such tragic circumstances, but it’s equally fair to say that, for the most part, the movie manages to rise above the problems and become something that I found enjoyable enough to watch.

The result of all this is a movie that’s an odd combination of some things that have been done very right and other things that, well, really haven’t.

Something that I don’t think I really pictured myself saying after sitting through the butt-numbingly long Batman v Superman is that Justice League could probably have benefited from being a bit longer.    Clocking in at a very trim two hours, reportedly due to a decree issued from on high by the studio executives, the movie does move along quite nicely, but, with three major new characters to introduce, all of whom are expected to headline their own movies in the next couple of years, I came away with a sense that it wouldn’t have hurt the movie to flesh out the newcomers a tad more than we got.   They work okay, but a couple of extra minutes here and there to lift the characters above “boisterous frat boy” (Aquaman), “keen but neurotic dork” (Flash) and “gloomy outsider” (Cyborg) could have elevated things considerably.

I don’t imagine that many people would debate the point that a good superhero movie really needs a good villain and it’s on this front that Justice League spectacularly fails to deliver.    Honestly, Steppenwolf is about as generic as they come – he’s basically a big guy with a big weapon (an axe, in his case) and a handy army of faceless minions for the good guys to beat up before getting to the man himself.   His evil plot is as generic as he is – he’s come to Earth to locate three Mother Boxes, cubic macguffins (why do they always seem to be cubes?) that when put together, will allow him to turn Earth into a facsimile of his own hellish planet in order to conquer it for his unseen master.    It doesn’t help that Steppenwolf, an entirely CG character, looks terrible.    Seriously, he’s about as well rendered as a character in a cut scene from a five-year old computer game and it requires some serious suspension of disbelief not to be ripped out of the movie every time he’s on screen.   And they couldn’t have thrown in a “Born To Be Wild” gag somewhere?    Definitely an opportunity missed.

The plot, as noted above, is pretty basic – bad guy needs macguffins to carry out his plan, so it falls to the heroes to try to keep them away from him while they work out how to defeat him.    The plot feels somewhat disjointed at times, leading to a sense that a certain amount of connective tissue has been ejected in order to meet the run-time edict, occasionally in favour of some oddities – a series of (admittedly short) scenes involving an entirely unremarkable family, for example, don’t really have a big enough payoff to warrant their inclusion.   There’s also at least one occasion where the heroes screw up so stupidly that it absolutely constitutes a plot hole that really needed to have been addressed.    On the whole, though, it’s serviceable enough.

So, having insulted the sketchy characterisation, the villain and the plot, what’s actually left to fall into the “done right” category.   Well, quite a bit, as it happens.

While, as previously noticed, the movie could have used more time establishing the new characters, they do work pretty well.    More importantly, the characters feel right, that they’re how they should be.    Batman’s rediscovered his sense of idealism and is much lighter than previously – granted, he’s still quite grim, but this is Batman we’re talking about.    Likewise, Superman returns from his brief trip to the land of the dead apparently much more at peace with himself (once he gets readjusted, anyway) and with a positive hopeful attitude that’s very pleasant to see – at one point, my wife commented that he didn’t look like himself, to which I commented that it might well be down to the fact that he was actually smiling.     Wonder Woman remains a joy on every level.    Jason Momoa’s considerable charisma keeps Aquaman going and Ezra Miller, while largely shouldering the comic relief role, has the sense of comic timing necessary to pull it off.   Ray Fisher does a solid job as Cyborg, but remains the least interesting of the team for now.   Leaked deleted scenes suggest that a lot of his role was cut out; hopefully this can be restored in a longer cut, or in his own movie.   Most importantly, not only do the characters work well, they work well together.     While, inevitably, there’s squabbling early on, by the time of the finale, they’ve fitted together well and are laughing and joking with each other.

The action is generally well-handled.    Most of the team have their specialties (the Flash is fast, Cyborg does tech and so forth) and the action plays to that in logical fashion.    It’s mostly easy to follow and Snyder keeps his trademark slow motion reasonably in check.    And it’s great to see the team working together in those sequences.     There are some other good action sequences in the movie, too – early scenes involving Steppenwolf going after the Mother Boxes guarded by the Atlanteans and Amazons are good and a flashback to his previous attack on Earth is quite something to behold as an alliance of humans, Atlanteans, Amazons, Greek deities and even some Green Lanterns take to the field against him.

I have to give a nod to the soundtrack as well.    Danny Elfman takes on score duties and does a great job with it.    He successfully follows up the soundtracks from the previous movies, while sneaking in sequences from his own 1989 Batman soundtrack and John William’s iconic Superman theme.   The result is a little eclectic, but totally worked for me.

Overall, I enjoyed Justice League rather more than I expected to.   It’s certainly not a great movie and even calling it good could be considered debatable, given the considerable flaws that permeate the film.   But I did find it enjoyable and that’s a good start.    If subsequent movies can build on the characters as they’ve been set up here, we could finally see DC’s Extended Universe movies start to live up to the potential that’s mostly been squandered up until now.     And that could be a very good thing.


DC?   We need to talk…

Ever since Marvel’s epic gamble, taking a number of its B-list superheroes and putting them all in one big cinematic universe, paid off in genuinely epic fashion, pretty much every film studio out there has been searching through their assorted properties, looking for something that they can use to assemble their own shared universe, in a quest to try to ensnare audiences in a money-making machine that’ll pay out handsomely for years to come.   Some seem pretty workable – 20th Century Fox, for example, have the rights to Marvel’s X-Men comics and have been milking them, with varying degrees of success, for years.    Universal are looking at the classic Hammer Horror monsters, with this year’s The Mummy as the first entry, backed up by already scheduled movies for the Invisible Man and the Wolf Man and no doubt others to come.   Columbia appear to be looking at their Ghostbusters franchise, although it remains to be seen whether those plans remain intact after the iffy box office performance of the recent reboot.   Warner Bros, in addition to returning to their previous box office juggernaut, the Harry Potter films with Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them, are looking at their recent Godzilla movie, producing more movies set around other giant monsters who can, at some point, meet up and beat the living daylights out of each other.   This is why Kong, in trailers for the upcoming Kong: Skull Island, is, not to put too fine a point on it, frakking enormous, to put him closer in size to Godzilla.

The jewel in the Warner Bros crown, however, is their direct competitor to Marvel’s output, their DC Comics-based movies, featuring such luminaries as Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman and, on this front, I have to confess, I’m a bit concerned.

We’re now three films into the DC Extended Universe, as they’re calling it, and it’s safe to say that things have not gone as smoothly as they might like.   Man of Steel, the revamped Superman origin story that started things off, was greeted with rather mixed reviews by both critics and fans alike.    Some loved it, others decried the rather grim tone of the film or what they perceived as serious liberties being taken with the iconic character, pointing to the sheer level of destruction in the final act of the film and the slaying of the film’s antagonist as things that the classic Superman character simply would not have done.    Personally, I rather like the film; while unquestionably flawed, I think it generally does more things right than it gets wrong, and it was moderately successful commercially, setting things up for the next entry in the series.

It’s probably not an understatement that people were quite excited for the follow-up when it was announced.   Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice would be pitting the two most iconic superheroes ever against each other, would bring in a new version of Superman’s nearly-as-iconic nemesis Lex Luthor and, particularly notable, would feature the cinematic debut of Wonder Woman, pretty much the only female superhero with a genuine claim to iconic status.    The studio assured the waiting public that they would learn from the mistakes of Man of Steel and, despite the presence of divisive director Zack Snyder at the helm, there was a certain expectation that what was coming really could be something special.

What we got really, well…   wasn’t.

Batman v Superman does have its moments, but they’re quite few and far between.   Honestly, it really seemed like they took the flaws that many complained about in Man of Steel and, instead of addressing them, took them to a whole new level.    The film is almost unremittingly bleak and, while Superman may arguably be closer to his iconic characterisation, Lex Luthor’s depiction is just plain weird and Batman’s borders on unrecognisable.    The film made a decent profit, although ultimately took far less than it should have done given the iconic nature of the characters that it had to work with, but was pretty much panned critically.

The critical failure of BvS may well not have helped the third entry in the series, Suicide Squad.    There is considerable evidence that, amid the fallout of the critical mauling that BvS got, worried studio executives ordered significant reshoots, presumably to attempt to resolve any issues that they felt the film might share with its predecessor.   While late reshoots don’t necessarily indicate a problem – most major films do some – it doesn’t seem like they did Suicide Squad any favours, resulting in a movie that was wildly inconsistent in tone, presumably as the studio-mandated new scenes clashed badly with those already shot.    Like BvS, the film did reasonably good box office, but also failed to receive much appreciation critically.

I probably know what some of you are thinking right now – if they’re bringing in the money, should the studios even care about what the critics think?    It’s a fair point, can’t deny it.    Certainly the Transformers series of movies have conclusively proved that critical acclaim and strong box office don’t necessarily go hand-in-hand.    But, ultimately, it is fair to say that making a better movie will certainly not do any harm to the box office and can be decidedly positive, as a better movie will generate more repeat viewing.   Better movies are also likely to help with the box office on later movies.    It’s well established that, while a poor entry in a franchise may still do well, whatever follows it up, no matter how good it might be, often (but, to be fair, not always) ends up with a considerably lower take.    DC are three movies in to their shared universe and, so far, all three of those films are, at best, divisive.    That’s going to have an impact; there’s going to be less audience excitement for the next movie in the franchise, which isn’t a situation any company is going to be happy about.

What worries me the most, though, is that I genuinely don’t know if Warner Bros actually has a proper plan.   Because it seems to change on an uncomfortably frequent basis.   To be fair, on a very basic level, there is a plan that seems to be reasonably set at this point.   2017 will see the arrival of the Wonder Woman solo film, as well as their first big team-up movie, Justice League, featuring the first non-cameo appearances by the Flash, Aquaman and Cyborg, which is all well and good.   All three will then get solo films, with The Flash and Aquaman appearing in 2018 and poor old Cyborg forced to wait until 2020, which he’ll share with a Green Lantern reboot, after Shazam and a Justice League sequel in 2019.    A Batman solo film is, understandably, something of a no-brainer and is reportedly joining the 2018 lineup under the title of The Batman.    What worries me is that they seem to keep announcing additional movies, with no indication that they have any real idea where they’re going to fit in.    For example, after Suicide Squad came out, they announced three additional movies – spin-offs Deadshot, starring Will Smith’s character and Gotham City Sirens, starring Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn and other female characters, plus a direct sequel.    Now they’re suddenly announcing that, in addition to the Shazam film, they’ll also be doing a companion film, allegedly to come out around the same time, focusing on Dwayne Johnson’s villain character, Black Adam.   They also have films, all reportedly solidly into development, based on the Justice League Dark team (featuring various magically inclined characters from the DC Universe), alien bounty hunter Lobo and a sequel to Man of Steel, something that you’d think they’d give a bit more prominence to, somehow.  And, needless to say, while undiscussed for the moment, they will look to continue with the solo movies for their main characters, so assume sequels will be in the pipeline for all the aforementioned Justice League members.

That’s sixteen films, all of which are in active development and appear to be intended to come out in the next few years.   For a shared universe franchise that, so far, has been struggling to find its feet, one would have to say that that could just be overly ambitious.

It seems to me that, really, Warners need to step back, take a deep breath and calm down a little.   They need to be doing a little thinking about quality right now, not quantity.   Stick to their basic plan, their central character lineup, put out a couple of movies a year and just take the time to get those right.    Get the viewing audience excited about their DC movies again, earn themselves some goodwill, then hit them with the obscurer stuff, because, otherwise, the only people who are going to see these properties that nobody’s really heard of are the die-hard comic book fans.   And there just aren’t enough of those to support a big-budget franchise.

DC, you’ve got some great characters, who I really want to see kicking some serious posterior on the big screen in the near future.    I’m looking forward to it, truly.     All I ask, right now, is that you take a bit of time to do it right, even if that means putting some of your plans on the back-burner, or even cancelling a few of them altogether.    Trust me, in the end, it will pay off…