JUSTICE LEAGUE (Movie Review)

JusticeLeague**1/2 out of ****
Rated PG-13
(for scenes of sci-fi violence and action, and some language)
Released: November 17, 2017
Runtime: 120 minutes
Director: Zack Snyder
Starring: Ben Affleck, Gal Gadot, Ezra Miller, Jason Momoa, Ray Fisher, Amy Adams, Jeremy Irons, Connie Nielsen, Diane Lane, Joe Morton, Billy Crudup, J.K. Simmons

Marvel is officially inside DC’s head.

Justice League tries to right the wayward DC Extended Universe by emulating its juggernaut rival like never before, but it’s not inspired by a reverent allegiance to the label’s comic book history or driven by a fresh new vision.

Instead, it’s cobbled together by a braintrust that, having heard people’s gripes, strives to give the audience what it wants. To its credit, Justice League looks more like an actual movie than any of Marvel’s glorified video games, but virtually every beat here is born of crass calculation.

While still the grittier brand of the two, the DCEU has put color back into its desaturated canvas, more humor into its (much less) angsty attitude, and even softened the violent edge that pushed Batman V Superman and Suicide Squad to their PG-13 limits (although an early uzi spray at innocents cuts a bit too close to recent events, but no one gets hurt).

The end result is not amazing, but it’s not a mess either. As big event movies go, Justice League is a serviceable yet disposable onslaught of mega budget blockbustering.

For those who hated BVS: Dawn of Justice (unlike me; I dug it, flaws and all), this continues to offer a corrective that Wonder Woman began, but not nearly as well. The summer’s breakout hit was confident in its identity. This one, however, simply takes less risks.

The MCU was built on successful standalone franchises that eventually assembled into Avenger mega-tentpoles. The DCEU is doing that in reverse, rushing its all-stars together to set a stage that launches new standalone franchises. If the creative and financial success of Wonder Woman is any indication then they may be on to something, but only by virtue of the fact that their team-ups are letdowns.

Despite being handed off from director Zack Snyder to re-writer/re-shooter Joss Whedon in post-production, this isn’t a mishmash of styles. Justice League is clearly the product of a singular corporate vision. It will provide thrills for the average ticket buyer, but it won’t leave anyone eager for JL2, regardless of what’s teased in the second of two post-credit scenes.

Justice League picks up where Dawn of Justice left off. Superman is dead, the world is in mourning, and chaos is coming. Three mysterious cubes called “Mother Boxes” are summoning an ancient galactic evil known as Steppenwolf. Dubbed “the destroyer of worlds” (a nod to Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb), he’s an alien super-villain who obliterates entire planets through terraforming. Earth is next.

As per usual with these things, the stakes are literally everything, but it’s going to take more than Wonder Twin powers to activate Steppenwolf back to wherever he came from.

Bruce Wayne and Diana Prince round up other meta-humans that have begun to emerge, namely Barry Allen (The Flash), Arthur Curry (Aquaman), and Victor Stone (Cyborg). The script does an efficient job of establishing each one without getting bogged down in origin backstories.

Alfred the Butler, Lois Lane, and Ma Kent also remain in the mix, as do others, but none feel like they’re scrambling for screen time. For an ensemble this big, each is used well enough according to his or her purpose within this episodic structure.

Oh, and Superman. It’s not a spoiler to reveal that he’s back, but I’ll stop short of the details as to how he returns and fits in. Having disliked the burdened emo Kal El from two previous films, it was intriguing to see how Superman has evolved in this course correct.

The problem, then, is the story, not the heroes. I’m still very fascinated by this older Batman; his solo scenes are the film’s best, particularly in style and tone. I hope they keep this interpretation of Bruce Wayne, even if the stilted Ben Affleck bows out. Gal Gadot‘s Wonder Woman remains a beacon of hope, and she also provides the film’s most satisfying arc.

The newcomers show varying degrees of potential for their prospective solo adventures, Ezra Miller’s Flash especially. His geeky energy is fueled by Whedon’s quick wit, plus there’s a resonant Father/Son relationship with Billy Crudup who stands out in a cameo role. Jason Momoa’s Aquaman is largely reduced to a rock-and-roll badass but he does it with swagger, and Ray Fisher’s Cyborg isn’t much more than brooding metal with super IT skills.

The script has some neat ideas and sequences here and there but, ultimately, it just hurls its heroes into a generic apocalyptic showdown of gaudy, bludgeoning digital effects, with a cheesy CGI baddie whose only strength may be that Marvel’s Thanos looks even more ridiculous.

Composer Danny Elfman spruces up the music with flourishes of orchestral energy, plus welcome bonus cues from John Williams’ original Superman theme as well as Elfman’s own original Batman score for good measure. But despite the best laid plans of a franchise in self-conscious catch-up mode, Justice League only compounds our pop culture’s escalating sense of superhero fatigue. Or maybe that’s just mine.

Patty Jenkins has signed on to return as director for Wonder Woman 2. If Warner Bros. is smart and Jenkins is game, they should just hand her the reins for the entire DCEU. At this point, that’s the kind of bold move it will take to get audiences excited for more.

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