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It’s a shame, really. To watch Justice League is to comb through a crime scene. You duck under the crinkled yellow tape, notebook in hand. Poised. Curious. You see the damage straight away. The hacking, the slashing, all of that. Bits everywhere. Here, you can see vague attempts at a cover-up. Evidence has been tampered with. On the other side of the tape, crowds begin to gather. You wonder what to tell them. Don’t know. You make notes. Ask around. Nobody else seems to know, either. The answer to the question remains a mystery. The crime remains unsolved.
Who killed Justice League?
Uh-oh. So Justice League is bad?
It’s bad. But it’s bad in a weird, interesting, unfortunate way that some people are probably going to love. And it’s worthy of admiration, in a sense. After a production so publically fraught with disaster, that we even have a movie to watch feels like a minor miracle. For all its many flaws, Justice League is much better than it has any right to be.
An exact accounting of everything that went wrong isn’t necessary, or my responsibility as a critic. But if you’ll kindly join me under the next heading, we’ll take a look anyway. Almost everything I’m about to criticise is somehow rooted in that terrorised production, and it’s always good to show your work.
Okay, what went wrong?
I’m reminded of that old joke. If you meet an arsehole in the morning, you met an arsehole. If you meet an arsehole in the afternoon, you met two arseholes. But if you meet arseholes all day long, you are the arsehole. Warner Bros. are arseholes. And you can tell because each of these films has been plagued by the same problems. Warner’s franchise-filmmaking philosophy is to do what Marvel has done, only faster. They’re playing catch-up, and have been since the beginning. Which is why Justice League, a long-awaited ensemble team-up movie, is such a strange proposition. It’s getting the band back together to play the only song they’ve written. But nobody liked that song. And we haven’t met half the band.
It’s to be expected, really. Justice League was already in production when it’s direct predecessor, Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, opened to spectacularly awful reviews. Studio-wide panic. What was originally intended to be two films, with a Batman solo adventure in-between, became one movie, with Batman eyeing the exit from under his cowl. Zack Snyder, the film’s director, left the project after a family tragedy. This put Joss Whedon, who was best known for similar features in a rival franchise and who had already been hired for rewrites, in charge of post-production.
Massive reshoots. Drastic changes to tone, story and pacing. The CGI erasure of Henry Cavill’s moustache. The whole shebang. It isn’t just a surprise that Justice League more or less hangs together as a movie. It’s a surprise that anyone remembered to turn the cameras on.
So what was the DC story that they decided to leave in?
Our heroes are forced to unite to thwart the impending invasion of Steppenwolf (Ciaran Hinds), a standard-issue devil-horned baddie assembled from surprisingly awful CGI. He’s looking for three magical boxes of nebulous import. Together, they’ll terraform the planet such that it resembles his own; a broiling, primordial magma stew. Someone mentions Darkseid at one point. None of it matters.
Those boxes, they’re hidden. One is on Themyscira, the tropical woman-only utopia where Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) grew up. Another is in Atlantis, the submerged kingdom of Aquaman (Jason Momoa). The third is local. It’s powering the high-tech bits and bobs of Cyborg (Ray Fisher), whom Batman (Ben Affleck) recruits along with Flash (Ezra Miller) to battle Steppenwolf and his army of interchangeable Parademons.
I don’t recognise some of those names.
And therein lies the problem – one of them, anyway. Of all the issues with Justice League’s script (which is credited to Chris Terrio and Whedon), the biggest is how it’s forced to divvy up screen time between known quantities and important new characters. It’s difficult to get to know these characters because their motivations, personalities and relationships seem to change from one scene to the next. Their development probably lived in the festering holes left by excising any plot details that might have existed to set up future storylines. What’s gone is all the texture and connective tissue between scenes. What’s left is action, jokes, and dramatic poses. None of it coheres. The characters’ personalities would have developed alongside their understanding of a broader mythology that isn’t being used anymore.
Does the other stuff work in Justice League?
Barely, no, and to great comic effect, respectively.
The action is often fine, and sometimes conceptually audacious. (The Amazons attempting to keep their box away from Steppenwolf is a fantastic sequence.) But it’s all mired in excessive CGI. It might not be so much of an issue if the film hadn’t been colour graded and retouched into a completely different visual style. The initial palette was quite clearly similar to that of Batman v. Superman – dour and de-saturated. But everyone hated Batman v. Superman. And everyone loves those Crayola-coloured Marvel movies, so here we are.
The problem, though, is that the costumes, sets and props are designed around how they’re going to be shot and lit. The tampering highlights the artificiality. Nothing looks real. Everything looks faintly ridiculous.
It’s funny, at least?
Some people would have you believe so. But aside from a heartfelt speech given by Aquaman, who doesn’t realise he’s sat on Wonder Woman’s lasso, very few of the jokes landed for me. The obvious comic-relief is clearly intended to be Ezra Miller’s Flash. I found him insufferable. He’s a snarky millennial stereotype operating in the exact same mode as Tom Holland’s Spider-Man. I didn’t like that vibe in his movie, either.
But the dramatic poses are funny, right?
Oh, yeah, those are hilarious. You’d think such a niggle wouldn’t be worth mentioning. But in Justice League, they’re symptomatic of a larger issue. There really is just something off about DC’s cinematic universe. It hasn’t been approached the right way since the beginning. It continues to coast on the appeal of iconic characters; on their famous costumes and stories. But it hasn’t earned any significance to a moment such as, say, the Justice League stood alongside one another as momentous music swells. We don’t care about these characters. We’ve only just met them.
What’s funny is that Justice League tries to pull off these moments all the time. Each character has at least one, presumably for their marketing stills. But they often come in illogical places, the second or third time you meet them. Aquaman has a couple, even though we first meet him in a close-up reaction shot as Bruce Wayne talks about him. It’s all awkward and out of place. It’s Justice League trying to recreate the instantly-iconic visual of the Avengers stood in a circle in Age of Ultron as the camera slowly pans around them, but without any narrative build-up, and in almost every scene.
That sounds charming!
It is, actually. It’s also undeniably a complete mess and can’t be excused, critically. What to do? As I said on Twitter, I liked Justice League. Couldn’t help it. It feels, more so than any entry before it, like what this franchise might have been if it weren’t for studio interference and a host of other daunting production hurdles. Whedon’s efforts to salvage the film have had the unfortunate consequence not of actually saving it, but of suggesting another, better film that it might have been.
It also undeniably suffers for being released on the heels of Thor: Ragnarok, which is a better film with more visual invention and a better script. But they’re working towards similar goals, albeit by different routes. They’re both light and energetic. They’re both free from the moping and brooding and self-importance that can cripple knockabout superhero adventures. Justice League is sometimes funny, without ever being glib, and sometimes serious, without ever being pretentious or ponderous. There’s a good movie here. Critics and audiences won’t suggest so. Neither will the score at the end of this review. But it’s in there, somewhere.
Of DC’s offerings in recent years, only Wonder Woman is better than Justice League, and even then mostly because it’s tighter, and pulled in fewer directions. That isn’t to say Justice League is a good film. It isn’t, by any traditional metric. It’s a mess. But it isn’t offensive or cynical or, really, all that bad. It’s confused and flawed, but there’s no reason to hate it.
People will, of course. Because it’s fun to complain. Most people picked teams – and they long since picked Marvel. Nobody wants to be the critic who goes against the grain. The game becomes how savagely you can tear the film apart; how many “hilarious” metaphors you can dream up to say something fundamentally uninteresting. The tendency of the mainstream critic, when a film that was expected to be bad turns out slightly better than anticipated, is to say that they wanted to hate it more. That they wish it was worse.
Why? Shouldn’t you be glad it’s better than you were expecting? That it isn’t worse?
Some critics need to write their reviews while sat, like Aquaman, on the Lasso of Truth. Maybe then we could acknowledge that a bad movie can be a good time, and that a good movie can be a horrible experience, and that not everyone must love the same things or experience them in quite the same way.
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