23 November 2017

Justice League review

As much as I'd hoped otherwise, you simply can't talk about Justice League - DC/Warner Bros' would-be answer to Marvel Studios' Avengers Assemble - in any meaningful way without first talking about its arduous journey to the screen. The long version of this story is an article all by itself, and still shrouded in secrecy and PR spin - the short version is that Justice League's production was already marred by heavy studio interference even before Joss Whedon was brought in to write and direct reshoots in the wake of Zack Snyder stepping away due to a family tragedy, and unfortunately the resulting film is exactly as messy and conflicted as that might indicate. It's a Frankenstein's monster of a movie, torn between Snyder's original vision, Snyder's course-corrected version of the film and Joss Whedon's version of the film following Snyder's departure, and this clash of styles, tones and approaches ends up being far more than just a small problem - it's pretty much the films defining feature.

Following the death of Superman in Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, Justice League sees Bruce Wayne and Diana Prince attempting to create a team of superheroes to battle an incoming threat in the form of Steppenwolf, who intends to terraform the Earth on behalf of his master, Darkseid. With him are an army of Parademons, who have been kidnapping people in an attempt to learn the whereabouts of the Mother Boxes, three ancient ancient artefacts that once united give Steppenwolf the power to complete his plan.

It's a plot that bears more than just a passing resemblance to that of Avengers Assemble, but beyond that the two films couldn't be more different. Where Avengers Assemble is a well-directed and tightly written coming together of characters you like in order to defeat a charismatic and interesting villain, Justice League is a bloated and inconsequential coming together of characters you either don't know or no longer recognise (because of how radically different they've been written to previous films - but also quite literally unrecognisable, in Superman's case) in order to defeat a boring, poorly rendered PS3 cutscene.

It's a bad, bad movie. Not just uninspired or bland or messy (although it's all those things too) but genuinely terrible - a cinematic catastrophe, failing at nearly every conceivable level of film-making from its opening frame to its closing, so fundamentally broken that it becomes difficult to separate its myriad of issues from one another. And that's not a joke - this has been genuinely hard review to write, and not through lack of things to criticise. I mean, where am I meant to begin? With the awful CGI? The bad editing? The lacklustre action? The garish, inconsistent cinematography? The weak score? The underdeveloped characters? The terrible story-telling? I'd say poorly directed too, but I'd hate to wrongly imply that Justice League even feels as if it *was* directed - it's maybe the most "made-by-committee" film I've ever seen, so obviously compromised by the studio and hacked together in post-production to be something it was never meant to be that it becomes difficult to hold anyone other than Warner Bros themselves responsible for the outright disaster that has ended up on screen.

The result of all that? A film so deeply unengaging and easily forgettable that I'm impressed I managed to stay awake throughout, let alone that I remembered to write about it later. This is meant to be the epic culmination of four years worth of setup, but it lands with all the impact of a half-hearted fart. Even if Justice League wasn't so obviously flawed in so many other areas, the DCEU hasn't done anywhere near enough legwork for this film to have the same kind of impact as Avengers Assemble did back in 2012 - the now iconic circular shot of the Avengers united in New York is a genuinely great fist-pumping moment, but the equivalent in Justice League feels about as victorious as a limp, slightly moist handshake, and it's all because none of it feels at all earned, either in-universe or out.

It's an enormously unimportant and inconsequential film, a by-product the huge amount of material that has obviously been cut, reshot, edited and re-edited to try to get Justice League into the shape it's now in, and the result it that the story feels both incredibly rushed and completely weightless. Sure, we all logically know that the heroes win ninety-nine times out of a hundred in these films, but any decent movie can make you forget that and reel you in all the same - here, Steppenwolf is so feeble and ineffective (both as a character in his own right and as a functional part of this story) that you're never under any illusion that he might succeed, a problem only worsened by just how much of the film is spent alongside this rubber-faced and poorly rendered anti-threat. Come the end of the film, we still have no idea how Steppenwolf's invasion has affected the rest of the world - the stakes here are completely non-existent, a total lack of drama or tension that means the Justice League's formation feels entirely perfunctory.

And that's because ultimately, it is, and not just within the context of the film itself. While it may not have always been the case (love his films or hate them, Zack Snyder is nothing if not an ambitious director), there is no thematic purpose or artistic intent behind the version of Justice League that's been released - it's simply a film that exists because in the current cinematic climate it seems like it needs to, guided solely by the idea that "well, Marvel have one, don't they?". Everyone might be tired of reading the same articles about superhero fatigue that roll around every few months, but Justice League is exactly the kind of film that could actually cause people grow weary of them - lazy, vapid, generic, soulless, formulaic, corporate-mandated trash.

The most damning thing that I can say about Justice League is that it makes Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice look good. At least that tried to do something interesting with its half-baked ideas and derivative themes - Justice League merely (and barely) exists.

For the sake of completeness there are a few things I liked about Justice League - Ezra Miller's Flash is a fun character, Jason Momoa's Aquaman has potential, there's a handful of lines I quite liked and there's an action beat in the middle of Superman's resurrection scene that's frankly awesome - but they're all so heavily outweighed or undermined by literally everything else that they're barely worth taking into consideration. The success of Wonder Woman earlier this year might have given us hope, but the extent of Justice League's failings proves now that the DCEU isn't a franchise that needs saving - it's simply way beyond that. It's one that needs euthanizing in order to clear the way for something different, and the sooner that can happen, the better.

1 star

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