“Justice League” Develops Banality into a Harrowing and Tiresome Art Form

If a committee of Warner Brothers executives got together to work their way through a 300 million dollar paint-by-numbers, it would look like Justice League.

With the odds stacked against it, no expectations, and the fate of exactly nothing of importance hanging in the balance, Justice League is still an utter disappointment.  The DC Extended Universe (DCEU) was recently buoyed by the impressive Wonder Woman film from Patty Jenkins earlier this year, but the franchise is back aground.  Justice League features a hodgepodge of messy scenes, poor storytelling, terrible CGI, lackluster characters, and no real stakes.  These failures are becoming hallmarks of Warner Brothers ill-advised attempts at a grittier version of Marvel, and the embarrassments are becoming too numerous to count.  I guess we’ll do our best.

I struggle to dream up a plot that is more generic than the one in Justice League.  The plot is a retread of every single superhero team-up film, with less-interesting characters and even less imagination.  A big monster from another dimension needs to gather a Macguffin (in this case, three) and bring about the opening of a portal that will end the world.  This is basically the plot to The Avengers, which is a much better movie, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows, which is about the same.  There’s very little variation on this idea in Justice League.

Because Superman is dead, there is more fear in the hearts of men so Parademons (which can smell out fear) are starting to cross into our reality because that’s how fear works.  This makes way for Steppenwolf to come to Earth via Skybeam, collect three MacGuffins known as Mother Boxes, and combine them into a doomsday machine.  Batman and Wonder Woman do not want this to happen, so they get together the other meta-humans to stop it.  When they prove utterly incapable of even scratching him, they use one Mother Box to revive Superman.  After an infuriating few moments where Superman tries to murder everyone and is very angry at Batman for some reason, he flies away and doesn’t show up until it is time to single-handedly destroy Steppenwolf without effort.  Since Superman is essentially immortal and untouchable, Steppenwolf starts to feel fear, so his Parademons eat him very easily and a Skybeam rescues him.

This is stupid for very many reasons.  First, as soon as Superman shows up the battle is over.  There is never any issue, concern, or question that the heroes are going to succeed once the Man of Steel show up, and we know they’re not going to kill off more characters or hurt Superman again so soon after reviving him.  Before Superman saved the day, there was at least some intrigue to the fight – it wasn’t clear how the characters were going to combine their strengths to best Steppenwolf, or if they were going to outsmart him or do something clever.  Nope, Superman shows up and effortlessly destroys this big bad character who we’ve spent two hours basically being unable to scratch.  It is an insult to the intelligence of the audience.  Then it gets much much worse when his own henchmen best him (the Parademons, who Batman has punched out over and over again, so we have an understanding of their relative power).  Steppenwolf just starts crying and gets sucked up by Skybeam. It doesn’t make any sense and then the movie is over.

Oh, I forgot – Lois Lane (Amy Adams, way too good for this movie) delivers a two-minute voice-over performance that would make Harrison Ford blush.  She sound tired, uninterested, and essentially is reduced to explaining the “thematic” elements of the two-hour snoozefest you just watched.  It’s like the end of a Sex in the City episode, only at least those had something interesting happening – plus you got to see boobs most of the time.

On a more technical level, the general appearance of the film is terrible, with the special effects and CGI looking especially embarrassing.  The major villain of the film is Steppenwolf, and he looks like he emerged from some mid-range video game cut scene, like some troll from a Middle Earth knock-off.  More than once I wondered if he was a leftover design from the Star Wars prequels that Warner Brothers purchased instead of thinking something up for themselves.  It is awful, probably the absolute worst-looking and most one-dimensional CGI character in any movie with a budget in excess of $100M.

Steppenwolf-Justice-League-Clip
This is from an actual movie made in 2017.

Steppenwolf is the worst-looking character, but he’s not the only failure.  Cyborg also looks awful, his face mired in the Uncanny Valley.  It’s simply off, especially when the character is moving or talking (so, most of the time).  There’s a weird sheen, a polished feel to his face that just doesn’t match up.  When he’s in flight or showing his full body, this crystalline, fractalized surface ebbs, flows, and clicks around, looking positively nonsensical and stupid.  By comparison, the Parademons (Steppenwolf’s fear-smelling henchmen) are revelations.

Why-Superman-Mouth-Weird-Justice-League
Oh, I almost forgot – they also CGI’ed Henry Cavill’s upper lip because he was filming another movie when he was called in for reshoots.  You can’t make this shit up.  Warner Brothers spent more on Superman’s upper lip than you’ll make in your lifetime.

Finally, the CGI explosion resulting from the Macguffin Convergence reminds me of the smoke monster from the end of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and the weird magnetic rock explosions from X-Men: Apocalypse — not really two movies you want to emulate.  The reality explosions are a hyper-neon purple; ugly, frenetic and stupid.

We might as well get to the characters.  Justice League picks up where Batman v Superman left off, with Batman and Diana Prince/Wonder Woman fighting a few battles, crushing some henchman, and generally proving that they’re capable of handling street-level crimes.  We also get scenes showcasing the newer characters that will join Batman and Wonder Woman later in the Justice League:  Barry Allen (The Flash) visits his father in a prison,  Victor (Cyborg) broods and complains to his father (Miles Dyson in the stupidest type-casting I’ve ever seen) about becoming some cybernetic organism, and Arthur Curry (Aquaman) jumps into the water and swims away.  It’s already obvious where this is going to go, right?  A team of people learn to work together to defeat a greater power and save the world from the sky beam.

landscape-1471431717-justice-league-trailer-cyborg
Then here’s Cyborg, fake face and Transformers body.  

Surprisingly, these characters work well together for the most part from the very beginning, teaming up well and hardly even bumping heads.  That lackluster tension isn’t there, which it least a slight breath of fresh air.  Of course, halfway through the film the team hypothesizes that they have the means for bringing Superman back from death by using one of the MacGuffin cubes.   However much sense that makes, the plot of the film henceforth hangs on whether or not Superman is going to join the team and help fight Steppenwolf in a gloriously tedious and boring final fight.   

Spoiler alert – yes he is.

And, while it’s already been posited that Steppenwolf may be the worst looking villain in the history of comic book movies (okay, okay, that’s probably this guy), he’s also probably one of the blandest, most generic feeling characters we’ve ever seen.  I almost can’t imagine that such a broad, boring, and lackluster villain was ever written, rendered, and included in a major Hollywood blockbuster release like this.  It’s dumbfounding.  This character is so obvious and ordinary that he almost lacks defining description.  He is one of the old Gods or something, and all he wants for Christmas is to bring about Hell on Earth because it’s his Birthright or something.  So he’s evil, he likes chaos, and he sure doesn’t like the people of Earth because they currently are on Earth.   Steppenwolf also has an axe that never cuts anything, it mostly just mostly just bounces people around – you know, like an axe does.  

 

One characteristic that actually makes Justice League stand out from the other DCEU failures is its inclusion of a snarky, awkward humor.  It’s an obvious course correction from the glower, dark, and gritty attempts from Batman v. Superman and Suicide Squad.  Most of the humor comes from The Flash, who always has a choice little one liner Unfortunately, Batman is almost just as quippy, a very clear marketable course correction to have a sort of fun and quirky Batman.  Some jokes fall flat sometimes, and it isn’t really my idea of a goof Justice League dynamic, but it is at least an attempt at being interesting -something I really can’t say about the plot, characters, or special effects.

Finally, we come to the “themes” of this banal film.  Mostly, it’s about the need for hope and teamwork, with a slight focus on the importance of leadership.  This is not a deep movie, and I don’t expect superhero movies like this to have much of a genuine theme to them.  I’d be happy with something going on underneath the surface, but with Justice League subtlety is left at the door.  That fits, though.  Not much happens under the the surface of the plot either, or the characters, so why should the thematic material be different?

It’s starting to feel like there isn’t anywhere for the DCEU to go.  On most accounts, the only unabashed success in this franchise was Wonder Woman from earlier this year.  I don’t think they can recapture the same fish-out-of-water, heroes-becoming-heroic spirit, especially not in the kind of world  where nightmarish fear-smelling demons are chasing magic boxes at the behest of a gigantic purple monster from the Stars who looks like a videogame character from 2002.  It’s just not going to work out.  I can feel the DCEU scrambling for something in Justice League, looking for something that will make them different and worthwhile.  Something that will make people want to see these characters and these movies as much as they want to see Deadpool, Tony Stark, Spider-Man, Logan and other characters from much more exciting movies.  

I would like for Justice League and other films in the DCEU to be good.  I think there are some great stories in this universe, and a lot of fun to be had.  There’s some fantastic Batman stuff in The Dark Knight Returns and Year One, some reasonable Superman stories (though they flubbed The Death of Superman already, after watching The Death of “Superman Lives” – What Happened?, I’m convinced there have to be cool stories centered around the Man of Steel out there somewhere). I would love to see a good Swamp Thing movie (focusing on the Alan Moore books, especially with a crazy psychedelic horror vibe).  The Green Lantern could be interesting if done correctly, but at this point I’ve been burned enough, and feel comfortable writing off any of these films not directed by Patty Jenkins.

I opened this piece by flippantly stating that nobody in their right mind could have had high expectations for Justice League, not based on the track record of those involved and the other films created in this universe.  After spending two hours of my life watching the bland insanity of this film, I realize that even with practically zero expectations, I was still still surprised by how terrible and disappointing Justice League actually was.

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