I finally saw Justice League last night – on the backs of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, and Wonder Woman, I can’t say I had a lot of interest in seeing it on opening weekend, and from its relatively disappointing opening domestic gross ($90 million), I wasn’t alone in putting it off. As it turned out, it was the worst possible night to see it: winter finally roared into the Twin Cities, and driving back to my new home was a tense nightmare, thanks to 25 feet visibility and an icy, sleety mess. Serves you right, the elements seemed to say, serves you right …
As you may have gathered, I’m not a fan of what DC/Warner Bros have released so far in their mostly futile pursuit to replicate the immense financial and critical success enjoyed by Marvel Studios. Certainly, these are early days for the DC cinematic universe, and it’s not like I’m not critical of Marvel’s output too, but as a rule the Marvel movies have a lot more going for them, tonally covering a wide ground. Thor:Ragnarok is a good example, shifting from the dour, humourless tone that threatened to torpedo the franchise after The Dark World, Marvel took a completely different approach, and the result was a fun movie that grew organically from the fact that the character’s pomposity, especially as played by Chris Hemsworth, is an integral part of the appeal. The DC movies, in contrast, are mostly one-note in tone, and none more so than Justice League.
This movie is an absolute disaster from start to finish. In fact it’s so flawed, it’s hard for me to pick which element to choose from, so I’ll just jump into it with the biggest of all, the cesspool from which erupts a geyser of literary excrement. The screenplay is absolutely atrocious.
I’ll start with the characters – I was uninterested in just about all of them, mostly because they’re all written with one trait which carries them through the entire movie, to the point that there’s no sense that they have actual character arcs. Sure, they experience a number of plot points, but that’s not what a character arc is. The fact that a character goes in one end of a story and comes out the other end absolutely unchanged is embarrassingly bad for any writer to turn in. Sure, this is a superhero movie, and I get it: there’s no need for Oscar-worthy writing. But you know what, I bet there are plenty of casual moviegoers that inherently sense weaknesses in a movie, even if they’re not ruminating over how to review it the next day. Why? Because people gravitate to, or are repulsed by, other people – but only when we feel we know them. Even the least interesting people still seem to have a life. Not so in Justice League. At no point did I ever feel like I was watching an attempt to show super people, just super things that looked like people. Batman is just a guy with a growly voice, and in Justice League, he’s almost like the Dad figure, stripping away whatever he had in the Nolan movies. When asked what powers he possesses by The Flash, Bruce Wayne replies, “I’m rich” – it’s meant to be funny, but all it does is capture how uninteresting this version of the character is. The choice of actor makes all the difference, and Affleck’s thick, middle aged, jaded, glib Bruce Wayne is a far cry from Christian Bale’s intense, edgy version, recalling instead, George Clooney. The Flash is a young motormouth, as played by Ezra Miller. He’s tiresome, a more charming version of Big Bang’s Sheldon Cooper and he wore out his welcome within his first few scenes for me. Cyborg is a complete non entity, so much so I felt bad for Ray Fisher, the actor portraying him. As a character, Cyborg gets to figure out how to win the battle, but there’s nothing to him in this movie, just a way overdesigned visual. Gal Gadot’s performance as Wonder Woman carries over to being the heart and soul of the team, but the movie is focused as much on how beautiful she is rather than how powerful she can be, with a number of pretty gratuitous shots of her bum peppered throughout the movie. Then there’s Aquaman, who is pretty much written the way a fan would write the character once they knew Jason Momoa was cast: The Rock with hair. None of these characters change from start to finish, even though they’re pretty much told by other people the lessons they have to learn. Yeah, the script is that bad. You have to learn how to be a hero, Flash. You have to do what your mother would have done, Aquaman. You need to get off the pity-pot, Cyborg. These are just boxes that the characters check en route to the closing credits, skills to help them level up. But by the end of the movie, they’re just the same as they were at the start.
But the screenplay has much bigger flaws than bad character arcs. The movie spends so much time introducing each character in the first act that there’s almost zero plot development happening, and it truly kills the pace. Is this really the only way to tell the story of a group of people getting together to save the world? Did I really need to see Wonder Woman saving people from getting blown up by a guy whose motivations and actions were not even part of the story? At no point did the writers (mostly Chris Terrio, with rewrites by Joss Whedon) seem to have gotten together and said, “Let’s assume everyone already knows who these people are.” Even if that wasn’t the case, that assumption would have allowed the actual story to be told, and within that framework, those unknown characters could become known. Nope, not here. Fan Fiction 101.
The actual story involves a villain badly named Steppenwolf (yeah yeah, I know it’s a Kirby Karacter, but The King was a concept guy, not a writer), who comes from some evil looking planet (probably not Apokolips) with an army of flying insect-looking zombies called Parademons (they at least resemble the source material) who wants to reacquire three completely undisguised Maguffins known as “Mother Boxes”, then ravage Earth, because … well, that’s what villains do. Steppenwolf has even less character traits than the good guys. He’s simply a bad guy, and it doesn’t really matter what his motivations are because there’s very little going on in this guy’s mind, he’s as bland and generic as the cnematic version of Doomsday, from BvS. No subtlety, no depth, just action with a surface-level motivation – Steppenwolf is EXACTLY how you don’t write an antagonist. I’ll stop here to say that the Kirby elements are mostly paid lip service too, as if they’re nothing more than Easter Eggs for the fans instead of actual plot points. When Steppenwolf says he’s doing it for Darkseid, the majority of audience members will hear he’s doing it for the “dark side”, rendering what he actually says completely meaningless. And with this character, the story gives us an incredibly lazy backstory – turns out he was already on Earth before, millenia ago, and repulsed by the combined forces of the Amazons, the Atlanteans, and humans. You know, like in Lord of the Rings, before the age of man. Simple-minded storytelling. Backstory should enhance the actual plot – in Justice League, the backstory actually replaces the plot, so that by the time we know what’s happening, all that’s left is for the good guys to win. But not only do we have a half hour wasted on introductions, and a backstory that spoonfeeds the audience before the main event, they also throw in the old chestnut of good guys fighting each other, in a spectacularly meaningless face off in which the entire city around them don’t even bother to show up. No gawkers, no news crews, no army of cellphone users hoping to go viral. Like almost every moment in this movie, this fight is nothing more than fan service, and all it does it eat up time that could have been better used on story development. But why bother to write a good story when you know there’s a built in audience?
Same goes for the ever present CGI. Justice League was an expensive movie to make, but the CGI that’s in just about every scene is awfully cheap looking. For some reason, Steppenwolf is entirely a CGI character, possessed of that rubbery-limbed movement you see in lots of cheap productions, shown at its worst in the face, which is painfully fake looking. If you have a character that’s as human-looking as you or I (head, torso, two arms, two legs, etc), find an actual actor to play the part. Steppenwolf is pretty much the nadir of the movie, from the visuals, to the motivation, to the insanely bad dialogue that Ciaran Hinds has to say. “No! It cannot be!” Really? That’s the best you could do?
Then there’s the matter of inconsistency, and how it leads to massive plot contrivances. Wonder Woman exhibits essentially the same power as The Flash in that early scene, then never actually uses that power again. The Flash, given what he can do, is rendered almost powerless, called upon to save people instead of using his super speed to pick off Parademons by the score. It’s like Quicksilver being sent home because he “isn’t ready” in X-Men: Days Of Future Past, even though with his power he could have ended the threat in seconds, and Hiro going from one stupid depowering situation to another in Heroes because the writers didn’t know how to address the full capability of the powers they gave him. Superman, when he cares to show up (despite knowing a potential extinction-level event is going on halfway across the world, he decides to hang out with Lois Lane), also leaves halfway during the fight when it’s pretty obvious he could beat Steppenwolf to a pulp any time he wants. Instead of telling the League – “hey go save those Russians, I got this”, he takes off at a time when the villain could still win! And speaking of those Russians, the subplot that attempts to humanize what a Steppenwolf victory would mean for humanity is spectacularly lame and unaffecting. The scenes are clearly shoehorned into the plot, and if this is one of the things Whedon added, his contribution was a waste of money.
But the most eye-rollingly terrible plot point of them all is in the resurrection of Superman (there’s no way that was a spoiler, sorry). Faced with an indescribably unknown source of alien power, and the fact that Superman has been dead for quite some time, it takes less than a couple of seconds to come up the means by which to bring him back to life … not only that, IT WORKS PERFECTLY. On the scale of plot contrivances, this is a solid 11 out of 10. It’s insulting on some level, but really, it’s just indicative of the absolute lack of interest Warners showed in getting this movie made. It’s a cheap, shabby money grab that shows no class or respect for either the audience or the source material. If nothing else, its only allegiance is to the almighty dollar – ironic considering the opening weekend gross.
©Andrew Hope, 2017