Saturday, November 18, 2017

Justice League

I don't go to the movies very often any more, and when I do, as a rule, I try to avoid sequels or installments in long-running franchises - a policy that I think has saved me many a time from feeling my ticket money was wasted. But Thursday night, when I went to see the DC Comics film Justice League, I made an exception. This was an easy decision to make, for two reasons: first, because I would have had to wait an additional hour to see Murder on the Orient Express, and the other choices (including a "Thor" movie and a comedy sequel starring Will Farrell and Mark Wahlberg) didn't interest me in the slightest; and second, because I haven't seen any of the films to which Justice League could be construed as a sequel. So, with little danger of being let down in my expectations based on a previous film, I went and had a good time.

Yes, comic book movie fans, it is true. I have never seen Man of Steel, the first film in which Henry Cavill played Clark Kent/Superman, though I have seen a few excerpts of it. Also, I have never viewed even a tiny bit of Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, in which Cavill was joined by Ben Affleck as Bruce Wayne / Batman and Gal Gadot in the role of Diana Prince / Wonder Woman, who had a movie of her own earlier this year. So this is kind of a sequel to three movies, all helmed (except Wonder Woman) by this movie's director Zack Snyder. The difficulty in reviewing this movie without committing a major spoiler becomes apparent when I have to bleep out part of the following sentence: Although Superman dies at the end of Batman v Superman, ### ##### principal stars return for this outing, in which they are joined by Ezra Miller (Credence Barebone in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them) in his first full-strength outing as Barry Allen / the Flash; Jason Momoa, best known as Ronon Dex on Stargate: Atlantis and the title character in 2011's Conan the Barbarian, as Arthur Curry / Aquaman; and Ray Fisher, unknown to me, as Victor Stone / Cyborg. All three of these new superheroes have been teased in cameo appearances in earlier DC films (including Suicide Squad and BvS), and each of them is slated to headline his own movie within the next 3 years (Aquaman next year, and both Flashpoint and Cyborg in 2020).

In the "also starring" category, some of them making repeat appearances in the current franchise1, are accomplished stars Diane Lane as Clark's mom, a still photo of Kevin Costner as Clark's late dad, Amy Adams as Lois Lane, Jeremy Irons as Bruce's man Alfred, Connie Nielsen as the Amazon queen who happens to be Diana's mom, and Joe Morton (who played a quirky inventor on Eureka) as an ethically-challenged scientist who happens to be Victor's dad. I didn't notice it at the time, but my research tells me David Thewlis (Remus Lupin in the "Harry Potter" films) appears in this film too, reprising a role from Wonder Woman. Also joining the cast for the first, or in some cases only, time in this film franchise are CiarĂ¡n Hinds - an actor of many faces and accents - unfortunately submerged beyond recognition in the stop-motion CGI role of Steppenwolf; J.K. Simmons, who has played Peter Parker's publisher in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, as Police Commissioner Gordon; Billy Crudup as Barry's jailbird dad; and an uncredited Holt McCallany (TV's Medium) as the burglar who tangles with Batman in the opening scenes.

I haven't seen any of the recent DC Universe films, but I've been equally remiss in following Marvel Universe franchises. It sometimes takes me a while to remember which is which. For example, I spent a few minutes during this movie wondering why Spiderman wasn't in it. So, obviously, you shouldn't take me as an authority on these things. But I saw a recent video review of the latest X-Men movie Logan, which made an interesting case that the superhero film genre is responding to changes in the needs of society by turning in a more pessimistic, dystopian direction, and increasingly exploring doubts and ironies about the very concept of heroes. This movie continues that trajectory somewhat, depicting a world that is teetering on the brink of apocalypse, that is almost beyond saving, and some may wonder whether it deserves saving, or whether the superheroes are really doing it a service by attempting to save it.

This downkey atmosphere is partly, but not entirely, a result of Superman no longer being around, having (the early scenes explain, for those of us who missed it) sacrificed himself to stop a monster/weapon of mass destruction brought to life by a power from beyond this world. Now the world is in even worse danger, because a supervillain-alien-demigod named Steppenwolf, who was once stopped from conquering the world by a coalition of Atlanteans, Amazons, Olympian gods, and men, has decided now is the perfect time to make a second attempt. The aforementioned power from beyond this world proves to be but one of three "mother boxes" that Steppenwolf plans to bring together into "the unity," which will destroy the whole planet and create a new world in the image of Steppenwolf's hellish homeworld.

There's a lot of CGI in this movie, and unfortunately, not all of it is of the most convincing quality. But when the eye is able to follow the action and the mind can be persuaded to believe what it is seeing, it has a remarkable look and a lot of exciting battles. However, and perhaps to an extent that will leave rabid comic-film fans squirming with impatience, this movie's particular strength is its treatment of its six main superhero characters as human beings, and the development of their relationship.

So, without any further blather, here are the three scenes that made this movie for me:

(1) When Barry Allen walks into his apartment, switches on the light, and finds Bruce Wayne sitting in his second-favorite chair, waiting to recruit him for the Justice League. This whole scene, extending to where they drive off together in the Batmobile, is superbly written, and both Affleck and Miller deliver their dialogue with comic flair and character chemistry. I particularly liked Barry's hilarious attempt to explain his costume (made of a material designed to withstand space shuttle re-entry conditions), and Bruce's answer when asked what his superpower is.

(2) Lois Lane's confession to [### bleeped out for spoiler reasons ###] that she hasn't been strong since Clark died, and he would be disappointed with her. The emotions surrounding the entire plot of this act of the movie, which I can't describe without ruining it for you, cover an enormous range and are very effective.

(3) Barry's attempt to say goodbye to a little Russian girl, which left me guffawing and thinking, "Did he really say that?"

There are plenty of runner-up scenes, like the one in which Bruce counts his injuries after getting the stuffing beaten out of him, or when he tells Diana that Clark - who, you may remember, is actually Kal-El of the planet Krypton - is the more human of the two of them, or when Arthur unexpectedly opens up about his emotions (a perfectly timed moment that pays off brilliantly just when you're starting to wonder whether it's going to work). I think Diana is a great character (quite a looker too), and Victor has interesting problems to work through, and to be sure, Jason Momoa and Henry Cavill both supply enough masculine animal attraction that it's a wonder the picture doesn't distort around them, for relativistic reasons.

Nevertheless, my vote for the most fun character has to go to Barry Allen. He's just so endearingly insecure, chatty, funny, charged with nervous energy that keeps him running fast even when he isn't moving, afflicted with numerous fears and insatiable dietary needs. I predict his solo movie will be more of a hit than the Aquaman and Cyborg ones, because even though Jason Momoa is the epitome of unreconstructed male coolness - I mean, seriously, he makes Hugh Jackman ("Wolverine") look like a nebbish - the average person isn't going to identify with him, or feel close to his character; while Cyborg just isn't very human. Also, in a way that strangely parallels Cavill's role in this franchise, it seems Miller's character in an upcoming Fantastic Beasts sequel is going to #### #### #### ### ####. Oops. Had to bleep another spoiler there. If he keeps this up, he'll be a shoo-in for the list of "best multiple franchise actors"2 - which, I was amazed to notice, doesn't have Jeff Goldblum on it. But that's a rant for another time. Overall grade: B+

1Not that I would notice, but those of you following the series would.
2Anyone below Danny Trejo on this list is apparently being damned with faint praise.

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