Justice League: a cinematic crime

Writing a review of the new Justice League  movie feels more than a little pointless. Not just because the gulf between fans and critics on the merits of Batman V Superman is as wide and fierce – and about as political – as that between President Trump’s fans and detractors. And not because you’ve likely already decided whether comic book movies are your bat signal or your kryptonite. It’s more that there’s not much point applying the usual criteria for cinematic judgement to Justice League. That is to say, I feel uneasy describing it as a bad film. Truth is, I’m not sure it’s even trying to be a film.

A better comparison can be found in the mystifyingly popular YouTube genre of computer game walkthroughs – in which the viewer watches someone else play a game they can’t be bothered to play for themselves. Lacking anything by way of plot, character or consequence, the hollow and repetitive bombast of Justice League feels designed for people who can’t be bothered having to pay attention to a two hour film. It’s not meant to make sense as a coherent story, more as a sequence of vicarious dopamine kicks you can enjoy while glancing between the screen and your smartphone.

 

 

But let’s tackle the story. Superman (Henry Cavill) is dead. Director Zack Snyder copped a lot of flak for his take on the blandest, most simplistically heroic of superheroes, by turning him into an angsty, gloomy alien that everyone hated. Here, he’s walking that back. Without our super guardian, the world is going to pot and vulnerable to extraterrestrial invasion. Feeling guilty for his role in offing Superman, Batman (Ben Affleck) decides to assemble a team of heroes to defend earth from any space nasties. Before he can manage that, an ancient alien plasticine goat-man turns up with a horde of steampunk zombie mosquitoes to reclaim three magic boxes with which he can destroy the world. Along the way, said goat-man kills a lot of Amazons and Atlanteans and a good few Russians.

Is it better than Batman V Superman? Possibly, but that’s not so much choosing between favourite children as identifying your favourite root canal.

It’s clear that DC hasn’t learned anything from the success of Wonder Woman. That film was such a treat for its simplicity – a story that, while not groundbreaking, hit the notes we recognise as good storytelling. Likewise, it made a virtue of character. Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) was given space to develop into the sort of superhero we hadn’t seen before, one for whom compassion was as vital as her ability to bounce bullets off her bracelets. Above all that, it was fun. Nobody in Justice League seems to be enjoying themselves, with the cast (Ezra Miller excepted) phoning in performances that don’t convey anything but “contractual obligation”.

Which isn’t to say there hasn’t been some attempt to lighten the mood. It’s no secret that Joss Whedon was brought in to reshoot large swathes of the film. His scenes aren’t top flight Whedon, more generic wisecrack than glittering character interaction, but they still cast a pall over the rest of the film. (Dialogue aside, you can spot the reshoots by watching Henry Cavill’s top lip, as his moustache has been digitally removed, giving him an odd, Botox-ed grimace). The best moments are the bits that feel that they belong in a different movie, such as the sequence in which Wonder Woman foils a terrorist attack or the iconic moment Clark Kent tears open his shirtfront to reveal that big red S. And there’s no getting around how bolted on these additional scenes feel, as the characters step back from the action to have a deep and meaningful moment, rather than letting their development shape the action.

Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman reportedly had her role boosted at the last minute, but there’s still not quite enough of her. In fact, there’s not quite enough of anyone. In rushing to copy the Avengers team ups of the Marvel movies, DC has trampled over some promising introduction tales for Flash (Ezra Miller) and Cyborg (Ray Fisher). Even Batman feels like a stranger. He’s not the cerebral dark knight of the Nolan films and not quite the straightforward hero of yore. Cramming all these strangers together so soon feels like we’ve skipped straight to the season finale of a new series and missed out on the meat of the story.

 

Ben Affleck as Batman. Photo: Supplied.

It’s telling that recent successful Marvel films such as Spider-Man and Ant-Man have dialled back on the apocalyptic spectacle in favour of intimate character tales, with heroes who feel recognisably human. The crux of the issue with the newer DC films is that, Wonder Woman, aside, they’re not set in a world that looks anything much like our own. The DC heroes have always tended more towards the mythic. In trying to bolt on the gritty, realistic Batman of The Dark Knight to a world full of mermen, aliens and plasticine goat-men, they end up with something that is neither credible nor campy fun.

Maybe this is why Snyder has gone for a video game aesthetic. In the world of digital sprites, nothing is more or less artificial than anything else. Certainly, the sequences shot in a physical set look no more convincing than those which have been obviously green-screened. Maybe the Trump comparison is more fitting than I realised. When everything is fake, it’s impossible to tell what works, what is good and what is quite shockingly awful. When a film is not a film, can it really be a bad film?

Justice League

     No stars.

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