Justice League (2017, Zack Snyder)

justice-league

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

For this review of Justice League, the fifth film in the DC Extended Universe series of superhero movies, I’m going to do something different. Rather than watch the movie, scribble a few notes, do some research and then type up a blog post at a later date, I’m going to write it as the DVD plays. I’ll note down observations as they occur to me. Aside from correcting typos, I won’t do any retrospective changes. Here goes…

The first scene is iPhone footage of Superman chatting to some kids. I now remember that he died in the previous mash-up film, 2016’s beyond turgid Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Oh, we’ve now cut to the present day and there’s a discarded newspaper with the headline ‘Superman is dead’. Given that Henry Cavill, who plays Superman, is front and centre on the DVD cover, I’m gonna guess that the character’s Jesus metaphor will extend to a resurrection.

Now a criminal is fighting Batman on a roof. It’s dark and there’s steam everywhere, a visual palette that makes me wish I were watching the Tim Burton Batman. Or Gotham. Have you seen Gotham? The TV show? It’s *amazing* – it’s the best-looking show on television, so beautifully shot and designed, and the characters are all brilliantly macabre and theatrical.

Oh, shit. My mind wandered already. Back to the film. Now Batman is fighting some strange, buzzy, giant-insect thing. His butler, Alfred, is back at HQ and looking at screens like he’s Chloe in 24. He says he has ‘Luthor’s notes’, which are full of a repeating pattern of three boxes. On other screens, there are photos of four characters, including Wonder Woman.

A song has started: a quirky, Scandinavian-sounding woman sings over a piano as we see music-video-style shots of the world mourning Superman. Poor Lois Lane lies in a double bed all alone. Clark Kent’s mum moves out of her house. A newspaper front page links the made-up-for-a-film death of Superman to the real-life deaths of David Bowie and Prince. ‘Did they return to their planet?’ it asks crassly.

CRIME! In slow motion, some twat kicks over a crate of oranges outside a shop. It seems the world is a worse place now that Superman’s gone!

Joss Whedon’s name is in the writing credits. (I knew it would be. He was brought in to tweak the script then took over directing the film when Zack Synder had to leave for personal reasons.) This is reassuring. I bet the humour will work really well…

Now we’re in London. We swoop past the Shard! Tower Bridge has a huge black flag with Superman’s S logo on it! There’s St Paul’s Cathedral! A well-dressed gang break into a building and it’s a well-staged sequence. The music’s fun, the shots are bold. Oh, now it’s got a bit silly: Wonder Woman is across the street. In full cosplay outfit. Standing on top of the Lady Justice statue on the Old Bailey. How did she get up there? WHY is she up there? Now she’s suddenly inside the building, using her lasso of truth to find out that the men are terrorists.

Oh, fuck off, Hollywood. A British criminal committing a crime in the bloody City of London has just said ‘four city blocks’ are about to be destroyed. Not everyone talks like an American!

Wonder Woman to the rescue. She beats everyone up. She dodges bullets. She pushes a hostage out of the way of a speeding bullet. She throws the bomb so high in the air it smashes through the ceiling and explodes in mid-air. What a load of laws-of-physics-flaunting horseshit.

Now Bruce Wayne is in… Iceland, I guess? He’s in a town looking for a ‘stranger’ who brings fish when the locals are hungry. The one guy who answers in English is on the DVD cover. He’s Aquaman. Bruce tells Aquaman that he’s building an alliance to defend the world (and presumably reckons that some bloke he’s never met will be more useful than the private army Bruce could easily afford to fund).

Later, on Bruce’s private jet, he’s discussing the plot (if you can call it that) with Alfred. Jeremy Irons is bringing new meaning to the phrase phoning it in. Alfred has been researching another potential recruit: Barry Allen of Central City. He’s ‘completely off the grid’ but they also know he regularly visits his father in prison. How is that completely off the grid, then? There’s also mention of another guy – Victor Stone, genius IQ, football scholar… and dead. Er, why are they interested, then?

When Alfred mentions Diana (aka Wonder Woman), Bruce bristles. He fancies her. Of course he does. Now Alfred’s made a smarmy reference to a better Batman film by sarcastically mentioning ‘exploding wind-up penguins’. Oh, piss off.

The storytelling in this movie is absolutely atrocious. Information is just dropped into scenes with no context or justification or finesse or meaning or impact on character.

Here’s a bit of humour. Barry Allen can move so fast it’s imperceptible. Kinda like Quicksilver in the X-Men films. Now I wish I were watching X-Men: Days of Future Past instead of this. In his first scene Barry draws glasses and a moustache on a bully’s face. Sides. Splitting.

With Barry introduced, we move onto the next member of the team: Victor. He’s part-man, part-machine, and clearly not-dead. He was injured in an accident and his scientist father rebuilt him (as you do). He seems to have a chip on his shoulder. (A microchip, am I right, guys?!)

Jesus, where are we now? This film has ADHD. We’re cutting around all over the shop. Oh, I see – we’re on Diana’s home island with the Amazons. They have a magical box (no sniggering at the back), which is ‘awakening’. It glows, it explodes. They point arrows at it. Then a huge, hulking CGI creature arrives via a portal or something. ‘Steppenwolf,’ says one of the bland Amazons. Cheers, love! Saves me looking up his name on Wikipedia. He’s been searching for the box. Lots of the alien insect creatures follow through the portal and we’re into one of those CG-heavy action scenes that makes you think filmmakers are now deliberately aping computer games in an attempt to please Millennials. The Amazon leader does a runner with the box but Steppenwolf gets his motor running and heads out on the highway. He chases and steals the box.

‘We have to light the ancient warning fire,’ she says once Steppenwolf has left.

‘The fire has not burned for 5000 years,’ replies another bland Amazon. ‘Men won’t know what it means.’

‘Men won’t. She will.’

I’m now reminded of The Lord of the Rings’ wonderful warning-fires sequence. It’d be wrong to switch off this garbage and watch that instead, wouldn’t it?

Cut to Diana at her day job in a museum. The sound on the nearby telly magically rises and a hysterical BBC news reporter blathers on about a fire somewhere in the world. Diana knows what this means…

And now we’re with Lois Lane at the Daily Planet in Metropolis. Amy Adams must have the worst agent in Hollywood. She was really good in Spielberg’s Catch Me if You Can, then couldn’t get another job for love nor money. Now she’s trapped in this DC contract and is given perfunctory, badly written scenes like this one where she and Clark’s mum fail the Bechdel test.

Diana’s come to visit Bruce. She’s just made a passing reference to the Chris Pine character from her solo film, and I now wish I were watching that instead. Or any other Chris Pine movie. I love the Star Treks he’s in. Yes, all three of them. And Unstoppable is an amazing film. It’s essentially one 90-minute action scene but is also great fun and-

Fuck! Got distracted again. Diana is now telling Bruce who Steppenwolf is. Via grimy, CGI flashbacks. To cut an underdeveloped story short he’s a powerful bad guy who wants the Mother Boxes, three mystical cubes that contain nebulous but enormous power. There’s a common problem with these kinds of films: they misunderstand how a MacGuffin works. (I’ve paused the DVD while I make this point.) A MacGuffin – the term was popularised by Alfred Hitchcock – is an object or idea in a story that motivates the characters but is essentially unimportant to the viewer. In a heist movie, it’s the money in the vault. In a Indiana Jones film, it’s the ancient relic. But in many superhero films the MacGuffin is so ridiculously bizarre or maddeningly vague you stop caring that the characters care. A MacGuffin shouldn’t need explaining. *Because it’s not important.* In Reservoir Dogs, there isn’t a big long sequence exploring why a gang of criminals want to steal some jewels; we just understand that they’re valuable. It’s how the MacGuffin affects the characters that counts. In Justice League, the Mother Boxes have no psychological impact on our characters at all.

Press play. Bloody hell, I’m only half an hour in. I need to stop commenting on everything I think of.

Diana says that, thousands of years ago, various races – Amazons, men, gods – came together to form an alliance to defeat Steppenwolf. The Mother Boxes were then split up to hide them. “One was entrusted to the Amazons,” says Diana in voiceover. “One to the Atlanteans… The box of men was buried in secret.” This script REALLY has a hard-on for The Lord of the Rings, doesn’t it?

Bruce and Diana’s recruitment scheme continues. Bruce finds Barry in an abandoned building – it’s now clear that Barry is this film’s comic relief. His dialogue feels like it’s from a different movie; it’s more like the tone in Marvel’s Ant-Man or Guardians of the Galaxy. Some of it’s amusing, but it’s mostly tiresome. It’s far from breezy wit. This comedy feels plastered on top of someone else’s script. (Rumour has it extensive reshoots were ordered to make the film funnier.)

Meanwhile, Diana seeks out Victor. He knows that she’s Wonder Woman and that Bruce is Batman. How? Fuck knows. And also meanwhile, Aquaman swims down to the bottom of the ocean. One of the boxes is there and bad guys arrive to steal it. How did they know it was there? Fuck knows.

Now, I’m not a comic-book fan. I love movies based on them, but actual comic books themselves? Nope, not for me. So I may be very wide off the mark here. But it strikes me that one of the reasons this storytelling doesn’t work is that aping a comic book too closely. Scenes are short. Information is summarised succinctly and then we move on. Emotion and humour are faded up and down like sound effects rather than feeling integral to the characters and situations. Seemingly important characters pop up with no explanation then vanish from the story just as quickly. There’s no movie-like development, growth, progression or pacing.

I’m banging on now. Let’s cover the next few scenes with just one-line comments. JK Simmons has turned up as Detective Jim Gordon. There’s a shameless shot of Gal Gadot’s arse. Steppenwolf has taken hostages including Victor’s dad, who’s played by Miles Dyson from Terminator 2. (I now wish I were watching Terminator 2. But I always wish that.) Batman, Wonder Woman, Victor (aka Cyborg, I think) and Barry (aka The Flash) save the hostages with relative ease. They don’t break a sweat. I bet the CGI team had to pull a few all-nighters, though. Oh, and Aquaman shows up. He helps by controlling water or something.

Right, so now Steppenwolf has two of the Mother Boxes but needs the third – the one entrusted to men. And Victor has that one. It had ended up at the lab where Vic’s dad works. Ooh, here’s a bit of inter-team drama. Bruce wants to use the Mother Box to revive Superman from the dead. (Barry mentions Pet Semetary – good gag.) Diana says it’s a bad idea and rows with Bruce. He cruelly – but accurately – calls her out for spending a century doing bugger all to help innocent people. At least the scenes are *about* something now, but we’re also into that slow middle phase of a superhero movie where people in the cinema start going for a wee.

Barry and Victor dig up Clark Kent’s body, then the whole team go to the alien ship from Man of Steel and, thanks to some bullshit science, resurrect him. But Superman is pissed: with his shirt off to please certain fans, he fights his former colleagues. He’s especially angry at Batman. Ungrateful twat. But he calms down when Lois Lane appears on the scene and the pair leave together. But – oh no! – Steppenwolf has sneaked in and stolen the third Mother Box! Cripes! He has them all now! Which is bad!

Diana’s not too concerned, though. ‘So we find them,’ she says. ‘If the boxes are even close to each other, there is going to be some kind of energy surge.’ Seriously, that’s a line of dialogue she actually says. I know the global geek concensus is that Diana Prince is a marvellous character and a great role model for women of all ages and that Gal Gadot is a goddess of imperishable magnificence and all that. But I’m really bored of the character being flawless. Her enjoyable solo film gave her a bit of depth, but in these crossover events she has to the perfectly beautiful, unflappable know-it-all who can do anything. Surely characters are only interesting if they have to overcome things.

Next we get another lame attempt at comedy when Batman nervously asks Aquaman if he talks to fish. “The water does the talking,” says Aquaman like that means something.

So, let’s be clear. The worst, most powerful villain in the history of villains now has all three of the plot devices he needs to destroy the whole world. So do the Batman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, the Flash and Cyborg leap into action? No, they skulk around and discuss their feelings. Meanwhile, Superman is being cheered up by Lois – the scene is meant to be touching, but once you twig that this is the footage where Henry Cavill’s moustache has been digitally removed because he’d grown one for another film, you just can’t stop staring at his rubbery top lip.

We’re approaching the climax now (I hope). Our team are aboard a huge, technologically advanced cargo plane, heading for a nuclear power plant in northern Russia. The plane reminds me of the equivalent craft in the Avengers movies, and I now wish I were watching those films instead. Justice League makes the weakest of that series (Thor: The Dark World?) seem positively masterful. At its worst, the Marvel series always has a basic storytelling competency that’s woefully absent here.

Right, the home straight now. A big long action sequence that feels depressingly artificial. As is often the case with these kinds of third acts, there’s no heft or consequence to anything. No real threat or suspense. It’s just actors and stunt performers matted into CGI. Our characters fight the bad guys. There are occasional gags involving Barry. Jeremy Irons radios in with exposition. Superman shows up, looking all smug. (The music quotes the John Williams theme from 1978 – nice touch!)

But they win, obviously. We then get the usual wrap-up scenes that point the way to more sequels. Oh, and there’s a tiny, one-shot scene filmed outside the British Museum.

Well, we’re near the end now, so can I sum up Justice League?

It was awful. Really crummy. I suppose it was slightly less awful than Batman v Superman. It was certainly more colourful to look at, lighter in tone, quite a bit shorter and slightly less boring. But it was still a dreadful movie.

Three snack holes out of 10

Oh, I forgot there’d be post-credits scenes. The first one’s quite funny: a dick-measuring contest between Superman and the Flash over who can run faster. Then, after a further 387 minutes of credits, Lex Luthor returns. Oh good.

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