"Everything is as it should be."

                                                                                  - Benjamin Purcell Morris

 

 

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Justice League: A Review

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***THIS IS A SPOILER FREE REVIEW!!! THIS REVIEW CONTAINS ZERO SPOILERS!!!***

My Rating: 2.65 out of 5 stars

My Recommendation: SEE IT/SKIP IT: See it in the theatre if you are a comic book/superhero film fan, it is worth the effort. If you are lukewarm or ambivalent about comic book/superhero films then feel free to skip it in the theatre and see it on Netflix or cable. 

Justice League, written by Joss Whedon and Chris Terrio and directed by Zack Snyder (with re-shoots directed by Whedon), is the fifth film in the D.C. Extended Universe and is a sequel to Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice. The film is the completion of the origin story of the Justice League, which is a collection of superheroes who join together to fight evil. The film stars Ben Affleck, Gal Gadot, Jason Mamoa, Ezra Miller and Henry Cavill. 

My experience of Justice League was very similar to my experience of 2016's Batman v. Superman (BvS). I did not see Batman v. Superman until very late in its theatrical run, therefore even though I do not read reviews, I had seen enough headlines to understand that the film was not widely loved…or even mildly liked. With my expectations very low I went and saw Batman v. Superman and much to my shock and amazement I joined the rarest of groups, the handful of people who actually enjoyed Batman v Superman a great deal. It wasn't a perfect movie but it was certainly better than all of the negative buzz that was floating around about it.

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When Justice League came out last month on November 17th, I once again avoided reviews but was still exposed to a deluge of negative buzz surrounding the film before I saw it on December 19. And just like when I saw Batman v. Superman, the theatre for Justice League was deserted except for the three other people.  And…just like with Batman v. Superman, my expectations were in the gutter for Justice League and either in spite of or because of that, the movie was able to greatly exceed them leaving me most pleasantly surprised. 

Justice League is supposed to be DC's attempt (at Warner Brothers insistence) at "lightening things up" from the dark themes and tone of BvS and being more "audience friendly". While I am not a fan of "lightening things up" in general and was attracted to the darkness of Batman v. Superman, I was not turned off by the more approachable tone of Justice League. Would I have liked a much darker version? Most definitely…but Justice League held onto enough darkness that it maintained a certain superhero gravitas that I found compelling. 

It has been my experience that while the rest of the world adores the Marvel franchise, I am more temperamentally suited for the brooding DC universe. The DC films have on the whole been pretty uneven, with Batman v. Superman, Wonder Woman and Justice League being pretty good and Suicide Squad and Man of Steel being abysmally bad. What I liked about Batman v. Superman and Justice League are that they are both cloaked in a very heavy, existential angst that regular folk may find boring and impenetrable, but which I find very philosophically intriguing and creatively courageous. In contrast, I find the Marvel films to be much too light-hearted and frivolous and to be lacking in visual and narrative texture. Marvel films are made for kids while DC films, at least Batman v. Superman and Justice League, are made for tormented kids who've grown old. While Justice League is definitely not a great film, it is probably at best an average cinematic venture, but it is still considerably better than many of the Marvel/Avenger movies. 

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Justice League benefits greatly from Zack Snyder's visual style that gives the film a distinct look and feel that the flat and cinematically dull Marvel films lack entirely. Snyder's Justice League world looks like something out of a Hieronymus Bosch hellscape, which is only heightened by its being populated  by hordes of villains, para-demons, who may very well have flown out of a Bosch painting. Snyder has always thrived when it comes to giving a film a distinguishing and original look, and so it is with Justice League.

On the other hand, Snyder has always struggled with narrative clarity and cohesion and while he doesn't excel at that in Justice League, he doesn't entirely flounder either. Justice League is more coherently structured than Batman v. Superman and flows better, that comes at the expense of dumbing things down and settling for a standard and generic approach over a more complex and challenging one.

I had a chance to see the extended directors cut of Batman v Superman and thought it added a great deal to the film and I hope that Warner Brothers releases an extended Zack Snyder cut of Justice League as well at some point as I think that Snyder can be at his best when he is free of the restraints of running length and focus groups. 

Justice League is greatly enhanced by a top notch cast that all do solid if not spectacular work. I realize I am in the minority here but I think Ben Affleck does a terrific job as Batman. Affleck's caped crusader is a grizzled, aching and aging icon struggling to keep up with his more supernaturally endowed colleagues and keep the undefeated father time at bay. Affleck is not an actor whose work I have been impressed with over his career, but his brooding Batman is second only to Christian Bale, and it isn't a distant second either.

Gal Gadot is simply sublime as Wonder Woman for the second time this year. Gadot is such a charismatic, magnetic and dynamic power it is impossible to keep your eyes off of her when she is on screen. Gadot's commanding screen presence never feels forced or disingenuous, but always feels grounded, earthy and forceful.  

Jason Mamoa and Ezra Miller do solid supporting work as Aquaman and Flash. Their roles are used to good comedic effect in Justice League (they do most of the previously mentioned "lightening up") but they could have been greatly bungled in the hands of lesser actors. Both Mamoa and Miller never push too hard and they make specific choices for their characters while never settling for half measures when bringing them to life. I don't know if Aquaman or the Flash will be able to carry a film on their own, but we shall see soon enough. 

As for my biggest issues with Justice League…the first and most pressing issue was that the CGI seemed to be rather sub par. Steppenwolf was the arch villain in the film and instead of using a human actor, they made him entirely of CGI. The CGI simply did not look real or believable and so it felt like the members of the Justice League were fighting a really evil cartoon character. 

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Another example of bad CGI is such a remarkable tale it demands retelling. The opening scene of the film shows a flashback of Henry Cavill as Superman being interviewed on a video phone by some local kids. Cavill, who is impossibly handsome, looks very...weird in the scene. I couldn't place it at first, but there was something wrong with his face. As I looked closer I could see his mouth was deformed. I started wondering if Henry Cavill in real life had an accident or been sick and was left with some sort of facial paralysis or something. I noticed the same issue at other points in the film featuring Cavill as well and was completely distracted by it every time. When I got home I searched the internet and found out the story behind the bizarre look of Superman. 

The story goes that Cavill was signed on to shoot Mission Impossible 6 (God help us all) once he wrapped shooting Justice League. Justice League director Zack Snyder stepped away from the film in post-production due to the death of his daughter and Joss Whedon stepped in to replace him. The studio wanted Whedon to do a plethora of re-shoots to change the tone of the film which they feared was too dark like Batman v. Superman. Whedon complied and did a great deal of re-shoots to the sum of $25 million. Bringing back Cavill for Superman was tricky though because he was currently shooting MI6 and had grown a mustache for his role and was contractually obligated to not shave it off for the duration of that shoot. So Warner Brothers, the studio of Justice League, which had a budget of $300 million, was at the mercy of Paramount, the home studio of Mission Impossible, in regards to their star Superman. Paramount, not surprisingly since they are not in the business of making life easy for their competition, wouldn't let Cavill get rid of the mustache. So billion dollar company Warner Brothers, who was spending $300 million on Justice League, was not allowed to walk down to CVS and get a Bic razor for 99 cents in order to shave the face of the star of their movie. The movie business is completely and utterly insane. 

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Superman and Steppenwolf's faces aren't the only missteps in Justice League. The enormity of the plot was a bit burdensome as well. All of these superhero movies now revolve around end of the world cataclysms that seem to me to be overkill. Whether it is the Justice League or the Avengers or anyone else, the threat of global annihilation is so overplayed as to be ridiculously redundant. And as much as I think Steppenwolf in theory is an excellent villain (although as stated he didn't look right in the film) and his minions the para-demons are quality Miltonian/Boschean foils, the scenario presented by their assault on Earth felt much too similar to The Avengers plots with Loki or Ultron. In execution I think Justice League pulled that scenario off better than The Avengers, but that doesn't make their lack of originality any less of a creative sin. 

The political subtext of Justice League is pretty interesting. Steppenwolf is a Putin-esque, power hungry warlord who begins his quest for total world domination in what is alleged to be a small Russian town but looks an awful lot like Chernobyl in Ukraine. Justice League accurately captures the divided mess that is our current world as we stagger and stumble from a uni-polar world protected by Superman/U.S. to a multi-polar world reigned over by God knows who, that acts like a bi-polar world. 

The Justice League itself is obviously a metaphor for the United Nations or the defunct League of Nations, in which the good guys protect the globe from the bad guys. Of course, life is never as clearly defined as that, and in our world it is becoming more and more difficult to discover who is good and who is bad. To Justice League's credit, the good guys aren't always so good and they struggle to find their place in the world.

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After seeing Justice League I did something I rarely do, which is go read other reviews of the film. Critics have savaged the film with an unabashed glee and seem to have a pre-disposition against the movie. While it was never stated, I think that predisposition to critical displeasure with Justice League (and Batman V. Superman) may have to do with critics subconsciously comparing the film to the last "Batman" movies which were Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy which are a far, far superior collection of films. Any superhero films compared to the Dark Knight Trilogy will pale in comparison as Nolan has raised the superhero bar beyond anyone’s reach with those phenomenal films. To be extremely clear, Batman v. Superman and Justice League are not The Dark Knight series, not even remotely close, but that doesn't mean they are completely devoid of any redeeming value.

The mythic and archetypal energies at the core of all of these these superhero stories, be they DC or Marvel, is the same, it is just the window dressing that changes. The core archetypes at the heart of superhero stories are what resonate with our collective psyches. Just as the Greeks told stories of their Gods, we tell stories of our mythic gods…Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman and Flash. These comic book characters and the Greek gods are the same archetypes but are only wearing different masks. 

In conclusion, I found Justice League to be a pleasant surprise of a movie that wasn't great, but was certainly better than its buzz would indicate. Justice League is a solid companion piece to Batman v Superman and in fact enhances that film a great deal in hindsight. If you love superhero films then I recommend you go see Justice League in the theatre while it is still there. If you are lukewarm or ambivalent about superhero films then you can definitely skip it in the theatre and catch it at your leisure on cable or Netflix. And finally, in this holiday season when we anticipate a bounty of gifts beneath the Christmas tree, let Justice League be a lesson to us all, that low expectations are the golden key to a happy existence. 

©2017

 

Wonder Woman : A Review

****THIS IS A SPOILER FREE REVIEW!!! THIS REVIEW CONTAINS ZERO SPOILERS!!!****

My Rating : 4 out of 5 stars

My Recommendation : SEE IT IN THE THEATRE.

Wonder Woman, written by Allan Heinberg and directed by Patty Jenkins, is the story of the DC Comics superhero Wonder Woman, the Amazonian Warrior-Princess. The film stars Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman, with Chris Pine, David Thewlis, Robin Wright and Connie Nielson in supporting roles. 

Just to set the record straight…I have always loved Wonder Woman. When I was a little kid, Lynda Carter starred on the TV show Wonder Woman and I watched religiously. Back then, every year for Halloween I would dress up as Wonder Woman. That tradition has continued well into my adulthood and has extend beyond Halloween. In fact, I am wearing my Wonder Woman garb at this exact moment as I type. Ok, truth be told, nothing in this paragraph is true. Well, not nothing, Lynda Carter did play Wonder Woman on TV in my childhood, but I never watched, and frankly, sorry ladies, but I have little to no interest in Wonder Woman as a character. I know, I know, I am a misogynist mansplainer for the patriarchy…guilty as charged.

Wonder Woman, in case you do not know, is the fourth film in the current DC Universe, with the first three being Man of Steel, Batman v Superman, and Suicide Squad. All three of the previous films have been very poorly received by critics, and even though they have made gobs of money, audiences haven't been too thrilled with them either. Like most, I greatly disliked Man of Steel and Suicide Squad and unlike most, I actually enjoyed Batman v Superman. So when I heard Wonder Woman was coming out, due to the previous films and my own feelings about the character, I was a bit ambivalent, to say the least. That said, I readily admit that when Wonder Woman appeared in the Batman v Superman film from last year, I thought she jumped off the screen and was one of the better elements of the film.

I was not alone in my skepticism about the film leading up to its release. While the recent buzz surrounding Wonder Woman has been overwhelmingly positive, that hasn't always been the case. Just this year there were rumblings that Wonder Woman was a disaster waiting to happen and that Warner Brothers were scared to death they had a gigantic flop on their hands. The box office receipts, nearly $500 million so far, strongly suggests those fears were entirely unfounded.

Quite to the contrary, in fact, Wonder Woman has tapped into a nerve and is resonating across our cultural consciousness like none of the previous DC films were able. Women in particular have embraced the film as a feminist power totem and have reported crying during scenes where the female superhero is at her most forceful. I knew all of this heading into the film, and while that got me excited to see the movie, I assumed my high expectations would not be met. I was totally wrong.

Simply stated, Wonder Woman is as good a superhero origin story as you are going to get. Is it a perfect film? No, not even close, but it is a really good superhero movie that is exceedingly well made, acted and entertaining. 

The key to the film is that it is grounded in reality, and from that reality all of its power flows. Set in Europe during World War I, the film does not shy away from the brutality and suffering inherent in war. Part of Wonder Woman's appeal is that she has a pure heart and wants to help and save everyone, and cannot grasp the cold and callous approach of mankind that permeates the war to end all wars. 

A lot has been said about the tone of Wonder Woman, which is lighter and more humorous than the previous DC films. While this is true, that humor is never forced, rather it is born out of the main character's orientation, or disorientation as the case may be, to the film's reality. It is funny, for instance, that Wonder Woman has to learn the baffling female etiquette demanded by a male dominated world. To the film's great credit, it never pushes or distracts with its comedy or lightheartedness like the Marvel films do, it lets that humor grow spontaneously out of setting and situation. 

Director Patty Jenkins does a stellar job with the look of the film. All of the DC films have a grainy, gritty and dark visuals, and Wonder Woman is no exception, but that effect works exceedingly well in bringing this period piece to life and making it feel real. Jenkins does a remarkable job of setting the right tone and maintaining a solid balance between love story, action, comedy and drama. Jenkins walks a tightrope, and never falls into the trap of turning the film into a self-conscious farce, one of the weak spots of the Marvel films.

Wonder Woman does suffer from some script problems though, but that is not Jenkin's fault. The film gets a little lost trying to make itself bigger than it needs to be, but that is a problem with which nearly every superhero film struggles. I believe the wiser choice for these types of films is to do less, and be more simple, but what the hell do I know?

As for the acting, Gal Gadot does superb work as Wonder Woman. Gadot, a statuesque beauty, imbues Wonder Woman with a strength, sincerity, earnestness and ferocity that makes for a compelling character indeed. Her battle scenes are believable because of Gadot's natural grace, athleticism and magnetic intensity. 

I will be interested to see if Gadot can crossover from non-superhero action films and make a mark in pure drama. She has all of the tangible qualities, beauty, intelligence, charisma, that make for a movie star, but she also possesses the intangible qualities that make for a great actor, emotional intelligence, compassion and complexity. I hope she gets to spread her dramatic wings in the future, she has the makings of an intriguing artist.

Chris Pine continues his recent run of top notch work, following up last years stellar Hell or High Water with his turn as the love interest Steve Trevor opposite Gadot's Wonder Woman. Pine is outstanding as the rogue and daring spy trying to stop the Kaiser's war machine. His light comedic touch and dramatic sincerity elevate Wonder Woman to heights it would not see without him. 

The rest of the cast have minimal roles but do consistent work. David Thewlis, Danny Huston, Ewen Bremmer and Said Taghmaoui solidly buttress Gadot and Pine's more demanding work. And Lucy Davis does exceedingly well as Etta Candy, Steve Trevor's secretary. Davis brings a subtle, yet masterful bit of craftsmanship to her role which would have been a throwaway in lesser hands.

Wonder Woman is a top notch superhero movie that feels particularly relevant in a world filled with strongmen, from Trump to Erdogan, to Duterte and Putin. Wonder Woman gives voice and vision to the anima in our collective unconscious that yearns to be actualized in the real world. The reason Wonder Woman is resonating so deeply with audiences in general, and women in particular, is that the archetypal feminine energy, the anima, has lost its value and power in our modern world by trying to imitate and mimic the masculine, the animus. Wonder Woman is a force not because she is mimicking masculinity, but because she is uber-feminine. Contrary to what many women will claim, it is not men that need to learn that lesson, but women, and Wonder Woman is a great place for them to reconnect to the primal power inherit in the anima and to engage in therapeutic psychological catharsis.

In conclusion, Wonder Woman is a well made, entertaining and ultimately satisfying film that both men and women can thorughly enjoy. It isn't Citizen Kane, but it is a top-notch superhero movie that gives insight into the character Wonder Woman, and propels the DC Universe forward in a positive direction. I wholly encourage you to spend your hard earned dollars and go see Wonder Woman in the theatre. You never know, the anima you save, could be your own.

©2017