Justice League

The DC Universe has been a controversial playground for film fans and comics aficionados. With the exception of this years earlier entry in the collection, “Wonder Woman“, the films have not had a great deal of enthusiastic reception. That has not kept them from being financially successful, but it does leave fans dissatisfied and ready to jump on the next film with every misstep. “Justice League” will probably continue that trend instead of reversing it. Many of the issues that cause hesitation are still present in this entry, but despite the mistakes, this film was satisfactory in accomplishing some of it’s goals but mostly in entertaining the audience. It may not be “Wonder Woman” but it is a step up from the murkiness of the other films that preceded it.

 

Goal number one, get all of the characters in this Universe introduced and started on their own stories. “Man of Steel” was supposed to do that for Superman, and it did set up a lot of the material that has followed, but it was stodgy and grim and lacked the spark that made the Christopher Reeve films fun. I hope it is not a spoiler to say that Clark Kent/Superman does play a significant role in this movie. More on that later, I’ll put a mild spoiler warning on that section for anyone who wants to go into this blind. Batman got reintroduced in “Batman vs. Superman“, a film that was convoluted but had some great spectacle and the irresistible appeal of the two superheroes dueling.  Ben Affleck’s Batman was more impressive in that film, here he seems to be less engaged. It’s not until near the finale that Affleck starts to give the character the energy we want. Gal Gadot can do no wrong this year. She is the character that we most want to see and she leads the narrative strings around so that everyone else can follow what the heck is going on in the story. I’m not tired of seeing her fight CGI bullies yet, but at least she gets a more complete one to fight here than she did in the stand alone film.

Three new characters get introduced in a more elaborate manner than the brief thirty seconds they were afforded in the prior film. You would think with so much to do that the story lines would begin to feel over stuffed. That’s not the case with these three characters. Judicious editing and story telling give us just enough on each one so that we feel they do really exist in this Universe, but we don’t dwell on their backgrounds more than is necessary. I suspect that Jason Momoa as the Aquaman will be a big hit with the fairer sex. My wife liked him quite well and his belligerent humor was one of the things that helped make this movie a little more fun.  Ray Fisher has to perform under prosthetic metal and through elaborate CGI accoutrements, but he still makes a solid impression. His character has the most detailed backstory and includes actor Joe Morton, a face that should be familiar to fans from his association with another cybernetic character. The breakout character however has to be Ezra Miller’s Flash. Like a yopung Justin Long, Miller comes across with puppy dog enthusiasm and a sense of humor that is sorely needed in this Universe.  There is a mid-credit stinger that you will want to wait for that gives him one more chance to make us laugh.

[Something of a mild spoiler ahead]

The best thing about this film however is the restoration of a sense of humanity to Superman. In the initial stages of his return, we are threatened with a repeat of the grim countenance of Kalel and it looks like “Man of Steel” will repeat. Somewhere after Henry Cavill reunites with Amy Adams as Lois and Diane Lane as his mom, Clark Kent returns and Superman becomes something much closer to the character we love.  When the final battle begins, Superman shows up and it feels like Christopher Reeve is being channeled by Cavill. There is a spot where he gets to smile and suddenly, this feels like the movie I have wanted all along. I don’t mind the series being more serious, but our main characters have to give us something to root for. Finally, I think the series is getting to that point. I like the work of Zack Snyder for the most part, but he does have those crutches he relies on for drama in the fights. He is the credited director although Joss Whedon took over in the last few months when Snyder had to step away from his project for personal reasons. Maybe Whedon lightened things up a bit, but this is definately the film that Snyder has been nurturing to fruition for several years.

The antagonist in this story is another CGI creation, but there is at least some backstory and it does not feel rushed. The transformation of the planet into a world that the character wants is  mechanical in nature, but it was tempered with a little family story to make the stakes more meaningful. If everything is about the end of the world every time, it is going to get a little boring. This brief side trip from time to time reminds us of the human stakes involved. This is the sort of thing that seemed to be missing from the earlier films. The stakes have to be something that we can relate to or else it is just going through the motions.

I enjoyed the film far more than the second wave of negative word would have me expecting. Early reviews were promising, round two was wholly negative, and now I have seen it for myself. They have not solved all of the problems the DC franchises have faced but they did make great strides into turning this into something more than just a money making enterprise. If the new characters are given a chance to shine a bit more and Superman keeps up the more optimistic demeanor, I will be able to look forward to more of these films. It is probably a good idea to allow some other directors a chance to invigorate these stories, but the Snyder lead trilogy has set a better framework than many critics have asserted. Good news for film fans, it is also just two hours.

Suicide Squad

I’m not a comics guy as I’m sure I’ve said a couple of times before. My guess is that the number of people like me, those who will see a comic based movie without knowing the whole cannon, outnumber the people who can tell you that the eye-shadow on the Joker is inconsistent with the history established in volume 274 of the Dark Knight Series 3 featuring the four fingered Joker variation (or some such detail).  In other words, I’m not so invested in the characters that I can’t handle change. There was a lot of talk when this film was being produced about whether it could meet the fans expectations. Other than Harley Quinn and the Joker, I’ve never heard of any of these characters, so maybe my opinion will be discounted by some because I am not invested. As the summer season came on, the buzz was that “Suicide Squad” would be the film to make the comic book fans happy. When the first reviews started coming in, there was a stampede of disappointment and negative word of mouth started to set in. From many of the critics, you would think this film was a bomb. The box office so far has to be comforting to the film makers in spite of the poor notices. But, from the view of this outsider, the film is largely successful in what it is attempting, and suffers from the same problem that all big action films do, a weak antagonist makes a weaker story.

 

We are fortunate that we do not have to wade through a series of stand alone films to be set up in this universe. The first half hour or so of the movie, inventories the characters, highlights their quirks, and establishes personality for them very effectively. These small vignettes are probably the most effective sequences in the movie. I will say that it was a bit of a give away that one member of the team is introduced when they are put together and there was no B Roll on their character in the first section. So guess which character will be sacrificed to show that the secret government agency in charge means business. There has also been talk that Jared Leto’s Joker has been significantly excised from the film, that seems to be a lot of hot air. The Joker Character figures in one of the background stories, participates in a parallel story, and is part of the coda of the film. It is true he is not on the team, but that does not mean that his presence is insignificant.  Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn will certainly be the breakout character in the film and she can expect to explode in the business over the next few years. Miss Robbie is extremely watchable and carries off her part here with great panache.

 

Let’s discuss a couple of weaknesses of the film. It turns out that the Big Bad the group has to face is created by the attempt to create the group in the first place. All of the characters are given such menacing  back stories that the quickness with which the authorities try to establish a working team seems unrealistic ( as if anything in this didn’t already). There are a couple of actions that have to be done by the team that seem unnecessary, including the rescue of an unidentified figure at ground zero of the main fracas. It also makes no sense that the plan of action being followed involves a simple explosive device, when the secondary antagonist seems to be impervious to other weapons. Also, the idea that it could take out a member of the team also seems inconsistent with what has been established earlier. In other films, the duo of Jai Courtney and Joel Kinnaman would threaten to but me to sleep. Both of these guys have been charisma free in other films, but this time around they get a chance to shine a little and Courtney especially makes a favorable impression.

The main villain seems a bit of a stretch, but in the D.C. Universe they are working at creating, maybe it is plausible. The representation however is so horror film fetish bound that it looks ridiculous. At the climax of the film, the bad guy is basically doing the most stupid voodoo dancing and arm waving this side of the 1976 remake of King Kong.  The problem that happens when you give a character powers to make them a worthy opponent is that you also have to find a flaw that gives the heroes (sic) a chance. Things did not come together well in this regard and the confrontation feels like a giant CGI smackdown without much credibility.

The soundtrack is packed with music from the last fifty years so there will be plenty that audiences can relate to, although sometimes the choices seem a little hokey. The color palate of the film is neon without becoming overly cliched and tiresome. There is also a lot more humor in this film than the two films that preceded it in the MCU queue. There are some very clear tie ins to this years Batman v. Superman and Bruce Wayne has a couple of scenes that tie it together even more. Viola Davis is a stone cold hard ass as Amanda Waller, the covert intelligence officer responsible for the team.  There is a point where Will Smith’s Deadshot asks facetiously, “and we’re supposed to be the bad guys?”, it is Waller’s character that he is referring to. So I’m down with the characters and the performances for the most part. I also think the movie looks very solid. Where they lost me was in creating an obstacle for the team to overcome. It feels a bit too overheated. It may not be the widespread opinion, but I think this film is fine and it accomplishes what is needed, a set of premises for the film and an outrageous team being put together in a reasonable manner. Now all Ben Afflect has to do as Batman, is repeat the process, only recruit the Justice League members with a bit more elegance. Ignore the bad word, it’s a solid film with some flaws but also a lot going for it.

 

 

 

Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice

We live in a binary world. At least we do in the current times. People play games like “Would you Rather?” or they swipe left or right. With the rise of social media, the desire for instant gratification has encouraged the most extremes of views to be the ones we pay the most attention to. The whole idea of social comparison has been reduced to “It’s Awesome” or “It Sucks.” Well my friends, on this blog we don’t play by simple binary rules. Even though the title of today’s subject seems to suggest we come down on one side for one hero or the other, the world is more complicated than that, and so is this movie. If all you are looking for is an instant up or down, prepare to be disappointed. “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice”, is not the holy grail that comic book fans would hope for, but it is also not the POS that so many haters on the internet are willing to tag it as. As a story it is something of a mess, as a movie it is a puzzlement, but as a spectacle it is pretty impressive and there are some other small things to recommend it.

Here is another example of the twofold choice that is foisted upon us by our social peers: D.C. or Marvel? The success of the Marvel Universe in the movie theaters over the last few years is a credit to patience and planning as well as good writing. Starting with “Ironman” the comic worlds of the Marvel stories have been brought to life and linked very effectively. Even though there are glaring failures with Marvel Product, that can usually be attributed to rights issues which have resulted in three different studios trying to manage the comic universe. Disney now owns the most successful of these and with “The Avengers” has merged them together into the kinds of elaborate story lines that readers of the comics have enjoyed. Cross pollination has produced some fun moments and at least two great films, “The Avengers” and “Captain America: The Winter Soldier”.  Certainly, the D.C. comics, with the most iconic Super heroes of all times could do the same. The Christopher Nolan Batman films are pretty much a separate property that Warner Brothers would like to merge into a cohesive Universe with Superman. 2013’s “Man of Steel” was an attempt to restart that franchise with an eye to building a comparable comic universe to the Marvel films.

One of my major complaints about the new version of Superman is that the story and the character are so serious as to lack any joy at all. Henry Cavill has a sly smile that could be used effectively if the screenwriters and the director choose to do so, if any of you saw last year’s “Man From U.N.C.L.E.” you know what I am talking about. There is really only one moment when Clark Kent/Superman seems like he might be enjoying his time her on Earth, of course if you came home to Amy Adams sitting in the bathtub, you would smile too. That’s about it though. There should be more by play between the main characters and there is not much. The only other time a smile might cross your face when this film is running is when Wonder Woman shows up and the two guys simply look at each other and “wonder” where she came from. Superman gets duped a couple of times in the film and that feels like a problem also. Cavill’s best scenes are with his co-stars from the original film he appeared in, otherwise he seems to be brooding and angry most of the time.

Now you expect Bruce Wayne/Batman to brood, after all he is “The Dark Night”. One of the things that should surprise the pessimists about this film is the performance and portrays of Batman by Ben Affleck. A redeeming feature of this film is that it accurately suggests that there is an aftermath to the wanton destruction that took place in the earlier film. This story connects Bruce Wayne to those events as an eyewitness and a victim. Batman’s frustration with taking down criminals is exactly right, they are like weeds, as soon as you pull up one, another rises to take it’s place. This Bruce Wayne is suspicious of Superman and willing to try to take a stand, even though Alfred and the rest of us can see that it is a little bit driven by tunnel vision. Affleck does a good job playing a conflicted and grim Bruce Wayne as he tries to figure out what plots are afoot and what role Superman plays in them. There is a scene at a fancy reception given by Lex Luthor, that allows Afflect to play detective and try to flirt a little. Just like Clark Kent, Bruce Wayne is given an insufficient amount of time with his personal life to feel much of a stake. Jeremy Irons is a great choice to play Alfred, but he is very under-utilized in the movie and that is a pity.

Neither character gets much of a chance to make an impact on us emotionally because so many things are happening in the story it is hard to keep track. Kryptonite is being discovered, as is Wonder Woman, and Lex Luthor is plotting three different things at once, some of which feel unnecessary in the long run. There is an investigation into Superman’s intervention in a terrorist camp and a disgruntled victim of the war with Zod is part of the intrigue. In the course of two and a half hours, there are a half dozen story lines and they are interspersed with flashbacks and dream sequences so often that it is sometimes difficult to tell how it all fits together and what actions really are supposed to be taking place. It does not help that Jesse Eisenberg has been directed to play Lex Luthor as a victim of ADHD with a touch of paranoia. Comic book fans who complain about the villain monologuing the hero, should appreciate the frequency with which Eisenberg simply can’t complete an idea out loud, or in one very obvious case, coherently. This film is really a straight drama with very little in the way of heroics. The drama is complicated and the characters are shown in such murky circumstances that it is hard to fathom motive even when the actions are explained. One person in our group put it in a straight forward way, “Why can’t Superman and Batman see that they are being manipulated and simply kick Luthor’s ass?” That’s a good question and it is not an easy one to answer.

So, at this point we have that the tone is grim, the plot is convoluted, the characters lack much character, and it is long. So whats there to recommend? Well, the look of the film is impressive in scope and original in conception. Batman’s toys are integrated into the story well and as I’ve already said, Afflect does a fine job with an older, discouraged and angry Batman character. There are two sequences with Superman’s family that are pretty solid, and Amy Adams is naked in the bathtub. So that’s an inventory of what’s good about this film, is there anything great in it?  The best element of the film is Wonder Woman, who is kept mysterious for the most part and arrives on the scene in a moment spoiled by the trailers for the movie but still able to give us a thrill. Gal Gadot was in four of the “Fast and Furious” movies and I don’t remember her at all [OK, I’ve only seen three of them myself, but she was in all three of those],  here you will definitely remember her. She is shooting a stand alone “Wonder Woman” movie and her presence in this film, makes me want to see that. I  also like the seeds that have been planted for future films featuring characters from the Justice league. The problem that I foresee is that the tone of each of those stories will be as down as these first two films have been.

 

We need a little less sturm and drang, and a lot more character. The central characters don’t have to be cartoons but they could be more human by having some emotion other than being pissed off. Two charismatic actors are being played with by director Zack Snyder. He has them as his action figures to move through an afternoon of a child’s version of a story, “fight-explosion-fight-chase-fight.” The screenwriters need to take a lesson from the films from the past that used these characters. We should like them because they have strength but also personality. A shot like Michael Keaton in gravity boots or Christopher Reeve discovering that phone booths have become phone kiosks, would go a long way in creating some goodwill for these projects. Spectacle is enough for now, but if you want people to stay engaged for a dozen more films from this universe, you better give us more to care about.