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A Justice League Review – Lessons Learned

TITLE: Justice League
STARRING: Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Gal Gadot, Ezra Miller
DIRECTOR: Zack Snyder
STUDIOS: Warner Bros. Pictures, DC Films, RatPac Entertainment, Atlas Entertainment, Cruel and Unusual Films
RATED: PG-13
RUN-TIME:
 120 min
RELEASED: November 17, 2017

***WARNING: Spoilers lay ahead.***

By Rob Siebert
Editor, Fanboy Wonder

Justice League is a standard superhero popcorn flick. It’s nowhere near as dark, dreary, and generally abysmal as Batman v Superman. But it also doesn’t accomplish anything remotely special. It’s about a team of heroes coming together to fight a villain with a doomsday plan. Been there, done that. Several times, actually. So what we get comes off completely and utterly average.

After all these years, the first Justice League feature film is just average. What an awful, heartbreaking waste…

The plot is basic enough to surmise from the advertising. As the world continues to mourn the death of Superman, we’ve got a new big bad in town. Steppenwolf, a tyrant from the hellscape world of Apokalips, has returned to Earth after thousands of years with his army of Parademons in tow. He aims to conquer the world using the immense power of three “Mother Boxes.” Batman and Wonder Woman prepare to meet this invasion head on by assembling a team of super-powered heroes. The Flash, Cyborg, and Aquaman are all called to action. But in the end, they won’t be enough. For this new team to triumph, Superman must return…

Trust me, it’s a lot more exciting on paper than it is on screen.

Justice League is the culmination of the years-long comedy of errors that is the “DC Extended Universe.” Man of Steel was an adequate start, flawed as it was with it’s dreary look and overindulgent third act. It was followed by the downright dour Batman v Superman, which robbed its characters of almost any charm, heart, or likability. Suicide Squad wasted arguably pop culture’s most iconic supervillain in the Joker, but managed to be fun in a mindless hot mess sort of way. Wonder Woman was the exception that made the rule. It felt like a single vision, with purpose, heart, and passion put into it.

And so, on one the most rickety foundations in cinematic history, Justice League was built. Like Suicide Squad before it, this movie feels like a melting pot of visions, voices, and priorities clumped together to form a viable commercial product. Our director is once again Zack Snyder. But with their confidence shaken from the backlash to Batman v Superman, Warner Bros. brought in Avengers director Joss Whedon to reshape the script. Thus, we have a Joss Whedon superhero movie taking place in Zack Snyder’s grim DC Universe, under the management of a studio desperate to compete with Marvel at the box office. Hot damn! Sign me up!

One of the major missteps in Justice League is it’s choice of villain. DC Comics lore is full of baddies worthy of challenging Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman. Darkseid is the obvious choice. But you’ve also got big cosmic villains like Brainiac, Mongul, and Despero. Professor Ivo and the Amazo android could have made for an interesting story. Hell, team Lex Luthor up with the Joker! It sure as hell beats Steppenwolf…

Yes, Steppenwolf. A second-rate, paper-thin, poorly rendered Darkseid stand-in with an army of space bugs, a silly name, and a generic doomsday plot. This is who they came up with to face the Justice League in their debut feature film. Strictly from a cynical marketing standpoint, how the hell to you pass up slapping Darkseid, Brainiac, or Lex Luthor on t-shirts and posters, and instead opt for someone called Steppenwolf?

Justice League cost a whopping $300 million to make. That’s astounding, considering our CGI-rendered Steppenwolf looks like he was done in the late ’90s. It’s not just him, either. It’s been well documented that reshoots were done with a mustached Henry Cavill. The movie’s opening sequence wasn’t even over before Mrs. Primary Ignition turned to me and asked, “What’s up with Superman’s mouth?” Certain shots in Batman’s introduction are also extremely fake looking. Makes you wonder what the hell happened to good old fashioned stunt doubles and prosthetic make up…

Superman has a certain aura of reverence in this movie. Had that been earned or established in Man of Steel or Batman v Superman, that would have been fantastic. I’ve always been a proponent of Superman being the center, or at least part of the center, of the DC Universe. He’s certainly its moral backbone. But all this mourning we see over Superman doesn’t match the controversial figure we saw in Batman v Superman. Yes, some people loved him. But he was also the subject of protests and a congressional hearing. Lois Lane, Batman, Wonder Woman, and those who knew Superman have a reason to miss him. But based on what we saw before, there’d be a large contingent of people who’d be glad Superman died.

So now that I’ve sufficiently ripped Justice League apart, what’s there to like? What did they get right? Believe it or not, all was not lost from the get go…

Unlike in Batman v. Superman, almost all of our heroes are likable. Superman knows how to smile. Wonder Woman is compassionate, but still fierce. I’ve never needed a lot of selling on Ben Affleck’s Batman. Joss Whedon’s influence in the movie is obvious when the Dark Knight gets in a quip or two. Ezra Miller plays a socially inept Flash, who provides much of the comic relief. His costume looks absolutely ridiculous. But there’s a certain charm to him. Jason Momoa’s Aquaman is surprisingly okay as a dude bro. For a team flick, it works fine. Granted it’s not the approach I would have gone with, and they’ll obviously need to deepen his character for the Aquaman solo movie. Assuming that’s still in the pipeline after all this.

As much as this movie fell short of what it could have been, there is a certain warm and fuzzy quality to seeing these characters on the big screen together. Most of them aren’t true to the essence of the iconic characters they’re based on. But at the very least it’s cool on a superficial level to see Batman is standing next to Wonder Woman. Superman is running next to the Flash! Aquaman is in Atlantis! It’s a highly tarnished version of what we should be getting. But at least we’re getting it in some form. That counts for something.

And so, four years into the DC Extended Universe, what have we learned? What has the road to Justice League taught us? More than anything, it’s this: Darkness doesn’t equate to quality. At least not to larger audiences.

Some people point to darker tales like The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen as the pinnacle of the superhero genre. But while they pushed the boundaries of how these stories and characters could work and be seen, they weren’t simply dark for the sake of darkness. The Dark Knight Returns isn’t just about an older and grittier Batman getting to punch Superman in the face. It’s about a hero returning to face a world that’s changed in his absence. Watchmen isn’t about Rorschach beating people up. It’s a look at superheroes from a different, more grounded angle. The dark tones fit the stories and the characters, not the other way around.

We also need to remember that at the end of the day these characters are meant for children. That doesn’t mean we can’t love them as adults. We don’t need to dumb them down for kids, but we can’t keep them all for ourselves either. If DC and Warner Bros. should have learned one thing from Disney and Marvel, it wasn’t the cinematic universe element. It’s that these movies can be accessible to viewers of all ages. They can be mature without being meant for mature audiences.

The blame Justice League‘s failures, creative and otherwise, falls primarily on the studio higher-ups. But the finger also needs to be pointed at Zack Snyder. He’s got a devoted fanbase that will filet me for saying so. But if Batman v Superman didn’t convince you, the fact that the first Justice League movie didn’t outperform the third Thor movie should say it all. Snyder must be kept far away from any and all future DC films. I shudder to think what this movie would have looked like without Joss Whedon’s influence. 

Superhero movies can be thrilling, emotional, and surprisingly versatile. But at their core, they aren’t complicated. Give us a hero worth rooting for, a villain worth rooting against, and a reason for them to fight. We don’t need to see a bad guy get his neck snapped, a bomb inside a jar of piss, or a city destroyed to compensate for a lack of emotional connection with the audience. 

Lessons learned. Six years and millions of dollars too late. But lessons learned…

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A Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice Review – Why So Serious?

Batman v Superman: Dawn of JusticeTITLE: Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice
STARRING: Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Jesse Eisenberg, Gal Gadot
DIRECTOR: Zack Snyder
STUDIOS: Warner Bros. Pictures, DC Entertainment, RatPac Entertainment, Atlas Entertainment, Cruel and Unusual films
RATED: PG-13
RUN-TIME: 151 min
RELEASED: March 25, 2016

***WARNING: Spoilers ahead for Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.***

By Rob Siebert
Editor, Fanboy Wonder

This movie had a lot of mud thrown its way before even one shot was in the can. Some of that was fair. Much of it wasn’t. Man of Steel wasn’t as well received as many would have liked. Then people jumped on the casting of Ben Affleck as Batman. There was also a lot of skepticism about the inclusion of all the Justice League characters, not to mention Doomsday. And that’s just some of it. So after all that, what’s the bottom line on Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice?

Is this movie as bad as so many critics say it is? No. Is it a deeply flawed movie? Yes.

After the destruction left in the wake of Superman’s battle with Zod, the Man of Steel (Henry Cavill) unknowingly has an enemy in Bruce Wayne, a.k.a. Batman (Ben Affleck). Then, 18 months later Superman causes an international incident when he swoops in to save Lois Lane (Amy Adams) from a terrorist group. While his intentions are good, Superman’s actions have sparked a mass debate about if and how he should be monitored and regulated. Meanwhile, young business tycoon and hereditary CEO of Lexcorp Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) has plans of his own regarding the Man of Steel…

Batman v Superman, image 1

Audiences hoping for something in the vein of a Marvel movie likely got a rude awakening from Batman v Superman. Zack Snyder’s superhero films, going as far back as Watchmen, are very serious, and at times very grim. This is a stark contrast to what we get from Marvel Studios, and also Fox’s X-Men movies. Those various superhero franchises (Iron Man, X-Men, Captain America, etc.) have all found their own balance between action blockbuster and comedy. That comedy is more important than a lot of people think. While I’ve always maintained superhero stories can be more than simple escapist tales about people punching each other, people should also be able to have fun when they see these movies. And that fun pays dividends. For proof, look no further than Deadpool, a movie made for $58 million that went on to make $745 million worldwide.

Fun doesn’t mean belittling the story or universe, either. There’s a moment in Batman v Superman when Batman saves Martha Kent (Diane Lane), and tells her “I’m a friend of your son.” She replies with a simple: “I figured. The cape…” There are precious few moments like this in the movie. But humor and levity are such valuable storytelling tools, particularly in terms of endearing the characters to us. And they’ve largely been cast aside in Batman v Superman. The notion that levity somehow takes away from a movie’s epic factor, or even it’s “dark tone,” is simply a fallacy. Cast in point: Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies. Those films weren’t funny, per se. But they had little moments of levity that made the dark and chaotic stuff that much more impactful. By comparison, this movie feels like darkness on top of darkness.

Batman v. Superman, image 2The movie also has slow build-up to the confrontation between the two titular characters. This results in the first half of the proceedings being flat-out boring at times. We get a lot of good information regarding the characters and their world. But between the bleak and dreary look these movies have been given, and the lack of levity or fun, I can see many a casual moviegoer falling asleep here. Batman v Superman tries to slap a band-aid on this problem with some nightmare sequences in which Batman fights against a tyrannical Superman. While they do have a certain appeal, they contribute little to the actual story, and end up being more frustrating than anything else.

But let’s not pile on, here. The movie isn’t devoid of positives by any means. Batman fans jumped all over the casting of Ben Affleck like a pack of rabid dogs, and perhaps justifiably so. But as a lifelong Batman buff, I say Affleck gets a passing grade as The Dark Knight. I maintain Affleck wasn’t a bad choice for Daredevil either. Both Daredevil and Batman v Superman had problems. In the case of Daredevil, Affleck took the heat for those flaws because he was the face of the film. Hopefully, history won’t point the finger at him again.

Batman v Superman, image 3, Jesse EisenbergJesse Eisenberg is partially channelling Heath Ledger’s Joker in his portrayal of Lex Luthor. That’s fine, I suppose. Once he gets into full blown supervillain mode, he’s very good. To those of us who saw him in The Social Network, that should be no surprise. Heck, the Lex Luthor we see here isn’t unlike Mark Zuckerberg, really.

Perhaps the single best aspect of Batman v Superman is that Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) gets put over like a million bucks. In my theater, when she finally showed up in costume, the audience cheered. That’s a hell of a sign. I’d never seen Gal Gadot before, but she carries herself well in the role. This obviously bodes well for a Wonder Woman movie.

As one might have guessed with the presence of Doomsday, this movie goes the Death of Superman route. On paper it sounds risky. But it works on the screen, particularly in setting up a Justice League movie. Superman’s death can galvanize the other heroes into working together for the greater good. What’s more, the fight with Doomsday is amazing. It’s almost as if they met their entire action quota with that one fight. They also seemingly learned their lesson from Man of Steel, and didn’t destroy an entire city this time.

Batman v Superman, image 4There will be lessons to learn from Batman v Superman as well. The biggest one being not taking things so damn seriously. Not every superhero movie needs to conform to the Marvel formula. But it would be silly not to learn from the success of something that spawned an entire cinematic universe. Batman v Superman should have been a fanboy classic for the ages. While it’s not quite as bad as it’s been made out to be, what we got was definitely not that. Frankly, that’s a crime. All the tools were there, but they couldn’t get the job done. As a long time DC Comics fan, that’s an awful miscarriage of justice.

Maybe that should have been the title.

Images courtesy of rottentomatoes.com. 

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A Man of Steel Review – Superman Begins

Man of Steel posterTITLE: Man of Steel
STARRING: Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Russell Crowe, Michael Shannon, Kevin Costner
DIRECTOR: Zack Snyder
STUDIOS: Warner Bros. Pictures, Legendary Pictures, Syncopy, DC Entertainment
RATED: PG-13
RUN-TIME: 143 min
RELEASED: June 12, 2013

By Rob Siebert
Editor, Fanboy Wonder

Man of Steel is one of the most polarizing fanboy flicks I’ve seen in recent memory. People either seem to have really enjoyed it, or really disliked it. Either way, things probably aren’t as good or as bad as they seem. But that passion is understandable, given all the struggles the Superman film franchise has gone through, even since Christopher Reeve was still in the suit. Superman fans have been dying for a film adaptation worthy of their hero. Is Man of Steel it? Eh…maybe. It depends on what you’re looking for.

We all know the story: On the distant planet of Krypton, Jor El (Russell Crowe) and his wife Lara send their infant son to Earth to save him from the planet’s immediate destruction. Once there, he’s adopted by a kindly couple in Smallville, Kansas. Earth’s yellow sun grants young Clark Kent with powers and abilities far beyond those of normal men. He becomes Superman (Henry Cavill), the ultimate champion of truth, justice, and the American way. In this film, our hero takes on General Zod (Michael Shannon), a survivor of Krypton who will stop at nothing to ravage Earth, and effectively make it a new Krypton.

Man of Steel, Superman, Henry Cavill, image 1When Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns came out in 2006, one of the major recurring complaints was that it was too low on action. There was nobody for Superman to punch or fight with. When Brandon Routh was in the costume, he spent most of the his time either putting out fires or trying to impress with special effects stunts. So when it came time to dump the game board over and start again, they made sure to fill the super-powered action quotient by giving the director’s chair to Zack Snyder, the man behind 300Watchmen and Sucker Punch. But wouldn’t ya know it, Man of Steel wound up having the exact opposite issue Superman Returns had: It overdoes the action to the point where it almost jumps the shark. And for some moviegoers, it did.

Most of the last 45 minutes of Man of Steel consists of an all out super-powered war between our hero and General Zod’s forces. With seemingly unlimited power and strength, they send each other flipping and flying through the air, crashing through countless structures and effectively reducing them to scrap. A large portion of Metropolis, one of the biggest and highest-populated cities in the DC Universe, is ripped apart. Skyscrapers literally crumble and topple over as civilians run for cover. To an extent, it’s actually really cool to see Superman unload on somebody, and actually unleash all his power. Some of us have been waiting to see this kind of thing for years. But unfortunately, Snyder stays at the party 10-15 minutes longer than he needs to. As such, the novelty and the shock value of all the crashing and smashing begins to wear off, and they’re basically fighting in a city made of building blocks. Considering this movie is 143 minutes, they could have afforded a bit more brevity.

Man of Steel, Amy Adams, Lois LaneStill, the movie manages to do one thing better than arguably any Superman film before it: Capture the essence of Superman’s moralistic mission and peaceful soul. I can’t stress enough that Superman is an idealist. He’s here to inspire us, instill us with hope, and teach us about the human spirit. Man of Steel illustrates this very well, and frankly I didn’t know Snyder had it in him. Because his abilities do to an extent make him a hazard to those around him, our hero is forced to learn the value of restraint and a cool head growing up, which the story uses to contribute to his career as Superman. It’s very well done.

From a performance standpoint, Henry Cavill isn’t going to win any Oscars for the role of Superman. But he does an adequate job. Oddly enough, in terms of getting us to care about Clark Kent, the heavy lifting is actually done by Cavill’s younger counterparts: Cooper Timberline (9-year-old Clark) and Dylan Sprayberry (13-year-old Clark). Their scenes with Kevin Costner (Jonathan Kent) really sell the torment and anguish the character has endured for the sake of doing the right thing. In that sense, Cavill just has to take the baton and not drop it.

But to his credit, he IS believable in the cape and boots. He’s quieter and more subtle, which is what this movie calls for. But he nevertheless has a strong presence about him, which is what Superman should have. Unlike Brandon Routh, whose job in Superman Returns was to essentially impersonate Christopher Reeve, Cavill is his own Man of Steel. That being said, his scenes with General Swanwick (Harry Lennix) and Colonel Hardy (Christopher Meloni) do call back to some of what Reeve did. But to this day, Reeve is so closely identified with this character, and that’s to be expected on some level. So kudos to Cavill and his counterparts for making us believe again.

Man of Steel, Superman, Henry Cavill, image 2Surprisingly, Amy Adams runs into some trouble as Lois Lane. She’s not bad for the role, per se. But the character is missing some of her trademark confidence, ferocity and snark. The material is there in the writing, but Adams doesn’t fully capitalize on it. Her Lois feels more like a traditional damsel in distress, with some extra passion added in. The way I’ve always interpreted the Lois Lane/Superman romance is that the source of their mutual attraction is their shared ferocity and dedication toward truth and justice. We don’t necessarily see that here. Adams is more like the girl next door, who happens upon this extraordinary person and falls for him. She’ll need to work on that for Man of Steel 2, if we get that far (which I’m guessing we will).

Marlon Brando is a pretty tough act to follow, but Russell Crowe does very well as Jor El. The way he’s incorporated into the entire story, as opposed to just the first half hour or so, is similar to the way it was done with Brando and Reeve in Superman: The Movie, but different enough that it feels like a fresh spin. I found myself caring about the Jor El character, and the Krypton side of things more than I ever have. Michael Shannon also surpassed my expectations as General Zod. He’s menacing, creepy and crazy, but he’s not reminiscent of Terrence Stamp’s take on the character at all. I’d love to see more…

latestLongtime Superman fans will no doubt notice certain trademark Superman elements, which you’d expect to see in a reboot film, are missing from this movie. Lex Luthor is conspicuous by his absence, though we do see a few quick shots of the Lexcorp logo. Jimmy Olsen isn’t there, the big Daily Planet globe is missing. The classic Clark Kent glasses disguise is, for the most part, also absent. The cartoony Superman spit curl, which both Reeve and Routh sported, is thankfully gone as well. For most of this stuff, I assume it’s just a matter of waiting for the sequel, much like we had to wait for The Dark Knight to come out to get a lot of the stuff we were clamoring for in Batman Begins.

While I’ll stay spoiler-free here, Superman does something at the climax of the film that’s very un-Superman-like. It’s something we’ve seen in superhero movies before (Tim Burton’s Batman movie comes to mind), but it’s generally considered a no-no. It was a surprise to say the least. But it’s passable, especially given what had been established up to that point. It’ll be interesting to see how that plays into the next movie, if at all.

So is Man of Steel the movie Superman deserves? I think, much like Batman Begins, it’s a nice first chapter. The movie has its flaws. But show me a movie that doesn’t have flaws. It’s not necessarily what I expected, but that’s not a bad thing. Unlike what we saw in Superman Returns, our hero’s super-powered exploits were awe-inspiring at times, and the action was suspenseful. More importantly, Man of Steel seems to understand what separates Superman from every other hero in theaters today. At the end of the day, much of Man of Steel‘s legacy will depend on what comes next in the Superman film franchise.

So for now, I suppose the answer to that question is: To be continued.

RATING: 7.5/10