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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 Justice League: Origin Review – A New Era Begins

Justice League: Origin, coverTITLE: Justice League: Origin
AUTHOR: Geoff Johns
PENCILLER: Jim Lee
COLLECTS: Justice League #1-6
FORMAT: Hardcover
PUBLISHER: DC Comics
PRICE: $24.99
RELEASE DATE: May 2, 2012

By Rob Siebert
Editor, Fanboy Wonder

Yeesh. Talk about a tall order. Justice League: Origins tasks Geoff Johns and Jim Lee with setting up the post-Flashpoint DCU, introducing all seven members of the League plus Darkseid to new readers, telling a story that’s appealing to both new and longtime readers, and moving that story along at a pace that doesn’t allow it to get bogged down by all the introductions. They definitely accomplished the first two. Whether they got the last two is up for debate.

Justice League: Origin takes place five years in the past. Superhumans are a fairly recent development, and the public is largely afraid of them. But when demonic creatures (which regular DC readers know as parademons) start popping up around the world, Batman, Green Lantern, Superman, The Flash, Wonder Woman and Aquaman must come together to save the world. Meanwhile, a terrible accident turns high school football star Victor Stone into Cyborg, who may very well be the key to humanity’s survival. Because from the flames of Apokolips, Darkseid is coming…

Justice League: Origin, team shot, Jim LeeThis book takes a very ground-floor approach to the Justice League concept, as it should. Unlike the previous continuity, the League is the first active superhero team. There has never been a Justice Society, an Infinity Inc., etc. Most of the characters have heard of one another, but have never met (Green Lantern and The Flash are the exception). The plot is also pretty simple: Bad stuff is happening in Metropolis, and these heroes are all drawn to it. As a longtime fan, the formula for most of this book is almost painfully simple. Character introduction and exposition, action mixed with character introduction, repeat. But you can’t necessarily fault Geoff Johns for that approach. Remember, this is supposed to be the first chapter in the Justice League’s history. And what does a first chapter do? It introduces the characters. That’s especially important when you consider that this book is designed to be a hook for new readers. For longtime fans it might be tedious, but it’s necessary.

They couldn’t have chosen a better artist for this book than Jim Lee. Let alone the fact that he’s a co-publisher at DC, and designed the many of the new looks for these characters, he’s just an amazing artist. His action scenes all have great weight and tension to them, which needless to say is a must when your book is so action-heavy. Fight scenes tend to be filled with epic splash pages. Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman and Darkseid all get nice two-page splashes. The costume tweaks for the heroes are all acceptable, except for the fact that Superman, Batman, Green Lantern and The Flash all look like their armor was made by the same company. That’s a hell of a customer pool, isn’t it? Gotham City, Central and Keystone Cities, the planet Krypton, and the Guardians of the friggin’ universe! I’d like to shake that marketing coordinator’s hand…

Justice League #1 (2011), final page, Superman, Jim LeeHowever, I’m greatly concerned about how Superman is portrayed in this book. The fact that he’s so powerful makes him cocky and standoffish, and thus not necessarily likeable. He spends a good portion of his introductory time saying things like:

– “So, what can you do?”
– “Talk, Batman. Before I won’t let you.”
– “Chains? You’re funny Green Lantern.”
– “Why should I come with you?…No one’s like me.”

I get that this story takes place during Superman’s early years, so maybe he’s a little overconfident, and dare I say immature, than we’re used to seeing him. He’s feeling ostracized because he’s not from Earth, so he’s not very trusting. That’s fair enough. But that’s the only side of Superman we see in this story. If you’re a new reader, the only impression you have of Superman is that he behaves like the conceited star of a high school football team. That’s a pretty big misstep considering Superman is not only one of the poster boys for the Justice League, but one of the faces of the entire DC Entertainment brand. We see a similar problem with Aquaman. But he’s also got the most bad ass moment in the entire book (he tells a bunch of shark to leap out of the water and catch parademons in the air), so that buys him a bit of leniency from me.

Truth be told, Origin sees more than one of our heroes acting like jocks vying to be captain of the team. Green Lantern has the stones to trap Batman in a construct and says: “Here’s the plan: Green Lantern goes in there and restrains Superman for questioning. Batman waits here.” But the difference between what happens with Superman and what happens with Green Lantern is that Johns takes the time to redeem GL. Without getting too specific, as the intensity of the battle increases, we start to see cracks in Hal Jordan’s confidant, cocky exterior. We see that deep down he’s really a good person, and not the pretentious douchebag he is at the beginning of the story. Superman and Aquaman don’t have moments like that. Johns and Lee didn’t need to stop the story to address this issue. All we needed were a couple of little moments. A throwaway line for both characters might have even done the trick. But nope, pretentious douchebags.

Justice League #6, Jim Lee, super sevenEverybody else fares pretty well. Batman is the combat veteran, Wonder Woman is the honorable yet action-hungry warrior, The Flash is the straight-laced guy with the heart of gold, and Cyborg is the new kid on the block trying to find his way.

So is this a team new readers can root for? Yes, and I think that quality will only grow as the series progresses. But in this book, their origin story, I wish they spent a bit more time acting like heroes, as opposed to squabbling teenagers. Are disagreements bound to happen when seven people from seven different backgrounds come together? Of course. That’s one of the things that makes any team book interesting. But at the end of the day, these characters are here to fight for justice and virtue. I wish this book could have done more to show us the beginnings of a team, as opposed to characters who all happen to be fighting on the same side of a war.

Origin is a solid start. It’s not as good as it could have been, but it’s a start.

RATING: 6.5/10

Image 1 from imgarcade.com. Image 2 from threatquality.com. Image 3 from superherohype.com.

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