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…

Follow Primary Ignition on Twitter, or at Facebook.com/PrimaryIgnition.

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A Suicide Squad In-Depth Review – Will Smith is in This Movie?

Suicide Squad, 2016 film posterTITLE: Suicide Squad
STARRING: Will Smith, Margot Robbie, Jared Leto, Viola Davis, Joel Kinnaman
DIRECTOR: David Ayer
STUDIOS: Warner Bros. Pictures, DC Entertainment, RatPac Entertainment, Atlas Entertainment
RATED: PG-13
RUN TIME: 123 min
RELEASED: August 5, 2016

By Rob Siebert
Editor, Fanboy Wonder

It’s not often you go to a movie and forget Will Smith is in it. He’s one of the biggest movie stars in the world, and is the focal point of the marketing for whatever film he’s in. But not Suicide Squad. From a publicity standpoint, this has been all Joker/Harley Quinn, and for good reason.

Based on the comic book series of the same title, Suicide Squad sees government official Amanda Waller assemble a task force of killers and criminals to send on covert missions. They serve as both agents and built-in patsies. Should they refuse an order, Waller detonates a nanite bomb in their bodies. Under the command of Colonel Rick Flag, “Task Force X” consists of Deadshot, Harley Quinn, Captain Boomerang, Killer Croc, El Diablo, and a metahuman called the Enchantress. But when the Enchantress loses control of her dual “witch” personality, Waller is forced to call in her team of villains.

So you’re Warner Bros., and you’re trying to match the success Marvel has had at the movies with their shared cinematic universe. You put out a Superman movie, then a Superman/Batman movie. Now third in line is…Suicide Squad? Not Wonder Woman, the Flash, Green Lantern, or Justice League. But Suicide Squad? In terms of DC Comics, it’s always been a second-string book at best. So why make it part of the foundation of your cinematic universe? Marvel certainly didn’t do anything like that…

Suicide Squad, 2016, team shotThat last point is one of the keys to the vast amount of interest in Suicide Squad. There’s never been a big budget movie quite like this. It’s all about supervillains doing what they do. Who doesn’t love a good villain?

And there’s no better villain in all of pop culture than the Joker. Both superhero buffs and casual moviegoers are fascinated by him. More importantly, from a business perspective the Harlequin of Hate means big box office bucks. When Jack Nicholson played the character in Batman, the movie broke records and pulled in over $411 million. Heath Ledger won an Oscar when he played the part in The Dark Knight, which again broke records with over $1 billion. Even this year’s limited release of the animated version of The Killing Joke made over $3 million.

So in that sense, one can understand why Warner Bros. would want the Joker in Suicide Squad, a film about supervillains the general public has never heard of. What better way to compensate than with the one villain everyone knows?

Sadly, audiences expecting something akin to The Dark Knight will be disappointed. The Joker gets considerably less screen time than the other characters, as the movie isn’t really about him. He’s a supporting character, a role that would undoubtedly infuriate the Clown Prince himself.

Joker, Jared LetoJared Leto’s Joker is interesting to watch, and leaves you wanting more. But his performance lacks the complexity and depth of Ledger’s, or the sheer fun of Nicholson’s. He’s a tattooed Scarface in clown makeup. But it may be unfair to even compare Leto to his predecessors, as he doesn’t get the chance to dominate the film the way they did. But Leto has the chance to evolve his Joker over multiple films. He’s had the less screen time than Nicholson and Ledger. But that’s likely going to change.

Fans of Harley Quinn (and there are many) can rest easy. Margot Robbie performs the character very well. Though let’s be honest: She’s highly sexualized. I’ve never been a fan of sexy Harley Quinn, especially when she’s with the Joker. Her love for him isn’t prominently sexual. For her own twisted reasons, she’s entirely bought in. That’s what gives her the tragic element present in so many Batman villains. Harley is in an abusive relationship. Either she doesn’t realize it or she keeps returning to it, depending on where you are in her story. I’m not sure if she’s, as one reviewer put it, “damaged dolly jerk-off material.” But it unflatteringly simplifies her.

Then again, it looks like damaged dollies make box office bucks too.

Deadshot, Suicide Squad, Will SmithDid we mention Will Smith is in this movie? And it’s better for him being there. Floyd Lawton/Deadshot acts as the film’s moral and emotional compass. Smith is more than qualified to play that role, with his trademark charm to boot. He’s almost the Han Solo of this movie, bringing a much-needed down to Earth perspective and character-driven levity to the proceedings. Without him, the movie would have been as needlessly grim as Batman v Superman.

Suicide Squad has the unenviable task of introducing us to an entire team of supervillains, filling in their backstories, and making us care about them while still keeping its plot going. It accomplishes some of this by formally introducing its main protagonists from the get-go, framed by a dinner scene with Waller. Deadshot and Harley get the most emphasis, obviously. From there, we see flashback scenes as the movie progresses. This strategy is fine, but it negatively impacts part of the movie’s climax.

Diablo, played by Jay Hernandez, isn’t a main character. He’s a fire-starter with a conscience, and makes a big sacrifice during the final battle. But we don’t learn about Diablo’s past until the second half of the film. We’re invested in him, but not nearly as much as we’d have been if we’d gotten this information sooner. Whether this is the case or not, it feels like Diablo’s backstory was shoved in to make the climax more impactful.

El Diablo, Suicide Squad movie, 2016Also, Slipknot (the supervillain, not the band) is shoehorned into this thing for 10 minutes so he can get blown up by one of Waller’s nanite bombs. This was obviously done to establish she wasn’t bluffing. But Slipknot’s purpose in the story is immediately apparent, to the point where his death is almost an eye-roller.

Suicide Squad was clearly influenced by Guardians of the Galaxy, which also got us acquainted with a team of heroes and their world. Guardians used music from the ’60s and ’70s to make its main character quickly recognizable, likable, and familiar. Suicide Squad tries the same trick with music from Credence Clearwater Revival, Eminem, and other artists that go a long way in engaging the audience. After awhile, you can plainly see what they’re doing. But there’s something to be said for keeping things fun, and letting the audience rock out to music they know and love.

Critics haven’t been kind to Suicide Squad, and that’s very much justified. The movie gradually starts to come apart in the third act, before quickly snapping back together at the end. But the movie does deliver something that was sorely lacking from its predecessors, and that the Marvel Cinematic Universe has in spades: Fun. Suicide Squad is a flawed piece of work, and is guilty of objectifying its female lead. But it’s a fun summer popcorn flick that furthers the story of the DC Extended Universe. By and large, it delivers more than Man of Steel or Batman v Superman. That should serve as a lesson to Warner Bros. going forward.

Follow Primary Ignition on Twitter @PrimaryIgnition, or at Facebook.com/PrimaryIgnition.

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. 

Follow Primary Ignition on Twitter @PrimaryIgnition, or at Facebook.com/PrimaryIgnition/