On this episode of The Nightly Chill, we look at Warner Bros. and DC Comics’ surprisingly fun Justice League!
An ancient evil from beyond the stars has come to Earth to reclaim an ancient cube with the power to reshape and destroy worlds. And the only thing standing in the way of the death and destruction of everything, is a Caped Crusader, a Goddess, an Atlantean, the Fastest Man Alive, and a Cyborg…in Warner Bros. and DC Comics’ Justice League.
Originally helmed by Zack Synder and completed by Joss Whedon, Justice League brings together some of the greatest pop culture icons in modern American history for a movie that is, unfortunately, not very good. On a technical level, on a structural level, on just about every basic, fundamental filmmaking level, Justice League is, at best, subpar.
Visually speaking, the movie is all over the place. The color palette doesn’t match the production in any way, and is likely the result of Whedon’s drastic reshoots and alterations to the work already completed by Synder.
The saturation and brightness levels were clearly adjusted in post-production to move away from Snyder’s usual desatured, dark visuals. And in and of itself, these changes are likely going to be a welcomed change for many. Mature dramatics is one thing to want in a superhero movie. But drab, lifeless worlds and characters with no sense of enjoyment to any of it is a whole other thing.
However, these adjustments make every set, prop, costume, and clearly green-screen backdrops stand out in the worst way possible. The movie never looks like a cohesive, believable production. Ever. It’s always obvious that what we are seeing was done in a studio and on a computer.
In fact, this is only made worse by CGI reminiscent of the work seen in movies from the early 2000s. At times the movie actually dives right to “Scorpion King” levels of bad, as in the CGI monstrosity featured in Universal’s The Mummy 2, which infamously featured a monster that was the fusion Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and a giant scorpion.
And to further compound this visual mess, the compositing work is somehow worse than the CGI itself. The effects never blend seamlessly with physical reality. This ranges from issues like shots of the island of Themyscira looking like it was ripped right out of a decade-old video game to the movie’s CGI baddies–the bug-like Parademons and the big, bad Steppenwolf–interacting less believably with the movie’s flesh-and-blood cast than the toons featured in Who Framed Roger Rabbit.
In a world where giant alien robots from the planet Cybertron and a humanoid raccoon and tree can believably stand-by-side with living, breathing people, there is no excuse for this level of bad CGI from a major studio and a massive budget.
Of course, none of this even begins to touch upon the issues with everything else.
The plot of Justice League is little more a single thread that rationalizes everything on screen. There’s not much actually happening. Nor does what little we get actually ever mean anything. There’s no story. No heart. No character arcs. No emotional depth or dramatic weight anywhere for anything, even when certain scenes actually demand it.
And given how much material this movie lifts from actual stories featured in the pages of the comics, where such moments and images and stories are actually pulled off with some respective degree of emotional relevance, it’s shocking how hollow everything in Justice League really is.
One of the most glaring example–but certainly not the biggest offender–is when the team finally do overcome Steppenwolf and his army. This moment is a given. This is a Hollywood blockbuster after all. We expect the heroes to win. But in a good movie, that moment would come across as the single greatest thing we’ve ever witnessed…even if only for that singular instant in history.
We feel it when The Nazis die a ghastly death at the end of Raiders of the Lost Arc. We feel it when The Avengers defeat Loki and his own alien army–specifically when Hulk finally gives Loki the beating he deserves.
But we don’t feel that here. There’s a big fight, and that final giant action set piece really is fun if not exceptionally creative or well-presented. But then it just kind of ends. Not unceremoniously. It’s certainly shown in such a way where the movie wants you to feel the same thing you might feel when the Luke blows up the Death Star. But that’s not what it will make you feel.
Instead, it’s just a sign that the movie is about to wrap things up.
Part of this has to do with the way everything is presented visually. It’s just not that exciting to watch. Fun, yes. Entertaining, yes. We get a good sense of everything that’s happening. We get the idea of what’s being given to us. This is a big fight where colorful and stupidly powered cartoon characters are fighting other stupidly powerful cartoon characters. Batman does this. Superman does that. And Wonder Woman is mixed in there too. And then it just sort of ends.
But this isn’t a cartoon. It shouldn’t have to meet the dramatic depth requirements of an old Saturday morning cartoon. It needs to be able to resonate with a general audience. It needs to make use of its massive budget and all the Hollywood magic that it can buy.
And in that same vein, the characters in the very big Hollywood blockbuster shouldn’t speak as if they’ve been pulled out of an old cartoon. Unless it’s one of the movie’s many wonderful small character moments–such as the bizarre, alpha-male bromance between Aquaman and Bruce Wayne of all things–the majority of the dialog is utterly insipid and heavily reliant on exposition.
This exposition, however, is required to explain the simple yet somehow purposely convoluted plot thread. Unlike the one glowing cube in The Avengers, this movie has three glowing cubes. And an unbelievable amount of time is spent on just trying to rationalize the existence of three cubes instead of one.
This means that rather than getting this emotionally powerful moment where Victor Stone confronts his father about his fears of being this inhuman fusion of flesh and alien technology. Rather than getting this, we get the two talking vaguely at each other about the stupid glowing cube. This scene between father and physically and mentally scarred son is instead just about a box. Hide the box. Steal the box. Take the box back.
Because these three Mother Boxes are the central focus of the movie rather than the actual, very straightforward danger that they represent, the movie has to constantly reinforce their existence at all times. This isn’t just a movie about the end of the world. No, it’s a movie about why these three boxes are so important.
A LITTLE FLAT
Now, that all having been said.
It still doesn’t yet begin to cover why the action is about as exciting as the various cartoons featuring these same characters. It doesn’t feel like a comic panel brought to three dimensions. Instead, it feels like it’s being replicated in yet another 2D plane. Again, it’s actually fun to watch. That’s very true. But it never feels like there’s any depth to it. There’s nothing there that you haven’t seen before in some fashion. It’s all paint-by-numbers, generic, uninteresting action by and large. All made worse by bad framing, questionable editing, and lackluster choreography. And that ever-present bad CGI and green screen.
A LEAGUE OF ITS OWN
Now all of that having been said. In spite of all that I’ve previously stated. In spite of all of that, Justice League is shockingly easy to watch. It’s much more often than not–again, almost shockingly so–fun to watch.
The movie was clearly a salvage job. And as bad as the movie is, it clearly could have been much worse. And the clumsy, quick pace doesn’t allow the bad and boring moments to linger. The movie–forced as it may have been–benefits from the hatchet job that resulted in a final cut that’s well-under two hours. The fun stuff is constantly coming at you, making you almost forget entirely about the rest.
More so, the movie is elevated by the performances of its cast. Nobody drops the balls. Everyone is at the top of their game, even when they’re reciting dialog that sounds as if it were written by a middle-school student. As bad as the stuff that comes out of their mouth might sound to the human ear, every actor brings out the best in their respective Leaguer. They live up to the iconic imagery of their characters. And they deserve all the credit in the world for even attempting to make up for the terrible presentation of it all.
A MOVIE OUT OF TIME
Had this exact movie been released 10 or 15 years ago, it would have easily been an impressive, respectable feat.
Unfortunately, Justice League is incredibly late to the party. And it shows. The bar has been raised time and again–not just in superhero movies, but in blockbusters in general. And the movie we get doesn’t hold up in any notable way in 2017.
Making a Justice League movie should not be hard after such things have been done elsewhere better and with none of the issues Warner Bros. has continued to have. It shouldn’t be hard when DC Comics itself has managed to do it very well in animation, especially with projects like Justice League: The New Frontier (a much watch if you’ve been curious how DC should be handling their properties in live-action).
Justice League has more in common with the Transformers film franchise (especially the sequels) than it does anything from Marvel. The look, the immaturity (poorly) masquerading as something mature, the suspect storytelling, the generally bad dialog and character work.
But despite being very stupid, despite being bad on a basic fundamental filmmaking level…Justice League is still fun and entertaining. Not good, but not terrible either.
You certainly won’t feel like you wasted your time by watching it. And, after the shortfalls we’ve seen with Warner and DC’s previous movies, I guess this is a good thing. Justice League, like Wonder Woman–another deeply flawed but watchable movie–is a step in the right direction.
Let’s just hope a competent filmmaker is leading things when the next step is taken.
Surprisingly and happily, I suggest you CHILL with Justice League.