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Justice League (2017)

Rating: *** out of 4

“Superman was a beacon to the world. He didn’t just save the people, he made them see the best parts of themselves.”- Batman

"There are heroes among us. Not to make us feel smaller, but to remind us of what makes us great…. The truest darkness is not absence of light, but that light will never return…But the light always returns…Hope is real. You can see it. All you have to do is look up into the sky.” - Lois Lane

"The world needs Superman… the team needs Clark. He’s more human than I am. He lived in this world, fell in love, had a job. In spite of all that power.” – Batman

Cast: Ben Affleck, Gal Gadot, Jason Momoa, Ezra Miller, and Ray Fisher.

Writers: Chris Terrio, Joss Whedon and Zack Snyder

Director: Zack Snyder (and Joss Whedon uncredited)

DC’s answer to Marvel’s The Avengers may not be a home run, but the fact that a film with so much stacked against it works at all is borderline remarkable. The film was plagued with a series of set backs that likely play to the film’s failings. First off, the underwhelming success of Batman v Superman – Dawn of Justice seemed to make the studio nervous…and rightfully so. While I liked that film, it was so bogged down by a grim and downright mean-spirited tone that the studio felt that, for the franchise to continue, the tone had to be lighter. Much of Marvel’s success, stems from their movies being fun and that was what was lacking in most of the DCEU films. They also felt that the length of BvS was to the film’s detriment and wanted a much more condensed film with Justice League. Lastly, director Zack Snyder’s daughter passed away during the production, which left the film rudderless and Joss Whedon was brought on board to usher the film to completion. All three of these things would ultimately play simultaneously to the film’s strengths and weaknesses.

The film centers around Batman who is still reeling in a world where Superman is dead and senses great danger ahead now that Earth is left without its great protector. Batman seeks out other heroes like himself to band together a league of heroes who can defend the world should evil arise. Well, arise it does when Steppenwolf; the conqueror of worlds, discovers that Earth is left without its Kryptonian protector, and no Lanterns are to be found. The Atlanteans have been driven to the solitude of the sea and the Amazons have separated themselves from humanity. Earth is ripe for the taking and all Steppenwolf need do is unite three Mother Boxes (a convoluted device of great power) to bring this world down. That is about as complex as the plot gets and this is the first of the film’s real criticisms.

The film is incredibly streamlined. Its structure is; Bad Guy is Bad and announces Badness to which Good Guys must unite to take down Bad Guy and preserve what is Good. There is little excess, and this is in direct response to the criticisms of BvS being over saturated with plot and world building. They took this criticism and scaled everything back to the point where substantial substance is lost. The movie is light and sacrifices depth in order to maintain a 2 hour flat run time. The problem is that the film’s rushed nature is felt and super noticeable. Good characters like Aquaman and Cyborg don’t feel earned because they aren’t allowed any room to breathe.

The other big drawback is that it suffers from the two tones of its vastly different filmmakers. The film continues the bleakness of the franchise and really sinks at times in the weight of its own self-important drama. And yet, at other times the film has a light, poppy attitude. It is even fun. Actual jokes are thrown in, some land. But best of all, the film manages to dissect a few of the characters in some really interesting ways that both furthers their plot points within the DCEU but also contextualizes their placement as heroes in their own right. The problem of the shifting tones is that the film’s language shifts as well and the Whedon-y scenes really stand out.

What really makes the film work here are the characters. We see a different take on Batman; one where he elects to be a team player and resolves to not be the loner that has consumed his character for 20 years (and several movies, I might add). This is a Batman who recognizes weaknesses within himself and that made for a dramatically interesting Batman that we have never really seen before. Wonder Woman steals the show. I adore how Gadot plays this character. She carries herself with the weight of royalty, and engages in battle with a sly smile. She has fun with the part and it is a joy to see. The Flash, Aquaman and Cyborg all have great moments that excite me for when they get their own films. We Now Enter Spoiler-y Territory. Be Warned!!!

The film’s real strength and highlight is that it reclaims the character of Superman. Bruce Wayne’s ultimate goal in the film, once he finds out that the Mother Boxes offer life creating properties, is to resurrect his fallen friend. Superman comes back, not as a dark shadow of himself (as he has kind of been played in the past two movies—complete with dour expression, and unengaging personality), but as he should have been all along. He comes back as a hero who we can look up to and turn to for guidance. Henry Cavill plays him with an edge of fun and a smile that is reminiscent of Christopher Reeve’s brilliant portrayal. If this film accomplished one thing, it was bringing back Superman as he should have been; a hero who lives in the world as it should be…to show the world what it can be. Spoilers Doth Endeth!!!

So, how can I justify giving a film that is so radically uneven a positive review. The film’s first scene is a gateway to that answer. The film opens with cell phone footage of Superman from before his death where he is being interviewed by two young kids. It is a great (I emphasize GREAT) little scene where he discusses the S on his chest and offers a little insight on the meaning of hope; he says “Hope is like car keys. Easy to lose but if you dig around they’re easy to find.” This was my attitude towards the film. Sure, it is uneven, but it comes together well in the climax and offers a look towards a more positive future. One not burdened in sorrow but open to exploring the possibility of what may come.

Roger Ebert once said that a good film must have three good scenes and no bad scenes. The movie definitely lives up to this. The opening scene is a gem. A scene in the middle of the movie when Batman and Wonder Woman confront each other over the nature of their own heroism is also a gripping one. Lastly, the way the group comes together in the final battle is optimistic and sheds permanently the tone of the Snyder-verse. All of this coupled with some truly captivating imagery (Wonder Woman’s intro shot, Flash’s speed run) warrants the positive review. The truth is, when it is being a sequel to BvS, the film works rather well. If this is the concluding chapter to the series as we know it, at least it closed on a moment of strength, optimism and that all important Hope.

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