Justice League (2017)

2017 #157
Zack Snyder | 120 mins | cinema | 1.85:1 | USA / English, Russian & Icelandic | 12A / PG-13

Justice League

This review contains spoilers, but only for stuff everybody knows.

DC’s answer to Avengers Assemble begins with a doom-laden cover of Leonard Cohen’s Everybody Knows (a Zack Snyder music choice if ever there was one), and there’s a lot that “everybody knows” about the troubled production of this long-awaited superhero team-up. Everybody knows that the so-called DCEU was deemed to be in need of a course-correction after Batman v Superman. Everybody knows that this was to take the form of making this film tonally lighter, something Snyder and co said was always the plan. Everybody knows Snyder eventually had to leave the project for personal reasons. Everybody knows Joss Whedon was brought in as his replacement. Everybody knows that meant reshoots and an attempt to lighten the tone further. Everybody knows that was a recipe for a conflicted movie…

For those who are thinking “I didn’t know any of that” and aren’t so familiar with superhero things on the whole anyhow, Justice League is set in the aftermath of Superman’s self-sacrifice at the end of Batman v Superman, which has given Bruce Wayne aka Batman (Ben Affleck) a change of heart: he wants to make the world a better place. When he discovers than an alien invasion is imminent, he teams up with Diana Prince aka Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) to put together a team of metahumans (read: people with superpowers) to fight it. That team includes Barry Allen aka the Flash (Ezra Miller), Arthur Curry aka Aquaman (Jason Momoa), and Victor Stone aka Cyborg (Ray Fisher) — and, following an opportunity to revive his cold dead corpse, Clark Kent aka Superman (Henry Cavill).

The new trinity?

Justice League has certainly provoked a mixed reaction from critics and opening weekend audiences. It was always going to: Batman v Superman has been very divisive, with critics largely hating it but a dedicated fanbase to be found without too much digging. Justice League compounds that issue by trying to appease critics, risking alienating fans in the process. The end result inevitably falls somewhere between the two stools, which means there’s no predicting what any one person will make of it — following social media the past couple of days, I’ve seen every possible combination of people who loved, liked, hated, or were indifferent to previous DCEU films and now love, like, hate, or are indifferent to Justice League.

So, my personal reaction is that I enjoyed it. On the whole it’s not as thought-provoking as BvS, but is instead a fun time with some good character bits thrown in. From early reviews I feared the whole story would be choppily edited, and the opening act is indeed a bit disjointed and jumpy, but the closer it gets to the team being assembled the more it settles down. Once they’re together, it’s a fairly straightforward action-adventure movie, with the heroes in pursuit of the villain to stop his world-ending plan. Unlike BvS it’s not full of portentous (or, depending on your predilections, pretentious) themes to ponder, but it’s still a reasonably entertaining action movie.

Bruce and Diana

As for those character bits, it completes arcs for Bruce and Diana that have played out over their past couple of movies, both of them opening up to the world and their place in it. Moments that emphasise Bruce being old and tired and Diana stepping into the role of leader seem to have been added during reshoots, no doubt indicating the future direction the DCEU is now reported to go in — Affleck stepping away in the not-too-distant future; the popular Wonder Woman becoming central to the universe. (As a Batman fan, I hope this doesn’t kill off the raft of Bat-family films they’ve been planning. We’ll see.)

For the new team members, it does a solid job of introducing the Flash and making him likeable — he’s under-confident but good-hearted and funny. Fans of the currently-running TV show may find he’s “not their Flash”, and his costume is one of the worst ever designed, but I’ve never been that big a fan of the series and I can live with the costume. Cyborg gets a mini-arc that works well enough, considering he’s mainly there to be a walking talking plot resolution. Aquaman’s also OK, but a good chunk of his part feels like a tease for his solo film — which, by total coincidence, is the next DCEU movie. This all might’ve been more effective if DC had gone the Marvel route of introducing everyone in solo films first, but the film makes a fair fist of the hand it was dealt.

Flash! Ah-ah!

And as for Superman… well, that’s a whole kettle of fish. Firstly, it’s the worst-kept open secret in the history of movies. The final shot of BvS was a clear hint he’d return, so there’s that for starters. Then early promotional materials included him; behind-the-scenes photos referenced him; when reshoots rolled around, the fact they’d have to deal with Henry Cavill’s Mission: Impossible 6 moustache was big news. Despite all that, they left him off all the posters and out of every trailer. Would it have made a difference if they’d publicly acknowledged he was back? Who knows. Let’s judge what we were given.

In short, he’s not in it enough. The story of his resurrection is a decent idea, but the film has to rush and condense the arc of his return, presumably because Warner were pushing for a lighter tone and brisk running time. How his return affects him does complete the overall story that started in Man of Steel and continued through BvS — the story of how an ordinary young man with extraordinary abilities develops into the paragon of virtue that Superman is to many people. Honestly, I believe this was (more or less) Snyder and co’s plan all along, and those haters of Man of Steel and BvS who now say that “Justice League finally got Superman right” have perhaps misunderstood how something like character development works. (Should that entire character arc have been contained in the first movie? I think that’s a different argument — in our current franchise- and shared-universe-driven blockbuster era, character arcs are routinely designed to play out across a trilogy.)

There are no official photos of Superman from this movie, so here's a photo of Lois Lane looking at a photo of Superman
There are no official photos of Superman from this movie,
so here’s a photo of Lois Lane looking at a photo of Superman.

Much attention has also been focussed on the ridiculousness of the moustache removal — both how funny it always was, and how poor the end result is. Honestly, I don’t think it’s as bad as you may’ve heard. I’d wager most people won’t even notice, especially if they’re not looking for it. It’s the kind of thing film buffs see because they’re looking and, yeah, sometimes it’s not great. Personally, I didn’t even think it was the worst computer-generated effect in the movie. Main villain Steppenwolf looks like a character from a mid-range video game, and has about as much personality as one too. There’s terribly obvious green screen all over the place, which is undoubtedly the result of reshoots — sometimes it crops up mid-scene for no obvious reason, other than because they’ve dropped in a new line. Other effects — stuff they’ve probably been working on since principal photography — looks fine.

Naturally the effects drive all of the action, for good or ill. Some have said these sequences are entirely forgettable, which I think is unfair. There’s nothing truly exceptional, but how many movies do manage that nowadays? I’d say what Snyder offers up is at least as memorable as your typical MCU movie, which is presumably what critics are negatively comparing this to. The everyone-on-Superman punch-up is probably the high-point, with an effective callback to “do you bleed?” and a striking moment when Superman looks at the Flash (that sounds completely underwhelming out of context…) I also thought the desperate escape with the Mother Box on Secret Lady Island was a strong sequence. The big tunnel fight has its moments, but needed more room to breathe and a clearer sense of geography. The climax is a great big CGI tumult, which clearly aims for epic but is mostly just noise — again, with one or two flourishes.

AQUAman

Another late-in-the-day replacement was Danny Elfman on music duties. It’s proven controversial — turns out there are a lot of fans of Hans Zimmer and Junkie XL’s work on the previous Snyder DCEU films. Personally, I think Elfman’s score largely works — its numerous callbacks to classic themes are better than Zimmer’s musicless thrumming. There’s a massive thrill in hearing Elfman’s iconic Batman theme again, and John Williams’ even-more-iconic Superman theme. In his work on Man of Steel and BvS, Zimmer never produced anything even close to that memorable. Elfman’s style works other places too: an early scene where a bunch of criminals take a museum hostage immediately brought to mind the feel of Tim Burton’s Batman for me, mainly thanks to Elfman’s score. That’s no bad thing in my book.

The biggest point of discussion swirling around the film this weekend, in many circles at least, has been “which bits were Snyder and which were Whedon?” According to one of the producers, the final movie is 80-85% what Snyder shot during principal photographer, making 15-20% what Whedon added during reshoots. Not a huge amount, but also not inconsiderable. Personally, while I felt some Whedon additions were glaringly obvious, it also felt to me like a shot or line here and there rather than whole chunks of the movie. I think they’ve done a better job of integrating it than some have given them credit for. I put this down to some people thinking any humourous line must be a Whedon addition, but we know that isn’t the case — they were showing off lighter stuff during press set visits and in the initial footage previewed at conventions, both of which were long before Whedon became involved in re-writes, never mind reshoots. The lighter tone was intended from the off, Whedon just added even more of it.

Born 'borg

For those interested, someone who worked on the film has posted a very long list of changes, attributing various bits to Snyder and others to Whedon. There’s also this tweet, which says Snyder’s original cut went down badly with WB execs (hence why Whedon was sought out) and that the vast majority of Superman’s role was reshot to change it entirely — supposedly all that remains of Snyder’s Superman are his action beats (though Whedon added some more), the final scene with Bruce (“I bought the bank”), and maybe one or two other individual shots. This, then, would be Whedon’s biggest contribution to the film. Some love him for it, others not so much. There seems little doubt this is a lighter, more fun Superman. I liked him, though it can’t hurt that I have a bit of a soft spot for Henry Cavill.

Generally speaking I’m a fan of Whedon — I grew up with Buffy; I’m certainly a Browncoat — but I think his additions (assuming those accounts are accurate) are a mixed blessing. Most vital is all the character stuff he’s slotted in, some of which really adds to the movie — Batman’s pep talk to the Flash about “save just one person” was a highlight, I think. The jokey dialogue sometimes lands, sometimes feels forced — the obvious insert of Batman complaining “something’s definitely bleeding” feels incongruous. I’ve seen some complain that he added too many pervy shots of Diana’s ass in that short skirt or those tight trousers, but then whenever I noticed such shots they were in footage that’s been attributed to Snyder, so who knows.

Well if you wear a skirt that short what do you expect to happen?

Everything to do with the Russian family was certainly Whedon, which I’d rather suspected. I mean, there are civilians there to add stakes to the final battle, so that it’s not just the villain being villainous in the middle of nowhere, but why is it that just one family lives there? Because they were added during reshoots and there was probably neither time nor money for crowds of people, that’s why. Their subplot could’ve been integrated better (it felt like they kept just popping up for no reason), but I liked the eventual pay-off with the Flash and Superman saving them — the Flash saving one carload while Supes flies past with an entire building is the kind of humour I think works in this film.

Justice League is a different movie for Whedon’s involvement, that seems unquestionable. Is it better or worse? That’s partly a matter of personal taste. As my taste stretches to include both directors’ works, I can see positives and negatives every which way. My ideal cut of the movie would likely keep some of Whedon’s additions but lose others, as well as reinsert some Snyder stuff they cut. There’s no pleasing everyone, eh? (If you want to see some of what was definitely cut, there are various shots in the trailers, and someone’s leaked eight short clips from Snyder’s version — mostly of unfinished CGI, but one reveals what Iris West’s role was. (If those clips are even still there by the time you read this, of course…))

The Batman

Finally, the post credits scenes. It’s obvious that the first is a Whedon addition (confirmed by the above breakdown) — it’s just a little coda that doesn’t add anything other than some fun. The second scene, however, is an odd one, because it feels like it’s teasing a movie that’s been uncertain for a long time. If it’s setting up The Batman (because Deathstroke was meant to be that film’s villain), well, we know director Matt Reeves is massively reshaping whatever Affleck had planned, quite possibly ditching Deathstroke altogether. If it’s setting up Justice League 2 (because Lex Luthor’s back with a team-building plan of his own), well, who knows if that’s even happening anymore? It was originally planned this movie would be Justice League Part 1 and be closely followed by Justice League Part 2 — presumably that’s why Steppenwolf is the villain, because he was meant to lead into Darkseid (it’s long been reported that a cliffhanger ending to set up just that was cut by Whedon) — but I believe Part 2 has gone MIA from the schedule, and with Affleck now making definitive noises about wanting out of the franchise… Well, who knows what’ll happen.

Back in the present day, Justice League is set to underperform at the box office this weekend: predictions have been revised ever downwards over the past few days, to the point where it’s now at under $100 million — which is kinda funny because it feels like everyone’s talking about it. I guess that’s the difference between “film Twitter” and movie blogs compared to regular folks. Movie Nerds v Regular People: Box Office of Justice, or something. Funny thing is, for all the hatred these DC movies have attracted, they don’t half get people talking. As I saw someone point out on Twitter the other day, you may not’ve liked Batman v Superman, but it’s more than 18 months later and you’re still talking about it. I can’t even remember which Marvel movie was out 18 months ago without looking it up. This is no doubt a simplification — not everyone’s still arguing about BvS, and one of the reasons Marvel movies don’t stick so long is that they produce so darn many of them — but I do think Marvel films give you fun for a couple of hours, and you can call them to mind again if prompted, while DC films stick around, turning over in your mind, love it or hate it. At least for some of us, anyway.

All in

With Justice League, there’s the added complications of its multiple directors and fraught production. Should we judge a film for what it could have been or for what it is? The latter, surely. The former is definitely an intriguing proposition, but not what’s in front of us (and, as the likes of Blade Runner, Alien³, and Superman II have shown, maybe one day we’ll get a chance to judge that movie anyway). Nonetheless, how much should we take into account the behind-the-scenes issues? Should we just pretend they don’t exist? I guess for a lot of regular moviegoers this isn’t even an issue, but for many of us film-fan types it’s hard to put aside the knowledge that this movie was the product of two directors with very different styles and very different production timeframes.

I don’t have any easy answers, I’m afraid. All I know is that Justice League is far from perfect, but I enjoyed it nonetheless.

4 out of 5

Justice League is in cinemas everywhere now.

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Wonder Woman (2017)

2017 #81
Patty Jenkins | 141 mins | cinema | 2.35:1 | USA, China & Hong Kong / English | 12A / PG-13

Wonder Woman

Following Wonder Woman’s introduction in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (her central role in that film’s final act surely being the inspiration for its terrible subtitle), here we flash back in time to learn her origin — of her childhood on a hidden island of warrior women; of the events that brought her into our world; and of what made her keep quietly to the sidelines for almost a century.

The fourth film in DC’s shared cinematic universe, commonly dubbed the DCEU, is by far its best reviewed to date. It’s also the first superhero movie of the modern era (i.e. post Iron Man) to be based around a female character. I can’t help but think one has a lot to do with the other, because, in my estimation, Wonder Woman is not massively better than or different to the action-adventure blockbusters we get several of every year — the only exception being, of course, that it stars a woman. While that is undoubtedly important, and its meaningfulness can apparently not be understated, it doesn’t automatically elevate the quality of the rest of the movie. Or maybe it does for some people — maybe “the same, but with a woman” is enough to make it a genre classic.

The film’s strongest feature (gender politics aside) is its cast. Gal Gadot is fantastic — it’s no wonder this role seems to have made her an instant star. Chris Pine also gives a likeable performance, while Lucy Davis nails the comedic support. Also of note are the strong Amazonian ladies who shape Diana’s childhood, Connie Nielsen and Robin Wright. On the other side of the fence, Danny Huston is pretty much wasted, while David Thewlis ultimately feels a little miscast.

If anyone can take a sword to a gun fight...

The action is very much from the Zack Snyder school — an inexplicable mix of slow-mo and almost-sped-up (or speed-ramped, as it is either known or people have become fond of calling it). Fortunately it doesn’t degenerate into this all the time — while it was a neat effect when it was new, now it feels derivative and overdone. The rest of the action is of mixed quality: some of it is exciting and well-staged, but at other times succumbs to the modern foibles of shooting it too close and cutting it too fast. The climax is a disappointingly bland CGI-athon, which goes on and on as if someone is stalling for time while they try to think how to end it.

The third act as a whole is probably the film’s biggest problem. The opening stuff on Secret Lady Island is all great; the middle stuff in London is often fun; and there’s some dramatic stuff when Diana & co first arrive on the front lines. It does drag a little in places, mainly when we get the umpteenth go-round of Diana and Steve debating their relative morals; but it’s as the film tries to bring itself towards a conclusion that it really begins to flounder, forcibly manoeuvring our heroes into a position to actually face the villains (who we’ve been seeing on-and-off in scenes where the only purpose is to remind us those characters exist). For instance, there’s a party scene which serves very little purpose. It’s not a bad idea for a sequence (even if it is a well-worn one), but it doesn’t contribute much to justify its existence. You could cut it entirely and nothing would be lost.

Undercover woman

Even after the climactic battle, some things just aren’t rounded off. Like, how Secret Lady Island sort of just disappears from the story (does Diana want to get back there? Does she try? What’s happened to it now Ares is dead?) There’s no closure given to the supporting cast either; and, as the inevitable sequel is reportedly to be set in the present day, I doubt there ever will be. They may not be the greatest or deepest characters, but Davis at least feels like she needs a final moment (there’s one included on the Blu-ray, at least, though it feels like it was intended as a post-credits tease that someone thought better of).

I don’t want to try to ‘mansplain’ (*shudder*) away the significance of either Wonder Woman as a character or this Wonder Woman movie to female audiences both young and old. It’s fantastic that there’s a strong, capable, independent, successful role model being presented in the blockbuster arena. It’s brilliant that it was also directed by a woman, something all too rare in movies as a whole, never mind big-budget ones (though note that none of the three credited screenwriters are female). It’s marvellous that it’s been such a big box office success, proving that these issues are important, and that Hollywood’s received wisdom that “female superhero movies don’t sell” is exactly as bullshit as it always has been. And, actually, all of that is good for men and boys too — to be exposed to such high-profile representations of women that are more than just objects of desire or support for their own endeavours. That’s part of how you begin to change thinking and status in the wider world.

Climbing the ladder of progess, or something

But, if you set societal significance aside, I don’t think this particular film is any better, nor any worse, than your averagely good male-led blockbuster. And that’s okay. I like those films. It’s important to have female leads in movies at the same level as their male counterparts. But I think some people have got carried away, hailing a film that’s averagely-good as being incredibly-great just because it has a female protagonist. In some respects, maybe they’re right, just to make the point (I won’t be surprised if the same thing happens next year with Black Panther and heroes of colour). But there’s been talk of Wonder Woman launching a Best Picture campaign, and I feel that’s just a little bit daft.

Still, let’s not end on a down note. I enjoyed Wonder Woman a lot, even as it exhibited many of the flaws — and, equally, many of the successes — found in most blockbusters nowadays. It’s a good blockbuster, and its significance in terms of little girls (and boys) seeing a strong, capable female hero is immense.

4 out of 5

The latest DCEU movie, Justice League, is in cinemas now.

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)

2016 #65
Zack Snyder | 151 mins | cinema | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12A / PG-13

With Warner Bros’ universe-launching superhero epic now in its second weekend (unless you live in Myanmar or Poland, anyway), you’ve probably more than had your fill of spoilerphobic reviews. So allow me to provide a spoiler-filled one. (There are a fair few of those around too, of course, but not all reviews can be beautiful or unique snowflakes.)

Despite being a sequel to Man of Steel and featuring a Superman-heavy supporting cast (from Batman’s world we have Alfred; from Superman’s we have Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen, Perry White, Lex Luthor, Martha Kent, and (spoiler for something that was in the trailer) Doomsday), Batman v Superman is really a Batman movie. It begins with the latest recap of his origin story — pretty much a prerequisite for any new big-screen incarnation of the Dark Knight. But don’t give up on the film within the opening minutes, because BvS is actually going somewhere with this — the Bat’s backstory has a role to play in the climax. Anyway, after that we get a recap of the end of Man of Steel: as Zod and Supes turn Metropolis into rubble and slaughter untold thousands in the process, we see Bruce Wayne driving and running through the collapsing city streets, heading for a Wayne Financial building where he does superhero-y stuff like save a little girl’s life, and fix the flying Kryptonians with a glare that says, “you are my new enemies.” Central conflict, right there.

I say this is a Batman movie, but in many respects it’s actually a Bruce Wayne movie. Is there a difference? I suppose you could argue not, what with Bruce being the man inside the Batsuit, but I would say a “Batman movie” concentrates on what he gets up to in that suit — fighting crazy villains, essentially — while a “Bruce Wayne movie” would be more about the man, his decisions, his emotions. Now, I’m not about to claim BvS is big on its characters’ inner lives, but if it really taps into the thoughts and feelings of anyone, it’s Bruce. This is a Batman who has perhaps lost his way, scarred by too many tragedies in his life. There are unmissable references to his 20-year crimefighting career; to good people turning bad; the Joker-graffitied Robin suit… This isn’t fan-pleasing/teasing background detail, it speaks to Bruce’s mindset. He’s become the kind of person who believes lines like, “if there’s a 1% chance he’s our enemy, we must take it as an absolute certainty.” He’s a bit of a right-wing nut, basically. If you want to find a character or emotional throughline to the movie, it’s Bruce learning to be a better hero again.

Of course, this being a Zack Snyder film, it often does a muddled job of presenting this kind of material to us. There’s also a heavy vein of what it means to be a hero, with Superman under constant scrutiny for his actions, with questions being asked about what rights he has to act the way he does, and whether methods are needed to stop him. These are potentially interesting themes to tackle, provided you buy into the whole superhero genre in the first place — they don’t really have any real-life equivalent, if that’s what interests you in movies; they’re predicated in the thought process of, “if Superman was real, what would it be like?”

So assuming we consider these as valid things to dig into, it’s a shame the film does a muddled job of it. There’s some grandstanding and speechmaking, and some heavily portentous dialogue, but what is it really saying? Good luck finding out. Maybe repeat viewings and some proper consideration will reveal more depth tucked away there. Certainly, I’ve been a bit annoyed with some of the glib online criticism of the dialogue and the ideas presented through it; commentary that chooses to focus on one sentence that comes at the end of a discussion, so the clever-clever internet person can laugh at the silliness of that line’s question or observation, ignoring the fact that there was a whole range of dialogue before that one line, and in that dialogue the idea was more fully considered or explained. But no, it’s easier to take a soundbite and analyse it as, “lolz, shit dialogue, dude.” I’m not saying BvS has a script of Oscar-worthy, polished, believable, insightful dialogue, but it’s not that poor, either.

But if we are criticising the screenplay, let’s turn our attention to the story and its structure, which leaves something to be desired. This isn’t just the writers’ fault, of course, because myriad things affect a film once the screenplay is signed off. In the case of story structure, editing seems a likely culprit — not the actual cutting together of individual shots to craft a sequence or scene, which is as good here as in any action blockbuster, but in terms of storytelling. Frankly, that’s a bit of a mess. Or a lot of a mess, maybe. Whole scenes serve literally no purpose or are clearly in the wrong place — the bit where Perry wanders up to Clark Kent’s desk and wonders if he’s clicked his heels and disappeared back to Kansas, for example. What purpose does it serve? None. But where it might have a role is where it clearly belongs: a couple of minutes later, right before the scene where Superman is in Kansas, chatting to his mom. Why is it not right before that scene? It’s like someone accidentally dragged it out of place on their computer editing timeline and never noticed. Sure, this is a minor point in the grand scope of the film, but it belies a sloppiness to the entire storytelling.

That extends all over the place. Someone clearly thought the movie was short on action — it has a lot of plot to get through, and whereas once upon a time it would’ve just got on with that plot and happily let all the action sit at the end, that’s not allowed these days. So, unable to find a combat or chase within the real narrative, Bruce has visions of a possible future where Batman wears some kind of dusty trench-coat and battles Superman-symbol-emblazoned soldiers in a Mad Max-esque landscape. In itself it’s a neat, fanboy-pleasing “alternate world” idea, and it’s an exciting sequence with some excellent action choreography, and it certainly looked good in the trailers, but in the film it’s a total aside from anything.

The only purpose it might serve is teasing the future — what is the giant Omega symbol? What are those flying devil-creatures? DC fans know that’s all related to alien supervillain Darkseid, and late in the film Lex Luthor makes a veiled reference to imply that some such alien badass is on the way. Yep, it’s Marvel-style foreshadowing, where every film is just a stepping stone to the next. Except BvS does it even more heavy-handedly than Marvel. As I said, the dream/vision is utterly unnecessary; Lex’s line is nonsensical (how does he know?); and the way other members of the Justice League are teased… You know, I don’t even want to discuss it. It’s a bad Marvel post-credit scene shoehorned into the middle of the movie. It feels like someone accidentally cut a teaser trailer into the actual print of the film. It’s not even so bad it’s good, it’s just tacky. And, I have to say, though I’m not the biggest fan of The CW’s Flash TV show (I think it’s been massively overpraised by some of superhero fandom), Cheery TV Barry Allen seems a much more likeable, comics-accurate version of the character than the movies’ Hipster Beard Barry Allen. Maybe it’s just the beard, I don’t know; but even if it is just the beard, it’s a hipster beard, and it’s wrong.

For a movie that critics stuck it to*, there’s an awful lot to say about BvS — genuine stuff, not just facile observations on hipster beards. This is not a film that needs an extra 30 minutes in an Ultimate Edition. It does need scenes re-arranging; it does need focusing in on its various plots — because there is actually a throughline here; a story that connects all the disparate strands together. Some people will miss it because those strands are so varied and so haphazardly put together, but there is a character who has an overarching plan and has engineered a lot of what’s going on — and as this is a spoilersome review, I can say that character is Lex. It surprised me a little that there was method to the madness; that someone had been orchestrating all these disparate elements. Surprise is good; surprise that makes you rethink the film even better — but you’re meant to rethink to look for clues you missed, not rethink to see if that even fits with everything we’ve seen. That’s because even if you do latch on to the almost-throwaway sliver of dialogue that indicates Lex put all of this together, the way it’s presented in this cut makes it come a little out of nowhere. However, I believe it’s a plausible explanation of events (within the realms of the version of the genre these films are in), and would tie the whole thing together neatly, were it just a little clearer.

So, saying “there’s an awful lot to say about BvS” and then not saying it is a cop-out, but we’re 1500 words deep into this review and I haven’t mentioned: the role of Lois Lane; the role of Wonder Woman; the role of Alfred; how good Ben Affleck is; how wasted Henry Cavill is; Jesse Eisenberg’s performance, for good or ill; what, if anything, the film is saying about government oversight and/or domestic terrorism; the car chase (purely as an action sequence, I liked it); the presence of Doomsday; the battle with Doomsday; the death of Superman and its almost-immediate sort-of-retraction, and whether that was a good idea or not, or if it even matters; why the “Dawn of Justice” subtitle is an accurate addition to the title, but also a pain in the ass to the “Batman v Superman” part; heck, I’ve said nothing of that titular duel itself. When it comes, the fight is inspired by — but not completely adapted from — Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, which should surprise precisely no one as, a) Snyder is an avowed Miller fan, and b) if you’re doing a Batman vs. Superman smackdown, that’s the one to do.

(I also wanted to write something about the film’s lack of attentiveness to cityscapes, because that’s something that interests me and I’ve not seen anyone else discuss it; but I’ve only remembered this after the entire review is finished, illustrated, and scheduled for posting, so it’s quite late at night to get my brain in gear and add it. But if anyone’s actually interested, there’s always the comments section.)

As to those other points… look, I don’t want to get too off-topic, but there’s a rant to be had about discussions of films stopping at opening weekend. “It was cool” / “it wasn’t cool”; “it was fun” / “it wasn’t fun”; “it was an irredeemable piece of crap and I hope it kills off the franchise” / “I can’t wait for Wonder Woman” — followed by, “done now, when’s Civil War out?” Hey, hang around for a minute! There’s stuff here. I know critics just want to barrel on to what’s next because they didn’t like it, but maybe if they stopped to discuss it they’d find there’s more to unpack than they’d like to think? Because yeah, you can see the movie as one long mess before Batman and Superman finally fight, at which point it degenerates into a mess of CGI and aural bombast (seriously, there’s too much noise during the climax), and ends with characters stood around having conversations where the pre-first-draft filler dialogue said, “Give audience an idea what future film(s) will be about while saying absolutely nothing concrete about what future film(s) will be about.” But in that mess (the mess I mentioned at the start of that last really long sentence, remember? OK,) there is stuff going on; there are ideas the filmmakers want to put across, possibly with the intention that they’ll actually be thought about.

And I know it’s just a superhero movie, and I know they’re just ideas about superheroes, and I know if you get into discussions of its representation of women or the legal/political system or any other real-world-connected points then you’re getting into a minefield that the film may not have fully-considered ideas about… but for all his faults as a filmmaker — for all his focus on visual Cool — Zack Snyder has now made at least three films where, buried beneath all that surface noise (both visual and aural), there are things to think about, but because that surface is so polished that it suggests the film must only be skin-deep, the ideas get ignored. The other two films, for what it’s worth, are Watchmen (where, yes, he’s given a leg-up by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ uncommonly thoughtful graphic novel) and Sucker Punch — a movie even more dismissed than BvS has been, but which I maintain has a lot going on.

I’ve even lost myself at this point, so I’ll call it a day. Batman v Superman is a long way from being a perfect movie, and anyone who likes the lightweight fun of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is going to be ill-served here. (Oh man, there’s a whole other semi-off-topic discussion. Ten to fifteen years ago, the only things that could be Cool were dark-and-moody, self-serious, po-faced, grim-and-gritty films/games/whatever; nowadays, you do that and you get lambasted for not being colourful and humorous. Back then, I was miffed that everything had to be the former and when anyone did the latter it got shat on, and now I’m miffed that everything has to be the latter and when anyone does the former it gets shat on. I’m not contrary, I just think we can have, can enjoy, and can accept, both.)

As I was saying: not a perfect movie, but one with a lot of material to provoke thought about both the inherent concepts of superheroes and, external to that, the genre itself, especially the way it’s presented in cinema. I’m not going to slag off the Marvel movies, because they are fun, but the entirety of the big-screen MCU** put together hasn’t given us even a fraction of as much stuff to consider, dissect, analyse, and process as this one bold, messy, controversial movie. I kinda love it for that.

4 out of 5

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is still on release everywhere. The 30-minutes-longer Ultimate Edition is scheduled to be part of the DVD/Blu-ray release, probably in July.


* I won’t trot them all out here, but there are interesting (if you’re into that kind of thing) stats about its critical drubbing vs. its box office performance — essentially, it’s far and away the worst-reviewed super-high-grossing movie ever, as if some omniscient power felt the point really needed ramming home that critics no longer matter to franchises that have what-they-call “pre-awareness”. ^

** “Big-screen” because, in fairness, Daredevil and Jessica Jones are a whole different kettle of fish. ^

100 Films v 2016: Month of March

Tell me — do you watch films?

You will.


Barely Lethal#45 Chappie (2015)
#46 Blackhat (2015)
#47 The Witches of Eastwick (1987)
#48 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014)
#49 Barely Lethal (2015)
#50 The Book of Life (2014)
#51 Kill List (2011)
#52 Fast & Furious 7 (2015), aka Furious Seven
Lincoln#53 Beverly Hills Cop II (1987)
#54 Office Space (1999)
#55 Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014)
#56 The Boxer from Shantung (1972), aka Ma Yong Zhen
#57 The Descendants (2011)
#58 One-Armed Swordsman (1967), aka Du bei dao
#59 The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2 (2015)
Batman v Superman#60 Bridge of Spies (2015)
#61 Scotland, Pa. (2001)
#62 Lincoln (2012)
#63 Brooklyn (2015)
#64 Turbo Kid (2015)
#65 Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)
#66 The Color Purple (1985)
#67 Grave of the Fireflies (1988), aka Hotaru no haka


  • After sitting out last month, I got back to WDYMYHS in March with IMDb voters’ 7th favourite war movie, 5th favourite ’80s movie, and 3rd favourite animated movie: Studio Ghibli’s Grave of the Fireflies.
  • With Bridge of Spies coming out on Blu-ray, Lincoln premiering on TV, and The Color Purple being removed from Amazon Prime Instant Video, the last week of March turned into a bit of a Spielberg-athon for yours truly. I’m now just 3¼ films away from finally having seen all his features…
  • Value For Money Assessment, Part 4: adding 10 more films from Now TV to the 10 (plus the Oscars) from last month gives a final cost of £0.48 per film. I’d say that’s good value.


With 23 new films watched this month, March 2016 joins the elite pantheon of months to reach 20 films — it’s only the sixth ever, and the third this year. In the process, it became the 22nd consecutive month with a 10+ total; it leapt spryly over March’s previous best tally (2013’s 17); and it handed 2016 the record for earliest #50, on the 6th (besting last year’s 8th April). It raises the March average from 11 to 12.3, and nudges the 2016 average up a smidgen from 22 to 22.3.

And there I was thinking that 13 hours of Daredevil would knacker my film viewing. (As it is, I’m actually only 10 hours through Daredevil. It’s really good, though.)

I normally end this with a prediction for the rest of the year, but they feel increasingly meaningless. I mean, they’ve always been meaningless — they’re based on averages, which only hold true until they don’t — but I’m still intending to cut back on film viewing this year (at some point), so they’ll definitely go awry. That said, I’m also intending to maintain my 10-film-minimum for a second calendar year, meaning 2016’s final tally should be at least 157 films. And, frankly, I’m intending April and May to continue in a similar vein to these first three months; at least until I reach #100, anyway. Assuming I do get there in May (which will be a whole Thing that I’ll discuss at the time), 2016 will be looking towards 170+ films.

2015 has really recalibrated my notion of “a lighter year”…



This month: Bourne, Bond, and Ben Affleck twice.



The 10th Monthly Arbitrary Awards

Favourite Film of the Month
Although a couple of fun action movies turned my head this month, none of them were fun enough to detract from the sheer class of Steven Spielberg’s collaboration with Abraham-Lincoln-pretending-to-be-Daniel-Day-Lewis-pretending-to-be-Abraham-Lincoln (last time I make that joke, promise) in Lincoln.

Least Favourite Film of the Month
My memories of it have softened a little in the four weeks since I watched it, but as it remains the only film this month that I’ve got down for a 2-star rating, the loser is Michael Mann’s disappointing cyber thriller Blackhat.

Winner of Batman v Superman
Wonder Woman.

Loser of Batman v Superman
Film critics, apparently. Or not.

The Audience Award for Most-Viewed New Post of the Month
This almost went to everyone’s favourite movie about a blind superhero*, but it was edged out by everyone’s second favourite filmed production of Shakespeare’s Scottish play starring an actor who’s also played Magneto** — Macbeth.

* It’s true! If you can find another one, I’ll retract that statement.
** OK, I’m certain some people prefer the Fassbender one to the old McKellen-and-Dench one, but acknowledging that fact would’ve ruined the mirroring structure of my sentence.


¾.

Justice League: The New Frontier (2008)

2015 #109
David Bullock | 72 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.78:1 | USA / English | NR* / PG-13

The second release in Warner Premiere’s series of direct-to-video DC Universe Animated Original Movies (which now stretches to 24 titles and counting) is adapted from writer and artist Darwyn Cooke’s acclaimed comic book miniseries DC: The New Frontier, which sees Golden Age heroes (Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman) meeting Silver Age heroes (the Flash, Green Lantern) for the first time in the 1950s.

With so many characters (those are just the tip of the iceberg), Justice League: The New Frontier has a many-pronged narrative to squeeze into its brisk hour-and-ten-minutes running time. The connecting tissue is an unknown entity that has decided to destroy all life on Earth, which eventually will lead all of the various characters to come together to combat it. Other than that, I’m not even going to attempt to summarise the story because there’s so darn much going on. Uncommonly, it spends a lot of time focused on the likes of Hal Jordan (David Boreanaz) and the Martian Manhunter (Miguel Ferrer) rather than the usual big names.

Frankly, there are too many characters, and the film doesn’t always seem to know what to do with all of them. The array of cameos in minor roles is fine, and sure to please thoroughly-versed comic book readers, but it’s the main characters who are sometimes sidelined. In some cases, literally: Wonder Woman disappears off to her island after two scenes; the Flash retires early on; Superman gets sunk in the ocean at the start of the climax. The plot feels underdeveloped too. There are snippets of Batman investigating the entity, for instance, but before he can really learn anything the thing just attacks, so his storyline was needless. Maybe Cooke’s original graphic novel had more time for all of this. If some things have had to be sacrificed to streamline the tale into a 70-minute movie, then it wouldn’t be uncommon for these DC animations. I’ve not read the book so I don’t know. However, there are definitely bits that could’ve been sacrificed or abridged further (the Flash’s two early action sequences, for instance) to make more room to tell the story in full.

On the bright side, a period-set superhero movie makes a nice change; and it just gets on with it, rather than feeling the need to explain itself with alternate worlds or time travel or any such BS. It has the confidence to start with many of the heroes already in play, rather than worry about giving each one a full-blown origin story or something. At one point I thought it might manage to pull off something akin to Watchmen, but in the ’50s and with recognisable DC heroes. Such a comparison might be a kindness too far. There are some good concepts here, but the execution pootles out as it goes along. At times it feels a bit like a pilot episode, as if they were somehow expecting to spin a TV series out of it — for all I know maybe they were — but the problem with pilot episodes is that they are, by definition, unresolved. The New Frontier has a climax that wraps up the immediate threat, but it also feels like it was laying character and supporting cast groundwork for something longer-running.

On technical merits, the art design is… variable. At times it appears to have been inspired by Cooke’s awesome style, which is both pleasing in itself and marks a nice spot of variety from these animations’ norm, but at other points the style reverts to simplistic “Saturday morning cartoon” familiarity. Disappointingly, the actual animation is always of that level. Warner have definitely put out worse examples in this range (Superman vs The Elite), but they’ve also done much better (Batman: The Dark Knight Returns).

I really wanted to like The New Frontier, for all sorts of reasons. It does start well, with moments of promise sparkling here and there, but the longer it spends juggling so many balls, the fewer it can keep flying smoothly. (Do balls “fly” when juggled? Anyway, you get my point.) Considered as a whole, the overall result is fairly disappointing.

3 out of 5

* The New Frontier has never had a disc release in the UK (or a theatrical one, naturally), so has never been classified by the BBFC (I thought you needed that for streaming or download nowadays, but turns out it’s optional). Amazon choose to list it as a PG, but the US’s PG-13, aka a 12, seems nearer the mark (depending how much you care about cartoon violence and blood, anyway). ^