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Whedon, Snyder’s Styles Clash In Fun But Flawed ‘Justice League’

Justice League

Directed by Joss Whedon Zack Snyder

Written by Chris Terrio and Joss Whedon

Starring Henry Cavill, Ben Affleck, Gal Gadot, Ezra Miller, Ray Fisher, and Jason Momoa

121 Minutes

Reber’s Rating: C+ (B for the Whedon material, C for the Snyder leftovers)

You know that feeling you get when you’re home on the couch on a rainy Saturday afternoon, a new commercial airs at random for a delectable succulent steak at (enter generic restaurant chain here) and your mouth begins to water? The more the commercial plays throughout the weekend, your mouth waters. Your taste buds pop. And when you finally have a free evening you take your better half on a nice night out and, yeah, you determinately order that steak, but when the steak is plopped down by the waiter your platter looks like rubber? And you question where that perfectly photographed steak topped with molten cheese and juicy shrimp is hiding?

Yeah. You know what I mean. And that’s the exact feeling you’ll have after walking out of Justice League, the latest entry in the DC Expanded Universe that offers much promise for the future but fails to fully deliver on its asseveration. The latest DC flick is a movie that feels more like Doctor Frankenstein’s patchwork monster than Gary and Wyatt’s computer concoction Lisa (that’s a Weird Science reference for those who are puzzled), another flimsy fable that lacks a true identity and clashes with tonal shifts in plot and character, a third-rate villain more fitting to languish in SyFy Channel hell, but buoyed by strong performances from DC’s Trinity to keep the ship afloat for two hours. While I can hardly fault Joss Whedon for doing his best to salvage what he could, I can’t help but feel Snyder’s fingerprints drag down a movie that aims high, falls a few hairs short, but at least leaves a somewhat bright future ahead.

Really, this is more like a tale of three movies, with three separate voices trying to scream over the next. You’ve got the footage that Zack Snyder shot initially and, boy, a good sixty percent of the film sure feels like his signature is etched at every turn. Joss Whedon, who reportedly shot up to twenty percent of fresh footage (and rewrote Chris Terrio’s second-rate script), puts his poppy and pulpy take on every scene he’s able to without veering course from Snyder’s initial vision. But then you’ve got Warner Brothers chairman Kevin Tsujihara, who demanded the film be no longer than two hours, whose mandate has left theaters screening a film that whisks by at an unrelenting pace without leaving much room to breathe, character brushed aside to cram in as much story as possible. What amazes me most that, even with all of the chaos with three hands in the honey pot, Justice League is actually – and yes, don’t fall backwards off your chair – somewhat entertaining.

The main problem is, rather than spending time wrapping your head around the plot unfolding before you, your eyes are more keenly intent to discern who directed what scene. And to be quite honest, the changes in original and new scenes are jarring. One minute Ben Affleck appears to have lived in a gym for months, chubby cheeks melted away and replaced with tone and definition, only to go back to him seconds later now boasting large jowls and a fake beard glued atop his cheeks. The reshoots by Joss Whedon did take up a fair amount of time this year, that much we all know, but nearly all of the scenes of the League interacting with each other feel fresh and lively. Whedon has always been a whiz with dialogue – do I need to really mention The Avengers or Buffy, people? – but seeing him toy in the DC sandbox will alay your concerns over the first three DCEU features. The imagery is saturated with a rich and dazzling color in Whedon’s scenes, the drama feeling more organic and less about conflict, our heroes with their guard down rather than machismo dripping off the screen. Hell, I dare say that Affleck and company are having genuine fun. A group of actors in a room riffing, playing off each other, and letting an uber nerd like Joss Whedon direct them, nothing could go wrong.

Well, except the fact Whedon’s scenes don’t fit in with Snyder’s original material at all, almost like seeing churning ocean waters lumber against a retaining seawall, Snyder’s obsession with scenery clashing with Whedon’s mastery of words and character. The action sequences remain wholly Snyder’s. Snyder has always excelled in this category, his uncanny ability to thrill audiences with a variety of camera play to keep you engaged in the onslaught onscreen, like a child buzzing about a playground living out his fantasies. Whedon though, the man knows how to gather a group of people and create witty fluffy banter that actually can make a movie cheerful and pleasing. We may never know the behind-the-scenes makings that fully led to Whedon completing the final cut – or how much of the film Whedon actually owns versus the material Snyder shot – but, if one fact to walk away with, it’s that the godfather for the DCEU should be Joss Whedon. Look what he did for Marvel. Gifted guidance could get DC back on track. Patty Jenkins started the change. Maybe Whedon could help them finally cross the horizon into greatness.

Though, honestly, Justice League is a somewhat large leap in the right direction, even if half of the characters fail to resonate on the screen. Gal Gadot can only do so much as Wonder Woman. One can easily argue that Wonder Woman is the single best installment of the DCEU. Nothing comes even remotely close to touching this summer’s box office pariah. But she alone can’t keep the movie afloat. Affleck’s Batman ranks high on my list of thesps who’ve played the Dark Knight – sorry, but Keaton and Conroy are still atop the list – and once again has no trouble in stealing the spotlight away when necessary, his Batman still very much an older yet wiser Batman who knows he’s a bit long in the tooth but doesn’t know when to quit. Though Ray Fisher’s Victor Stone/Cyborg spends much of the first act groveling about, hiding among the shadows so no one sees the monster he’s become, his Cyborg is much different than his animated counterpart, much more a young adult embracing his destiny and gifts while being tutored by idols who want him to succeed, not flounder. The same can’t be said for Jason Momoa’s Aquaman, a whiskey-chugging braggart who has mommy/daddy problems in Atlantis but gets his own movie to explore those themes next year because, why not, everyone loves Khal Drago. (We’ll never get the James Cameron-directed movie teased in Entourage and that makes me somewhat sad.)

Worse off is Ezra Miller’s Flash, filling the void of Spider-Man’s introduction in Civil War, yapping a mile a minute in awkward prose because Allen feels like he doesn’t fit in with the other heroes at all. I’ll give you a hint. We already have a great Flash in Grant Gustin over on The CW and, yeah, his incarnation of Barry Allen is way more fleshed out and relatable than Miller’s techno-nerd who bounces from job to job. Both have daddy issues. Both have a murdered mommy. But hey, maybe Geoff Johns (now running the DCEU) will find a way to make the big screen Barry Allen work going forward. I hope.

My big issue is in advertising of someone specific. The Man of Steel. Warner Brothers, listen here. How can you loudly advertise a character like Superman – but don’t have him make his reappearance until about half the movie is over? You’ve got toys on shelves in brick-and-mortar retails across the country, hell, the world. Henry Cavill’s face is plastered on posters, snacks, book bags, all sorts of promotional material. He’s easily one of the best aspects of the DCEU you’ve got going. Somehow, you allow a story to actually go forward that keeps your most recognizable face on the bench for most of the movie. While I understand the necessity of this fact – spoiler alert, Supes dies in Batman Vs. Superman! – the circumstances of his resurrection are foreseeable. Oh, and that digital erase of Cavill’s mustache is easily the worst CG moment on film in 2018. Easily.

Well, not as bad as Steppenwolf. What, did Warner Brothers cut corners and hire the digital artists responsible for the Scorpion King in The Mummy Returns? Yikes. Bad character design, bad motivations to even be the main foil for the Justice League, hell, just a bad character all around. Though I still highly disagree with making a team-up movie this soon, there had to at least be another villain on the spectrum worth mentioning. We all know Snyder was angling on bringing in Darkseid but, let’s be clear, we would need to earn a foe of that magnitude. The DCEU ain’t there yet but, with Justice League in the books, we’re a solid step closer.

Oh, and Danny Elfman just about steals all of the thunder in Justice League. Actually, most of the thunder. Elfman has been my most favorite composer of my young lifetime, with Michael Giacchino nipping at his heels, but Elfman’s titan score to Justice League could be some of the best music in a super hero film ever. (Well, the modern era. Nothing touches his 1989 and 1992 Batman scores.) I only smiled twice during this movie. The second time was seeing a grinning Superman on the screen, Henry Cavill finally getting his penance. But the first smile? That would be hearing the iconic Batman theme. That’s right. Elfman uses the one and only Batman theme multiple times.

Oh, and the Superman theme. Yeah. On Elfman’s soulful soundtrack alone does Justice League have more liveliness than anything Snyder has done for the DCEU in four years.

I can’t fault Joss Whedon for Justice League‘s shortcomings. For the accomplished director to shape the perfect movie, Whedon would have had to start from scratch. To actually finish Zack Snyder’s film, even with weeks of reshoots and tinkering with the plot, and manage to retain a small semblance of a fun factor is admirable. However, Whedon can’t do much to make the secondary characters noteworthy or refine a minion propelled to big-bad-wolf status. If anything to take home from the theater, we’ve at least finally got a Superman we’ve waited four years to see in proper, a fierce and compelling heroine that has inspired a whole new generation of moviegoers, and groundwork for an optimistic future. The box office will tell the rest of the story. Will Whedon’s work have pushed the DCEU to the next level – or will Flashpoint serve as the soft reboot to declutter Snyder’s pandering? Time will tell. Though, waiting twenty years to get a proper Justice League film wasn’t all that bad of a wait. Could be worse, folks. We could have this instead.

Oh wait. We did. Yes, this is real. And it’s from a failed 1997 pilot for CBS. Gadzooks.

 

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Jerrold Reber

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Jerrold spent his childhood in southeastern Pennsylvania ingesting far too many TV shows and movies, thus creating a stark-raving mad geek. He’s a movie aficionado, binge-watches Netflix, and is a total TV junkie. His addiction has led to an unhealthy and rabid obsession of various geek pantheons – Star Trek, Star Wars, both DC *AND* Marvel, cult 80's and 90's television, Supernatural, The X-Files, Doctor Who, and, and...holy overload. He's still waiting to run away in a 1967 Impala or a a blue police box.