I’m “biast” (con): …but not a fan of the other DCEU movies
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
These are the times that try woman’s soul. Trump. Brexit. Harvey Weinstein. Al Franken. (Really? Damn.) Global warming. Syria. Everything is awful. Everything is broken. Blake Shelton is People’s Sexiest Man alive? Christ, someone make it stop.
So it’s actually rather brilliant of Warner Bros and DC to fully embrace the everything-is-shit zeitgeist with a movie that just throws up its hands and agrees that the world and those in charge of it are garbage. Justice League is almost a meta exegesis of reality in 2017. It is the bystander on the sidewalk below the guy on the ledge of the tenth floor, shouting for him to just jump already. It is a cultural fatberg clogging up the societal flow, and we have only ourselves to blame for it: it is made up of disposable horrors we gladly used and instantly chucked. Blockbuster comic-book movies? We ate ’em up. Extended universes? We said, Bring ’em on. Combine that with the fact that movies no longer have to exhibit actual quality to make a lot of money, and we end up with DCEU excretions Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad earning a combined $1.6 billion globally last year. I know it sounds like blaming the victim, but Justice League is nothing more than what we deserve. Like Trump and Brexit and Boomers scolding Millennials that if they stopped blowing all their money on avocado toast they could afford to buy houses. Everything has been building to this.
No shit, Justice League features a “joke” about not understanding the concept of brunch (because leisurely Sunday afternoons with friends are a ridiculous fantasy?), and several others about the casual privilege and power that come with enormous wealth. Because everything is awful.
Forget the nihilism of Batman! Although there’s plenty of that here too, like how Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck: Live by Night, The Accountant) thinks ethical behavior should be off the table if the evil alien trying to destroy Earth ain’t gonna follow any rules. Who needs heroes? Strategic weapons will do. But that’s nothing next to Justice League itself, which doesn’t accept that things like “character” and “story” are necessary building blocks of a mainstream blockbuster. The success of the DCEU — the anomaly of the engaging and resonant Wonder Woman aside — has already proven that this is the case. So.
So we have Victor Stone, aka Cyborg (Ray Fisher), half man, half machine, charged by the alien power source at the root of the extraterrestrial troubles here, who wonders if he is “the next alien invasion” that “people have been waiting for”… and that is the extent of his characterization. Cyborg is CGI cardboard who doesn’t even struggle with his new capabilities and whatever temptations they might bring; he merely uses them as the plot requires. Minimal as that is, it’s at least better than what we are offered for Arthur Curry, aka Aquaman (Jason Mamoa: The Bad Batch, Conan the Barbarian), an immortal or at least ancient denizen of Atlantis who appears to be living in Iceland. (How he got a name like Arthur Curry in Iceland is a mystery that is left unexplored.) He’s a swaggering dudebro with no interest whatsoever in saving the planet until it impacts his home in Atlantis, and then only when he is reassured that his Atlantean mommy does not, in fact, hate him. Barry Allen, aka The Flash (Ezra Miller: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Trainwreck) is allegedly the charming comic relief here — and Miller is at least trying — but he has no interest in helping anyone until he discovers that it makes him feel good. (There’s nothing wrong with feeling good about doing good, but when that’s your only motivation?) Diana Prince, aka Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot: Keeping Up with the Joneses, Triple 9), is still magnificent and noble and full of love… or at least we may presume that; the few times she gets to express it makes her come across like the finger-wagging mom amongst these guys. Her benevolence is swamped by the aggressive mediocrity of the manchildren around her. She becomes the cliché of the token Perfect Girl amidst all the messed-up men.
If there was an overarching theme to BvS, it was this: There are no heroes. Not in an intriguing way that refused to shove complicated real people into tiny boxes, but in the everything-is-awful and everyone-is-garbage way. Justice League expands on this even with Superman (Henry Cavill: The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Man of Steel), who gets reduced to little more than a plot point and a, well, alien ex machina in the final climactic showdown. The same mysterious power source, a weird ancient device called a “Mother Box” (and no, nothing Freudian there, nosiree), that animates Cyborg is wielded by Wayne and the others to resurrect dead Superman, because there’s no way that could go wrong. Except it does, and undead Superman goes wild, which means the movie gets to shove in a huge among-heroes battle. At least in Captain America: Civil War, when the Avengers lined up behind either Iron Man or Captain America, there were genuine ideological differences separating them. (With DC racing to catch up with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, comparing the two is fair game.) Yet even though BvS was predicated on a substantive disagreement between Wayne and Kent, that’s all but forgotten here, and their fight is all about wrestling the zombie Superman back into reason so he can step in and save the day in the final battle. (Which doesn’t even work: only the presence of Lois Lane manages to bring him back to his senses.)
Oh! And while they’re all messing around with zombie Superman, they completely forget to keep an eye on that Mother Box, which they are supposed to be keeping away from the big baddie, Steppenwolf (CGI plus the unrecognizable voice of Ciaran Hinds [Silence, Bleed for This]). He already has the other two Mother Boxes that were hidden on Earth, and now he has the third one, which is bad, thanks to their inattentiveness. Steppenwolf calls himself “the End of Worlds,” and he promises that “darkness will cover the Earth,” and he is literally a cartoon villain: the CGI that animates him looks like something out of cheap videogame. So now there will have to be another big, overlong, incoherent battle as he attempts to turn a remote part of Russia into Mordor, complete with rock tentacles and an army of flying wasp-men. (They are called Parademons. That’s “Para-demons,” not “Parade-mons,” though I’d kinda love to find out what a Parade-mon is. They are “nightmare creature[s] who feed on fear,” and we never get any idea of what feeding on fear entails or what it means for the Parademons. I guess it’s intended to sound cool or scary or something. The Parademons are also embarrassingly cheap looking. Justice League is reputed to have cost $300 million to make, which is criminal when the movie looks this bad.)
The most human part of Justice League is when Lois (Amy Adams: Arrival, Big Eyes) and Martha Kent (Diane Lane: Trumbo, Inside Out) have a nice chat about their lives since Clark’s death. (Wait. I guess the resurrection of Superman isn’t too outlandish, him a superpowered space god and all, but how is Clark going to explain his return from the grave?) It feels like a scene snuck in from another movie. There is no life to Justice League, no soul. No one — not original director Zack Snyder (Sucker Punch, Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole), nor his pinch hitter, Joss Whedon (Avengers: Age of Ultron, Much Ado About Nothing), who stepped in when Snyder was called away (and also helped write the script) — appears to have made any attempt to hide the fact that this is manufactured corporate product intended to pander to the least discriminating of fans, whose tribalism — which has been carefully fostered by said corporation — ensures they will support and defend it. Never mind pretensions of art: there is no need to bother even with basic craft when there is no question of the only “success” that matters, the one measured in dollar signs. Justice League is the cinematic equivalent of the fulfillment of Trump’s boast that he could shoot someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue and still get elected. When nothing matters and everything is broken, an accidental lampoon of villainy like Steppenwolf isn’t only inadequate to the dramatic purpose he is meant to serve, he’s also failing to keep up with reality. Oh, does someone with delusions of grandeur want to destroy us all for his own amusement? Tell us something we don’t already know.