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Does Justice League do any of its heroes justice?

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A spoiler-filled chat about DC’s superhero Hail Mary, from a critic who liked it and a critic who loathed it

HARWOOD Warner Bros. Entertainment

This past weekend, Justice League finally landed in theaters. The movie was meant to be Warner Bros.’ answer to The Avengers; the crowning achievement of the DC Extended Universe. But those plans hit some speed bumps along the way. Batman v. Superman wasn’t the level of hit the studio was hoping for, and Suicide Squad was disastrous on a critical and financial level. Wonder Woman director Patty Jenkins did deliver the kind of cultural-zeitgeist blockbuster the studio was looking for, but she did it by ditching the style, tone, and storyline the previous DC films had all been built upon. Then, in perhaps the most drastic blow of all, Justice League director Zack Snyder stepped down earlier this year for personal reasons, leaving Joss Whedon in charge of reshoots and finishing the film.

Now that audiences have finally seen the DC superheroes team up, we’re going to sit down and chat about the good, the bad, and the lovingly-photographed-in-impossibly-slow-motion of Justice League.

Fair warning: this is a no-holds-barred, all-spoilers-allowed conversation. The spoiler-conscious review is here.

JUSTICE LEAGUE Warner Bros. Entertainment

Bryan: Going into this film, I had a lot of questions. Would the movie make amends for the incredibly frustrating Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice? Would seeing these characters on-screen together make up for the haphazard, forced way Warner Bros. and DC tried to reverse-engineer this team-up? Would Snyder’s absence be felt, for better or worse? And perhaps most importantly of all, how would it leave me feeling at the end? Would I be excited for more adventures of the Justice League, or would I be eager for a world of standalone DC movies that didn’t bother with establishing links in the first place?

Tasha: Those are good questions. Mine were mostly whether the film would squander all the good will Wonder Woman brought on, by dropping the humor and humanity that movie brought into the DCEU. And then there’s the question Thor: Ragnarok raises, the question I ask every time a new Marvel movie out-performs a DC film at the box office: Has DC finally learned something about why Marvel movies get so much praise?

Bryan: Justice League answered my last question clearly: bring on the standalone movies as soon as possible, please, and make them star Ezra Miller’s The Flash. I have a feeling it’s going to be fashionable to both hate this movie, and to talk about how fun it is in contrast to the last few Snyder films. (And it is that.) But I don’t think I’ve been this uninvested and flat-out bored in a theater since, well, Suicide Squad. Justice League is funny at times — but set within a story that clearly wants to be drenched in darkness. It leans heavily on characters we’ve never met in this incarnation, and it expects us to know, love, and understand them. Those we do know say things that give the impression they’ll eventually go on some sort of emotional journey, but that never fully manifests. I even found the film visually inconsistent, with certain sequences exhibiting the kind of glossy, stylistic sheen Snyder has built his career on, while others look like they were shot as part of a TV show. Justice League really was like The Avengers of DC’s cinematic world — it just decided to amp up all the weaknesses rather than the strengths.

HARWOOD Warner Bros. Entertainment

Tasha: There’s a lot to unpack in that response, but let’s start with the characters’ unfamiliarity. I had a much more positive reaction to this film than you did, and maybe that’s because I don’t consider these characters unfamiliar. Yes, Batman v. Superman only gave us a quick hint about Ezra Miller’s Flash, in a sort of dream-sequence-slash-future-warning that doesn’t pay off at all in Justice League. And this is our first introduction to the DC cinematic world’s Aquaman (Jason Momoa) and Cyborg (Ray Fisher). But I know these characters from so many other DC iterations, and I’m so tired of origin stories. I am perfectly fine with blitzing past Aquaman’s tragic history as an abandoned child of Atlantis, in a quickie speech, then moving on. I enjoyed the Flash/Cyborg “So, you were struck by lightning?” conversation, which is ludicrous, incredibly Joss Whedon-y, and about as much as I need to hear about Flash’s origin story this time around. Yes, it feels like DC jumped the gun by trying to get to The Avengers without setting up these characters with their own films first. But there have been so many superhero movies about origins and angst and the tragic loneliness of power. Did you really want to go through all that again? Don’t we already know enough about these characters to understand the stakes in a movie that’s mostly about them fighting an angry CGI effect to get their hands on some glowing CGI hoobajoobs?

Bryan: I don’t need elaborate origin stories by any means — I think we’re all tired of that. What I do require, just for baseline emotional investment, is characters with a point of view, an emotional journey, and a simple reason for existing beyond a studio executive wanting them all on a poster. And that’s where Justice League fails, while almost all the Marvel movies succeed. Aquaman is literally just a DothrakiBro. In one (admittedly hilarious) scene, he gets roped up by Wonder Woman’s lasso and tells the audience exactly who his character is, which would be amazing if it weren’t so lazy. And as somebody with no foreknowledge of Cyborg, I couldn’t find anything in the movie to latch onto. He’s dealing with the funk that comes with being turned into a half-robot creature by a maniac of a father, but it’s hard to care about that funk when I haven’t seen who he was before, and what he’s lost. It also makes his pseudo-arc ring totally hollow. He eventually becomes okay with his transformation, I guess? I can’t entirely tell. These are action figures, swapped in and out to deliver one-liners.

The exception is The Flash. I kept picturing Fran Kranz in this role, and he probably would have been, if this movie had been made 15 years ago. But the reason Miller’s character stands out is because he actually has a clearly articulated internal struggle over his imprisoned dad, and it pays off beyond Saving The World. I think those issues stood out for me so starkly because it seemed like they were trying to compensate for a larger story that just simply wasn’t there. This film begins and ends like it’s going to be about the impact of the death of Superman in Dawn of Justice, but aside from some thematic throwaway lines, I never felt like it dealt with this topic. How did you feel about the movie’s handling of the Man of Steel?

TB2250_COMP_V018086410.tif Warner Bros. Entertainment

Tasha: Least favorite thing about a movie I otherwise largely enjoyed. I think there’s an interesting, painful emotional resonance in “The world cannot survive without a Superman” themes, because we the audience have to survive in a world without a Superman. (Granted, we’re not dealing with periodic alien invasion.) But you’re right, this feels like the movie wants to address the impact of Superman’s death, and it doesn’t get very deeply into it. Among other things, I’m baffled as to why Superman’s death sets off Steppenwolf’s attack, since it seems like the world went thousands of years without a Superman (or any individual high-powered defender), and that didn’t trigger an invasion. That aside, there’s so much character-development potential in Batman’s journey from “There’s a remote chance of Superman going bad, so he must die” in Batman v. Superman to “We need Superman, so it’s worth the risk of resurrecting him as an unstoppable murder-machine” here. But the script blitzes past the weight of that decision, and the ridiculous resurrection process itself, to get to the big hero-on-hero fight where Superman battles the Justice League.

So that battle sequence… in isolation, it’s straight-up exciting. The frozen look of shock and terror on Flash’s face when he realizes Superman can track him at super-speed came pretty close to justifying that sequence for me. But it’s all so arbitrary and sloppy on a moment-to-moment basis, especially in terms of zombie-Superman’s mental capacity. Having Cyborg’s armor categorize him as a threat and attack him to set off the fight is an inane bit of contrivance. The “Well, we’ll just fight him to make him stop fighting!” sequence that follows makes everyone involved look dumb. I thought maybe the fight made sense if Superman had no memories and was reacting on an animal basis, but then we find out that he does remember who he is, and can think and talk, but still decides to kill everyone — because why? Because they stole his shirt? Stupider reasons have been kludged together to make superheroes fight each other, but it never gets easier to watch our supposed role models, the best of the best, doing imbecilic things, not even because the plot demands it (since this entire fight could be excised without any impact whatsoever on the story), but because fandom loves watching hero-on-hero battles. It’s good that it’s over with now and Superman’s back in the mix, but I wish the entire resurrection plan could have been saved for the next film, and given some serious thought and attention. Packing so many storylines into this one means not giving any of them full attention or worthwhile service.

HARWOOD Image: Warner Bros.

Bryan: Couldn’t agree more. As a general rule, the DC films have had a problem of trying to cram in too much story — though the two-hour running time of this movie was certainly a blessing when compared to Snyder’s last couple of films. But the bizarre treatment of Superman is what made me wonder where the line is between the movie Snyder wanted to make, and the one Whedon reshot and finished. The easiest tell for “reshoot or original” is Superman’s face. Henry Cavill grew a mustache for another movie when it came time for the two months of Justice League reshoots, and the movie had to digitally remove his facial hair to solve the problem. I found the results… problematic. As in, there seemed to be only two scenes in the entire film where I wasn’t wondering what was wrong with Superman’s face.

Tasha: I honestly didn’t notice it! I know that’s weird to you, but everyone in this movie already looks like an inhuman special effect to me, between Momoa and Cavill’s immense bulging muscles and negative-12 percent body fat, and Miller and Gadot’s glass-cut cheekbones, and Cyborg being 90 percent costume. I really did not register Cavill’s face looking odd and inhuman, because to me, his normal face already looks like a video game model!

HARWOOD Warner Bros. Entertainment

Bryan: Well, I couldn’t stop noticing it. And for me, that was a continual reminder of how confused the movie is. And perhaps more importantly, how the finished product doesn’t mesh with everything that came before it. I actually wound up reminiscing about the coherence and thematic throughlines of Man of Steel and Dawn of Justice. Which really says something about Justice League, because neither of those two films were coherent in the slightest.

Tasha: …okay, you’re definitely going to need to justify that claim for me. To me, Man of Steel was a grimdark mess about how maybe Earth is too judgmental or inherently evil for heroes, but it needs them anyway — hence leaning extra-hard on the Christ imagery, except for the part where our Jesus-substitute destroys a city full of people because he can’t figure out that taking the fight to space would save lives. And Dawn of Justice turns Batman into a torturer and would-be cold-blooded killer and has both Superman and Batman acting like sulky children defending their chunk of playground. One of Justice League’s greatest achievements was getting away from the badly handled, muddied existential questions of What Heroism Means and just getting to some swagger and action. It’s a much more coherent film for me, because there’s only one villain (post-credits scene aside) and it’s a simple fight with simple stakes, instead of a film about Questioning The Darkness Inside All Of Us in a clunky way. What are you recalling in those films that makes them better than Justice League for you?

Bryan: It’s simply a matter of intent, and the Whedon-Snyder Justice League has none. As clunky as Man of Steel’s Christ imagery was, and as forced as the Batman v. Superman “Martha” reveal came off, those films dealt with specific ideas, building toward a specific conclusion. Snyder was interested in humanity’s need for savior figures, and how that instinct could be exploited, and ultimately undone, by our own fears of “the other.” Justice League appeared poised to deliver on that with a true redemption arc: Superman is killed saving humanity from Doomsday, only to rise again. Clunky as hell, yes, but a resolution that would nevertheless have tied the three films together. (The fact that dirt began to vibrate off Clark Kent’s coffin at the end of Dawn of Justice even suggested a self-resurrection was in the cards.) Instead, as you say, we get a resurrection that makes no sense, and a movie that seems to throw things together simply because fandom likes watching heroes fight.

HARWOOD Warner Bros. Entertainment

I know we’re talking about the most popcorn of popcorn movies, but audiences deserve better. I’ll take an overlong, pretentious movie that is at least trying to have a point over one that’s simply trying to check boxes and get through two hours without making anybody too upset. That’s how this movie landed for me: Whedon added some quirky laughs to a movie that was stripped of its reason for existing. It feels like a movie designed to prevent fans from getting too upset, all so Warner Bros. and DC can step in with their new game plan because they decided the DC expanded universe was dead long before they publicly admitted it.

Tasha: In my reading, Justice League is fundamentally about individuals getting over themselves and choosing to act collectively. Aquaman wants to be left alone with the small causes he’s chosen, and is secretly afraid he doesn’t belong anywhere. (Why don’t the parademons react to that fear?) Flash is inexperienced and terrified of all the threats he’s never faced before. (Why don’t the parademons react to that fear?) Cyborg is afraid he’s losing his humanity, his mind, and control over his body. (Blah blah parademons fear… which I wouldn’t bring up, except they’re so hypersensitive to Steppenwolf’s first flicker of insecurity at the end. Maybe his fear tastes better?) As Batman points out, Wonder Woman is still in mourning for Steve Trevor, and has chosen to withdraw from leadership because she doesn’t want to inspire people to their deaths. (That’s a little clunky, but I’m glad they at least tried to explain her disappearance from the world post World War I.)

And Batman isn’t afraid, but he’s certainly conscious that he’s mortal and fragile, compared to all these super-people casually getting thrown through walls and floors. For me, this wasn’t the origin story of any one hero, it was the origin story of a team, and the connecting thread is the way they all have to face their own tendencies to withdraw and hide, and find something bigger and brighter than themselves in the idea of cooperation and friendship. I would have been fine without Superman in this movie, because if those past Superman movies are about humanity’s savior complex, Justice League is about stepping up and accepting the responsibility of power, which he’s already done to a degree the rest of them haven’t. That’s a much more Whedon-y theme, and one I find a lot more interesting.

HARWOOD Warner Bros. Entertainment

Bryan: I wish the movie had worked as well for me as it did for you, because it sounds like you had a much better time in the theater. But even then, things aren’t all bad. Gal Gadot comes out of the movie unscathed, and the punch she lands on Batman after he taunts her about Steve Trevor is one of the more satisfying one-off moments of the movie. While Affleck’s new jokester Batman felt all over the place for me tonally, I still find him surprisingly solid in the role. He’s no Christian Bale (or Michael Keaton, for that matter), but his kind of generic, leading-man energy fits in perfectly for the kind of movie this is. And while I’ve mentioned him a couple of times already, I really do need to highlight Ezra Miller’s performance as The Flash once again. The riffing, the stammering; the awkward, I’d-rather-not-be-here energy… for me, he was the highlight of the film, and the best example of Whedon’s sensibilities fitting into the larger film, rather than clashing with it. He’s one of several new characters sharing the spotlight, though — which one did you respond to the most?

Tasha: Cyborg, honestly. Part of that is because of all the DC characters questioning why they have to be heroes, he seems to have the most reason. There’s some deeply flawed logic in the baseline of this story, and the way they all come together, and Cyborg is the most obvious example: Lex Luthor identified as a possible exploitable asset based entirely on a fragmentary shot of him screaming and limbless in a lab? But I enjoyed Fisher’s intense, pained performance, and the character’s design. And as crudely handled as his not-quite-an-arc is, I still thought it was pretty gratifying when he let himself enjoy his powers, instead of regarding them as threats to his humanity.

But I had a lot of emotional response to things in this movie that don’t seem to have touched you at all. I found the original battle against Steppenwolf surprisingly rousing, with its Green Lantern and Shazam cameos and its reminder of a lost mythic era of Earth. The Amazons’ valiant but doomed attempt to keep the first Mother Box out of Steppenwolf’s hands was an impressive piece of action that respected the power of the warriors we learned to respect in Wonder Woman. Ezra Miller didn’t do much for me — from his familial angst to his “Yay, I’m joining a team!” giddiness to his nervousness and effectiveness in battle, he reminded me way too much of Tom Holland in Captain America: Civil War and Spider-Man: Homecoming. And his “I’m afraid of everything that’s part of this battle!” speech was way too Xander-comedy to work for me in this setting. But I love how effectively and efficiently Batman has his number, with the “Save one person” order that gets Flash in the game and lets him see that he can save everyone, and be proud of himself doing it. For that matter, I wound up liking this Batman so much more than the grim-n-grunty hater who, let us never forget, burns bat-symbols into criminals’ flesh in Batman v. Superman, because Zack Snyder is a grinning sadist. This Batman is human, and he knows it. He faces likely death every time he goes into battle with all these supers, and he doesn’t make a big deal about it, but the awareness is clear and palpable.

Finally, I’m glad to see these superheroes focusing so much on saving civilians’ lives. All this cinematic superhero hoo-rah is finally acknowledging that being a hero means caring about individual lives and saving people on an individual level, not just punching world-destruction-engines to death. Did none of that touch or impress you? Did nothing in Justice League thrill you, even on an atavistic level?

TB2460_COMP_V004086414.tif Warner Bros. Entertainment

Bryan: It didn’t impress me, actually, and it’s undoubtedly why I found the movie so tedious. There are moments that certainly played (the Godot Bat-punch, the slow-mo Flash sequences, Aquaman’s truth-lasso confession), and I enjoyed some individual performance beats. But from the very first shot, when Superman shows up in some smartphone footage with that godawful weird CG mouth they put on him, the film seems dedicated to showing us all its ugly seams. The tonal shifts, the visual changes, the random cutaways to that nameless family, the odd way the bookends seemed designed for a totally different film (and probably were); it played so poorly for me that at times I actually felt like I was watching a comedy about a botched superhero movie rather than a superhero movie. Not quite to the degree where I’m willing to call it Plan 9 From Krypton or Tommy Wiseau’s The Justice League, but it comes awfully close.

But I keep thinking back to what you said earlier in our conversation: that a lot of these characters and situations played much better for you because you came in with a level of emotional investment that I lacked. I think there’s something to be said for looking at this movie through the lens of its intended audience. I have no pre-existing feelings about Green Lantern, so that cameo just played like Warner Bros. and DC once again trying to hard-sell me on the idea of an expanded universe without really earning it. But for a different viewer, that could be a moment of delight. Snyder’s films — and I’m not really considering this Snyder’s film, no matter what credits the DGA doled out — have always agitated fans. The darkness and tone never seemed to complement the characters he was tasked with bringing to the big screen. Justice League, however, seems to go in the opposite direction. I criticized it earlier for being neutered in the name of not making DC fans any angrier — but for the DC fans out there who are frustrated, that might actually be a good thing. Despite my own problems, I can definitely see why this could be the most satisfying DC movie for audiences in quite some time — other than Wonder Woman, that is. How long do we have to wait for that sequel again?