In the new superhero actioner X-Men: Apocalypse, an ancient, unstoppable villain with a very deep voice travels to modern Earth and begins his destructive “cleansing” of the human race. Our only hope is a team of plucky superheroes that must learn to work together as they exchange lame quips and provide the foundation for multiple sequels of diminishing quality.
Wait… this isn’t X-Men: Apocalypse?
That’s right… it’s Justice League, the latest entry from the fun-averse DC Universe.
This time out, director Zack Snyder cedes post-production control of his film (due to the tragic death of his daughter) to Avengers alum Joss Whedon, who, according to producers at Warner Bros., re-shot 15-20 percent of the film. Despite their best efforts, Whedon and his producers were unable to make Justice League feel like a unified cinematic vision. This is a tonally disjointed film that, while fitfully entertaining, never embraces the stupidity of its premise long enough to be consistently schlocky.
The first half of Justice League is an interminable slog; an endurance test of half-witted characters delivering stilted dialogue more befitting a High School theatrical production. It’s painful to watch these actors deliver lines like, “such harmony out of such horror”, or proclaim that the recently deceased Superman (Henry Cavill) “didn’t just save people, he made them see the best parts of themselves.” Of course, this incarnation of Superman has never cared about anyone but his family and Lois Lane (Amy Adams), but we’ll just stick a pin in that fact and move forward.
The Batman (Ben Affleck with less pep than previous outings) knows there’s an inter-dimensional threat looming after he dispatches a demonic insect during one of his late-night crime fighting soirées. So profound is his desperation that the renown loner must enlist the help of Wonder Woman (a steadily improving Gal Gadot), Aquaman (Jason Momoa as the dude-bro), Cyborg (Ray Fisher looking thoroughly miserable), The Flash (aka ‘Joss Whedon’s favorite character’) the scene stealing Ezra Miller, and zombie Superman.
Collecting allies is usually the highlight of action films, with each character contributing their unique voice and skillset to an increasingly chaotic collaboration. Here, as rendered by Snyder/Whedon, the collection of allies is a disjointed mess. There’s no dramatic momentum or energy to anything that’s happening. Here’s Aquaman loitering in a fishing village for no reason. Oh, there’s Wonder Woman thwarting a terrorist attack that has nothing to do with anything. And Cyborg is moody because he’s half-computer and all-loser. It’s just a succession of unrelated scenes that accumulate until the characters are in place and the movie can finally start.
As if watching listless characters exchange infantile monologues isn’t bad enough, the “villain of the week” is a complete bore. Steppenwolf (a CGI creation voiced by Ciarán Hinds) is a giant beastie who uses a bad attitude and an electric battle axe to bully his way across space and time. He’s looking for three super-charged ‘mother cubes’ that, when combined, destroy the world by summoning what look to be the worms from Tremors. It’s great to see those critters getting a new gig!
Once the superheroes have finally assembled, things don’t improve very much. There’s surprisingly little conflict between these supposedly fierce individualists, save for one melodramatic war of words between Batman and Wonder Woman regarding her reluctance to lead the charge. About the only interesting thing that happens, and the film’s lone comedic gag, is when Aquaman accidentally sits on Wonder Woman’s Lasso of Truth and makes some decidedly un-dude-bro admissions. Sure, zombie Superman is a little cranky when he wakes up (fans of Whedon’s classic Buffy the Vampire Slayer series will appreciate the resurrection scene), but there’s practically no acrimony to be found in this superhero love nest.
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Just when you switch your brain into ‘nap mode’, Justice League abruptly snaps into ‘fun mode’. The action ramps to ridiculous levels and the characters start exchanging thunderous blows and comic jabs. Though the jabs rarely land, and those that do connect have already been spoiled by the trailer, it’s more about the lighter tone than the success rate.
It would be crass to suggest that this wackier, more entertaining section is due to Whedon’s input, but… the wackier, more entertaining section is clearly due to Whedon’s input. The dark tone and morose whining about responsibility give way to a giddy carnival of excess. The heroes celebrate their powers, with each (save for a worthless Aquaman) contributing to the cause in their own specialized way. It’s delightfully cheesy, which makes the film’s depressing first half all the more infuriating.
Most of the performances are capable, though Cavill struggles mightily with the tonal shifts. He’s more of a “let’s get mad and destroy the entire city!” kind of Superman than a “let’s be nice and help people” kind of guy. The one notable exception, of course, is Ezra Miller as The Flash. Adorably awkward and irritatingly eager, Flash should use his super speed to race into a solo movie. There’s a genuine sense of joy and wonder in his character that brightens everything around him, which makes him feel all the more out of place here, unfortunately.
The recent success of the relatively light Wonder Woman standalone left hopes high for a fun version of Justice League. That promise is partially fulfilled in the film’s grand, ridiculous finalé, but this is still a frustratingly dour affair. The joy of escapist entertainment, along with memorable and engaging characters, seems to be lost on Snyder and his producers, who continue to prefer a gritty, humorless portrayal of brooding characters that can lift freakin’ buildings.