A battle is raging. One between an avaricious Empire that seeks to control all of creation and an embattled Resistance clinging desperately to its last hope. No, I don’t mean “Star Wars” or “Game of Thrones” or the American political scene. I refer to the war in super-hero cinema.
Disney, the owner of Marvel Comics, currently dominates the scene with a franchise that stands at 17 films and counting and has garnered both critical and popular acclaim while racking up billions of dollars at the box office. Time Warner, the owner of DC comics, has been trying to catch up for years and usually failing. Despite possessing the original and most iconic super-heroes in the American cultural pantheon, Time Warner has fumbled the ball and again and again and only scored by handing it off to Christopher Nolan. On their own, they’ve achieved a modicum of financial success with one really good movie, three fairly bad ones, and one flick so awful they decided to pretend it never existed.
Now, Time Warner takes its biggest step yet to jumpstart its floundering franchise with “Justice League” (2017). But how does it measure up to Disney’s reigning and undisputed super-hero champion “The Avengers” (2012)? That’s what this edition of KIMT’s Weekend Throwdown will attempt to figure out.
The unprecedented culmination of five motion pictures, “The Avengers” brought together Captain America, Thor, Iron Man, the Hulk, Black Widow, and Hawkeye to defeat the Loki-led alien invasion of Earth. There’s a time when only a fairly small number of fairly geeky adults would have thought that was a good movie. In 2012, it was a global smash that a whole bunch of non-geeks enjoyed.
When the Asgardian god of mischief (Tom Hiddleston) materializes at a S.H.I.E.L.D. energy research facility and steals the Tesseract in order to create a space portal for his Chitauri soldiers, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) assembles Earth’s Mightiest Heroes to track down Loki and foil his plans. And it would have blown my 14-year-old mind to think that grownups would one day understand any of that. Of course, like any good Marvel comic, the good guys have to fight amongst themselves before taking on the bad guys.
Captain America (Chris Evans) is a man out of time whose straight laced by-the-book attitude clashes with the billionaire rebel-without-a-cause Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.). Meanwhile, the Asgardian god of thunder Thor (Chris Hemsworth) chafes at having to deal with lesser beings and haunted scientist Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) just wants to get out before unleashing his green-skinned inner rage monster. Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) finds herself both bemused and a little overwhelmed by her super-human teammates while her old friend and partner Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) is brainwashed by Loki into being his servant.
There’s combat on a flying aircraft carrier, a relatively smart and nuanced digression on how the real world would react to the appearance of super-beings, a small war on the streets and in the skies of New York City, so many confrontations between the main heroes and Loki that it’s amazing it doesn’t get boring, and a lot of humor and honest good feelings to balance out all the high-stakes carnage.
"The Avengers” isn’t perfect. There’s no way, for example, to reconcile the Secret Service-like intelligence agency S.H.I.E.L.D represented by Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) with the super-science military operation run by Nick Fury. But it’s so fast and fun that no one really cares. People loved this movie so much it retroactively elevated the entire Marvel franchise, which before it had been one great film and four others that ranged from “meh” to “that kind of sucked.”
Honestly, I think we were all just astonished that writer/director Joss Whedon managed to keep so many spinning plates in the air that we just applauded. “The Avengers” is not a movie that exists because anyone had a great story they wanted to tell. It was a corporate product whose creation and content was mandated by Hollywood studio executives who care as much about storytelling as they do treating women with respect and decency. Whedon was given a list of characters he had to use in the movie, a list of things he had to do with them, and another list of things he couldn’t do with them.
For example, the X-Men movies turned Cyclops into a stiff and vaguely douchey character so Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine could look like the “cool one.” Whedon didn’t have that option. He had to treat Captain America, Thor, and the Hulk like they were on the same level as Robert Downey Jr’s more popular Iron Man while also finding a way to take two characters with no super-powers in Black Widow and Hawkeye and make them seem like the equals of a guy who can bench press a Buick, another who can control the weather, a giant monster, and a wise-cracking genius in a suit of flying armor. How he handled it is particularly impressive. He crafts somewhat parallel scenes with the Black Widow where she gets to display an intelligence and maturity we don’t see in any of the other characters. And turning Hawkeye into Loki’s minion actually opens the door for the character to show off his skills fighting against the other Avengers. Take away that plot twist and what does a guy with a bow and arrow actually do for the first two hours of the movie?
“The Avengers” is pretty much a modern masterpiece of special effects heavy action/adventure extravaganzas. “Justice League” is…really, really, really not.
It’s not a bad as “Suicide Squad” (2016), which started out well and got exponentially dumber as it went along, and it’s not as fundamentally wrong-headed as “Man of Steel” (2013) or “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” (2016), where you were left wondering what the hell they were thinking, but “Justice League” isn’t even close to as wonderfully conceived and constructed as “Wonder Woman” (2017).
Briefly, following the death of Superman (Henry Cavill) and with the arrival of an invading alien named Steppenwolf (Ciaran Hinds), Batman and Wonder Woman (Ben Affleck and Gal Gadot) recruit a few other super-beings to help protect the world. There’s The Flash (Ezra Miller), a super-speedster with a wrongfully convicted father and who appears to occupy some humorous point on the Autism spectrum. There’s Aquaman (Jason Momoa), a renegade from Atlantis who comes with a trident and the “brah” attitude of a super-strong surf dude. There’s Cyborg (Ray Fisher), the dour and heavily mechanized product of a father’s attempt to save his son’s life who looks like an unfinished welding project. And there’s eventually Superman who is dead but…SPOILER ALERT…gets better. After a lot of set-up and squabbling, they travel to Steppenwolf’s base in Russia to beat him up and foil his plans for world conquest and/or domination. His agenda is never quite clear.
Much like its opposite number, “Justice League” is a corporate creation demanded and designed to meet objectives and requirements that have absolutely nothing to do with being a good movie. And to the somewhat limited credit of director Zack Snyder and credited co-writer/uncredited co-director Joss Whedon, who also obviously shot an awful lot of new footage and substantially changed whatever Snyder was doing, this motion picture doesn’t have the ugliness, unpleasantness and plain tone-deafness toward what people want from these characters that plagued “Man of Steel” and “Batman v Superman.” There’s a lot more humor, a little less unearned grandiosity, and the story more or less make sense.
But fundamentally, “Justice League” shows what happens when all those corporately-mandated plates aren’t kept spinning and crash to the floor. It is a badly made motion picture in a way that rarely happens nowadays. Not only are there problems with the story but it’s technically flawed.
The CGI is not only poorly imagined, with things either so ugly or so ridiculous you can’t believe it is real for a second, but poorly executed. Steppenwolf is entirely computer animated and he looks like something pirated from a World of Warcraft knockoff. They just as well could have put Ciaran Hinds in a rubber suit with stilts. It’s that bad.
While “The Avengers” was about taking pre-existing characters from their films and combining them, Time Warner didn’t have the patience for that so “Justice League” introduces us to three new heroes with only a passing reference to their origins. And it sucks. Ezra Miller is entertaining but he’s playing a character that has no resemblance to any version of The Flash that has ever been seen before. Jason Momoa is engaging when he’s uttering “brah-isms” but is basically just “guy who punches things.” Ray Fisher seems to spend the movie pouting over not getting his own origin flick. Gal Gadot continues to delight as Diana of Themyscira but is still playing third wheel at best. Ben Affleck’s compelling damaged Bruce Wayne/Batman has been wiped away by a character who changes again and again depending on what a scene requires. Affleck has been blasted for phoning in his performance here but I defy anyone to look at what this movie needs him to do and explain how any actor could convincingly pull it off.
And then there’s Superman. While many are targeting the weird upper lip on display because they needed a to reshoot a lot of footage for the film after Henry Cavill had grown a mustache for another movie that he couldn’t shave off so they digitally erased it, the real problem with Superman is that this movie can’t stop talking about his and how wonderful he is. The film essentially beats the viewer over the head with how great Superman is and how much everybody has to love him, like an infomercial on crack. And then when he shows up, it’s as if the movie turns into that old Jerry Seinfeld routine on “Why do we need the Justice League? Can’t Superman pretty much do it all himself?” Given how dominant Batman has been in all forms of media over the last 30 years and how much everyone loved the new version of Wonder Woman, it is more than a little off-putting to watch “Justice League” bend over backward to focus all its energy on a Superman reclamation project. “The Avengers” worked to make sure Tony Stark didn’t blow all the other characters off the screen while giving fans of that character what they expected. “Justice League” all but blatantly subjugates everything and everyone else in the movie to promote a “Superman is the bestest ever" meme.
“Justice League” is an example of what “The Avengers” would have been like if everything that could have gone wrong with that movie did. There are so many moving pieces that don’t naturally fit together and neither Snyder nor Whedon could fix it. It will still make a bit of money because people feel the need to turn their brain off for a couple of hours and let something else fill the space, but there’s no way you can call it a good movie. You can say that unashamedly about “The Avengers,” which is why it takes this Throwdown.
"Justice League” was supposed to spawn a new era of DC super-hero films but it comes off more like a eulogy for the whole effort. Whether Time Warner tries to trundle on or reboots the whole mess (because you know they won’t stop making these films), it’s clear that Marvel will continue to rule super-hero cinema for a long time to come.
The Avengers (2012)
Written and directed by Joss Whedon.
Starring Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Tom Hiddleston, Clark Gregg, Cobie Smulders, Samuel L. Jackson, Stellan Skarsgard, Gwyneth Paltrow, Paul Bettany, and Alexis Denisof.
Justice League (2017)
Written by Chris Terrio and Joss Whedon.
Directed by Zack Snyder.
Starring Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Gal Gadot, Ezra Miller, Jason Momoa, Ray Fisher, Jeremy Irons, Diane Lane, Connie Nielsen, J.J Simmons, Amber Herd, Ciaran Hinds, and Joe Morton.
"I'm not a miracle worker."
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