Injustice For All

Ever since Man of Steel came out four years ago to mixed reviews, fans of the DC Extended Universe have been steadfast in defending the films of the Superfriends. A common defense used by these devotees, especially when comparing them to the movies of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, has been that the big-screen adaptations of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and co. are “dark,” “gritty,” “mature” and the most commonly used of all, “real.” They see the MCU movies made for little kids to sell toys at the Disney Store (which they’re not wrong on that part) while the DCEU is for grown-ups with smart, deep and complex storylines about what would happen if superheroes lived in the real world.

 

Now with Justice League, the grand superhero team-up of DC Comics that finally hits theaters this weekend, I hope to see those same DCEU fans out in droves to see it. And I hope to see them on social media defying the “biased” critics who’ve called their movies “poorly-made” or “convoluted” or “depressing” or just plain “awful.” Those fans who’ve insulted or talked-down to those who even have a moderate distaste for the DCEU, protested negative reviews or who’ve straight-up bullied those that have seemingly missed the point of these complex masterpieces of filmmaking. I can’t wait to see how do a complete 180-turn and vehemently defend one of the most saccharine, safe, glossy and goofy pieces of schlock trash I’ve ever seen. Sorry boys and girls, holding your capes close and your comic books closer, but Justice League sucks……hard.

 

After the traumatic events of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, specifically the death of Superman (Henry Cavill), the world hangs it head in gloom. But Batman (Ben Affleck) still fears a greater danger on the horizon, so he and Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) trek the world looking for more superheroes to recruit. They find the skittish introvert Barry Allen/The Flash (Ezra Miller), the cocky dude-bro Arthur Curry/Aquaman (Jason Momoa) and the sullen Victor Stone/Cyborg (Ray Fisher). This team’s assemblance is perfect timing, as the ancient intergalactic conqueror Steppenwolf (Ciaran Hinds) arrives on Earth to collect three Mother Boxes that, if combined, could destroy the Earth.

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It really is stunning how terrified Warner Bros. and DC are of Disney and Marvel Studios. They set such high expectations for Man of Steel and Dawn of Justice and when those became two of the most divisive blockbusters of the new millennium and not meeting the financial hopes the studios had in mind, they had no problem showing how desperate they were to be liked. The studio was deeply committed to the grim visual aesthetic of director Zack Snyder but after his takes on Superman and Batman didn’t rake in a billion dollars each, it had no problem putting Snyder on a leash. Justice League shows that WB and DC are so terrified of losing money and merchandise to the Marvel mega conglomerate that they gave up on the “dark gritty realism” of Snyder’s vision and told him to shut up and make a movie with the intelligence and imagination of a G.I. Joe cartoon.

 

Like Dawn of Justice, Justice League doesn’t look or feel like a Zack Snyder movie at all. Say what you will about his style, but it’s significant and unique: he builds dramatic heft through his eye for visuals, loves him some slow-motion effects, and shoots his leads with the bravado of the Greek Gods. Here, he doesn’t give his movie any room to breathe between scenes or build any sense of dramatic weight. Characters just show up in scenes without any grand form of reveal or presentation, no thanks to the choppy and disorienting editing. It’s as if the movie thinks that The Flash, Cyborg and Aquaman already had their own solo movies before Justice League so there’s no need to give them any kind of heroic debut despite it being the ACTUAL CINEMATIC DEBUT of all three characters. It’s quite clear this movie was edited down from a longer runtime, seemingly out of fear of losing the audience’s attention or the fact that the movie wants to get itself over with as soon as possible. The visual style transition, compared to the previous DCEU films, is also jarring. Whereas the previous films had the characters blend in with the muted colors and grey backdrop, here the color tones on the characters are amplified to a bright glow, making them stick out from the mostly green-screened backgrounds all the more.

 

It’s a sudden and forced whiplash in both filmmaking and story structure. Oscar-winner Chris Terrio (Argo) is once again stuck with trying to juggle the introductions of multiple new characters, their interactions with each other, establishing them as individuals, creating a cohesive plot and making our lead superheros likable. While in Dawn of Justice he was stuck with David S. Goyer’s grim and convoluted structure, the studio mandate for a lighter tone and brisker pace needed for Justice League scored rewrites by none other than Joss Whedon (The Avengers, Firefly). While Whedon subbed in behind the director’s chair for reshoots after Snyder stepped down for a family emergency, the former Marvel man’s fingerprints are all over the script. There are more quips and jokes this time around and spread to all characters, making this feel much more like an action comedy than a hefty action epic. Though much like recent Marvel films Spider-Man: Homecoming and Thor: Ragnarok, the movie’s desperate need to get belly laughs from the audience undercut many dramatic moments. And fun is in higher demand this time around, as the movie’s story is horribly paced without any smooth flow or transition. While I understand most of today’s iPhone generation have the attention span of gnats and can rarely stand a movie longer than two hours, Justice League needs two-and-a-half hours to set all of its dominoes up properly. Instead, the movie’s plot twists, character development, action and emotion whiz by without any time to hit home.

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If it feels like there’s more to talk about on the technical side of things than on the performance side, that’s the right feeling to have when it comes to the cast. Ben Affleck, arguably the leader of the pack, is moseying along to pick up the rest of the cast and give little speeches here and there about the importance of hope and impending doom and such. He was the lone bright spot in Dawn of Justice as the older, war-torn Batman, but there’s just not enough here for him to sink his teeth into. Gal Gadot, who fully blossomed into her shield and sword earlier this year, is a much stronger presence as Wonder Woman and the only one who has a complete and important character. Ezra Miller is borderline annoying as The Flash, a petulant wimp who gets the occasional funny line and a rather-rushed “zero to hero” character arc. While spazzy comedy is something entwined with The Flash’s character, Miller has less charisma and more childish energy that doesn’t build a strong screen presence. Newcomer Ray Fisher is still very green as he doesn’t bring much charisma or screen presence either, despite being a partially-crucial part of the plot. Steppenwolf is by far one of the weakest villains in superhero movie history with bored motivation, unspecified abilities and bland fight scenes with the heroes. Surprisingly, the ace of the bunch is the once-Dothraki lord Jason Momoa as the macho King of Atlantis. While it’s questionable as to how faithful his portrayal of Aquaman is to the comics, he oozes the charisma of a classic adventure hero in his ambivalence to the doom around him. While the other heroes are trying to be loose and funny, his quips and coolness is the most believable.

 
But through all the quips, the impressive hero costumes and the chaos of the climactic final battle, Justice League is desperate to be liked with nothing tangible to grab onto. It’s boring, bland, rushed, stupid and devoid of any sense of great cinematic skill or fun. While it doesn’t induce as much anger as Dawn of Justice or annoyance as Suicide Squad, Justice League is one of the most disposable action blockbusters ever made. And that might be its biggest sin: this is the first-ever live-action movie team-up of the DC Comics superheroes. This should be a sweeping epic with dramatic weight and inspiring moments instead of a cold and calculated exercise in Marvel-envy. It feels like WB and DC see movie fans as whiny children they need to pacify instead of sticking with their own formula. They’d rather try to make a Marvel movie than follow through with what makes their movies unique and just make efforts to improve. So after four years of championing some of the most divisive and hated comic book movies in some of the worst ways, I have to ask: don’t you want more?

0/4

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Acceptable Wonder

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Warner Bros. and DC finally have a good movie on their hands, but that doesn’t mean the movie (or their cinematic universe) is fixed.

Alright, I’ll admit it: Warner Bros. and DC are brilliant.

 

The partnering studio/comic-book company took on the nearly-impossible task of trying to keep up with Disney and Marvel Studios by creating their own superhero cinematic universe. Since its inception in 2013, they’ve had three false starts with Man of Steel, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, and Suicide Squad. Taking out any discussion of being faithful comic book adaptations and whatnot, those three films stand out as unique failures for being bad on basic filmmaking levels, from unnecessary zoom-ins and collateral damage (Man of Steel), to constant shaky-cam and confused character development (Dawn of Justice), and then terrible editing with unfocused tone (Suicide Squad). Ignoring the childish war for validation between Marvel and DC fans, the bottom line was that these were poorly-made movies that lowered the expectations of fans with every new installment. So now the bar has been set so low, not worst case scenario but low enough, where an action-adventure movie made with the most basic expectations of filmmaking is practically a godsend.

 

Yes, Wonder Woman is a fine movie, occasionally even a damn good one, but the concern is that it’s because on top of its flaws (which are obvious and gaping), the movie has very basic technical elements to it. Basically, we should’ve been getting this quality of filmmaking for the past four years. Director Patty Jenkins (Monster) gets everything off on the right foot with the gorgeous island of Themyscira inhabited by the fearless female warriors, the Amazons. The spunky oddball of the Amazons is Princess Diana (Gal Gadot), sheltered by her mother, Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), but secretly trained by her aunt, Antiope (Robin Wright). Diana wants to explore the outside world, which fortunately comes right to her shores when U.S. Army spy Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) crash lands on Themyscira after evading German forces as the real world faces World War I. When Steve tells the Amazons about the horrors of the Great War and they turn him away, Diana grabs a sword, a shield, and a powerful lasso to sail away from her home and join Steve on the frontlines saving the world.

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Most of the credit for Wonder Woman goes to Jenkins and her production team for crafting the best looking film of the DC Extended Universe. Everything from the lost paradise of Themyscira to the barren war zone of Belgium looks gorgeous, thanks to Jenkins’s smooth flow of directing scenes and cinematographer Matthew Jensen’s (Chronicle, Game of Thrones) fluid combination of colors that don’t flood the scenes. Jenkins’s is also an impressive director of action, staging a great beach-front fight between the Amazons and German troops with a much more appropriate use of slow-motion and imagery worth of freeze-frames (see Antiope shooting three arrows at the same time…in mid-air). Same can be said for when Wonder Woman makes her grand debut in costume on the German frontlines, where Diana disrobes into the iconic costume and charges into battle blocking bullets. Unlike the previous DCEU films, Jenkins understands that action scenes should build upon themselves with elevating threats and seeing Wonder Woman go from blocking a barrage of bullets to hip-checking a German tank like she’s Malcolm Butler are well-earned displays of heroism. It’s a shame that action goes completely off the rails with the film’s overblown climax that harkens back to the Doomsday fight in Dawn of Justice too much.

 

Like the previous DCEU films, Wonder Woman’s major problem is its story. Written by Jason Fuchs, Allan Heinberg (who went on to write the screenplay), and WB/DC stalwart Zack Snyder, the origins of Wonder Woman is solid with her crafted by her mother and brought to life by Zeus. It’s a typical outcast-to-the-rescue story that’s slightly similar to that of Marvel’s Thor. In fact, Wonder Woman’s main story is an obvious mesh of two of Marvel’s earlier cinematic universe installments: the “mythical being adjusts to humans” elements of Thor and the “superhero faces the realism of human war” elements of Captain America: The First Avenger. Wonder Woman owes a lot of its plot elements to Steve Rogers, whether it be the shadow influence of an evil force on the war or the fate of certain characters at the film’s climax. It all seems a bit too familiar without adding anything new. For all the complaints people have that Marvel movies all looking and playing out the same, Wonder Woman feels an awful lot like a real solid Marvel movie.

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Even the title character has a thing or two in common with Marvel’s Asgardian god of thunder. But where Chris Hemsworth brought a sense of classic Hollywood charm to Thor, Gal Gadot brings a beating heart and emotional weight to the Amazonian princess. She starts off precocious and innocent as she enters the human world, but Gadot really shows how the horrors of war can impact those seeing it for the first time. Gadot really captures the moment where Wonder Woman goes from wholesome untouched metahuman to a true warrior who understands the gravity of war. It’s exactly what the DCEU needs: levity with a strong sense of what a hero sacrifices, and Gadot brings it. She’s got a great partner in Chris Pine, bringing his own classic-style Hollywood charm to Steve Trevor. Pine has always felt like a 50s-era actor that wound up getting big in the new millennium (sans his excellent performance in last year’s Hell or High Water), so he’s right at home being the charming American spy with his his coiffed hair and silver tongue.

 

The thing about all of the positive elements of Wonder Woman, i.e. developed characters, good action scenes, and structured filmmaking should’ve been in the DCEU films for the past four years. If anything, Wonder Woman deadlifts the bar for what the DCEU movies need to be. Patty Jenkins has come in to practically right the ship of the DCEU and her filmmaking standards should be seriously noted. Wonder Woman is not only a reminder of how superhero movies should be made but a platform to build new ideas for superhero movies in the future. Wonder Woman is wholly unoriginally and has big flaws, but its spirit and skill is something that should be (pardon the phrase) marveled.

3/4 stars

Bad Math

Be honest: when was the last time there was a straight-up action movie making waves in theaters? No superheroes, space ships, young adult novel writing, or any franchise attachment to it, just a story about a blunt tough guy shooting and/or punching people in the face. Aside from 2014’s John Wick there doesn’t seem to be a big market for those kind of movies any more. Whether that’s a good or bad thing is debatable, but it’s hard not to wish for an action movie to just shut up and start shooting without divulging into a muddled mess.

Case in point: The Accountant, a cross between John Wick and Jason Bourne that thinks it’s so cool and clever that it doesn’t know how far it’s stuck its foot in its mouth. The title character is Christian Wolff (Ben Affleck), a brilliant but socially awkward accountant living in solitude and helping locals uncook their books. He gets a job for a robotics company going through their financial records after an employee (Anna Kendrick) finds an error in recent transactions. When Chris finds the error to be accurate, he’s told to back off and is marked for dead. But according to the research of a U.S. Treasury agent (J.K. Simmons) and analyst (Cynthia Addai-Robinson), Chris has been cleaning up the finances of mob bosses, arms dealers and terrorists for years, and he’s not shy about throwing fists and pulling triggers. 

It is important to note that, while influenced by other action movies, The Accountant is one of those rare original ideas that filmgoers have been craving for since franchisemania has swallowed Hollywood whole. There are interesting ideas and elements in the script by Bill Dubuque (The Judge) and he wisely keeps the mysterious parts of the story element hidden so that the audience sticks with it. Sadly, The Accountant succumbs to an abundance of anti-climactic ends to its story threads. There is almost zero interaction Simmons and Addai-Robinson have with the main story, and their closing moments are wrapped up in a drawn out form of exposition and a boring press conference at the film’s end. That’s not even including the involvement of John Lithgow and Jon Bernthal in the movie, who are practically filler to make the two hour runtime. Even Chris’s own story feels incomplete, like it doesn’t know how to finish off making the character fully rounded. Is he a good guy? A bad guy? Misunderstood? Seeking redemption? Wrong place, wrong time? 


The character of Chris himself might also draw attention, as he has high-functioning Autism. He doesn’t understand sarcasm and has trouble with being polite in conversation, but he’s brilliant with numbers and stone-cold when it comes to killing. To the film’s credit, Chris’s condition is not treated as a crutch and not glorified as the reason for his talents. The movie doesn’t even identify his condition until an hour in, and it’s not highlighted or given special drama. It’s just who Chris is and he deals with it in his own way, and that’s commendable for the movie to do. 

Commendations should also be given to director Gavin O’Connor (MiracleWarrior) for actually managing to construct a solid atmosphere in the needlessly-complex mess. He and cinematographer Seamus McGarvey (The Avengers) shot the movie with a pale blue overtone and a near-constant sense of unease while Chris works numerical wonders and shoots up a lake house. It’s like if David Fincher directed a Bourne movie, complete with occasional shaky cam fight scene and some well-staged shootouts. O’Connor thinks he’s making some grand thriller by way of a R-rated action movie, like if The Insider had James Bond in it. Sadly, the mostly dull script and twisting story don’t do his work justice and he seems as lost in the narrative as the audience.

That’s not to say he doesn’t try to savor his talented cast. Affleck, seven months off of his inaugural run as Batman, seems to really get the character of Chris down as stoic but still hiding something underneath. It also shows that Batman training has paid off considering how great he does with the action scenes. Kendrick is typical Anna Kendrick, though it does provide for some funny scenes with Affleck. Simmons acts like he’s asleep in every scene he’s in, but at least Addai-Robinson has the decency to carry the scenes she’s in with and without him. Bernthal is so cool and charismatic in this that it’s actually the biggest waste of the movie. Maybe he’s the star that action movies have been waiting for, a cocky tough guy with just the right amount of emotional investment in something he knows is just fancy gun fights. Oh and Lithgow and Jeffrey Tambor are in this….and then they disappear with no mark left on the story at all, so hopefully they were properly compensated.

The nicest thing to say about The Accountant is that it’s a very nice looking try. This may sound a bit demeaning to the action movie considering how far it’s come since the heyday of Stallone and Schwarzenegger, but maybe the genre needs to lower its standards a bit. Perhaps competing with capes, magic, and laser swords is too much pressure on the action genre. There has to be some kind of middle ground between trying to hard and not trying hard enough, though you won’t find it here.

2 out of 4 stars