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Justice League: A regrettably sketchy team-up of DC champions

As a tentpole film of its significant scope and budget, Justice League fails to flesh out the sizable background for its mandatory spectacle.

After a Superman fanboy’s video—the boy can't even film properly (i.e. horizontally)—the fifth DCEU installment opens with a Zack Snyder montage. Played with Sigrid’s cover of Leonard Cohen’s "Everybody Knows," this title sequence looks at the bleak reality full of nostalgia and anguish. A picture of Superman (Henry Cavill) sits between those of Bowie and Prince, an immigrant family’s grocery store is harassed by thugs, and a street-corner doomsayer fixes his sign to “I Tried.” Yes, we all tried to like DCEU movies, but even Amanda Waller’s ridiculous project backfired its potential.

For a short period, Supes’ unshakable goodness brought hope—what the DCEU is criticized for lacking—to the world and prompted the involvement of Batman/Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) and Wonder Woman/Diana Prince (Gal Gadot). Justice League picks up their character arcs after the catastrophic battle with Doomsday and shows how Superman’s life and death inspire the world he left behind. Wonder Woman is more pro-active, seen on the sword-wielding hand of the Lady Justice before she saves dozens of hostages from a terrorist cult. Batman returns as the vigilante of Gotham and uses fear to bait his prey, a Parademon from Apokolips. And DC fans start squealing. The Dark Knight, after piecing together his new findings with Lex Luthor’s warning in Batman v Superman, concludes Earth is facing an invasion from a cosmic force too big for our simple minds.

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Through perplexing edits to epic flashbacks and current incidents, viewers realize that scheme in the form of Steppenwolf (voiced by Ciaran Hinds but fully CGI). Of course, Steppenwolf arrives with his fear-mongering swarms of Parademons. The ram-horned, ax-wielding warlord wants to collect three Mother Boxes, which he addresses as if he saw his birth mother, to form Apokolips’ version of the World Engine. Despite his poorly rendered body and a one-dimensional personality, Steppenwolf speaks of Unity as the assimilation of all individuals into one legion of absolute hive mind. The League members, however, have another idea of unity, which comes to fruition in the third act when they appreciate camaraderie. In this aspect, the baddie is our heroes’ suitable foil in terms of idealism.

Earlier this year, Wonder Woman rekindled the hope for the DCEU after a series of missteps. Snyder’s controversial approach in Man of Steel made way for his own messy, self-entitled BvS and the trashy, irredeemable Suicide Squad. Under peer pressure, in terms of both quality and box office venue, DC Comics’ own brand of superhero universe is trying to catch up with its Marvel counterpart in this lucrative segment. Opening two weeks after Thor: Ragnarok, the much-anticipated Justice League attracts both fanfare and flame wars between, and even inside, incompatible factions: film critics, moviegoers, and comic readers.

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The fuss around Justice League never lets us enjoy it with a blank mind for entertainment. After Snyder left the project due to a family tragedy, geek icon Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly) stepped in for the studio-mandated rewrites and reshoots. He helmed two Avengers movies, the first of which also has a team-up plot that includes cubic MacGuffins and a powerful tyrant invited by a sore loser to invade Earth. Whedon’s take on the screenplay thus alters dialogue and offers more quips—by way of comments on the dire situation.

I can’t believe I’d say this, but Justice League could receive better reviews if Snyder stayed in the director seat. That’s not saying Whedon ruins the movie, but Warner Bros.’s course correction trimmed Snyder’s edge and vigor together with his pompous, convoluted navel-gazing. The visual artist can at least incorporate his brand of dark epicness into the apocalyptic stake, and he might have also learned from the clunky BvS to smooth the flow between action and drama. That’s not to mention editing mistakes in the final product, one of which is an unforgivable plot hole about the last Motherbox in the car park.

For what’s left of Snyder’s directed footage, his visual flair captivates us the most during the intense Themyscira sequence. It’s all about poetic, sometimes unnecessary, slo-mo and incomplete CGI spectacle, and set pieces are enchantingly varied enough for us to not get bored. Fabian Wagner’s dynamic photography is altered in Whedon’s vision, including brighter lights and arbitrary blue tinges. Most of all, Danny Elfman’s irrelevant use of his classic score doesn’t fit Snyder’s heroic shots (though an Easter Egg points at Tim Burton’s Batman Returns).

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At the center of the film lies the team dynamic of six heroes, whose character moments honor their core concept. Affleck, retaining his strong suit for Batman’s mopey personality, needs to put more weight into his character’s heavy guilt and effort to redeem himself. The League’s benefactor has grown from the violent cynic he used to be and opens his heart to others. Other personalities challenge his lone-wolf mindset because, whereas working alone is mentioned a lot, solidarity is the key. The sarcastic, supportive butler, Alfred Pennyworth (Jeremy Irons) pokes fun at Bruce Wayne’s secluded lifestyle and hints at his romantic spark with Wonder Woman.

Fierce and reasonable, the warrior princess is the moral compass for people around her while smirking and glaring at the ponderous Bruce Wayne. In another earnest, wide-awake performance, Gadot builds upon the self-assured pluck and warming positivity she honed during Wonder Woman’s solo outing. In a crisis of morality, her uncertainty is at its most believable when the team arrives at crucial junctures. Nevertheless, Wonder Woman’s well-received feminist image suffers from a deep V-neck and many gratuitous butt shots. I blame Whedon for this.

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Other League members shine in their rare bits of showcasing superpowers. The most likable is Flash/Barry Allen (Ezra Miller), whose dewy-eyed and talkative manner interrupts discussions via reminders of his high metabolism. This version of the Scarlet Speedster reminds die-hard fans of the wisecracking Wally West in the animated series. Despite his comic relief role (involving occasional clumsiness and a plethora of made-up phobias), Flash shows hints of a complex youngster who likes K-Pop, Rick and Morty, and Dostoevsky. His background is taken care with tenderness, explaining the situation around his mother’s death and the false accusation of his kindly father (Billy Crudup), which fans know is caused by his nemesis, Reverse-Flash. For adequately crafted gags, Flash’s mumbling asides and jocular questions hit the right marks, actualized by Miller’s gestures and comedic timing.

For Aquaman/Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa, Game of Thrones), the script brushes on the Atlantean kingship he is avoiding and his background as a child of two worlds. He is the only neglectful member—almost uncomfortable among whom his Atlanteans call surface-dwellers. With his underwritten character, Momoa juggles and lurches, leaning on the dude-bro roughneck type before a funny scene aids his emotional side. Like Aquaman, Cyborg (Ray Fisher) comes to the team because of a Mother Box, which partly merges with his body and connects him with Steppenwolf’s Unity. After brooding and exchanging expository dialogue with his father, Dr. Silas Stone (Joe Morton, Terminator 2), the sympathetic emo proves his worth and adaptive instinct to save his League buddies. Fisher makes the most out of the right half of his face (most of Cyborg’s body is in glossy CGI) for calm bitterness and a serious sense of duty. His awaited moment of “Booyah!” is unimpressive though.

It takes four years and three movies for the audiences to love Cavill’s Superman/Clark Kent. Due to character writing and criticism toward his facial expressions, Cavill wasn’t appreciated as he should be, but the actor is more than abs and a strong jawline. With Supes coming back from his grave (not a spoiler!), Cavill’s portrayal earns its place as the deserving modern incarnation of this symbol of hope. His eyes are persuasive and benign, and when the movie asks for a tough Kryptonian who loves Earth, Cavill delivers his determination.

Lois Lane (Amy Adams, wasted in her small screen time) and Martha Kent (Diane Lane with enough sentimentality), have their endearing moments with Clark Kent, although their earlier talk, which involves a sex joke, seems unfocused and inappropriate. Commish Jim Gordon (J.K. Simmons) makes it through the editing room (unlike Iris West and Vulko) to show up for a Batman in-joke.

A lot of characterization, heavy-handed buildup, and plot contrivances are compressed into the first hour before an important decision heightens the stake and energizes the drama around Batman and Wonder Woman. That brings me to a drawback of their enjoyable team dynamic. Most of the hard-hitting subjects happen between the make-shift parents, as Bruce and Diana argue over responsibility. Their dispute is profound and riveting enough for a pay-off in the all-in climax, but Snyder and Chris Terrio’s story miss a chance to include others in a more engaging manner. Flash, Aquaman, and Cyborg seem irrelevant to the drama; they only stick to their duties or gimmicks.

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A Justice League movie is almost an obligation for Warner Bros. because any cinematic universe only solidifies its foundation and direction when a team-up succeeds. Plus, comic book fans await this shared screen presence of the most famous superhero team since forever (the 2014 animated Justice League: War doesn’t count). As an overhyped cinema experience, this film relies on its fanbase, who is well-versed in lore and storylines. But as a tentpole film of its significant scope and a $300 million budget, the film fails to flesh out the sizable background for its mandatory spectacle.

Remember to look for Jack Kirby’s name while waiting for the after-credits. One is divertingly fun, and one sets up a closer and more promising threat for the League.