Friday, November 17, 2017

MOVIE REVIEW — JUSTICE LEAGUE


I walked out of last year’s Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice so dispirited, so depressed, so utterly disappointed to see so much potential squandered, that I couldn’t even summon up the energy to write a review of it. I didnt want to think about that movie any more than I had to. Not so with Justice League. It’s a flawed film, to be sure, but it’s also entertaining and fun, and hopefully a sign of things to come from the DC Comics Movie Universe (or whatever it’s officially called). 

The film picks up on the death of Superman (Henry Cavill), which of course happened in BvS, and shows how the passing of the Man of Steel has affected the world as a whole. In a nutshell, Earth’s sorrow and fear over the loss of its greatest defender enables an alien invasion of the planet to get under way, led by an imposing warrior named Steppenwolf (a mostly CGI character voiced by Ciarán Hinds.) 

Aware that the world is in jeopardy, and with Superman gone, the Batman (Ben Affleck) works with Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) to put together a team of super-powered beings to stop Steppenwolf and his seemingly endless horde of insectlike para-demons. They try to enlist Arthur Curry, a denizen of Atlantis referred to as the Aquaman (Jason Momoa); Barry Allen, a young scientific genius who, after having been struck by lightning, can move faster than the eye can see (Ezra Miller); and Victor Stone (Ray Fisher), a young former football player transformed into a highly advanced cyborg by his scientist father, Silas (Joe Morton), after a devastating accident.

But forming a league of super heroes isn’t as easy as you might think. Much like in Marvel’s The Avengers, these unique individuals don’t necessarily get along. Most of them aren’t sure they want to be part of a team, even for this one occasion. But ultimately, the threat of Steppenwolf is too great to ignore, and the heroes fall into line. But that might not be enough to save Earth and everyone on it from conquest and, ultimately, destruction.
  
There are some moments and scenes in this movie that I did not quite understand. One in particular is an exchange of dialogue between Aquaman and Mera, a woman from Atlantis who singlehandedly tries to defend the underwater city from Steppenwolf. I couldn’t get a sense of whether these characters knew each other or were meeting for the first time, or what exactly they were talking about. Maybe it will become clearer with a second viewing, but this first time, I just didn’t get it. There’s also a moment early in the film, where Batman is interacting with a criminal on a rooftop, that left me a bit confused.

Another thing I didn’t understand: the decision to use Steppenwolf as the villain. Even in the comics, he’s not exactly one of the biggies. In the film, he comes off as a watered-down combination of Ares, from Wonder Woman, and Malekith, from Thor: The Dark World. He’s just not that interesting or impressive. He’s just another one-dimensional loudmouth out to cause mass destruction for a not-very-compelling reason. (Hopefully Marvel will avoid letting this happen to Thanos in next year’s Avengers: Infinity War.) With this possibly being the only Justice League movie we will ever get—Warner Brothers’ plans for its line of DC super-hero movies seem to be constantly in flux—it’s fascinating to me that the filmmakers chose not to come out swinging for the fences here with a really major villain like Darkseid, the despotic ruler of the planet Apokolips. (He’s mentioned in the movie, by Steppenwolf, but he’s never seen or explained.)  

Steppenwolf

That said, there’s a lot to enjoy here. As expected, Gal Gadot, who shined in Wonder Woman’s solo outing a few months ago, and was the best thing about Batman v. Superman, is absolutely terrific once again. Ben Affleck, who I thought was fairly good in BvS, improves upon that performance here. (I don’t know why some reviewers are saying he seems miserable and eager to escape the role—I think they’re letting rumors and gossipy news reports influence their observational skills.) It’s not a particularly demanding part for Affleck, but he does fine with what he’s called upon to do.

With regard to the new characters, who were each briefly glimpsed in BvS and are more fully fleshed out here, I enjoyed Miller’s Barry Allen the most. Some devotees of Grant Gustin and the Flash TV series may balk, as it’s a very different interpretation of the character, even though much of the backstory is the same. But within the context of this movie and this version of the DC Universe, Miller’s Flash works well. I will say that there are some genuine laugh-out-loud moments, most of them involving the Flash, and Miller’s performance has a lot to do with their success.

Fisher’s Cyborg captures all the tragedy of the character as created by writer Marv Wolfman and artist George Pérez, but isn’t given much of a chance to show his lighter side. That’s understandable, given that the film is only two hours long and has a lot of characters and ground to cover. But the end result is that Cyborg comes off as a bit one-note.

Momoa’s Aquaman is very unusual, certainly a major departure from his portrayal in the comics. That didn’t really bother me. But he’s certainly the most underdeveloped of the characters—I didn’t get a real sense of his background, his origin, his relationship to Atlantis and its people, and why he talks like a surfer dude. It’s not that I didn’t like the character, it’s just that he made the least impression on me.           

And then there’s Cavill’s Superman. I can’t say much about him without going into spoiler territory, but I will say that this movie serves as a major course correction. Man of Steel was a somewhat shaky start for this incarnation of the Last Son of Krypton, but Batman v. Superman really damaged the character, portraying him as a brooding, morose, thick-headed, even callous figure who isn’t fully sure humanity is worthy of his protection. Justice League pretty much ignores that portrayal, papering over it with a much sunnier, more inspiring Superman—even his costume is brighter now—while still trying to maintain at least some sense of continuity with the two aforementioned movies. (And keep in mind, the inter-movie continuity can become somewhat loose at times. Without giving too much away, Superman’s return from the dead was strongly implied at the end of BvS, but Justice League has its own, very different take on how that resurrection might come about.)        

At any rate, it’s nice to see Cavill finally get a chance to play Superman. The real Superman, I mean. I hope he gets the chance to do it again.

The musical score by Danny Elfman is somewhat generic, though it does include traces of his Batman theme from 1989, and even the John Williams theme for Superman. But these nods to the past—which I welcome, incidentally, especially when it comes to Williams’s music—are so randomly placed in the movie, and so subtle, that they don’t have the impact that they should. 

As was widely reported, Zack Snyder, the credited director, had to leave the project in post production because of a family tragedy, and Avengers director Joss Whedon stepped in to do extensive reshoots and bring the film to completion. Whedon’s influence over the final product is impossible to miss. Snyder’s take on the DC Universe, based on his work on Man of Steel and BvS, was dark, grim, violent, ultra-serious, and, overall, bleak. There’s very little of that in Justice League. This movie is mostly about hope, finding the light amidst the darkness, and working together for the greater good. There’s no greater repudiation of Snyder’s vision than when one character, who had previously shown a stunning disregard for innocent bystanders, rushes off in the midst of battle to save civilians from certain doom.    

And in another sign that WB/DC is now taking some of its cues from the Marvel movies, you need stay to the very end to see the bonus scenes. There are two. One is a delight. The other is a hint of a possible future plot line.   

Without a doubt, Justice League is a significant improvement over Batman v. Superman, though it doesn’t hit the high-water mark set by Wonder Woman. But its heart is in the right place, and that’s a good start.   

© All text copyright Glenn Greenberg, 2017.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

EARLY REVIEW—THOR: RAGNAROK


The Thor movies have never really seemed like the most “essential” of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) films—the Iron Man, Captain America, and Avengers movies seem to be where the most important stuff happens. And as a result, in my observation, the Thor movies have been sort of undervalued. The first one, directed by Kenneth Branagh and released in 2011, was a thoroughly enjoyable adventure that expanded the MCU in a major way, introducing the notion that the Norse gods really do exist and that there are many worlds and forms of life and technologies beyond our knowledge and understanding. And for me, 2013’s Thor: The Dark World, directed by Alan Taylor, was the kind of movie that Man of Steel, released five months earlier, should have been.

Which brings us to Thor: Ragnarok, opening November 3, which picks up on threads from The Dark World, 2015’s Avengers: Age of Ultron, and even Doctor Strange, and spins them into a new tale about an existential threat to Asgard, home to Thor, Odin, Loki, and the rest of the characters we’ve come to know from the previous movies. This time, the danger comes in the form of Hela, the goddess of death, played with a dark sexiness by Cate Blanchett—she seems like she’s having the time of her life vamping it up here. Hela is intent on conquering Asgard and leading it to what she feels is its rightful place as the absolute authority over all Creation.


Upon her arrival, Hela recruits Skurge, who can best be described as a working-class Asgardian who feels he’s worthy of bigger and better things. Skurge is played by Karl Urban, who so masterfully took on the role of Doctor Leonard “Bones” McCoy in the three most recent Star Trek movies. That he can play two such disparate characters so effectively is remarkable, and a testament to Urban’s versatility. (As good an actor as DeForest Kelley was, I somehow can’t picture him being able to play a character like Skurge!)


As if Hela wasn’t enough of a headache, we learn that her emergence is supposedly the harbinger of the long-foretold Ragnarok, the end of Asgard, which is believed to be an apocalyptic event brought on by Odin’s ancient nemesis, Surtur the fire demon.

Thor and his ever-devious brother Loki, once again played to perfection by, respectively, Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston, join forces to confront Hela and prevent Ragnarok from occurring. But they get, shall we say, sidetracked, and end up on another world, one under the control of an eccentric alien being who calls himself the Grandmaster and pits various creatures against one another in gladiatorial battles. How eccentric is this guy? Jeff Goldblum plays him. That’s all you need to know.


If you’ve seen the trailers and TV commercials, you already know that at one point, Thor ends up in the arena matched up against an old frenemy: none other than the Hulk, who’s been MIA since the end of Age of Ultron. Needless to say, sparks fly between the two erstwhile Avengers, and we’re treated to a long-awaited rematch between the god of thunder and the gamma-spawned behemoth.

But the threat to Asgard remains, and Thor knows that if he cannot escape this strange world, his home—and his people—will perish.

Thor: Ragnarok, directed by Taika Waititi, is, without a doubt, the wildest Thor movie yet. It has enough ideas and characters and incidents packed into it to support at least one or two other films. There are in-jokes and sight gags aplenty, by the way. I guarantee you won’t catch them all in one viewing.

You can’t help but feel the influence of the two Guardians of the Galaxy movies—from the further exploration of the cosmic side of the MCU to the abundance of humor—some of which gets pretty silly, but much of which works very well—to the musical score by Mark Mothersbaugh, which mostly eschews a traditional orchestral score (as used in the previous two films) for a more modern, funky, electronic approach. In some places, the music sounds a bit reminiscent of “Guardians Inferno” by the Sneepers, from the end credits of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. And there’s even prominent use of 1970s classic rock, in this case “The Immigrant Song” by Led Zeppelin. Overall, the proceedings are never allowed to get TOO dark-and-heavy, and there’s always another fun or funny bit right around the corner.

Hemsworth is more charming and more confident than ever in Ragnarok. Given the nature of the story, he has to carry the movie more than he ever has before, and he is fully up to the task.

Hiddleston continues to be the MCU’s not-so-secret weapon. His Loki is without a doubt the greatest, most complex, most multi-dimensional villain these movies have ever had, and I hope he sticks around for a good long while. (Thankfully, it has apparently already been confirmed that we’ll see him again in next year’s Avengers: Infinity War.)   


Fans of the Hulk (and as many of you know, that includes yours truly) are in for a real treat. He and his hapless alter ego, Dr. Bruce Banner (once again portrayed by the always engaging Mark Ruffalo) are given some really nice character development and growth in this movie, which sets up several intriguing possibilities for future MCU installments. 


Ol’ Greenskin pretty much steals the show, just as he did in 2012’s The Avengers—although this time, he gets some stiff competition from a new character, Valkyrie, played by Tessa Thompson. She brings the same kind of fresh energy, enthusiasm, and passion to this movie that Sofia Boutella brought to Star Trek Beyond, in her role of Jaylah.


Returning Thor alumni include Anthony Hopkins as Odin and Idris Elba as Heimdall. But there are a couple of notable absences. Natalie Portman and Jaimie Alexander are both no-shows this time out, depriving us of appearances from, respectively, Dr. Jane Foster and Lady Sif. But the movie is so jam-packed, with so much going on and so many other characters to serve, that it’s difficult to see where they would have fit in prominently anyway.

In terms of having a major impact on the larger MCU, all I’ll say about Thor: Ragnarok is that STUFF HAPPENS. Things are set up here that will need to be addressed, in one way or another, in future movies—one of which, presumably, will be Infinity War. But more important than that, the movie, like both of its predecessors, never fails to entertain. It is a well-paced adventure with a lighthearted, rollicking spirit and moments of breathtaking wonder. In my book, that’s enough.    

And, as always, stay to the very end for bonus scenes.

© All text copyright Glenn Greenberg, 2017.