‘Justice League’ is a surprisingly enjoyable superhero movie, once divested of its own hype

This past November, I did something crazy. For the first time that I can remember, a major studio superhero movie based on beloved comic book characters came to theaters, and I didn’t go to see it on opening weekend. In fact, I wound up abstaining from seeing this particular film in theaters completely, opting instead to wait the better part of nine months for it to hit premium cable (one of the remaining benefits of a cable subscription). Anyone who knows me might ask me if something is wrong at this point, as this is unusual behaviour for me. Bad reviews generally don’t keep me away from these movies, and outside of the pitfalls of my own fandom and the frivolous nature of my entertainment spending, there’s actually a reason for that; there’s something about seeing this kind of movie just as it comes out with a revved up fan base. Something about being among the first people to see characters you’ve grown up with come to life, and doing it in a communal setting where it’s okay to get excited, to react.

As a result, even a bad comic book movie can be a good theater experienced. I’m sure we all remember some of these movies fondly after first seeing them, only to revisit them some time later to find they don’t hold up, quizzically pondering how you could have ever enjoyed, say, Thor: The Dark World in the first place.

But for some reason, I didn’t want to do that mental math in the run up to this particular November 2017 release, which, by now, you’ve probably guessed isn’t the excellent follow up to The Dark World, but instead a D.C. movie released a few weeks later called Justice League.

In retrospect, I can’t say exactly why I decided to draw the line here when it came to their movies. Sure, this post-Christopher Nolan DC Extended Universe had burned me more often than it didn’t, but even bad DC movies like Batman V Superman and Suicide Squad had moments that allowed them to fall firmly in that “theater experience” field, and Wonder Woman was a step up a few months earlier. With a potentially net positive director change during production in the form of one Joss Whedon, with the promise of uniting even more beloved DC characters, with the general hype that surrounds these movies, you’d think it’d be a can’t miss. And yet, here I am, having missed up.

Until this past weekend, when it debuted on my premium cable package and I decide to give it a whirl in the midst of a lazy Sunday, in a vacuum devoid of the initial hype and backlash that raged among fans, critics and general moviegoers. And despite the reticence that pushed me away back in November, despite every negative reviews and all the behind-the-scenes shake-ups that have occurred at DC Films ever since the supposedly modest $650 million worldwide gross of the film had executives at Warner Bros demanding heads on platters, I have to say that I had a pretty good time with this movie.

Maybe that’s not the ringing endorsement to be expected after that diatribe of a lead-up, but I went into this thing expecting the worst. I had psyched myself into believing that there’s no way this monstrosity of a superhero team-up movie could be any good, but in reality, I was just a victim of whatever reverse-hype voodoo has been cast upon these movies ever since Zack Snyder was brought on board. I suppose I feared that I wouldn’t be able to enjoy Justice League the way I wanted to. The added bonus of not having to pay $18 bucks to see it in 3D with assigned seating opening night, of not having to schlep out to the movie theater and coordinate plans with all my friends, to deal with the guy in front of me on his phone and the one beside me chewing his popcorn too loudly, it took the pressure off.

I’m not exactly sure what that means, or if I’m trying to get to some larger point about the state of the movie industry and how going to the theater has, more often than not, turned into a chore, which sucks as a lover of movies. I’m not sure if that counts as a silver lining for Warner Bros, which knew that this movie wouldn’t meet its expectations long before it subverted mine. I suppose the point I’m trying to make is that the movie culture we currently find ourselves in doesn’t allow for patience, and that’s beginning to be kind of a problem.  The way all of this works, with Rotten Tomatoes and opening weekend box offices and award ceremonies and year-end best of lists, it forces us into this very binary decision-making process that means we have to accept or reject something like a Justice League at first glance. The lion’s share of DCEU movies have been, to a certain extent, eyeroll enducing, so seeing what Justice League was shaping up to be made me check out before it even came out, and made me miss out on something that I could have enjoyed in the moment. And it’s at least the fourth time it’s happened to me in 2018 with a calendar 2017 movie that I chose to skip, after Roman J. Israel Esq., Logan Lucky and Kong: Skull Island were so good that I’m mulling redoing my list of best 2017 movies.

So, why should that idea of enjoying something in the moment matter? Well, the quickness at which these things move suggests that if we don’t support even a big tentpole like Justice League when it first comes out, the people that make it are going to treat that as a failure and move forward differently. My enjoyment of Justice League may not have been any different on Sunday, July 15th, 2018 than it would have on November 15th last year, but since Warner Bros didn’t see my money back then, they’ve gone through multiple shakeups behind the scenes and greenlit some bizarre shit, like multiple Joker movies (with different actors playing The Joker). There’s even talk of replacing Ben Affleck as Batman and lord knows what’s happening outside of the already-confirmed Wonder Woman sequel and December’s Aquaman.

And while Justice League is by no means a perfect movie, that’s kind of a shame. Because I would have been curious to see how the DCEU could have evolved if Joss Whedon had been handed the reigns, if they took Zack Snyder’s vision, as messy as it was, and steered it towards what Whedon had already done at Marvel and moved forward from there. The movie is kind of a Frankenstein’s Monster of both Snyder and Whedon’s styles, with Whedon’s wit, comedic chops and melodrama sticking out like a sore thumb in between Snyder’s juvenile, CGI-riddled explodathon sensibilities. But Whedon is a talented directed, and whatever he did to patch this thing together made it sort of work. You can see him applying what he did to Marvel here, and while Marvel has moved on to insane new heights in his absence, the foundation he laid is still very much visible. Whedon could have brought a lot to the DCEU, and it shows.

Whedon’s humour and snap is a welcome edition to a universe that had previously been the bud of many jokes about the unnecessary levels of grit and darkness. Inserting that into a movie like Justice League, which doesn’t have much of a point to it and where the stakes are questionable at best, makes it a sloppy endeavor where little makes sense and nothing really matters. Whedon likely came on board too late to have a true impact, so we don’t get his signature Death In The Family to build stakes maneuver, nor do we get any worthwhile twists and turns. This is a straightforward movie. The world is reeling following Superman’s death, open to otherworldly threats that Superman’s mere presence pushed away. Batman puts together a team to protect the planet, but they’re not strong enough without Superman to stop it, so they (checks notes) ah yes, bring him back from the dead and them easily take out the bad guy.

Listen, the plot is bad. The action is riddled with CGI, but most of it looks good and there are some good – if forgettable – action sequences. But I liked a lot of the humour, I liked most of the character development and I liked that the movie decided to have some fun with itself wherever Whedon was able to insert it. The jokes largely land, the characters that are supposed to be funny are enjoyable, and you can feel that, despite likely knowing what kind of a mess they had gotten themselves into, the cast had started to develop a comradery. Ezra Miller’s depiction of The Flash is completely different than the one we see in the TV show, and I want more of it. Jason Momoa’s Aquaman is dumb and speaks in monosyllabic catchphrases, but Momoa is so charismatic that he makes the jocky surfer dude version of this character work. Ben Affleck, I maintain, is a underrated Batman, an older depiction of a Bruce Wayne done giving fucks and fully on board with using his billions to finance the most ridiculous gadgets and vehicles possible. It’s such a shame that it’s likely the last time we’ll see him portray the character, because I truly believe that a Batfleck solo movie could have been a different, special kind of Batman we had never seen on the big screen before, more comic-accurate than ever before.

I wasn’t the biggest fan of the other three characters here, however. Henry Cavill’s Superman shows signs of growing a dimension but likely needed more screen time to make it work. Ray Fisher’s Cyborg is a plot device at best. Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman talks about how much she misses Steve Trevor so much that it actually becomes a joke in the movie, likely added by Whedon when he realized he couldn’t make the dialog work if he removed the instances of it that were already filmed. But none of them are abjectly terrible, and while the movie could have been finer around the edges, more developed and meaningful for such an iconic team-up, it had enough moments and was occasionally gratifying and funny enough that it made for perfect Sunday afternoon viewing. As sloppy as it wound up being , I’m glad that it exists in this form.

It’s just such a shame that DC got this whole thing backwards. Josh Whedon took characters that Marvel had spent years making us care about and gave us something special when he teamed them up. DC took characters that they insist we’re supposed to care about, teamed them up with others that we don’t, and brought in the same guy to patch it together after it broke apart. And my dude did a fairly decent patchwork of it.

Maybe in a world devoid of all that pressure felt back in November, maybe in this post-Infinity War world (which I can’t believe I didn’t even really think about when watching the movie and then thinking about it), it’s easier to just sit back and enjoy something like Justice League for what it is, rather than what I expect it to be. And that’s fine, movies should stand the test of time, at least longer than their opening weekend. It just gives me a lot to think about as a moviegoer and raises interesting questions on the subject of being in the moment of a given film’s zeitgeist.

The moral here is, if you skipped out on Justice League last year, give it a shot outside of the context of how it was made and released, try to enjoy it for what it is and what it is only. It’s surprisingly worth the time.

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The Flash ends a mediocre fourth season on a high note in ‘We Are The Flash’

Spoiler Alert: The Following contains spoilers for season 4 of The Flash, including last night’s season finale. Read ahead at your own risk!


 

I’ve been growing wary of the formula on The Flash as of late. The overarching story has followed roughly the same path in each of the show’s four seasons. Team Flash is introduced to a new Big Bad that purports itself to be stronger and smarter than our hero, Barry Allen. Chasing various MacGuffin, the team proceeds to lose the lion’s share of its battles against said Big Bad over the course of the next 20+ episodes, pausing intermittently for filler episodes that range in quality, before scoring one final Ultimate MacGuffin in the finale, as they finally manage to best the villain once and for all, right before some crazy, long-teased twist sets up what will happen in the next season.

To be honest, I’ve largely been okay with this formula because The Flash still manages to be a decent enough show working within the confines of this formula. It’s generally well-written, it’s funny, I care about almost all the characters (who have great chemistry with one another), and the show is good about introducing new interesting characters and compelling guest stars along the way. The world of The Flash is rich and filled with great Easter Eggs for fans of the comics, and there’s always something interesting lurking around the corner, even if the show tends to operate mostly in a sort of dulling mediocrity.

With that in mind, season 4 had a lot of both the good and the bad. As it pertains to said formula, the writers made a conscious effort to break the cycle, notably by making this season’s Big Bad something other than a Speedster for once. After Reverse-Flash, Professor Zoom and Savitar, not only was the new villain (Clifford DeVoe, AKA The Thinker) not a speedster, but it was actually a plot point that he was was completely disinterested in The Flash’s speed, even though much of his arc was about absorbing other metahuman powers. The way the show explains why in the finale is even pretty clever. DeVoe is a good character and the show sets him up and a real threat to The Flash regardless of his lack of speed. It’s a refreshing workaround to the usual archetype of Barry’s nemeses. But it sort of feels like a half-measure, especially after the way he was disposed of in the season finale. Lack of speed and future knowledge aside, DeVoe is pretty much the same villain The Flash always faces; he’s super smart, he’s planned for every contingency and he’s always ahead of his opposition, until the plot requires him not to be.

Still, the season shines in other areas, notably in additions it made to its cast. The standout is easily Hartley Sawyer as Ralph Dibney, the schlubby private eye who gets a second chance when he’s gifted with the power of elasticity and goes on to become Elongated Man. The character and the actor portraying him easily fit into the strong chemistry the cast already has, which is rare to see in the fourth season of a show. He’s quick-witted, funny and has a compelling arc of redemption. The show even manages to kill him and bring him back in a way that doesn’t feel cheep, and that still has emotional stakes for the team, especially Barry, who feels responsible for losing the life of one of his teammates.

The show also added Danielle Nicolet as Cecille, a prosecutor who goes on to marry Joe and have his child. Cecille grew on me as the season went on, especially her late-season arc, which manages to uproot most of the tropes involved with pregnancy on a show like this. She develops gestational metapowers that become the key to defeating DeVoe in the finale, all while she goes into labour. Having a kid in the middle of a crisis is a trope that most would agree has overstayed its welcome on television, but doing it in the middle of a world-ending calamity is a nice twist.

Beyond Ralph and Cecile, season 4 also introduced us, among others, to Amunet Black (Katee Sakhoff doing a wonderfully ridiculous cockney accent, Hazard (Sugar Lyn Beard), Breacher (Danny Trejo) and Big Sir (Bill Goldberg), among others. We also got to see Tom Cavanagh try his hand at some really ridiculous versions of Harrison Wells through the Council of Wells, a pool from which the show might have to draw on in season 5 as the show bid farewell to this version of Harry, who winds up suffering the irreversible effects of DeVoe’s plan to lobotomize humanity and decides to leave Team Flash to spend more time with his daughter.

 

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Season 4 also gave us “Enter Flashtime”, an episode that takes place almost entirely in the slowed-down version of time that Barry can experience, as he works to stop a nuclear bomb from destroying the city after it’s already detonated. It’s an awesome episode that immediately enters the show’s pantheon of classics, and even in a season that’s filled with a lot of mediocrity, it proves that The Flash is still capable of doing great things. It’s an episode that was really needed in a season that included “Girls Night Out”, where Felicity comes to town to celebrate Iris’ bachelorette, and “Run Iris Run”, the one where Iris acquires Barry’s powers. Some internet perusal suggests that some may disagree, but I thought last night’s finale was pretty good too. In “We Are The Flash”, Barry enters DeVoe’s mind with the help of Cecille’s powers and DeVoe’s his estranged wife Margaet to stop him, where he finds Ralph’s consciousness still kicking despite DeVoe being in control of his body. Together, they find an army of Mind DeVoes in order to take back control of Ralph’s body and put an end to the Thinker’s plan to lobotomize the entire planet. Sure it’s nonsense, but it’s the good sort of nonsense.

As a whole, I have to wonder whether this season of The Flash holds up. In retrospect, it feels so telegraphed. Barry and the team fail almost every episode at DeVoe’s hands before conveniently and neatly beating him in the finale. The legitimately great episodes are few and far between although, to be fair, there aren’t that many episodes that I’d qualify as abjectly bad either. This season has existed in this space where I’m more than glad to enjoy the show as it airs weekly, but that seems to have fallen a few steps from where I originally thought a Flash show would be able to go at this point in its run. But season 4 leaves us with another cliffhanger and more big promises as the girl who has been subtly meddling with the team’s affairs reveals herself to be Barry and Iris’ future daughter (a twist that, let us be serious, we all saw coming ever since she first appeared all the way back in the Nazi crossover), back from the future to ask for their help fixing what she claims to be a mistake of Gob-like proportions.

I’m certainly not going to be dropping The Flash ahead of season 5, it’s enjoyable even if it tends to fall into the traps of its own formula more often then it’s capable of being subversive. But I’m definitely going to have to be more cautious. We’ve already been through this with Arrow, a show I finally managed to drop after the snoozefest that was the first half of this past season. Supergirl isn’t making a great case for itself either as it bogs itself down with relationship drama every chance it gets. The Flash is at least fun as it goes off the rails, but the writers need to go back to the drawing board and figure out how to do something new and different for season five, and not just shallow changes that amount to a slightly more detailed reskinning of the main villain. Although I won’t speculate on what they might have planned for next year.

Season 4 of The Flash was a step backwards for the show, despite efforts from its writers to switch things up. But its ability to remain entertaining and introducing compelling new elements every so often allowed it to rise above the lower end of the CW DC dramas. I’m comfortable giving it a decent 6.5 out of 10 bus metas, while last night’s season finale, We Are The Flash, gets 7.5 time travelling daughters out of 10.