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MOVIES: Justice League - Review

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Superman was a "beacon of hope" for the people of Earth, a symbol for the qualities we should all aspire to exhibit and a reminder that goodness lies in each of us - at least, that's what the opening moments of Justice League want you to believe, conveniently ignoring the fact that previous films in the DC Extended Universe didn't satisfactorily convey this sentiment. With the Last Son of Krypton's death, humanity is descending into a chaos from which it may never recover, leaving the planet open to an otherworldly threat.

Wracked with guilt over his role in Superman's fate, Batman (Ben Affleck) enlists the help of Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) to locate the other heroes that audiences first glimpsed in a series of grainy video files on Lex Luthor's laptop. Perhaps recognizing these introductions were anything but heroic, Justice League spends a large portion of its first hour getting us properly acquainted with its titular team of metahumans. There's Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa), a tattooed drifter with a fondness for whiskey who provides supplies and protection to a remote fishing village in the Arctic; Victor Stone (Ray Fisher), the product of an experiment that left his body fused with a powerful alien technology; and Barry Allen (Ezra Miller), a hyperactive and socially awkward youth with the ability to bend time and space, allowing him to move at speeds far beyond "normal" capabilities.

This unlikely group of defenders is tasked with facing down Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds), an ancient conqueror from another dimension whose previous attempt to subjugate Earth was thwarted by another improbable alliance, which found the Atlanteans banding together with the Amazons and the tribes of Men to defeat the invading forces (this information is delivered in an exposition-heavy flashback featuring a brief cameo from another corner of the DC Comics universe that sent my screening audience into a frenzy). In a development that feels inspired by Lord of the Rings, the source of Steppenwolf's power was divided among the three races, with a mystical "Mother Box" entrusted to each group for safekeeping. The boxes have lain dormant for thousands of years, but with their power awakened once more, the exiled general has returned to finish what he started.

Justice League's road to the big screen has been fraught with peril, with a lengthy shooting schedule and a post-production cycle that saw director Zack Snyder stepping away from the project to deal with a family matter. The studio recruited Joss Whedon to helm several weeks of reshoots, which were rumored to inject more humor and reshape the film to mirror the lighter tone of this summer's hugely successful Wonder Woman (Snyder retains the sole directing credit, but Whedon is now listed as a screenwriter alongside Chris Terrio). But despite plenty of behind-the-scenes turmoil and reports of Warner Bros. execs mandating a truncated running time, Justice League comes together surprisingly well.

Based on the marketing campaign, I would have expected Jason Momoa's turn as Aquaman (which feels like he's channeling Metallica's James Hetfield) to be the most enjoyable performance, but I was caught completely off-guard by the nonstop hilarity Ezra Miller brings to The Flash. Both the character and the actor seem genuinely delighted to be in every sequence, and many of the film's biggest laughs come from Barry's social awkwardness, whether it's geeking out over seeing the Batsignal for the first time, or finding himself in a compromising position with Diana in the midst of a large-scale skirmish.

Reprising their roles from previous DCEU films, Affleck and Gadot are both given a bit more to work with this time around. Bruce is forced to accept the physical limitations that come with his age and a two-decade career as Gotham's vigilante, and grapples with the notion that he might not be the right person to bring this team together. Meanwhile, the success of Wonder Woman's solo adventure results in an expanded role for Diana, and more screentime for Gadot is a welcome addition.

Justice League is plagued by shoddy visuals, from cringe-worthy green screen effects throughout the film to the unnatural-looking digital removal of Henry Cavill's mustache, and most notably to Steppenwolf, the film's primary antagonist. Best known for his role as Mance Rayder in HBO's fantasy epic Game of Thrones, Ciarán Hinds does a commendable job trying to imbue the character with anything that resembles life, but rather than enhancing his performance, the visuals are little more than a hindrance. He fares better in the film's numerous battle sequences, setting aside the self-aggrandizing soliloquies to pick up his battle axe and wade into the fray, but hopefully Warner Bros. learns to shy away from CG-created villains altogether in future projects.

Whedon definitely leaves his mark on the dialogue, but visually this is still very much a Zack Snyder film, complete with copious amounts of slow-motion and speed ramping. The good news is that Justice League operates with a much more vibrant palette - no doubt a direct response to the criticism levied against Batman v Superman - with deep blues and bright reds popping right off the screen. The action choreography is also significantly improved here, with each of the film's major battle sequences effortlessly juggling a large roster of characters, weapons and powers without ever getting too messy.

Justice League is at its best when focused squarely on the heroes and their interactions, and it's a shame that so much time is spent on bringing them all together, as the film never really takes off until the team is formed. But the majority of the second half is exactly the kind of thing DC fans have long dreamed of seeing on the big screen, with Wonder Woman slashing away at Steppenwolf while Batman keeps an army of parademons at bay and The Flash zips in and out of the room to rescue hostages. There's an undeniable joy in watching the publisher's most iconic characters team up to kick some alien ass, and Justice League delivers just the sort of fun and exciting adventure the DCEU needs to keep this franchise moving in the right direction.

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