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Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Justice League



"Children," Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) says with a bit of disbelief. "I'm working with children." Of course, Superman (Henry Cavill) and Cyborg (Ray Fisher) giggling on the ground after they managed to save the world together earned a little bit of child-like goofy revelry. Child-like goofy revelry is the theme and provides the high points of Justice League, a superhero movie designed to please the Super Friends-loving children inside us first and foremost (and no one else). Director Zack Snyder (and Joss Whedon who directed reshoots but only shares screenplay credit Chris Terrio) finally unite the seven six World's Greatest Superheroes - Superman, Batman (Ben Affleck), Wonder Woman, Aquaman (Jason Momoa), The Flash (Ezra Miller), and Cyborg - together in one superhero smash-em-up movie. The Justice League comes together to face - what else? - an invader from another world, the CGI conqueror Steppenwolf (voiced by Ciaran Hinds), and his army horde big group of flying space insects called Parademons from the planet Apokolips. But first, the Justice League has to learn to work together (i.e. learn to work with Batman). 

Justice League follows up the events of Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice. Superman died saving the world. Batman, who was consumed by hatred of the Man of Steel in the previous movie, is now consumed by guilt over his death and fear about the coming alien invasion he's powerless to stop. Together, Batman and Wonder Woman go hunting for new super friends, which takes up half of the movie. In Newfoundland, Batman finds Arthur Curry, the Aquaman, a local legend who is not-so-secretly the disgruntled King of the Seven Seas. Bruce Wayne has really gotten sloppy in his old age; he didn't seem remotely concerned that by publicly chatting with Curry, an entire town in Newfoundland now knows he's the Batman. Wayne also recruits Barry Allen, a gee whiz wunderkind who also happens to be the Fastest Man Alive. Allen instinctively understands he's the comic relief of this group and plays his role with (too much) aplomb. Meanwhile, Wonder Woman and Cyborg find each other - Cyborg was a college athlete named Victor Stone who was caught in some kind of explosion. His scientist father rebuilt him into a Cyborg using technology from what he calls the Change Engine, but is actually one of the three alien Mother Boxes Steppenwolf has returned to Earth to collect.

Steppenwolf is the boring alien lynchpin of Justice League's mythology - he came to Earth five thousand years ago with three Mother Boxes and way more Parademons than he brings in 2017. In DC Comics, Mother Boxes are all-purpose super computers, but in Justice League, they're just alien power sources which, when combined into 'The Unity', will terraform the Earth and turn it into the planet Apokolips, Steppenwolf's other dimensional home world. (Terraforming Earth is the exact same plan the Kryptonians had when they invaded Earth in Man of Steel. Don't any aliens want Earth as it is? It's a nice planet!) The film barely explains the mythology of the New Gods (or anything else), expecting the audience to have seen the other DC movies and the comic book nerds in the know to fill the newbies in afterwards. So Steppenwolf tried to turn the Earth all fiery and horrible, and turn humans into Parademons, but an alliance between the Amazons (Wonder Woman's people), the Atlanteans (Aquaman's people), the tribes of man, and even the Greek gods and a Green Lantern (who got his green ass whooped real fast) stood against Steppenwolf and banished him. The Atlanteans, Amazons, and men each took a Mother Box (in this universe, shouldn't it really be called a Martha Box?) to keep them separated. Like geniuses, the Atlanteans and Amazons put their Mother Boxes on display. The humans (for once) had the good sense to bury their Mother Box. How it ended up in the lab of Cyborg's father is one of Justice League's many plot holes that go unexplained.

So where the hell is Superman? Well, he is dead, but not forgotten. Justice League retcons the mistrust and ambiguity the world felt about the Man of Steel's existence. Now he was a beacon of hope whose banner is flown at all points around the globe in a state of perpetual mourning. The man Superman really was, Clark Kent, is missed terribly by his mother Martha (Diane Lane) and his fiance Lois Lane (Amy Adams), but no one on Earth misses him more than Batman. In his private moments with his butler Alfred (Jeremy Irons), Batman bemoans his own inadequacies at length (he's right about all of them). He's convinced that Superman is who the world needs (he's right about that too.) When the League minus Superman faces Steppenwolf for the first time and get their united asses handed to them, Batman decides it's time to really go dark - Pet Cemetary dark - and bring Superman back to life with the power of the Mother Box. This leads to the moment no one ever expected to see in a superhero movie: The Flash and Cyborg in a Smallville graveyard digging up Clark Kent's coffin.

Gal Gadot thankfully returns as the Wonder Woman we fell in love with last summer. Wonder Woman is unequivocably the best character in the movie and perpetually the only adult in the room. The best scene in Justice League is the argument when Batman goes full-on asshole and accuses Wonder Woman of failing the world by not being the beacon of hope Superman is. The other best scene is when Aquaman doesn't realize he's sitting on Wonder Woman's magic Lasso of Truth and start spilling his guts about his true feelings (Wonder Woman is gorgeous, he doesn't want to die, etc.) These character interactions between the League are terrific and savvy, full of knowing wit and a pleasing understanding of the characters and how they bounce off each other. The movie really picks up momentum when Superman comes back to life - complete, of course, with the obligatory fan service of Superman fighting the Justice League (and racing The Flash) - before Lois Lane's appearance calms him down and puts the human back in control of the Kryptonian. Superman is worth waiting for, and it's wonderful to see Henry Cavill smiling, relaxed and cracking jokes for the first time (no matter how weird his CGI'd face looks after the mustache he grew for Mission: Impossible 6 was digitally erased).

With so many superheroes and their disparate corners of the DC Universe (Gotham, Atlantis, Themyscira, Central City) being serviced - the Atlanteans and their Queen Mera (Amber Heard) really got short shafted; wait until the Aquaman movie next year to find out what all that Atlantis business was all about - Justice League takes on multiple tones not unlike what Stephen Soderbergh did with Traffic. The movie literally looks and feels different depending on what location they're at - Gotham looks like a cartoon city, then all of a sudden we cut to London and it looks like the real world - and the effect can be jarring. Imagine if Star Wars: Attack of the Clones was jammed together with A New Hope mixed with huge chunks of The LEGO Batman Movie and you get the idea. The first half of the movie leaps around like two dogs fighting over a stick, and the action scenes are mostly frenetic and unmemorable eyesores, with deafeningly loud and abrasive sound design that drowns out composer Danny Elfman's weaving of his classic Batman and John Williams' classic Superman scores into the music. Five years ago, The Avengers assembled for a crowd-pleasing and multi-layered 30 minute battle against aliens to defend New York City, showcasing each Avenger's powers, abilities, and strategies. The Justice League's final showdown with Steppenwolf is a rush job in a tiny town in the middle of Russia where they just keep punching Parademons and Steppenwolf until they win. The League may have been All In, according to the marketing, but in terms of everything it could be, the movie is Not All There.

After so many years of dreaming about this movie, the Justice League finally united but it only barely rises above the level of live action cartoon. However, the small, human moments: Bruce Wayne admitting to Wonder Woman that he's barely physically capable of being Batman anymore; Aquaman mocking Bruce Wayne dressing up "just like a bat" in response to wisecracks about "talking to fish"; Wonder Woman using her compassion to try to make Cyborg feel human and wanted; the look on Batman's face when his crazy plan worked and Superman came back to life; Batman: "Oh yeah, something's definitely bleeding..."; and Clark Kent and Lois Lane reuniting in a Smallville cornfield - the love story holding together the fate of the entire DC Universe - are worth celebrating. These are the moments that make Justice League almost worth it. Almost, but not really. Still, there's potentially nowhere to go but up from here; a wise choice by DC Films as to who will helm the sequel now that Zack Snyder is reportedly stepping aside will hopefully deliver an even better version of the part 2 teased in the rebuilding of Stately Wayne Manor into the Hall of Justice ("room for more") and in the post-credits scene. After a lifetime of dreaming about a Justice League movie, it's finally here and... well, it's here. Now with that fulfilled, we can share a new dream: one of a coherent Justice League movie. For that, I will be All In.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Thor: Ragnarok



Strongest Avenger

"You'll always be the God of Mischief," Thor (Chris Hemsworth) tells his adopted brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston), "But you could be so much more." Those words form the thematic crux of director Taika Waititi's raucous house party of a Marvel film Thor: Ragnarok. Waititi's electric and colorful palette and wall to wall jokes brings the hammer down on the crusty old Marvel formula of how to do a Thor movie. In Ragnarok, Thor has evolved, and continues to, from the haughty muscle of the Avengers into something more, and better. To accomplish this heroic feat, Waititi rips Thor from the things about the franchise that never worked like it should have (Asgard, the Warriors Three, the faux-Shakespearean pomposity) and things that have become crutches (Thor's magical hammer Mjolnir, which is destroyed in the first act and never comes back). The result is a leaner, funnier and better God of Thunder than ever before, ready for whatever the future holds.

Thor: Ragnarok is really a treatise against stagnation, of the Thor character and his side of the Marvel Universe, and of the Marvel brand itself. The yeoman's work of introducing Thor and the concept of Asgard is long past us and there is no time for looking back at those innocent times when Thor was in love with Jane Foster (Natalie Portman). Thor is on to new things and he never stops moving. When we reunite with Thor in Ragnarok, he's been on his own for a couple of years since he left Earth at the end of Avengers: Age of Ultron to find the Infinity Stones (he didn't find any). No, instead what Thor found and continued to find throughout Ragnarok was something greater: himself and his true compass of what makes him a hero. Also, he found jokes. Lots and lots of jokes.

During those missing two years, Thor developed a wicked sense of humor. His wit was always there, kind of, but now it's been unleashed. Thor maintains his alpha god swagger, but it's tempered. He is much more laid back and self-aware than ever before. Hemsworth, who was the comedic highlight of the 2016 Ghostbusters reboot, fuses his inherent goofball wit into Thor and the result is as electric as Thor's newfound powers. Whether lying to both Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) and his raging goliath alter ego the Incredible Hulk about which one of them he prefers, trying to charm the last Valkyrie of Asgard (a revelatory Tessa Thompson), or being much wiser to the machinations of Loki, Thor becomes more than just a hammer and a mane of hair (not coincidentally he loses both). Thor becomes, at long last, a great character.

Of course, the selling point of Thor: Ragnarok was the big showdown between Hulk and Thor, and it is indeed a fantastic and worthy smackdown riddled with sly in-jokes. In this, and in the grand spectacle of an intergalactic superhero film filled with gods and monsters, Ragnarok succeeds mightily. After a jumpy opening act where much Marvel admin has to get done - dropping by the Sanctum Sanctorum of Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), for example - the film finds its sure footing and begins to run at breakneck speed in its second half. Waititi sends Thor bouncing around from Earth to Asgard to the junkyard planet of Sakaar, where he's captured and forced to become a Sakaarian Gladiator. All throughout, Thor encounters a bevy of whacko oddball characters, including Waititi himself playing the affable rock monster Korg.

Thor's fight to save Asgard from his heretofore unknown older sister Hela, the Goddess of Death (Cate Blanchett having a ball) is really a fight against his own status quo. Odin (Anthony Hopkins), ancient symbol of stagnation, shuffles off this mortal coil, and with him goes the old Thor movie paradigm - and good riddance. Hela wants to restore an order even older than Odin. Thor, whether he knows it or not, is looking for what comes next. Thor must save the people of Asgard from the total destruction of Ragnarok - "Because that's what heroes do" - but what both Thor and this movie really want is to move beyond Thor always being the same. As he tells Valkyrie in a revealing moment that gets lost amidst a sea of jokes, his destiny to sit upon the throne of Asgard meant stagnation to Thor. Asgard is eternal (or was), but in his heart Thor is looking for more. 

When Thor forms his team with the purposefully stupid name the Revengers to save Asgard from Hela, he urges his friends to move beyond their status quo to fight for a greater ideal. For Hulk, it means not staying on Sakaar and continuing as the prized champion gladiator of the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum delightfully playing off his rocker). For Valkyrie, it means to stop burying her memories of the Valkyries being slaughtered by Hela millennia ago in a haze of alcohol and once more fighting to save the people of Asgard. And for Loki, it means trying just a little bit harder to be a better person and not resorting to his usual bag of tricks to achieve some vainglorious end. Loki takes the longest to get with the program, but even he finds a glimpse of his better self. Thor cheerleads them all with an unyielding sense of optimism that things will work out all right.

By the time the giant fire monster Surtur (voiced by Clancy Brown) destroys Asgard and Hela along with it, Thor and his franchise have finally cut the cord with what a Thor movie used to be. Marvel itself seems to be evolving as well. 2017 was the year where its superhero films, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Spider-Man: Homecoming, and now Ragnarok threw out the dusty old Marvel movie playbook and really explored what their superhero movies could be through color, humor, and the personal idiosyncrasies of their directors. Waititi splendidly seems to take it all the way with Ragnarok, and the result is a joyous and rowdy party with Thor as the Lord of Jokes and Revelry. Though Thor learns Ragnarok is inevitable, there's a victory here because Thor succeeded in saving his people, and he did it his way. Thor is Asgard's king, but more importantly, he is their hero, and he's ours. "They love me on Earth," Thor reminds Loki, at the end. "I'm very popular." After Ragnarok, Thor is more right about that than ever.