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Justice League Is a Big, Ugly Mess

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Doing high school and college theater, I got used to a certain kind of pitying, deflecting, post-performance compliment—“the lighting was so good;” “what an interesting script;” “what fun costumes.” These little deceptive kindnesses told me all I needed to know, yet spared me from full exposure to the harshest truths. I’ve done the same routine myself dozens of times, because what else can we do as decent, compassionate people? Who needs mean, candid honesty when, deep down, we already know the value, or lack thereof, of what we’ve made?

But once in awhile, there comes along something so egregiously bad that trying to find something good to say about it is its own kind of cruelty; such an obvious act of reaching only highlights the production’s garish dimensions, its abject failures. And, worse still, it can encourage more. In these instances, pure and unadorned honesty is really the only way to go, difficult as it may be to deliver. And so, dear Justice League, I must say that no, the lighting is not good. The script is not “interesting.” The costumes are not fun. The film is, plainly stated, terrible, and I’m sorry that everyone wasted their time and money making it—and that people are being asked to waste their time and money seeing it. I hate to be so blunt, but it simply must be said this time.

To be fair, the DC movies preceding Justice League—particularly Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad—have gotten their share of criticism already. I loathed the ugly, obnoxious Suicide Squad, and found only a little to like about turgid Batman v Superman. I was not alone in either of those assessments. It’s been a tough road for DC, with solid enough box office but little toehold in public esteem.

So it was a nice reprieve when Wonder Woman was an unqualified hit this summer, embraced by audiences and achieving a kind of rare, dangerous victory for a DC film: it kinda felt like an Avengers movie. The franchise got a big boost, and suddenly the DC story began to look a little less dark. What a nice few months that was! But now, with cracking whiplash, arrives Justice League, the culmination of the three non-Suicide Squad DC films to come before it—a hurried and slapdash heroes-assemble affair that clatters loudly and senselessly, tossed together out of loose screws and scrap metal.

Justice League awkwardly tries to move away from much of the forbidding tone of Man of Steel or B v S, a perhaps studio-mandated attempt to lighten things up, to add some effervescence like the kind Tony Stark and friends enjoy together. After suffering a family tragedy, director Zack Snyder took a step back from the film, and Joss Whedon—borrowed from The Avengers—was brought in to bring it over the finish line. He has a co-writing credit, and his syncopated, geeky-snark stamp is peppered throughout the film. But Whedon’s humor is grafted on in too-obvious ways; it sticks out incongruously amid all the stilted mechanics of this alarmingly basic movie. All these Whedonisms have the opposite of the intended effect. They give off a strenuous hum, the desperate sound of a turd polished in vain.

If this was the best DC could do in synthesizing all their lead characters together into one ensemble spectacular, after a half-decade of planning, that’s pretty damning. Justice League is such a misguided mess—often feeling entirely unguided—that you want to intervene, softly saying, “Stop, stop, you don’t have to do this, stop.” But you can’t talk to the movie screen, so I’ll say it here. There is no real vision; no idea what the tone of these movies should be; no compelling or even coherent narrative through-line; no feel, or regard, for characterization. I know there’s another comic-book company doing this across town, and it seems to be working out well for them, but if you have no clear sense of how to build one of these franchises in a functional, let alone interesting, way, maybe stop until you do!

But there’s no stopping, no pausing for reflection, in our forever-scaling superhero economy. And so here’s Justice League, this whole clumsy, thwarted effort, flailing away. There’s so little shape to the movie; it feels entirely pointless. Our focus is relentlessly pulled this way and that, from moodiness about Superman’s death, to wheezy wisecracking comic relief from the Flash (Ezra Miller, trying), to whatever it is they were attempting to do with Aquaman (Jason Momoa, also trying, but not the right way).

That last goof is, in some ways, a tidy representation of what’s wrong with the broader movie. Perhaps sensing that the fish-man is not the coolest character on the DC roster (uncool enough to be parodied on Entourage, even), Justice League turns Aquaman into a swaggering hothead who’d be a better fit in Universal’s Fast & Furious franchise. He’s barely in the water; the movie doesn’t even bother to provide the occasional convenient canal or fjord for him. So he’s instead just some oafish tough guy who spars with his teammates for laughs—inexplicably, mind you, as no clear, consistent social dynamic is established at any point. Aquaman exists in the laziest possible terms, in perhaps the laziest possible movie—lazy despite all the crashing and booming and piling on.

There’s also Cyborg, an intriguingly haunted part human, part machine played with saturnine charm by Ray Fisher. His human side is warring with, and often loses to, the burgeoning artificial consciousness placed inside him by his grieving father, an interesting conflict that Justice League introduces and then does very little with. Instead, Cyborg becomes just another dull cog in the film’s weightless and arbitrary save-the-world plot, which is fashioned as a realization of the hellish vision visited upon Bruce Wayne in a jarring interlude in the middle of Batman v Superman—only done with far less art than that rattling sequence.

The film looks terrible, from a visit to Wonder Woman’s native Themyscira that plays like a cheap video-game cut scene, to a dopey big bad (voiced by poor Ciarán Hinds) who looks, well, like a villain in a playable video-game scene. There’s little inspiring in the way of aesthetics—not even Clark Kent’s lovingly sun-dappled Kansas corn fields, captured with some poeticism in Man of Steel, look good here. The movie jerks around haltingly, shuffling through visual motifs and grating, unexciting set pieces at alarming speed, with no rhythm or build. It’s like having a little kid stutteringly recap a movie for you (“And then this happened and then this happened, oh wait, but also this happened”) instead of watching an actual movie. It’s rather staggering, how pretty much nothing in the film works, not the semi-reliable old stuff, and certainly not all the new junk they’ve crammed in. Justice League sweatily wants to be both an epic and a romp, but hasn’t the patience to truly be either. It’s rote and perfunctory and bland, as if burped out by some tired algorithm. How could this be the movie that got made in the end, after all that lead-up?

Perhaps the Justice League franchise really has been rotten from the start, experiencing not evolution but entropy, with Wonder Woman standing as an anomalous glimmer of false hope. I could be projecting, but boy does poor Gal Gadot look so sad in Justice League, watching this lumbering and witless movie lay waste to the nice thing she just got finished making. It really is a shame. What a dumb irony, to end this movie, of all movies, on a note of bitter injustice like that.

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Full ScreenPhotos:The Unfolding Drama: A Cover-by-Cover History of Vanity Fair’s Hollywood Issue, 1995–2016
1995

1995

From left: Jennifer Jason Leigh, Uma Thurman, Nicole Kidman, Patricia Arquette, Linda Fiorentino, Gwyneth Paltrow, Sarah Jessica Parker, Julianne Moore, Angela Bassett, and Sandra Bullock.

1996

1996

From left: Tim Roth, Leonardo DiCaprio, Matthew McConaughey, Benicio Del Toro, Michael Rapaport, Stephen Dorff, Johnathon Schaech, David Arquette, Will Smith, and Skeet Ulrich.

1997

1997

From left: Cameron Diaz, Kate Winslet, Claire Danes, Renée Zellweger, Minnie Driver (reclining), Alison Elliott, Jada Pinkett, Jennifer Lopez, Charlize Theron, and Fairuza Balk.

1998

1998

From left: Joaquin Phoenix, Vince Vaughn, Natalie Portman, Djimon Hounsou, Cate Blanchett, Tobey Maguire, Claire Forlani, Gretchen Mol, Christina Ricci, Edward Furlong, and Rufus Sewell.

2014

2014

From left: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Julia Roberts, Idris Elba, George Clooney, Michael B. Jordan, Jared Leto, Lupita Nyong’o, Naomi Harris, Brie Larson, Chadwick Boseman, Margot Robbie, and Léa Seydoux.

2015

2015

From left: Amy Adams, Channing Tatum, Reese Witherspoon, Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones, David Oyelowo, Benedict Cumberbatch, Sienna Miller, Oscar Isaac, and Miles Teller.

2016

2016

From left: Jane Fonda, Cate Blanchett, Viola Davis, Jennifer Lawrence, Charlotte Rampling, Brie Larson, Rachel Weisz, Lupita Nyong’o, ALicia Vikander, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Helen Mirren, Saoirse Ronan, Diane Keaton

Photo: Photograph by Annie Leibovitz; Styled by Jessica Diehl.

1995

1995

From left: Jennifer Jason Leigh, Uma Thurman, Nicole Kidman, Patricia Arquette, Linda Fiorentino, Gwyneth Paltrow, Sarah Jessica Parker, Julianne Moore, Angela Bassett, and Sandra Bullock.

1996

1996

From left: Tim Roth, Leonardo DiCaprio, Matthew McConaughey, Benicio Del Toro, Michael Rapaport, Stephen Dorff, Johnathon Schaech, David Arquette, Will Smith, and Skeet Ulrich.

1997

1997

From left: Cameron Diaz, Kate Winslet, Claire Danes, Renée Zellweger, Minnie Driver (reclining), Alison Elliott, Jada Pinkett, Jennifer Lopez, Charlize Theron, and Fairuza Balk.

1998

1998

From left: Joaquin Phoenix, Vince Vaughn, Natalie Portman, Djimon Hounsou, Cate Blanchett, Tobey Maguire, Claire Forlani, Gretchen Mol, Christina Ricci, Edward Furlong, and Rufus Sewell.

1999

1999

From left: Adrien Brody, Thandie Newton, Monica Potter, Reese Witherspoon, Julia Stiles, Leelee Sobieski, Giovanni Ribisi, Sarah Polley, Norman Reedus, Anna Friel, Omar Epps, Kate Hudson, Vinessa Shaw, and Barry Pepper.

2000

2000

From left: Penélope Cruz, Wes Bentley, Mena Suvari, Marley Shelton, Chris Klein, Selma Blair, Paul Walker, Jordana Brewster, and Sarah Wynter.

2001

2001

From left: Nicole Kidman, Catherine Deneuve, Meryl Streep, Gwyneth Paltrow, Cate Blanchett, Kate Winslet, Vanessa Redgrave, Chloë Sevigny, Sophia Loren, and Penélope Cruz.

2002

2002

From left: Kirsten Dunst, Kate Beckinsale, Jennifer Connelly, Rachel Weisz, Brittany Murphy, Selma Blair, Rosario Dawson, Christina Applegate, and Naomi Watts.

2003

2003

From left: Tom Hanks, Tom Cruise, Harrison Ford, Jack Nicholson, Brad Pitt, Edward Norton, Jude Law, Samuel L. Jackson, Don Cheadle, Hugh Grant, Dennis Quaid, Ewan McGregor, and Matt Damon.

2004

2004

From left: Julianne Moore, Jennifer Connelly, Gwyneth Paltrow, Naomi Watts, Salma Hayek, Jennifer Aniston, Kirsten Dunst, Diane Lane, Lucy Liu, Hilary Swank, Alison Lohman, Scarlett Johansson, and Maggie Gyllenhaal.

2005

2005

From left: Uma Thurman, Cate Blanchett, Kate Winslet, Claire Danes, Scarlett Johansson, Rosario Dawson, Ziyi Zhang, Kerry Washington, Kate Bosworth, and Sienna Miller.

2006

2006

From left: Scarlett Johansson, Tom Ford, and Keira Knightley.

2007

2007

From left: Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson, Chris Rock, and Jack Black.

2008

2008

From left: Emily Blunt, Amy Adams, Jessica Biel, Anne Hathaway, Alice Braga, Ellen Page, Zoë Saldana, Elizabeth Banks, Ginnifer Goodwin, and America Ferrera.

2010

2010

From left: Abbie Cornish, Kristen Stewart, Carey Mulligan, Amanda Seyfried, Rebecca Hall, Mia Wasikowska, Emma Stone, Evan Rachel Wood, and Anna Kendrick.

2011

2011

From left: Ryan Reynolds, Jake Gyllenhaal, Anne Hathaway, James Franco, Jennifer Lawrence, Anthony Mackie, Olivia Wilde, Jesse Eisenberg, Mila Kunis, Robert Duvall, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Andrew Garfield, Rashida Jones, Garrett Hedlund, and Noomi Rapace.

2012

2012

From left: Rooney Mara, Mia Wasikowska, Jennifer Lawrence, Jessica Chastain, Elizabeth Olsen, Adepero Oduye, Shailene Woodley, Paula Patton, Felicity Jones, Lily Collins, and Brit Marling.

2013

2013

From left: Ben Affleck, Emma Stone, Bradley Cooper, Eddie Redmayne, Quvenzhané Wallis, Olivia Wilde, and Kerry Washington.

2014

2014

From left: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Julia Roberts, Idris Elba, George Clooney, Michael B. Jordan, Jared Leto, Lupita Nyong’o, Naomi Harris, Brie Larson, Chadwick Boseman, Margot Robbie, and Léa Seydoux.

2015

2015

From left: Amy Adams, Channing Tatum, Reese Witherspoon, Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones, David Oyelowo, Benedict Cumberbatch, Sienna Miller, Oscar Isaac, and Miles Teller.

2016

2016

From left: Jane Fonda, Cate Blanchett, Viola Davis, Jennifer Lawrence, Charlotte Rampling, Brie Larson, Rachel Weisz, Lupita Nyong’o, ALicia Vikander, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Helen Mirren, Saoirse Ronan, Diane Keaton

Photograph by Annie Leibovitz; Styled by Jessica Diehl.

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