“I don’t recognize this world.” “I don’t have to recognize it. Just save it.” Justice League

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Justice League isn’t getting a fair shake. At all. Was there far too much hype, including an insane amount of expectation put on this film to be DC’s answer to the cinematic superhero genre’s watershed Avengers? Indubitably. Did DC dig its own grave by playing coy about reviews and critical response in advance of Justice League‘s pre-Thanksgiving release? Yep. Is the critical backlash reflective of years of pent-up frustration that producer/director Zack Snyder continues to crank out one  overindulgent, sophomoric, bleak video-game-by-Abercrombie-&-Fitch-esque flick after another? Darn tootin’.

And that’s a shame.

Justice League is a lot of fun with a crackerjack cast and a ton of lovely character beats (no doubt courtesy of co-director/screenwriter Joss Whedon – Avengers, Buffy – who stepped in when Snyder left the production after a family tragedy). A few years ago, this film would have been a critical and popular blockbuster, but in a year that brought us smarter, savvier, and edgier comic book fare like Thor: Ragnarok, Spider-Man: Homecoming,Logan, and DC’s own Wonder Woman, Justice League pales in comparison as it pretty much aims for the Saturday matinee crowd and succeeds on those popcorn terms.

The plot is more or less lifted from The Avengers … and any superhero movie of the 80s or 90s. There is a rather forgettable villain in the form of Steppenwolf (part of Jack Kirby’s Fourth World/New Gods saga), a tragically Shakespearean character in print, rendered CGI-mundane and unrecognizable (voiced by Ciaran Hinds) in the film. He journeys to Earth to conquer our planet and thereby reclaim his place in the royal family of his intergalactic despot nephew Darkseid. The “MacGuffins” (a la Marvel’s “infinity stones”) are three “Mother Boxes” that have been hidden on Earth thousands of years ago by the Amazons, Atlanteans, and mankind and that, when united, will create some globby-swirly-Jackson-Pollock-looking “engine of destruction” to wipe all of us from the globe. Steppenwolf is aided by an army of screeching bug-warriors called Parademons who primarily serve the purpose of letting our Super Friend heroes bash and smash in a fairly bloodless PG-friendly way.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Now that you’ve read that byzantine description, please note that none of that matters. What does matter is the delightful dynamic created among luminous a$$-kicker Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman and DC Universe newcomers Ezra Miller as a delightfully manic and winsome Flash and Jason Momoa as a brash and swaggering yet completely adorable Aquaman. The bit with Aquaman and Wonder Woman’s “lasso of truth” is particularly priceless.

Ben Affleck seems to be running on vapors at this point as Batman, but his sullen exhaustion just accentuates the sparkling character work of Gadot, Miller, and Momoa. The trio also brings out the best in Henry Cavill, who heretofore seems to have struggled with the balance of homespun charm and godlike awe required of Superman. We even get to see Superman crack a joke or two and … wait for it …smile!

(Spoiler alert: surprising no one, Cavill, whose character died in the previous Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justicelord, THAT TITLE?!?! – is brought back to life in a fairly convoluted but nonetheless poignant sequence that evokes as much of Joss Whedon’s own Buffy the Vampire Slayer as it does DC’s classic Death of Superman comics event.)

Rounding out the League is Ray Fisher’s Cyborg (who in the comics actually started his career as a Teen Titan but was upgraded to League founding member in one of DC Comics’ never-ending and exhausting universe reboots a few years ago). Fisher is saddled with a burdensome CGI “costume” that only affords him about 1/3 of his face with which to turn in any kind of performance. Alas, he gets a bit lost in the shuffle. Nonetheless, I thought he did credible work conveying the Frankenstein’s monster dilemma of having remarkable powers (in this case, 90% of his body being replaced with robot parts) at the expense of losing his humanity and any kind of so-called “normal” life.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

There are a number of fun turns in the supporting cast from Jeremy Irons’ acerbic Alfred Pennyworth to JK Simmons’ hard-boiled yet hopeful Commissioner James Gordon. Amy Adams does her best with a handful of underwritten Lois Lane-in-mopey-mourning scenes, and Diane Lane continues to breathe feisty life into Superman’s Ma Kent. Billy Crudup (once Doctor Manhattan in Zack Snyder’s overbaked Watchmen) is heartbreaking as Barry Allen’s/The Flash’s falsely incarcerated papa. Amber Heard’s Mera (eventually Aquaman’s wife) looks the part but has far too little to do, and the same can be said for Connie Nielsen’s Amazonian Queen Hippolyta, regrettably downgraded to mere cannon fodder.

The film’s color palette is brighter than anything we’ve seen in the DC oeuvre to date (save Wonder Woman), replacing the sepia tones of Batman v. Superman or Suicide Squad or Man of Steel with some pops of four-color glory, especially as the film barrels toward its denouement. Danny Elfman’s score is also notable in that it boldly incorporates themes from previously “out of continuity” DC films like the original Superman and Batman movies, sonically (at least) indicating that maybe DC learned a lesson from the success of the humane and witty Wonder Woman and is allowing a little life and joy into the larger franchise.

Justice League seems to offer a message of transition, ending on an optimistic note of friendship and collaboration, family and hope. We haven’t seen too much of that in DC’s films since Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy or the “official” kick-off of DC’s extended cinematic universe Man of Steel. That lack of joy has hobbled these films to date (again, save Wonder Woman). I can only wish that audiences ignore Justice League‘s critical drubbing and give the frisky if simplistic adaptation a chance and reward the filmmakers for this much-needed course correction.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Irons’ Alfred reflects to Affleck’s Bruce Wayne early in the film, “I don’t recognize this world.” Bruce replies, “I don’t have to recognize it. Just save it.” Amen. DC did just that with Justice League, IMHO.

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Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital).

In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan.

My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

“But … are you Thor, god of … hammers?” Thor: Ragnarok

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Marvel Studios’ latest – Thor: Ragnarok – is about as delightful a film to come from the Marvel/Disney machine as we’ve yet seen.

Marrying the free-wheeling whimsy of Ant-Man with the trippy nothing-is-too-zany visual style of Dr. Strange, layering in the heart and humanity of the Captain America films, and playing off the wackadoodle Shakespearean promise of Kenneth Branagh’s first Thor, director Taika Waititi (Hunt for the Wilderpeople) nonetheless delivers a completely unique vision and a superhero flick for the ages.

There is nary a shred of evidence of the micromanaged focus-grouping that seems to have plagued other entries in Marvel’s now 17-movie strong cinematic universe: the unfunny, overbaked narrative mush of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2; the ponderous “how-many-action-figures-can-we-cram-into-this-for-merchandising” clutter of Avengers: Age of Ultron; the just plain dull-as-dishwater “end-is-nigh” pretense of, yes, Thor: The Dark World.

No, Thor: Ragnarok belies its title with a light-as-air zip and a screwball comic touch that plays beautifully to star Chris Hemsworth’s Cary-Grant-trapped-in-Tab-Hunter’s-body charms. Hemsworth’s gift is in simultaneously embracing the absurd and the self-serious, mining Thor’s lovable arrogance in uncertain circumstances for “fish-out-of-water” laughs. Akin to Shakespeare’s better “history” plays (say, Henry IV with its introduction of the iconic Falstaff), Ragnarok honors the operatic complexity of its source Norse mythology by juxtaposing the light and the dark, the goofy and the grand, to play out the prodigal son’s/hero’s quest to overcome both palace intrigue and the intoxicating lure of interstellar adventure to find his proper path to the throne.

The film shouldn’t work as well as it does. Waititi is obviously fueled by a love of the corny sci-fi box office bombs that littered HBO’s schedule in the early and mid 80s (post-Star Wars) like Krull, Beastmaster, Flash Gordon, Buckaroo Banzai, and so on – movies that I myself watched in a constant loop, attracted to the gonzo so-bad-it’s-great storytelling and campy visuals. In fact, Mark Mothersbaugh’s Moog-synth score sounds like it was written for an arcade game in 1983. And that’s a fabulous thing. (There is also an epic use of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” in segments that bookend the film. It’s a touch that not only enlivens the two sequences in which the tune is used but adds a nice layer of meta commentary – “we come from the land of the ice and snow” – about finding one’s home and one’s place in this world.)

However, Waititi isn’t on a nostalgia trip; he isn’t interested in self-indulgence. Rather, with a Howard Hawks-esque (Bringing Up Baby) command of pacing, set-up, visual jokes, and patter, Waititi delivers a character-driven romp that celebrates a lost soul embracing his destiny and learning a touch of humility along the way. Of course, in this case, the lost soul happens to be the Norse God of Thunder and a superheroic Avenger who pals around with the Hulk, but that’s beside the point. Odin (a wry Anthony Hopkins) consoles his son at one point, when Thor is bemoaning the loss of his magic hammer Mjolnir, “But … are you Thor, god of … hammers?”

The plot is almost impossible to encapsulate, but I’ll try. Thor and brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston reclaiming the smarmy twinkle that made the character such fun initially) are on a search to find their father Odin who is hiding out in Norway. Early on, they encounter Benedict Cumberbatch’s Dr. Strange in a witty cat-and-mouse sequence that telegraphs that Ragnarok won’t be your typical Marvel flick.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Eventually, Loki and Thor discover that their father has concealed both a dark history from them and the existence of a sister Hela (Cate Blanchett, all slither and swagger and having a devil of a good time) who has returned to Asgard to take over the universe and wear some really fierce eyeliner and multi-horned headgear. Thor and Loki get shunted by Hela to Sakaar, a planet of garbage and misfit toys, where Jeff Goldblum’s Grandmaster runs a Let’s Make a Deal-meets-Gladiator “Contest of Champions.” (This is the best use of Goldblum’s insidious, out-sized, googly-eyed demeanor in years.)

Lo and behold, Thor’s old buddy The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo fully embracing the sweet/sour rampaging baby characterization from the Avengers films) is somehow on Sakaar too. The boys fight; they make up; they fight again; and eventually, with the aid of new compatriot Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson bringing the boozy, bossy fun), return to Asgard and save the day (more or less) from Hela’s machinations. Whew.

Oh, and Karl Urban (Star Trek, Dredd, Pete’s Dragon) pops up as Hela’s right-hand thug Skurge the Executioner, and, as always, Urban brings a nuanced inner-conflict and a compelling screen presence to a character who in lesser hands would have been a screaming, raving slab of testosterone. One day, I’d like to see him in a movie that doesn’t require special effects, if they make those any more.

In the end, though, the film is a showcase for Hemsworth’s effervescent wit and steroidal comedy and for Waititi’s sure-handed cinematic voice and eye-popping visuals. Hemsworth is at a difficult career crossroads: a household name actor in international box office blockbusters who doesn’t yet seem like a star. Perhaps this turn will change that. If not, he and Waititi need to team up again posthaste and, maybe this time, sans capes. Hemsworth is that rare performer – a beautiful human specimen with the comic genius of an ugly duckling. Waititi is that rare director – one who loves all films and has an encyclopedic knowledge of the best and the worst but deftly avoids self-indulgence and derivativeness. As Goldblum’s Grandmaster says in response to Thor’s use of his lightning powers, “Out of your fingers … was that, like, sparkles?” Indeed, Hemsworth plus Waititi generate nothing but cinematic sparkles. Here’s hoping for more.

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital).

In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan.

My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.