Monday, 26 September 2016

Film Review - 'Justice League: War'

If you've never been all that big on reading comics, then the phrase 'New 52' probably doesn't mean all that much to you. This could be a bit of a problem, though, if you happen to be (like me) a fan of the characters, themselves - since, as far as DC's broad and complex comic-book universe is concerned, it is a pretty big deal.

The basic idea, here, is that the convoluted web of story-lines which made up DC's comics had simply got too difficult to manage - so, it was decided that it was probably time to, essentially, wipe the slate clean and start over. The old DC universe was brought to a close with a massive cross-over event (which, if you're interested, was adapted in the previous animated film, The Flashpoint Paradox), and the new one was set up in its place. Writers of the various new comic-book lines were free to choose what, if anything, of the old story-lines they brought over, or whether they would prefer to start off fresh.

This isn't the first time that DC have felt the need to do this, either. There was also Crisis on Infinite Earths back in the 1980s, which did much the same thing for much the same reason - and, it even seems to have happened again, recently, with 'Rebirth'.

That little lesson on the history of DC's comic-book universe probably isn't absolutely necessary for a casual fan to be able to enjoy Justice League: War - but, it might help place things in a proper context. This is, after all, the first of DC's line of animated films to draw its inspiration directly from the 'New 52' reboot - adapting the first arc of the new Justice League comic which began back in 2011.

Here, we have a world where the Justice League hasn't actually had reason to form, yet. Wonder Woman has only recently made her appearance in the modern world and, already, it seems as though the American people aren't too happy with her. No one is really sure what to make of Superman. And, many people, including other superheroes, aren't even entirely convinced that Batman actually exists. Other heroes, like Flash and Green Lantern, are also active - but, they aren't entirely trusted by the people they are trying to help. These heroes are all aware of each other, of course, but they don't seem to have any more trust in each other than the general public has in them.

Of course, as you can probably tell from the film's title, something is bound to come along that can force these disparate heroes to have to rely on each other - and, that something is Darkseid. Darkseid (pronounced as 'darkside') is a figure who would already be fairly familiar to fans of DC's comics. A villain powerful enough to actually require heroes to work together to take him on, he must have seemed like the most logical choice as the figure that forces the creation of the Justice League.

The problem, though, is that if you go into this film not really knowing anything about Darkseid then, to be honest, you're probably going to come out the other end in much the same position. Regardless of whatever complexity the character may have in the comics (both before and after the 'New 52' reboot), here he comes across as little more than a generic conqueror, wanting to claim Earth for reasons that are never really explored.

Although, to be fair, you could probably say the same about just about every character to appear in the film. Despite the fact that this film is, essentially, the origin story of the 'New 52' version of the Justice League, there is still a fair bit of assumed knowledge, here. This might seem fair enough in the case of characters like Batman, Wonder Woman and Superman (since there are, after all, DC's most instantly recognisable characters) - but, in the case of some of the more obscure members of the cast, it seems somewhat problematic. I can't imagine what the casual viewer is likely to make of the young Billy Batson's first transformation in the super-hero 'Shazam' (who was once known as Captain Marvel, before undergoing a name-change for the 'New 52'), for example - but, it's clear that the film already expects us to be familiar enough with the character to not be overly confused by a young boy's sudden transformation into a super-powered man.

The only character whose 'origin story' is explored, to any great extent, is Cyborg - and that is only because his transformation from ordinary young man to a half-human/half-machine hero takes place within the context of the film. For everyone else, you really are just expected to either already know, or to be able to figure it all out as you go.

In keeping with the spirit of the 'New 52' reboot, it also feels oddly appropriate that none of the usual names from DC's past animated productions have been brought back to reprise their roles - with this film instead selecting a new cast to provide new interpretations of these well-established characters. For the most part, this isn't a problem. The various performances given by the new cast might not amount to anything particularly memorable - but, they do just fine, overall. But, unfortunately, there is one notable exception to this.

I can understand what Michelle Monaghan was probably aiming for, with her performance of Wonder Woman - but, unfortunately, it just didn't work. Giving her an overly formal and austere manner of speaking, with dialogue to match, was clearly intended as a short-method method of getting across just how out-of-place this character is in the modern world - but, it seemed painfully clear, from her very first lines, that Michelle Monaghan was struggling. As a result, any moment of dialogue that Wonder Woman had in the film just came across as a bit cringe-inducing, for me. On the other hand, though, her various action sequences throughout the film were easily the most visually impressive, and the most well-animated - so, there is that to balance things out.

The film is, quite honestly, a bit of a mess in a variety of ways. But, it's also a hell of a lot of fun. Sure, it's fairly obvious that what passes for a story here is really little more than an excuse to push all of these heroes together, and to give them plenty of opportunity to show off their respective skills. But, why should that necessarily be a bad thing? After all, that basic set-up worked out just fine for The Avengers. Also, the action sequences are impressive enough, and there are enough moments of entertaining banter between characters, to make up for the lack of anything resembling plot.

Slightly less forgivable, though, are the ways in which the film-maker's clear desire to get straight to the action hurt the pacing of the film, itself. Scenes which should have been dramatic, such as Cyborg's transition from an ordinary young man into a walking machine, were glossed over to such an extent that they lost the emotional impact they were clearly intended to have. Cyborg, himself, came across almost as an unintentional parody of the standard 'questioning your humanity' character arc - essentially having his existential crisis, and coming to terms with his new life, on the same day.

In the end, Justice League: War is a lot of fun, but is basically forgettable. Fun and forgettable can still form the basis for a perfectly entertaining film, though. So, if you happen to be a fan of DC's previous animated films, or of its cast of characters, then it would probably be worth your time.

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