Life is about the choices we make, the friends we stand by and the moments where we courageously follow our hearts and take a leap of faith. Which is, I should say, a long way round to saying I decided to go to the cinema and not the gym tonight.
Let me answer your first question: the gym? No I have not been for almost three years, but I have the ambition to go, when I’m about to fall asleep, when I look in a mirror or, increasingly frequently when I ascend short flights of stairs. The problem is this ambition doesn’t readily translate into action, instead I search for distraction, and it was, with that firmly at the forefront of my mind, that I saw Justice League tonight.
Let me fill you in. It’s an epic battle between DC (comics) and Marvel (also comics) to produce films that have a strong residual essence of comics read by surprisingly few people and transform them into brands that can hit as large a demographic as possible. There are successes and there are failures – try and be too accessible and Batman and Robin excretes its way onto the screen – go the other way then you end up as The Dark Night Rises, where you crave a moment, a slither of joy or light.
So far Marvel have dominated this titanic battle with their successes from Iron Man through to Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Thor: Ragnorok with various highs and lows along the way. DC in the meantime have had a rougher ride, creating aesthetic-led films that have moments of genuine brilliance and then crumble away into excessively long, extreme CGI fight sequences. It’s been one of my huge frustrations – Man Of Steel used Kevin Costner and to a lesser extent Russell Crowe to build interesting father-son relationships with Clark Kent, similarly Wonderwoman created a conflicted, three-dimensional Diana at odds with the world – but they’ve been spoilt by a need to ramp up the action and to jump to a conclusion. Ben Affleck’s introduction as the latest Batman (a tall order after the particularly genre-defining portrayal by Christian Bale) in Dawn Of Justice was mishandled – Batman isn’t interesting, he hits people in a cape, Bruce Wayne isn’t interesting, he’s too rich for that – the fizz, that dynamism lies in the moment of conflict between those two selves – Affleck’s role has almost removed that, they feel increasingly like one person and it loses the heart of what makes superhero films hit the mark, that word I keep repeating: conflict.
Justice League is, like many of DC’s recent films, unbalanced but has moments which makes you ask if only.
The good: Gal Gadot is on good form as Wonderwoman without really sparkling – it feels like with an exception dramatic (rather than action) writer she could be incredible. Jason Mormoa as Aquaman has a rock ‘n’ roll presence that starts strongly and feels like an enigma wrapped inside a mystery, but the film never asks questions of the character – what maketh the man (or man-fish)? Ezra Miller (The Flash) takes the comic plaudits, gets the one-liners and physical moments that push him square and centre – he is the geeky audience encapsulated on screen. Ray Fisher as Cyborg gets a simmering glowering and glowing façade but seems to lack depth as a pale imitation of Ironman (to the purists, I’m sorry, I don’t know which came first).
What’s bad is, I think, three element: Depth, Affleck (or more specifically Batman) and conflict. Our direct comparison is Avengers Assemble in the Marvel universe. What worked incredibly well for that film (and series) was the way that it took time to reach Assembly point – we had to learn about all the components (and them about themselves) much more than in DC. That depth allows that number of characters to come into a single film and function, it even allows new players in (think Hawkeye) with minimal introduction because you can define them in relation to known quantities. That seems missing here – as if we’re so desperate to get to a fight that we forget people have to have a reason to fight (and be fought).
Ben Affleck as Batman doesn’t work. Sure it’s an older portrayal. Sure he’s seen and done a lot, but he’s built like a boxer not a street fighter, he’s almost arrogantly wealthy (something that predecessors never seemed to be), sponsored by Mercedes in what can only be the most glaringly obvious bit of product placement ever, for some obscure reason uses a horse to get to a Northern outpost rather than a helicopter and, and, well, he’s older okay, that’s what gets me. There’s moments when Bruce Wayne is casting admiring glances at Diana (Wonder Woman) and it feels uneasy, like the old bloke in a battered leather jacket in a nightclub buying twenty year olds drinks – it feels a little wrong – but hey, if she consents and he consents, if they both fully consent, if everyone consents, in writing, then they’re both grown adults – she is, after all, hundreds of years older than him and still not properly over the death of Captain Kirk (mk 2).
Most of all though it’s conflict – not enough emotional, too much physical. DC had opportunity to make the superhero films you get to think about, to get some true character actors, focus on purity of story, of removing CGI as much as possible – essentially following the model established by the Christopher Nolan brand of Batman films.
I guess it feels like DC made a choice, after life is about the choices we make, the friends we stand by and the moments where we courageously follow our hearts and take a leap of faith. Sometimes we nail it, sometimes we hit our fingers with a hammer, and sometimes we wonder if we should have gone to the gym instead.