JUSTICE LEAGUE (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Sequences of Sci-Fi Violence and Action

Directed by: Zack Snyder

Written by: Chris Terrio & Joss Whedon

(based on the JUSTICE LEAGUE comics by Gardner Fox)

Starring: Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Gal Gadot, Ezra Miller, Jason Momoa, Ray Fisher, Jeremy Irons, Diane Lane, Connie Nielsen, J.K. Simmons, Ciaran Hinds, Amber Heard & Billy Crudup

To put it lightly, the DC Extended Universe has gotten off to a rocky start. 2013’s MAN OF STEEL was passable enough. I really enjoyed it the first time around, but its many flaws stuck out like a sore thumb upon a second viewing. BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE was a massive disappointment that had a few positive qualities and suffered from tons of problems. I thought SUICIDE SQUAD was big dumb fun, but it definitely fell short of its potential. Only this year, did the DCEU produce its first great film in WONDER WOMAN. I was hoping that JUSTICE LEAGUE might keep some of that greatness going, but I was sadly mistaken. JUSTICE LEAGUE is only a mere step above the lackluster BATMAN V SUPERMAN in disappointing mediocrity.

After experiencing apocalyptic nightmares of a monstrous future and encountering a few aliens, Bruce Wayne/Batman (Ben Affleck) is determined to gather a team of superpowered individuals. With Diana Prince/Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) by his side, Bruce attempts to recruit the reclusive Aquaman (Jason Momoa), the overly eager/super speedy Flash (Ezra Miller), and the half-man/half-machine Cyborg (Ray Fisher). Alien military officer Steppenwolf (played through a motion capture performance by Ciaran Hinds) is trying to collect three all-powerful “mother boxes” in order to bring about the destruction of our world. Only this newly formed “Justice League” of heroes can possibly hope to stop him…but they’ll need help from someone else. Hint: his real name is Kal-El (Henry Cavill) and he’s buried six feet underground.

JUSTICE LEAGUE suffers from many of the same problems that plagued BATMAN V SUPERMAN. One of those problems being that Warner Brothers seems to be trying to rush the DC Extended Universe. Instead of taking the time to deliver movies for Aquaman, Cyborg, and the Flash, we’re introduced to them in this film. While this might delight diehard DC comic fans who know this material inside and out, this is a bit underwhelming for newcomers to these certain superheroes. I knew next to nothing about Aquaman or Cyborg when I walked into this movie and I still knew very little about them when the end credits began to roll.

This complaint isn’t meant to discredit any of the cast members’ performances though, because they all seem to be mostly trying. Jason Momoa (who I mainly know from GAME OF THRONES) gets a lot of laughs as Aquaman and turned this lame excuse for a comic book hero into someone who I’m excited to see more of in his own movie (which is currently scheduled for next December). Gal Gadot is still awesome as Wonder Woman and receives the best scene in the film as she thwarts a terrorist plot in her introductory sequence. Ben Affleck remains well-cast as Bruce Wayne/Batman and Jeremy Irons is perfect as sassy butler Alfred. Also, the role of Superman still fits charismatic Henry Cavill like a glove. Also, Amy Adams briefly pops up as gal pal Louis Lane and Diane Lane is also briefly here as Superman’s grieving mother.

One performance that’s been getting a lot of warm reception from audience members and fans, but left me rather cold is Ezra Miller as the Flash. While many people seem to find the Flash’s quick quips and one-liners to be hilarious, I found Miller’s Flash to be far more annoying than he was funny. If we’re going for sheer laughs and charisma, I thought Momoa’s Aquaman easily topped him in pretty much every way. Also, you’ll notice that I haven’t mentioned Ray Fisher’s Cyborg yet, that’s because his “tortured soul” character is altogether forgettable. Fisher tried to get as much as he could out of him, but his performance felt (dare I say it) robotic in the worst way possible.

A huge problem in JUSTICE LEAGUE comes from the lame antagonist. I watched JUSTICE LEAGUE right after sitting through THOR: RAGNAROK and while I didn’t like Hela as a villainess, she was a hell of a lot more interesting than Steppenwolf. On the heels of a well-developed cinematic universe for Marvel (that will stretch to over 20 movies before its completed), this rushed-to-production DC Extended Universe’s Steppenwolf feels like a low-rent version of Thanos. I realize that DC has its own “Thanos” in the form of Darkseid, but the idea of collecting three all-powerful boxes to bring about the end of the world seems a bit dusty on the heels of the constant “infinity stones” in Marvel’s Cinematic Universe (and even that occasionally got old). Steppenwolf is a bland, boring, and lame villain who has a glowing axe, a metal helmet, and a few horns…and that’s about all there is to his character.

JUSTICE LEAGUE’s biggest issues stem from mixed bag pacing and sloppy storytelling. When the titular Justice League are kicking generic alien ass on the big screen, it’s big dumb fun. I enjoyed the film’s action scenes, but there are far too few of them. By the time that JUSTICE LEAGUE has finally fixed the mistakes committed by BATMAN V SUPERMAN (like killing off a major superhero in the second film of a franchise and leaving no real emotional impact), nearly 3/4ths of the film has already passed. Again, DC diehard fanboys might be head-over-heels in love with their story arcs finally hitting the big screen, but this simply doesn’t function as a cohesive film.

At the end of the day, JUSTICE LEAGUE should have been great. This should have been a major tentpole film that arrived after establishing origin stories and prepping audiences to finally see their beloved superheroes uniting on the big screen. Instead, this is a team-up film that’s arriving as the fifth installment in a franchise that’s only properly established two(!) of its six main characters. JUSTICE LEAGUE is the depressing result of what happens when a studio wants to bank on fandom, but doesn’t make the time or effort to carve out a proper franchise. JUSTICE LEAGUE should have been great and instead, it just exists.

Grade: C

BATMAN v SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 33 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Intense Sequences of Violence and Action throughout, and some Sensuality

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Directed by: Zack Snyder

Written by: Chris Terrio & David S. Goyer

(based on the DC Comics)

Starring: Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Jesse Eisenberg, Diane Lane, Laurence Fishburne, Jeremy Irons, Holly Hunter & Gal Gadot

The cinematic Cold War between DC and Marvel has officially begun! As a result, many films will be arriving in the next four years from both companies, much to the delight of superhero fans everywhere. After delivering a brand new Superman with 2013’s MAN OF STEEL (which was a polarizing film, but I fell on the side that liked it as big dumb fun), DC is back with a clash of superhero titans that also serves as a backdoor for the Justice League to be formed. However, DC might have been better if they had slowly built up their Extended Universe before getting into crossover plotlines, because BATMAN v SUPERMAN is a movie that is brimming with potential and almost none of it comes to the screen. I really wanted to love this film or even just enjoy it as another big budget superhero blockbuster, but I walked away very disappointed.

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The story kicks off with MAN OF STEEL’s final fight from a different perspective: Bruce Wayne/Batman’s (Ben Affleck) who frantically rushes to save civilians from falling rubble. Traumatized by Clark Kent/Superman’s destructive powers, Wayne becomes obsessed with the Man of Steel being able to wipe out humanity. This eats away at his personal life as Batman’s crime-fighting tactics become more vicious. Meanwhile, Clark Kent becomes obsessed over the violent vigilante in the neighboring Gotham City. Once Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne cross paths at a party held by the villainous Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg), a conflict arises between both heroes that can only resolve in a brutal fight…with possible world-ending stakes also at hand.

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I’ll list the positives about this film first. Despite many overreactions to his casting announcement, Ben Affleck is pretty damn good as Bruce Wayne/Batman. He brings a level of intensity and grittiness to the character that we’ve come to expect and goes slightly darker (akin to Frank Miller’s more violent take on the hero). Jeremy Irons is perfectly cast as Alfred, Bruce Wayne’s butler/Batman’s loyal servant. Though he isn’t given much to do…other than delivering a handful of snappy one-liners and quick-witted remarks, Irons is a lot of fun in the role. Finally, the expected fight scene between Batman and Superman is well-done. There are creative set pieces utilized (leveling the playing field between the two) as well as the sequence just being plain cool to watch as two iconic superheroes duke it out!

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Now that those positives have been stated, allow me to mention the many downsides to this film. Ben Affleck and Henry Cavill don’t have a hell of a lot of screen time together. In fact, Batman and Superman aren’t given much to do before the big fight scene (that arrives in the second half of the film). We see Batman hide in a corner and chase a truck, but that’s about all we get. As far as Kal-El is concerned, we get a montage of Superman rescuing people from disasters and occasionally saving Louis Lane (as per usual)…but not much actual crime fighting. Instead of any superhero action or excitement, we’re treated to Bruce Wayne having horribly cheesy nightmare sequences (one of which actually used the dream-within-a-dream cliché) and Superman being demonized by a Senator.

Batman V. Superman: Dawn Of Justice

If only the villains were entertaining to watch while Bruce Wayne and Clark Kent go about their daily lives. Instead, Luthor and Doomsday are two underwhelming antagonists. Lex Luthor is being played by a woefully miscast Jesse Eisenberg. Though its clear that they were trying something new with the famous comic book villain (who was previously portrayed by Gene Hackman and Kevin Spacey), this young and hip approach didn’t work as Luthor comes off as a whiny spoiled rich kid as opposed to being a legitimately intimidating, despicable baddie. I didn’t hate this villain like I should have, but was rather annoyed every time he was on the screen. It’s like they told Jesse Eisenberg to do a slightly quirky, hyperactive version of Mark Zuckerberg from THE SOCIAL NETWORK and then played classical music over it. Eisenberg’s Luthor is laughably bad to behold.

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As for Doomsday (playing a major role in the second half of the film), his inclusion feels arbitrary, half-assed and useless. Poorly rendered CGI cause this alien foe to resemble a radioactive version of the cave troll from LORD OF THE RINGS. This monster looks like it belongs in a Syfy Channel movie as opposed to a 250-million-dollar blockbuster. The only positive thing to come out of his appearance is a glorified cameo from Wonder Woman. However, watching the trio of DC heroes fight off this damn near unstoppable villain becomes repetitive and dull after five minutes.

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There are a number of reasons why BATMAN v SUPERMAN is a disappointment. One might be from the DC Extended Universe shooting themselves in the foot by shoving this tent pole title out too soon. Imagine if Marvel had put out THE AVENGERS before developing any other characters besides Iron Man? Another big reason why this clash of superheroes underwhelms is due to its messy, unfocused script. There’s not nearly the level of action, excitement and humor that there should be in a film where Batman is fighting friggin’ Superman! The animated series had a better well-rounded conflict between these characters. Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne barely encounter each other before the admittedly well-done fight scene. The main problem though is that BATMAN v SUPERMAN is a film packed with too much filler and obvious bridge-building for future installments (something that Marvel’s AGE OF ULTRON also suffered from), and not nearly enough of the titular promised hero vs. hero conflict.

Grade: C-

THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 56 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Action Violence, some Suggestive Content, and partial Nudity

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Directed by: Guy Ritchie

Written by: Guy Ritchie & Lionel Wigram

(based on the TV series THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.)

Starring: Henry Cavill, Armie Hammer, Alicia Vikander, Elizabeth Debicki, Jared Harris & Hugh Grant

2015’s summer movie season is officially coming to a close and the last big blockbuster is THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. With the last few months being populated by Pixar, superheroes, dinosaurs, and post-apocalyptic warriors, I have to admit that MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. wasn’t exactly high on my list of must-see summer movies. However, Guy Ritchie hasn’t really let me down before and U.N.C.L.E. did look like an enjoyable spy adventure. This film wound up being precisely the latter. This is simple, stylish, big popcorn fun that serves as a nice closeout to a pretty great cinematic summer. THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. (based on the 1960’s TV series of the same name) may be a straight-forward spy thriller that hits all the expected notes, but it hits them in fun ways that are sure to thoroughly entertained.

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The time is the early 1960’s and the Cold War is in full force. Napoleon Solo is a CIA agent working on one side of the Berlin wall and Illya Kuryakin is a KGB agent working on the other side. When Napoleon is tasked with a basic extraction mission that is hindered by Kuryakin, it seems that a simple operation is actually a cover for something far bigger. International criminal Victoria Vinciguerra is hellbent on selling a nuclear bomb to some very bad people. In an effort to stop her plan from proceeding, Solo and Kuryakin are partnered up. While Solo is a suave ladies’ man with a big ego, Kuryakin is a hard-headed borderline-psychotic who likes to shoot first and ask questions later. The two are a mismatched pair and must look after Gaby Teller, a Russian woman with possible way into Victoria’s secret lair.

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Truth be told, MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.’s plot doesn’t exactly sound revolutionary or particularly special. You’ve seen this story play out many times before whether it’s with Ethan Hunt in MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE or any one of James Bond’s adventures. I’m not going to lie and say that there are big twists afoot, because there aren’t. This is a standard spy story. You can predict where everything will go and how most of the film will play out. That really doesn’t matter, because U.N.C.L.E. executes its fairly standard script with a big sense of humor and (mostly) impeccable style. This film looks fantastic. The locations are beautiful. The costumes are gorgeous. There is a definite period-piece sensibility that hearkens back to the original Bond movies of old. While too much style (involving split screens) does slightly ruin a potentially cool sequence in the latter half of the film, U.N.C.L.E. is a great-looking movie and almost won me over on that part of its execution alone. However, the sense of humor also is great. There are many very funny scenes throughout the film and it never seems to be taking itself too seriously. One sequence in particular (you’ll know it when you see it) milks a joke for longer than you’d believe possible and manages to remain funny for that entire scene.

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Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer might initially seem like an odd pair of spies, but they play off of each other very well. I appreciated that both of their characters had unique quirks (which make for plenty of comedic moments), but also had personalities behind them too. An introduction between the two of them weaves some of the best exposition into a casual conversation that I’ve seen in quite a while. Alicia Vikander (who was dull in SEVENTH SON and fantastic in EX MACHINA) disappears into the role of Gaby, who serves as the level-headed member of the group…even if she’s also the bait/damsel-in-distress. Jared Harris and Hugh Grant make brief, but notable, appearances. The real scene-stealer comes in Elizabeth Debicki’s villainess. She’s just as cruel as she is beautiful and I wish more screen time had been spent with her…as opposed to her many underlings.

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THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. is a genuine surprise of the summer for me. This film turns a rather unremarkable spy plot into something remarkable and entertaining thanks to sheer style, lots of well-executed comedy, and solid chemistry between the leads. Glamour and humor make a rather mediocre-sounding spy movie into something that’s worth watching. MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. is far from the best spy movie you’ll see this year (ROGUE NATION, KINGSMAN, and SPY are all superior), but it’s an entertaining blast from start to finish!

Grade: B

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