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Justice League is a flawed and enjoyable-enough crossing of the finish line for the DC Film Universe

Far be it from me to ever give a movie too much slack, but it’s a minor miracle that Justice League isn’t a total 12-car pile-up. After all, this is a movie that had at least 2 major creative sharp turns during the course of it with the critical failure (albeit commercial success) of Batman v. Superman and the tragedy-laced departure of director Zack Snyder to be replaced by Joss Whedon, two directors who could not have styles more worlds apart. Had it been an absolute mess, we could have simply sighed, understood, and moved on.

So again, let reiterate the petite miracle that Justice League kinda works. It is by no means a rousing success. There’s enough flawed narrative and weirdly bad CGI to make sure that this falls just short of managing to come in for a smooth landing or even a landing where it doesn’t take some damage. But a better-than-expected set of characters and a more resonant thematic work helps make Justice League something that you can at least see steering towards a much better place, finally.

Picking up in the wake of Superman’s (Henry Cavill) death, the world has fallen into chaos. Its beacon of hope-

By the way, let’s take a brief early sidebar. In this film’s attempt to essentially right the ship of DC state, one of its most jarring (but very welcome) choices is to not only change the character of Superman, but to pretend that was how we always was. He’s not the controversial, complicated (like your bad high school boyfriend), and feared figure of Batman v. Superman. He’s a corny, charming and human hero that the world mourns deeply and falls apart without. I get the need to reboot without rebooting and I’m certainly happy they did it, but it is odd.

has gone out and darkness looms overhead. That darkness is in the form of Steppenwolf (Ciaran Hinds), a general of Apokolips who has come to terraform in its vision. Standing in his way is Batman (Ben Affleck), who’s figured out the invasion is coming, and Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), who knows the power of this ancient enemy.

Together, the two must recruit other superpowered individuals across the globe. From Aquaman (Jason Momoa), a troubled loner seeking solitude, to The Flash (Ezra Miller), an eager young man hoping to get his father (Billy Crudup), to Cyborg (Ray Fisher), a former football star who was stitched back together with mechanical enhancements after a devastating accident.

Our scrappy group of heroes is perhaps the best thing about this movie. Of our returning (that I can talk about), Gadot has such a star quality, a charismatic screen presence who’s enrapturing to follow, and her Wonder Woman is a very classical sort of superhero, with shades of that fundamental decency and belief in good that Christopher Reeve had. Affleck’s Batman is still sadly underdeveloped, but he gets more room to breathe with the ability to make a dry joke or two and lighten the character up just a little bit.

But hey, you knew that. It’s the new ones you came to see, so let’s just run down them.

Ezra Miller has been a star on the rise since Perks of Being a Wallflower and here you see what he can do in a bigger picture. He gets to play a Spider-Man role, a young hero in awe of the adults around him trying to figure out his place. The effects for him could use some work down the road, but there’s an exciting quality to a superhero who doesn’t come in ready to fight, playing more with nervous energy than many of the characters around him have.

Momoa is functionally playing Aquaman at his bro-est, think a Zack Snyder version of The Brave and the Bold’s cheesy, over-the-top-at-all-times Aquaman. It’s an enjoyable enough performance, though underdeveloped given that he’s the reluctant member, filling in a role that Batman often plays in team-ups like this. If they given him more room with his place in Atlantis, we might really see something interesting.

Fisher is the newest actor here, so naturally anything he’s gonna do is the biggest surprise. Fisher is actually really good here, giving Cyborg a little more substance than the Frankenstein monster he’s written as. There’s a cool, calm relaxed assurance to his character, something I wasn’t expecting but that Fisher really sells.

And perhaps most importantly, Justice League gets a team dynamic right. While Steppenwolf may not necessarily be the threat the movie needs (is he really that much more powerful than Ares?), there’s a sensible dynamic that brings them together. If The Avengers are a team of the personally flawed who had to get over themselves, then the Justice League (never called that in the movie) are a team of the tragic who have to move on. Each of them has lost something and they have allowed it for too long to consume them who need to save a world that has lost something and been consumed by it.

Justice League is essentially a movie about how those around us can help us move through tragedy. How the depths of despair can be escaped with a hand reaching down.

It’s a shame how much it gets right because the disastrous production got just enough wrong to keep it from really succeeding as it should be able to.

Steppenwolf may rank as one of the worst comic book movie villains period, down around Malekith the Accursed or Enchantress. His motivations are completely muddled, his threat is unclear, and the mythology behind him is only glancingly referenced, avoiding the substance an obscure villain like Steppenwolf would need. The lack of physical presence from Steppenwolf is noticeable too, an all-CGI character might be fine…

If it wasn’t for the weirdly terrible effects work in this film. I get that reshoots likely forced a lot of quick fixes, but the sheer amount of CGI might also come some way towards explaining why none of it felt focused on. Terrible green-screen, a lot of clearly visible actor replacements, maybe one of the most jarring human effects I’ve ever seen, and Steppenwolf himself looks plasticky and fake, like someone’s having an action figure fight the Justice League. Cyborg also falls victim to this from time to time, his design is just too busy to really look good. There’s a very substandard quality to something that takes up so much of this movie.

Which’d be fine if this film worked well narratively. To its credit, Justice League fixed Batman v Superman‘s pacing problems. This is a snappy, fast-paced narrative that’s always got something happening. The problem is that it’s got it happening way too fast. The jump from moment to moment can be jarring, much of the actual machinations don’t hold up to much scrutiny (I’m sure), and there’s a lot of introductions to people that only matter for a scene.

We’re given an early moment to a terrorist group led by Michael McElhatton (Roose Bolton from Game of Thrones) that Wonder Woman defeats. They get introduction, a monologue, and a whole action sequence and then are unceremoniously dropped without any explanation of why they got that much time. There’s multiple things like this throughout the film that just don’t work.

Plus your mileage will absolutely vary on the mechanics of the writing. Between Terrio and Whedon, the dialogue is…corny. This one feels like a Saturday morning cartoon more than anything else, and not necessarily the Bruce Timm cartoons. Your enjoyment of this film is really going to depend on how the film’s sense of humor works for you and how much you can get over some clunkers.

I’ll say this much. I could vibe on Justice League‘s sense of humor and the clunkers didn’t bother me much. There’s an entertainment value to this movie that works, character moments and beats and sequences that really do soar and get the fist pumping. This is the worst superhero movie this year, but it’s more the fault of the quality of the rest rather than simply the issues here.

Justice League is an enjoyable enough ride and one that steers the DC ship in the right direction. It feels like a purge of the universe that came before it and the creation of one that may be far more sustainable. One more full of heroes that want to do good and a world that is worth saving.

Objective: C
Subjective: B

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Saturday Night Live Season 43, Episode 2: Gal Gadot plays the straight woman all night

How’s the Cold Open?

The SNL after a tragedy is always a weird thing, something so visible and so of its moment is always gonna feel the need to address what’s happened and yet it’s never not gonna feel weird for something so goofy (which will have a sketch about tiny mice mocking a lady for being poor later on) to be addressing a mass shooting like this. Yet it’s what we live in now, where you just have to learn how to talk about these things and move on.

This is a relatively classy way, letting Jason Alden perform and retake some narrative around him and also pay tribute to the late, great Tom Petty. A solid, kind, and evocative way to deal with a tragic event.

Who’s Hosting?

Gal Gadot has been a charming screen presence ever since she first popped up in the Fast and Furious franchise, but she’s the kind of actress who can have issues on SNL. Game and eager, but more adept at the physical parts of acting than wrapping around the dialogue. Gadot also has little live acting experience and the accent could have made things tricky.

Gadot is certainly eager and game, which is most of hosting, but the show honestly doesn’t give her much to do. Unlike most hosts, Gadot is never given the chance to really cut loose or play the comic character. She’s the reaction or the straight woman in every sketch and when she does get to be the comic character, she’s really low-key (such as in her Jenner performance).

What Sketches Are Worth Watching?

“First Date:

This is definitely one of those sketches that feels like a weird premise being held back from the 90s, but with OJ in the news, I guess now is as good a time as any to use it. This one is sold entirely on Kenan’s skillful comic underplaying of OJ here and the great little comedy of errors stacking that the writing does here. A solid premise and performance that uses OJ as a shortcut rather than a whole joke, the kind of sketch that tends to be rare.

“Safelite”

Honestly, if we’re gonna do these heavy product placement sketches, let’s make the companies regret doing ’em. Beck does great work with his bald goateed creep and the steady escalation honestly feels almost too real to be funny, tipping just past into the point of absurdity. This is a dark sketch, like the White Castle one from last season, and I’m all for it.

“Themyscira”

A thin premise (and what appears to be an apology to Kate McKinnon for all those Last Call sketches) is pretty much buoyed by Aidy Bryant and McKinnon’s delightful energy here. It has the same weird “Fellow Kids” quality that applies every time they do a sketch using some popular genre series, but again, Bryant and McKinnon are just having so much goshdarned fun I can’t help but enjoy this one.

“E! New Lineup”

I’m actually a sucker for these fake show sketches (Powerful Sluts of Miami is such a great title) and this is a fairly solid one, some solid easy pitches the show manages to hit. Gadot’s Kendall Jenner is surprisingly accurate and Chris Redd’s Kanye impression that doesn’t say a thing feels more dead-on than Pharaoh’s vocalized Kanye. Doesn’t overstay its welcome either.  New cast member Luke Null actually getting a chance to show off too.

“The Chosen One”

Pete Davidson’s recurring character, the moron teen that everyone has big plans for (may not be the actual name), is one of the most low-key successful recurring characters on this show. Even if it’s pretty much the same joke every time, there’s something that feels infinitely malleable about the performance and everyone’s reactions to him that get funnier the bigger this gets. Suffice to say, the very serious and big fantasy world being reliant on this idiot is pretty funny.

What Didn’t Work?

“Mirage”

Kind of a silly sketch, but really just hammers home the same joke without ever finding another angle to mine something fresh out of it. Just too thin to be really that great.

“The Maiden and The Mice”

Like a more innocent version of those sex fiend elf sketches, this one has pretty much the same amount of laughs that like…the 5th or 6th version of that sketch did. It doesn’t know what the joke is, doesn’t know what it’s mocking, just not sure at all what’s really happening outside of the fact that they know how to do this shrinky effect.

“Espionage”

A lesser version of the Surveillance sketch from Wonder Woman co-star Chris Pine’s episode, this one didn’t have the same goofy innocence that one did, this one ended up more like an attempt to connect two disparate sketch ideas, forcing the events that they’re seeing to do more work than just their reactions to it.

“The Naomi Show”

This one ends up kinda feeling like a lesser version of a sketch that a lot of different shows have tried at one point or another, the “Maury” parody with an excessively strange character. The host is not usually the straight-woman, it’s weird to slot Gadot in here. But while Gardner is certainly going for it here and Bryant is giving just as much oomph to her performance, this one just feels like a fizzle.

“Gal Gadot Monologue”

There’s just not much to say here, cute concept, doesn’t amount to much.

Weekend Update!

This was an Update that went for a lot of Clapter (applause for truth-telling over comic punch) as Che and Jost largely spent their joke segments going for gun control. It’s passionate for sure and the raw confidence and attitude is certainly a different look for them. Jost and Che might consider seeing how they could turn it into a different tone as they found some stronger jokes in going bold and direct and avoiding the muddled politics that SNL is often rightfully accused of.

Two old standbys round out Weekend Update. I’ll confess that I don’t much cared for McKinnon’s Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who’s the sort of broad comic character that McKinnon can do better than and feels way more like an early ’00s piece than of the modern era. There was something delightful post-election, but outside of that it feels bland. Here, you know the joke, there’s not much more to it.

Davidson makes a pretty bold admission on air (his Borderline diagnosis), Davidson as the show’s open and honest presence has been a good niche for him and he gets some solid jokes here.

Did You Actually Watch The Musical Guest?

Nah.

I’m still mad at Sam Smith for winning that Oscar. Such bullshit.

MVPs!

Tonight, Aidy Bryant by and away runs away with the show. In a show that leans towards the low-key, she manages to buoy a couple sketches with some very loud, very strong energy and is just an all-out delight to watch in this episode.

Kate McKinnon – 1
Aidy Bryant – 1

Final Thoughts!

Honestly, I think putting Gadot in all straight-woman roles tonight was a mistake. It made for a show that didn’t feel anywhere near goofy enough and kept its energy too low to lift off the ground. It’s a benefit for that energy that the show was more about weird premises than anything else as it suited a lot of that listless energy. But a few strong ones don’t take away from how sleepy this one was.

Season Rankings (Shamelessly stolen from SNL Scorecard)

  1. Gal Gadot
  2. Ryan Gosling

Oh thank Hera: Wonder Woman is a resounding, unabashed, and joyous success

It is perhaps fully impossible to ever truly overstate the feeling of relief that washed over me when the credits of Wonder Woman rolled. My animus towards and deep disappointment in the DCEU thus far is thoroughly well documented. I mean, I’ve detailed the fuck out of it.

But I speak so frequently and so passionately because I really do truly care for these characters. My attachment to this franchise has been something like a parent whose child makes a wrong step at every conceivable measure, hoping that they will eventually correct the path and get things right.

This time, they got it right.

Wonder Woman, the fourth entry in the nascent DCEU, is the first truly unabashed success. There is no rationalization required, no dense sorting through half-formed ideas given fullness. This is a great movie about a true hero, the first of these movies truly cast in the DC Comics mold. It’s funny, romantic, exciting, and a clarion call not only for what this franchise could be, but for another way forward for superhero cinema.

Wonder Woman is framed in the modern day, Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) receiving the original plate of the photo from Batman V. Superman: Dawn Of Justice, a photo in her full regalia from a long-ago war.

This flashes us back to Diana’s childhood on the island of Themyscira, the only child on the island and the daughter of Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen). She’s an Amazon, a group of warrior women created by the Greek Gods. She’s trained by Antiope (Robin Wright) and becomes the fiercest among them, wielding a power no one fully understands.

Their idyllic world shatters when Captain Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) crash lands on the island with a battalion of German soldiers following behind. Man’s World has erupted in the War to End All Wars, which Diana believes can only be at the hands of Ares, the God of War. So she leaves the island with Captain Trevor to kill Ares and save the world.

It feels only appropriate to begin assessing this movie at the top, looking at Wonder Woman herself. Gal Gadot has been a low-grade charmer for years, her role as Gisele in the Fast & Furious franchise being a particular scene stealer, and Wonder Woman proves how ready she is to launch to the top of Hollywood.

Gadot turns out an incredible lead performance here. There’s a grace and a kindness underlying an undoubtedly powerful warrior, an emblem of peace through strength. Gadot is particularly adept in this movie at pulling you into her perspective, at filtering the film through her eyes. It’s the off-kilter way she engages, the enthusiasm in just the wrong places and the confusion in just the right ways. She stands tall as a hero, poised to move to the top of the Hollywood Ass-Kicker list.

But it isn’t just Gadot’s performance. Affleck does a bang-up job playing Batman after all. It’s the character they’ve crafted. For the first time, Wonder Woman gives us a hero in the truest DC mold, an emblem of something greater, an ideal that pushes against a darker world.

all-star

Diana here stands for something greater, for a love that can conquer the darkest impulses of humanity, for a hope that one day war can end. Diana uses her strength, but it’s as a peacemaker, as a hero that truly believes that humanity is good and can be made better. It’s not the flawed heroes of the Marvel Universe, but a representative of more, a God that stands above and charts a way forward.

Wonder Woman and the eponymous character both revel in striving towards something better. That’s what has set DC apart and can continue to set it apart, if it continues to use it right. It isn’t as though this film doesn’t engage in the philosophizing that has marked films like Man of Steel and Batman v Superman. Rather, it understands that there can be fun while you prod those questions, a movie that thrills you and uses those thrills to dig in deep. We understand Diana’s belief in doing good because we see the people she saves, but also because we feel the joy and adrenaline along with her.

That is, I believe, thanks to director Patty Jenkins. Consider this quote from a New York Times interview:

This may be a cheesy question, but what do you want people to take away from this movie?

Did you say cheesy? Cheesy is one of the words banned in my world. I’m tired of sincerity being something we have to be afraid of doing. It’s been like that for 20 years, that the entertainment and art world has shied away from sincerity, real sincerity, because they feel they have to wink at the audience because that’s what the kids like. We have to do the real stories now. The world is in crisis.

I wanted to tell a story about a hero who believes in love, who is filled with love, who believes in change and the betterment of mankind. I believe in it. It’s terrible when it makes so many artists afraid to be sincere and truthful and emotional, and relegates them to the too-cool-for-school department. Art is supposed to bring beauty to the world.

Perhaps no mission statement better embodies the successes of what we see on screen.

Consider (keeping in mind the work screenwriter Allan Heinberg did) the film’s central romance, between Diana Prince and Steve Trevor. Romance in superhero films is often, to put it mildly, begrudgingly trotted out to please some executive trying to meet 4 quadrants.

Wonder Woman has perhaps one of the most successful on-screen romances in any superhero film. Much of that is helped by Pine, who does an absolutely phenomenal job as the noble but compromised Trevor, and his chemistry with Gadot. The two have a crackling banter that feels like a great screwball comedy and it’s easy to see what they might see in each other.

But it works because of that mission of sincerity and that thematic motivating belief that love can and will do good in the world. It informs the romance and gives it the space it needs to breathe in the movie. I can think of few movies that would indulge so many quiet and melancholy moments in this romance, or that would allow moments so unabashedly silly in the same space. But Jenkins’ sincere belief gives their love room to breathe and it makes it work.

That belief extends throughout the film. It’s that sincerity that makes everything work emotionally. Everything resonates, everything feels real, Wonder Woman goes for broke and it hits so often that it can wallpaper over any flaws.

I could of course pick at a few scabs. The third act indulges in plenty of weightless CGI battling, I wish it had been allowed to really make its own visual palette, the slo-mo can be a little much, and it takes a little too long to really get cooking at the beginning.

I say all that knowing there are small things littering the film to praise as well. The supporting cast, from Lucy Davis’ delightful Etta Candy to Ewen Bremner’s charming and sad Charlie to Saïd Taghmaoui’s roguish Sameer to Elena Anaya’s cackling Dr. Poison, fills out the margins of the film in a way few superhero films indulge. The action is phenomenal, a sequence set in the No Man’s Land of a Belgian battlefield is a total all-timer.

Rupert Gregson-Williams’ score must also be singled out. An old-school, sweeping score of a kind you hear less and less since the Zimmer style became popular, it really helps drive these moments home.

But I can’t throw too much shade, because Zimmer did help write the Wonder Woman theme, a recurring guitar riff that showed up in Batman v. Superman to announce Wonder Woman’s arrival, and here shows simply how great it is to have a theme for a character. When that guitar riff enters during that No Man’s Land sequence, you’re damn near ready to jump out of your chair cheering. That’s a theme song.

In my eyes, Wonder Woman is simply the best traditional superhero movie in some time. Its belief in do-gooding, its thoughts on what that can mean, its great performance, its unabashed joy in superheroics are such a breath of fresh air. This is a victory, a story that finally lets a DC Comics character come to life, and be who they are and what they stand for.

Grade: A