Tag Archives: Joss Whedon

“JUSTICE LEAGUE” Review (✫✫)

SOURCE: Warner Bros. Pictures

Unite the Super Friends!

Before I review Justice League, I want to pay my respects to director Zack Snyder and his daughter Autumn who committed suicide in March earlier this year, coercing Snyder to step away from production so he and his wife could grieve in privacy. No parent should ever have to endure that, especially when they’re trying to make a film that is supposed to compete with Marvel’s The Avengers. So as I plunge ahead, please realize that my job as a film critic is to review movies, not people. I am judging Justice League based on its own merits as a film, not Zack Snyder as a filmmaker and especially not as a person.

After the death of Superman (Henry Cavill) during the events of Batman V. Superman, Justice League follows Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) and Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) picking up the broken pieces of their world as they try to assemble a team of meta-humans to protect the Earth in Superman’s absence. These meta-humans include Arthur Curry the Aquaman (Jason Mamoa), Barry Allen a.k.a. the Flash (Ezra Miller), and Victor Stone (Ray Fisher), a cyborg trapped inside a metallic body. Together these superhero misfits form the Justice League, protecting the world from criminals, aliens, and Gods of death alike.

Right out of the gate, reviewing Justice League is a challenge because it feels like we’re watching two different movies at once here. In a way, we are. When Snyder had to exit the production in May, The Avengers director Joss Whedon was brought in to help with re-shoots and post-production, reportedly re-writing some scenes to add his signature humor to the film. Since this is the case, it is impossible to view the film and fairly critique the right director, because we have no way of knowing for sure which scenes in the final cut belong to Snyder or Whedon.

Regardless, Justice League is a mess, from the writing all the way to the visual effects, only offering brief relief in the form of spot-on humor, fun characterizations, and dizzying action spectacles. When I spoke to one of my closest friends about the film earlier this week, he described it to me as “a beautiful disaster.” Yeah, that sounds about right.

The good news is that Justice League is a substantial improvement over it’s predecessor Batman V. Superman, a gaudy and unbearably stupid film that not even the most passionate comic book fan could defend. This is in large part because of the film’s casting, which is impeccable from the film’s most central roles to those less in the spotlight. Affleck continues to inhabit the double persona of Bruce Wayne and Batman well enough, while Gadot once again shines as the super-powered Wonder Woman that fans have come to know and love.

Yet, the newcomers are just as good as the veterans are, with many of them keeping up with Affleck and Gadot in both acting ability and presence. Mamoa brings a rugged bad boy persona to Aquaman, effectively breaking him away from his silly comic book origins. Fisher inhabits the tortured soul of Victor Stone brilliantly, with his portrayal coming off like the robotic Frankenstein’s monster of the group. And yet, the best of these new leaguers is definitely Ezra Miller’s Flash, who comes off as so excitable and happy that he doesn’t feel as much like a superhero as he does a superfan meeting all of his favorite comic book heroes at once. Be honest: if you were in a room with Batman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, and Cyborg, wouldn’t your smile be as wide as Miller’s is?

These actors are great in their roles individually, and they really come together to make the Justice League work and feel believable as one entity. Unfortunately, the film’s greater failures have nothing to do with the actors, but with the screenplay they’ve been provided. Case in point: the film’s villain Steppenwolf, played here by “Game of Thrones” actor Ciaran Hinds. I’ve never been so bored by a villain in my entire life at the movies. He’s so stock and unappealing. He has no personality, no compelling motivation against our movie’s heroes, and nothing interesting to set him apart from previous movie villains. Say what you will about Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor or Cara Delevigne’s Enchantress: at least they were interested in their parts and played them up as best they could. But at no point does Steppenwolf rise the stakes the way he needs to nor does he even feel like a legitimate threat to our heroes. He feels more like a video game boss you have to beat at the end of the level to win the game. He looks like one too with how much gray-scaled CGI he has plastered all over his body.

Speaking of CGI, the effects are God-awful and among the worst visuals I’ve seen in any DC movie to date. Yes, I’m saying this is worse than the Kryptonian zombie in Batman V. Superman and the Mummy monsters in Suicide Squad. Everything is so underdeveloped in the picture, from the flying parademons that attack our heroes, to the Atlanteans that Steppenwolf fights in Atlantis, to even Superman himself. When Henry Cavill was asked to come back to the set for re-shoots, Cavill reportedly had a mustache that he couldn’t shave due to his role in Mission Impossible 6, so the visual effects team resorted to digitally removing his mustache in post-production. They would have been better off if they left it in. Cavill’s distorted, bloated face looks so strange and artificial, looking more like one of the Kardashians than he does the man of steel. And yes, I know this was the best solution the studio could come up with despite its production issues and re-shoots. That doesn’t change how ridiculous it looks on screen, or the fact that he looks better in an Edvard Munch painting than he does in a Justice League movie.

All in all, Justice League is your simple, by-the-books superhero team-up movie that has some great acting and action, however technically incompetent it may be. It has everything necessary to satisfy the hardcore DC fan. Everyone else? Not so much.

Yet I don’t blame Joss Whedon for what we see on the screen here. I don’t blame writer Chris Terrio either, as he wrote the film as best he could despite the limited criteria he had to work with. I don’t even blame Zack Snyder for this film, who very understandably was going through a lot during production. No, if anything I blame DC Films and Warner Bros. Pictures for their gross mishandling on the production side of these movies. It took Marvel five well-focused movies before they released The Avengers in 2012. Didn’t DC realize long ago that they couldn’t release Justice League with two good movies, one passable one, and one catastrophic one? Justice League gets two stars out of four. Autumn Snyder gets four.

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“THE AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON” Review (✫✫✫1/2)

The Avengers face judgement day. 

We are now nearing the end of Marvel’s phase two of its cinematic universe. Before Age of Ultron, we’ve seen ten of these movies now. Iron Man. The Incredible Hulk. Iron Man 2. Thor. Captain America: The First Avenger. The Avengers. Iron Man 3. Thor: The Dark World. Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Guardians of the Galaxy. You would think that by now, we would be sick of watching these movies. I know I normally would. It only took three Transformers movies for me to get sick of that franchise.

Yet, the people over at Marvel continue to find new ways to surprise me and make me once again believe in its cinematic universe. Avengers: Age of Ultron is its most recent example. The film had a near impossible task: outdoing its 2012 predecessor, which was a brilliantly woven and executed superhero masterpiece in its own right. After succeeding on a grand project that big and combining five multiverses into one fluid narrative, how are you expected to measure up to that in the sequel? Luckily, writer-director Joss Whedon is no fool. He knew what expectations were going to be had for his highly-anticipated sequel. He could have sold out and let the anticipation from the first movie roll in the bank for this one, but Whedon instead did the one thing that most filmmakers are too afraid to do nowadays: he set out to make it better.

Take the movie’s villain as Whedon’s prime example for improvement. Ultron, voice and motion performance by James Spader, is a trash-talking super-intelligent humanoid A.I. created by Tony Stark, a.k.a. “Iron Man” (Robert Downey Jr.) to protect the Earth from supernatural threats. Shortly after his creation, however, Ultron goes rogue and concludes that in order for true peace to be obtained, humanity needs to be wiped out and reborn like the animals from the dinosaur age.

On the surface, this seems like the same story for every robot-rebellion premise: a machine was created to do good, it becomes self aware, and in turn does the opposite of good. And in a sense, this is the same story for every robot-rebellion premise.

The key, however, lies in execution, and Spader as Ultron is the best super villain performance I’ve seen in a Marvel movie to date. Ultron doesn’t behave or talk like other androids. He isn’t stiff, rigid, or robotic like other mechanical characters in film are. Like any of the other live-action actors on screen, Ultron is a fluid, life-like being with his own personality and morals. He’s chaotic and radical in his thinking and behavior, acting more like a psychotic child rather than a logic-driven artificial intelligence.

Considering his creator is the egotistical Tony Stark, I can’t say I’m surprised that his personality is the same. Every Avenger in this film is just as great with each other as they were in the first Avengers movie. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is just as machismo and uncompromising as he is in any of his movies. Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) is equally as earnest and straightforward, with a few secrets that surprised even me in the theater. Steve Rogers, a.k.a. Captain America (Chris Evans) continues his rivalrous dynamic with Stark from the first movie, their contrasting personalities rubbing off of each other so viciously that we can see how it builds up to Captain America: Civil War.

The two Avengers that have the greatest dynamic, however, are Bruce Banner, or the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) and Natasha Romanoff, the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson). Here, their relationship expands from the first movie into a conflicted romance between the two. Romanoff is a master assassin with a past she’s neither proud to have nor able to escape from. Banner is the feeble scientist with a monster inside of him that he’s not proud of either. The two don’t feel like they can have a relationship with each other because of their different personalities, but Whedon puts them together with tragically heartfelt honesty here. He finds a connecting theme between the two, themes of loss and regret that makes them turn to each other and rely on each other. I didn’t think it was going to work when I saw these characters at first, but Whedon makes it so compelling that now I can’t see it any other way. Romanoff asks Banner a question in one scene that I think is reflective of their relationship: “Do you still think you’re the only monster on the team?”

Everything else in the movie lives up to the expectations you had in the first movie. The action is unique, visually complex, and eye-popping. The story is layered, intelligent, and dynamic, with characters bouncing witty and thought-provoking dialogue off of each other perfectly. The villain is one of the best and most unique of the Marvel universe, and there’s a few new characters introduced in the film that are done just as well as the superhero team’s main heroes.

Here’s the worst thing I can say about the movie, and really the greatest danger to the Marvel cinematic universe: I’m getting used to it. This is the 11th movie I’ve seen in the Marvel universe now, and I almost know what to expect. I know that I’m going to be surprised and shocked at some of the twists and turns. I know I’m going to enjoy the heroes and villains alike. I know that there’s going to be a lot of action with a noteworthy plot behind it. And, more than anything else, I know the movie is going to expand upon itself and its multiple follow ups.

Marvel has 11 more movies to produce after this for their phase 3, and there’s no telling how many more movies they plan to do after that. With Whedon going on record saying this is his last Marvel movie, I question how well they will be able to continue expanding this universe and doing it well. How much longer can Marvel keep pushing the envelope? I hope I don’t find out soon.

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“THE AVENGERS” Review (✫✫✫✫)

The ultimate example of comic-book superhero movies. 

I remember opening a comic book for the first time in my life when I was just a small kid. The small pamphlet fascinated me: by just a flip of a page, an entirely different world was created. A world where normal people gained super powers, wore red capes and tights, fought evil wherever it may exist, and made the world a safer place by the end of the day. In a small, poor neighborhood town where I was the only white kid in a predominantly Latino school building, it provided me a sense of relief and sanction from much bullying and torment I experienced from the other school children back in the day. It provided me freedom from the accursed world I lived in: it provided me a means of escape.

And now here I am, 15 years later, watching a live-action re-enactment of the world I discovered and loved all those many years ago. The Avengers is masterfully fantastic. It is an epic superhero tale, portraying the never-ending conflict of good and evil. It is an action movie with surprising finesse, switching from scenes of explosive energy and action to other scenes with insight, humor, and heartfelt emotion. It is a faithful re-production of multiple universes we have come to love in the past four years, and re-adapts them faithfully and full of energy in this film. But the core of this film’s success is this: that the film’s story and themes are emotional, honest, and truthful, and fleshes out its heroes to make them what they are: humans. All fighting for very human, realistic, and understandable reasons.

If you’ve seen the previous Marvel entries, you already know what this movie is about. The Avengers is a group of superheroes brought together to fight the battles that human beings never could.  Who are these heroes?  You would know most of them.

Tony Stark “Iron Man” (Robert Downey Jr): A billionaire playboy/philanthropist that has a genius-level-intellect that has allowed him to build and fight in a suit of armor.

Bruce Banner “Hulk” (Mark Ruffalo): A scientist exposed to gamma radiation, who turns into a giant, brutish beast with monstrous strength when he becomes angry.

Natasha Romanoff “Black Widow” (Scarlett Johansson): An agile and intelligent spy that is more skilled and capable than most other men.

Clint Barton “Hawkeye” (Jeremy Renner): A masterful marksman who can aim and shoot with his bow and various arrows in a matter of milliseconds.

Thor (Chris Hemsworth): The Norse God of thunder who can manipulate lightning with the power of his mighty hammer, Mjolnir.

Steve Rogers “Captain America” (Chris Evans): A super soldier frozen through time who can beat criminals to a pulp, as well as wielding a shield cast in a rare metal called “vibranium”.

You’ve seen these heroes before, most of them in their own respective movies.  All with their own stories, origins, conflicts, and themes that were explored along with their respective characters. My original worry with this film was, despite the huge expectations people were having, I was afraid this movie would let people down. It does, after all, have a lot on its plate: adapting over six superheroes into one action-packed movie is no easy task. We have Batman Forever and Spiderman 3 as evidence of that, where they had trouble of adapting even four super-powered beings to the big screen.

This film, though, has surprising finesse. Writer-director Joss Whedon adapts these characters with such child-like love and faithfulness, I feel their themes and stories from their previous films carry over to this film with them. It doesn’t feel like an adaptation, or an act of cruel financial commercialism. It lives up to the hype. The characters in this film live and breathe their uniqueness we have come to know and love from the previous Marvel movies. We feel Iron Man’s sarcasm and big ego, Thor’s sense of responsibility and brotherhood, Banner’s fear, frustration, and anger, and Steve’s sense of honor, patriotism, loss, and duty. Through the film’s dialogue and references to prior films, we sense Whedon’s pure intentions underneath the action, and we respect it. We realize he isn’t making just another action movie; he is making a superhero movie.  One with upmost faithfulness and loyalty to its own universes.

Impressive also, are the actors, but I don’t need to tell you that. We’ve seen them in prior films, so we already know they are good. I will comment then, on something we haven’t seen yet: their chemistry with each other. My word. This is what makes the Avengers, The Avengers. The actor’s chemistry with each other is spot-on, and in-tune. Whether it is a scene involving humorous, sarcastic dialogue, or another scene with painful realism and emotional truth to it, there is reality being shown in every single shot when an actor is with another Avenger on-screen. I can’t accurately describe it to you and do it justice. You need to see the film to understand their relationship with each other.

People are also wondering, of course, if the visual side of the film delivers. The answer is yes, but it isn’t just because it looks great; it is because of how they handled the great visuals they had for this picture. Too many times are we given films that have great visual CGI and explosions to overwhelm the audience with, but we have no suspense, excitement, or surprise to go along with it. It doesn’t make for an entertaining film. All that is left is a predictable action film that’s empty amidst the flat storytelling and redundant action sequences that just shows one explosion after another.

The Avengers isn’t like that. It doesn’t use its action as an excuse to fall flat and give up on entertaining its audience. Its excitement is relentless. Its suspense builds, and builds, and builds until we can take it no longer.  We scramble in our seat as we attentively watch what will happen next for our heroes.

This is the kind of excitement we need in superhero movies: the kind that is reminiscent of those kids watching Saturday morning cartoons, the ones that have you sitting on the edge of your seat with your bowl of “Captain Crunch” in order to see if your favorite hero does, in fact, save the day. It is this suspense and tension that builds The Avengers to incredible cinematic heights, and makes for some truly entertaining, memorable, and iconic moments in the picture.

The Avengers is the ultimate example of a comic book superhero movie. Whedon has a great subject to play with, sure. But his film is a great one not because he solely depends on the idea to be successful. This film is a success because he treats it the way it is supposed to be treated: as an exciting action-blockbuster that retains humanity to its characters, spirit to its humor, and excitement in its own story. I know somewhere in this world, some little ten-year old kid will watch this movie, and will one day be inspired to make his own superhero movie. It’s kind of depressing, though. It doesn’t really get much better than this.

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