Justice League 4K - doing justice to the DC comics universe?
By Jim Bray
Warner Brothers' ongoing attempts to play catch-up with the Marvel cinematic universe continues with Justice League, their version of The Avengers, in which a group of superheroes teams up to fight a super villain bent on mayhem, conquest and destruction.
The question is, is it any good, and how does it stack up to the Marvel movies? And in the case of this sparkling new 4K version of last year's Justice League film, the answer is a decidedly firm "meh."
It's a shame. As a kid I was a voracious consumer of comic books and most of them were on the DC side of the competitive ledger. I was a big fan of Superman, and Batman, and I loved The Flash, Aquaman, Green Arrow and even Metal Men, the latter of which was a team of "elemental" robots that fought together like, well, the Justice League and/or The Avengers.
DC's superhero movie output has been spotty at best. The original Superman, from 1978, is now one of my "desert island discs." That Richard Donner film, starring Christopher Reeve and Gene Hackman, was in my never humble opinion the only Superman movie worth watching – right up to today. Bryan Singer's Superman Returns tried, but Singer is no Donner, Brandon Routh was no Reeve and, especially, Kevin Spacey in the role of Lex Luthor was unfit to shine Hackman's shoes.
Tim Burton's first Batman film was pretty good, but the rest of that series went downhill from there. Christopher Nolan, with his excellent Dark Knight trilogy, proved that Warner Brothers really could greenlight a product that would do DC, er, justice - but that was all tossed out the window when the studio brought in Zack Snyder to take over its superhero helm.
I enjoyed Snyder's 300, but it's the only one of his movies I can say that about. The guy seems to have a knack for making films that take themselves more seriously than required – even the humour in Justice League seems forced. And it's artsy fartsy, with ponderous slo-mo shots that add nothing but a sense of "you're slowing down the movie so you can make it look cool" (not that there's necessarily anything wrong with that) or "you're slowing down the movie so you idiots in the audience have time to figure out what our geniuses are doing here."
So thanks to Snyder, we got Man of Steel, in which Henry Cavil donned the red cape and brought a complete lack of presence to the heroic role. We also got Russell Crowe doing his best to make us miss Marlon Brando, Amy Adams making us miss Margot Kidder, Kevin Costner making us miss Glenn Ford….
That movie made money, so along came Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice, which inflicted Ben Affleck on us as Bruce Wayne/Batman, making us miss Christian Bale from the Nolan films while Jeremy Irons made us miss that series' Michael Caine as Alfred.
Last year's Wonder Woman, like Nolan's Dark Knights, was a wonderful exception to the dearth of DC comic book classics. Not only did/does Gal Gadot have incredible presence, and a strength coupled with sweetness that really makes her portrayal of the Amazon believable, the movie was fun and gave us characters and situations we could not only believe (well, they're superhero exploits…) but could root for. She was the only one I cared about in Justice League. Guess I must be sexist…
The bad news about Wonder Woman is that it led straight into Justice League, as Gadot's Wonder Woman/Diana Prince teams up with Affleck's "Batperson" to assemble a league of extraordinary gentleheroes just in time to fight the latest and greatest huge supervillain to come along: Steppenwolf.
If you've seen Thor Ragnarok, you'll find Steppenwolf and his magic carpet ride into the DC universe quite familiar. Just like in Thor, where the Goddess of Death comes back from exile to enslave everyone who isn't her, Steppenwolf was born to be wild, and now he's set his sights on Earth again, after having been exiled in the distant past. It appears he thinks that, since Superman is now dead and buried, thatnks to the events in the earlier movie, those other superheroes are really just pikers who won't stand in his way.
They recruit Flash (Ezra Miller, who's the best thing here other than Gadot), Aquaman (Jason Mamoa) and Cyborg (Ray Fisher), none of whom really want to be there and each of whom brings his own particular brand of angst to the story. At least Batdude and Wonder Person don't need a Nick Fury-type character to recruit for them, or to ride herd on them (Jim Gordon is the closest to a human mentor/boss).
The heroes don't get along, of course, and when they first have to take on the bad guy-thing they end up with the problem unresolved, to say the least. Fortunately, they patch up most of their differences, and exhume Superman so he can help bail them out. Alas, Superperson has his own special angst and flies away with Lois for a bit of, well, I couldn't tell if they were canoodling or if he was just examining his soul for a while - undoubtedly so his return to the battlefield could be timed for just when it was needed most – like when The Hulk finally showed up during the big battle at the end of The Avengers.
Did I mention this movie doesn't seem to have a lot that's new in it?
Not only the story is stale; the action is merely more of the same stuff we've seen so many times before these days (at least here we don't get as much urban destruction as in some of these movies, and fewer martial arts moves) and while the special effects are fine, there are many shots in which the CG is obvious (especially shots of characters fighting) – and, heck, the bad dude's horned hat is reminiscent of the one worn by the Balrogish thing in Thor Ragnarok.
There are a few homages to earlier DC films, mostly via Danny Elfman's musical score, but in one scene Irons' Alfred ponders the good ole days when the worst they had to worry about was exploding wind-up penguins, a hat tip to Burton's Batman Returns. I wonder if Alfred wasn't right, though. We've seen so many gigantic and all-powerful supervillains laying waste to a plethora of worlds that I wonder if it might be time to take a step back from the spectacle and come up with a more believable and intimate adventure – kind of like the Bond franchise did with For Your Eyes Only after Moonraker's excesses practically ruined that series.
Really, this movie is just a rehash of The Avengers, right down to the Tesseract (though here they're "mother boxes"), not that it should be a surprise since Joss Whedon (who wrote and directed that other film) was brought in during the production to bail it out. He proved incapable of turning this sow's ear into a silk purse, however, and that's a shame. An opportunity was definitely wasted here.
How does the movie stack up as a 4K experience? Better than it deserves, to, undoubtedly, but even here it's problematic.
The reason may surprise you, though, because it has nothing to do with the 4K technology. It's because of Zack Snyder's penchant for giving his films a weird, dark look as if they're shot through a filter so that, rather than having wonderfully bright and open shots of the spectacular vistas he's showing us - shots that could be eye popping and gorgeous - it's almost as if he's shooting "day for night" even in broad daylight. So, during most of the shots, the film is darker than it needs to be.
Justice League comes on 4K with a 1080p Blu-ray as well as a digital download code in the package. It's also available on 3D and conventional Blu-ray, as well as DVD and digital download. This review will deal with the 4K disc, 'cause that's what we do around here. And it's a definite upgrade from the 1080p disc, though as mentioned above it isn't what it could have been because of the film's rather dour look overall.
Still, there are places where the 4K HDR picture does pop off the screen (better get ready to duck!), though I'd have loved to see more of them because the film's production design would look great in the hands of another director. At the beginning, where Batdude is introduced, the dude himself looks a lot better in 4K than on BD (he becomes more or less a part of the background in 1080p; he's blending in with the background, in the scene – because that's what Dark Knights do - but he doesn't need to blend in that much!).
Likewise, the underwater scenes are also upgraded compared to 1080p, thanks mostly to the High Dynamic Range encoding. And in some closeups you get a really nice look at the textures of costumes and faces, and fine detail is really good overall. This, alas, works against the shots where obviously CG characters are zipping around, trying to off each other.
The audio rocks, however. Warners has included both a Dolby Atmos and a DTS-HD Master Audio track, which seems kind of superfluous since Atmos is backward compatible to the older lossless audio formats anyway and having two versions takes up disc space that could be used for video information. Obviously, no one asked me.
I don't have Dolby Atmos, so I auditioned the DTS soundtrack and it's fine, though (like the movie itself) not particularly remarkable. But it's a journeyman soundtrack, dynamic and full and will fill your home theatre well thanks to its good use of all the audio channels.
And of course, Warner Brothers piles a bunch of extras onto the Blu-ray version, though I thought a lot of it was more promotional than informational. Still, there's some meat here, including an interesting look at the costume design, a history of the Justice League in the media, and some other stuff.
I was looking forward to seeing Justice League and hoped it would be a worthwhile outing. And it's worth seeing at least once, especially in this 4K release. But it could have and should have been so much more than the basic rehash of the superhero movies that have come before, populated by some good actors (such as J.K. Simmons, Diane Lane, Joe Morton, etc.) who have nothing to do or no screen time in which to do it.
Maybe, as mentioned above, it's time for a stepping back, to a more basic type of superhero film such as was the first Sam Raimi Spider-man movie, or the first Iron Man. Or even the original Donner Superman, which threatened to wipe out the west coast of the U.S.A. but not the entire planet and all those around it.
Not every film has to be a spectacular. "Downsizing" worked for Bond. Maybe it can work for Superman and his little friends as well – and maybe that could help differentiate the DC universe from Marvel's.
Copyright 2018 Jim Bray
Jim Bray's columns are available from the TechnoFile Syndicate.