Review: Injustice

Imagine what would happen if Superman went bad. Not a mustache-twirling villain, but a frighteningly powerful fascist who demands loyalty and obedience from…. well, everyone. Sort of like a Twitter warrior with godlike powers.

Hence we get “Injustice,” an animated movie loosely based on the hit video game and the long-running comic-book series that served as its prequel. Sadly, it’s a bare-bones, rather shapeless kind of film, and it’s kind of shallow both in plot and theme – the moral issues raised by the source material are boiled down to “taking away people’s freedoms and rights is bad.” The voice acting is lackluster and the need to fulfill a three-act structure leads to a very rushed and somewhat anticlimactic ending.

The Joker decides to give Superman the “one bad day” treatment – he kidnaps the pregnant Lois, attaches the trigger of a nuclear bomb to her heart, and tricks Clark into killing her. The bomb goes off, destroying all of Metropolis. Enraged and grief-stricken, Superman murders the Joker in front of Batman. Then, with the support of Wonder Woman, decides that he is going to bring peace and order to the world…. whether the world likes it or not.

Only a few heroes, antiheroes and Harley Quinn dare to oppose Superman’s new regime, with Batman as their leader. But as their resources and numbers dwindle – including a loss that forever fractures Batman’s family – Superman makes a Faustian alliance with a villain who promises to help him achieve his dream of peace, and descends further into murder and tyranny as he kills those who offend him. The only hope that this Earth has is for Batman to free Mr. Terrific, and find someone who can stop Superman.

It was always going to be a challenge to reduce a long-running, years-spanning comic series and a full-length video game into a movie that isn’t even ninety minutes long. That’s a lot of character development, subplots, battles and important events that need to be trimmed away. So needless to say, the story is very bare-bones and loses a lot of its narrative oomph – as well as the expansive cast of characters one would expect of the Justice League. I’m still not entirely sure why Harley Quinn is involved except as comic relief.

The story also seems to not have much depth – the main message of “police states and fascism are bad” is a good one, but it isn’t presented with much complexity or nuance. The movie also suffers from having to neatly wrap up everything in a bow after a third-act battle… which it utterly fails at. Lots of plot threads are left hanging when it slams into the credits, only seconds after the whole superpowered-tyrant-controlling-the-world issue is resolved in a very, very anticlimactic way. And whenever a hero is killed – which happens frequently – there’s barely time to register it. Most of the many deaths just don’t matter, and some characters just walk right out to never be seen again (such as Aquaman and Shazam).

It also inherits some original sins from the source materials, and despite many changes, it makes no attempt to explain them. For instance, Wonder Woman is strangely hostile to Batman and all-too-eager to turn Superman into a super-tyrant, apparently being too stupid to see how all this could escalate. Why is she so different from the usual Wonder Woman we know and love? No idea. She just is.

The animation is…. okay. Not the best I’ve seen, but not offensively bad. The voice acting is resolutely mediocre, through – most of the actors range from okay-but-not-very-good (Anson Mount, Justice Hartley, Gillian Jacobs, a strangely stiff Janet Varney) to this-is-just-really-bad (Faran Tahir, Kevin Pollak’s Joker). Derek Phillips is admittedly quite good as Nightwing, and Oliver Hudson is pretty fun as Plastic Man.

The one good aspect of “Injustice” is that it reminded me that I’ve been meaning to watch “Superman Vs. The Elite,” an animated movie that delves into the morals of superheroes and what happens when they throw aside laws. Consider that a recommendation, and give it a watch instead of this halfhearted, fatally-flawed adaptation.

Zack Snyder’s Justice League: Part 2 (Spoilers)

I’ve finished the entire film now, seen it multiple times, and formulated quite a few thoughts about it. Among them:

Thankfully, the random Russian family is absent from this cut of the movie, being one of Whedon’s many baffling creative choices – I mean, why give Cyborg a whole character arc when you can just show random nameless people that we don’t care about? In this cut, the Russian town is completely deserted, which seems like a more likely choice for Steppenwolf’s secret headquarters… and, somehow, makes the whole event seem much more sinister. It’s a mission of death, brewing and blooming in a place that is, effectively, dead.

Jeremy Irons as Alfred Pennyworth is, by the way, a delight. The fact that he’s more prominently featured in the Snyder Cut is another point in its favor.

A pretty effective horror scene in which a hapless janitor finds a parademon lurking in the lab… very good at establishing mood and the sinisterness of the parademons. I honestly never felt that in the Josstice League cut.

The firing of the message arrow was longer and more ritualized here, giving more of a feeling that the Amazons are using magic, and very ancient means. It’s also specified that the arrow is an arrow of the goddess Artemis. Overall, it has a slight “lighting the beacons of Gondor” feeling.

It also leads into an excellent scene of Diana investigating the temple where the arrow landed, which – again – increases the feeling of atmosphere and menace considerably. In the Josstice League cut, she just saw it on TV and immediately knew what it meant. Here she knows its significance, but we see her uncovering what it means through non-verbal means and an Indiana Jones-style infiltration of an ancient secret chamber. Compared to the hamfisted dialogue of the Whedon cut, it’s refreshing to have a director assume his audience is smart enough to decipher what’s going on.

Ryan Choi is in this. If you don’t know who Ryan Choi is, he is the second person to assume the mantle of the Atom, a size-changing superhero. Basically, our dear Zack Snyder was laying groundwork for a future movie if the character went over well. But like most non-white characters, he was eliminated from the theatrical cut, which is a shame, because he has some good energy and works well opposite Silas Stone.

Something about Joe Morton apparently just says “genius scientist.” I have seen him in several roles, and the three most prominent ones – this one included – all cast him as a genius scientist.

He’s also our entry-way to Victor Stone, aka Cyborg, whom we first meet being emo in a hidden apartment. This was… about all the character development Cyborg had in the Josstice League cut – he was just emo and wooden for the whole movie, and then he just sort of decided not to be at the climax. It was truly abysmal, and I actively disliked the character of Cyborg because he was so poorly-written.

Turns out that was all Whedon’s fault. Again. Thanks, Whedon. Thanks so much.

Ah, slo-mo. It wouldn’t be a Zack Snyder movie without slo-mo.

A new scene also introduces us to Vulko, Aquaman’s mentor figure, who is rocking the Elrond hair here. He’s appeared in the Aquaman movie so his appearance is not a huge surprise, but it would have been a fun way to segue into Momoa’s own movie.

One contribution Snyder has made that I’m not really a fan of is the air bubbles that Atlanteans generate whenever they want to talk, and their apparent inability to communicate verbally without them. If they’re able to breathe water, they should be able to talk underwater. Especially since sound does travel underwater – Snyder could have had some fun with it by coming up with watery distortion.

I do, however, love the way that Steppenwolf communicates with DeSaad in this movie, in which a giant slab of stone in the middle of a nuclear power plant (no, I don’t know why it’s there) turns into a molten representation of whoever he’s talking to. It’s a very cool-looking visual representation of communication, more so than just talking through a portal or something like that.

The Snyder Cut also does something that Whedon’s never did: makes Steppenwolf a three-dimensional villain. One of the things I (and everyone else) hated about Steppenwolf was how thin and cliched he was – we’re simply informed that he conquers because… that’s what he likes to do. That’s his whole motive. Nothing deeper or more identifiable than that.

But in Snyder’s cut, you almost feel sorry for Steppenwolf. His motivation here is that he somehow betrayed Darkseid once in the distant past, and now he has to conquer worlds to be allowed to return home. It’s a simple motive – he wants to go home – but it’s one that we can understand and sympathize with, even if he’s still obviously evil.

Diana also gives a more elongated version of the “age of heroes” retelling, with some notable differences. For one thing, it’s worth noting that Whedon trimmed out the African and Asian warriors fighting for the kingdoms of men. More attention is paid to the Green Lantern who dies during the fight. We also see more of the Motherboxes and how they work, which makes them feel more like they aren’t just MacGuffins.

But the biggest difference is that it isn’t Steppenwolf who gets his butt kicked by Earth’s defenders – it’s Darkseid himself, albeit before he started wearing a shirt and calling himself Darkseid. He also is forced to retreat because Ares critically injures him, to the point where he’s bleeding all over the place. We also get an idea of how hard it is to hurt Darkseid – even in his youthful, less powerful days, it takes two or three Greek gods to take him down.

It’s interesting that despite the rather bleak depiction of Batman in Batman V. Superman, It’s Snyder’s cut that has Batman being more optimistic about humanity and the possibility of heroes coming together, whereas Whedon’s is all whiny gloom.

Good things about “Man of Steel”

Man of Steel is a movie that was divisive when it first came out, mainly because the infamous scenes in which Jonathan Kent tells his adopted son Clark that he “maybe” should have left a bunch of other kids to drown, and later lets himself die when Clark could have saved him because people were watching. I suspect the point of the scenes was to suggest that Jonathan loves his son so much that he wants to keep him safe at all costs, but the execution was faulty.

Oh, and the Superman killing Zod thing, which wasn’t necessarily bad (yo, fanboys, Superman HAS killed Zod before. Remember Superman II? Because Supes killed Zod in that movie, and he didn’t even seem to feel bad), but which they kind of undermined by having him joking and messing around in the very next scene.

And yes, I have my issues with the movie. For instance, it drives me insane that they call that skull fragment a “codex.” It’s not a codex. A codex is literally a bound book. Don’t call things what they aren’t, Zack!

Pictured: Not A Codex

But the opinions really started going against the film when Zack Snyder produced the follow-up, Batman V. Superman, which had a lot of weird attempts to deconstruct DC’s classic heroes by having them all either be psychopaths or really reluctant to be superheroes. Retroactively, Man of Steel became the “bad” Superman movie (even though I’d argue that artistically in direction, writing and overall acting, it’s superior to most of the other Superman films — certainly Superman 3 and 4, and Superman Returns).

But honestly? It’s actually a pretty good movie. Yes, it has Zack Snyder’s tendency to overthink things and subvert iconic figures, but the movie does treat Superman as a truly inspiring figure who makes the world better with his presence. And while it is a slow build, it does provide a lot of interesting ideas that add to Superman’s mythos.

For instance, I really like the idea that Clark Kent had to essentially grow into his powers, and develop discipline in his use of them. After all, having the superpowered senses… isn’t entirely natural. Had he lived his life on Krypton, he never would have had them. So we see him struggling to cope with senses going haywire in seemingly ordinary circumstances, such as rushing into a closet to hide from the stimuli, like an autistic child who is getting overwhelmed.

Or how about his anger? I’ve seen people complain about the scene where Clark essentially crucifies a guy’s truck, that it was stupid of him to do that. But… think about it. Clark Kent is a guy who has never been able to express his anger when people treat him badly. He’s been treated as a freak, a weirdo, a victim, and lived his life in fear of others. He has never once fought back, no matter what, because he knows his strength would kill anyone he attacked. This is the only way he can express his anger, and he’s probably bottled up a lot, especially if he blamed himself for his father’s death.

This is something that not many Superman stories address. Clark Kent/Kal-El may be an alien, but his heart is very human. He can be angry. He’s allowed to feel anger. Anyone who is mistreated will feel anger. And yet, we see him as someone whose dedication to not hurting others leads him to stand there and take the abuse rather than exerting his power.

In a sense, it’s part of his arc, because we see him freed from his anger and misery when he finally discovers who he truly is. After Jor-El gives him his pep talk, Clark/Kal-El seems newly at-peace and happy for the first time.

Which brings me to another thing I like: Supes’ first flight. It’s not so much the animation of the flying itself, which is… you know, it’s good. What I like is Clark’s reaction to flying for the first time — we see him laughing giddily with exhilaration, like a child who has just learned how to do something. It’s really very adorable.

This is more a personal like than an objective point, but I also really liked the design work for the Kryptonian clothing and ships — they gave the feeling of immense complexity and technological advancement that had fallen into decadence and decay.

I’m not going to go into a full-length pros-and-cons analysis of Man of Steel — not right now, anyway — but I wanted to note the things that were, in my opinion, good from a storytelling perspective and a character development perspective.

I feel like a lot of the reactions to Clark’s development in Man of Steel is based on this idea that Superman is perfect, and wouldn’t experience doubts or anger or whatever. And that’s not really conducive to good storytelling. I’m not saying that pure-hearted, noble characters cannot exist and should be subverted whenever possible, because that is not the case. But you can have pure-hearted, noble characters make mistakes and struggle. It doesn’t make them any less good.

A good example is Captain America in the movie Civil War. The climactic battle is sparked off when it’s revealed that Bucky killed Tony’s parents many years ago, and — more hurtful to Tony — Cap knew about it and did not tell him. This is not done out of malice, but because Cap feared what Tony’s reaction would be, especially since Bucky was brainwashed at the time the murders took place.

So do we see Cap as less of a noble, pure-hearted figure because he did that? No, for two reasons:

  1. It was essentially a mistake, and a mistake that any one of us might make, because it’s in kind of a moral grey area. Should you reveal all and risk someone doing something terrible for revenge on an innocent person, or should you keep an important secret from someone who has a right to know? I don’t think there’s a clear-cut “right” answer.
  2. He apologizes. He admits wholeheartedly that he was completely in the wrong and he does not make any excuses.

And that’s kind of how I see Superman in Man of Steel. He’s noble and pure of heart, but it doesn’t mean he’s devoid of internal struggle and personal flaws. A person can inspire hope and be a hero while still stumbling and getting back up again.

At the very least, Man of Steel should be commended for at least trying some angles that previous adaptations hadn’t, and trying to think about how it would be to grow up with superhuman powers. I do not wholly embrace Zack Snyder’s approach to superheroes, except maybe in Watchmen, but I don’t believe his depiction of Superman is a failure either.

Youtube’s Comic Tropes

On Youtube, I’m subscribed to a few comic-book related channels (Linkara, obviously), and I recently stumbled across a guy called Comic Tropes, who does retrospectives, reviews, histories and trope analyses of various comic books. Not just DC and Marvel, although obviously he focuses mostly on those.

He’s got a lot of energy, and he does some fun little self-competitions like when he counts the tropes in a given creator’s comic book, and he drinks something weird whenever an individual trope comes up. In one video, for instance, he drinks different flavors of moonshine. And he’s very fair-minded, such as when he examined whether Rob Liefeld had improved over the years.

If you enjoy Linkara or ComicsDrake or other such reviewers, then please check out this guy, and preferably subscribe.