Thoughts on ‘Zack Snyder’s Justice League’

A league united…and redeemed?

DC core heroes are brought together to face cosmic evil in Zack Snyder’s ‘Justice League’ (image credit: Warner Bros. Pictures).

After much anticipation and feverish expectations, Zack Snyder’s Justice League – affectionately known in fan circles as the ‘Snyder Cut’ – arrived this Thursday courtesy of a long fought, passionate fan campaign and a costly endeavour by Warner Bros. Pictures and the burgeoning streaming platform HBO Max (the film available to U.K. viewers via Sky Cinema/Now TV as part of its international roll-out).  $70 million dollars and some hard but dedicated work later, Zack Snyder’s original vision for Justice League has been ceremoniously brought forth into the light and the differences are significant and often astonishing.

Zack Snyder’s Justice League is a spectacular effort that provides an almost completely different viewing experience from that of the more compromised theatrical version which saw Marvel Studios veteran Joss Whedon (director of The Avengers and Avengers: Age of Ultron) brought in to replace a grieving Zack Snyder, following the tragic suicide of his daughter Autumn (to whom this version of Justice League is lovingly dedicated), to oversee post production and studio mandated rewrites/reshoots.  It can be argued (though few would) that there is still entertainment value in the flawed but fun theatrical version of Justice League (read the review from 2017 here), as it’s perhaps more easily digestible and no doubt more palatable to the general viewer unaware or less troubled by the commercially-driven ills that befell the final product.  For those more inclined to commit to a four-hour running time then there is much to offer in Zack Snyder’s film.

Less of an extended cut (in the vein of Snyder’s superior ‘Ultimate Edition’ of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice) of Justice League and more of a total reworking of it, Zack Snyder’s Justice League is a longer, deeper and in many ways more satisfying, often more mighty effort.  It’s not for the timid or for audiences attuned, or accustomed to, and with a preference for the brighter, tirelessly upbeat popcorn blockbuster fare of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (as phenomenal as they often are, of course) as this is unmistakably a Zack Snyder film.  Visually grand, operatic, mythological and of serious mind and intention, it’s an unconventional superhero epic that demands more from the viewer with a tone that’s more adult (beyond an uptick in bloody violence and peppering of bad language) and delves more deeply into it’s characters, providing expanded back stories and greater depth for the likes of newcomers Cyborg (Ray Fisher, whose role is greatly enhanced), The Flash (Ezra Miller) and Aquaman (Jason Mamoa) joining the already established Batman (Ben Affleck), Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) and the resurrected Superman (Henry Cavill – thanks to digital tooling, here dons a version of the iconic black rebirth suit from the 1990s Death/Return of Superman comics).  The film takes an existing villain, Steppenwolf (voiced by Ciarin Hinds) and adds more dimension – as well as tweaking his physical appearance with stronger CGI – as well as reinstating the overlord of proceedings, the formidable power-hungry cosmic conqueror Darkseid (Ray Porter), who was excised from the theatrical cut.  There are a few small character moments from the theatrical version that are sorely missed, such as Batman’s encouragement and reassurance to an overwhelmed and inexperienced Flash during the tunnel battle, but on the whole there is a lot more to chew on (and less goofiness) in Snyder’s cut.  Another major change of note is the music score with Tom Holkenborg’s (who, as Junkie XL, collaborated with Hans Zimmer on Snyder’s Batman v Superman) music replacing Danny Elfman’s score and proves stylistically more suited to Snyder’s film.

Admittedly, Zack Snyder’s Justice League is only likely to appeal to hardcore fans of not only the director and his vision for these core DC characters but also is more of benefit to readers invested in the rich mythology of DC comics history, well-versed in classics such as Jack Kirby’s Fourth World and Mark Waid and Alex Ross’s Kingdom Come (to cite a couple of celebrated works). The film treats the titanic DC heroes seriously, recognising the fundamental differences between the DC and Marvel universes.  Marvel succeeds greatly by putting the human in superhuman and whilst there is some element of that within the DC pantheon, the DC Universe is largely concerned with mythological fantasy.  Is this all to say that Zack Snyder’s Justice League is perfect?  No, it’s a little slow in it’s set-up and perhaps a tighter three-hour cut would be more refined, leading more quickly into the pacier urgency of the second half.  Is it the greatest superhero film of all time?  Again, no, but in many ways it is ground-breaking in delivering something different from the maligned rough-edged romp of the theatrical version.  Sadly, Zack Snyder’s Justice League leaves us hanging with the narrative doors wide-open for the envisioned sequels that are no longer on the table with the theatrical edition remaining part of the official DC Films canon, but ignoring it’s epilogue the story is fairly complete, if only to now occupy its own abandoned corner of the multiverse.  Whilst Zack Snyder’s Justice League is left as a sort of DC Elseworlds one-shot live-action graphic novel and a promising glimmer of what might or could have been, just as the icons of DC Comics endure, the DC Extended Universe goes on.

Image(s) used herein are utilised for illustrative purposes only and remain the property of the copyright owner(s).

Film Review: ‘Joker’

Joaquin Phoenix is the man beneath the clown make-up in Tod Phillip’s Scorsese inspired reinvention of DC’s iconic villain…

Joker (a)

Joaquin Phoenix delivers a powerful performance in Warner Bros. Pictures’ ‘Joker’ (credit: Warner Bros. Pictures).

Spoiler-free review

Starring:  Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Frances Conroy, Brett Cullen, Douglas Hodge, Dante Pereira-Olson

Directed by:  Todd Phillips / written by:  Todd Phillips & Scott Silver / 122 minutes

What’s it about?

Grappling with mental illness amidst the crumbling society of Gotham City, a victimised and broken man walks a dark path as he adopts a deranged persona known as ‘Joker’…

In review

After riding a wave of festival focused critical plaudits and finding itself subject to some pre-release controversy (cancelled screenings and increased police presence rising from concerns that the film may incite acts of violence), Warner Bros. Pictures’ Joker, based on the iconic Batman villain, has landed in cinemas.  Featuring an intense and Oscar-worthy performance from Joaquin Phoenix, Joker is much less a traditional “comic book” interpretation of DC’s Clown Prince of Crime and far more a bleak, at times disturbing and often unnerving character study of a man cast aside by society, broken and pushed to the limit and through violent means – pushes back.  As has already been suggested since the film’s inception, Joker finds its roots within the celebrated works of director Martin Scorsese (who at one point was attached to produce) – specifically Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy.

Phoenix plays Arthur Fleck, a loner struggling with mental illness and afflicted by a condition which leads to uncontrollable bouts of laughter (something that may sound silly on the surface but is realised painfully by a startlingly gaunt Phoenix).  Caring for his mother (played by Frances Conroy) and making a meagre living as a sign twirling street clown, Fleck looks to pursue a career in stand-up comedy…but one bad day too many sees the tragic figure consumed by his demons as he transforms himself into the deranged and homicidal persona of ‘Joker’.

Joker is certainly a good piece of filmmaking (captured beautifully by cinematographer Lawrence Sher) and in many ways compelling, unshackled from its comic book origins and unburdened by any requirement to connect to a wider universe, favouring it’s Scorsese inspirations – the character of Fleck very much informed by Travis Bickle and Rupert Pupkin, perhaps more so than he is by the Joker as we’ve seen in previous iterations.  Director Todd Phillips (who also co-writes) takes these influences and runs with them, proving his capabilities beyond the crowd-pleasing comedy fare of The Hangover trilogy.  It does, admittedly, make it a tad derivative and adds an element of predictability to proceedings, but at least provides a viable approach to this reinterpretation of a classic comic book foe.  Joker also benefits further from a small but key role for acting legend Robert De Niro (as talk show host Murray Franklin, who Fleck idolises), who certainly brings a heap of gravitas to the project – yet, the film unmistakably thrives on Joaquin Phoenix’s portrayal.

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Joaquin Phoenix as the haggard and troubled Arthur Fleck (credit: Warner Bros. Pictures).

Despite some of its creative laudability, the film is not exactly “fun” in any sense, but nor does it aim to be given the themes it explores (the societal tensions and spiralling crime rate sadly all too relevant) and Fleck’s descent into madness can make for a difficult viewing experience.  Truth be told, Joker cannot match itself to Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight which was able to depict a satisfyingly dark and dangerous version of the Joker whilst offering some semblance of hope via Bruce Wayne’s war against crime.  It’s also arguable that the Joker is very much defined by his ‘relationship’ with Batman which makes the approach of Joker, although invigorating, ultimately lacks something without that counterbalance.

Joker does however maintain its links to the comics, the Wayne family playing an important role within the story and the (seemingly early 1980s) Gotham City setting, though a more grounded extrapolation of a crime-ridden New York of the 1970s, a familiar placing.  Fleck’s failure as a comedian is also, of course, an identifiable homage to Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s The Killing Joke.

Joker leaves itself open to the interpretation of viewers and is likely to provoke fierce debates about not only the film itself but in its world-view and subjects it doesn’t take lightly – it may not be “entertaining” in a manner most would expect and the Joker is arguably better presented in his battles with the Batman but this is still a bold take on a particular, standalone, version of the character.

The bottom line:  ‘Dark’ in every sense of the word, Joker pulls no punches in its depiction of crime, violence and a society in decline, driven by Joaquin Phoenix’s powerful and mesmerising performance.

Joker is in cinemas now.

Images used herein are utilised for illustrative purposes only and remain the property of the copyright owner(s).

Film Review: ‘Shazam!’

The Worlds of DC greets its newest hero…

Spoiler-free review

Shazam

Zachary Levi enters the Worlds of DC in ‘Shazam!’ from Warner Bros. Pictures and New Line Cinema (c. Warner Bros. Pictures/New Line Cinema).

Starring: Zachary Levi, Mark Strong, Asher Angel, Jack Dylan Grazer, Djimon Hounsou, Grace Fulton, Ian Chen, Jovan Armand, Faithe Herman, Cooper Andrews, Marta Milans

Directed by: David F. Sandberg / written by: Henry Gayden (story by Henry Gayden & Darren Lemke, Shazam created by Bill Parker & C.C. Beck) / 132 minutes

What’s it about?

Foster child Billy Batson, granted god-like powers by a mysterious wizard finds he must grow-up sooner than expected when he finds himself faced against the threat of an ancient evil…

In review

Warner Bros. Pictures and New Line Cinema’s Shazam! Is the latest offering from the ‘Worlds of DC’ cinematic universe, a sweet, fun and funny superhero romp that wears its childlike innocence and sense of adventure with pride. It doesn’t reinvent the wheel or stand amongst the very best of the genre but Shazam! is non-the-less a good time and a crowd-pleaser with a spirit that harkens back to the Christopher Reeve Superman films.

Based on one of DC’s lesser known – but oldest – characters (who at one point was selling more comics than Superman and originally known as Captain Marvel until legal issues got in the way), Shazam! sees troubled fourteen year old foster child Billy Batson (Asher Angel), struggling to adjust to life with his new adoptive family, encounter a mysterious wizard (Djimon Hounsou) who believes Billy to be pure of heart and selects his as a successor to his incredible powers – by merely saying the word “Shazam” (which on the face of it seems silly but is actually an acronym of Greek gods Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles and Mercury), Billy’s body transforms into that of a muscle-bound adult (Zachary Levi) endowed with an almost limitless range of powers and becomes the only hope of preventing evil demons, known as the Seven Deadly Sins, from being unleashed upon the world by the crazed Dr, Sivana (Mark Strong – formerly Sinestro in Warner’s ill-fated Green Lantern) who plans to seize the power of Shazam for himself.

Shazam! doesn’t hide from the fact that it’s essentially a superhero version of Tom Hanks classic Big (with a hint of Spielbergian magic) and much like Spider-Man: Homecoming did with the coming-of-age films of John Hughes, it simply goes along with it. Although the opening act may be a little sluggish it serves to give viewers a proper introduction to the characters and draw you into Billy Batson’s story – a significant part of which is his friendship with his foster brother and superhero fanboy Freddy, superbly played by It’s Jack Dylan Grazer and it’s the chemistry between the cast and their respective characters (which also includes an undeniably cute turn from the talented Faithe Herman as young ‘sister’ Darla) that really makes things click. Angel and Grazer are obvious standouts but it’s when Zachary Levi enters the frame that Shazam! hits its stride. The former Chuck star is absolutely the perfect choice to play the empowered version of Billy and he exudes the right combination of youthful excitement, awkwardness and physicality the role demands, handling all the action, heart and humour (an integral and well executed element of the film) with equal skill and with a believability and vulnerability that sells the idea of a boy in a man’s body. As Sivana (whose father is played by John Glover – Smallville’s Lionel Luthor), Mark Strong provides a decent amount of menace and danger – pitched with an appropriate touch of corniness. Sivana is by no means one of the all-time “great” villains but Strong does well with the character, for which we do get a bit of a backstory that helps define his motivations.

Shazam! is not as action orientated as other comic book blockbusters but it still has a fair measure, mostly reserved for its hero-forging middle section where Billy/Shazam must quickly master his abilities in a deadly face-off with Sivana and the climactic finale as he grapples with the creepy CGI-horde of the Seven Deadly Sins and director David F. Sandberg (Annabelle: Creation) has a firm grip on it all. These moments are certainly exciting but in the end it’s the family-focused, character driven aspects of Shazam! that make it all-the-more appealing and whilst it may make some fans hungry for a return of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman it expands the DC film universe as it continues to find itself on firmer footing.

The bottom line: a solidly entertaining comic book flick with a great leading cast, Shazam! successfully balances emotion, laughs and superhero punch-ups to engage the masses.

Shazam! is in cinemas now.

Image(s) used herein are utilised for illustrative purposes only and remain the property of the copyright owner(s).

Film Review: ‘Aquaman’

Warner Bros.’ Worlds of DC heads for the seven seas…

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King of the sea: Jason Momoa leads the action in ‘Aquaman’ (image credit Warner Bros. Pictures, used for illustrative purposes only).

Spoiler-free review

Starring:  Jason Momoa, Amber Heard, Willem Dafoe, Patrick Wilson, Nicole Kidman, Dolph Lundgren, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Temuera Morrison

Directed by:  James Wan / written by:  David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick & Will Beall (story by Geoff Johns, James Wan & Will Beall, Aquaman created by Mort Weisinger & Paul Norris) / 143 minutes

What’s it about?

As the kingdom of Atlantis prepares for war, Arthur Curry – aka ‘Aquaman’ – finds he must fulfil his destiny and take the throne in order to unite the underwater world and prevent a deadly conflict…

In review

Aquaman, the latest of Warner Bros. Pictures’ slate of superhero films under the ‘Worlds of DC’ banner (which was previously and unofficially referred to as the ‘DC Extended Universe’, or DCEU) is a fun, albeit partly derivative, comic book blockbuster that’s highly entertaining if inferior to previous Warner/DC outings Man of Steel and Wonder Woman.  It’s fair to say that some of the narrative beats are predictable and unoriginal and comparisons to Marvel Studios’ Thor: Ragnarok and Black Panther are easily drawn but with that in mind, Aquaman holds its own and doesn’t pretend to be anything other than it is – a swashbuckling and visually jaw-dropping popcorn action adventure.

Picking up where he left off in Justice League (and with backstory that’s interspersed throughout in a series of flashbacks), Jason Momoa is the likeable lead infusing Arthur Curry/Aquaman with roguish charm and swagger, offset by just the right touch of vulnerability that provides the character with an essential element of relatability.  It sounds cliché, but it’s a significant part of what draws audiences (and readers) to these colourful heroes in the first place and through the efforts of Mamoa and the film’s screenwriters it’s hard to believe that Aquaman could ever have been one of DC’s most ridiculed characters.  Opposing Mamoa is Watchmen’s Patrick Wilson as Arthur’s half-brother Orm – aka ‘Ocean Master’ – whose militant rule of Atlantis and a desire for conquest threatens war with the surface.  Wilson is great and is a formidable presence, providing Aquaman with an effective villain.  Another standout is the reliably excellent Willem Dafoe as Arthur’s childhood mentor, Vulko and Nicole Kidman adds further star power in the role of Queen Atlanna.  Amber Heard is fine as Mera (whose father, King Nereus is played by action legend Dolph Lundgren) but is no Gal Gadot and unfortunately Yahya Abdul-Mateen II similarly underwhelms as Black Manta – it’s not entirely the actor’s fault given he’s handed some cheesy lines that undercut the threat value.

Whilst there are familiar tropes – the reluctant hero searching for purpose and fulfilment has been seen countless times – and there’s a shameless riff on Indiana Jones as Arthur and Mera search for a powerful Atlantean artefact, the writers of Aquaman deliver an enjoyable and fairly pacey tale that despite some droll dialogue is enhanced greatly by astonishing visuals.  Director James Wan (Furious 7) and his team take the fantasy of the lost city of Atlantis and really run with it, depicting vast and rich uaquatic realms teeming with a variety of life that’s wonderfully bizarre and inventive – the sight of an army of soldiers riding sharks and battling gigantic crab-like creatures is both odd yet strangely believable.  Wan executes it all rather well and injects the epic scale action of Aquaman with energy and skill, although the use of slow-motion in superhero action scenes is becoming a little tiresome.

In terms of the film’s tone it’s fairly light and family friendly with dashes of humour (that’s thankfully not too goofy or forced), continuing Warner Bros.’ plan of course-correction from Zack Snyder’s darker, more introspective and existential vision.  In some ways that’s a shame as there are some merits to the latter but from a crowd-pleasing perspective (and in pursuit of Marvel-level popularity and healthy box office returns) it’s understandable.  It’s also completely accessible to new or casual viewers – whilst Aquaman is certainly part of the overall main DC cinematic universe, bar a single reference to the events of Justice League it favours a standalone approach and that’s totally fine and allows Wan’s film to be what it needs to be and provide firmer foundations for the Worlds of DC going forward.

The bottom line:  A fun popcorn adventure, Aquaman doesn’t break new ground but is an enjoyable and visually exciting comic book romp.

Aquaman is in cinemas across the U.K. now and opens in the U.S. and worldwide from 21st December.

Film Review: ‘Justice League’

It’s all in or bust as DC’s league of heroes unite in Warner Bros’ Pictures latest comic book blockbuster… 

Spoiler-free review

Justice League

DC’s premier super team unite in the Warner Bros’ Pictures release ‘Justice League’.

Starring:  Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Gal Gadot, Ezra Miller, Jason Mamoa, Ray Fisher, Ciarin Hinds, Amy Adams, Jeremy Irons, Diane Lane, J.K. Simmons

Directed by: Zack Snyder / Written by: Chris Terrio and Joss Whedon / 121 minutes

What’s it about?

In the wake of Superman’s death, Bruce Wayne enlists the help of Wonder Woman to assemble a team of powered individuals in order to protect the Earth from a looming cosmic threat…

In review

It’s no secret that Warner Bros’ DC Comics film universe has had it tough so far.  2013’s Man of Steel was fairly well reviewed but divided audiences, its sequel 2016’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice was even more divisive and Suicide Squad…again, more so.  The tide seemed to turn with the critical and financial smash of Wonder Woman this summer, meaning the pressure was well and truly on for Warner Bros/DC with team-up event Justice League, a popcorn superhero action flick that is enjoyable and entertaining even if it doesn’t quite hit the mark.  Directed by Zack Snyder, who helmed Man of Steel and Batman v Superman, Justice League is held together by its central heroes, with likeable performances from their respective actors and great chemistry that makes it worth a look.

There are flaws to Justice League that prevent it from being as great as it could’ve been.  Firstly, the film’s narrative is a little messy and disjointed (a criticism that Batman v Superman was able to remedy with its superior extended cut), becoming more problematic as it rushes through various plot points that could have warranted more focus – it seems clear that the studios’ insistence on a relatively slim running time has resulted in a good chunk of material being excised.  Another weak link is Steppenwolf, an adequate but generic CGI villain (voiced and performance-captured by Ciaran Hinds) who, albeit, provides a reasonable enough threat, pales in comparison to some of the stronger comic book film villains.  He’s by no means terrible, just not all that interesting or memorable.  There’s also some disappointingly shoddy VFX work that can on occasion be distracting, especially in the film’s busy and action packed final act.

However, it’s with its main characters that Justice League is elevated.  Ben Affleck and Gal Gadot make strong returns as Bruce Wayne/Batman and Diana Prince/Wonder Woman respectively, both providing solid leadership to the rest of the team.  After fleeting glimpses in BvS, we’re fully introduced to Ezra Miller’s Barry Allen/the Flash, Jason Mamoa’s Arthur Curry/Aquaman and Ray Fisher’s Victor Stone/Cyborg.  All three are great, with Miller’s nerdy, excitable and hilarious take on the Flash a particular highlight.  Mamoa is a pleasing surprise with a fun, swashbuckling twist to the iconic heir to the throne of Atlantis and Fisher brings fitting strokes of tortured humanity to the brooding Cyborg.  As for the return of the Man of Steel himself it’s a triumphant one, the rebirth of Clark Kent/Superman forming an integral part of the story and Henry Cavill slips back into the cape and boots with ease, his selfless, heroic sacrifice in BvS and a second chance at life leading to a Superman with a renewed purpose and a more hopeful perspective.

The tone of Justice League is certainly lighter and more accessible than Batman v Superman, with a fair amount of humour sprinkled throughout and it’s generally well-placed and doesn’t undermine the film’s more dramatic moments.  It’s well known that due to personal tragedy, Zack Snyder handed over post-production duties to Avengers Assemble and Avengers: Age of Ultron writer/director Joss Whedon, with Whedon (who shares screenwriting credits with Chris Terrio) scripting some additional material and handling reshoots.  This could’ve easily been to the film’s detriment but gladly, the end result actually feels quite consistent.  Visually, Justice League is most definitely a Zack Snyder film, it’s themes of heroism enhanced by Joss Whedon’s knack for snappy character dialogue.  The screenplay may lack the deeper, more introspective themes and idiosyncratic touches of BvS but it gets the job done.

Although Justice League isn’t perfect its positive aspects make it enjoyable and fun in all the right places, particularly for fans of these iconic characters.  It isn’t on the same level as Marvel’s Avengers but it sets the DC film universe on the right path for the many further cinematic adventures ahead.

The bottom line:  Flawed but ultimately enjoyable, Justice League assembles some of DC’s finest heroes and establishes the road ahead for future outings.

Justice League is in cinemas now.

Film Review: ‘Wonder Woman’

DC’s iconic female superhero bursts onto the big screen in her first solo feature…

Spoiler-free review

Starring:  Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Connie Nelson, Robin Wright, Danny Huston, David Thewlis, Ewen Bremner, Lucy Davis, Elena Anaya, Eugene Brave Rock

Directed by:  Patty Jenkins / Written by: Allan Heinberg (Story by Zack Snyder, Allan Heinberg & Jason Fuchs) / 141 minutes

What’s it about?

Rescuing crashed pilot Steve Trevor, Diana, princess of the Amazons, leaves her homeland to bring an end to the Great War which is ravaging humanity…

In review

Despite the relative financial success of the DC Extended Universe thus far, there’s no escaping the divisive opinions from various fans and critics that loom over Man of Steel, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad.  Could Wonder Woman turn the negative critical tide and foster some much needed appreciation for the Warner Bros’ DC Comics films?  Thankfully, Wonder Woman is a resounding success on various levels.  It retains a layer of gritty seriousness that will please those that actually enjoyed the previous DCEU entries and deftly marries it with a vision of hope and optimism in dark times and a heartening message that although humanity has it’s ugly side, good will ultimately prevail over evil…all it needs is a hero to lead us into to the light.

An origin story told via flashback, Wonder Woman opens on Themyscira, an island paradise populated by the Amazons – a female society of immortal warriors lead by the wise Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielson).  It’s here that the Hippolyta’s daughter, Diana grows to adulthood and trains under the guidance of Antiope (Robin Wright – House of Cards).  When Diana rescues American pilot Steve Trevor after his crashes off the shores of her homeland, she learns of a great conflict raging across the outside world – one that she believes is being orchestrated by the god of war, Ares.  After German soldiers storm the beeches of Themyscira, Diana, in defiance of her mother’s wishes, decides to pursue the callings of a hero and accompany Trevor back to the war-torn theatres of the First World War and bring an end to the bloodshed and needless suffering of the innocent.

After making a memorable debut as DC’s iconic Amazonian princess (created by William Moulton Marston and first appearing in All Star Comics #8 in 1941) and champion of justice in Batman v Superman, Gal Gadot delivers a pleasingly nuanced performance as Diana Prince/Wonder Woman in a turn that conveys equal measures of strength (both physical and emotional), compassion and heart with a touch of innocence and naivety as she embarks on her hero’s journey.  Despite her relative inexperience as an actor, Gadot is actually quite wonderful in her first solo DC outing, demonstrating a clear affection for the character and embodying the values and spirit of an important and enduring pop culture icon with reverence and conviction.  Star Trek Beyond’s Chris Pine is the perfect co-star, infusing his portrayal of Captain Steve Trevor with charm, humility and a dose of earnest humanity.  He also shares great chemistry with Gadot, a key component to the film’s rich and often touching emotional core.

There’s some well implemented comic relief from Lucy Davis as Trevor’s plucky secretary, Etta as well as drunken marksman Charlie (Ewen Bremner) and fellow comrade Sameer (Said Taghmaoui) that along with participation from Gadot and Pine provides dashes of levity that feels natural and fitting without compromising the film’s more dramatic moments.  Although underdeveloped, Danny Huston and Elena Anaya provide adequate enough villainy as devilish German General Lundendorff and the deranged Dr. Maru respectively, their plot to unleash a deadly new gas creating reasonably high stakes for Diana, Trevor and their group (which also includes “The Chief”, played by Eugene Brave Rock) to grapple with.  Ultimately, it’s the characters and themes, bolstered by a solid script that really makes Wonder Woman work.

Director Patty Jenkins (at one time in the frame to helm Marvel’s first Thor sequel) draws fine performances from her cast that lift the overall package whilst proving skilful in presenting grand visuals (enhanced by the finely tuned eye of cinematographer Matthew Jensen) and staging some thrilling and slickly executed action sequences (with composer Rupert Gregson-Williams adding to the excitement as he incorporates Hanz Zimmer/Junkie XL’s WW theme from BvS).  Some viewers may feel fatigued by the bombastic CGI-laden finale, yes, we’ve seen it in numerous superhero films by now, but it’s arguably necessary to close the film on an epic high and it’s executed with some satisfying emotional beats.  Yet there’s no denying that Wonder Woman’s finest and most effective set piece comes from earlier in the film as Diana, frustrated by the horrors and injustices of war, emerges from the trenches as she heroically pushes her way across the battlefield, plunging through the barrages of the German war machine.

It’d be all too easy to cynically write-off Wonder Woman as a mere symbol of feminism, but peel away the layers and she’s so much more, with all that’s wrong in the world these days heroes are needed and though a work of fiction, blended with popcorn entertainment and comic book fantasy, Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman is an inspiring tale and one filled with plenty of heart.

The bottom line:  A triumph for the DCEU, Wonder Woman is an exciting and epic story of a hero’s origin that’s enhanced by strong characterisation, dynamic action and great chemistry between Gal Gadot and Chris Pine.

Wonder Woman is in cinemas now.

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Ready for action: Gal Gadot stars in ‘Wonder Woman’ from Warner Bros.

Film Review: ‘Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice’ (spoiler-free)

Please Note:  this review is deemed ‘spoiler-free’ on the basis that readers have seen the previously released full length trailers for Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.

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Starring:  Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Jesse Eisenberg, Amy Adams, Gal Gadot, Jeremy Irons

Directed by:  Zack Snyder / Written by:  Chris Terrio & David S. Goyer / 151 minutes

What’s it about?

Believing that the consequences of Superman’s actions may present a threat to humanity, Bruce Wayne shifts the focus of his war on crime as the Batman to facing off against the Man of Steel…

In review

The “grudge match of the century” is finally here as Warner Brothers’ DC Comics superhero sequel Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice comes thundering onto cinema screens.  Both continuing the story which began in Zack Snyder’s 2013 Superman reboot, Man of Steel and setting the stage for the larger canvas of the big screen DC Comics Extended Universe, BvS happily succeeds more often than it might fail.

With Snyder returning to the director’s seat and a screenplay written by Chris Terrio (Argo) and David S. Goyer (Batman Begins, Man of Steel), BvS picks up during the cataclysmic events at the climax of Man of Steel, the decimation of the city of Metropolis wrought by General Zod and Superman’s desperate efforts to stop him resulting in personal tragedy for Wayne Enterprises CEO Bruce Wayne.  Flash forward eighteen months and Wayne still grieves for the loss of his employees and becomes increasingly angered by the presence of an incredibly powerful being given liberty to act freely with no check in place.  Most see Superman as a heroic figure or a messiah but Wayne feels it’s time to reassess the Kryptonian Man of Steel’s place in the world and can only present a challenge as the Dark Knight of Gotham City.

Drawing heavily from Frank Miller’s seminal graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns, BvS carries a lot of narrative weight via it’s psychological examinations and philosophical debate and is arguably all the better for it.  Just as Frank Miller explored (and satirised) the political and social landscape of the 1980s, this film equally poses the questions that would present themselves in today’s climate of anti-terrorism and accountability.  There’s no doubt that Superman’s intentions are true but we see that there are consequences to his actions that affect others.  Likewise, Bruce Wayne’s methods as the dark vigilante known as Batman are also questionable as we’re left to ponder about how far is too far.

Ultimately, your enjoyment of BvS will equate to how you felt about Man of Steel, Zack Snyder as a filmmaker and dark, brooding – yet cerebral – superhero stories.  This is certainly a dark film, even in its few lighter moments and amongst the requisite and effects laden comic book action.  Similarly this is very much a Zack Snyder film in that BvS is not as intricately conceived and as masterfully executed as Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight but is non-the-less a well-constructed and visually impressive film.  There will be flaws should you look too deep yet with this in mind then in more instances than not it’s likely that your geek voice will prevail over any critical mumblings.  With some time taken to sow the seeds for next year’s DC heroes round-up in Justice League Part One there is a fair heft of mythology and a number of WTF?! moments (one sequence in particular) that, to a degree, become jumbled in the mix and might leave the more casual viewer (or at least those who are not as well versed in DC Comics lore) bewildered.  Similarly there are some narrative elements that feel they warrant further exploration or elaboration – hence the announcement that Warner’s home video release plans include an extended cut of the film.

Whilst there is some great depth to the story and themes of BvS, this is also a comic book film and Snyder bombards the senses with nerve jangling and explosive action sequences that some may find a little heavy and energetic, albeit not as overbearing as, say, Transformers: Age of Extinction.  The inevitable face-off between Batman and Superman is as exciting and cool as would be hoped for and although the climactic battle with the Doomsday creature might come off as a little ‘videogame-y’ it’s part and parcel of today’s blockbusters and facilitates sizeable stakes and a powerful threat to unite the central heroes.

Snyder and Warner Brothers assemble an enviable troupe of actors here.  Firstly, Henry Cavill slips comfortably back into the role of Clark Kent/Superman and together with Amy Adams’ Lois Lane pick up where they left off in Man of Steel, Jesse Eisenberg surprises as an enjoyably eccentric and psychotic Lex Luthor and Gal Gadot delights as Diana Prince/Wonder Woman (her triumphant entrance as the latter leaving no doubt that next summer’s solo outing is going to be a treat).  Yet their biggest casting coup, greeted with such controversy and trepidation, is Ben Affleck.  Affleck quickly allays any fears or doubts and proves to be the perfect choice for this iteration of Bruce Wayne/Batman.  As Wayne, Affleck exudes the right measure of assuredness and arrogance of his Playboy bachelor persona whilst effectively conveying the torture and continuing trauma of his parents’ murders and a dynamic range of humanity as he unloads both his fears and determination to his one true confidant and sounding board, Alfred (a reliably well-mannered Jeremy Irons).  Weary, cynical and tired of twenty years of fighting crime in Gotham City, Affleck proves to be adept in cranking up the intensity to present us with a Batman torn straight from the panels of The Dark Knight Returns, a shadowy, almost demonic figure striking fear into the hearts of criminals, often pushing himself to the edge to deliver a more brutal solution to the failings of ‘true’ justice.

When all is said and done, BvS unites the DC Comics ‘Trinity’ (and founding Justice League members) of Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman and provides a satisfying, epic and often thought provoking slice of comic book action that stands as a solid follow up to Man of Steel and a vital stepping stone in the burgeoning DC Comics film series.

The bottom line:  Dark and cerebral, epic and bombastic, please everyone it might not but for fans of comic book superheroes, Batman v Superman presents a solid next step in the DC Comics Extended Universe.

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is in cinemas now.

The Dark Knight faces the Man of Steel in Warner Brothers'/DC Comics' 'Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice'.

The Dark Knight faces the Man of Steel in Warner Brothers’/DC Comics’ ‘Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice’.