Review of “Justice League”

The world continues to mourn the death of Superman (Henry Cavill) along with those that knew and loved him: His mother Martha Kent (Diane Lane) has lost the family farm and has moved to an apartment in Metropolis. Lois Lane (Amy Adams) is only working on puff pieces for the Daily Planet newspaper. Batman (Ben Affleck) is troubled by his role in Superman’s death. He is also troubled by the appearance of winged creatures showing up in Gotham City. When he traps one against a wall it explodes leaving behind a pattern of three box shapes burned into the wall. Similar images show up in drawings made by convicted criminal and billionaire businessman Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) seized from him in prison. On Themyscira, the island home of the Amazons, a box that’s been dormant for thousands of years begins humming and shaking. A tube of energy appears above it and through that tube comes Steppenwolf (voiced by Ciaran Hinds), an alien destroyer of worlds. After a brief battle led by Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), Steppenwolf seizes the box and along with his army of flying parademons leaves by another tube of energy. When Diana Prince, aka Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), learns of the attack she seeks out Batman to tell him the history of Steppenwolf and how he tried to take over the Earth before but was beaten back by the Amazons, a sea-dwelling civilization called the Atlanteans, humans and the gods themselves. Diana and Bruce decide to look for other people with special abilities and form a team to defeat Steppenwolf and his parademons. They know of Barry Allen (Ezra Miller) who is endowed with incredible speed that has earned him the nickname The Flash. There’s the water-dweller that aides a coastal village with food when their harbor is iced closed named Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa) also called Aquaman. Finally, there’s the son of the head scientist at Star Labs that was thought to have been killed in an accident but has been merged with technology giving him the ability to hack into any computer system and more. He’s Victor Stone (Ray Fisher) but some call him Cyborg. Together this league of justice must overcome their differences and fears to work as a team to defeat Steppenwolf; but it may not be enough so a risky plan is put into place to add one final member.

If you haven’t heard about “Justice League” it must be because you’ve made an active effort to not hear any of the news this film generated. It wasn’t always good news: Director Zack Snyder left the film during post-production after the death of his daughter and Joss Whedon came in to do some sizable reshoots and the editing. While industry experts suggest Whedon’s reshoots account for about 20 percent of the film, the difference in style and tone make for a film that is inconsistent and could have used a bit more time spent with the newer characters to give them a better fleshed out reason to exist.

It’s ironic that “Justice League” could have been longer since one of the biggest criticisms of “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice” was that it was far too long. This time I think Snyder and Whedon could have improved the film by showing us more about Flash, Aquaman and Cyborg. While we get small nuggets about each it all feels like we are being pushed through an open house by a realtor that has somewhere else to be. We see bits and pieces but the rest goes by in a blur.

There are clear efforts to lighten the tone of “Justice League” over its DC predecessors. There are jokes approximately every three and a half minutes. While I don’t know that to be absolutely true, I get the feeling there were a great deal of focus groups and test audiences in the production of this film that guided the effort to put more laughs in the script. Ezra Miller’s Barry Allen is the source of a number of these laughs but even the usually dour Batman provides a bit of levity from time to time. The Caped Crusader even delivers one of the film’s biggest laughs while connecting a scene from “BvS” to “Justice League.” You can see there was an effort but I appreciated it.

With a cast this large and a story that moves almost as fast as the Flash, there isn’t much of an opportunity for any actor to really stick out and despite some brief moments, no one does in “Justice League.” Ezra Miller and Jason Momoa shine brightest in their fleeting time. Momoa has a very entertaining scene where he gives his true feelings about what they are facing when it is shown why he’s being so honest. Miller is quirky as the Flash. Barry Allen is insecure about his place on the team and in the world, unsure of what he adds. Batman gives him so good advice that guides him in the right direction but that uneasiness with being a hero persists. While Miller and Momoa don’t have a great deal of screen time they do the best with what they are given. Ray Fisher is given very little to do other than look sullen. His character is not dealing well with becoming part man and part machine and only begins to grow into something interesting once he takes on the mantle of hero. Fisher’s Cyborg is underutilized and is difficult to fit into these other superheroes since his is the least known of the group. Perhaps there’s a better storyline in the future for Cyborg but his appearance in “Justice League” is poorly thought out.

The leaders of the group are clearly Ben Affleck’s Batman and Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman. The pair takes turns being the grownup of the league. The fight against their foe together, bicker, nearly come to blows then realize they can never beat Steppenwolf if they don’t work together. There are no real surprises as it concerns the way the story flows or how Affleck’s and Gadot’s characters rise to the challenge of leading a team of strangers into a life and death battle. What is a surprise is how bored Affleck looks. Rumors have swirled for months that he wants out of playing Batman despite his protestations to the contrary. That talk has flared again just at the movie was released with Jake Gyllenhaal being the most mentioned name to replace Affleck. If Affleck’s performance in “Justice League” is any indication of his enthusiasm for the role then Gyllenhaal should show up for a bat suit fitting ASAP.

The story races through the fairly standard arc of the good guys being unable to defeat the bad guy on a couple of occasions, nearly coming apart due to some internal struggle then rallying to face the bad guy one more time. It is about as predictable as the return of Superman although how he’s brought back from the dead left me scratching my head. While I won’t give away any of the details, the scene at the end of “BvS” where the dirt on his casket is floating can be ignored. It’s like screenwriter Chris Terrio read the comic books where Superman returned after being killed by Doomsday and said, “You think that’s silly? Hold my beer.” The numerous moving parts of Superman’s revival are so Rube Goldberg-like in their complexity (not to mention dealing with alien technology and the physiology of an alien that’s been dead for quite some time) that even in the anything-goes world of super heroes it stretches credibility.

The weakest aspect of “Justice League” has to be the villain Steppenwolf. The issue isn’t just because he’s a CG character but that he isn’t terribly interesting. His mission is to destroy the world and we’ve seen that a million times and in better movies (*cough – The Avengers – cough*). Steppenwolf is nothing much more than a bully…granted he’s about nine feet tall, carries a glowing axe and commands an army of flying soldiers but still, he’s kind of dull as big bads go. Considering all the villains in the DC library of bad guys Steppenwolf is a dud.

“Justice League” is rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi violence and action. There are numerous battles with beings both human and non-human. There is no blood except for some green parademon blood. There is scattered mild foul language.

I really wanted to love “Justice League” as I was a DC Comics reader and subscriber in my youth. I was seriously invested in the lives of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and whoever else made up the rest of the league in the 1970’s. It was an escape from my humdrum life as a kid in school that desperately wanted to be a super powered hero. There’s still a little of that desire running through me despite my grown up knowledge that I’m not from Krypton, I’m not a billionaire, that getting struck by lightning won’t give me super speed, that I’m not the son of the Atlantean king, that cybernetic parts won’t let me hack into any computer system and that I’m not an Amazon princess (that last one really stings). Since I can’t be a superhero I want to be able to enjoy movies about them. “Justice League” isn’t awful but it isn’t the rapturous experience I wanted and that hurts me a little bit.

“Justice League” gets three stars out of five.

This holiday week sees two new movies arriving at theatres. I’ll see and review at least one of the following:


Roman J. Israel, Esq.—

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Reviews of “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” and “Moana”

It was a magical weekend at the movies for me as I saw both “Moana” and “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.” While there is the shared notion of things beyond our understanding working in the background or shadows, the events of one film are far darker than the other.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) has just arrived in America from his native England carrying a suitcase filled with magical creatures. When one of them escapes, he struggles to find it and, in the confusion, accidently swaps his suitcase with that of a cannery worker named Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler). Kowalski opens the case at his apartment and some of the creatures escape, threatening to expose the wizarding community in America. A magic cop named Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) sees Scamander, realizes he’s a wizard, and brings him in to the offices of the Magical Congress of the United States of America (MACUSA) where she plans on charging him for being an unregistered wizard. When they open his case and see only pastries inside (Kowalski is a wannabe baker), Goldstein is dismissed as being incompetent. Meanwhile, a group called the New Salem Philanthropic Society led by Mary Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton) is trying to convince people witches and wizards are practicing in America and the group wants to establish witch trials with those convicted being executed. The group points to a recent rash of building destructions done by a dark amorphous force with no apparent explanation. To complicate matters more, there is Gellert Grindelwald, a dark wizard that believes non-magical people (No-Maj’s in America, Muggles in England) should be ruled over by the magical and has been eliminating those that oppose him.

While it may not have the joy and whimsy of “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” does provide a pleasant entry into the adult wizarding world. It contains more magical animals than probably all the “Harry Potter” films combined along with a complex story that teases darker times to come. The entry of a younger version of a beloved character is mentioned and will likely be the focus of future films. Potter fans are probably clutching their wands in glee (which sounds dirtier than I intended).

Another pleasing aspect of the story is the introduction of a non-magical main character. While he is often comic relief Jacob Kowalski, as played by Dan Fogler, provides a relatable human character that proves helpful to his new wizard buddies frequently by accident. Kowalski also gets the first love story in this new franchise and it plays like a high schoolers first crush. It is painfully cute to see Kowalski and Tina Goldstein’s sister Queenie, played by Alison Sudol, making doe eyes at each other. Assuming the next film in the series doesn’t focus on completely different characters, it will be fun to see how a no-maj and a magical person deal with their differences as their relationship grows and as they face whatever peril comes their way next as Grindelwald is likely to be the baddie through the entire series.

The visual effects are overall spectacular with a few minor glitches. There is one particularly large beast that is featured near the end of the film and with which Newt physically interacts where the CGI was flat and the contact between the two looked awkward. Otherwise, the creatures and their effect on the physical environment is believable. The destructive force that is tearing up and through the streets of New York rarely looks the same twice and that’s the way it is meant to be as it is chaos personified. It is a great boss (to borrow a gaming term) since it is sometimes invisible, seemingly unstoppable and totally unpredictable. I look forward to seeing more magical creatures.

“Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” is rated PG-13 for some fantasy action violence. People are shown being thrown around by various magical events. One character is shown shooting electrical bolts from his wand and shocking another character. A couple of people are killed by the unknown violent force and their faces are shown turned grey and with various cuts. Kowalski is bitten by one of the creatures in the suitcase. There are other scattered acts of mayhem.

“Harry Potter” fans will find much to enjoy in “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” but those who are unfamiliar with wizards, muggles, Hogwarts and the like will probably be lost and refuse to invest the time to acquaint themselves with this magical realm. That’s ok as it means more popcorn at the theatre for the rest of us.

“Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” gets five stars.


Ever since she was a small child, Moana (voiced by Auli’I Cravalho) has heard the story from her grandmother Tala (voiced by Rachel House) about how the demigod Maui (voiced by Dwayne Johnson) had stolen the Heart of Creation, a magical stone, from Te Fiti, the creator of all islands. Stealing the stone leads to a creeping blackness that spreads death wherever it touches. Moana’s father, Chief Tui (voiced by Temuera Morrison) dismisses the stories as legends and urges Moana to prepare herself to become the leader of her people on their beautiful Pacific island. Between the coconuts and other crops growing on the island and the plentiful fish in the reef-protected lagoon, there is no need for Moana’s people to travel past the reef into the dangerous open ocean. But soon the coconuts and crops are turning black and there are no more fish in the lagoon. With her dying breath, Tala gives Moana the Heart of Creation that she has carried in a seashell locket around her neck and tells her to find Maui and replace the Heart of Creation to save their people.

“Moana” is an uplifting tale of facing your fear, going from being a child to an adult and learning to live with others shortcomings as they have to live with yours. In short, it’s your basic Disney animated film. It also looks spectacular and has some very nice songs as well. It’s also another Disney animated film with a strong lead character that’s a female. It won’t go unnoticed by some that the male characters are largely stubborn, unyielding and far too proud to admit they are wrong until it is shoved in their faces and they are unable to deny it any longer. While films of this nature often deal in absolutes (and in life there are none save death) “Moana” manages to dish out its message in a pleasant way without sounding too preachy.

Visually, the film is beyond spectacular. From the island vistas to the vast ocean views, “Moana” is a feast for the eyes. The ocean, which is a character in itself, sparkles and shimmers in the sun in a hypnotic way. It will remind anyone that’s been to the beach of that one perfect day on vacation. I almost felt the need for sunscreen after seeing the film. There are undersea creatures and monsters that seem to jump off the screen even in the 2D version I saw. A giant lava monster may actually be too intense a visual for some younger members of the audience as it exudes an anger and dread that is transmitted directly into the nightmare region of your brain.

While your mind is dealing with what you are seeing, there are the songs that soar with anthems of hope and a dream for a brighter future. One song, sung by Dwayne Johnson’s Maui character, is a comic showstopper. There isn’t a super catchy tune like “Frozen’s” “Let it Go” (which I’m sure will come as a welcome bit of news for parents burned out on that ear worm) the songs are fun, uplifting and pleasant in a way that might not cause hours long repeats in the car.

The voice cast is amazing with a special kudos going to Rachel House who voice Moana’s grandmother Tala. I could listen to Tala tell stories and offer advice from now until the end of time. While I doubt it will happen, I wouldn’t mind seeing a spin-off film of the adventures of young Tala narrated by old Tala. House is able to wring every bit of joy, sadness and every emotion in between from each of her lines. It’s a great performance that needs to be experienced by anyone that’s a fan of good voice acting.

“Moana” is rated PG for peril, some scary images and brief thematic elements. The grief over the loss of a loved one is shown. Violent storms are shown throwing around Moana’s canoe. There are fights between Maui and a couple of mythical creatures, including the lava monster. That lava monster is shown crawling on all fours in an effort to attack one character. There are small coconut-looking creatures that are described as pirates and killers shown attacking Moana and Maui.

“Moana” is a nearly perfect animated film with plenty for both the kids and their parents. It’s the kind of movie adults won’t mind sitting through until it is released on DVD or on streaming platforms when your children will demand to watch it over and over again. Even then for the first several viewings you’ll find little nuances in Dwayne Johnson’s performance as Maui that may keep you entertained for a few seconds. There are certainly worse films you could be forced to watch again and again.

“Moana” also gets five stars.

There’s only one new film in theatres this week. Unless something very interesting shows up at me arthouse cinema, I suppose I’ll be seeing the new horror flick “Incarnate.”

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