What do you get when you take Thor, Iron Man, Hulk, Captain America, Ant-Man and Black Widow aka The Avengers, then mix thoroughly with CGI, VFX and MoCap? Superman, Batman, The Flash, Aquaman, Cyborg and Wonder Woman aka the Justice League of America. Add three large cubes of hyper power energy, stir in a ram-horned devil beastie with a cup of mutant parabugs and you’ll get the born to be wild, magic carpet ride, latest superhero film to don the Silver screen…Justice League.
Directed by Zack Snyder and Josh Whedon, in Justice League, as Earth still mourns the death of Superman, the world odor of fear resurrects an ancient, malicious and vicious devil-god named after the famous, long-haired, late ’60s, rock ‘n roll group Steppenwolf. This nightmare warrior is looking for adventure to conquer and transform the planet into his own, via the heavy metal thunder of his giant energy-dripping ax while he searches for three Mother Boxes to cement his domination.
The only thing that might be able to stop this malevolent being is if the spirited, bashing beauty Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) and the shell of a hero Batman (Ben Affleck) can recruit three more metahumans, the quick witted, unsure of himself Flash, the broodingly haunted man-machine Cyborg and the abrasive Iceland ale quaffing Aquaman (Jason Momoa), who purposely looks like a tattooed version of a Steppenwolf band member.
The film’s hero and eventual adhoc leader, Wonder Women, who needs no introduction due to her five-month earlier, soul-stirring origin film Wonder Women, is bewitchingly reintroduced by one of second unit director/stunt coordinator Damon Caro‘s exciting patented action fights as Wonder Woman emulates her life’s purpose of fighting for those who can’t fight for themselves. She thwarts terrorist shootings and a suicide bombing attack on Old Bailey, the Central Criminal Court of England and Wales in London.
With her rock-steady glowing face of molten fury burning more brightly than ever, Wonder Woman winds up leaning against the golden sword of the Lady Justice statue as she heroically poses with great aplomb next to the statue’s tiara-wearing head. Oh yeeah!
Though Batman may have years of experience to draw from, Wonder Woman has the wisdom of the ages and countless years of martial training prior to stepping into man’s world. Along with her mastery of combat and Sword of Athena by her side, she wields her Truth Lasso of Hestia, wears bullet-deflecting Bracelets of Submission, carries an impenetrable shield, and dons her beloved Aunt Antiope’s treasured headband.
Barely finishing Wonder Woman, Gadot quickly began Justice League and found it easy to slip back into character sharing, “Wearing my costume felt like the most normal thing because I’d been doing it for six months before. She’s the greatest warrior, with amazing strength, but can also be very human. She cares so much for people and wants to make the world a better place. Life’s so complicated and we forget simple things, yet she remembers them: love, hope, do good in the world. I think everyone can aspire to that.”
When you look at the typical illustrations of Aquaman from any era, casting Momoa as the wild haired, hulking tattooed, piercing eyed, wielder of Neptune’s Trident, Aquaman, is an untraditional choice for the character. This reveals Snyder’s nature to look deeper inside the box. Snyder comments, “Jason embodies the spirit and heart of Aquaman. He has a rugged energy and we didn’t want this hero to be polished. He’s got a bit of rock n’ roll and that makes Aquaman relatable and cool, yet he’s still aspirational.”
As the Justice League finally unites, as you’ll watch, one more surprise is on tap.
It’s common for Westerners covering Asian films to label filmmakers based on their Western counterparts. For example, Tsui Hark is the Chinese Alfred Hitchcock. I see things the other way around. To me, the best Chinese fight director is the father of wire-fu, Ching Siu-tung, who’s renowned for making any actress, regardless of skill level, look like the best kung-fu fighters. Thus to me, Damon Caro is the American Ching Siu-tung.
In Caro’s opening fight for Wonder Woman, she floats into Old Bailey’s lobby and with sleek camera work, speed ramping and slow motion, she physically takes out a terrorist gang with efficient martial prowess then as the head goon sprays machine gun fire into a crowd of helpless victims, she slows herself down to bullet time to block each bullet.
The second best action sequence also relies more on the physical nature of doing combat when Steppenwolf and his parabugs descend upon Queen Hippolyta‘s Themysciran realm as a hoard of Amazons give their life to protect a Mother Box. Wire-enhanced, there’s more physical/acrobatic weapon choreography against MoCap enemies than CGI creatures. As Hippyolyta escapes on horseback, it’s a rope-filled, fancy horseback riding Themyscira steeplechase to prevent or slow down Steppenwolf’s desire to own the Box.
Although Batman throws about three kicks and does a series of punches and blocks, one move at time, then rapidly edited together to look more dynamic, most of the other action sequences are put together via the same CGI/VFX techniques used in Thor Ragnarok.
Though it makes sense in these virtual worlds and combative situations between heroes with mighty superpowers to use CGI/VFX, however, these kinds of fights lack the soul of a down and dirty physical duel. Even the derring-do wirework lacks spirit because you can’t appreciate that some poor sole is dangling from a great height on a piece of piano wire, wanting to make the violent action piece look like a beautiful piece of music.
Decades ago, Western audiences scoffed at Chinese kung fu heroes flying around with powerful martial arts strikes and amazing weapon skills. Yet they’d immediately accept the skills of Superman, X-Men, Avengers, etc, knowing full well it could never be real. Yet as the West learned about the martial skills of the East and that these heroes’ abilities were a result of mastering ching gong and chi gong, and that these were real skills that if one worked hard at, could attain a modicum of success, it created a sense of realism.
Yet with today’s Hollywood superheroes it’s not about the acceptance of believability, but that the eye-candy fights are reflections of what the comic books told and the filmmaking technology can do.
This is why although Chinese films use CGI/VFX, when it comes to fights, most of the action is still a physical feat where the high-flying aerial wirework displays and body crunching stunts are also obviously done by a real person. It’s these things that give the film an authentic feel imbibed with soul and spirit, hence the enhanced feeling of reality.
Let’s hope that DC and the Marvel Universe can cling on to some remnants of physical action because if they don’t, audiences will start saying, if they haven’t already begun, “Seen it, I can do that on my computer, it’s nothing special.”
For now, I’ll appreciate the work of American choreographers such as Caro and hope that he’s not a dying breed.