Darkest Hour – Film Review

Of all the actors who’ve portrayed Sir Winston Churchill, few castings have caused the turning of heads quite like Gary Oldman. A career spent lending his lean, sinewy frame to such rebellious outcasts as Sid Vicious and Lee Harvey Oswald is hardly ideal preparation for playing the jowly, growly titan of British politics, after all. Yet what Oldman lacks in physique, he more than compensates with energy and physicality, superbly capturing the dogged determination of his often larger-than-life subject with greater nuance, depth and, yes, weight than ever before. If only Darkest Hour provided a similarly compelling film to match his absorbing performance.

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Scripted by A Theory of Everythings Anthony McCarten, Darkest Hour is focused on Churchill’s remarkable skills as an orator, pivoting around three crucial speeches he gave over a four-week period in 1940. With Hitler’s forces rampant and Western Europe on the brink, the newly-installed PM comes under pressure to strike a peace deal with the Nazi regime. Refusing to submit to the tyranny of a vicious dictator, Churchill resolves to fight on, placing him in opposition with the King, his political enemies and his own conscience.

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It’s striking to see how convincingly Oldman captures the eccentricity and blustering energy of the notoriously theatrical Churchill. Complimented by considerable, though not overbearing, prosthetics, Oldman’s Churchill barrels through the halls of Westminster, swivels on his heels at the despatch box, and barks orders to his amiable secretary (a spirited Lily James) while sloshing about in the tub or “sealed within the privy”. It’s no wonder many of Churchill’s peers considered him to be an embarrassing liability.

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His performance is no mere caricature, though, exploring Churchill’s fears and flaws with affecting subtlety and empathy. As the situation in Dunkirk becomes more desperate and his adversaries, led by Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax (Stephen Dillane), try to steer him towards opening peace talks with Germany, Churchill becomes beset by doubt, plunging into a ‘black dog’ depression as he questions his thinking. Is the war already lost? Is he needlessly sending young men to die? Is his risking the lives of the British people by refusing to negotiate?

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So much of this plays out exactly as you’d expect – hushed meetings in gloomily-lit corridors, cigar-chomping ruminations over war maps, an unexpected arrival to rouse Churchill when all seems lost. And that’s the problem with Darkest Hour: it’s a decent story, engagingly told and with compelling performances, but it lacks an emotive spark to truly make an impact. While director Joe Wright imbues scenes with plenty of visual flair – one stunning motif sees Churchill frequently boxed in by inky-black darkness, everything hinges on Oldman’s powerhouse performance. The pace noticeably dips whenever he’s off screen.

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You sense Wright knows as much, which is why he wisely keeps the camera in lockstep with Churchill’s hustle, prowling alongside him as Oldman drives the drama forward through sheer force of will. It’s telling, then, that when looking for a climactic event, Wright chooses to avoid the more obviously cinematic evacuation of Dunkirk. Instead, he once again draws in on Oldman’s Churchill, stripping everything else away as he delivers a final, soaringly evocative speech to rouse not only his fellow politicians, but an entire nation of fight on in the face of terrible adversity. Gary Oldman playing Winston Churchill? Turns out they’re a perfect match.

Runtime: 125 mins (approx.)
Director: Joe Wright
Screenwriter: Anthony McCarten
Stars: Gary Oldman, Lily James, Stephen Dillane, Kristin Scott Thomas

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Molly’s Game – Film Review

In Molly’s Game, Aaron Sorkin may have found the Sorkiniest of material with which to make his directorial debut. Based on the eponymous memoir, the tale of Molly Bloom’s journey from wealthy poker hostess to the centre of an FBI money laundering investigation is a dense, dramatic, exceedingly talky affair that bristles with murky morals, corrupt officials, legal machinations and a sleazy tabloid media – all told through the glitzy prism of celebrity poker. It’s also Sorkin’s most progressive and surprisingly feminist piece work to date, celebrating the courageous resolve of one talented woman who repeatedly suffers at the hands of powerful men and keeps pulling herself back up.

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Jessica Chastain is Bloom, a former competitive skier who, following a devastating knee injury, heads to Los Angeles in search of a fresh start. There she winds up working for a Hollywood slimeball who puts her in charge of running his weekly celebrity poker game. Though wildly successful, Bloom quickly grows frustrated with the unbalanced power differential and decides to strike out on her own. Soon she’s running the hottest game in the world and living lavishly off the extravagant tips of her high-rolling clients, which include movie stars, athletes, business tycoons and members of the Russian mafia. And that’s when the FBI come calling…

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What unfolds is 140-minutes of slick, compulsively absorbing courtroom drama as Bloom battles the competing threats of the FBI, a public smear campaign and pressure from her own lawyer to spill the beans on her clients in order to avoid serving jail time. Working behind the camera for the first time, Sorkin keeps things simple, restricting the action to drab, windowless rooms that lock in the tension, allowing his snappy screenplay take centre stage. Every scene crackles with Sorkin’s familiar rat-a-tat-tat rhythm and rapid-fire dialogue, which more than compensate for the lack of visual panache.

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It also doesn’t hurt to have an actor as utterly compelling as Chastain in the lead role. While her co-stars perform effectively in entertaining, if largely one-note roles, Chastain is sensational as the resilient, beleaguered Bloom. Far from the trashy party-girl depicted in the tabloids, the movie reveals Bloom to be a richly complex character. She’s incredibly intelligent, hard-working and fiercely ambitious, having built a multi-million dollar business using little more than her wits; yet she’s also an aggressive, antagonist alcoholic who sought to profit off the addictions of others. Chastain plays these hidden depths superbly, lending pathos and emotional strength to someone who has been misrepresented, mistreated and mistrusted by everyone around her and yet remains true to her moral convictions.

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It’s Molly’s defiance that will likely prove difficult for viewers to accept, especially in the wake of the recent sexual misconduct allegations that have swept Hollywood. While her determination to defend her reputation is understandable, the fact that this requires her to protect the misdeeds and abuses of powerful men makes her stance feel less admirable. More uncomfortable still is a late hint at a possible redemption for these men. In the end, Molly is saved not by her own talents and intelligence, but by the benevolence of a group of old men who take pity on her. How audiences react to that will determine whether Molly’s Game possesses a winning hand or a busted flush.

Runtime: 140 mins (approx.)
Screenwriter/director: Aaron Sorkin
Stars: Jessica Chastain, Idris Elba, Kevin Costner, Michael Cera

Bright – Film Review

Sometimes a premise is so unavoidably eye-catching that the resultant movie all but sells itself. Netflix’s Bright is a prime example, pitching an darkly comic alternate reality where fairytale creatures live uncomfortably alongside humans in modern-day Los Angeles. It’s basically Lord of the Rings meets Training Day, only with the sight of Will Smith bludgeoning a fairy with a broomstick thrown in for good measure. Sadly, the end result fails to live up to the expectation, resulting in a clumsy and confusing cop-comedy-fantasy-thriller-social-drama unable to blend its mish-mashed parts into an entertaining whole.

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All credit to director David Ayer (Suicide Squad) and screenwriter Max Landis (Chronicle) for crafting such a vivid, richly imaginative world. Two thousand years after humans banded with mythical creatures to defeat the Dark Lord, the victors have neatly divided into social factions. Elves are the elites, gliding through their glitzy gated community in sleek sports cars. Orcs are the thuggish underclass, dismissed and discriminated against by everyone for picking the losing side during the war. And humans, it seems, are somewhere in the middle, grinding out a living by doing the jobs no-one else wants to do.

While there’s a lot of clever ideas at play here – the notoriously mischievous fairies are depicted as pesky insects who need to be exterminated – it often feels like we’ve only scratched the surface of what this word has to offer. Key concepts such as a secret prophecy and the existence of brights, magic users who are closely regulated by federal forces, are introduced and then left frustratingly underdeveloped.

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The story is similarly underfed. Following the fine buddy cop movie tradition of chalk-and-cheese police pairings, Smith’s grouchy Daryl Ward is forced to partner with Nick Jakoby (Joel Edgerton), the force’s first orc officer. But when a routine call lands the pair in possession of a magical wand, the movie shifts into an plodding chase movie as Ward and Jakoby race aimlessly across a gloomy Los Angeles pursued by corrupt cops, federal agents, an orc blood cult and Noomi Repace’s evil ninja elves. Quite why Lucy Fry’s waifish-looking elf also tags along for the ride is also never made clear.

Such a busy plot, coupled with Ayer’s typically frenetic pacing, leaves little time for the characters to flourish. Edgerton does well to imbue his orc with kindness, humility and pride from beneath a mound of prosethetics, yet the pain of being shunned by his own kind and the tumult of having to choose between his people and his badge never quite ring true. Smith, meanwhile, is merely required to shoot stuff and crack wise like a creaking Mike Lowrey, with little attention paid to his family struggles or his past troubles with the orc community.

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That also means that Bright’s admirable attempts at social commentary also fall flat. The notion of using mythical creatures to shine a light on our own social divisions is an effective, if not wholly original device, but it seems that Landis’ has nothing new to say on the subject, save for the fact that some people are unfortunate to be born without privilege. It’s almost as if a wealthy white man might not be best placed to explore the nuances of racial tensions.

The strongest moments, as they so often do with buddy cop movies, come when Smith and Edgerton are exchanging banter in their cop car. Like when Jakoby correctly surmises that Ward isn’t getting enough sex, just by examining the look on his face. It’s a smart, funny, entirely honest scene that reveals much more about their personalities and relationships than any cartridge-showering shootout ever could.

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Perhaps the movie would’ve been better served spending more time with these two misfit cops, rolling around this vibrantly magical world trading swipes about the sorry state of their Iives. Now there’s a bright idea…

Runtime: 117 mins (approx.)
Director: David Ayer
Screenwriter: Max Landis
Stars: Will Smith, Joel Edgerton, Noomi Repace, Lucy Fry

 

The Greatest Showman – Film Review

Of all the ‘human curiosities’ showcased in his famed New York circus, none was more beguiling and intriguing than P. T. Barnum himself. Born into a life of grinding poverty, the legendary showman fought his way from homeless hoaxster to wealthy founder of one of the most audacious variety shows the world had ever seen.

If The Greatest Showman struggles to capture the complexities of such a man, who supported the abolition of slavery yet sought to profit from the humiliation of those on the fringes of society, it undoubtedly succeeds in dazzling with a Barnum-style sense of joyous spectacle – delivering soaring musical numbers and a virtuoso performance from a full-blooded Hugh Jackman.

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After a swift introduction to our subject in his pomp, we race back to Barnum’s childhood as a penniless dreamer who nevertheless manages to woo local rich-girl Charity (Michelle Williams) with promises of a remarkable life. Yet the next 25 years bring nothing but dead-end jobs and missed opportunities, until Barnum spots the chance to con his way into a bank loan and buys a failing waxwork museum.

He promptly fills the crumbling building with a collection of unique individuals – including a bearded lady, the diminutive Tom Thumb and the world’s fattest man – to great financial success. But when his popularity still fails to grant him a seat among American high society, Barnum gambles everything he has – including his marriage – to embark on a high-class tour of the country’s opera houses with beguiling Swedish singer Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson).

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The film breezes through its plot in under two hours, so its hardly a shock that there’s no time for a more nuanced look at Barnum’s success and the troubled lives of his circus attractions. Instead we’re served a hackneyed rags-to-riches journey filled with mawkish themes of family and inclusivity as Barnum, blinded by his success, forgets what’s truly important – an undemanding arc where the dramatic beats are so clearly telegraphed you’ll barely need to pay attention to the story.

That turns out to be no bad thing as you’ll be so transfixed by the spectacular set-pieces on show that you won’t be able to focus on anything else. The film delivers a succession of foot-stompingly catchy songs (the soaring This is me is a highlight, swelling with emotion and a pop-tinged chorus that invites you to sing along) written by La La Land’s Pasek and Paul, which first-time director Michael Gracey deftly choreographs with splashes of lavish colour and glitzy flourishes. And at the centre of it all is an effervescent Jackman as the unshakable Barnum – a whirlwind of burning ambition, brash charisma and twinkling charm who commands attention in every scene.

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Like the outlandish carnival of entertainment from which it drew inspiration, The Greatest Showman is unlikely to garner much warmth from critics thanks to its reliance on hoary cliches and underwhelming plot. Yet, for the rest of us, there’s something undoubtedly charming and really quite moving about a film where everyone involved pours their heart and soul into welcoming the masses and sending them home with a big smile across their faces. Mr Barnum would be proud.

Runtime: 105 mins (approx.)
Director: Michael Gracey
Screenwriters: Jenny Bicks, Bill Condon
Stars: Hugh Jackman, Michelle Williams, Rebecca Ferguson, Zac Efron

 

Star Wars: The Last Jedi – Film Review

“This is not going to go the way you think,” Luke Skywalker warns Rey on the rain-swept island of Ahch-To. As it turns out, that line isn’t just a tantalising soundbite for the trailers, but a full-blown mission statement for Rian Johnson’s Star Wars sequel.

Following The Force Awakens, a movie that delighted with plenty of fan service but all too often felt like a blow-by-blow remake of A New Hope, The Last Jedi pushes the saga into a deeper, darker and richer territory than ever before. Make no mistake: The Last Jedi delivers answers to many of the Big Questions on fans lips; but they come wrapped in a satisfying narrative filled with hidden twists, unpredictable character arcs and gut-wrenching beats that will hit you like a bolt out of the blue.

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If Johnson does pinch one thing out of The Empire Strikes Back playbook, though, it’s his decision to split the core cast for much of the movie. Gung-ho fly-boy Poe Dameron leads a revolt against cautious military chief Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo (Laura Dean), the Reisistance’s defacto leader after General Leia is incapacitated. Finn (John Boyega) teams-up with wide-eyed maintenance worker Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) on a mission to infiltrate a First Order ship. And on the dark side, Supreme Leader Snoke pits Kylo Ren and General Hux against each other in a bid for his favour. Meanwhile, back on Ahch-To, Rey seeks out awol Jedi Master Luke in the hope of luring him back into the fight.

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Handing every major player their own mission means everybody has got more to do this time out. Oscar Isaacs, Domhnall Gleeson and Andy Serkis, in particular, register far stronger here – even if their characters are still frustratingly one-note – while Carrie Fisher’s scenes take on an added poignancy after her untimely death last year.

Of course, the biggest beneficiary of this greater character focus is a certain beardy bloke last seen standing on a picturesque cliff edge in the North Sea. Needless to say, Mark Hamill is handed a meatier part this time out and doesn’t disappoint, layering Luke with greater depth and nuance than ever before to perfectly capture how a hopeful farm boy could become such an embittered and regretful figure.

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That being said, The Last Jedi belongs to the new generation and the rich, complex bond between Daisy Ridely’s scavenger and Adam Driver’s reckless apprentice. Both excel once again as the connection that binds them develops in powerful, thought-provoking ways and the scenes of them engaging in a battle of wills are the movie’s most shocking and engrossing.

For all his grandly conceived character arc and plot twists, though, Johnson isn’t adverse to letting his giddy, geeky side show. The Last Jedi delivers everything you could hope for from a Star Wars movie – daring dogfights, ferocious lightsaber duels, exotic creatures and plenty of offbeat comedy. Even a poignant reunion between two pivotal characters opens with a gag about hairstyles.

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Yet Johnson is also unafraid to throw new elements into the saga’s established visual palette. The rickety rust-bucket set designs remain just as charming, but they’re infused with operatic tracking shots, scenes where real-world sounds have been ripped out leaving only John Williams’ evocative score, and a finger-snapping sequence so trippy you’ll think you’ve stumbled into a completely different movie.

It doesn’t all work. The film is overlong and feels overstretched in the middle section, while a detour to the Cantina-aping Canto Bight is entirely superfluous to the plot – but when it hits its stride, The Last Jedi is a bold, ballsy, inventively challenging movie that defies expectations and culminates in a jaw-dropping finale that effectively leaves J. J. Abrams with a clean state from which to create the final episode of this new trilogy. Over to you, J. J.

Runtime: 152 mins (approx.)
Director/Screenwriter: Rian Johnson
Stars: Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher

Daddy’s Home 2 – Film Review

There’s no place like home for the holidays. Unless you’re playing host to Mel Gibson’s creepy and mean-spirited grandpa in Daddy’s Home 2, in which case you’d be forgiven for wanting to be anywhere else. Added to the cast of this spiritless sequel as Mark Wahlberg’s sex-pest father, the sight of a convicted domestic abuser laughing off his past by playing a thinly-veiled caricature of himself fosters the deeply unpleasant mood hanging uncomfortably over this otherwise mildly unfunny Christmas comedy.

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Like many a half-baked sequel before it, Daddy’s Home 2 tries to generate some fresh energy by drafting in some new faces to the cast list. Cue Gibson’s wayward grandfather and John Lithgow’s ebullient ‘pappy’ descending on their peaceful families for the holidays to break-up the newfound bromance between Wahlberg and Will Ferrell’s progressive co-dads.

Unfortunately, double the dads doesn’t result in double the laughs. The humour is hackneyed and incredibly patchy, Sean Anders and John Morris’ script simply rehashing many of the goofball shenanigans and reductive male stereotypes of the first movie – only this time there are no gooey, warm-hearted characters to make the sour material palatable.

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There are some highlights, of course. A delightfully silly Mexican snowball-off during a live nativity scene delivers the movie’s biggest belly laughs and many of the performances deserve praise. Wahlberg and Ferrell continue to have a genuine chemistry – even if the former struggles to sell the peppy and sentimental dynamic with his new parenting buddy; meanwhile John Lithgow proves to be an entertaining addition to the cast, his irrepressible enthusiasm perfectly matched with Ferrell’s dewy-eyed manchild schtick.

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And then Gibson swaggers onto the scene to stomp all over these merry misadventures. It’s hard to overstate quite how tone-deaf Gibson’s casting is in light of recent events. Here we have a shamelessly chauvinistic wretch who tells jokes about dead hookers, brags about mistreating women and encourages his grandson to grope his schoolboy crush without permission. This irresponsible characterisation is further compounded by an attempt to make us feel sorry for the perverted scumbag by suggesting he feels like an outsider within his own family – despite having spent the entire movie gleefully destroying his “loved ones'” Christmas by turning them against one another.

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It’s perhaps unsurprising, then, that an attempt to tack a schmaltzy, Christmas-friendly ending onto this bitter tale fails to ring true. The plot is sketchy by nature, leaving very little time for its various subplots to bear fruit – the unexpected divorce of Lithgow’s Don is particularly clunky, feeling like it was parachuted into the story to unsuccessfully provide some much needed pathos amid all the merciless merth-making. As a result, the apparent personal growth both families experience fails to sweeten the sour taste left by the previous 99 minutes – not least because the one character who desperately needed to change remains entirely unmoved, his family merely blithely accepting his depraved acts as if it’s all part of his charm. We can only hope that viewers will not be quite so forgiving.

Runtime: 100 mins (approx.)
Director: Sean Anders
Screenwriters: Sean Anders, John Morris
Stars: Mark Wahlberg, Will Ferrell, Mel Gibson, John Lithgow

 

 

Justice League – Film Review

It’s difficult to overstate just how much the DCEU needed Wonder Woman. After the dour and mean-spirited Batman V Superman and the full-metal racket of Suicide Squad, Gal Gadot’s virtuous Themysciran warrior was a Wonder-ful leap forward for the franchise, finally placing an endearing superhero at the heart of an entertaining movie that was as witty and inventive and it was groundbreaking.

If the success of Diana Prince’s first solo-outing offered the chance for the DCEU to shift gears, it’s one Justice League fails to take. Visually ugly, boring and repetitive, this souped-up superhero team-up is a return to the murky aesthetic, sketchy characters and chaotic action that have continuously dogged the series since its conception.

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Tonally, the movie is all over the place, clumsily attempting to stitch together it’s disparate elements into an uninspiring whole. This is most noticeable during a labourious opening act which swings wildly between a grim and gritty Gotham, the shimmering lands of Themyscira and the submerged ruins of Atlantis as Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) grumpily tries to recruit a mis-mash of meta humans and ancient gods to his nebulous cause.

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It’s several months after the ‘death’ of Superman and the absence of the son of Krypton has encouraged exiled God Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds) and his army of buzzing Parademons to invade Earth in search of three cosmic MacGuffin boxes that, when combined, posses the power to destroy the universe. Realising that a seven foot supernatural warrior with a magic axe might pose more of a threat than a bunch exploding wind-up penguins, Batman assembles a ramshackle band of super-beings to help him defeat Darkseid’s right-hand man and prevent the world from becoming an apocalyptic wasteland.

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Such a hackneyed plot holds few surprises, essentially following the tiresomely typical beats of a team-up movie – even the idea of an alien baddie invading Earth to unite a trio of cosmic trinkets is ripped straight from The Avengers. Perhaps that’s why the movie is in such an almighty rush to get down to business. Coming in at a trim two hours, it’s a brisk, breezy adventure – further leavened by an abundance of knowing gags, no doubt penned by Joss Whedon, who replaced director Zack Snyder after a family tragedy and here receives a writing credit.

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Yet this leaves very little time to get to know our new heroes and to dig down into the team dynamics. Like every other movie in the DCEU, Justice League is so eager to catch up with its Marvel rival that it assumes our connection with its characters rather than earning our affections. As a result, the planned emotional beats fail to pay off and the entire story descends into an underwhelming mess of ropey visual effects and lunkheaded plot developments – culminating an overblown finale featuring giant purple tentacle-things, flying zombie insects and a CGI monstrosity so sloppily developed it’ll make you yearn for the heady days of Doomsday and Superman playing computer-rendered whack-a-mole.

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Even so, there’s great fun to be had, particularly in scenes of the League together, bickering and bonding in a rapid-fire exchange of quips, and the cast play off each other extraordinarily well in the circumstances. Ezra Miller is the highlight as a whip-witted and overzealous The Flash, while Gadot once again radiates gravitas as Wonder Woman. Ray Fisher perhaps needs more fleshing out as the brooding Cyborg, though his digitised Frankenstein arch holds promise. Of the new recruits, Aquaman is by far the worst served, Jason Mamoa reduced to bellowing stock-jock phrases like ‘Oh yeah’ and ‘My man’, as if he’s a drunken frat boy rather than the heir to an ancient kingdom.

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If Batman feels like an after thought to the team, that’s hardly the fault of Affleck, who brings an enjoyable gruffness that works well with his elder statesman interpretation of the Caped Crusader. The problem is that Batman is simply not suited to the role of inspirational leader to a team of superheroes – a point the movie tries to address, to unsatisfying effect – and his physical handicaps when compared to the rest of the team understandably see him left behind during many of the action scenes.

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Justice League is undoubtedly brighter and funnier than any DCEU movie to date. But it remains lumbered with the same flaws that have been dragging the franchise down from the beginning – namely a loose grip of its tone, haphazard plotting and a collection of unengaging heroes who fail to live up to their billing. As long as these problems persist, there’s no danger of the DCEU usurping the big red behemoth as ruler of the multiverse.

Runtime: 120 mins (approx)
Director: Zack Snyder
Screenwriters: Chris Terrio, Joss Whedon
Stars: Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Gal Gadot, Ezra Miller, Ray Fisher