Monday, March 22, 2021

Zack Snyder's Justice League: darker, longer, angrier, louder

This version fixes the mistakes of 2017, but feels out of place in a DCEU that has moved on

It happened. Despite all odds, it did. Many refused to harbor hope. Some of us had accepted the sad turn of events, and still the improbable happened. Against the forces of lethargy and passivity, justice was served, the order of the cosmos was restored, and things returned to their proper state.

That's right: at long last, Henry Cavill's face doesn't look like a ghastly mannequin anymore.

I'll be the first to admit Zack Snyder's Justice League turned out better than I expected, which is to admit I was expecting very little. The dialogue is more efficient (except during flashback infodumps), the fights are better paced (except when Wonder Woman hovers in place to the same yodel tune over and over), the causal flow from one event to the next is neater (except for that whole Anti-Life business), and the characters feel more alive (except for Superman).

That last bit was not a joke. Superman may have gotten rid of the filler lines Joss Whedon wrote for him, but he's still as hackneyed a character as ever. Yes, he's back to save the world. But the switch from Whedon to Snyder still leaves him with no growth left to do, and for whatever reason, now he's wearing black, as if he were mourning his own death.

We shouldn't even need to devote so much attention to what clothes a hero is wearing, but this is the world we've become. Of all the overreactions caused by this film, I cannot for the life of me understand why the announcement of Superman's black suit was the one that made everyone's head explode. (Look, I've been there. I was one of those who loved Wonder Woman's winged armor last year. But Snyder fans can get, to put it in extremely mild terms, excitable. As a practical rule, if your wardrobe hype is on the level of "Malibu Stacy got a new hat," you should probably dial it down.) Superman's new look is supposed to allude to the recovery suit he wore in the comics during his post-resurrection hangover, but this version of the story never gives a reason for this version of the change, and a basic rule of scriptwriting is that the movie should not require you to have read the book.

In our present circumstances, the black suit gets invested with a very different meaning. The release of this film is at the same time cause for celebration and for mourning. Yes, this is by far a superior version of the story Whedon was hired to put together from unfinished parts, but it also goes to too much trouble to pave the way for a list of sequels that we know won't happen. The loudest fanbase since Twilight has finally gotten what they demanded, but they aren't satisfied, and already there are calls for a whole Snyderverse that no one at Warner Brothers is interested in producing. Yes, this is the movie we should have had in 2017. But seen today, it feels like the last recorded message left by a since gone father.

Moviegoers outside of comic book fandom must be baffled by this amount of drama. I hear you ask: why should we care what outsiders think? Because even academic film buffs appreciate the early superhero movies, and those were made with the understanding that their first duty was to tell a complete story. Sure, Superman IV was a bad joke, but at least it didn't waste any time in teasing a Superman V. The opposite extreme of the scale is The Amazing Spider-Man 2, which was a very long ad for too many sequels. The experience of watching a superhero movie has become a double mental effort: while you're processing the plot you're seeing right now, you're also looking for clues that point to where the story may go next. Zack Snyder's Justice League is a strange blend: despite all the sequels it promises, the cultural moment when it appears before us is one when its storyline has definitely been abandoned. It's refreshing to be able, like in the old days, to just sit and enjoy a superhero movie without spending any mental bandwidth in wondering about future productions.

That's where I place my bet: the Snyderverse ends here. Without that assumption, Zack Snyder's Justice League is a way more stressful experience than anyone should have to go through.

The DCEU is dealing with enough stress as it is. The coming months will replay, more annoyingly, the internet storm that followed the release of Whedon's Justice League, and the parts involved will, once again, fail to convince each other until one side just gives up. For the past four years, we lived in the bizarro world where it was impossible to have a rational conversation about an entirely hypothetical piece of art because the public had already settled on the verdict they preferred. Even after every executive in a position to decide on the matter has said that this is the last we're seeing of the Snyderverse, every fan who campaigned for the Snyder cut is busy composing new hashtags to maintain the pressure on the company.

In the meantime, Zack Snyder is determined to put pressure on your bladder.

Over the years, a sort of tacit agreement has emerged in the film industry. Two hours, roughly, is the limit of how long you can ask viewers to sit in an air-conditioned room without being able to pause the video to rest their eyes and stretch their legs. (Three hours is an exceptional allowance that only a work of perfection like Magnolia can pull off.) If the Snyder cut had been released on cinemas instead of via quarantine-mandated streaming, we'd probably have gotten either the original plan of two movies or a painstakingly trimmed one. (Let it be noted, however, that without the quarantine, WarnerMedia wouldn't have launched HBO Max, and this piece of subscription bait wouldn't have happened.) Not that it would've been hard to cut; Snyder seems to have taken pleasure in using every last second of footage available. To be frank, the movie didn't need that choir singing a lullaby to Aquaman, or Wonder Woman's astonished contemplation of a bullet's trajectory, or Alfred obsessing over proper tea brewing, or Batman's dramatic pose on a gargoyle while James Gordon was waiting to talk to him, or lab employees reminding Cyberdad of his own quarantine protocols, or Flash trying out military hats with Aquaman, or Lois Lane taking a moment to fondle Superman's abs, or the same yodeling voice derailing the tempo of the soundtrack every time Wonder Woman raised a finger.

(You know what? Let's drop the entire pet shop scene. Don't get me wrong: the pet shop scene is cute. But it belongs in another movie.)

It's easy to point at the main cause of the bloat. Zack Snyder has many bad habits, but the most irritating one, even more than his incomprehensible musical choices, is his fascination with slowing down the action so it looks like a sequence of comic book panels. That's a pointless aesthetic choice (because different media formats cannot lend themselves to the same visual experience). Moreover, it's tiresome. And to do it for four hours is nearly criminal. There's a possible version of Zack Snyder's Justice League that contains all the story he wanted to tell without endangering anyone's bladder. Snyder himself realized this problem, as he divided this production into six reasonably-sized chapters, and the idea of releasing them as a miniseries should not have been discarded. Binge-watchers would have binge-watched nonetheless, and the rest of us could have avoided a tension headache. The movie format is fit to be consumed in one continuous sitting. How much you admire a director is of no consequence. No movie has the right to be four hours long.

Unfortunately, four hours was the minimum length necessary for this extraordinarily complicated story to make sense. One of the many reasons for the failure of Whedon's Justice League was the lack of chemistry between the established superheroes and the new ones. Snyder's version contains all the necessary exposition and team-building, including a full movie's worth of flashbacks and trippy visions for Cyborg. These additional subplots deviate so far from the main conflict that one wishes each hero had already gone through their own movie so we could focus on the big bad guy this time. In particular, Cyborg's backstory is so compelling that he absolutely should have had his own movie beforehand. Justice League, in both versions, proves that Marvel Studios took the correct approach: first you need to care about the characters, then you can smash them together, and much, much later, you can play with the biggest villain of the franchise. Of course, if one goes by tactical common sense, no villain is going to sit and wait until the heroes are famous enough. But if one goes by the logic of narrative building, you can't throw the ultimate intergalactic war at your heroes while you're still figuring out why you like them.

Where we can agree is that the original, but latest, but first, but new, but refurbished Justice League is a huge improvement over the Whedon cut, even if that judgment tells us nothing because being better than the Whedon cut is a terribly low bar. The comparison, nonetheless, is useful as a lesson in film editing. Whedon made a painfully silly movie, with a disjointed plot and insulting characterization. The lines of dialogue he added were peppered with big rhetorical questions that sounded very smart but didn't contribute to building a plot. The scenes just followed one another with little sense of causality.

The Snyder cut fixes every single one of these failures. Snyder demonstrates here that he knows how to orchestrate the flow of a dialogue and follow the beats of a scene toward its resolution. (This ought to be elementary-level filmmaking, but remember, we're comparing against the unforgivable clumsiness of the Whedon cut.) This movie doesn't shrink from its ambition to develop a dozen simultaneous plots, and Snyder weaves all the chains of consequences to make every piece fit. I'll still call this movie bloated and self-important and ponderous and draining, but it's never sloppy. Snyder keeps his hands on the reins of the story all the way to the end, no matter how hopelessly far that is.

His way of composing action scenes here is also vastly superior to Whedon's. Too often in Batman v. Superman, the combination of speed and desaturation made it hard to follow what was happening on screen. Although Snyder hasn't abandoned his aversion to color, this time the viewer doesn't get lost. The focus of attention during combat follows a clear order that shows how much Snyder understands contemporary viewers' preferences. In the Whedon cut, the same combat scenes were reduced to the minimal parts required to show the action, but without the causal links between movements and positions.

In general, the Whedon cut felt like a two-headed monster because it was doubly excessive: it kept Snyder's visual grandiosity and paired it with Whedon's verbose dialogue. Whedon added a number of unnecessary lines to existing scenes, mainly to spell out what the audience could plainly see, and redubbed a few others to atrocious effect. In 2017, Queen Hippolyta whispered as she shot her flaming arrow, "Listen to me, Diana." In 2021, we discover that the actual line was, "Return to me, Diana," which is a stronger gut punch Whedon had no business removing. To make things worse, what amazed Lois upon landing at the Kent farm with the newly resurrected Clark was that he had finally spoken (2021), not that he smelled good (2017).

Even in the dialogues that were kept intact, the exercise of watching them in parallel with the Snyder cut reveals that Whedon's editing choices removed from view the characters' emotional turning points, again in the service of cutting down time. His Justice League blandly goes through the motions of happening, without any of the "wow" moments that this kind of movie should have (even Wonder Woman's solo fight with terrorists looks tame once you see what Snyder did). The antagonism Whedon made up between Batman and Wonder Woman came out of nowhere, and Steppenwolf's strange "Mother" obsession likewise went nowhere.

And on top of everything else, there's the moustache thing.

If there needed to be one incontestable reason why Justice League should not have been allowed to reach theaters in 2017 and Warner Brothers should just have waited while Snyder took however much time he needed to spend with his family until whatever time he felt able to return to finish the film, it was the moustache. Snyder's fans would have waited. Happily. Those fans will do anything for the man. The studio that in the same year had managed to digitally remove Gal Gadot's advanced pregnancy has no excuse for what they did to Henry Cavill's face.

None of that matters now. We have the movie fans cried out for. So, once we move past the obligatory comparison to the Whedon cut, does this one stand on its own?

My answer is: Sort of.

It shouldn't be this exhausting to sit on a sofa for four hours, but it's inevitable when Every. Little. Detail. On. Screen. Is. So. Very. Epic. And. It. Feels. Like. It. Never. Ends. Really. When. Does. It. End. Please. Make. It. Stop. Why. Oh. Why.

Zack Snyder is a capable filmmaker, but he never heard of killing your darlings. This is a director whose visual language gives the same reverence to the Olympian gods and to a floating sausage.

In the opening scene, which replays the ending of the previous film, Superman isn't allowed to just drop dead; his last scream literally goes round the world. By now it's no big discovery that Snyder has always treated Superman as a Jesus figure, which makes the DCEU his version of the Passion and Resurrection. The Bible tells us that the sky darkened and the earth shook when Jesus died. In the Gospel According to Zack, the death of Superman reshapes the cosmic balance of power. Within this framing, Justice League is Snyder's metaphor for how a community of followers struggle to find meaning in the world after the death of God, and in the process create a more durable form of society and craft a brand new mythology.

To the extent that Batman v. Superman was about something, it was about Superman's right to be Superman. Politicians debated whether he had the legal authority to intervene overseas, while Batman bought into Lex Luthor's paranoia about his potential danger and television pundits asked whether he should even exist. This theme is resolved by Superman's act of freedom in choosing his own manner of death.

When Superman comes back to life, the original question posed in Man of Steel resurfaces: he needs to discover his purpose, solve the big Why of his existence. This is left unanswered in Justice League; the meaning of life can't be to win a punching match. But we barely notice because this film is focused on a more interesting question: after the death of God, what can we do for ourselves?

Here again, Snyder knows what he's doing. Aquaman is confronted with his aloofness, which other characters misinterpret as indifference. Flash is dealing with his directionless pursuit of justice at the expense of his own potential. And Cyborg, the true star of the show, learns to rebuild his identity without dishonoring his pain.

Minor characters also get their chance to shine: this version of Alfred is a caustic critic of Batman, throwing snark with every line. Lois Lane is a relatable widow instead of a tool in Batman's arsenal. And Mera's attempted bloodbending of Steppenwolf is worth infinite rewatches.

Even losing those small moments could have been excusable by the studio-mandated length limit under which Joss Whedon had to work. But it's in the sessions of strategizing at the Batcave where one gets the full measure of how much he dismantled this movie. Every single team talk between fights was replaced in the Whedon cut with superficially identical scenes that lost all the emotional weight and shoehorned bogus conflict. If the increasing list of testimonies denouncing his unprofessional behavior are the nails in the coffin of Joss Whedon's career, Zack Snyder's Justice League is the tap dance on its grave.

So, the Snyder cut is undeniably preferable to what we had before. But this is enough. The world does not need a neverending Snyderverse. There are millions of other possible stories to be told with these characters, and I suspect Snyder knows this, because the audio tape that Cyberdad records for Victor can be interpreted as a metaphor for the Snyder cut: it's a work of love that was interrupted, but whose message was restored in the end, and through fantastic technology we were able to know what it had to tell us. And what it tells us is this: You got your second chance. That's good. But the world goes its own way and doesn't ask whether you're satisfied. Big things are happening all around you, and you'd do well to be part of them. Now is no time to cling to what could have been.

That's solemn dad speak for "get a life."

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 8/10.

Bonuses: +1 for Zack's persistence, +1 for sincerity, +1 for dialogue writing, +2 because it gives Cyborg the story he deserved, +2 because the way Flash saved the world was the only scene that honestly made me cry.

Penalties: −2 because it's too long, −1 for sequel hooks that are dead on arrival, −1 because it lacks narrative focus, −2 because it's creepy of Flash to caress a stranger's hair and even worse to do it while she's defenseless, −3 for that annoying yodeler who keeps following Wonder Woman everywhere.

Nerd Coefficient: 6/10.

POSTED BY: Arturo Serrano, multiclass Trekkie/Whovian/Moonie, accumulating experience points for still more obsessions.