(Editor’s Note: This post contains what some may consider to be spoilers.)
Back in 2017, director Zack Snyder was forced to step down as the director of Justice League during post production after the death of his daughter. Joss Whedon, who had already been working with Snyder on rewrites, took over the project, doing massive reshoots for the film, which was eventually Frankensteined together and released, in 120-minute form, in November 2017.
Even before he left the project, WB was desperate to “lighten the tone” of Snyder’s version after the negative reaction to Batman V Superman. Zack Snyder is an occasionally flawed thinker (see: Sucker Punch) but for whatever his faults and tendency to be little overwrought, the man can shoot a pretty picture in a way few others can match (the JFK assassination sequence in Watchmen still stands out as an all-time great bit of visual exposition). By contrast, Joss Whedon, with his bright, flatly lit superhero sitcoms, in which characters offer running commentary on themselves, seemed like society’s perfect punishment for deciding that we were all getting a little sick of Zack Snyder’s epic grimdark operatic bullshit. “Oh, is this too self-serious for you? Well, what if every character talked like they had a Tumblr blog?”
Whedon and Snyder are almost each other’s perfect foils, and in trying to combine both of their visions to a movie that didn’t run more than two hours, WB initially gave the world something mind-numbingly dull. DC superfans — and just as in politics, the world of comic book movies is dominated by two bland, shitty-in-slightly-different-ways corporate superbrands with their own inexplicably rabid fanbases — have been crying foul ever since.
After years of niche whining via Twitter hashtags, finally, in a coup for… I don’t know… something… WB spent $70 million to complete this week’s new Snyder Cut, aka Zack Snyder’s Justice League, which runs a full four hours, giving “fans” (which these days seems to mostly denote psychosis) all the superhero action they thought they wanted, with a plot about superheroes rushing around trying to close a portal that was already stale four years ago. If Joss Whedon was society’s punishment for not appreciating Zack Snyder, Zack Snyder’s Justice League is society’s punishment for demanding Zack Snyder’s Justice League.
The original cut of Justice League was so punishingly pointless that watching it felt like standing on the shore while a stranger watched the film in a boat anchored out at sea. While I’d love to get deep into the weeds of a discussion of the two versions’ respective merits, I remember about as much of the first as I do my own birth. Even at four hours, this version maintains a level of mild entertainingness that the first never found (unless I blocked it out, which is possible). It would make for a fine series. Still, I prefer DC’s Justice League to Marvel’s The Avengers, on account of there are fewer of them.
Yes, there are still the jarring tone shifts, when scenes that feel heavily-Snyder influenced slam into ones that feel especially Whedon-y. In that context, Whedon’s self-referential quippyness, in which characters deliver observational anti-wit like “Wow… so that just happened” and “okay, I’m guessing that’s the bad guy” does feel like the greater anachronism. The best thing Zack Snyder’s Justice League could do is serve as a requiem for comic book heroes trying to talk like their fans.
Yet the existence of this movie at all speaks to a broader failure of the cultural imagination. Our imagination, or at least the current structure of the cultural production machine, is so limited that the best we can do is redesign the seating on this train to nowhere. Superhero team-up movies exist for no creative purpose other than to milk their fanbase’s most infantile urges. Most people learn by the age of 10 that combining all the different sodas into one cup creates a sweet but muddled concoction that even to a child lacks the character and nuance of the individual iterations. And for a good ten years it seemed all the best minds and deepest pockets in the entertainment industry were dedicated to discovering the best and tastiest way to mix up this narrative suicide. The biggest question Zack Snyder’s Justice League raises is, can this be the last one? Please?
To put a finer point on it, WB spent $70 million remaking a $300 million flop, which retains almost all of the flaws of the original and of the concept in general. In order for superhuman beings to have to team up to fight for good, there needs to be an evil powerful enough to require it. It’s bloat that attempts to justify further bloat, like the US defense budget.
Just as The Avengers had Thanos, the Justice League has Darkseid, and his minion Steppenwolf, who spends most of the movie magic carpet riding around the Earth in search of “The Mother Boxes” (lol). Which, when combined will, Infinity Stones-like, create something called “The Unity,” ushering in an age of darkness and forever scorching “DON’T FORGET TO DRINK YOUR OVALTINE” onto the surface of the sun or something. The short version is that there’s going to be a big portal and the gang has to destroy it.
It’s incredible that in a multi-verse of infinite possibility we constantly end up with the same thing over and over again. Or maybe it isn’t incredible, maybe it’s perfectly predictable considering the same small handful of guys keep directing all of these movies. JJ Abrams has directed both Star Trek and Star Wars. Joss Whedon has directed both The Avengers and Justice League. Coke, Pepsi, Oreo, Hydrox; let’s call the whole thing off.
Steppenwolf looks like an 80s metal band’s drawing of Satan covered in chrome knives, whose powers and weaknesses seem vague and contradictory. He lacks Thanos’ coherent motive but has the same daddy issues, and Snyder’s battle scenes do have a certain flair for gory visuals (beheadings, impalings, crushed skulls) that the Marvel Universe lacks. Someone even says the F-word at some point. But discussing the relative merits of each feels like falling into the classic team-up superhero movie trap. Don’t make me argue about which one is better, the fact remains: I don’t want this.
Justice League is at its best when I can forget what it actually is. It’s all based on the premise that bigger superhero battles are better, and there’s actually nothing more dull than giant CGI battle scenes. The bigger they get the duller they become, a lesson that should’ve been clear from the diminishing returns of the Lord Of The Rings trilogy. At four hours, there are long stretches of ZSJL that thankfully aren’t that, but we all know what they’re building to and why this movie exists. Death, taxes, giant portals.
Even on a micro-level these movies tend to triangulate into bland sameness. Quicksilver is famously the cyberpunk fast guy in the later X-Men movies (a Marvel character who is part of what used to be the Fox universe of superhero movies, for reasons I’m absolutely not willing to lay out here). Justice League‘s answer to Quicksilver is The Flash, played in a constant nasal-camp whine by Ezra Miller, who stands out as the most miscast of Justice League‘s principals, who are all miscast to varying degrees, with the exception of Jason Momoa’s delightful hard-drinking Polynesian surf bro Aquaman. That was clever casting that allowed for some interesting creative decisions.
There’s also Cyborg, played by Ray Fisher, who on paper is the man-robot hybrid created by a Defense Department scientist from the Mother Box and his dying football star son, but in practice is basically just DC’s Iron Man, complete with rocket hands and transforming face shield. The scientist, incidentally, is played by Joe Morton, who famously tried to stop the machines from becoming self-aware in Terminator 2. He failed, both in that movie and on a meta level.
Where was I? Who even knows. Anyway, there’s a big portal and Superman comes back to life and hordes of faceless evil guys who look like flying mosquitos get slaughtered. The world is saved, but then a bunch of other characters appear, like the Martian Manhunter and Jared Leto’s Joker, the latter appearing in a dream, teasing future tie-ins that with any luck won’t actually ever happen. God willing, this will be the last ever superhero team-up movie. I wouldn’t count on it though. Even when it’s a relative improvement over its predecessor, it’s still pop-culture slurry for babies.
‘Zack Snyder’s Justice League’ hits HBO Max March 18th. Vince Mancini is on Twitter. You can access his archive of reviews here.