After stepped down from the directors chair of 2017’s Justice League owing to personal tragedy, Zack Snyder returns to offer his definitive vision of the DCEU’s ultimate team up. With great bombast he delivers a four hour epic of humanoid figures who visually resemble famous superheroes talking in monotone before their computer generated facsimiles fly through the air as CGI environments crumble to pieces around them. Eventually the identical ‘characters’ unite against the big CGI monster that talks like that guy off Game of Thrones and they win because they punch very hard.
This cut of the film is still an incoherent and stodgy mess that is entirely consistent with Zack Snyder’s flawed filmmaking and storytelling style. It is however an improvement on the theatrical cut. The slower pace makes the film feel less relentlessly nonsensical (though none of this added screen time could be described as character building), and tonally it is a lot more coherent (though awkward comedic relief is still jarring). A great deal of the new screen time is devoted to ancillary scenes intended to deliver backstory but has all the passion of a Wikipedia entry. The film no longer feels rushed, but it can’t be said to feel complete either.
When the film finally unites it’s team it feels the need to have conflict between it’s members. Perhaps it’s noticed that better films tend to have its heroes argue now and then over character differences. Unfortunately these aren’t characters, they are whacky Erza Miller and the grumpy exposition machines, so the only conflict comes from circumstance, contrivance and, in one extraordinary instance, conflicting needs to exposit. The characters aren’t even unique in their abilities. They are all smart, strong, seemingly invincible and super-smart. They don’t work together as a team, because they’re interchangeable.
Justice League still depends upon a movie that did not exist. The dramatic story beats mishandled in Batman Vs Superman can be felt throughout the Superman story. Bruce Wayne’s character motivation is a debt he owes to a friendship that frankly did not exist. When the groups attentions turn to resurrecting Superman as a symbol of hope and strength for the world, it cannot be denied that he just did not exist. Snyder’s superman was a dour misanthrope who took no joy or pride in helping people, and in fact seemed to feel guilty for doing so. Snyder is fond of portraying altruism as an act of promoting weakness, so why on earth does this world mourn him so?
Thematically there’s almost nothing here. Is this a film about team work? Is it about grief? Is it about heroism or altruism in general? It’s not really about anything other than it’s own plot. As with all of Snyder’s works it is a film fascinated with it’s own iconography and always trying to create “epic” moments but is completely disinterested in any kind of greater meaning or insight. Character motivation is non-existent, Everything feels arbitrary and, in spite of the bombast, unceremonious. This is aggravated by the awkward sense that this is still a film stitched together. Aquaman has two dramatic reveal sequences whilst Cyborg and the batsuit is just awkwardly dumped into frame. Though all pales in comparison to the films final sequence which comes completely out of nowhere in this film’s superfluous appendage of an epilogue.
Snyder’s defenders will often claim, very much like Michael Bay’s fans, that he is at least good with action sequences. This has always been a mysterious concept to me, as Snyder hasn’t actually presented a coherently choreographed fight or authentic stunt or relatable bit of peril in over a decade. His characters fly through the air and smash in to things that break apart like sand, completely destroying any sense of weight or gravity. It’s an ugly and indifferent approach to action that is a blight on modern blockbuster cinema. It’s the opposite of visceral. There is nothing to encourage you to relate to what is happening or feel any sense of threat, danger or excitement. And then Superman shows up and takes out the big bad in moments and the flash learns he can turn back time, like Superman in ’78. For all the films supposed Grit, there is never any real danger.
Much has been made of the film’s four hour running time. Some have argued that the film is split into parts and in it’s home release format can therefore be experienced in chunks. I feel this approach bespeaks the awkward identity of this project. It’s not paced or structured like a feature film, nor is it episodic like a limited run series. IT perhaps most resembles a videogame that can be picked up and played and then put down again as needed, without the need for an overall shape to the experience. Once scene doesn’t really lead into the next or build towards any kind of tension or drama, so it really can be watched a bit at a time without sacrificing any sense of cohesion, because there is none.
Clearly this film is strictly for fans of Snyder’s DC. It’s strange to see the film play so heavily on nostalgia for a franchise that still feels infant. The problem is that DC has moved on from his joyless vision, and there has been promise in it’s new direction. Though frequently too dependent on the marvel formula, there has been a sense of the franchise finding it’s own identity. Wonder Woman was an affirming and empowering anthem, Birds of Prey felt like an experimental project that Marvel would have struggled to make, and the new The Suicide Squad trailer suggests an exciting dark comedy route. This movie would be easy to dismiss as a curio for super-fans, but there are the terrifying moments of sequel-bating that dare audiences to demand more of these goddamn things, to steer the DCEU ship back to the dark waters of the snyderverse (what an appropriate name for the tone of these movies).
If you take away the production history, the fandom and the cultural significance of these characters you are left with a thoroughly unremarkable bad blockbuster, the like of which is churned out with troubling regularity, and always has been. This movie shares so many of its problems with its theatrical cut. It’s a more coherent vision and I enjoyed the slower pace, but this was not a film that needed saving. It’s a relic from a universe that was already floundering. The world moved on, just like Louis Lane nearly did before Superman returned (again trading on emotional resonance the previous movies did not earn). I just sincerely hope the DCEU will move forwards from here and not backwards.