Justice League or Sometimes There’s No Way to Salvage an Unholy Mess

Last week, the news dropped that Warner Bros is planning to release the so-called “Snyder cut” of Justice League sometime in 2021.

To recap, Zack Snyder, who had already directed Man of Steel and Batman versus Superman: Dawn of Justice shot Justice League and got as far as creating a rough cut without any post-production work in 2017, when tragedy struck and the Snyders’ daughter committed suicide. As a result, Zack Snyder and his wife, producer Deborah Snyder, stepped down to focus on their family. Joss Whedon was brought in to finish the film and created the version of Justice League that premiered in late 2017. Justice League did reasonably well at the box office, but got lukewarm to bad reviews, just as its predecessors Man of Steel and Batman versus Superman: Dawn of Justice. And considering very few people actually liked Man of Steel and Batman versus Superman: Dawn of Justice, the lukewarm reaction to Justice League was pretty predictable. Most critics seemed to agree that it wasn’t good, but at least better than Batman versus Superman: Dawn of Justice.

However, the people who did like Man of Steel and Batman versus Superman: Dawn of Justice, really really liked them and started the petition to release the so-called “Snyder cut”. Never mind that there was no finished “Snyder cut”, just a rough version without any special effects and post-production work. And now, two and a half years after the premiere of the Justice League that is, Warner Bros has agreed to give Zack Snyder another twenty to thirty million US-dollars to create his favoured version of Justice League, which will either be a four-hour movie or a six-part miniseries.

Now I have zero interest in the “Snyder cut”. The Snyder family has my deepest sympathy for the tragic loss they suffered. And Zack Snyder is not responsible for the toxic fans he has attracted. However, I am not a fan of Zack Snyder’s work as a director, going all the way back to 300. The only recent DC movies I liked were Wonder Woman, Aquaman and the very underrated Shazam, neither of whom was directed by Snyder.

However, by coincidence the original 2017 Justice League just happened to be on TV this weekend. And since I had nothing better to do, I decided to watch it, if only to see if it was as bad as its reputation suggests. Besides, even a bad superhero movie would almost certainly be better than the last two episodes of the long-running German crime drama Tatort I tried to watch.

So what’s the verdict? Well, Justice League was better than the last two episodes of Tatort, but it’s still an unholy mess of a movie. It’s the filmic equivalent of Frankenstein’s monster, a lumbering, stitched together thing with the seams showing all too clearly.

Now it’s very difficult to imagine two directors more different than Joss Whedon and Zack Snyder. And so it’s easy to tell which parts of Justice League are Snyder’s and which are Whedon’s and you don’t even need to use Henry Cavill’s electronically removed mustache as a guide. In short, any scene with dialogue that’s actually witty or characters appearing to have fun is likely Whedon’s. Anything with ponderous dialogue and the characters being morose is likely Snyder’s as are the action and fight scenes.

That said, it’s easy to see why Warner Bros brought in Joss Whedon to finish the movie. After all, Whedon was available, had experience with superhero movies and the basic plot of Justice League is very similar to Whedon’s own The Avengers. Both The Avengers and Justice League feature a villain with a horned helmet (both created and designed by Jack Kirby even) and his winged henchbeings, who are subordinates of an unseen even bigger baddie, acquiring glowing magical objects all over the world, while a bunch of disparate and often quarrelling superheroes get together to stop him and learn the value of teamwork in the process. Yet, The Avengers is a near perfect movie and one of my go-to feel-good films, while Justice League is an unholy mess.

Part of what made The Avengers so good is the banter and chemistry between the characters. That aspect is almost completely missing from Justice League and what little there is is likely due to Joss Whedon’s reshoots and script tweaks. But compare the scene of the Avengers arguing in the lab, with Tony Stark and Steve Rogers insulting each other, to the scene of the Justice League arguing in the Batcave with Bruce Wayne insulting almost everybody, until Wonder Woman pushes him. It’s basically the same scene, only one is good, because the excellent dialogue fits the characters as they’ve been portrayed until that point, and the other is weighed down by ponderous dialogue and Bruce Wayne being a jerk for no reason at all.

Also, the relationship between Batman and Superman portrayed in the movie is off. In the comics, they’re normally friends. In Batman versus Superman: Dawn of Justice, they hate each other’s guts and in Justice League, Bruce Wayne suddenly behaves as if he has a massive crush on Clark Kent. Now Batman’s sexual orientation has been questioned all the way back to Frederick Wertham in the 1950s and plenty of Batman actors beginning with Adam West in the 1960s have hinted at Batman being interested in men at least on occasion. And there would be absolutely no problem, if Bruce Wayne were indeed revealed to be bisexual or even gay (though likely bisexual, because Bruce Wayne also shows interest in women). And yes, Bruce Wayne can clumsily flirt with both Wonder Woman and Superman. But could they maybe come out and say it already, instead of teasing a bisexual Batman for sixty years?

The problems with Justice League are not the fault of the cast. Gal Gadot and Jason Momoa are great as Wonder Woman and Aquaman respectively. Ezra Miller is pretty good as Flash, though I still prefer Grant Gustin in the role and the Flash costume in Justice League is awful. Ben Affleck isn’t half bad as Bruce Wayne and the moment where he muses that he is getting too old for that sort of thing is nicely done, though I still wonder what whoever designed that Batman suit was thinking. Jeremy Irons makes a good Alfred, but then I’ve never seen a bad Alfred, even though we have had plenty of bad Batmans. Henry Cavill is nice to look at as Superman and The Witcher proved how good he can be, when given good material to work with. But Cavill’s version of Superman is weighed down by the two awful previous movies in which he appeared. I also note that he still pays zero attention to potential collateral damage and civilian deaths. Amy Allen would probably have made a nice Lois Lane, but we see very little of her. Ray Fisher as Cyborg isn’t given much to work with either, though his part is pretty substantial. Cyborg is also a rather dull character in general (but then so is Aquaman) and the movie does nothing to make him interesting, since he spends most of his time staring morosely out of windows (maybe he is trying to beat Batman’s standing morosely on roofs record), not to mention more associated with the Teen Titans than the Justice League. I understand the desire to have another hero of colour on the team, but why not John Stewart as Green Lantern, who actually is an established member of the Justice League? Is it because Green Lantern’s origin story is too complicated? Or is the character still considered toxic, because of the bad Ryan Reynolds movie, even though there are plenty of Green Lanterns available to use who are not Hal Jordan. Though there is a Green Lantern briefly glimpsed in a flashback scene fighting the villain Steppenwolf in prehistoric times.

As for Steppenwolf, Ciaran Hinds does the best with what he’s given, but I still wonder about the decision to use him as the main villain for the first (and likely only) Justice League movie. Loki he’s not. I’ve never particularly cared for the New Gods anyway and Steppenwolf is simply dull. I know they were holding back Darkseid for a later movie (probably for the better, since Darkseid basically is Thanos by another name), but Lex Luthor’s Injustice League idea, which is teased in the post-credits scene, would have been much more interesting than Steppenwolf and his flying monkeys. Steppenwolf’s end – he’s attacked and apparently killed by his own flying monkeys – is also a letdown. Now the Justice League is comprised of heroes who don’t kill – though Superman at least seems to have forgotten that fact in Man of Steel – so having them kill Steppenwolf would have been out of character and locking him up in Arkham Asylum wouldn’t work, since Arkham can’t even hold Batman’s more mundane rogue’s gallery. But just having the heroes stand back, while the flying monkeys do all the work, is still anti-climactic. According to this article on the “Snyder cut”, Snyder was planning to have Aquaman impale Steppenwolf and Wonder Woman behead him, just to make sure, which would have made for a more satisfying climax, but would also have been out of character.

Another problem – and for this one the blame squarely lies with Zack Snyder – was the decision to kill off Superman in Batman versus Superman: Dawn of Justice. First of all, it was always clear that the “death” of Superman would be a fake-out – even clearer than with other superhero deaths – after all, he is Superman and so we always knew he’d be back. However, the inconvenient fact that Superman is dead means that the Justice League have to interrupt the ongoing plot to resurrect him, while Steppenwolf steals the third Infinity Stone – pardon Mother Box. This leads to what is inevitably my least favourite part of every superhero team-up film – the part where the heroes fight each other. Now I have never liked superheroes fighting each other (which is probably why Captain America: Civil War is my least favourite Marvel movie), I’d much rather watch them hanging out, eating shawarma, having parties, playing sports and being friends. Besides, I have never felt the need to see which hero could beat which other hero. Most of the time, it’s obvious anyway.

But while the rest of the Avengers fighting the rampaging Hulk – twice, with a side order of Black Widow fighting the possessed Hawkeye the first time around – at least makes narrative sense, because Hulk is notoriously unstable and difficult to control, everybody fighting Superman makes zero sense, because “notoriously unstable” and Superman have never appeared in the same sentence, at least not until Zack Snyder got hold of him. And while I understand that Superman is not everybody’s piece of cake for being too much of a goody-two-shoes, what Zack Snyder did to the character is unforgiveable. A dark Superman simply does not work, unless it’s some kind of Elseworlds scenario or there is red Kryptonite involved. Also, while the ethics of resurrecting Superman are questionable in general (something the characters do point out), digging him up and resurrecting him without first informing his next of kin is completely unethical. Especially since it becomes clear that Bruce Wayne and Alfred know where to find Lois Lane and Martha Kent, since they bring in Lois to calm down the raging Superman. Luckily, it works, though it could have easily gone wrong and Superman could have tossed Lois aside like a rag doll, just like he tosses Batman aside. Only that unlike Batman, Lois would have had no way of surviving.

And talking of dark, up to now, my take on Zack Snyder’s work has always been, “I don’t like his movies, but the visuals are nice.” And contrary to popular opinion, Sucker Punch is actually my favourite of his films. It’s still deeply flawed, but for once the flaws are less due to Snyder and more due to casting actresses who are more suited to stuff like Highschool Musical than amovie about abuse and mental illness. And whatever else you can say about Sucker Punch, the dream sequences are visually impressive.

Justice League, on the other hand, is not visually impressive. Oh, there are some nice moments such as Superman hurling a giant replica of his own head at the other heroes or Wonder Woman taking down the terrorists early on (But “We are reactionary terrorists”? Really? Even if the lasso compells them to tell the truth, no one thinks of themselves as a reactionary terrorist. He’d probably say something like “We are conservative freedom fighters.”) and Commissioner Gordon (J.K. Simmons, who really seems to be a superhero fan, since he’s also J. Jonah Jameson over at Marvel) firing up the Batsignal, only to get more superheroes than he bargained for. But overall, the action and fight scenes are murky, dark, confusing and not all that well shot. There also are very few iconic shots such as the famous Michael Ballhaus style camera circle around the assembled Avengers in the first Avengers film.

The biggest problem with Justice League, however, is that it is often difficult to follow, bordering on incoherent. Now other superhero movies, including the Avengers movies, jump around between different locations, characters and plotlines as well, but they usually feel much more coherent. Justice League, however, feels choppy. Worse, several times information is missing and important scenes are not shown, but only referred to in dialogue.

This is the one problem with the movie that the “Snyder cut” might actually fix, if only because it is longer – much longer. Four hours long according to rumours. Now I don’t think that any movie needs to be four hours long, but Justice League could have benefitted from another fifteen to twenty minutes runtime.  Besides, both Whedon’s Avengers and Avengers: Age of Ultron are much longer than Justice League to the point that I was actually surprised that the movie was relatively short. However, according to reports, it was Warner Bros that pushed for a runtime of under two hours. Both Whedon and Snyder would have preferred the movie to be longer.

Will the “Snyder cut” improve on the Justice League that is? Snyder’s fans probably think so. And at any rate, the “Snyder cut” will be a more coherent vision than the badly stitched together mess that we have. Unfortunately, given Snyder’s track record, it will be twice as long, twice as dark and twice as depressing with what little sparkle there is removed. Personally, what I would like to see is not Zack Snyder’s Justice League, but the Justice League Joss Whedon would have made, if he had been in charge of the movie from the beginning.

I understand why Warner Bros has announced the release of the “Snyder cut” now. Due to the corona pandemic, shooting new movies is impossible right now, theatrical releases have been suspended, including Wonder Woman 1984. Releasing the “Snyder cut” is a relatively cheap (and sadly, 20 to 30 million US-dollar is cheap compared to a movie that already cost 300 million US-dollar) way for Warner Bros to get new content as well as subscribers and interest for their streaming service. Plus, it shuts up the “Release the Snyder cut” fanboys.

However, what I cannot understand is why Warner Bros didn’t hit the brakes after Man of Steel came out and demonstrated that Zack Snyder’s vision of Superman was not one that most fans wanted. Why double down with Batman versus Superman: Dawn of Justice (the title alone is a pain to type over and over again) and Justice League? Okay, so Warner Bros had a lot of success with Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy (I don’t like those movies, but many people do), but Batman is a very different and darker character than Superman, who justifies a different approach. Not to mention that times, tastes and superhero films have changed a lot since the Dark Knight movies came out. The Dark Knight and the first Iron Man film came out in the same year, one dark and depressing and full of “war on terror” and “we need to make hard choices” rhetoric (which is the reason I can’t stand The Dark Knight, though I liked Batman Begins all right) and the other a lot lighter and more fun and starring a superhero who actually enjoyed his life. Of course, Iron Man had its share of dark moments, too, like all of the Marvel movies, but they were integral to the story, not just darkness for darkness’ sake. And by the time The Dark Knight rises came out in 2012, it was eclipsed by The Avengers. Audience tastes had clearly changed, but Warner Bros doubled down on the dark and gritty for characters that don’t support that approach at all, ironically while having a lot of success with its superhero TV shows, which are very different.

So the big question about Justice League is: How did this mess ever get commissioned in the first place and why did Warner waste 300 million US-dollars and the potential of its biggest characters on a movie they should have known wouldn’t work?

Throwing another 20 to 30 million US-dollars at the problem is not going to make it work.

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