Zack Snyder's Justice League

I watched this last night, started attempting to write down my feelings, fell asleep, woke up and continued (at the expense of other obligations >_>), ultimately spending more time on this than I did watching the damn thing, because it basically ignited every neuron I had at once.

The original writeup begins as follows:

I don't... I can't.... words... how to... brain think... write... what... what??? what!!! what.............

So there's a scene in this where a disintegrated body is put back together, like a reverse-Raiders of the Lost Ark. I need that guy to come over here and do that for me, because my face has been melted off and my eyes - and brain - are leaking out of my charred, chattering skull.

This is what 4 hours of pure, undiluted Zack Snyder does to a human being.

I don't even know where to begin.

I........ think.................... I loved this more than any new release I've seen in ages? (since Birds of Prey, I suppose. Weirdly fitting: same universe, absolutely the opposite movie in every capacity) And there are people out there calling this the worst movie ever made and I don't even really disagree (okay, I don't think anyone with an informed perspective can say it's literally the worst, but I get the sentiment). But it's not "so bad it's good" or unintentionally funny. It's not, strictly speaking, uncompromised, but it is unmitigated in its delivery. It's like the producers gave Snyder a firehose through which he could blast his artistic sensibility at the audience, and boy, did he ever.

It's known as the "Snyder Cut" but I would go so far as to call it a remake. Literally over half the footage is new, a lot of what's reused has been altered (different color correction, altered CGI backgrounds, characters added/removed - not necessarily minor changes), and more than anything, it's all been recontextualized into a completely different artistic purpose: from funny into serious, from light romps into grave epics.

(I saw a few people saying 'it's the same movie just longer', and: no. Holy shit, no. No no no no no. A movie is more than the story; the tone, the aesthetics, the emotional weight are all completely different here. And most significantly, the main characters are different: functionally, Cyborg and Flash are the leads of the Snyder version. It's an ensemble movie of course, but they are the characters with the prominent arcs, and it's through their actions that most of the plot advances. Which is why this one actually makes sense, on a causes-lead-to-effects level at least. God damn Whedon sucks. Sorry, I'm getting ahead of myself.)

I'd go so far as to say that the two Justice Leagues are as different as the two True Grits, maybe more so.

I guess I need to say at some point, for the record: I've always found Zack Snyder to be one of the most frustrating filmmakers working right now. I love his aesthetics and I love that he has these big ideas that he wants to explore, but he really struggles to articulate them effectively.

It's apparent now that some of that was due to studio meddling/mangling. But only some.

So Man of Steel and Batman V Superman essentially posit Superman as Jesus, sent by his father (ooooh!) to save humanity and discovering his ordained duty as he discovers his superhuman nature and all that, and posits Batman as a sort of avatar of humanity as a whole, at first rejecting (H)him but ultimately embracing (H)him as they recognize their shared nature (symbolized by, er, realizing their mothers have the same name. That's the problem, this stuff all isn't even half-baked. Maybe not even quarter-baked). That's mostly set aside here, aside from, uh, one major plot development (inevitable to the point it's not a spoiler if you've seen BvS, but I'll remain courteous) - Superman is very much a tertiary character here, more a macguffin than anything really. So never mind about all that.

Whatever, fine. Now we're onto something else: this is a more conventional superhero team-up movie, in that it's both literally and thematically about people with great differences coming together for a higher purpose (punching a knockoff Balrog - more on that later). And Snyder loves his superheroes-as-icons: Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and Aquaman are all avatars of their respective peoples, setting aside differences and recognizing each other's strengths and all that. But Cyborg and Flash don't really fit in there; instead, they're part of this whole parenthood thing that's also going on. They've both got Dad Drama with their fathers, but they're also sort of like the next generation of Superman and Batman, respectively, and Batman sets them on their path kind of like Jor-El did Kal-El. And on the other side, Steppenwolf and Darkseid clearly have a paternal relationship (even if they aren't literally son and father), with the former a disappointment trying to make his terrible daddy proud - the opposite of Superman and Jor-El. And there's also this "Mother" thing going on: Superman regains his humanity by visiting Ma Kent, we pointedly see Lois' box of pregnancy tests, and of course the macguffins are literally called "Mother Boxes" (which motherless Steppenwolf desperately seeks - ooh I get it!).

It's great that all of that is there! It's great that we have popular/populist entertainment that tries to have actual ideas and themes and layered meanings! But that means there are 3 fundamentally different things going on here: the Christian symbology, the LotR-style Fellowship-forming as a metaphor for diplomacy/unity between mutually mistrustful nations, and the parent-child thing. And none of that really fits together cohesively in the movie, and none of it is developed at all beyond simply placing these elements into it. If you step back, unfocus your eyes, and take it all in at once, you can kind of see that there's a way that it could all fit together, theoretically, but that's already meeting it way more than halfway. Like I said, it's incredibly muddled.

So what has to sustain it, in theory, is the plot and/or the characters. The plot isn't particularly notable: Steppenwolf wants the macguffins so he can conquer Earth for his master, Batman recruits more and more people to help stop him until they have enough people and then they actually stop him using a combination of violence and knowledge they discovered along the way. That's fine but unremarkable; of course, 99% of superhero stories are unremarkable, and especially in team-up movies it’s essentially incidental: it’s all about getting the heroes together and seeing them use their skills in a complementary manner. The ‘complementary manner’ bit is there, mostly in Cyborg+Flash have to work in concert to dismantle Steppenwolf’s Thingamajig, and the other 4 have to punch a lot of things to keep those two safe while they do so. That part I thought could have been a little bit better developed, but it’s there, it’s fine.

The characters though… Batman, Wonder Woman, and Aquaman don’t really have any arcs, or any actual plot even really, other than Batman physically goes around and facilitates the teamup by inviting them all together. Superman has a little thing where he’s… out of sorts… when he first shows up, then goes and hugs his mom, then he’s fine – it’s there but it’s not much (like I said, he’s more a macguffin than a character, really). So it falls on the other two. Flash… also doesn’t really have much of an arc, although he’s got the most personality: there’s a little thing about him learning to use his powers and become more confident and learning to push through adversity, but he starts out already pretty good with his powers, and the other things aren’t really developed much. Cyborg has the most going on by far, with his origin story and his relationship with his father and becoming his own man – it’d be enough to sustain maybe a 2 hour movie (one an awful lot like Alita: Battle Angel, come to think of it), but in a 4-hour epic with all this other stuff going on, it’s not a strong enough through-line. Maybe if it were more focused on that story than on showing huge LotR-style battles between peoples (armies) we only sort of know, and only through the standalone prequels. But…

But in this film, as in all of his films but much more so, Snyder intends to sustain the movie not through any of that crap but through sheer brute force of spectacle. And my god, he succeeds. I never wanted to look away, but during some of the (intentionally placed for this exact purpose) slowdowns I had to take a breather. Because it’s just so much.

This film has everything: superheroes punching the supervillain and epic-scale LotR battles and a big trans-dimensional overboss clearly modeled after Thanos and superheroes battling each other and family melodrama and a warplane shooting missiles at a forcefield like in Independence Day and somber scenes of characters navigating grief and loss and funny quips and coming-of-age, discovering your abilities stuff and an almost Saving Private Ryan-esque sequence of driving a tank through a bombed out city and sci-fi laboratory shit and underground Dark Knight Rises-style fights and robots and the Seven Samurai team-up structure and time travel and extraterrestrial bugs shooting lasers and death and resurrection and traditional old-school superhero stuff like saving a regular civilian from getting hit by a truck and downright psychedelic dream sequences… visions… premonitions… things…...?

And it works. Somehow, some way, all of these disparate things fit together into a cohesive aesthetic and tone that not only sustains but builds momentum over a fucking four-hour runtime.

I’m not kidding or exaggerating when I say that this might be the culmination of all blockbuster filmmaking. It’s all here, everything that came before melded into a singular uberfilm. Not a hodgepodge, but a synthesis. Of everything. All of it. Undiluted and blasted straight into your eyeholes.

Which is not to say it’s a film for everybody. It might not even be a film for anybody except the guy who directed it. It is, like I’ve said many times now, a lot. And while it’s not exactly style without substance – there is some substance buried in there, somewhere – the style is so overwhelming it may as well be.

But the world is a better place when something like this can be made. The man was afforded all the resources he needed to convey his artistic vision to the world, and while he wears his influences on his sleeve, he’s given us something that could only have come from a single mind with a single vision. A lot of people will hate it vehemently, but I’d wager at least as many will rate this their favorite movie of all time: that’s what happens when art has personality, and this might be the most individual personality in a movie of this scale, maybe ever.

It’s mind-boggling to me that this was apparently intended to be only part 1 of 3 – I can’t fathom how this could possibly get bigger than it already is.

But that of course is what the much-derided coda is hinting at (and apparently a lot of the stuff that didn’t really pay off here, like Batman repeatedly offering to sacrifice himself, is meant to become more significant in the later installments). Snyder says that’s ‘to give the fans a taste of what would have been’ or somesuch, but I have to think he’s secretly hoping that it’s intriguing enough that another campaign will mount to pressure the studios into letting him do JL 2 and 3. And I mean, Icarus might already be flying too close to the sun, the wax holding this one’s wings together is already getting a little soft, but my god I’m going to strap on a pair of my own and fly along with him. Do I send a letter somewhere? How do I get this going?

Errata:
1) I mentioned Lord of the Rings a few times and that’s not just for scale and scope. It’s clear Snyder loves those movies, in fact is fixated on them to the point of straight-up reproducing major elements of them in these movies. I thought the bad guy in BvS was conspicuously cave troll-like, but that was only the tip of the ice berg. In this movie, there’s a huge prologue battle showing the historic events that lead to this (although placed square in the middle of the film here), that involves a character getting his hand chopped off, freeing a magic ring that then seeks a new master, almost identical to the prologue of Fellowship. It’s incredible. And Steppenwolf’s design is clearly modeled after the Balrog – in the comics, he appears to be just a guy in a horned helmet – and notably, he does not have wings (for those who don’t know, whether or not the Balrog has wings in Tolkein’s writing is a whole Thing – and the no-wings camp was annoyed when Jackson’s design did have them. Maybe Snyder’s just a super-fan, or maybe this was some sort of statement on artistic vision. Or maybe he just thought this looked cooler. I noticed it, though.). But then they’re fighting it on a stone bridge over a chasm, and a character yells and hits their magic item against the ground, and there’s a bright flash of white light and the bridge collapses and they all fall down. I guess having someone yell "You shall not pass!" was a step too far - but it's right up to that point.

Then we’ve got the battle between the Amazons and Steppenwolf’s army that’s just like the Battle of Pelennor Fields. And there are some Uruk-Hai in that army (though maybe not that battle, I don't remember anymore) – I don’t even know what they’re “supposed to be”, they are just straight up Uruk-Hai. And one does the thing where he lifts someone up by their neck with one arm, and gets shot full of arrows which he relishes. The shot compositions are even the same.

I must note, if we’re working from the assumption that Snyder’s going to “homage” all the major battles from LotR in these movies, he still hasn’t done Shelob. Yet another reason to make the sequels: Jon Peters can finally get his wish!

2) The Joss Whedon-shaped elephant in the room… He’s a creep, a sex pest, and apparently a raging asshole. It’s shameful that producers enabled that for so long, and his career in mass entertainment needs to be done at the very least.

Unfortunately I wasn’t too surprised to learn all that – honestly, I was and am kind of shocked that so many people apparently missed that his ex-wife straight up said he had abused his power for sexual favors (in fact, said he admitted it) the first time around. I’ve liked most of his work, honestly, but he needs to go sit in a deep dark pit somewhere for a good long while.

But it was Ray Fisher’s later accusations that finally stuck, accusations of general denigration and racism, particularly “erasure of people of color from the 2017 theatrical version”. I obviously can’t say the other stuff is apparent on-screen, but the erasure (now remedied) sure as hell is – and in fact, the most prominent “erasure” was Fisher himself, who is as I’ve said the main character of Snyder’s story. It was gracious that he didn’t even mention that in public (although it must be noted that he did have significant self-interest in making the accusations, since this was a potential star-making opportunity that was taken away). If you restructure the film to essentially sideline the original main character, you are making a different movie, period. On top of everything else, it was unethical of Whedon to agree to do this (much less be an impetus for it, as seems to be the case). Sure scripts are rewritten all the time, but that’s not the case here: Snyder directed the agreed-upon film. If they didn’t like it, they could make a different one, but they have no ethical right to take someone’s nearly-finished creative work and contort it into something completely different. For that reason alone, Whedon (and the producers that were also involved) ought to be blackballed from ever working in screen entertainment again.

They should of course also be blackballed for all those other reasons as well.

3) With all of that said, it’s also not really correct to call this “Zack Snyder’s original vision”. This is essentially another draft of that one, after he had more time to reflect on his decisions – and to see how some of them played out in front of an audience. (It’s worth noting that he was apparently on-board with at least some of Whedon’s changes, if begrudgingly – and they’re not all excised, though most seem to be.) I’m sure it’s closer to the original, but it's probably most accurately a reflection of his current vision ca. 2020.

Which is fine! Great, in fact! But it does make one wonder 1) what that original version actually was (I guarantee Darkseid wasn’t so Thanos-esque, for one thing), but 2) how well a sequel (or two) would turn out without an opportunity like this to iterate on it. That’s what makes this such a unique – special – once-in-a-lifetime event. And for that reason alone, regardless of one’s feelings on Snyder as an artist, it’s worth checking this beautiful monstrosity out.

4) A note about length:
These are the lengths of the 5 top-grossing movies of all-time in nominal dollars:
1. 162 mins
2. 181 mins
3. 194 mins
4. 138 mins
5. 149 mins

And these are the top-5 adjusted for inflation:
1. 238 mins
2. 162 mins
3. 194 mins
4. 121 mins
5. 181 mins

The rest of the top-10 includes: 220 mins, 197 mins, and 172 mins.

This is becoming my pet cause celebre: people like long movies! Many, many people will pay to see long movies! You can make a lot of money making long movies! What are all these “limited series” that are so popular now, if not long movies! Heck, what are less-limited series like Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones, if not very long movies! People want grand, they always have and always will.

I’ve been going back and forth on how I think this version of Justice League would have done if it had been released in theaters in non-pandemic times. I could see it bombing completely, or I could see it doing somewhat better than BvS did, or somewhere in-between. It’s probably too much – too weird – to become one of the top-grossing of all-time like Infinity War-Endgame, which is probably enough for the studio to call it a disappointment. But Zack Snyder's Justice League is a much more comprehensible movie than BvS (theatrical version) ever was, with a plot that actually makes sense and a tone that’s self-consistent – and grand in scope, like the people crave. All I know is, it would’ve been a hell of a thing to see this on the big screen.

Although I might not have survived it.

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