Thursday, March 25, 2021

Justice Fatigue: An Exhaustive (and Exhausting) Discussion of Zack Snyder's "Justice League"

So, Zack Snyder's "Justice League." 

To get it out of the way: no, it doesn't pass the Middle Batman Movie Test. Both options involve messy-but-interesting failures of movies, but "Batman Returns" and "Batman Forever" make efforts to be entertaining. Zack Snyder's "Justice League" is so self-serious and so laden with a sense of Importance and Gravitas that the only times it ever approaches entertainment as a goal is during the big fight scenes. 

The other big question, "is it better than Joss Whedon's cut?" is harder to answer. Whedon's version is a shambling Frankenstein of a film, a mess of different tones, never quite sure what kind of movie it wants to be, and the pieces don't all fit together. Snyder's cut is considerably more consistent, and in a lot of ways, more competent, but it instead becomes a mess of themes and aborted character arcs and plot lines that should have been their own movies and redundant scenes that would otherwise have been cut for time. 

It's the difference between having a big bowl of jelly beans where some are normal flavors and some are flavors like dirty diaper and sweatsocks, and having a big bowl of jelly beans but they're all black licorice. It makes the comparison pretty difficult. 

The extremely cursory notes I took over the course of this movie came out to 2,200 words, about a quarter of what I wrote in my overlong analysis of "Batman v. Superman," so it's pretty clear that my usual method of assessing the film in a linear way isn't going to cut it. Instead I'm going to talk about the problems of Zack Snyder's "Justice League," in rough order of significance, and along the way that should give me the opportunity to talk about what I liked as well. 

It's Trying To Be Too Many Movies

"Justice League" was a bad idea from the start. Warner Brothers wanted their cinematic universe, and like everyone else who's tried to follow the MCU—Sony with Spider-Man, Fox with the X-Men, Universal with the Dark Universe, even Warner previously with Green Lantern—they didn't want to put in the work to get there. They clearly wanted "Justice League" to be their "Avengers," but a huge part of why "The Avengers" worked as a movie was because we already knew all the characters. Every main character, including the villain, had already been either the star or a featured character in a previous installment in the franchise. Even the characters whose origins we hadn't seen—Fury, Black Widow, Hawkeye—were familiar from their appearances in the earlier films. They laid five movies worth of groundwork before trying to pull the team together. "Justice League" should have come, at the very least, after the "Aquaman" feature film, and ideally after a solo outing for the Flash. 

More than that, they should have done more to seed the "Justice League" villain or the larger mythology in the earlier films. We learn in "Wonder Woman" that Ares slaughtered the rest of the old gods until Zeus took him down and (sigh) fathered Diana. How easy would it have been to tweak that story? In both versions of "Justice League," we get a flashback to a war that united the old gods with the other kingdoms of Earth against the legions of Apokolips; why not make that the incident that killed the old gods? You could still make Ares the betrayer—he sided with Darkseid—and still have Zeus's dying action, but we could see Darkseid in the renaissance-painting flashback, we could see the Mother Box in the chamber where they keep the Godkiller sword, and we wouldn't have to spend so much of this movie on exposition. 

But they didn't lay that groundwork, so instead this movie has to introduce Aquaman, the Flash, Cyborg, and Steppenwolf as major characters, plus the Mother Boxes and the history between Earth and Apokolips, plus Atlantis and things we didn't know about Themyscira. That was all true in the theatrical version, but the Snyder Cut expands all of that, plus introducing Darkseid and Desaad and the Anti-Life Equation and the Martian Manhunter. The movie is massively overloaded before you get anywhere near the actual plot, which is closer in scope and structure to "Infinity War" than the first "Avengers" movie. This movie could have been a twelve-hour season of prestige television and it still would have been overstuffed. 
A shot of Desaad, Darkseid, and Granny Goodness on Apokolips.

"Justice League" wanted to be "The Avengers," but the better template would have been a movie designed to introduce an entire team and world—"X-Men." Which brings us to...

It Should've Been Cyborg's Movie

So many of the structural and thematic problems with this movie would have been solved if they'd just made Vic Stone our point-of-view character, the way Rogue was in the first "X-Men" movie. Enough of the pieces are there that it seems like this was the case in some earlier draft of the script. We get two extended flashbacks to Vic's origins, first to his time as a college football star and tragic car accident, then to the experiment with the Mother Box that gave him his cybernetic parts. Victor is the only member of the team to get a full character arc. The emotional turning point of the film is when Victor watches his father die in a way that mirrors Pa Kent's sacrifice in "Man of Steel," down to being entirely avoidable. Cyborg's the character with a connection to the central MacGuffin, and he's the only member of the cast aside from Superman who plays a non-support role in the final battle. 

A shot of Victor Stone in football gear, playing quarterback for his college team.

We should have started with a focus on Victor as our window into this world. Instead of maudlin scenes of black S-shield flags draped over world monuments, we could see how a human on the street feels about Superman and his death. Instead of learning about the threat from Apokolips in multiple awkward infodumps, it could have been downloaded into Cyborg's brain. Instead of Victor being the second brooding superhero in the movie to decline an invitation to the Justice League before eventually accepting it, he could come into the partially-formed team with the missing pieces of their puzzle, and avoid a lot of ultimately unnecessary character introductions. 

That's not what we got. What we got was a flashback to "Batman v. Superman" where we learned that Superman's death caused the Mother Boxes in Themyscira and Atlantis to awaken. We're later told that this is because they were afraid of the Kryptonian, but no explanation is given for why they would have been dormant for the 4,965 years before Kal-El landed on Earth. It's a dumb decision, particularly because Silas Stone activates a Mother Box to fix Victor, which would make much more sense as an inciting incident, and would just require an adjustment to the timeline of the film's backstory. 

That flashback leads to Batman's failed trip to recruit Aquaman (this time, thankfully, without the riffing on how dumb superheroes are, but instead with an extended scene of villagers singing at Aquaman in a foreign language). We see Steppenwolf's attack on Themyscira, where the Amazons' sacrifice is more significant but just as futile. We see an extended ceremony of the lighting of the signal fires, and Diana finding the arrow and using it to enter an underground chamber where she learns the story of Darkseid's visit to Earth and war with the united heroes of the planet—a story that, at the very least, her mother already knew—and somewhere around an hour into the film, the main characters have figured out most of the stakes of the plot. 

It's hour two where we get a greater focus on Cyborg, including a very weird scene where his dad, via a tape recording, explains to him all the things he can do with his powers, and he uses them to hack into a bank's systems to give one poor lady some more money. It sets up a later scene where he enters the Mother Boxes, but it's weird that he needs to be told that he can do this when an earlier flashback established that he's a computer whiz who would hack into systems to help people before he got his powers. Despite his diminished character and the abusive environment on-set, the theatrical cut gave Cyborg more agency than he has here. 

A shot of Cyborg learning to fly. The closed captioning text reads "whimpers."

To me, the decision to follow Batman and Wonder Woman at the beginning speaks to a lack of confidence that there would be audience buy-in if they instead started with a character we hadn't seen before, and a young black man at that. I wonder what earlier versions of this script looked like, and what decisions might have been made based on the response to "The Force Awakens." Or maybe it's just the ongoing Warner/DC problem of thinking that Only Batman Works, So Everything Has To Be Batman. The result is that Cyborg's story is shoehorned in wherever it seems like it might fit, often in extremely clunky ways, leading to long stretches where we don't see other main characters or move the main plot forward. In fact, Cyborg is at least occasionally an impediment to plot movement, as when he rejects Diana's offer to join the team and buries the Mother Box in a shallow grave, even once he knows what the threat is. This means we have two different gravedigging sequences in this movie, along with two different sequences where humans bury the Mother Box that's in their custody. 

We also see Vic's transformation into Cyborg twice. There's a lot of fat to be trimmed from this film. 

Superman Shouldn't Be In This Movie

And Superman is chief among the pieces of gristle making this movie tough to get through. I noticed this in the Whedon Cut too, but Superman really doesn't belong in this movie. Here is, as best as I can remember, a complete list of what Superman does in this film (excluding a couple of Knightmare sequences, where he still doesn't do much): get resurrected, fight with the League, fly off to the farm with Lois, mope around the farm with Lois and eventually Martha, visit the Kryptonian ship to listen to his ghost dads and pick out an outfit, visit Alfred, show up in the middle of the big fight to take out Steppenwolf, thank Bruce for getting the farm back, open up his shirt. All of which starts happening over two and a half hours into the runtime. 

Superman is not a character in this movie. He is a MacGuffin, exactly as much as the Mother Boxes. His brief dialogue with Lois, which you might remember from the original trailer, is good, but otherwise he might as well be completely silent. I think the sum total of his dialogue would fit into three tweets. He says exactly six words while in a Superman costume, and none of them are half as charming as asking "how can I help?" or racing with the Flash in the theatrical cut. Joss Whedon is bad at a lot of things, but his Superman sounds and acts like Superman. Snyder's Superman acts like the weapon that the heroes get in the eleventh hour that's capable of harming the villain. 

And that's the other problem: Superman defeats Steppenwolf effortlessly. Nothing the League does to Steppenwolf hurts him, and they're barely able to even slow him down when they combine their efforts. But Superman shows up and takes him down single-handedly in a movie where the explicit stated theme is the importance of working together as a team. 

Superman stopping Steppenwolf's axe with his shoulder and saying "Not impressed."
I managed to fit 33% of his lines in one screenshot.

Lois Who?

If Superman gets shortchanged by this version of the movie, Lois gets stiffed. She shows up a couple of times early in the film to wordlessly stare at Clark's cape and look sad, as a reminder that she exists, but she has even less to do in this film than in the theatrical version. She hasn't gone back to work, and the scene between her and Martha (sort of) is moved to much later in the movie, to give her an impetus to move forward. She's at the memorial when Clark gets resurrected just by chance, instead of because Batman brought in "the big guns," and her closing narration is given to Silas Stone instead. 

She doesn't even get to be a MacGuffin. Her only role in the plot is to calm down Superman during his post-resurrection rampage. 

But we do learn that she's pregnant! It's never actually stated, even between her and Clark during one of their two short scenes together, but we see a "Force Majeure" pregnancy test when she's going through Clark's things, and Bruce tells him "congratulations" in the end. 

A picture of the box of a "Force Majeure" pregnancy test in Lois Lane's drawer.
Congratulations, it's a lawyer!

Oh, and she gets fridged in the Knightmare flash-forward. 

A better version of this film—hell, a version that was just more consistent with the indecisive, put-upon version of Superman in this franchise—would have at least given Lois the "they brought [you] back for a reason" line, would have made her push Clark toward action when he only wanted to be with her. It wouldn't be great for either character, but it would be better than what we got. 

But really, Lois Lane should have been involved in putting the team together. This was clear even watching the theatrical cut. She should've been the one researching metahumans and traveling the world to meet with Aquaman and the Flash and Cyborg to convince them to join Batman's team, because that's what she did in "Man of Steel." Batman talks a lot about how Superman inspired him, how he made a promise on Clark's grave, he even talks about how Barry came from the future to tell him that Lois Lane is the key, but he never once interacts with her. The way this film (and to a large degree, "Batman v. Superman") treats Lois like an afterthought is downright disgraceful

And yet I suspect a lot of the people who have (rightly!) criticized Peter Tomasi's merry homemaker Lois will praise this movie, even though it goes further than Tomasi ever did, reducing Lois to a weepy comfort blanket with a uterus. 

Save M'artha

Martha Kent appears in three scenes in this film, and gets dialogue in one of them. She has a conversation with Lois—one of the three times this movie attempts to pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test—and ends up being the impetus for Lois to get her life back together and stop moping around. It's a good scene, better on balance than the similar one in the theatrical cut, if only because it doesn't have that dumb "thirsty" joke. 

A shot of Martha Kent standing outside Lois's door with glowing red eyes.

And then Martha walks out of Lois's apartment and shape-shifts into the Martian Manhunter, one of his two appearances in the film, then shape-shifts into General Swanwick and walks away. Surprise! It was actually a man telling another character what they should do or how they should feel, something that happens an awful lot in this movie, because this film has enough daddy issues to fill a Tom King Omnibus. 

Daddy Issues

Look, the backstory of this film being what it is, I don't want to dwell on this too much. But it was a pretty significant factor in the rest of the franchise too. So much of "Man of Steel" is about Clark being advised by his two dead dads, and he goes to revisit the ghost of Pa Kent in "Batman v. Superman." Batman's driven to do what he does because of his parents, and is consistently advised by his own surrogate father. Even Lex Luthor cites his abusive father as the reason for his villainy. Heck, Wonder Woman gets her powers from her father. Aquaman begins his arc with a conversation with his surrogate father Vulko and ends the movie going off to see his biological father. Barry Allen has a truly painful conversation with his father early in the film (which makes it into the theatrical cut intact; if anything there's more movement clichés in this one), more or less prays to him during a climactic moment when it looks like he's going to make a big Crisis on Infinite Earths-style sacrifice, and then sees him at the end. And, of course, Superman learns that he's going to be a father. 

Then, there's Silas Stone, Victor's dad. He is, somewhat ironically, the most present of the father figures in the narrative (with the possible exception of Alfred) and the one with the most consequence on the story. Victor's relationship with him is strained from the beginning, both by Silas's absence in his life and by his decision to experiment on him. As a S.T.A.R. Labs technician, Silas is the foremost non-Amazon expert on the Mother Box, which is presumably why he's able to tell Victor (via an old-school tape recorder) what all his powers are and what he can do with them. It's that same tape recorder that allows him to give the posthumous closing narration monologue, which is about fatherhood.

There are two moms (and one mom-to-be) in this movie: Martha Kent, whose one moment as an actual character isn't actually her, and Atlanna, who is mentioned in extremely negative terms by Aquaman. I'm not 100% sure, but I think Superman's dead dads, who do not appear on screen, get more lines of dialogue in this movie than Martha Kent, Lois Lane, or Superman. 

I have heard so much from Snyder fans over the last several years about how well his movies do by their female characters, but the women in this movie have two settings: passive and aggressive.

Brutal Justice

Superman's line in the Whedon cut, "I believe in truth, but I'm also a big fan of justice," is awkward, but endearing. It's also more attention than this cut bothers to give to the concept of "justice," presumably the reason this League assembles, since it's in the name and all. What does "justice" look like to this Justice League? Well, Wonder Woman's introduction to the story comes as it did in the theatrical cut, where she prevents a bombing in London. 

A terrorist in a black suit and hat stands next to a spot in the wall with a circular crack and a thick smear of blood.

Except in this version, we're shown in loving detail how she throws one of the terrorists into a wall so hard that it cracks the stone and leaves a smear of blood, and then she uses her bracelet-boom power—the move that we are continually shown is a last resort to take down a rampaging god or a murderous Superman—to blow out an entire wall of windows and disintegrate the terrorist, leaving nothing but his hat to float gently to the ground. It's not that he was a particular threat; she actually waited for him to finish reloading before obliterating him, even though she'd shown she could easily move fast enough to disarm him or otherwise dispatch him nonlethally.

This could have been a good story element: Diana has been out of the action too long, and approaches every fight like it's a warzone. Or like everyone in a world without Superman, she's fallen into despair and takes it out on human criminals. But that's not what happens here. Instead, her decision to vaporize a human being for a foiled terrorist plot is met with praise: a little girl asking if she can be just like Wonder Woman when she grows up. And lest you think there's some kind of arc, the triumphant moment of the final battle is when Aquaman stabs an already-defeated Steppenwolf and Diana cuts his head off while he's being thrown through a Boom Tube back to Apokolips

For years, critics of General Zod's death have had that post-Crisis scene of Superman executing the pocket universe criminals thrown in their faces. And yeah, that scene is real bad, the result of similarly bad writing and ethics. This scene is exactly the same, except Wonder Woman is not going to have a mental breakdown as a result, and we didn't literally watch the light go out of Zod and Zaora and Quex-Ul's eyes as they died in a manner that'd get your CCA stamp revoked. 

Three panels from Superman #23 where he executes three powerless Kryptonian criminals.
Darkseid's foot stepping on Steppenwolf's severed head, eyes still glowing.
To be fair, Steppenwolf doesn't beg for his life by offering sexual favors, so it's kind of a wash.

This is the kind of justice dealt by the Justice League. If you are a bad guy, whether a henchman in an attempted terrorist bombing or a New God who no longer poses a threat, your punishment is death. And who are the bad guys? Well, they're people who blow up buildings—except Wonder Woman, who only blew up part of a building, and Batman and Aquaman and Cyborg, who only blew up abandoned buildings. And they're people who kill people—except Wonder Woman who only kills criminals through excessive force, and Superman who only kills at least one soldier during his post-resurrection rampage. Of course, no one mentions any of that, and no one will face any consequences.

This is the consequence of decades of talking about DC superheroes as icons, gods in tights, larger-than-life figures contrasted with the Average Joes with Powers over at Marvel. Because we expect gods to be callous and capricious, to wipe out mortals without a thought. Who can hold a god to account? They are, by their nature, superior beings above human laws and ethics, and we have no right to stand in judgment over them. A god's actions are just because they are the actions of a god. 

Zack Snyder Doesn't Care About Normal People

If there's one thing that "Batman v. Superman" made clear, it's that Zack Snyder heard the criticism about his bloodless demolition of Metropolis in "Man of Steel." The sequel begins by saying "actually, those buildings were full of people, many of them too dumb to evacuate without consulting their boss first" and ends with Batman casually saying that the part of the city they're demolishing now is abandoned so nobody's going to be hurt when we wantonly destroy this property. What didn't change was Snyder's apparent disinterest in average people as people. Civilians only exist in these movies when they are convenient to the plot (as with the family in Zod's sights at the end of "Man of Steel") or when they can tell us something about our heroes, the Special People. The civilians in "Batman v. Superman" exist to praise Superman like a god, or to try to pull him down to their level. He doesn't shed a tear or waste a moment of energy on the civilians who die in the bombing of Congress any more than he cared about the countless people who died before his cheerful bike trip to the Daily Planet building in "Man of Steel." 

The clunky Joss Whedon scenes with the Eastern European family are mostly forced comedy beats, but they come from a recognition that the actions of superheroes and supervillains have a human cost beyond the abstract "save/destroy the world." The theatrical scene where Superman and Flash rush off to save people is an acknowledgement that protecting people is the primary role of superheroes, even over beating the bad guy. And not just people who have a direct connection with the hero, either. 

Wonder Woman saves people in the attempted bombing, in between extrajudicial murders and unnecessarily exploding part of the building she was trying to prevent from exploding. Aquaman saves a fisherman and actively resents it, blaming the victim when he slams him onto a table in a bar and makes him pay for his drinks. Barry Allen saves Iris West (presumably, she doesn't actually have any lines, she's just a Hot Girl who smiles at Barry) from a car crash (which she gets into because she's staring at him), but not before—and god, I wish I were joking—stroking her hair in super-speed like an enormous creeper, and first saving a hot dog from a demolished hot dog cart

Barry Allen reaches for a hotdog that is floating next to Iris West's head in slow-motion.

We'll set aside the racial politics of a nonblack person touching a black woman's hair without her permission.

To get to the Hot Girl, Barry breaks through a glass door at super speed, sending glass shards flying. There are people outside the door. They're beneath notice. He saves the Hot Girl, but never even checks on the driver of the truck that hit her. He's beneath notice. It's not that in his callousness, Barry allowed people to get hurt. It's that the movie is completely disinterested in the possibility that people might get hurt because of a hero's actions. The laws of physics and directorial attention conspire to assure us that those people don't matter enough to even consider their welfare.

Shot from an "I Think You Should Leave" sketch, one character asking "what do you mean, the people were just kind of nothing?"
Subsequent shot from "I Think You Should Leave," the other character saying "They're just, like, not important, like, they don't matter."

We even lose the "save one person" moment, where Batman tries to help Barry get past his fears. Instead, when Cyborg is helping the S.T.A.R. Labs employees evacuate, Barry runs around and tells them to hurry up. He actively avoids saving anyone

The only other heroic action in the movie that isn't done with disdain or in the midst of reckless endangerment that we're all supposed to overlook is when Cyborg grants a life-changing amount of money to a random poor woman with his amazing hacking abilities. Victor Stone is the only decent person—the only hero—on this entire team. 

Character Arcs

And just as normal people aren't allowed to matter, the characters who matter aren't allowed to be people. Cyborg is the only character with a fleshed-out arc; he goes from thinking he's a monster and hating his father to realizing his heroic potential in part through his father's guidance, and being driven to heroism by his father's sacrifice. His triumphant moment comes when the Unity—the three Mother Boxes in concert—offers him the chance to be made normal again and have his family back. His line in response is, truly, fantastic.

Close-up shot of Cyborg saying "I'm not broken."
Subsequent close-up shot of Cyborg saying "And I'm not alone."

It is, hands down, the best, most emotionally resonant moment in the entire film, probably the entire DCEU, and it's a testament to how much better this movie could have been if Cyborg had been our focal character the entire time. 

The Flash and Aquaman both have pieces of character arcs. Flash begins his story as an aimless youth bouncing between dead-end jobs as he tries to fix his father's wrongful imprisonment. It hadn't really occurred to me until watching this how terrible this retcon is; why would this push Barry to become a forensic scientist for the police rather than, say, a lawyer who works for the Innocence Project, or a university scientist who works as an expert witness for defense attorneys? But that's not on Zack Snyder, it's on Armripper McGee. 

Flash's triumphant moment is when he runs really fast and repeats one of Henry's movement-related metaphors, "make your own future," when he's running fast enough to reverse time and prevent the Unity from killing everyone. Barry ends the movie with a low-rung job in the Central City Crime Lab. How all these pieces work together is unclear. Barry also says "make your own past," but that's not something his dad told him, and it's not clear how these pieces are meant to fit together. The "save one person" scene in the theatrical cut is that missing glue—what's holding Barry back is that he's afraid to act. Once he's able to get past that fear, he can move forward with his life. 

There are pieces of an arc for Aquaman too, who starts as an angry loner, bitter about his Atlantean heritage, and ends as a somewhat less angry somewhat less loner, explicitly choosing his human heritage over his Atlantean one. It's understandable that they couldn't do much with this, since Aquaman's movie was already on the schedule, but it means only one of our three new characters gets actual development. 

And let's be clear, there wasn't a lot of development in "The Avengers" either. There didn't have to be. Those characters mostly had arcs in their solo films, so the arc in the team movie was "these characters have to learn to work together as a team. We're told in "Justice League" about the importance of working as a team, too, but...

Themes Fall Apart

My biggest frustration with "Man of Steel" was the way the film rejected its own clearly stated themes. "Batman v. Superman" does this as well, but the themes are not as clear and there are bigger frustrations. There's a clear theme in "Justice League," though: the only way to defeat Darkseid's army is for the heroes of Earth to unite together. Barry even chastizes the team at one point, reminding them (and the audience) that they need to work together. 

The Flash talking to Batman and Cyborg, saying "Guys, this is not together."

This theme is muddled somewhat, in that they're explicitly uniting to prevent the Unity, which is when the Mother Boxes also unite, because unity of Earth peoples = good, unity of Mother Boxes = bad and maybe now you're seeing some of the problems.

There is, unfortunately, no point at which the Justice League comes together as a team to defeat the villain, no "Guardians of the Galaxy" holding hands and saving the world with love scene (Flash makes fun of the very idea), not even an Avengers-style "everyone stands in a small group fighting against a horde of villains with their powers" scene.  Their plan to stop Steppenwolf requires Cyborg and Flash to sit out of the entire final battle, and even that could work if there were a "we all have to work together to keep Steppenwolf busy so Cyborg can stop the Unity" scene, but there's nothing even approaching that level of coordination. The heroes battle Steppenwolf and the Parademons individually, except when they occasionally bump into each other and pair up for a moment or two. 

The closest we get to a big teamwork scene doesn't involve Superman, just the rest of the team flying into battle alongside the Bat-tank in a shot that I assumed was from Whedon because of how similar it is to a shot early in "Avengers: Age of Ultron."

A shot of the Justice League charging into battle, where they freeze for a moment.
A shot of the Avengers also charging into battle, where they freeze for a moment.

So, you know, it's kind of a problem that the heroes of our age can't work together as well as the heroes in the Age of Heroes. The moment in the final battle that involves the most people working together (three) is when Steppenwolf is stabbed and decapitated. Justice!

There are other, similar thematic issues: 
  • The Flash's triumphant moment involves him saying that he's making his own future, but the flash-forward at the end shows us that, for all the heroes have done, they haven't prevented the dark Knightmare future. Right before resurrecting Superman, one of the Kryptonian robots says "the future has taken root in the present," which is an extremely weird line, and one that seems to undermine Barry's later triumph. 
  • Batman says a couple of times that he's "acting on faith," at least once particularly about his belief that Superman will join with them. It's played like this is an important development for his character. It would work better, given the arc of the series, if each of these lines replaced "faith" with "hope." You know, the thing Superman's emblem stands for. It would tie into how Superman inspired Batman, what it is that made Batman change his approach and methods. 
  • Superman wears the black costume throughout his part in the movie, the same costume he wore in the dark vision that General Zod showed him in "Man of Steel," and only wears a colorful costume in the Knightmare sequence, which we know happens after Lois dies and he goes evil/succumbs to Anti-Life. 
These are problems with easy solutions; even something as simple as the music cue, or a flippant "create my own future" line from Knightmare Flash, would have helped. But at least this series is consistently inconsistent in its themes.

Things Fall Aplot

The plot, once you pare away all the things that should have been done in other movies, is fairly simple: Darkseid's legions once invaded Earth but were driven away and left behind the Mother Boxes. The Mother Boxes remained dormant and hidden for millennia until Superman's death awakened them and drew the attention of Steppenwolf, a disgraced relative of Darkseid. Steppenwolf is trying to reassemble the Mother Boxes, and Batman is trying to assemble a team to stop him. Steppenwolf eventually gets the upper hand, but through the actions of the Justice Leaguers, he's defeated, killed, and sent back to Apokolips. The destruction of the Mother Boxes (which aren't clearly destroyed, but Darkseid says they are, even though earlier we heard that they were "indestructible living machines") means that Darkseid's invasion of Earth will have to proceed via spacecraft rather than Boom Tube (why he used the armada 5,000 years ago when they still had the Mother Boxes is not explained). The heroes have triumphed...for now. 

And all this hinges on one absolutely fundamental flaw: it requires Darkseid to be a complete dumbass. Darkseid came to Earth himself—and I realize the ship has largely sailed on this, but I kind of hate Warrior Darkseid. It's such a misunderstanding of how the character works. Yeah, he can throw down, but he's usually plotting behind the scenes, not fighting on the front lines—and got his ass handed to him by the combined forces of gods, Atlanteans, Amazons, and a Green Lantern. They call it "the world that fought back," implying that Earth stands alone among the tens of thousands of worlds that Darkseid has conquered, the only one that was able to repel his armada. Eventually we learn that the reason Darkseid came himself was because the Anti-Life Equation was somewhere on Earth. 

So, you might wonder, why didn't Darkseid come back at some point in the last five thousand years? Well, you see, he forgot. This isn't just my speculation either. It's stated in the text, that even though this is "the only world Darkseid had ever lost" that it ends up "anonymous among a trillion worlds." Darkseid tucked his tail between his legs and ran away and just didn't remember which world it was that defeated him and held the Anti-Life Equation, his entire raison d'être

Darkseid taking an axe to the shoulder. The closed caption says "yells."
Darkseid lying in his ship, wounded and unconscious. The closed caption says "grunting."

That's a pretty ridiculous contrivance. And it's one that would have been entirely fixed by making Steppenwolf the one who'd led the armada on Earth. It would make sense of why Steppenwolf recognizes all the different Earth armies and Diana's old-god heritage. It would make sense of why Steppenwolf fell out of Darkseid's favor, instead of vague references to a betrayal. It would make sense of why Wonder Woman knows Steppenwolf's name. It would keep Darkseid distant and dangerous instead of a forgetful chump. That's apparently one of the things Whedon changed, and did so for the better. 

False Hope

Let's talk Superman, shall we? The entire impetus for this movie is that Superman's example inspires Batman to do better, to be better. Superman is supposed to be an inspirational symbol of hope to the world, but what has changed by the end? The heroes are together, nominally, but no less brutal in their actions. They don't even actually need to work as a team, because Superman renders them all superfluous. And while the theatrical cut was extremely over-the-top with its attempts to establish that the world had fallen into despair because of Superman's death, at least it allows us to believe that his presence makes the world better. In Snyder's vision, we know from Cyborg and Batman's prophetic dreams that Superman's return makes the world a worse place. The S stands for a false hope, because as soon as he loses a loved one—something, as Diana points out, that is true for most of the Justice League—he's going to succumb to Anti-Life and destroy the world. Resurrecting Superman didn't restore hope to the world, it delayed the inevitable and sealed their doom. 

The End

This movie ends more times than "Return of the King." The "Epilogue" section takes 20 minutes, during which we get a montage of Victor listening to his dad's cassette, Aquaman leaving Vulko and Mera to see his father, Ryan Choi taking over S.T.A.R. Labs, the tour of the mansion where they'll have the Hall of Justice, Barry's job placement, the restoration of the Kent farm, Cyborg visiting his parents' grave, Gordon lighting the bat-signal, Batman standing on his DKR tank with a bunch of apparently tied-up criminals below, Wonder Woman looking out over the ocean with the Arrow of Artemis, Flash doing a Naruto run, and Clark doing the shirt pull. Then there's the scene with Luthor and Deathstroke, where instead of the "a League of our own" line, he gives Slade Batman's secret ID. 

Batman standing on top of his enormous Dark Knight Returns-style tank with a group of tied-up people sitting in the headlights below
The Flash running with his arms behind him and a smile on his face.
Shot of Clark Kent opening up his shirt to reveal his black suit and silver S-shield underneath.

And then we cut back to Knightmare. Desolate wasteland, Parademons and Apokoliptian ships everywhere, and Batman leading a ragtag group of Cyborg, Flash-in-weird-armor, Mera, Deathstroke, and, of course, the Joker. This sequence, where Jared Leto hams it up in extreme close-up (because he wasn't actually on the same set as the other actors) and goes in and out of focus, lasts ten thousand years

Blurry shot of Joker holding a Joker playing card.
Why so unfocused?

Here are some of the lines that these actors decided to brave a deadly pandemic to record: 
BATMAN: I've been dead inside a long time.
JOKER: You won't kill me. I'm your best friend! Besides, who's gonna give you a reacharound?

BATMAN: when I kill you, and make no mistake, I will @#%&ing kill you[...]
And then Superman shows up, presumably to kill them all. The Justice League, everyone! 

Bruce wakes up (and Ben Affleck looks really different in this reshoot. He almost looks more like James Van Der Beek than himself) and J'onn is there to give some more exposition about Darkseid, the Anti-Life Equation, and say "some have called me 'The Martian Manhunter,'" which, let's be clear, is a very weird line to more-or-less close your film on. 

J'onn J'onzz standing outside of Bruce Wayne's house with a lake behind him in early morning, head slightly cocked to one side and smiling.
Have you heard the good news about H'ronmeer?

This is where we get some of the jarring tone shifts that were the hallmark of the theatrical cut. All of these hopeful and wistful images, these hints and teases for the future, an ominous moment with our villains to set up a sequel, and then a cut to a dessicated corpse in a car in the R-rated post-apocalyptic world that, whoops, our heroes set into motion even though they were already warned about it. But that's too bleak to end on, so we need another hopeful moment with a character who somehow knows everything that's been going on but decided the best thing he could do during the movie's events was to nudge Lois Lane out of her funk. But also he's got to deliver an ominous warning about the upcoming war, the one we just saw in gruesome detail, the one we just learned was at least partially Batman's fault, but also the good stuff wouldn't have happened if not for Batman. It's the cursed frogurt ending. 

We end on a shot of Martian Manhunter, a character who has appeared undisguised in like 30 seconds of this entire franchise, flying over Batman's house on the lake, which is so frustrating because the perfect shot of a hero flying to end the film happened like fifteen minutes earlier and actually tied into the closing narration.

The Small Stuff

In no particular order, some of the other little things that bugged me:
  • In case you were wondering how this movie is paced, Batman first appears in his Batman costume (excluding a flashback) almost two hours into the film. 
  • There is a ton of fat to be trimmed in this film. Redundant scenes, like Hippolyta mourning over two different dying Amazons in the same battle or multiple sequences of Aquaman brooding near the ocean, an entire ceremony sequence with the Arrow of Artemis to light the signal fire, multiple views of Victor's transformation into Cyborg, multiple scenes between Lois and brooding Clark on the farm, all of which could easily have been trimmed. There's an entire heist-style scene of the team breaking into S.T.A.R. Labs to resurrect Superman that is kind of fun but not at all necessary to the plot; if Lex Luthor managed to get in, I think Bruce Wayne could. 
  • There are two different scenes of Cyborg digging up different graves (out of three total digging scenes). There's also two scenes of major car accidents that happen within seven minutes of one another. 
  • And in addition to that, there's a ton of padding. Snyder's characteristic use of slow-motion is cranked up to eleven here, from the very first flashback to "Batman v. Superman" to the scenes of Victor on the football field, this movie could have probably lost half an hour if everything just moved at normal speed unless there was an actual reason not to (e.g., super-speed segments). Every establishing shot of a location is twice as long as it needs to be, and there are extended versions of scenes that were wisely trimmed down for the theatrical version, like the sacrifice of the Amazons to seal Steppenwolf away. This time, we watch as a whole building sinks into the ocean, but it has the same effect: Steppenwolf is barely slowed down, and a bunch of Amazons are dead. It doesn't raise the stakes, it just takes time. 
  • The Daily Planet's extreme placeholder energy slogan:
A newspaper truck with the Daily Planet logo and the slogan "Reporting on the Planet Daily."
  • Also, the road sign in the Central City establishing shot, which would be fine if it didn't then lead into several solid minutes of Henry Allen saying "You're running in circles and you have to make your own path."
Shot of the highway heading into Central City. A road sign says "REDUCED SPEED AHEAD."
  • Whatever they've done to Ciarán Hinds' voice in this makes it sound like his mouth is full half the time.
  • If you wanted to avoid comparisons to various Avengers movies, it would have been good to make Steppenwolf and Desaad look less like Thanos's Black Order.
  • The product placement is so obvious. Bruce Wayne uses a Gillette Fusion Proglide razor, Silas Stone records his thoughts on a Sony tape recorder, Vic Stone wears an Under Armor letterman jacket, every car in Batman's fleet is a Mercedes, and the camera makes sure to linger on every logo and feature so we're sure.
  • Cyborg still attacks the resurrected Superman. We can presume the reason for this is because his Mother Box-derived cybernetics are still afraid of Superman, but the setup was better in the theatrical cut where he explained that he's not always in control of what the machine does.
  • Much like "Batman v. Superman," there's so much work setting up sequels like the Aquaman movie. This movie is stuffed enough as it is without having to lay the groundwork for the next films in the sequence. 
  • Tom Holkenberg's score is generally quite good and fits the tone better than Elfman's score did, but there are a few scenes where it just goes wrong. There's somber music over the scene where Barry saves Iris, which seems like it's played more for comedy than pathos, and there's a scene where over-the-top badass action music is used to underscore the Justice League climbing a flight of stairs. 
A shot of Batman, Wonder Woman, and Cyborg climbing a flight of stairs in a building. The closed caption says "[dramatic rock music resumes]."
  • But we do lose the charm of Elfman bringing in the old-school Batman and Wonder Woman themes for appropriate moments, and as a result, Wonder Woman is the only character with a clear, recognizable motif in the soundtrack. That's as much on Hans Zimmer as Holkenberg, but there's also no clear attempt to do something like the instantly-recognizable "Avengers" theme—or if they did try to do it, there's no real place in the movie where it would fit. 
  • 4:3 is a terrible aspect ratio, particularly for a movie that occasionally wants to have a big triumphant group shot and can barely fit all the characters on the screen. I know some of it is because it's been so long since I watched something in 4:3, but I got strong watching-"Ghostbusters"-on-basic-cable vibes from the few attempted group shots in this. 
The Justice League standing side by side, shot in a 3/4 view in order to fit them all in the frame.
No, turn a little bit more, you're still not quite in the frame.
  • There was, to my surprise, a fair amount of humor in this. Some of it landed, but a lot of it came off awkward or forced for one reason or another. There's a bit where Diana is trying to make tea and Alfred keeps correcting her that I think is supposed to be charming but just comes off as mansplaining. 
  • This was true in the theatrical cut as well, but I don't think you actually need to buy a bank to recover a foreclosed farm. The bank doesn't actually want the farm. They want money. You just have to buy the farm back. It was a dumb question, Clark. 
  • Batman has a cool experimental aircraft, but no one's been able to get it to fly, which I think is trying to be a Howard Hughes reference? When Cyborg talks to it, he says it's a "software issue," which...doesn't make sense? 
  • They reshot the Superman gravedigging scene for the theatrical release, and that version worked so much better than it does here. This version reads like a first draft of that scene. 
  • The first thing Superman does once he has a costume is fly into space in a crucifixion pose, just in case you forgot the symbolism. I'm frankly surprised they didn't keep his wounds intact, so he could show the doubters after his resurrection.
  • I shouldn't be surprised that the color grading is designed to suck every bit of color out of everything, but it's still really jarring to see things like Mera's costume—which is so vibrant in "Aquaman"—look almost olive-drab because it's so washed out. There's that bit in the scene where the League is fighting Superman where only his eye moves to look at Flash, and the blue of Cavill's eye really pops in the theatrical cut, drawing your attention to that motion, but here it's so washed out that it basically looks gray. I know it's Snyder's whole aesthetic, but it renders everything so boring because it's all shades of beige. Maybe it looks better in black and white. 
A Snyder Cut shot of Superman from the side, grappling with Aquaman, his eye turned to look at the Flash.
A Whedon Cut shot of Superman from the side, grappling with Aquaman, his eye turned to look at the Flash.
  • It's extremely minor, but there's a scene where Aquaman responds to someone saying technobabble with "English," and I kind of thought that cliché was retired next to "as you know, Bob." 
  • When the Flash does his time-travel bit at the climactic moment, reversing the destructive effects of the Unity, we get to see lovingly-CGI'd gore un-explode back into Cyborg and Superman, which could be awesome in a Sam Raimi sort of way if it just went further, but is too understated to be hilarious and too gross to be good.
  • We lose Cyborg's instant message back and forth with Diana; instead, he invites her to meet him, then completely blows her off for no clear reason. He also drops an f-bomb. Just a reminder, this is how the vast majority of people know Cyborg:
An animated GIF of a scene from the Teen Titans cartoon where Cyborg is standing next to Robin and Starfire, saying "Alright, I'm only gonna say this once. Booyah!"
  • Here are some things I was shocked to see in this cut of the film, since I was sure they were added later.
    • Wonder Woman's clunky Claremontesque explanation about what her lasso does
    • The scene where Bruce meets Barry
    • The scene where Henry Allen talks to Barry exclusively in motion metaphors
    • The other scene where Henry Allen talks to Barry exclusively in motion metaphors
    • The scene where Barry gets left on the rooftop
    • Honestly nearly every scene where Barry is the comic relief. In fact, this cut has a lot more of his awkward humor (though, thankfully, not that gross bit where he's laying on top of Wonder Woman)
    • Aquaman saying "my man" to Cyborg in exactly the same tone as Bradley Whitford in "Get Out"
The Good

Believe it or not, there were things I liked about the film. Here's what I can think of:
  • Early in the film, there's a prominent suicide prevention billboard, which is nice. 
  • The score is generally very good, and there are bits—like the music following the British terrorists into the building—where it's got this kind of jagged electronic sound that one of my friends accurately compared to Trent Reznor's work on David Fincher movies. 
  • Once you get past the fact that the Super Friends are doing this kind of ultraviolence, the fight scenes are incredible. Absolutely the highlight of the film. They're kinetic and clever, showcasing characters' superpowers in very interesting ways. One enduring truth of this trilogy is that Zack Snyder knows how to make superpowered combat look really interesting, and this movie ups the stakes with shots that come straight out of anime. The way the Flash moves and poses during his fights, the bit where Aquaman surfs on a Parademon's body, slamming it through an entire building only to ride it out the bottom, they don't always make a kind of literal sense, but you don't care because they look amazing.
Aquaman standing on a Parademon's chest as he rides it downward through the sky.
Play some friggin' Iron Maiden during this scene.
  • Mera is a total badass for the brief bit where we see her in action. She starts pulling the water and blood out of Steppenwolf's body, and it's the only time he seems to be actually hurt until Superman shows up. Batman should've recruited her instead of Aquaman. 
  • There are some character beats that really hit. The Amazons chanting "We have no fear!" was great (and should have stayed in the theatrical cut, given how much focus there was on the Parademons smelling fear). 
  • The scene where Diana learns the story of Darkseid from an underground fresco feels extremely unnecessary, but the design of that chamber is really cool.
Shot of a painting on a wall of Darkseid and the Unity in an ancient Greek style
  • Aquaman wears this cable-knit sweater at the beginning that subtly looks like his classic scaly orange top, and I liked that. More superhero actors should wear cable-knit sweaters. 
  • Jeremy Irons is a great Alfred, really nailing the character's dry wit, weariness, and genuine concern for Bruce. 
  • When Bruce introduces the team to Alfred, he says "This is Alfred. I work for him," which is a solid line. 
  • There are a lot of nice references and cameos. I mentioned Ryan Choi, but we also see Crispus Allen, we see dead Kilowog in Cyborg's Knightmare flash, and the truck that hits Iris West is for a company named "Gard'ner Fox."
  • Steppenwolf carries around these little purple spider things that he uses to read people's minds, and they're very clearly meant to evoke Starro's little starfish, which is a nice touch. 
  • Darkseid looks and sounds basically perfect (not a fan of the weird omega molding on his chest, but whatever), and we get to see him use the Omega Effect in Cyborg's Knightmare sequence, which could not be better.
A shot of Darkseid, underwater, strangling one Atlantean while the twin red zigzagging beams of his Omega Effect seek out another.
  • As much as I think his face looks dumb and you should just use Kirby's actual designs for Kirby characters because you are not going to design characters better than Jack Kirby, Steppenwolf looks far more menacing here than in the theatrical cut. In particular, he doesn't look like he's made of gum.
  • Alfred shows an energy-absorbing gauntlet he and Bruce have built for Batman, and Wonder Woman makes a pretty solid remark about how they should design a lasso next. 
  • There's some on-the-nose symbolism that still kind of works. We see Superman's body enter the Kryptonian amniotic fluid immediately after seeing Lois's pregnancy test. When Clark is hanging out on the farm, a butterfly pointedly lands on his finger. This kind of stuff works a lot better than the hamfisted Christ allegories. 
  • One bit of dialogue between Flash and Cyborg that really works during the gravedigging scene is where Flash asks if Wonder Woman would go for a younger man, and Cyborg observes that since she's 5,000 years old, all men are younger men. That two dudes are discussing the only female member of the team like that? Does not work as well. 
  • There are absolutely a lot of changes that did not work as well in the theatrical edition. Most obviously, nobody here sounds like a reskinned version of an Avengers character. Unfortunately, there isn't a lot of characterization to take the place of that, but at least nobody feels like they wandered in from a different movie (except Jared Leto, who...did). 
In Conclusion

I did not like Zack Snyder's "Justice League," and I was never going to. It was doomed from the start to be a spectacular failure if only because it couldn't support the weight of everything it had to accomplish. Putting all that in the hands of someone who fundamentally does not care to understand what makes these characters work was never going to make that situation better. What results is an overlong, ponderous movie full of stylish effects rendered in shades of brown, populated by thinly-drawn characters in service of video game fetch quest. It's the "Star Trek: The Motion Picture" of superhero movies, often pretty and interesting as an artifact, but not pretty or interesting or entertaining or thoughtful enough to justify its existence. 

Bottom line, if you want to spend several hours watching DC Comics characters on a quest to prevent evil gods from finding a set of three MacGuffins so they can make their own future and resurrect a teammate, "Legends of Tomorrow" Season 5 has all that plus Brandon Routh in a cardigan.

Promo poster for DC's Legends of Tomorrow Season 5


Kilowog said...

Dont the bad guys just start executing civilians in the background of the "save one person" scene as NONE of the 4 superheroes step in to intervene? Here they actually jump in immediately and manage to save every civilian.

Anyway even though there's a LOT I strongly disagree with that I could quibble about (like the above lol), I appreciate you making the effort and also just saying you were never gonna like it. I respect that. Anyway see ya next week

Kilowog said...

Oh FUN TRIVIA. Did you know that originally the bad guys in Suicide Squad was going to be Steppenwolf? I can see the logic but that's such a weird detail I thought it was fake for a while

Tom Foss said...

Dont the bad guys just start executing civilians in the background of the "save one person" scene as NONE of the 4 superheroes step in to intervene? Here they actually jump in immediately and manage to save every civilian.

So, I just rewatched the scene in both films, because honestly that sounded pretty plausible. But no, only one person is executed in the theatrical cut, and it's just before the heroes arrive.

Now, if we're going to talk quibbling, in the theatrical version Flash manages to save every civilian by removing them from the battle. In the Snyder Cut, the civilians (except the one being carried by Cyborg) all save themselves while Flash runs around them and shouts at them.

Thanks for the comment, and the detail about Suicide Squad. I can see where that could have happened (it's not like the male villain they had was much of anything), and probably would have been better in the long run.

Kilowog said...

Well, he did save them from the debris after so that has to get him some points right? :P Probably the best use of the movie making the Flash's lightning literal and using it AS lighting for the scene.

Wonder how Muschetti will use that aspect, if he does at all, in his movie, because I genuinely found that to be interesting as super speed is always treated as a stealth skill but here he is actively advertising he is there and an astute enemy can use that against him (as shown by the parademon using his Space Invader skills to shoot where he was going to be instead of where he is lol).

Also yeah, that SS bit, once I verified that it was actually true, definitely made the fact that Incubus was a complete nonentity of a villain make MUCH more sense, suddenly you can almost feel the jagged edges of where the script was hacked away.

Kilowog said...

One last thing that I dont so much want to discuss but rather share/muse about is the way Cyborg is handled early on. Fisher said that he wanted Vic's race and the realities of living as a black man to inform his portrayal and thus he felt that having Vic be so Angry and bitter early on was vital. This was changed because Johns directly told him that no non black person would ever accept Victor if he was "an angry black man" and that's why Vic was altered to be more subdued and depressed. I came away with the kneejerk reaction of thinking Whedon's version of Vic meeting Diana was better and I clicked more with Victor in that scene and then I stopped and started second guessing myself if I was merely proving Johns correct.

I'm still not sure what I think. I've gone back and forth a lot on this.

Really makes me wonder what Snyder's actual reshoots would have been like and if having a few more vic scenes and editing the movie more to make Vic the full POV character like you suggest would make this world better. I dunno.

Tom Foss said...

I think the problem is less that he's an "angry black man," and more that his anger with Wonder Woman doesn't feel genuine the way that his anger with his father does. Honestly, one easy way to fix it would have been to switch out Wonder Woman and Batman. Diana becomes the one to try to recruit Arthur, but they're at each other's throats because of the history between Atlantis and Themyscira (something she mentions in passing, but which doesn't go much further), and Victor is angry at Batman because he has the resources to be able to help so many more people (as Victor does when he has the chance), but instead is building better technology to brand criminals with. That little change would tie in a number of little details that otherwise don't go beyond a mention here or there, and would sow genuine conflict that the team would need to overcome, something that Diana explicitly mentions when she talks about how the ancient heroes beat Darkseid.

Kilowog said...

From what I gather that was specifically the point, to show that Victor was in such a bad place that he would lash out even to WW that his anger was to everything and everyone because he was still in such a place of hurt. That and the F bomb were apparently VERY carefully thought out to establish Vic and was something they fought Johns on until he slammed everyone down. Again I can see the argument for and against, it's definitely one of the things I've gone back and forth on for quite a while and probably for a while to come.

Anyway Johns sucks and I wish someone who was more open to talking thinks out and listen to Fisher could have been there to reach a compromise instead of creating an atmosphere of hostility. Alas.

Tom Foss said...

If nothing else, we can all agree that Geoff Johns sucks.