Friday, March 19, 2021

Prelude to a Bad Decision

I decided, apropos of nothing, to put on Joss Whedon's Zack Snyder's "Justice League" while doing some work today. I discussed the movie when it came out eleventy billion years ago, and thought it was fine. It's not good, but grading on the curve of every DCEU movie up to that point, it was a solid B-. Sitting in 2021, I remember bits and pieces of it—Steppenwolf looking like he stepped out of an XBox 360 cutscene, the decent cell phone video of Superman that was marred by the terrible attempt to CGI out Cavill's moustache, all the characters sounding like their rough counterparts in "The Avengers"—but not a lot of details.

Obviously the intervening years have altered my perspective on the film, both through the revelations about the behind-the-scenes racism and abuse and through the fanatical and also frequently abusive behavior of the fans clamoring for this version of the film, which absolutely definitely existed and was finished years ago and also needed an additional $70 million dollars and reshoots to complete. 

That perspective has not been altered for the better. 

Against my better judgment, I'm going to watch the Snyder Cut sometime, probably this weekend, so I figured it'd be good to see how it deviates from the theatrical release, like I did for the Lester and Donner cuts of "Superman II" so very long ago. I don't expect to enjoy either one; my feelings on the superhero movies of Zack Snyder are well-documented, and even under the best circumstances, four hours is too @#%*$! long for a superhero movie. But four hours of nihilistic spite dressed up in cinematic deepities and CGI with a sepia-toned overlay is unlikely to be the best of circumstances. 

Will it be better than two hours of the extremely generic re-skinned "Avengers: Age of Ultron" that got released to theaters? There's only one way to find out!
Boy, the New 52-ass character designs in the DC logo opening sure didn't age well. When was Rebirth, like, the year before?

Pretty neat that it's got Mogo and Jessica Cruz in there, though. 

That cell phone scene was a lot better in my memory. Like, the kids with a podcast are kind of charming, but I remembered it being a good Superman moment, when it's really just kind of nothing. Certainly not enough to justify the extremely bad CGI. And is the negative space on the S-shield supposed to look so gray?

Gotham City looks like the background of a Robert Rodriguez movie, but I actually like it here. It feels grimy and a little uncanny, the way Gotham should. A big building with "JANUS" on it in glowing letters and big coal chimneys out of Victorian London are what I want to see in Gotham, along with copious brooding gargoyles and enormous iron statues of Greek gods that you could drive a car on. 

A building that is continually being robbed by either Two-Face or Maxie Zeus

"Batman Forever," for comparison

Ben Affleck's Batman rasp is at least as silly as Christian Bale's. Batman can just talk in a voice, my dudes. I watched bits of "Batman & Robin" and "Batman Forever" to track down the right screenshots, and it's so much better when Batman is a guy with a deep voice rather than a guy who sounds like he's gargling gravel and sand. 

The crook asking "where does that leave us?" because Superman's dead is a little weird given that Superman was a public figure in this universe for literally a year and a half. In 2021, it's a bit like asking how we could go on if Billie Eilish died, except Billie Eilish hasn't, to my knowledge, ever been involved in a fight that leveled a major city.

The maudlin mourning sequence probably should have come before Batman backflipped over a snarling Kirby monster and "Mindhunter's" Holt McCallany hopped around on a rooftop, because I laughed out loud at the unhoused person's "I Tried" sign and I do not think that was the intended reaction. 

And then the Leonard Cohen cover gives way to the Danny Elfman score, and it sounds like "Batman" '89 again. God, this movie really is a mess. 

I appreciate Wonder Woman explaining her powers like she's in a Chris Claremont comic. How long until we get a superhero movie with a proper reference caption? I just want to see a box in "Into the Spider-Verse 2" that says "*It happened in Spectacular Spider-Man #206, True Believers!"

I really wish superhero movies could stop having the scene where superheroes talk about how stupid superheroes are. It feels so self-conscious. Just embrace the concept without being ashamed of it, please.

I also wish we could have dialogue less on the nose than everything Henry Allen says. He talks exclusively in clichés about movement—"running in circles," "standing still," "find your own path." We get it, he's talking to the Flash.  

I keep forgetting that this movie is a fetch quest. It could have worked if we'd seen more than Themyscira before. This could be like that sequence in "Avengers: Endgame" where we go on a little memory tour of the previous films, but instead it's a return to Paradise Island, our first brief, boring glimpse of Atlantis, and a nuclear plant cooling tower. This is one of the problems with setting the "let's get the team together" movie before you've met most of the team or established most of the set pieces. 

The boom tube effect is pretty good. It's a shame Steppenwolf looks so much like a character from a Zemeckis film. I do appreciate that Joss had enough restraint to avoid dropping "Magic Carpet Ride" or something when he showed up. 

Fus roh dah!

Also, I realize the ship has largely sailed on this, but the Amazons are supposed to be an incredibly advanced society; maybe we could stop depicting them as exclusively armed with bronze-age weaponry. 

You know, it's hard to see Lois Lane so...despondent? Demoralized? Even in the wake of Clark's death. Like, Lois was pretty weepy for a few issues of the comics after Superman died, but within two months she was accosting cops and breaking into Cadmus in a wetsuit and punching dudes in the teeth. Lois Lane is a stone cold badass, and the only film in this erstwhile trilogy that came close to understanding that was "Man of Steel."

The frustrating thing about the dialogue is just how obvious it is that Joss knows how to write exactly as many characters as are on the Avengers. Batman just sounds like Tony Stark, Wonder Woman banters like Black Widow until she needs to exposit like Thor, it's just so lazy. 

And so is the backstory of the Mother Boxes. I actually really like the "all the races of man joined together with the gods and the Green Lanterns to repel Steppenwolf" angle, because it makes this idea of uniting as a League into a theme that you could build a movie around (that movie was "The Fellowship of the Ring"). Unfortunately, they do it by stripping the Mother Boxes of anything that made them interesting as a concept and turning Steppenwolf into a low-rent Thanos. Thanos is supposed to be a low-rent Darkseid, get it right. 

I was going to rag on Bruce for comparing Flash's suit to "the space shuttle" in the present tense, when the space shuttle program ended six years before this movie came out, but I suppose Bruce Wayne is a cranky old guy in this movie, so it kind of works. 

Man, poor Ray Fisher, in addition to everything else, having to read this warmed-over Bruce Banner dialogue. 

Not gonna lie, hearing the Elfman Batman theme is pretty great. It's nice that Batman and Wonder Woman have really solid, recognizable motifs in the score, even if they had to reach back 30 years to find one for Batman. It's a shame the other characters don't get anything so clear and distinctive. 

Casting J.K. Simmons as Commissioner Gordon was a pretty good move.

Our first full glimpse of Cyborg is a bit uncomfortable. Up until this point, we've seen him in sweats, so seeing him without's like that bit in "Cats" where Idris Elba takes off his coat and even though he's covered in CGI, you can't help but think "okay, he's naked now," a thought you only have because he was wearing clothes before. 

Batman does his "disappear while Gordon has his back turned" bit, and it becomes a gag because only Flash is left behind. Except that we've seen that Flash perceives things at a higher speed than others, so why would he be caught off-guard? Wouldn't their disappearance have happened in basically slow-motion to him? Why did Wonder Woman and Cyborg disappear when Batman did? How did they know to do that? The only reason Flash is left behind is for the gag, because he's the comic relief character right now, but it would make more sense for literally either of the others to be the one in that position. It feels like a "kill your darlings" moment. Like, they decided that this gag was more important than making sense, when they could easily have done a different gag—like Flash noticing that Batman was leaving and stopping him in the middle. 

The Nightcrawler is a bad idea. It doesn't really make sense as the thing Batman would bring to this fight with Steppenwolf, and it's loaded up with guns, which...come on, guys. It doesn't even get a clear enough spotlight to be properly toyetic. 

If you needed any confirmation that Joss saw how much better Quicksilver was in "X-Men: Days of Future Past" than in "Age of Ultron," the Flash is here in this battle to make it obvious. 

God, the "Flash is awkward about being on top of Wonder Woman" gag feels like it lasts a thousand years. It's like something out of a "Big Bang Theory" episode.

It physically pained me to hear crappy Steppenwolf quoting New Gods #1. 

I know there's pathos to Cyborg's character, but, like, is this really the version that they thought people wanted to see? Is this just the Brooding League? I thought a part of the reason for bumping Cyborg up to the big League was to bring in people who love the version on "Teen Titans," but there's nothing of that character here. 

On the other hand, they've sidestepped the modern problem of making Barry Allen act like Wally West by instead making Barry Allen act like Bart Allen with a head injury. 

I really like Bruce Wayne in a vest. 

There's so many things that would have made this movie better, but honestly? I think Superman should've stayed dead. Obviously I love the character, and I even love Cavill's performance, but a movie about  a superhero community coming together and being inspired by Superman's example to be better—you know, the thing Batman says at the end of "Dawn of Justice"—would have been a lot better than a movie where two characters we just met dig up Superman's grave to MacGuffin him back to life. It still wouldn't make that much sense that Superman would have such a massive impact after just a year and a half of public superheroing (come on, Snyder, if you're going to do the Christ allegory, why not give him three years?), but it would have been a better way to showcase what the character means to this universe and to these characters. 

This runs into something I said way back when I first saw "Man of Steel": You shouldn't make General Zod your first-movie villain. I've been comparing this film to "Age of Ultron" a lot, but I'm starting to realize that the entire DCEU—with the possible exception of "Wonder Woman"—is made up of the second movie in each character's respective franchises. Zod should have been the villain Superman faced after he was established, to raise doubts about the character's allegiances and present him with a seemingly impossible threat. Batman should have fought Superman after a movie where we established what Batman's deal is, how he got to be so angry and bitter. The Justice League should have faced an enemy too big to fight without Superman after the movie where a threat and Superman's legacy inspired them to unite together. Heck, even "Suicide Squad" would've been better if they'd saved the "one of our own is a traitor" plot for a sequel, where we might have some emotional attachment to some of the characters. 

Boy, Barry Allen attempting a fist bump with Cyborg and then laughing off the rejection with the phrase "racially charged" hits real bad in the wake of Ray Fisher's discussion about the environment on-set. 

One thing to appreciate about Cavill's Superman is how much he exemplifies the hairy-chested, dimple-chinned version that Dan Jurgens draws. 

And Elfman works the John Williams theme into the score. The motif works well the first time, less so the second when he's trying to kill the Flash. Hitting it in a more minor key would have been nice. Again, it's a shame they had to go literally forty years back in time to find a recognizable Superman theme when there were two Superman movies leading up to this. 

This fight between Superman and the League is bad and unnecessary, but the bit where Superman reacts to Flash in super-speed is well-done, marred only by the incredibly doofy look on Flash's face. 

God, Cavill doing the gravel-voice, asking "Do you bleed?" might be the worst part of this movie. Although Lois Lane entering the plot for the first time in an hour so she can say "the sun's gettin' real low" to Superman is a close second. Why isn't she involved in the formation of the League? Why wasn't she a major character in this?

Batman's "something's definitely bleeding" comedy bit feels like something out of a View Askew movie, and not only because it's Ben Affleck. 

Clark's discussion with Lois, "it's itchy," it's yet another jarring tone shift from what we saw immediately before. And the greenscreen work on the farm (reshoots, I expect) is somehow worse than the moustache removal. 

The bit with Aquaman baring his soul because he's sitting on the Lasso of Truth is the closest one of the comedy bits in this has come to actually working for me. 

And then, adding to the "Age of Ultron" comparisons, we're back to fighting an enemy in a small Eastern European nation. The red skies are a nice touch. The Batmobile's 50-caliber cannon and chainguns, less so.

Did...did the Flash just say "oh snap"? 

And Aquaman saying "my man" to Cyborg with the exact same inflection as Bradley Whitford in "Get Out" is another one of those real uncomfortable moments. 

And then Batman gets a laser gun, because why not? 

Superman asking "how can I help" and then rushing off to save civilians is maybe the best moment for the character in the entire DCEU. It's also nice that Superman gets a moment to help more or less each character with their individual missions. 

And then Wonder Woman drops the "I work with children" line, which is the best line Black Widow gets in this movie. 

Cyborg gets his "booyah" moment, which feels forced but at least makes some sense with his character arc. Flash gets his fistbump. Not-Sokovia gets to be the setting for a Jeff Vandermeer novel, and the team gets their triumphant moment in the sun. 

We're on to denouement, and Lois gets the closing narration, which is mostly fine. It would work better if she weren't basically a cameo in the movie. I do like that it ends on "look, up in the sky," and that Cavill finally gets a chance to do the shirt pull. 

Except that's not the end. First we get the beginning-of-credits scene with the Superman/Flash race, which is cute but unnecessary. And then a truly awful cover of "Come Together" before the post-credits sequence where Lex Luthor meets up with Deathstroke and his truly ridiculous dye job. 

In summary, Joss Whedon's Zack Snyder's "Justice League" is a bad movie. In fact, it's several bad movies stitched together into a shambling bad movie Frankenstein. And tomorrow I'm going to watch Zack Snyder's Zack Snyder's "Justice League: The Snyder Cut," which is getting surprisingly positive reviews. I do not expect to enjoy it, because I really don't think my problems with this movie will be fixed by making it broodier and longer, and my track record with enjoying Snyder's films is basically nonexistent. But I'm watching it, because I'm a glutton for punishment, and at least if I do it while I'm still on vacation from Twitter, I won't be tempted to join in the undoubtedly toxic discourse. 

1 comment:

Adam said...

great recap. i remember enjoying this movie in the same way i enjoy Armageddon or Con Air, as a work of misguided, glorious excess. It also occurs to me that this movie, and the other snyder movies, are kind of a throwback to when superhero movies were ambitious and horrible, and each one’s release would be received so badly that nobody would try to make another superhero movie for a decade. good times.