Zack Snyder’s Justice League
The word masterpiece is used to describe a piece of art that is outstanding from an artist’s career, both epitomising their ability and demonstrating their brilliance. Considering Zack Snyder’s oeuvre, Justice League is not his masterpiece by a long stretch—that title would arguably be bestowed on Watchmen. Instead, Zack Snyder’s Justice League is an indulgence, and though it does contain some good moments and unique filmmaking, it is simultaneously underwritten and overwrought, existing as a paradox of poor editorial standards both before and after filming. The script should have been extensively reworked, with the dialogue given considerably more nuance, and then the editing needed to be more brutal, with much more left on the cutting room floor, after which a good film would emerge, but as it stands Justice League is a boring sprawl of a film where a succinct and simple story is stretched out needlessly, much like this sentence.
The troubled production of this film and its previous incarnation are well documented and comparisons have been made to Superman II and Richard Donner’s removal as director. It is important to note that unlike Donner, who was forcibly fired, Snyder had already agreed to direct reshoots written by Joss Whedon prior to his departure from filming for wholly understandable personal reasons. What ended up in the original version of Justice League would have likely still been there, but with Snyder behind the camera instead of Whedon. This cut is not his wrestling back control of a film that was stolen from him, but instead it is a studio indulging his whim to rewrite history thanks to the loud voices of some of his core fanbase. This is not Donner’s Superman II, but rather something similar to George Lucas revising Star Wars to make Greedo shoot first. No matter how well-meaning his intentions, it is not necessary. That being said, it greatly improves upon the mess of the original Justice League release, and perhaps without studio interference this could have been what was seen the first time around. It is ironic that a director whose films appeal to somewhere near the lowest common denominator was likely denied his first cut by test audiences, who are often the worst critics of all.
The film is presented in a 4:3 ratio to “preserve Zack Snyder’s artistic vision” though it seems the choice of film stock and lenses dictated this. Unlike Stanley Kubrick, who shot Eyes Wide Shut in 4:3 to present a melodrama of tunnel vision, Snyder does not seem to have chosen 4:3 other than to show as much of his footage as possible. In reality, with everyone watching this lengthy film at home on their widescreen televisions, laptop screens, tablets, or even phones, what is presented feels cropped and claustrophobic. If Snyder had shot each scene from a little further away and then letterboxed the film, even presenting it in IMAX-ratio format, it would have felt more epic. Another choice would be to use different lenses that would allow shooting in widescreen on the same stock. The simplest solution by far would be to trim the top and bottom of each frame to a 16:9 ratio, but what do I know? Snyder does not seem to be someone who understands the idea that sometimes less can be more.
Justice League is long, and by long I mean four painstaking hours of punching and slow motion and exposition and backstory flashbacks and computer-generated lightning and even dream sequences. As such, the story beats take twice as long to reach as a standard two-hour superhero team-up. The plot follows a predictable pattern: the bad guy is attempting to assemble a collection of Macguffins to do something evil that will likely destroy the world, so some superheroes have to work together to take him down. Of course, their first attempt at teamwork fails miserably, so they must put aside their own pride and bond as a unit to overcome the villain. So far, so standard. At the beginning of the film Superman is dead following the events of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, so it falls to Batman to pull together the reluctant crew. Obviously the Man of Steel cannot stay dead, and so Jesus-like the superheroic messiah later returns to unite the team and save the world.
As with any Zack Snyder film, there are some moments of visual brilliance, and not just a few. Taken as individual frames, Justice League is great to look at, though it is a very manufactured greatness. The constant effects shots and glossy footage render it unreal, like a comic strip brought to life, which is exactly Snyder’s intention here. It is what his imagination showed him when he read comics in his youth, I suspect. It makes for a visually striking experience, but there is more to a film than style.
Before this director’s cut was even released it was presented as Snyder’s masterpiece, as if he were an auteur akin to Kubrick or Alfred Hitchcock. Snyder is a director with a distinct style, but he is no genius, and this is not his best work, though equally it is not his worst. His films exist at face value, with only the thinnest veneer of subtext, and dialogue so on-the-nose it is sometimes laughable. That doesn’t take away from their enjoyment factor, but they are not the deep and meaningful tales he presents them as. These are simplistic fables soundtracked by heavy metal, barely lit and with maximum CGI enhancing.
The actors do their best with what they have. The script feels like notes as to what their characters mean to say, rather than what they should be saying, in that every statement is horrifically obvious and stilted, bar a few short moments. Ben Affleck is a brawny and brutal Batman, and he puts in the graft here. Questions were raised about his casting back when Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice was announced, but I always had faith he would deliver a solid turn as the caped crusader—it was the premise of that film which concerned me. Henry Cavill returns as Superman, and does so with verve as he has before. Gal Gadot shines as Wonder Woman, though she has little-to-no development as a character, but that is a problem with the script instead of her delivery. As Cyborg, Ray Fisher has the most complete character arc, but his personality is unfortunately set to being angry and that is mostly it. This is not Fisher’s fault—he does his best with the writing available. Rounding out the team are Jason Momoa as Aquaman and Ezra Miller as the Flash, both of whom are seemingly defined by single traits, much like the rest.
The cast is vast; however most are given barely anything to do. The few exceptions amongst the wider ensemble are Ciarán Hinds—an actor who seems equally at home in serious drama as he does in silly blockbusters—who is clearly having a lot of fun as the big bad metallic monster, and Jeremy Irons as Batman’s longsuffering butler Alfred. It is Irons who has the most depth of character, but that appears the result of an experienced pro interpreting a character who is slightly better-written than the others. Other faces that show up include Connie Nielsen, Jared Leto, Willem Dafoe, Jesse Eisenberg, and J. K. Simmons, along with the voices of Kevin Costner and Russell Crowe. Amy Adams as Lois Lane is given grief as a focus until Superman returns, but then her character becomes his inspiration. It is a relatively thankless role for a fine actor and she is wasted in a part that solely exists in its reference to a male character. Men dominate the narrative here, with a sole female-only scene taking place outside of those set on Themyscira—an island populated entirely by women. That scene features Adams and Diane Lane talking about—you guessed it—a male character. Justice League barely scrapes through the Bechdel Test, and only then thanks to the section set on the women-inhabited island, and that ends up with them talking about men. Would it really be that difficult to find space in a four hour film for a few women to talk about something else?
This version of Justice League put me in mind of Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac, bizarrely. Both are four hour epics (though Nymphomaniac was split into two films with each released individually) and both separated by chapters with title cards. Both are the creations of their boundary-pushing, provocative directors, and both were eagerly-awaited and controversial even before they premiered. Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill volumes also mostly fit this description, but what differentiates Kill Bill and Nymphomaniac from Justice League is depth. Justice League feels like it was drawn in crayon, not sculpted from wax, as the characters are flat and simplistic. Batman is driven, Superman is righteous, Aquaman is pessimistic, the Flash is optimistic, Wonder Woman is empowering, and so on. Snyder does not seem interested in character development or change, or building empathy with characters. What he does put across is told instead of shown through speeches and voiceovers designed to evoke a response, rather than demonstration of action. Considering it is four hours long, more thought seems to have gone into how the trailers will look rather than how the film itself will hold up under scrutiny.
Justice League is a film that takes itself very seriously. Every character wears a frown—even Batman’s cowl has brow creases. If it is anything, the director’s cut is a collection of every Snyder trademark: huge fights, explosions, toxic masculinity, the idolisation of strength, sidelined female characters, slow motion, lightning, one-dimensional character traits, authority shown through anger, and low-light night filming. It is not a bad film, but it is not a great film either. Purely for the spectacle of it and the sheer audacity of its awkwardly-framed four-hour existence it rises above the mediocre, but it is deeply flawed. There are gaping plot holes throughout the narrative that should not exist within the runtime, and a slew of coincidences and conveniences, but if you switch your brain off then these can be overlooked. Questions of whether it is too long or too excessive are of little consequence as Snyder has delivered exactly what he wanted to here. This is a bulldozer of a film that relentless trudges on, punching you in the face over and over again as it does. The simplistic politics and religious overtones are unsubtle reminders of the core audience for this film, and the Venn diagram of Snyder and Trump fans will contain a large crossover section illustrated by Affleck’s Batman, but that does not stop the film from being entertaining. It is watchable, and that in itself is praise. I won’t be watching it again, however. I only have so many hours left alive and I don’t intend to spend another four being beaten about the head by Zack Snyder.