Fanboy heaven or hell. Which is it? How many hours, precisely, do you want to spend with Superman and Batman and a bunch of other superfigures in a world where all humor has been banned and portentous droning music is played ceaselessly with no off-switch available? Whose superhero movies do you prefer, the heavy, ponderous ones of Zack Snyder (Man of Steel, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice) or the untidy, playful ones of Joss Whedon? Which will it be? Judgment Day (sorry, Terminator) has arrived for Zack Snyder’s Justice League.
Whatever the verdict, the biggest victory was won by the die-hard fans. In the wake of widespread dissatisfaction with the aesthetic hodgepodge and financial shortfall of the 2017 Justice League (it registered a dreadful 40% critical approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes and grossed just $228 million domestically with a budget that, due to reshoots, ran to about $300 million), the customary Hollywood reaction would have been to put on the brakes and, once again, restart the franchise with some fresh talent, a new approach and perhaps a tighter hand on the checkbook.
Throughout Hollywood’s history, when an extravagant film got out of hand or tested badly, the usual reaction was to get rid of the director, make drastic cuts, shove it out into the world in a desultory manner, try to sweep it under the rug as soon as possible and move on to something else. It’s happened, in different ways, to some of the most esteemed of films: Greed, Metropolis, Napoleon, The Magnificent Ambersons, Blade Runner and Once Upon a Time in America, among others.
What does the fate of these cinema classics have to do with the predicament of a troubled franchise made with the greatest common denominator in mind? It’s that the studios, for once, listened to the most ardent fans and supporters and gave them what they wanted—a full-on, extra-length, unadulterated conclusion to the Justice League saga by its original director, as opposed to the jokier Snyder-Whedon version that pleased almost no one.
The film set to premiere on March 18 on HBO Max (and not in cinemas!) is a four-hour (!), six-part extravaganza that is very clearly the “vision,” as everyone likes to say these days, of a single director, not the tonal and narrative mish-mash that was the 2017 film. What cascades across the screen here is at least 50% new, never-before-seen material, which defines and justifies it as a new movie. If Christopher Nolan, with his Batman films, took comic book-derived material to new levels of weighty seriousness, this rebooted Justice League goes much further than that with its grave ponderousness and remorseless sense of mission.
Warner Bros executives could easily have let dormant dogs lie and cut their losses by not reinvesting in Snyder’s suspended quest. No doubt financial calculations made it seem advisable to bring the director back and have him finish the job on a scale he never could have imagined four years ago. Reflecting on the angst and disappointment suffered by many filmmakers of the past when then dream visions went up in smoke or were severely compromised, there is something heartening in the studio brass supporting a director to realize his intentions despite the great cost involved.
From the beginning, Snyder’s work has leaned decisively toward the bombastic and effects-heavy—he made his name with Dawn of the Dead, 300, Watchman and Sucker Punch. The tendency to put on weight became even more pronounced in Man of Steel, in 2013. His jumbled Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice three years later was an often painful sit, one that notched a deadly 28% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. So much for fan enthusiasm, one would have thought.
Nonetheless, Snyder was entrusted with Justice League the following year. As is widely known, a family tragedy—the suicide of his daughter—caused Snyder to bow out well into the shoot. Whedon, whose two Avengers installments had been massively successful, was engaged to finish the film.
The unsatisfactory result should have surprised no one, as Whedon is as dedicated to goofy fun (he co-wrote the original Toy Story, created such TV shows as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and directed The Avengers, only the third-highest grossing film of all time) as Snyder is to thudding spectacle. The competing tones of the finished film proved most uncongenial.
The first thing that strikes you about the new Justice League is the aspect ratio, which is 4:3. This is the boxy frame that you’re used to seeing at Imax screening facilities, for movies and TV shows made up to the 1950s and, depending, on your phone. But it’s the polar opposite of the widescreen spectacles you expect to see at big movie theaters, and certainly not the format used for all the previous features, as it diminishes the visual possibilities for action and grandeur.
What you next begin to notice is the film’s studious solemnity, which is not even once interrupted by a dash of humor. After a certain point, you just want someone—anyone!—to break the mood by cutting a fart or making cross-eyes, anything to give things a jolt of life. There’s not a single laugh or even a snide remark in the picture. Where is the Joker when you need him?
Another thing that sets this Justice League apart is its wall-to-wall soundtrack; not one of the film’s 242 minutes is unaccompanied by the electronic music of Junkie XL (Tom Holkenborg) droning around in the background. Sometimes it emphatically enhances what’s going on, but as often as not it’s moody background droning simply there to augment the looming threat.
It’s a sense of dread that defines the sole dramatic register employed for the entire four hours. In a charitable moment you could praise Snyder for so successfully sustaining a mood for so long, but you might more readily criticize him for never attempting to mix things up a little bit, to vary the pacing of his protracted investigation of characters who, for all their totemic appeal, could not be more one-dimensional.
One could easily damn Justice League with faint praise for its single-minded sense of purpose, exceptional technical expertise and consistency of tone. You could more easily lambast it for the same reasons. It just drones un-varyingly along, like a spaceship on a very long journey.
All the same, Justice League undeniably possesses its own kind of integrity, which, in the world of franchise filmmaking, is something of a rare commodity. It may be that integrity seems wasted on material that may not deserve it because it’s so rote and familiar at this point. Are the fates of these comic book figures worth so gravely engaging with when we know that these characters—beginning with Superman–can always come back for return engagements, no matter what might have happened to them in previous episodes or incarnations?
If you’re a fan—boy or girl, man or woman—you might well be impressed by this ginormous undertaking, a gathering of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, Cyborg and The Flash under one intergalactic umbrella to battle an assortment of villains mostly less known than they. One measurable improvement is the significant elaboration of new villain Steppenwolf over the far paler version that appeared under Whedon’s supervision; the Snyder rendition is splendidly decked out in brilliant slivers of silver and given all the screen time he needs to emerge as a formidable adversary.
After all the sturm und drang and untold millions lost on a seemingly cursed film that hardly anyone liked, the emergence of Justice League in this new form represents something akin to a resurrection or, perhaps more properly, a rebirth in a different form. You didn’t like your baby the way it came out the first time? OK, we’ll bury that one and let you try again.
Maybe I’m just pretty Marveled and DCd out, and the droning, repetitive nature of this particular franchise has exacerbated my fatigue. At the same time, however, I’m impressed and even delighted that Warner Bros, having already lost big playing the Justice League card, decided to go for double or nothing.
In the end, I have to admit that, for all its longueurs, Zack Snyder’s Justice League possesses its own kind of integrity. The possessive nomenclature of the title is deserved. I’m glad the clamorous fanboys agitated and made enough noise to see their dreams come true. We’ll learn soon enough if their faith is rewarded.
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