(JUSTICE LEAGUE premiers on HBO Nordic 18.3.)
We’ve been here before
Watching ZACK SNYDER’S JUSTICE LEAGUE, a single thought repeated itself in my head: I don’t want to do this. I don’t want to spend four hours with this cynical vanity project, and I certainly don’t want to be in my mid-thirties arguing about Batman online. But here we are. The world is on fire, the pandemic is in its second year, and I’m spending countless hours writing about this borderline unwatchable mess.
Initially called JUSTICE LEAGUE, Zack Snyder’s original output was hastily reshot and edited by the allegedly abusive Joss Whedon when a family tragedy forced Snyder to bow out of the production. Last seen directing the upcoming Call of Duty commercial, Snyder seemed to finished with the DC Universe. Now, three years and a hundred million dollars in reshoots later, Snyder can deliver his “true vision” to the grown ups expecting it.
Snyder has retitled the film as ZACK SNYDER’S JUSTICE LEAGUE so that you don’t get confused with that other one. But anyone who’s still paying attention to the convoluted DC Cinematic Universe isn’t going to make that mistake. This is a product designed by a committee for a particular audience, one growing more vocal and toxic by the day.
So much of nothing
Let’s start with the obvious. Snyder’s JUSTICE LEAGUE is essentially the same film as Whedon’s JUSTICE LEAGUE, often down to the same scenes and pacing, with an added hour in the front and back. Neither addition does anything for the film, often convoluting the incomprehensible twaddle further.
(Batman finds Aquaman in a remote fishing village. To get there, he has to pass a glacier and climb a barren rock face. Yet, the very next scene shows him returning to Alfred in a helicopter. Women of the village mournfully sing as Aquaman leaves, indicating something momentous, only for him to reappear in the same village for a second exit altogether.)
The pacing, or lack thereof, is broken up by chapter breaks, which are ultimately pointless and only serve to remind you that there’s still an ice age of this film left. Taking up a half-hour of runtime, the entire epilogue is an elaborate ploy from Snyder to pretend like there was some grand plan at the end of all this. It’s a trailer moment, re-shot, and designed to whet the social media’s appetites, but ultimately is just as empty and vacuous as anything added into the product.
Everything else is pure Snyder. Hamfisted, shallow, and clunky. There isn’t a special effect he doesn’t love, or a moment he won’t waste for pointless slow-motion. If there is music, which his LEAGUE features endlessly, it comments directly and inelegantly about what is on the screen. Lois Lane gazing at the memorial for Superman? Snyder plays a chorus lamenting how the promise of Gods outliving us turns out to be a lie. Aquaman returning to Atlantis? He plays Nick Cave’s “There is a Kingdom.”
It could be avant-garde, but Snyder shows no indication of any such wit or nuance anywhere else to support that. And if you thought he cares about character growth, here are four hours to prove you wrong.
Every one of the main cast is still murderers, most notably Wonder Woman, who, in yet another useless introduction, cracks open heads before smirking at the children watching. Blood splatters, and sickening crunches fill the room before she explodes another man into a thousand pieces. “I want to be like you,” a child coos. Girl power!
The entirety of Ray Fischer’s Cyborg’s backstory and character arc takes place seemingly overnight. It doesn’t help that Fischer, while exceedingly earnest, is just not interesting enough to carry his considerable part. Though, admittedly, it’s hard to say what parts are his fault and not the poor writing and limp directing dragging him down.
Meanwhile, Ben Affleck does his best Timothy Olyphant impersonation as Bruce Wayne while growling his way through the most violent and unhinged Batman to date. Alternating between a naive John Lennon-type to a gun-toting mass murderer, there isn’t a psychosis that this neo-Frank Miller take on the material doesn’t like. “I will fucking kill you,” he growls at prominent cult leader Jared Leto, eliciting hearty guffaws in the process.
Because LEAGUE is still the work of a dozen writers and two directors, entire scenes begin with one message and end completely contradictory. The dialog, in particular, is like nails on a chalkboard. Endlessly wallowing in quasi-operatic pompousness, every line feels like a rough draft waiting for a polish. Superman poses like the Christ cruicified while wearing a black suit, but any deeper meaning is lost to anyone but those who’ve read a dozen comics first.
“The Mother Box has slept for thousands for years,” Connie Nielsen explains, as one of the MacGuffins roars to life and suddenly quiets down. “Maybe it has gone back to sleep,” another Amazon suggests. “Evil does not sleep,” Nielsen helpfully replies, ensuring any viewer paying attention to the insipid dialog continues to question their sanity.
Serious business for serious people
It doesn’t help that LEAGUE is so hopelessly, utterly devoted to po-faced seriousness. There is little to no humor in the entire picture. Even as Aquaman has the job of poking fun at the material, it comes off as glib and snide. As if Snyder is at once enamored with his vision while equally disdainful of the source. Where something like BIRDS OF PREY or SHAZAM broke this tired cycle of toxicity by being wild, wacky, and fun, LEAGUE remains stuck in arrested development. Convinced that as long as it wears all black and calls everything stupid, people will think it’s mature.
Ultimately, LEAGUE is in the perfect place as a release that can’t fail. If the reviews are bad, Snyder can blame Warner Bros. for not giving him the freedom to produce his vision comfortably. If it’s good, then, naturally, everything is from his hands and his alone. Whatever fails is the work of others. This smugness permeates every aspect of the production, and it leads to self-satisfied posturing that acts like we’re lucky to witness such a grand spectacle.
Nothing left out
But JUSTICE LEAGUE isn’t some grand opus, nor is it a masterpiece. It’s not even bad enough to warrant mystified adoration. It is yet another overtly expensive DC adaptation of material that remains impenetrable for everyone but the devoted. It lacks charm, wit, and heart, replacing them with messy production values and a pompous narrative.
At four hours in length, it’s a testament to how low the bar sometimes truly is. There is a term called an assembly cut in film production, which strings together every filmed scene to showcase the material available for editing. From there, the filmmaker and his crew work to sculpt together a focused narrative, often excising entire sections of filmed footage.
It is complex and intensive work, requiring nuance to tell a story with a single unified vision when the material could adapt into a dozen different films.
In the case of ZACK SNYDER’S JUSTICE LEAGUE, the assembly cut might as well be the final product, where everything, including the kitchen sink, goes into the picture. Because why bother with nonsense like pace when the audience is still cheering.
By the end of it, nothing matters. All that’s left is a resounding headache and a wish to never go through this again.