06 April 2021

First Impressions: Zack Snyder's Justice League

We are fast arriving at an era where we sorta need to move on from reserving our Impressions reviews only for movies seen in the theater. The last movie I saw in the theater is still Rise of Skywalker (2019). Ugh, kill me. Thanks to HBOMax, which I am 100% on board with right now, we are getting a steady stream of dumb action comic book movies, so I'm game. Let's start this party with Zack Snyder's Justice League (2021), which is in a world all on its own and perhaps becoming one of the more famous "re-dos" in cinema history. SPOILERS I guess, kind of for this movie that's like four years old but also brand new?

Chill, man! It's not that artistic!

Re-reading my initial impressions of Justice League (2017), it's amazing how much a few things stick out. First is just how snarky I was. Maybe I still am? But that movie just had so, so, so much baggage. The news at the time was more about Snyder leaving due to an imaginable family tragedy, Joss Whedon entering to lighten everything up, and Henry Cavill's CGI de-moustaching. With four years of hindsight it's clear that Snyder was very much forced off the project, Whedon was a horribly misguided choice, and the moustache thing wasn't all that big of a deal.

Let's just dive into this, which is what everyone wants to hear - how did this thing come about, was it worth it, and what is really different? I will reiterate that it is a true miracle that Snyder got the opportunity to get back in there and indulge everything he wanted to ever do, but it's also very much a product of a different world. As I mentioned in 2017, Justice League was just chasing Marvel. Amidst a great year for superhero movies, the biggest DCEU team-up event was an afterthought. In the years since, they've somewhat righted the ship with Aquaman (2018) and SHAZAM (2019) being pretty good and Bird of Prey (2020) and Wonder Woman 1984 (2020) being pretty okay. They're all better than Snyder's early efforts, which are truly, truly awful.

With this big negative wave it wasn't that crazy to bring Whedon on to the project. At the time Snyder was seen as this dour, pretentious, and self-serious auteur, which is all the more insane because his movies are completely bonkers and could be successful if they took themselves less seriously. Whedon was coming off of The Avengers (2012) and appeared as this superhero wunderkind, but really we should have been wise to the cracks in his armor. In the past four years his career has fallen hard, mostly because the man who we all thought could write strong female characters hasn't held up under scrutiny. The jokes that worked in Avengers also feel so cringey in Justice League. There are plenty of possible reasons why - they didn't mesh with Snyder's script, they're forced in general, the cast wasn't on board, or maybe Whedon was never really that great to begin with.

I will gladly hop on the "never liked Whedon" train. I never watched Buffy or Firefly. I don't know why neither of those shows ever really appealed to me. I was probably too young to buy into Buffy initially and now I'm too old. I did watch a little Firefly, but I can't remember a thing beyond Nathan Fillion and Alan Tudyk being in it. He was always praised for his writing, but nothing ever stood out to me as that clever or ground-breaking. I really liked Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog (2008) and The Cabin in the Woods (2012), both of which I DO think are clever and ground-breaking, though.

All this set up The Avengers, which looking back on it, was such the most mass-marketed appealing and safest movie ever. That's not totally a criticism, I mean, it's literally the point of these movies. But the jokes are broad, the action is broad, the themes are broad, and it's shot like a TV show. When these elements were brought to Justice League and mixed in with a very distinct vision, which we see now, it's no wonder this movie was really really bad when it came out. There just isn't clarity of purpose or motivation, shots are compromised or flat due to lighting changes that don't match set and costume design, and there's a general lighter tone that dilutes the stakes. The Avengers still had an epic feel, Justice League just feels like warm mush.

So, that movie came out, it was a mess, people forgot about it, and we moved on with our lives. But thank you Internet Trolls for screaming for the fabled "Snyder Cut" for years. There is a lot of nasty context here, Snyder appeals to that Internet Bro crowd that likes carrying tiki torches and has nothing better to do on January 6th. It's all kind of Fountainhead, superheroes are inherent gods and better people kind of stuff. Yeah, he made Watchmen (2009) but without a ton of Alan Moore's self awareness about these topics. Whedon isn't quite there but he does exhibit the other side of the coin with male gaze, playful sexual harassment jokes, and that kind of "I'm an ally, why won't you sleep with me!?" type of male thinking. I know this is a really hot take, folks - all of Hollywood might be sexist.

There is a degree of problematic thinking then, went Internet bros complain and then get what they want. But IS it that bad when the Snyder Cut is actually this good. That's right. I really actually enjoyed the hell out of this movie. After years of whining, a pandemic where we had nothing else to do but watch directors re-edit old movies and launch fledgling streaming services like HBOMax, the Snyder Cut was the perfect big blockbuster, new but sort of also old, a sure novelty to peak interest, but also a tremendous showcase for think pieces like this to get the Internet buzz in full swing in a world still taking a big breath after a dearth of Marvel films. Everything just aligned with this one.

This film is undeniably better than Justice League. It has far more context, a more coherent, unrushed story, an epic scope, and actually a whole ton of fun. I don't know what would have happened if this had come out in 2017, all four hours of it. I watched it, but I will admit that my joy was fueled in part by my ability to take bathroom breaks, make dinner halfway through, pause to watch some NCAA March Madness, and then finish it up. I will say that somehow it is actually one of the fastest four hours I've spent watching a movie.

It's helped by breaking up the film into many smaller character moments and origins, and this is a good and bad thing. Newly introduced characters like Flash and Cyborg could have used their own lead-up films, but quite honestly, we know enough about Flash from the CW show, and this movie serves as a pretty good Cyborg origin. We're probably okay. Aquaman has the deepest, wettest backstory, and it's fairly incomprehensible in Whedon's cut. His own solo adventure as well as more context here is very helpful. It's important to remember that people will sit through four hours of movie, they just won't sit through four hours of bad movie. I made a note of the time stamp - Batman shows up in costume for teh first time around two hours in, which is about the time that Justice League ended.

This all helps it just become epic. No one would pay attention to the Lord of the Rings if it were a crisp 90 minutes. It's supposed to be an investment. Now, that investment only works when the story isn't stretched thin (sorry, Hobbit movies), but a film like this, that was supposed to stand against Avengers movies, needs to feel a little more substantial.

The other benefits of more time to breathe and more context include the villain, Steppenwolf, who is more suitably treated as the middle-management tool that he is. He's not a very good villain, but that's the point. He's a groveling sycophant, and how he cowers to Darkseid is supposed to indicate how badass the REAL villain actually is. It was great actually understanding his motivation as atonement for some blunder in the past. Now, Darkseid's general "conquering worlds" is as cliche as they come - getting into the Anti-Life Equation is a little it more nuanced, but it's basically the same thing. It's not quite as catchy as an Infinity Stone, is it?

Ohhhh, you know I've got to compare this to Marvel, I mean, that's the whole point, right? I mean, this isn't new. Steppenwolf is still a villain without much connection to the main heroes, at least until he kills Cyborg's dad, but that's also sort of the point. He just exists until Wonder Woman cuts his head off, and then no one cares that he's dead. However, he's still a huge threat that no one can beat.

Except Superman! And I will tell you, we all thought Whedon's interpretation via Cavill in Justice League was the one great thing about that movie, but he's actually just so fantastic here. Justice League was all about, "Well, we formed this team but we suck, so we need to bring Superman back." The Snyder Cut is still about that, but it's subtler and forming the team is still the first priority. Bringing Superman back is more an organic development as they explore the possibilities of the Mother Box.

Now, the core conceit is still shaky, but that's not this movie's fault. That would be the fault of Snyder's other two movies. First, Pa Kent's whole "Don't save people" schtick, which makes no sense any way we've thought about it in the past eight years now, then the fact that Superman was a huge jerk, and then they made a whole movie called Batman v. Superman (2016) which was ABOUT how no one is really into Superman. Now we regret him when he's dead. He just wasn't around enough to be honored by the world the way this film honors him. Also, all tension is removed both from the first few scenes here and retroactively BVS because you just know he's coming back. Like, Death is usually a joke in comics, but it's egregious here. It's tough to get past this, because it's literally what is kicking off this movie, but once you start rolling it's fun.

Everyone else gets a little moment. Aquaman has Norwegian people sing about him, which is the most cuttable scene in cinema history. Go Zack, go! The Flash saves a girl and hotdogs from a car crash. It is a little creepy, but I didn't think it was horribly so. Cyborg gets a ton to do, from manipulating the global economy through digging holes via punches, which is also so Snyder. No, the most Snyder thing is literally playing "Hallelujah" over the credits. I can't believe he did that again. Actually I mostly can't believe that it works and was an emotionally apt choice in that moment. I still laughed out loud.

But I will give this guy some credit! The Wonder Woman bank robbery scene I expected to be in slow motion but there was actually a lot of fast motion! They really showed off her strength and speed, which we hardly ever get to see. She also definitely destroyed that whole room unnecessarily, but whatever. It was a lot of fun, and maybe the best action scene of the movie as she deflects a whole automatic rifle's magazine from killing innocent bank people.

I love that J.K. Simmons got jacked for this role. Do you remember that? Or maybe he's just a gym rat actually. But he's in this for a split second and does not need to be. This movie is full of that. Willem Dafoe! Billy Crudup! Robin Wright! Zeus! I mean, cool I guess. Ben Affleck is fine, again, his character arc is just in a weird place because of how insane he was in BVS. We never knew what we were missing with consistent characterization, though. I forgot just how bad and out of place some of these Whedon jokes were. It is true that he doesn't have a ton to do besides be rich. Other stories tend to find a way for him to do something cool. He could surely do something here besides fire laser guns.

Anyway, the ending is a whole lot better. The heroes actually have a plan, each has a role and gets a cool set piece. And then they actually lose! I wonder if that was before or after Infinity War (2018). I guess it had to be before, right? I don't think Snyder actually wrote or filmed too many new scenes (oh, but we'll get to THOSE in a second). But surely the heroes losing and then going back in time is a little too coincidental to do twice, right? The Flash does this a whole lot easier than Ant-Man, though. He just kind of runs. It is a really cool scene, not trying to hate, and there is a ton of precedent in comics. For the record, when watching it, it didn't feel like a rip-off.

So let's get into this desert crap. I don't think it works at all. End the damn movie with the team on top of Chernobyl or whatever. Beyond the awkwardness of Jared Leto in general, his Joker really just doesn't work. I don't know why his vulgarity is so off-putting. It shouldn't be, it's the Joker. Maybe it's just the delivery, which is devoid of nuance, implication, or comic timing. The Joker is best when he's actually witty. It's also really hard to believe that Batman and Joker would ever team up for any reason. This might be more on the Joker's side - he's not working with anyone. The whole thing is also a shitty tease for something we're never going to see. I don't quite understand why it's in here.

Mroe like DORKseid LOL

Snyder's future plans seem pretty out there. I'm not sure Batman and Lois would have worked, but someone like the Joker killing Lois to send Superman over the edge makes sense. Hmmm... Evil Superman is fun, but it's also something that's been done a lot before. Including like...in this movie. Also in The Boys. And Brightburn (2019). We can't really complain about something that we haven't seen yet and also never will, but I'm maybe grateful we missed out. I'd still like to see the League go up against Darkseid. We've gotten so many good animated stories at this point, including the recently great Justice League Dark: Apokolips War (2020). I don't know why "What if Superman but Evil" feels played out but "Fight Darkseid Planet" doesn't, as I am realizing I can't logic my way out of this. Literally the point of oversaturation feeds one idea and drowns the other. I want Darkseid, get Michael Ironside to play him and be done with it.

Martian Manhunter has no role in this movie. Him impersonating Martha Kent has all sorts of horrible fridge logic and looking back, if he was the General this whole time, that doesn't really add anything because we don't know what he's working towards. Maybe if he actually showed up and fought somebody. Morphed into a dragon or something. He's so weird. Also, his codename is so awkward, there is a reason why even Justice League Unlimited always called him J'onn J'onzz instead.

Wrapping up, there is a lot of slow mo and epic treatment of innocuous scenes, most notably Aquaman walking into the ocean, but this is Snyder we're talking about. That's going to happen. There is a little more blood and two fun fuck words to give us an R-rating for some reason. The plot still pretty much doesn't make sense, but it's fine when it gets rolling. Most of all, this is a really enjoyable movie. Motivations are more clear, characters have more weight, and despite telling like five stories at once, it actually does all feel pretty balanced and never bloated. It's indulgent as all hell, but never bloated. Except for that Norwegian Song. They need a little morning wood! I really liked this, I would watch it again, and that's so much more than I can say for a lot of other movies these days.

I hate what this implies. No, we should not get the Ayer cut of Suicide Squad (2017). It's already weird enough we're getting another redo chance there this year. I don't think it's very fair that studios can screw up big time and then just make another movie. But it's also like, ugh, these films are so clearly better. Just get it right the first time! This isn't totally without precedent. Just look at the hundred versions of Blade Runner (1982) or Apocalypse Now (1979) or every single Terry Gilliam movie ever made. It's weird that nothing will really come of this and the DCEU is largely moving on from its key components and just doing whatever it wants. I suppose that's fine, but Joker (2019) was still not very good.

Now for Godzilla vs. Kong (2021)...

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