Zack Snyder’s Justice League (2021)

This … experience (I’m not quite sure it’s a “movie”) opens in an awkward flashback to a time four years ago that barely resembles our present reality, so I will, too. Back in November of 2017, I rode a bus with an exposed face to a movie theater that was located in the same strip mall as an honest-to-goodness travel agency, where I pushed a lever on a dispenser that provided me with a plastic straw that wasn’t even wrapped in paper, just piled into said dispenser with all of its brethren willy nilly by a teenage employee using their bare hand. And I used that straw to drink an ICEE that was as blue as the sky and as big as my femur. The film that I went to see that grey November Saturday was the theatrical release of Justice League, which I found … sufficiently diverting. “Look!,” I typed with my naïve little fingers, “Up on the screen!” digits as yet unravaged by just how stupid, undignified, and dangerous life was about to become, in every single way it possibly could. “It’s big! It’s dumb! It’s loud!” I wrote, not really thinking myself clever but pressed to come up with anything better. “It’s Justice League!” Now, here we are, a pandemic, an insurrection, and three and a half years later, and the revelation is at hand, and I have to say, it troubles my spirit (which we’ll get into in a minute here), if not my sight, vexed to nightmare.

I’m speaking, of course, about Zack Snyder’s Justice League

What a rough beast to come round at last, slouching towards HBO Max to be born! There’s no way that the modern reader doesn’t know what I’m referring to, but in case you are reading this some decades in the future, when the internet has collapsed in on itself and there’s nothing left to read but Cathy comics, the fabled Swampflix Tablets, and Chuck Klosterman’s Downtown Owl, I’ll explain. Once upon a time, there was a movie that wasn’t finished because of a tragedy in the director’s life. As a result, directorial duties were handed off from Zack Snyder (aka the film bro’s Michael Bay) to Joss Whedon (aka the thinking man’s Harvey Weinstein) so that the latter could hopefully bring to the DC film franchise some of the tangential Marvel prestige that the former’s previous films had failed to garner. Whedon churned out a mediocre-at-best live action cartoon that was cursed with the worst production problems since God decided to make Richard Stanley into the modern day Job, plagued by contract disputes about facial hair, beset by horrible jokes about the nature of brunch, and savaged by most critics. Immediately, the drowning vermin in the extended gutters began to demand “The Snyder Cut,” and Warner decided to just go ahead and do it, teaching all of the too-online Twitter incels the valuable lesson that you pester and pester and pester long enough (40 months, as it turns out), you’ll eventually wear down everyone enough to get what you want. I’m sure that won’t have any long term consequences that we’ll all regret forever! 

As a result of the death of Superman (Henry Cavil) at the end of Batman v. Superman, a mysterious cube on Themyscira, the island home of the Amazons and Diana/Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), is activated. This cube is one of three “mother boxes,” sentient computers that, in this version, are used in conjunction with one another to terraform planets into the same hellish landscape as Apokalips, the home of DC supervillain Darkseid (Ray Porter), an omnicidal monarch whose life’s work is to find the Anti-Life Equation, which can be used to subjugate and enslave by destroying all free will in the universe. Diana relates to Bruce “Batman, obviously” Wayne (Ben Affleck) that, in some prehistoric past, Darkseid had visited earth and attempted to unify the mother boxes, but that his attack was repelled by a group of Amazons and gods, Atlanteans (who had not yet migrated to beneath the waves), and humans, with a Green Lantern thrown in there for good measure. The mother boxes themselves were left behind when Darkseid’s forces retreated, and each group—man, Atlantean, and Amazon—were given one of these MacGuffins to guard and stand vigil over. Now, the boxes are awakening after countless centuries of dormancy, and the first has called to the villainous Steppenwolf to reunite it with its fellows in order to turn everything into magma. And it’s up to Bruce and Diana to unite the seven, or six rather, in order to combat him. 

The first attempted recruit is Arthur Curry, aka Aquaman (Jason Momoa), the son of an Atlantean woman and a human man, with one foot in both worlds and at home in neither (I assume this is explained in Aquaman). He all but laughs in Bruce’s face and disappears into the sea. Elsewhere, Diana meets Victor Stone, aka Cyborg (Ray Fisher), a former Gotham City University football star who prior to the start of the story was in an accident that claimed his mother’s life and should have killed him as well. In a desperate move, his father Silas (Joe Morton), a STAR Labs scientist with access to the excavated mother box that was to be guarded by mankind, uses the alien technology to save Victor’s life, turning his son into a walking deus ex machina who also happens to be the emotional core of this narrative. Like Aquaman, he too also initially rejects Diana’s offer to join her and Bruce, since he’s too busy doing things that actually make the world a better place (like redistributing wealth, albeit very, very slowly). The only luck the duo have in soliciting assistance is when they meet Barry Allen, aka the Flash (Ezra Miller), a speedster whose superpower lets him move at such speeds that it sometimes affects the flow of time itself. Meanwhile, Steppenwolf is trying to find the third and final mother box in order to do his thing, and this plan includes abducting anyone who’s been near it, including Silas, which brings Cyborg into the fray. They track the abductees to one of the Snyder Cut’s multiple nondescript industrial locations and manage to free them, but even with an assist from Aquaman, they get their asses handed to them, so they decide to cut through this Gordian Knot by digging up Superman’s rotting corpse and bringing it back to life with the mother box, like you do. 

Via technobabble and superheroic shenanigans, they manage to resurrect Superman, but it’s Pet Sematary rules so he’s not all there at first, at least until Lois Lane (Amy Adams) shows up and they fly away together, and the two of them reunite with MARTHA (Diane Lane) back at the now-repossessed Kent family farm for a bit while the other five supes fly off to Russia to attack Steppenwolf’s base. Superman eventually joins them, and there’s a lot of CGI action for a really long time, and then the credits roll. Or rather, they don’t, as this thing has more fakeout endings than Return of the King. We get a prison break, a harbor rendezvous, and a dream sequence/future vision that leads into a scene in which Bruce meets the Martian Manhunter (Harry Lennix), all for the price of admission, which I guess is just whatever you were already paying for HBO Max.

Zack Snyder’s Justice League is (infamously) presented in 4:3, which means that it’s in the same aspect ratio as the television you watched as a child (presuming you’re old enough to read and enjoy this website), which honestly did wonders for the release as a whole. Any time something was very, very dumb, my unconscious just said, “This isn’t cinema, it’s TV from the Baywatch generation,” and my conscious was like “pew pew lasers, zap zap zap.” The fact that it’s broken into segments that make it perfect for viewing in chunks while riding an exercise bike, which is the only way that I do anything now anyway since we’re all getting vaccinated and immunized and I will once more have to be perceived in public again, doesn’t hurt either. Although I hate to give the subset of internet weirdos who build their whole identity around the claims that Disney buys positive reviews and that the DCEU is some kind of grand artistic statement instead of an inconsistent corporate product any credit for being right, even if only by accident, this version of the narrative does things that Marvel would legitimately never do. For better or for worse, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 is not going to have a bunch of Scandinavian women ululating on a gravel beach because someone rented Portrait of a Lady on Fire, and although that’s not a metric of greatness, it’s moody and atmospheric in a way that I didn’t expect. So, yeah … this is good, actually? 

Which is not to say that it’s good consistently. There are many, many scenes that take place solely in the realm of The Mind, and not in a way that’s beautiful or complex so much as a way that’s very … brown acid. Everything about the epilogue is pure hot steaming garbage, especially the much-vaunted reappearance of Jared Leto’s Joker. Maybe it’s not the best barometer, but I often use the rapidity of how quickly a TVTropes page grows as well as its editorial tone (or lack thereof) in combination with the Twitter discourse to gauge just how problematic a given fandom is, and I have to say, YIKES. In what is easily the narrative’s worst scene, Joker and the Bat have a super macho, aggro argument about the deaths of loved ones that prompts Affleck’s Batman to proffer a death threat that’s delivered with the same exact cringe as BVS’s infamous “Why’d you say that name?” or the out-of-context Dick Grayson line “Fuck Batman” from Teen Titans, but since the worst people on the internet have adopted kinning/LARPing the Joker, they’re eating this scene up like it’s cherries jubilee on the Fourth of July. It just goes to prove that giving these people this cut of Justice League is possibly the worst thing that we have done as a society. It’s like it’s the last week of school and a bedraggled fourth grade teacher has finally given up on trying to improve the morals, education, or enlightenment of a boy who doesn’t respect his female classmates’ bodily autonomy, the opinions of any individual other than himself, or why it’s wrong to torture small animals, and just gives him a candy bar to shut him up before we head into the long, dark summer slide of western civilization, turning and turning in the widening gyre. 

So how to grade something like this? It’s unequivocally a better experience than the theatrical cut, which I gave a 3.5 star review (albeit with the Camp Stamp signifier). It also demands some kind of qualifier to any measure of its quality, however, as things fall apart upon inspection, and the centre cannot hold… your attention for very long, but to call this “camp” doesn’t seem right either, despite the weirdly performative nature of its machismo. But can I justify giving this a 3.5+ star review with no real warning to the potential viewer who uses Swampflix as a guide to quality? I’m flipping a coin and living with the decision. 

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Aquaman (2018)

There are two distinct, directly opposed routes to take in adapting Aquaman to the big screen. My preferred angle would be to lean into the inherent absurdity of the character’s underwater superheroics, having deliriously over-the-top fun with the various sea creatures & Lisa Frank waterscapes that environment invites. The lesser, cowardly route would be to poke fun at that absurdity, to make Aquaman a gruff macho bro who wouldn’t be caught dead swimming with dolphins in bright superhero tights (at least not with a smartass quip about the indignity). The confusing thing about the DCEU’s Aquaman film is that it chooses both of these routes, embracing & rejecting the inherent silliness of Aquaman lore in what has to be the most perplexing mixed bag experience offered by a blockbuster since . . . the last film in the DCEU. Aquaman is a film that deals only in extremes. Its soundtrack must feature the ethereal beauty of Sigúr Ros and the obnoxious corporate party anthems of Pitbull, nothing in-between. It has to take the regal lineage & mythology of its underwater sea kingdom dead seriously and feature a cutaway gag of an octopus playing the drums. It has no qualms exploiting the cartoon energy of its setting as if it were an underwater Ferngully or an extended version of the “Under the Sea” number in Disney’s Little Mermaid, but it also feels compelled to cast Jason Momoa in the titular role as the broiest bro who ever bro’d, lest Aquaman come off as an uncool seafaring pansy. In the hands of an over-the-top Asian action spectacle craftsman like a Steven Chow or a Tsui Hark this all-over-the-place quality might have felt controlled & intentional, but coming from an American studio (with negligible influence from Furious 7 & Dead Silence schlockteur James Wan) it mostly plays like a confused jumble of self-conflicting ideas.

Jason Momoa puts in the exact same Aquabro performance here that he delivered in Justice League, except now there’s more of it. So very much more. Instead of popping in for an occasional, cute bro-liner like his much-memed “My man!” in the previous film, he’s asked to anchor a sprawling mythology about the regal lineage of the underwater kingdom of Atlantis, which is on the verge of civil war. Legitimate actors Willem Dafoe, Nicole Kidman, and Patrick Wilson admirably play the material straight as if there were actual stakes to this middling franchise entry and it wasn’t just a lavishly expensive, underwater episode of Wishbone. Momoa’s jockular, beer-pounding frat boy has a much more difficult time of it, especially in scenes where he’s asked to generate genuine chemistry or pathos with the sleepwalking Amber Heard (in one of history’s all time worst big screen wigs). It’s a shame that the mythology is so inert & self-serious, both because Momoa’s sex-idiot boytoy persona struggles to carry the weight and because the various underwater creatures that define the world are so pitch-perfect in their absurdity. Aquaman is packed to the gills with mighty sea horse steeds riding into battle, mounted laser sharks roaring in ferocious defiance, stingray-shaped submarines zipping around like underwater UFOs, a pissed-off Nicole Kidman hurling tridents in Burning Man drag, etc. I was often bored with the villain’s quest to become “Oceanmaster” (whatever the fuck that is), the hero’s search for the almighty trident McGuffin that would stop him, and the overall conflict of “uniting the two world’s” of Land & Sea, but every time I was about to give up on the movie entirely some mutated Lisa Frank monstrosity would emerge to reel me back in. For every shot of Momoa mugging to pure-cheese guitar riffs in embarrassing attempts to transform Aquaman into a badass, there’s equally weighted flashes of pure nerd-ass shit that accepts the character for the uncool goof that he is. I have no idea what to make of the result except to say that it’s exhausting.

There were moments of divine absurdity that had me thinking Aquaman might be the best film in the DCEU (a low bar to clear, but still). They were usually followed by 20 minutes or so of excruciating boredom before that pleasure resurfaced, choking on the flood of narrative glut. My disinterest in Momoa’s bro-flavored charms might have been what sunk my appreciation of the film to an extent (although I wouldn’t fault anyone for prurient interest in watching him get wet for three hours). Mostly, though, I think my inability to fully embrace the film’s live action cartoon energy resulted from its own half-commitment to its over-the-top, nerd-ass tone. When the evil sea creatures of Aquaman off-handedly cite land-dwellers’ pollution of the ocean as a reason to declare war, I couldn’t help but think of the more fearlessly committed overfishing politics of The Mermaid or the birds’ rights activism of 2.0, Asian blockbusters that are unembarrassed of their ludicrous premises. Aquaman, by contrast, constantly apologies for the frivolity off its underwater Ferngully by having a mugging macho class clown reassure the audience that everything onscreen is a joke and the hero is actually super cool, not nerdy at all. You can feel James Wan pushing for weird surreal touches in the background but the cultural monolith of the modern superhero blockbuster has a way of smoothing everything out into a routine monotony. The result is a picture at war with itself, like so many power-hungry Atlantians. A few years ago I might have rated this film a half-star higher for the moments of unbridled goofiness that do shine through the studio system muck, but I’m just finding the weight of this genre too exhausting to afford much more of my energy. A version of Aquaman that was an hour shorter and entirely relegated to the underwater sea creature civil war might have been something truly remarkable, but franchise filmmaking requirements constantly pull it out of the water so that another macho man can mug for the camera in all his heroic buffness and the repetition of the schtick is getting punishingly dull.

-Brandon Ledet

The Bad Batch (2017)

It’s insane how rapidly Ana Lily Amirpour’s public estimation has plummeted since her well-received debut A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night made her one of the top directors to keep an eye on in the indie scene. A couple awkward (to put it lightly) Q&A session and Halloween costume incidents later and Amirpour is sitting at the helm of one of the year’s least loved high profile horror releases. Her druggy, cannibalistic road drama The Bad Batch lacks the critical support its fellow artsy fartsy cannibal picture Raw has enjoyed in 2017, finding few fans to defend its ambling, highly stylized version of a modern horror. I honestly went into the film hoping to file a contrarian opinion and get some blood flowing back into Amirpour’s veins. The Bad Batch boasted the same visual slickness & feminist bent that I enjoyed in her debut, except maybe shifting its palette from Jim Jarmusch to Harmony Korine (particularly his best works to date, Gummo & Spring Breakers). On paper, it’s the exact brand of bright colors & pop music ultraviolence I love in my modernist schlock, but in execution I can’t quite convince myself to enjoy what’s on the screen. What’s even more surprising than the way Amirpour’s reputation has faltered so quickly is that a movie this visually & conceptually exciting can feel so punishingly dull.

In a not-too-distant future, Texas, Florida, and Burning Man have all combined forces to create film history’s tackiest dystopia. The titular “bad batch” are a community of criminal outcasts fenced in outside the rule of law in a Texan desertscape that’s “hotter than the Devil’s a-hole.” A culture of scavengers & cannibals emerges from this outlaw nation, where people fill their downtime with drugged-out raves & prison yard workouts. Suki Waterhouse stars as a fresh-faced newbie to this flesh-eating community, one who immediately loses two limbs to cannibalistic reprobates on her first day as a member of “the bad batch.” She eventually escapes their clutches and makes her way over to a more hospitable raver community, where she gets entangled in a glacial plot involving a missing child. Other recognizable faces in the cast are obscured by bizarre character choices & costuming: Keanu Reeves in Tony Clifton drag as King of the Raves; Jim Carrey as a mute, sunburnt hobo; (most disastrously) Jason Momoa as a Cuban family man. It’s mostly a Battle of the Ridiculous Accents from there, as most of the violence happens quickly & early and the two hour runtime pulls a Terry Gilliam-esque feat of feeling three times its length. For a movie so sure of itself visually & aesthetically, The Bad Batch feels oddly short on ideas to occupy its time.

The most frustrating aspect of The Bad Batch is that it has the building blocks of a much more fun, rewarding movie already in its arsenal. I have no doubt that what Amirpour filmed for the project could be re-edited into a crowd pleasing spectacle of pop horror mayhem. The bubbly soundtrack (which includes needle drops from Ace of Base, Die Antwoord, and Culture Club), Speedos & watermelon-print jorts costuming, and beached jetskis & neon lights set design all suggest a movie far more fun than The Bad Batch ever dares to be. With more energy and a shorter runtime, the film could’ve been a blast as a live action sugar rush, but as a slow-moving art film it just lays there, rotting in the sun. The best parts of the film are dialogue-free indulgences in high fructose imagery (much like A Girl Walks Home, the film’s best scene simply watches a woman enjoy solitude in her bedroom). Any instances of plot or dialogue digging for meaning beyond these surface pleasures are either cringe-worthy, blunt statements of unearned themes or laughable moments like an embarrassingly edited, never-ending acid trip or the Richard Kelly-ish line, “What if all the things that happened to us happened to us so the next things that are going to happen to us can happen to us?”. That’d be fine if the movie were about half as long & twice as fun or violent, but as is its minor pleasures are buried under a massive bore.

I’m not quite ready to give up on Ana Lily Amirpour. I doubt the movie-world at large is either. Her imagery and bloodthirsty Millennial sensibilities are too immediately interesting to abandon just yet, but I’d be a liar if I said The Bad Batch in particular is worth anyone’s time. Until I hear that the film has been trimmed down or punched up into the wild ride horror comedy free-for-all it should’ve been in the first place, this is one Texan dystopia (among many) that I plan to leave forever in the rearview. Let’s just be hopeful and chalk it up as a standard sophomore slump.

-Brandon Ledet