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

Justice League (2017)

Look! Up on the screen! It’s big! It’s dumb! It’s loud! It’s Justice League!

And it mostly works. Mostly.

The very first scene of Justice League does some good work walking back the problems—and they are problems, not merely criticisms—of the first few non-Wonder Woman films in this universe. We see Superman as children see him, which is also the way that this franchise keeps trying to retroactively force its audience into reconceptualizing him: as a true-blue (literally, given the lightening of his costume) hero and symbol of hope. He’s kind, sympathetic, and, you know, Superman, as he’s supposed to be. And then, just as his life was, the video is cut short. This leads into a beautiful opening credits montage, a strength of Zack Snyder’s as a director (even those who hate his Watchmen adaptation, which I surprisingly don’t, are all but universally pleased with its Dylan-composed credits sequence).

This sequence is not without contentious issues, of course. First, there’s a headline seen in a newspaper box mourning the loss of David Bowie, Prince, and Superman, but not Leonard Cohen, which is pretty disrespectful given that the whole thing is set to a really, really terrible cover of “Everybody Knows.” There’s also the issue that we’re supposed to be seeing a world in mourning for the space god who showed them some truths about themselves, but if you’re going to enjoy anything about this movie, you’re just going to have to accept this retcon.

Consider the speech from Marlon Brando’s Jor-El in the first Richard Donner Superman film (and later repurposed for the trailer for Superman Returns): “They can be a great people, Kal-El; they wish to be. They only lack the light to show the way. For this reason above all, their capacity for good, I have sent them you… my only son.” This same speech was actually echoed by Russell Crowe in his turn as Papa El in Man of Steel: “You will give the people of Earth an ideal to strive towards. They will race behind you, they will stumble, they will fall. But in time, they will join you in the sun, Kal. In time, you will help them accomplish wonders.” Unfortunately, this franchise has made zero effort to actually follow through on these lofty ideals of the Superman-is-Messiah beyond paying lip service and a couple of “subtle” images in Man of Steel. The problem is that this was never present in the actual text of the film, which presented us with a broody, angry, super-powered alien whose only affection for the beings of his adopted world were his love for his mother and an office romance. He was more Tyler Hoechlin’s Derek Hale in Teen Wolf than Tyler Hoechlin’s Clark Kent in Supergirl (he’s killing it, by the way), and that absence has been sorely lacking in this film series so far.

But. But. Justice League, for all the baggage that its carrying from three bad movies and one spectacular one, actually works if you ignore all that needless, pointless, and out-of-place GRIMDARK nonsense that preceded it in the earlier installments. And it’s not just with Superman either; the scene that immediately follows the opening montage shows Batman out and about being Batman, and even uses some passages from Danny Elfman’s previous work on Tim Burton’s 1989 film adaptation (but which will always be a keystone for me as the theme music for the Batman animated series).

This first Batman scene is both good and bad. Your standard Gotham City burglar is exiting onto a roof at night, sees Batman, attacks the Bat, gets his ass handed to him, and is dangled over the side of a building to attract a Parademon (the foot soldiers of the film’s villain), which can apparently smell fear. Bats traps the Parademon in a net, tests out a series of sonic disruptions on it, and it dies, leaving behind a clue about the three Mother Boxes. It’s so, so dumb, but the combination of the old Elfman theme and the absurdity of the whole thing makes it feel like the cold open of an episode of the animated Justice League, where Kevin Conroy’s Batman would do something just like this: lure, trap, find weird clue that matches something he’s already investigating, detective it up. It shouldn’t (and for most people won’t) work in a feature film with live actors that is supposedly trying to take itself seriously, but that narrative works for me on a certain level. On the other hand, there are other elements of this scene that are inarguably bad story choices, like Batman just kind of grappling away from the scene to do detective stuff, completely disregarding the theft he just interrupted and leaving the burglar to his own devices.

The overarching plot of the film concerns the arrival of Steppenwolf, one of the members of Jack Kirby’s cosmic DC creations The New Gods, on earth. Millennia ago, he attempted to invade the planet and turn it into a “primordial hellscape,” but he was repelled by an alliance of Amazons, Atlanteans, the tribes of Man, and a couple of others that we’ll explore in a minute. Steppenwolf carrier with him three Mother Boxes, pieces of advanced technology that, when combined, create the terraforming effect that will make the earth his new home (yes, this was the exact same desire of the villains of Man of Steel). Now, after several millennia, he has returned in the wake of Superman’s death because mankind’s mourning of that great symbol of hope has made it ripe pickings for the invader’s crusade, and Batman has to recruit five superheroes with attitude to repel his forces (yes, this is essentially the same plot as the Mighty Morphing Power Rangers, and yes, I would love to see the trailer for JL recut with the opening narration of MMPR).

I’m not going to lie to you: this movie is clearly half-baked and it makes a lot of mistakes. Beyond the fact that Bats uses a street level criminal as bait and then ditching him without even notifying the police, there are other mistakes both big and small. For instance: the janitor working at Star Labs is seen bidding Dr. Stone good night, and it’s obvious (at least on the big screen) that the ID he’s wearing is for a different person, as he has dark hair and is clean-shaven, while the picture on the ID is of a man with a big bushy head of white hair and a glorious Mark Twain mustache. You can imagine sitting in the movie theater and thinking, like me: “Oh, he must be a spy who stole this ID, that’s a neat clue.” But no, it’s just a mistake; later, after said innocent janitor has been kidnapped by the villain, we see his belongings left behind in a pile, including an ID with an accurate photo. That’s this movie in a microcosm: when you think that it’s being clever, it’s actually just a goof.

When I was a kid, the DC comics characters were much dearer to me than Marvel’s. Although becoming an adult and becoming more socially aware has meant that I’m less inclined to love Batman uncritically (i.e., he’s kind of a fascist who spends most of his time attacking poor people out of his own sense of morality, rarely actually inspecting the causes of poverty and crime and trying to correct the problem at the root, although some of the best Batman writers have taken note of this and written him accordingly), he’s still the first character I think of when I think of superhero comics. The aforementioned Batman animated series was a defining piece of media for young Boomer, as were reruns of Superfriends, and I loved visiting the one aunt whose cable package included FX, as that meant I would get to see an episode of the Adam West Batman and, if I was very lucky, Lynda Carter in Wonder Woman. It’s for this reason, and not because I am a “Marvel fanboy,” that I’ve been pained to see this franchise handled so, so poorly in the past few years. Wonder Woman was not just a step in the right direction, but a wholehearted plunge into how to to this whole thing right (Alli may have given it a mere 3.5 stars, but that was a 5 star movie for me personally).

Justice League is having a harder time straddling that fence, seeing as it has to undo the immense damage done to the franchise as a whole by Man of Steel and Batman v. Superman. Sure, Suicide Squad was a terrible movie on the whole, but at its core it was a C-grade movie dressed up as a blockbuster, which is an aesthetic that I’m always a little bit on board for in spite of myself, especially when the actors really commit to the nonsense; additionally, the backstory and arc of Jay Hernandez’s Diablo contain far and away the most effective emotional beats of the first three films. It certainly didn’t fracture the fans in the same way as BvS, which some people are still defending for reasons that are unclear to me. Still, JL is trying hard to course correct, and the job that it’s doing is admirable, even if it stumbles every ten minutes or so. It works as a cartoon about the Justice League that just happens to be live action and have a tonally dissonant visual aesthetic from the text of the actions on screen.

The most important thing I can tell you if I’m trying to give you an idea as to whether or not you should see this film is this: Justice League works, if you accept it not as part of this franchise, but as an entry into the larger cultural understanding of Superman specifically and DC in general. What I mean by this is that the story it’s trying to tell, about a world without a Superman, does not work as a piece of the DCEU divorced from the context of the DC animated universes, or comic books, or even the earlier Donner and Burton films. But within that larger conversation, in which we do have a Superman who is a beacon of hope, truth, and justice, it does.

Additional notes:

  • I, too, saw all of the photos of Henry Cavill’s uncanny valley face online before I went to the theater, but I never noticed it when actually watching the movie. Maybe it says something about how my brain works that I completely overlooked it, but I’d wager it has more to do with the fact that if this were real life, Superman would have had to keep telling me “My weird face thing is up here.” You know what I’m talking about.
  • This has been addressed in other reviews that I’ve read and heard, but it is super weird that no one is at all concerned about maintaining their own or other’s secret identities in this movie. Aquaman calls Bruce Wayne “Batman” in front of a whole bunch of villagers, and Lois calls the newly awakened Superman “Clark” in front of several Metropolis police officers, which is only going to make it more obvious when he shows back up at work after having disappeared and reappeared at the exact same time as Supes did.
  • Ezra Miller’s Flash is charming, and I liked him a lot. A lot of his jokes fell flat, but I liked that they were overlooked in universe as well. I think that he’s probably the best addition to this universe since Wonder Woman.
  • Ray Fisher’s Cyborg is given almost nothing to do other than to be the machina that the deus exes.
  • All the stuff that you heard about Wonder Woman being more sexualized in this film is true, as I noticed the lingering shot of her rear, but she’s still Wonder Woman and still the best thing about this movie. I can’t wait for WW2.
  • The design for Steppenwolf is terrible. A stop-motion Starro would have been better, and would have made for a better villain overall anyway. Can you imagine a film where Starro the Conqueror appeared and tried to terraform the world into something more suitable to himself (i.e. covering the whole earth with the ocean)? There would be no need for the cliche sky beams, and instead there could have been the opportunity to discuss the rising oceans that are the result of climate change and Starro’s need to barely push humans into doing his will. The insistence on doing the New Gods stuff right out of the gate, especially after the imagery and ideas of Jack Kirby were so much better utilized in Guardians 2 and Thor: Ragnarok earlier this year, was a bad decision.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond