Zack Snyder's 'Justice League': A Review
First, let’s put some cards on the table: I didn’t like this film at all. That will save you some time, perhaps, if you’re a fan and don’t want to read a negative review. But if you are in agreement with me, or simply want to know why I disliked it so much, feel free to read on.
More cards: I have been reading Marvel and DC comics (and others) since 1963 and have a collection of comics stretching back into the ‘60s which includes many masterworks. I’m also a big fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In addition, I’ve studied fiction in various forms for almost 50 years now and have written a book called How Stories Really Work — so what follows isn’t merely opinion, but is based on fairly close analysis.
Some context: over 1986 and 1987, DC Comics published Watchmen, by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbs, a work of art which changed the world of superhero comics forever. As you can read about in my book, there are four basic genres in storytelling: Epic, Tragedy, Irony and Comedy. Superhero comics, as developed by the two giants in the field, Marvel and DC, firmly began in the Epic genre, though Stan Lee and his cohorts at Marvel had from the early ‘60s been adding in elements of tragedy, irony and comedy and making their characters much more rounded as a result. DC had tended to stick with more two-dimensional stories and characters — and then Watchmen came along. In Watchmen, Moore and Gibbs dragged the sub-genre of superhero stories over into Irony: in their book, many dark and grim things happened to brooding and twisted characters, encased in a very (and I mean very) bleak dystopian world.
The graphic novel of Watchmen was immensely popular and influential. Comics afterwards were never quite the same: heroes became anti-heroes, characters developed psychoses and ‘dark sides’, and plots became gloomier and gloomier. Just look at Batman in the late ‘80s, or Superman, or Wolverine, or what happened to the X-Men or any of the major comic book characters. Things got ‘real’.
Not accidentally, this coincided with a gradual decline in the sales of comic books over the ‘90s, part of the effect of which was to drive Marvel into bankruptcy (which is another story). A smaller, dedicated public loved the darker tales — but the wider comic books audience tended to prefer stories of a lighter, more Epic tone.
Zack Snyder made a movie of the Watchmen graphic novel in 2009 which, while not totally faithful to the even darker original version, was an attempt to capture cinematically the ironic tone of which the Watchmen comics reeked. It garnered a small but loyal audience, but, paralleling what happened in the comics industry, it was not more widely hailed and suffered commercially. By then, the Marvel Cinematic Universe was underway, and this turned out to be a masterclass in how to make appealing and commercially successful superhero films.
What was at the heart of the MCU’s success? They stuck closely to the original ‘Epic-with-other-elements’ feel of the ‘60s comics: heroes had ironic and comic aspects to their characters, but were still fundamentally heroic and did heroic things. The MCU stories were basically Epics for the modern age, with strands of tragedy, comedy and irony running through them to enrich their appeal.
When Snyder made his Justice League film in 2017, he was avowedly trying to go down a different road — he ended up painting a much more ironic and far darker picture of the superhero world, knowingly or unknowingly. The director’s cut is even more intense, which makes me think he was doing all this knowingly: four hours of Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman and the rest of the Justice League fighting CGI baddies while coming out with totally predictable gloomy and grim dialogue, set in a world which often almost looks, cinematographically speaking, as though it’s shot in black and white (look at the poster). Primary colours are played down; brightness is minimised; and there is so much slow motion that, if all those scenes were sped up to normal speed, it feels as though the film might be an hour shorter.
Apart from its gloomy, brooding tone, the film has one other fundamental flaw: it lacks depth, so that any emotion it evokes has to be drawn from the tropes it draws upon. Ben Affleck’s Batman is humourless and shallow, and his new-found devotion for Superman is rooted only in the audience’s foreknowledge of their long comic book relationship; similarly, Lois Lane’s painfully drawn out loss of her lover (oh my goodness, the sadness and the rain and the greyness…) draws on the relationship which she and Superman are known to have shared for decades in the comics.
Yes, everyone is pretty well cast: Gal Gadot's Wonder Woman (perhaps the best part of the film) retains some magic from her own exceptional movie; Henry Cavill looks the part of the suddenly (and, by the way, rather inexplicably) noble Superman; Jason Momoa plays Aquaman as a redneck drunkard, but he has the look needed to convince an audience that his superhero is worth having on board. But everyone, with few exceptions, looks like they are almost embarrassed to say their tired, shallow lines. They probably were.
Unfortunately, once you realise that no one really has their heart in this movie because there is no real heart to be had, the thing drags on and on beyond redemption. More CGI baddies appear; more are blasted and chopped and shot and hacked. The main CGI bad guy might have elicited some sympathy in the hands of a better writer, but the viewer can hardly muster a tear or a cheer for him when he is finally defeated, as one knows is inevitable from the opening credits.
‘But MCU movies also end with baddies getting defeated,’ someone may protest. The difference is in the predictability. Darkseid (the ‘ultimate bad guy’ of this film) comes across as a makeshift Thanos, seeking ancient artefacts in order to do something incredibly evil, as Thanos did — but Marvel’s Thanos is so much more developed as a character: he has a rationale, he has emotions, he makes decisions, he interacts. Darkseid is just another CGI blob painted against a CGI background, so that the scenes featuring his appearance resemble very closely those of a badly made video game.
You need to be a devotee of Snyder’s to sit through this film, basically. If you want an MCU-like dose of fun and drama and escapism and thrills, you need to binge-watch the MCU movies and avoid this film altogether. This isn’t meant to be ‘fun’: this is a lesser storyteller trying to make art. It's full of darkly presented, overly serious people saying grimly predictable serious stuff, and lots and lots of slow motion scenes designed to elevate the thing aesthetically. I think we’re meant to go ‘Wow’ when the Flash starts running, and the lightning bolt Speed Force effect is pretty — but the Flash’s character is presented in such a superficial and cringeworthy way that it’s a case of ‘all show with no substance’. In our painfully slow introduction to the Barry Allen character, we see him deciding to step in and save a pretty girl from a potentially horrific road accident. Elegant, cinematically clever, but (did I mention this?) oh-so-slow, the scene leaves us asking questions like ‘If he’s that fast, how come he doesn’t whiz around saving everyone in the States from road accidents?’ and ‘Why does he even need a job? He could live and eat anywhere he likes and no one would notice.’
Plus we get tons of stuff we don’t really need, including a Commissioner Gordon sub-plot about Batman being a suspected kidnapper that appears and disappears in a few seconds, or a snippet in which Bruce Wayne’s Alfred instructs Wonder Woman on how to make tea. These things are supposed to add depth, drama and humanity, but they just irritate the viewer who wants things to move along.
The whole thing is a missed opportunity to add real colour and depth to a group of over-used characters who really need new life breathing into them.
One strand stood out: the motif of the missing or disaffected father. Batman’s parents are long gone — their legacy is Bruce’s vast fortune, I suppose. Alfred is rather poorly played as a father substitute. But Superman’s father and step-father both make voice-over appearances, while Cyborg’s father plays a dark (what else?) role; the Flash’s father is a motivation for that character; Aquaman’s father is key to how he turned out. You could even argue that Darkseid acts as a kind of bleak father figure for Steppenwolf. (Wonder Woman is the only character who doesn’t have a father at all, which may be why she’s an exception in some unfathomable way, and comes across as the most vibrant hero of the lot.) What’s all this father stuff about? Who knows? It doesn’t really go anywhere or produce any kind of emotional catharsis.
In fact, there’s no emotional catharsis at all anywhere in the film, because there’s no real emotional engagement with any of the characters. The film is a collection of tropes working their way through to a tired conclusion using lots of expensive CGI.
I could nit-pick many other details if anyone’s interested. But I expect that, if you’ve read this far, you get the idea. It's too late to save myself - save four hours of your life and skip this.