2017 Film Essays

Zack Snyder’s ‘Justice League’ Saves the Earth but Not the DC Extended Universe

Zack Snyder’s most recent super hero outing, Justice League, begins not with the destruction of an entire planet or city block, but rather cleverly with a POV shot of an iPhone as two small boys interview Superman. During the interview, one of the boys asks Superman, “What do you like most about Earth?” This classic Superman moment appears, at first glance, to be the cornerstone of Snyder’s vision for the creation of the Justice League. What commences instead is a garbled mess of a movie. It is devoid of a true voice or sense of direction, evolving into no more than another dime-a-dozen super hero flick.

From a story and visual stand point, Justice League manifests itself as a loose adaptation of Geoff Johns’ and Jim Lee’s DC comic book entitled Justice League Vol.1: Origin (2011). The comic book, like the film, is an updated reimagining of the Justice League formation, constituted by superheroes banding together to fight off an alien invasion from another world. The screenwriters, however, made a strategic error by directing the focus on Steppenwolf. This alien antagonist is a Wagnerian looking monster who (for ill-defined reasons) plans to destroy humanity and terraform the earth to suit his own needs. He is not a sufficiently foreboding villain as can be found in the source comic book. Snyder and company reheated plot leftovers from Man of Steel (2013), adding in a few new ingredients. At least take some comfort in knowing that the paper-thin plot is not another migraine-inducing nightmare like Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2013).

While the plot is utterly forgettable, Snyder scores big points for sticking his landing in terms of visuals and standalone action poses — his two key signature elements that garnered much praise when he made his adaptions of Frank Miller’s 300 (2006) and Alan Moore’s Watchmen (2009). With comparable artistic technique, Justice League brings to life the comic art and panel layouts of Jim Lee, Alex Ross and Ethan van Sciver. Gotham City, in particular, once again feels like an additional character, evidenced by the sharp attention to detail and noir creativity not seen since the art deco Batman (1989) days of Anton Furst. Snyder wisely repurposes some elements of Tim Burton’s original classic to give the film that nostalgic high.

Nevertheless, visual cues and fanboy Easter eggs can only get one so far. Direction and execution are still key. And this is where Justice League‘s presentation of these mythical demi gods takes a huge nose dive. To say that the film suffers from editing troubles is a massive understatement. From the start, it’s obvious that various scenes were edited down and rearranged for brevity. Warner Bros. CEO Kevin Tsujihara recently announced (with unjustified pride) that Justice League was deliberately cut down. Consequently, Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) has to verbally force feed the audience (and other heroes) massive amounts of plot exposition that is not depicted on screen.

As for the film’s tone and direction, Justice League suffers from a large case of identity crisis. When it was announced a few months ago that Joss Whedon was called upon to wrap up the project and handle reshoots for Snyder, many film buffs and comics’ fans knew that we were in for a rehaul. Yet, it becomes quite obvious while watching the end product that Whedon wasn’t adequately prepared for the task that lay before him. Specific scenes that were once intended to have weight and gravitas come off as hokey due to an unnecessary sprinkling of that well known Whedon-style humor. Worse yet, there are various scenes where it would appear that either Whedon or executive heads messed with the lighting and mise en scène in order to give the film a much more cheery and upbeat flow. As a result, the warm color palette clashes with the grunge industrial look of Snyder’s costumes. Heroes end up looking like clowns, neither Marvel “heroic” nor DC comic “serious.”

The biggest saving grace of the film is the ensemble cast. Most notable is Gadot as Wonder Woman. She has really come into her own and joins the ranks of Christopher Reeve and Hugh Jackman as superhero icons. Flash and Cyborg actors, Ezra Miller and Ray Fisher, are solid, performing those roles well. Jason Momoa, as Aquaman, is lively and full of energy. Henry Cavill brings some of the iconic boy scout mannerisms to the silver screen that comic fans have been missing. Ben Affleck is the only one who feels off key. While he has moments of presence when he is totally invested in the role of the Dark Knight, he often seems to be looking to exit stage left.

Justice League is a mixed bag that’s largely full of hot air. It merits praise for its casting and art design, but the reshoots and script changes are just too apparent and detract from the genuineness of a Snyder DC Universe. The DC Extended Universe is not doomed, but it needs its own clear identity and purpose. Rebranding The Avengers (2012) is not the answer.

Peter Bell (@PeterGBell25) is a 2016 Master of Arts – Film Studies graduate of Columbia University School of Arts in New York City. His interests include film history, film theory and film criticism. Ever since watching TCM as a child, Peter has had a passion for film, always trying to add greater context to film for others. His favorite films include Chinatown, Blade Runner, Lawrence of Arabia, A Shot in the Dark and Inception. Peter believes movie theaters are still the optimal forum for film viewing, discussion and discovering fresh perspectives on culture.