Zack Snyder, Part VI: A Lukewarm Defense of Justice League (2017)

I actually think there’s no way to execute a cohesive shared DC Universe. It’s just not in the DNA of the source material.

Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman and the rest were conceived in their own self-contained fiefdoms with fictional cities that function as microcosms. Perhaps a way to make them exist together would be to contrast their differences, and that includes tone and aesthetic. Unfortunately, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) failed at this, immersing the movie in murky black night. Metropolis and Gotham should have been, and could have worked as, contrasts of light and darkness to emphasize both on a story level and stylistically the differences between the cities and the characters who inhabit them.

I’m talking drastic shifts between scenes: think of the moment in Batman Returns when the Penguin comes downstairs and is greeted with a brightly-lit campaign office. It’s like he’s left Tim Burton and stepped into a whole other movie. That’s what BvS should have been every time it jumped between the twin cities of Metropolis and Gotham.

This is a simple summation of my problem with these characters meeting: Batman never goes out in the day, and Superman is a bright character. Just on a visual level, to even have them in the same room, you have to violate the core nature of one of them. They can never be their true selves when standing next to each other. Superman can fight crime at night (see the montage in the original Donner movie) but it’s not his purest form. Put Batman in the daytime (The Dark Knight Rises) and he looks ridiculous, although at least in that instant that’s what Christopher Nolan was trying to accomplish.

Even if that had worked for one movie, Justice League as a concept just fails to launch on a functional level. I know most won’t agree with me, but this is the same problem I have with the comics. I don’t want Batman hanging out with Green Lantern, it just doesn’t jive.

Imagine this: the JL are in the Watchtower space station. They’re sitting around their Knights of the Round Table-inspired table with each chair labeled with their symbol. Ben Affleck as Batman is sitting at the table, fully lit, having a conversation with Gal Gadot in ancient Greek armor.

But you say, Batman was sitting talking to the Joker in a brightly lit sequence in The Dark Knight! Yes, in a scene meant to shine a harsh light on how freakish those two are.

Furthermore, I usually think the Justice League as a concept is pretty shallow, as they’re basically action figures being banged together. There’s no sense of family, like the Fantastic Four, or rivalry and needing to work together a la a rock band or baseball team like the Avengers. There’s no redemption, like Wolverine joining the X-Men. The truth about the Justice League is they’re better or more thematically rich apart, and don’t really mean anything together except for Alan Moore’s conception of them as “over-people“, and that whole gods among us thing has been done to death. Every now and then you get some real insight into these characters, like when Batman gets offered a power ring (either Green Lantern’s or Sinestro’s yellow ring) or sits in Metron’s Mobius Chair, but that’s rare.

What I’d rather see in terms of shared universes is little micro-universes: a Gotham-verse with parallel Batman, Nightwing, Catwoman, Robin, Batgirl/Oracle movies; a Metropolis-verse with Superman, Supergirl, Steel, Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen movies, etc.

That’s just me. I don’t think these characters have ever or will ever gel unless it’s emphasized how different they are. Showing how they coalesce is boring. And in the months and years leading up to Zack Snyder’s Justice League (2017), I anticipated it struggling with that tension. The end result, possibly due to Joss Whedon being brought on-board or just because the movie was always destined to fail, is really unfortunate because it fails to do anything with this tension.

With that said, even with all of that long-winded baggage, I still kind of dig the movie.

Christopher McQuarrie had a thread on Twitter on June 9 (that he appears to have deleted) in which he argued he’s more concerned with resonance than quality, and I agree most of the time. Something like Justice League isn’t innovative and it’s not the optimized version of itself, but where it resonates it really resonates.

The characters feel right. It’s taken a long time, but this is a living, breathing DC Universe with platonic forms of the characters occupying it. Furthermore, I like the subtle explorations of Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman (I say subtle because the movie’s runtime doesn’t really allow more) in ways I can’t recall in other mediums. Batman, rather than angry and resentful of his peers, is vulnerable and trying to prove himself to them; Superman is boiled down to his base instinct and then base moral compass (most versions of the Death of Superman have him coming back relatively unchanged, but here it’s more like Spock in Search for Spock and The Voyage Home); and Wonder Woman struggles with making mistakes (generally the character is treated as saintly and perfect, so however contrived the century-long break is, it forces her to struggle with something).

And everyone else is a lot of fun. Flash isn’t exactly the classic Barry Allen and Aquaman is responding to every cultural criticism levied at him, yet they work. Even Cyborg has enough existential struggle that he works. The actors gel, and it’s a delight to see them together. I like Henry Cavill’s Superman in particular, even if the scripts have forced him to do (snap necks) and say (“No one stays good in this world”) things that are antithetical to the character. Right, I understand and respect that Snyder/Goyer/Terrio were going for a new take on the character, and I’m okay with major changes, but there’s an essence that should be maintained. An adaptation doesn’t need fidelity necessarily, but it does need understanding and it feels like the filmmakers finally understand Superman here. I even liked crazy tabula rasa Superman. “You won’t let me live. You won’t let me die.” is a great line, and Cavill sells the hell out of it. And you know, the mustache didn’t ever bother me.

Everyone in the League is great, which makes it frustrating that there may never be a Justice League 2 with this incarnation. Yes, Affleck seems a little tired, but that’s not really the problem with the character here. This is what happens when you take Batman out of his natural context and turn him into a superhero. Batman needs some distance so there’s always a question of how he’s pulling off his near-supernatural feats. Here he’s just a guy in a rubber suit shuffling from room to room. He’s also the result of trying to capture a very specific silhouette, from The Dark Knight Returns, in BvS and then transferring that into another context. 

It’s a shame, as this exact conception of this movie if executed from the start could have probably been something really special. As is, it’s not that the production woes show on a story level, as there’s no dropped plot threads or inconsistent characterization, but everything feels sanded down to the most functional version of itself. It hardly slows down to let anything breathe or sing, although the only time I felt the choppy editing was during the introduction of Aquaman. There’s some weird jumps between lines of dialogue, and then when Arthur is getting into the water there’s suddenly this crowd of people behind Bruce. Very strange.

It is fascinating, however, to consider how Snyder and Whedon approach these stories. Compare, for instance, the opening rooftop scene in Justice League and the progression to a bearded Bruce Wayne in Iceland, which was originally supposed to be the character’s introduction in the movie in what’s now known as the mythic “Snydercut”. With the structure of that hypothetical movie, Batman wouldn’t even be in costume until the meeting with Commissioner Gordon!

Compare that to Snyder’s odd handling of Batman’s appearances in BvS, withholding showing the character in his full glory until nearly two-thirds of the way into the movie. First, we get Bruce in the Metropolis opening, then Batman in shadows, then Knightmare Batman in Mad Max cosplay, then Batman in the Batmobile, then Batman in mecha armor. It feels like a purposeful choice on Snyder’s part to present Batman with distorted optics, either obscured or twisted. But then the warehouse scene erupts with almost orgasmic glee, as Snyder finally gives Batman, and the audience, what we’ve been waiting for: the Dark Knight in full view tearing a room of thugs apart.

Whereas Whedon has a much more traditional and by-the-books screenwriter approach. Show the characters in their purest form before deconstructing or riffing on them. So we get a classic scene of Batman stalking and apprehending a thief, with the added twist of a parademon thrown into the mix. That’s also why we get the pre-credits cellphone footage scene of Superman, because otherwise you wouldn’t get him in classic costume until the third act.

It’s just funny, think of Batman (1989) as structured like BvS. Our introduction to Bruce would be when he sees the Joker up on the courthouse steps and his men machine gun the place. Then we’d get the opening mugging, except everything would be cut out (even the “I’m Batman”) except Batman throwing the guy down and jumping off the roof. Then the casino scene at Wayne Manor. Then Batman saves Vicki from the art museum and they ride around in the Batmobile. Then there’d be the scene at Axis Chemicals with Batman beating up all of Napier’s men.

But yes, if we accept Batman’s story arc in BvS is to get back to a more superheroic version of himself, then it’s fitting that he shows up in his full Bat form in the Justice League opening. Bearded Bruce feels like what Snyder said in an interview with the Empire Film Podcast a few years ago: “I kinda came to the conclusion also that they couldn’t really talk in their suits, um, with any credibility…” and that after “…more than four or five lines and you start to notice, like wait, these are two guys…one guy’s dressed up like a bat and the other has a big red ‘S’ on his chest, and they’re being super serious about how mad they are at each other…” He doesn’t even take the conceit seriously, hence why there’s very little dialogue during the actual suited-up scenes in BvS.

In terms of camerawork I honestly couldn’t tell what was Snyder and what was Whedon most of the time. Some of the more flat, simplistically-blocked scenes feel like Whedon’s TV background, but say what you will of Age of Ultron, he did experiment with more dynamic camera movement there. And the Avengers are actually on a farm when they’re on the farm, and (at least until the end battle in BvS) people are actually in real cities in Man of Steel and BvS. So the CGI sheen and green-screened aspects of most scenes are very jarring. Although I did appreciate that Gotham appears to be a heightened, not exactly Burton-esque, urban wasteland.

Snyder’s presence is, however, apparent with the use of the male gaze. I wasn’t bothered by the Amazons because half of them are in armor like in Wonder Woman’s movie, and half are wearing bare midriffs. It just didn’t seem like a big deal. The problem is in all the establishing shots from low angles. Diana walks into a frame, low angle.

As well, more Snyderisms, two Amazons holding up the closing stone door like Atlas holding the world, hinting again at his affection for Ayn Rand. And Steppenwolf could even be viewed as an Objectivist nightmare because he wants to create a unified collective consciousness stemming out of fear, wiping away all essentialism. This, of course, reminded me of Loki’s argument from the first Avengers:

Is not this simpler? Is this not your natural state? It’s the unspoken truth of humanity, that you crave subjugation. The bright lure of freedom diminishes your life’s joy in a mad scramble for power, for identity. You were made to be ruled. In the end, you will always kneel.

And Loki has an army of creatures that are a collective consciousness connected to a central computer, not unlike Steppenwolf’s parademons who are human beings transformed into monsters. It’s about free will versus herd mentality. But is that Whedon’s influence? It’s certainly influenced by the idea of Darkseid and his seeking out the Anti-Life Equation that robs people of individuality. 

Another Snyder contribution could be the attempts at thematically exploring real-world issues. Because the death of Superman is totally supposed to be the election of Trump, right? Some critics laughed about Superman being equated with Bowie and Prince in the newspaper headline, but that seems an important signifier to emphasize that Superman died in 2016 (as opposed to a vague “few months ago” or whatever). And conveniently the hope element of Superman can tie him together with Obama.

And notice during the opening montage there’s a Muslim shop owner being terrorized by white men, including a skinhead? Seems to be Snyder, since opening-credit montages set to slow music are his thing, saying the emboldening of criminals worldwide is equivalent to the rise of nationalism and white supremacy these last 18 months. They are saved by white cops, but that feels more like a #notallwhitemen kind of image.

I’d say Aquaman contributes to Snyder’s argument that the blue-collar working class is what will really save the world. As well, one of the better moments of characterization in the movie picks up the ball dropped by BvS and accentuates the class difference between Bruce Wayne and Clark Kent: “He was more human than I am,” Bruce laments. “He lived in this world. Fell in love, had a job. In spite of all that power.” And Clark having a job and living among the people plays into how Arthur is helping this one specific village and Barry is a squatter that works odd jobs. And yes, Cyborg has a scientist dad and a high IQ, but the hoodie codes him in a certain way that doesn’t exactly say bourgeois but could perhaps be called, as Flash says in the movie, “racially charged.”

The costume design of the whole movie is weird. Silhouette complaint aside, Batman looks the most Batman he’s ever Batmaned, and Wonder Woman is not only spot-on but an improvement from the comics. Same with Aquaman, who is one of the few to benefit from turning the classic leotard into armor. But the Flash just looks dumb. Something about his helmet looks so top heavy, and the rest of his outfit is too busy. Superman’s costume is also far brighter here, obviously due to a lack of the usual color correction Snyder uses, and appears to have some weird padding? And Cyborg, poor poor Cyborg looks like a PS2 cut scene, as his look is supposed to convey there’s barely any human flesh left, so parts of his body are impossibly shaped.

Ironically, Cyborg is the character with the most meat here and Ray Fisher actually imbues the character with pathos. And that’s mostly because he doesn’t have a penis.

Yep, I went there.

Check this article from Robert Jones Jr. out. Basically Cyborg is a model minority because he’s not a sexual threat to Diana. Notice how the rest of the League, except Superman because he’s with Lois, have moments of infatuation with Diana. All except Cyborg, because our backwards society has decided it’s okay for a white man to have sexual feelings toward a black woman, but not a black man to have sexual feelings toward a white woman.

And although the movie doesn’t engage with it, Cyborg is coded with African-American iconography. He used to play football. He’s wearing a hoodie like Trayvon Martin. The weird “racial” fist bump. As Jones Jr. puts it:

At the same time, conversely, Cyborg serves in the racist mold of “the Buck.” So, of course he’s an athlete; of course he plays football. White supremacy must always find some “productive” use in black bodies, must always be able to capitalize off of our labor. Oftentimes, when white writers are attempting to write black characters, they rely on stereotypes because they can’t imagine black people as actual human beings. These are the creations of people who don’t know any/many black people, but have seen plenty of them at basketball games or on television, or maybe even had a beer with one once, and considers them a “friend.”

Cyborg, a black character made palatable for white American audiences:

Could Cyborg be the comic book superhero representation of white supremacy’s effect on the black body? To have a black person transformed from a metaphorical machine to an actual one? Whose fantasy is this? Cyborg has the distinct textual feel of some white person’s answer to the question: What would it be like to bring a lynched black person back to life? The problem is they’ve gotten it entirely wrong and I think that’s on purpose. They’d imagine that person being compliant, thankful, eager to please white people, and not a disruptive and liberating figure of rage? Mary Turner, her husband, and her baby, shaking the rafters of every house in America for nearly 100 years now, tell us a great deal about the aggrieved souls of lynched black folk. Compliant is not in their ghostly vocabulary. These haints mean business.

Sufficiently neutered, Cyborg is DC Comics’ idea of a black character safe enough to be embraced by white people. So he’s leapt out of the comic books and onto television screens. On television, in Teen Titans Go!, Cyborg is the comic relief. To be fair, all of the characters are comic relief, though; it’s a comedy. But there’s a certain racially offensive tenor to Cyborg’s shenanigans. Like when he goes into stereotypical black woman pantomime: “Girl, that girl is bad girl news, girl!” and the like. And, since Billy Batson is unavailable in this version, he’s the best friend of the trickster white boy (who happens to be green) to keep that Huck and Jim vibe going.

And what do we get here? Cyborg (whom Jones Jr. points out is played by a Ray Fisher who is three shades lighter than Cyborg is usually portrayed in the comics) is, of course, friends with Flash, the childlike Justice Leaguer.

This treatment of Cyborg is indicative of the greater DCEU, as seen by Jones Jr. and Valerie Complex, of Black Girl Nerds, calling the Wonder Woman movie racist because the black Amazons are portrayed as “mammies” and “brutes.” They argue, for instance, that the actress who plays Artemis is coded as a brute because she’s depicted getting hit on the back (charged imagery!) and not feeling pain.

I do find this Cyborg (not particularly any other version) to be incredibly exigent in 2018, and therefore provocative. Much like how Luke Cage caught on in 2016 due to him being a bullet-proof black man, Cyborg is a black man who can’t die. He does, however, still feel, as he specifically says he still feels his toes after the climactic battle. The movie doesn’t politicize him being black, as it sticks with the standard origin of him having been in an accident, but it’s still a very potent image: a black man whose super power is essentially being insulated from being shot.

Except he also several times manifests a gun, although the filmmakers made the fascinating decision to have this be against his will. But I really think there’s something to taking the abstract idea of African-American men being treated as machines (anyone remember Doug Baldwin referring to the NFL as modern-day slavery a few years ago?) and making it literal.

And something else I’ve been thinking of lately, getting to claim diversity while covering a black person up. Is Zoe Saldana “black” when she’s green in Guardians, or blue in Avatar? How about Idris Elbra covered in makeup in Star Trek Beyond? Or Lupita Nyong’o when she’s whatever the hell she is in the new Star Wars movies?

And before you @ me, consider the push and pull at DC comics as Cyborg is flip-flopped back and forth between showing less and more and less skin:

1980s Teen Titans Cyborg

tontt1

New 52 circa 2011

2843935-cyborg

DC You circa 2014

ec705d81c0a87716ca88cf6f9f175aa3

Justice League Cyborg

Justice-League-Trailer-Cyborg-Mother-Box

When I post Jones Jr.’s reaction to Cyborg (back in 2015, so he was only reacting to the comic and cartoon versions, and the casting of Ray Fisher) and his and Complex’s reading of racism in the Wonder Woman movie, who am I to question their experience? To immediately jump to it just being outrage and a hot take seems to be the height of privilege.

I don’t post these things as conversation enders. They’re not saying you’re wrong and you’re not allowed to like the thing you like because there could be problematic elements. I post these things as conversation starters.

Because even if Cyborg has never been a “black superhero” the way that most superheroes who are black are framed as black superheroes, including John Stewart Green Lantern, he still gets coded as such in Justice League. The football playing. The hoodie. The fist bump. And compelling as well that Barry makes an offhand comment about being Jewish, something that if it’s literal would make him probably the first cinematic depiction of a Jewish superhero (The Thing and Kitty Pryde are Jewish, but I believe that doesn’t get mentioned in any movie they’ve ever been in) and could tie into the history of black people and Jews during the Civil Rights Movement.

Perhaps the mixed messages vis-à-vis Cyborg are because of the tug of war between the two filmmakers, something that also leads to some slight disconnect with the movie and its connections to earlier DCEU movies. For instance, the scenes between Clark and Lois and Clark and Martha are sweet and border on heartwarming, but mostly coast on goodwill from earlier movies that struggled to cement those relationships in the first place, while also introducing a new dynamic to those relationships (this Clark is very much not that Clark) and acting like it’s always been there.

So even with all the patchwork and duct tape, can Justice League be viewed as the capper of a three-part story arc for Henry Cavill’s Superman? There’s a moment near the end of Justice League that seems to be looping directly back to Man of Steel, but actually felt a little too reactive to me. Superman asks how he can help and Batman starts to give him orders to take down Steppenwolf, and Superman hears that civilians are in danger. He goes to save the civilians instead of stopping Steppenwolf. Steppenwolf’s actions threaten the entire world, so the needs of the many should outweigh the few. But Superman chooses to save those who are immediately in danger rather than the abstract concept of the entire world.

Now, that’s an intriguing choice, or it would be if the movie did anything with it. But it’s not presented as a moral dilemma or character evolution. In Man of Steel I think Snyder was purposefully portraying Superman as not saving civilians in that final battle because he was putting forth a world view that in war, people die. Captain America says as much in Civil War and we’re on his side.

But whereas Man of Steel is steadfast in supporting Superman’s decisions to keep pummeling Zod to try to stop him as quickly as possible, rather than be distracted by the death around him because not stopping Zod could lead to even more death, BvS flakes out by positioning Superman as being in the wrong. This is capped by his “I didn’t see it because I didn’t want to see it,” which is about the Capitol Hill explosion but is also about his entire tenure as Superman up to that point.

And Justice League ignores the question entirely and just has Superman’s main concern be saving civilians. But see, this is why I wish these movies wouldn’t even bring up this question of collateral damage. Because in reality, yes, people die in war. Or sometimes cops make bad judgment calls. Or sometimes firemen can’t get to that kid because there’s too much smoke. But the wish-fulfillment aspect of superheroes, and Superman specifically, is that he should be able to do both: stop Steppenwolf and save civilians.

Except Justice League makes it an either/or choice. Perhaps the teamwork alleviates the question and, in fact, could be the capper of Superman’s arc, that he realizes with help he can save everyone. But it’s shown without comment, and that’s the problem. Which is why it helps to think of these actors as playing more platonic ideas of these characters. Cavill is playing the entire history of Superman, rather than the character introduced in Man of Steel. In that way, his interactions with platonic Lois Lane have much more weight. That take isn’t for everyone. I’ve probably read too much Grant Morrison.

In the end, against all odds, Justice League manages to be a perfectly functional movie with a few highlights. Its logic is that of a Saturday morning cartoon, and I’m okay with that. Mostly just seeing a recognizable DC Universe (Gotham feels like Gotham, an Art Deco Hell, as previously mentioned), even if said universe isn’t exactly cohesive, gets my imagination going, so I’m probably projecting a lot. I admit, every time the Danny Elfman Batman and John Williams Superman themes trickled in I got gooseflesh, even if their inclusion is intrusive, because the unique aspects of the characters were being highlighted. I’ve long felt Hans Zimmer’s Batman theme in TDK trilogy was about to break out into Elfman’s theme anyway, so it’s a natural fit.

So welcome, Justice League, into the Hall of Lukewarm Bart Defense.

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