Zack Snyder’s Justice League

Justice League group portrait


The day I sat down to watch Zack Snyder’s Justice League, the death of Jim Steinman, songwriter for Meat Loaf, among many others, had just been announced. And it occurred to me about halfway through watching that this epic is a case of same/same: a big, loud, glorious, ever-crescendoing Bat Out of Hell of a movie.

Snyder himself pops up before the action gets going, to say a big thank you to the fans who hash-tagged his version of the movie into existence with a #ReleaseTheSnyderCut campaign. They were disappointed with the original 2017 version, which, having fought a guerrilla campaign against the Warner Bros suits, Snyder finally abandoned after his daughter died. Joss Whedon was brought in to complete, rewriting, reshooting and only using about 10 per cent of Snyder’s original material.

The fact that Whedon’s version didn’t do well at the box office also called the entire DC Cinematic Universe project into question, so perhaps the studio’s intentions in greenlighting the new cut weren’t entirely charitable and fan-facing. Maybe, just maybe, Snyder could pull the movie out of the fire, fix its problems and, with not too much in the way of reshooting and extra expense ($70 million), save the movie, the franchise and the day.

That’s a superhero story all on its own. But what of Snyder’s actual finished product? In bare bones it’s the same film. Superman is dead and Steppenwolf is keen to get his hands on the three boxes which, when reunited, will bring to fruition an invasion of Earth abandoned millennia before. Apocalypse.

In all other respects it’s a completely different film. At four hours long, as compared to Whedon’s two-hour cut, it’s also a case of more is more. More everything, in particular of Steppenwolf and his peregrinations into different realms in pursuit of the boxes, plus his dealings with the even more ominous Darkseid (who is to Steppenwolf what the Emperor is to Darth Vader – technically a superior, dramatically unimportant).

The original cut was chaotic and unsatisfying. Here, there’s a chance for everyone to breathe, for their characters to gain a bit more heft, in particular Cyborg, who has his entire origin story restored – he’d been almost entirely deleted from the 2017 movie.

Whedon’s quippy, pop-culture-heavy references have been expunged. However, that funny interchange between Flash and Batman – Flash asks Batman, “What are your super powers again?” and Batman replies, “I’m rich.” – remains. I thought that was one of Whedon’s. Apologies to writer Chris Terrio. In general, though, the tone is dark, stern. Black leather, splayed legs. Smoke machines. 1980s rock.

Terrio and Snyder clearly equate backstory with daddy issues. Everyone has them in this version. Most obviously Cyborg (dad’s an unfeeling scientist) and Flash (dad’s in jail for murdering his mother), but also Batman (dad famously dead, Alfred is surrogate), Aquaman (abandoned by despised dad), Superman (haunted by his) and so on. As for Wonder Woman, it’s not clear that she even has a father, what with Amazons being all women.

The one thing both versions share is perfect casting: Henry Cavill as godlike and noble Superman, Ben Affleck as sour and workmanlike Batman, Gal Gadot as resourceful and Amazonian Wonder Woman, Ray Fisher as techy and mighty Cyborg, Jason Momoa as cool and impulsive Aquaman and Ezra Miller as lithe and irreverent Flash.

The four hours do not fly by – it’s half a working day, after all – but they don’t drag either. At one hour in we have the shape of the plot, by two the gang has finally been assembled, and at three we start heading into the final countdown and the big fight finish towards which all epic movies build.

Darkseid and his forces
Darkseid and friends


Through what could very easily have been a slog, Snyder’s command of pacing is what’s really impressive. He brings the rhythm up and then takes it down again. Action, a pause for breath, more action, another pause. The action is not always a fight, though it often is. Flash, for instance, is introduced in a brilliant sequence involving him saving a pretty young woman from certain death.

The soundtrack shifts too, starting out all breathy, lyrical songs and ending up with the massive Wagnerian score of JunkieXL’s massed orchestras as the superheroes take on Steppenwolf in a special effects showdown that somehow keeps all the characters in play. Even here Snyder pauses – mid-bombast – as if to give us a bulletin from the real world. While battle rages between our heroes and Steppenwolf, Darkseid and his Parademons, Snyder switches the action to a cornfield, where Lois Lane (Amy Adams) and Martha Kent (Diane Lane) are swapping emotional confidences about Clark/Superman. Corny, literally.

If you want a big message, Wonder Woman gives us one about “Men, Atlanteans and Amazons” working together – diversity, inclusivity and, in the shape of Cyborg, black lives mattery.

One carry-over from the original film is that some of the CG is a bit shonky. It barely matters. It feels like complaining about the font used in a letter informing you that you’ve won the lottery.

Audaciously, there’s even an epilogue, containing an entirely unnecessary dream sequence, which feels like Snyder having a bit of a joke with his audience – I could go on doing this all night, sort of thing. While setting up a sequel – more audacity – he even introduces, right at the last gasp, a new character, the Martian Manhunter.

And if that isn’t enough for you, apparently there’s also a black and white version on the way, with a different ending. Nerds, assemble!




Zack Snyder’s Justice League – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021







Wonder Woman 1984

Gal Gadot in Wonder Woman gear

 

And so Wonder Woman 1984. Last time we saw Gal Gadot’s lasso-swinging Amazon she was helping to win the First World War, and now, nearly 70 years on, here she is again in the era of Armani suits and “greed is good” and in a year most closely associated with George Orwell.

This is a big, heavy, beast of a film that’s too long, too slow, too dull, and if that is a political message about democracy that writer/director Patty Jenkins is trying to sneak in there, someone should really have told her not to.

Gal Gadot remains a wondrous Wonder Woman, though, a flawless paragon of superherodom, and the story gets off to a decent start at the Smithsonian Museum where Diana (Wonder Woman isn’t her real name) meets and befriends timid coworker Barbara Minerva (Kristen Wiig), before being introduced to TV’s smarmy “oil guy” Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal).

Barbara is a decent human being and so, beneath the showbiz slick, is Maxwell Lord. We know that about him because he’s a single dad who obviously loves his adopted son, though his business commitments have led him to neglect the child. Big aah.

So when both Barbara and Max start going to the dark side after being granted their most fervent wish by something called the Dreamstone – it looks like a Cubist re-imagining of one of those rabbit vibrators – it feels inappropriate to hiss at the bad guys because neither Barbara nor Max is really, deep down, a bad guy.

The Dreamstone also grants Diana’s wish, and suddenly Chris Pine’s Steve Trevor – her love interest from the first film – is back in her life.

Two observations about Pine. First, he’s got the look of a man who’s been sitting in his pants for months hitting the bottle until his agent intervened and got him dried out and slimmed down for the film – perhaps in the Betty Ford Center (how’s that for a nice 1980s reference?). Second, Pine is still stuck in Shatner Delivery Mode, as he was in the first film, which still amuses me (and wouldn’t a horror film about Pine trying to exorcise William Shatner be a great thing?)

 

Steve (Chris Pine) with Wonder Woman
Steve and Diana aka Wonder Woman

 

Back to this movie, the scenes between Pine and Gadot are probably the best bits of the film. First World War Steve being surprised by 1980s USA – breakdancers! escalators! cheese in a can! And then there’s a nice montage sequence in which Steve gets to try on various 1980s fashions. The Miami Vice look. The designer tracksuit. The preppy look. All funny, all fairly unnecessary.

And back to the baddies. Barbara eventually turns into supervillain Cheetah, to the point where she’s wearing a costume of animal hair. Max Lord, meanwhile, seems to be turning into Donald Trump, in what must surely be the film’s most horrible mis-step. By the time this TV huckster with a smoke-and-mirrors business empire is haranguing the nation from a White House lectern, subtlety has long ago left the building.

But never mind the blunderbuss aimed at Trump, what is Jenkins’s actual political message? That decent people (Barbara certainly is, Max is a bit more mixed) should be careful what they wish for? Keep things the way they were? Vote Biden?

Perhaps I’m pulling things out of the air but that’s what tends to start happening when, with an hour to go, your mind is saying “Well, there’s nothing to see here so what else is going on?”

Good fights etc? Decent SFX? Yes, all that, and Jenkins remains a great director of action sequences, of snappy comedy and of nuanced human psychological interaction. Her cast (Gadot, Pine, Wiig, Pascal) are actually all on great form too. It’s the writing in Wonder Woman 1984 that lets it down. Jenkins did that too.

 

 

 

Wonder Woman 1984 – Watch it/buy it on Amazon

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2021