The Zack Snyder Aesthetic
It might not be what I want, but lots of people are going to love Zack Snyder’s Justice League
Let me get this out of the way… I’m not a fan of the Zack Snyder movie aesthetic. I understand what he’s doing. It has its fans. For the most part, it just isn’t something that appeals to me. His aesthetic with the slo-mo, dark streets, saturated colors, and needle-drops is never subtle. I love it in 300. I like it in Watchmen. I dislike it in practically all the rest of his movies. He’s a thinking man’s Michael Bay, which is as nice a compliment as I can muster.
That all being said, the fact Snyder has completed his version of Justice League by convincing the powers-that-be to give him $70 million to “fix” the abomination that was the 2017 movie is beyond comprehension.
The much-hoped-for “Snyder Cut” is real. After reshoots, restored cut scenes, and added material that flesh out the story, not to mention an internet campaign that practically willed it into existence, we have a four-hour version of Justice League, ahem, Zack Snyder’s Justice League on HBO Max. I still can’t quite believe it actually exists.
When the original Justice League came out, I did not love it. I thought it had a weak, confusing story, a videogame villain, and a few striking visuals, hallmarks of a Snyder film. Joss Whedon did not improve the movie when he came in; he just finished it and tried to punch up scenes with his “Buffy-speak.” On a side note, I nearly forgot the collective freak-out over Henry Cavill’s digitally-erased mustache. The clash of directorial vision is evident in the 2017 release, and it feels, rightfully so, like a Frankenstein of a movie.
Of course, to put all of this into perspective, we should remember back in 2014 when Warner Brothers announced their slate of DC superhero films. Ten movies were announced, and, surprisingly, six of them got made. Some are even pretty good. Sadly, Justice League is not one of them. It tanked so hard it practically killed the DC Cinematic Universe. During production, Warner Brothers saw the writing on the wall. Man of Steel and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice made money, but not Marvel movie money, and Snyder’s plans laid out for Justice League were being questioned.
Unfortunately, during the production of Justice League, Snyder’s adopted daughter, Autumn, committed suicide. He left the project, and the aforementioned Whedon put on his director hat, reshot most of it, and made a genuinely terrible film. Even worse, last year, Whedon was accused of mistreatment by Cyborg actor Ray Fisher. Fisher also accused heads of DC Entertainment Geoff Johns and Jon Berg of allowing it to happen and sweeping it under the rug. At the very least, Johns and Berg are no longer running the DC movie universe.
Kevin Feige and the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe brain trust are brighter than Geoff Johns. I’ve met Johns, and he’s a likable guy, a pretty great comic book writer, but he made far too many poor executive decisions. I have no idea if the guy in charge today, Walter Hamada, is the right man for the job.
To be clear, Marvel is not DC, and DC is not Marvel. They are not interchangeable. The character of Batman has evolved in practically every decade of its existence. The early Batman inhabited a dark world. In the 1950s and 60s, Batman was all smiling with science fiction themes thrown in and, of course, the campiness of the Adam West TV show. The 70s returned the character to its dark avenger theme, while the 80s were dominated by Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns. It goes on and on from dark to happy and severe to fun. It is the same character but different interpretations, tones, and sophistication.
On the other hand, Marvel has not had nearly as many interpretations of their characters in pop culture outside of comics. Spider-Man was probably the only one with any kind of name recognition before the Iron Man movie and the proper MCU introduction. Maybe a random 50-year-old would remember the Hulk and his sad, sad music, but I doubt it.
The bottom line is there have been many versions of these DC characters in every medium from comics, TV, movies, etc. You may like Batman the Animated Series but hate Batman: The Brave and the Bold. Both are equally imaginative and worthwhile. I like some interpretations of these characters and others not so much, which brings us to the Zack Snyder (and to a lesser degree screenwriters David S. Goyer and Chris Terrio) version of these characters.
Short answer: I don’t dislike it even though most of the time I hate it, but I get it. Does that even make sense?
Man or Superman?
Man of Steel bothered me. Zack Snyder made a science fiction movie wrapped in the cloak of a superhero movie, and it never quite coalesces into something worthwhile. It’s the only movie I actively yelled back at the screen during my initial viewing at the theater. Surprisingly, I didn’t scream when Superman breaks Zod’s neck. I yelled when Jonathan Kent tells his son not to save him when the tornado hit. An uncontrollable, spastic “NO!” was exclaimed, and my wife had to physically restrain me from crying out more. The writer, David S. Goyer, had utterly missed the point of Jonathan Kent’s death, and I was furious at the mischaracterization.
Remember Superman the Movie? Glenn Ford plays Pa Kent, who died of a heart attack right after giving Clark some great advice.
“…a man gets older, and he thinks very differently, and things get very clear, and there’s one thing I do know son, and that is you are here for a reason…”
“…but I do know one thing. It’s not to score touchdowns.”
This exchange is everything Man of Steel is not. Clark learns the most important lesson: There will be things out of your control despite your powers. He cannot save everyone.
“All those things I can do…all those powers….and I couldn’t even save him.”
Man of Steel begins on the absolute wrong foot. Snyder does not understand the Superman character, and consequently, the entire DC Cinematic Universe is flawed right from the start.
A Dawn of Disaster
In the “next” movie in this unofficial trilogy, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Martha Kent tells her son the world doesn’t owe him anything. I guess that’s true, but Superman is supposed to love his adopted home, and his parents are the ones who instilled that love. I don’t want a Superman who’s indifferent about us puny humans. He walks among us as Clark Kent because he cares. At least that’s what I always thought.
Snyder, Goyer, and Terrio decided the “boy from Kansas” aspect of Clark Kent was worthless. The relatable part of Superman is superseded by a savior/Jesus theme that frankly is so heavy-handed in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice that it becomes tiresome. Snyder is desperate to film an operatic story but fills the screen with a subdued palette and paper-thin character motivations. Snyder aspires to make “films,” not “movies,” and while that approach certainly has merit, it doesn’t always translate into critical acclaim, nor does he reach that fabled filmmaker perch.
In Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Snyder only wants to see the God-like Superman. The Clark Kent-Lois Lane scenes are awkward and forced. Clark and Lois’s romance is never given enough time to feel realistic because the “man” part of Superman isn’t what Snyder wants to focus on with his story. It makes Superman a detached character that no one truly roots for in the movie. I mean, would it kill to have Henry Cavill at least smile once as Superman?
That’s not my Superman. And probably not yours either. I had no emotional attachment to Superman dying, and that’s the culmination of this whole movie.
There was also much consternation over the casting of Ben Affleck as Bruce Wayne/Batman. I thought it was fantastic. Affleck portrays a haunted, world-weary Wayne who has become more “Goddamn Batman” than “I’m Batman.” It is a change I liked, except when the character uses guns. Batman should never use guns. Ever. Even on the Batmobile.
Watching Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, I got the distinct feeling Snyder would much rather have made a brutal, unflinching Batman film. There are hints of what it would be like every time he’s on screen. Even though Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman/Diana Prince stole the show in her introduction, Affleck as both Bruce Wayne and Batman were a joy to watch. The action scenes moved in a way that felt straight out of the comic. I was reminded of the Big Daddy scene from Kick-Ass minus the gun and killing.
Affleck and Jeremy Irons, who plays Alfred, had great chemistry, which made me long for a likely never-to-be-made solo Affleck Batman movie all the more. Although, to be fair, I certainly liked Michael Caine as Alfred, but the Alfred-Batman bickering dialogue works well here. The script for Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is bad, but Affleck sells every scene. I especially liked his fake drunk Bruce Wayne.
I will give Snyder accolades regarding one crucial part of moviemaking: he casts his movies exceptionally well. His choices to inhabit all the comic book characters are definitely on par with the Marvel movies. The problem is his stories and his aesthetic.
Is Justice Served?
The biggest mistake the DC Cinematic Universe made was entrusting Zack Snyder with the characters at the beginning. His style clashes pretty hard with what the general audience wants in its cinematic superheroes, except for his version of Watchmen. Even then, his adaptation completely missed the point of what Alan Moore was saying about identity, power, politics, corruption, and flawed morality. On the other hand, Zack Snyder would’ve made a fantastic Punisher movie.
Kevin Feige oversees the Marvel movies to the extent that they almost feel like their own unique house style. We do get variations, though. Black Panther and Ant-Man are Marvel movies, but they don’t have the same feel. I don’t think the Marvel house style is dull or predictable, at least not yet.
A critical factor with the Marvel movies is that they have writers and directors who understand the characters they are working on, and they “feel” correct to the audience. They feel correct because the stories are more grounded, and audiences connect with the characters. DC stumbled out of the gate, fixed it with Wonder Woman and Aquaman, found their footing with Shazam!, and now we’ll see how the rest plays out. As I said, DC isn’t Marvel, but let’s not forget how upbeat and fun Iron Man as a popcorn movie is and how sour, dark, and mournful Man of Steel is.
As a related note, one of the worst things that happened to the DC Cinematic Universe in the grand scheme of things was the Christopher Nolan films. His Dark Knight trilogy are actual films. Heath Ledger won an Oscar for his work in one of them. Robert Downey Jr. was never going to win an Oscar as Tony Stark (or for Tropic Thunder), but he did kick off the Marvel Cinematic Universe and made billions of dollars for his employer.
I’d argue the Marvel movies are fun. None of them would be categorized as “films.” Nolan’s three movies are not “fun,” and they aren’t trying to be. Guess what’s missing from Snyder’s films? I’d wager the Nolan films influenced the direction Johns wanted for the DCCU. In my opinion, it was the wrong choice. Snyder made two movies and now a third with his clear viewpoint and signature style. His interpretation is straightforward. I might not like it. You might love it. In any event, it is unique to this kind of movie.
Man of Steel and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice are not just bad stories. They are lousy world-building. Snyder loves the wrong things about superheroes, and it shows. Watch Shazam!, Wonder Woman, or Aquaman, and there’s a sense of wonder and excitement in them that Snyder’s films are devoid of in every respect. Again, it’s his style. It might have worked with a standalone Batman film or an anti-hero protagonist like Black Adam. It doesn’t work with Superman. The cinematography is wrong for Superman. The lack of color and brightness does not sell the “hope” of the character. To me, the Snyder aesthetic is wrong. It’s a distinct choice, but I think it was the incorrect one to launch a superhero universe.
Johns picked the wrong writer/director to kick off the DCCU, didn’t cut his losses soon enough, and kept him for Justice League. When Snyder left the project due to a personal tragedy, Johns picked another wrong choice to finish the film. I mean, it really goes back to screwing up Green Lantern. There’s a reason Johns is no longer head of DC Entertainment.
The Snyder Cut
In my opinion, Geoff Johns and Zack Snyder messed up the launch of the DC Cinematic Universe. Still, there is an argument to be made that the Snyder approach to the DC characters is a valid one, and if it had played out the way they wanted it to, audiences would have been happy. The internet contingent who longed for a “Snyder Cut” got their wish, and Zack Snyder’s Justice League is here. Go and stream it right now and kill half of a workday.
If you love the Zack Snyder aesthetic, having four hours of it in a movie is going to be nirvana. The Snyder Cut rivals Sucker Punch (which I kinda love with a so-bad-it’s-good vibe) as his flick with the most slow-motion and CGI. Putting that aside, does this movie work as a culmination of his trilogy? Well, yes. It does precisely what Snyder wanted to do. I might not love what he’s doing here, but with four hours, he gets to do a whole lot of it, and it mainly works.
Zack Snyder’s Justice League begins with the death of Superman and his death-cry signaling to multidimensional Mother Boxes (the best MacGuffins since the Infinity Stones) that the Earth has no champion and is primed for invasion. Batman gathers a team to battle these looming threats. A villain emerges, heroes gather, and they fight off an alien invasion. The major difference is with the extended run time, Snyder slips in flashbacks, subplots, dream sequences, and so much more. We also get the real villain of the movie, Darkseid, who is absent in the 2017 version. Yes, he looks a lot like Marvel’s Thanos, the chief antagonist of the most recent Avengers movies, but the comic book nerds know who’s the original and who’s the ripoff.
The movie doesn’t take its extended running time to help propel the story at all. Instead, it widens it. We spend more time with everyone. The ability to expand individual stories and give everything more breathing room is good. The scenes go on longer (not counting the slow-motion stuff). Consequently, the story makes more sense. Having a coherent story and sympathetic characters as the spine sets up the Snyder Cut as a considerably stronger movie.
Some movie reviews seem to want to go back and forth between the 2017 version and this new one, and frankly, I don’t care. I guess film students will write plenty of dissertations regarding the two films, but I don’t usually go into a movie to study it. I want entertainment.
And dammit, I was entertained.
Zack Snyder’s Justice League is a testament to Snyder’s original vision. It’s a visually satisfying, well-crafted superhero movie with an audience experience, unlike anything that’s come before it. It feels epic in a way I probably haven’t felt since Avengers: Endgame, and that took nine prior movies to reach that level. The whole thing feels massive like we’ve taken the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy, and instead of nine hours of Tolkein, we get one four-hour DC comics extravaganza. That isn’t to say that a good editor couldn’t trim the four-hours into something closer to two and a half, but that’s mostly beside the point anyway.
One of the ways DC is not Marvel is that DC heroes are more gods on Earth than earthlings playing god. There are so many scenes that play with that approach, really a reverse Marvel movie, that I was taken aback by how well it works. On the flip side, because Snyder has chosen to go wide with more personal stories for each character, we get a stronger connection to our heroes. There’s time to add scenes showcasing the human side of the superhumans. Pre-Cyborg Victor Stone wins the big college football game, and the Pre-Flash Barry Allen saves a beautiful woman he held a small moment with from a car crash. I won’t even get into the father issues both characters suffer from. Overall, we get a deeper understanding of Barry Allen and Victor Stone, and that only helps the movie. It seems Snyder might have learned his lesson regarding the lack of humanity in his last two movies.
At the end of the day, though, the destruction caused by superhumans is something Snyder wants to focus most of his energy on, and he fetishizes it in nearly every frame of action. His infatuation with this over-the-top violence principally serves his story. For example, Steppenwolf’s fight with the Amazons on Themyscira is bloody and heartbreaking. Wonder Woman’s killing with extreme prejudice of the terrorists in front of dozens of children doesn’t make narrative sense. In general, I’m not a fan of superheroes killing. On the other hand, Snyder believes, in his cinematic universe, the ends justify the means, and we should “Wake the fuck up.”
Snyder’s love for this ultra-violence is generally what I don’t like about his interpretations of the DC characters. Often, it takes me out of the movie. Even after generally enjoying Zack Snyder’s Justice League, I don’t really like the same things Snyder likes about superheroes.
Beyond that, it is still a visually fascinating comic book movie with a more cohesive story, better character development, and solid genre acting. Is it the best Zack Snyder movie? Probably. I hope that means he’s learning from his mistakes and will create better movies in the future.
I could nit-pick it all day, but the thing that bothers me the most is the 4:3 aspect ratio Snyder set the film in because he wants it eventually screened in IMAX. At least it got me thinking if I could rent out an IMAX theater and screen the inevitable Blu-Ray of Zack Snyder’s Justice League. That might be something…
The bottom line with Zack Snyder’s Justice League is I’m glad he could bring his interpretation of these characters to life and finish his unofficial trilogy. Even though the DCCU has moved on from the Snyder approach regarding these DC characters, it does show what might have been. I will never love his take, and chances are we will never see these characters portrayed like this again. Still, Zack Snyder’s Justice League begs for a sequel.
I wouldn’t hold your breath.