Zack Snyder's Justice League

Zack Snyder's Justice League ★★★★★

Part 1/x: 

From the zero-G post-cinematics of its first shot, a digital tableau of Superman impaled upon Doomsday’s spear-tipped arm, ZACK SNYDER’S JUSTICE LEAGUE promises a cinema whose massive expense can’t help but create something new. Just what that new thing is, I’m not sure anyone can say yet. Money seems an abstraction in talk of this film; fair enough, there’s plenty else to focus on, but a lot of capital is at work here too, thrown together hastily in hopes of stimulating an industry even more creatively and financially moribund than when the abortive 2017 JUSTICE LEAGUE premiered. Already the Snyder Cut feels like a film and an event to be judged by legacy, what it does or doesn’t do to the superhero genre, to the US film industry, and to all of us in varying degrees of orbit around this supermassive phenomenon (no pun intended!). 10 years after SUCKER PUNCH, Snyder’s meta-critical masterpiece heretofore — yes, I mean both those claims — superheroes are so plentiful onscreen as to be indistinguishable from the rest of us. In the future it seems everyone gets to be in a superhero movie for 15 minutes; I forgot Willem Dafoe was even in AQUAMAN, so I found myself laughing somewhat in pity at the sight of his name among this conspicuously luxe roster. But why not? We’re two decades deep into the 21st century now, and SPIDER-MAN had already claimed Dafoe in 2002. Practically no one has survived this low-cultural shift with their dignity intact, and I find it odd that the Snyder Cut has been dismissed by some as representing a nadir when, quite plainly, this is the way things have been going for years now, with much worse surely to come no matter your opinion on Snyder or his films. So let’s attempt to see the Snyder Cut qua Snyder Cut, something Zack Snyder the individual has spent his life and career working towards, culminating in what I’m sure must be one of that life’s proudest achievements. What to make of such a man and such a film? I’m reminded of an old Reverse Shot assertion regarding yesteryear’s fanboy favorite Tarantino, which pushed back against a still-prevalent notion that the comparatively tasteful JACKIE BROWN represents Tarantino at his best, when what most obviously defines his corpus is vulgarity and excess. The question posed isn’t so much whether excess itself can be a virtue in art, but by which standards we judge a creation’s effectiveness when viewed against both an artist’s other works and a larger critical context. In that example, KILL BILL, VOL. 1 being the film in contention, why should the best Tarantino movie be his least characteristic work, instead of something representative? More than just a thought experiment, this dilemma strikes me as something like a fundamental riddle of evaluation, but — with hopes of maintaining some focus here — it’s become an especially vexing challenge in cinema of the US American present. For with ZACK SNYDER’S JUSTICE LEAGUE we are at last confronting what THE AVENGERS was meant to signal, a superhero filmwork of actually Herculean effort and ambition.* When Marvel’s landmark equivalent arrived, it was hard not to be impressed by the sheer logistics behind the manufacture of its event status, the huge amounts of labor that went into the construction of something irreducibly enormous. (Though maybe that’s just my memory of a packed screening deep into the night, in the early years of undergrad for me — nearly a decade ago, yikes!!) I remember feeling I’d be fine not seeing any more Marvel films after that one, having experienced them at the moment in my life I’d be most receptive to their popular appeal. But of course I wasn’t that lucky, nor were any of us. So, again: why celebrate another installment in our unending grind of trilogies, crossovers, post-credit teasers and the like? Why bother even reckoning with the wetness of water? (And, why celebrate Snyder if it even tangentially involves relitigating Tarantino?) It helps to make a point of seeking beauty in art made at titanic scale and intensity, common practice throughout history that seems to go out the window whenever Snyder is brought up. There often seems to be some unspoken pact that to take something like JUSTICE LEAGUE seriously would tarnish one’s artistic and anti-capitalist credentials. Yet we needn’t approve of all the social or moral priorities guiding capital allocation to appreciate what artworks result: in cinema alone, we’d be junking a lot of masterful, beloved works from desperately unequal film production behemoths like India, Hong Kong, and the United States if asceticism were elevated as a higher ethical and artistic virtue. A more perfect world might give us more perfect art, whatever that’d look like, but our imperfect one keeps giving us metahumans, heroic bloodshed, and maximalist musicals, their shared excesses an affront to “good taste” and tastemakers of all kinds. Hence the undertone of moral panic barely disguised beneath contempt. You get the sense some wouldn’t be caught dead with a Zack Snyder film on their screens, so ashamed and disgusted would they be. Naturally I don’t share their feelings, yet once more we find ourselves facing the problem of excess in art and criticism. Excess by its nature resists modesty, constraint, judgment, shame, and guilt. It rewrites what it exceeds and overtakes, creating something new in the process. We might do well to meet it on its level. To avoid excess on principle is to choose ignorance, however justified it may seem. But at what point does excess become actually, detrimentally excessive? How much time in my life should I spend thinking about ZACK SNYDER’S JUSTICE LEAGUE, writing about it, rewatching it, letting it overtake me when so many better and lesser-known films exist? I think for me, right now, what’s interesting is thinking that this is an imperfect film that could hypothetically be outdone but which almost certainly will not be. It could only exist now, yet its very existence still seems impossible because of what it rejects about the purpose of film art at the scale of JUSTICE LEAGUE. Nobody else is working at this scale with such integrity, no one else has the hubris or skill. It’s just Snyder sticking his own neck out. He channels the superhuman responsibilities of his characters into film productions of historically unparalleled scale, and somehow he’s produced one of 21st century cinema’s most distinctive ouevres at the still-young age of 55. What comes next for him? His first digital film, where he’ll serve as his own DP, due out in mere months, soon followed by two episodes of the animé prequel series tied to that upcoming film. “You can be anything you want to be,” says Wonder Woman to an admiring young child. Does anyone doubt Snyder believes it? He’s been performing at superhuman levels of success for most of his adult life, and if his daughter Autumn were here to see JUSTICE LEAGUE in whatever form it would’ve taken, you can be sure it would’ve been meant just as sincerely. Snyder wants to inspire people, and he hasn’t lost the naïveté to believe he can. His faith has always been grounded in the everyday actions of generosity and kindness which keep people going. In this, his cumulative vision, that human-sized imperative is signified early on through Aquaman’s story thread. Batman — portrayed rather rotely by Affleck as a born-again Nick Fury — may be seeking redemption for his past mistakes, yet in Aquaman’s hard-drinking humility resides an altruism uncorrupted by financial or family ties. He is free in a way Batman can’t be, a fact established more briskly and poignantly here than in the whole feature film devoted to his backstory; however, this opposition doesn’t survive the oncoming plot churn, where the two men are swept up into a revolving door of heroes (at least Snyder leaves us the evocative image of Aquaman losing himself in waves and whiskey pre-recruitment). More crucial still are the Icelanders dependent on Aquaman’s grace, the newest beneficiaries of metahuman compassion. Scenes that could be perfunctory for others, these moments of tenderness among civilians, women, and children, are in fact the heart of Snyder’s conceptualization. Limited as our time may be with them, it is other humans, and their precious, irreplaceable lives, that shape Snyder’s heroes and give the battles meaning. A hero’s worth is determined by what they mean to someone else, as Batman has come to realize too late after aiding in Superman’s death. Narratively, Bruce Wayne is well-placed to justify both the gravity and length of the narrative built around him, excessive though they both obviously remain. If he suffers in the Snyder Cut as a “character” by standards of psychological realism, it’s helpful to recall that his role calls more for evangelism than “depth,” reflecting the significance of Superman as crucified Christ awaiting resurrection. With the Marvel films reading  basically as workplace comedies about tedious co-workers, Snyder’s Justice League by contrast are a group of people whose differing views of heroism all carry legitimacy, but which must somehow be resolved through collective deliberation. That is more or less the case for a four-hour runtime, as I see it, if we’re to read a personal intent into this pro bono salvage work about changes of heart and crises of conscience troubling superheroes heroes. Apparently, Snyder believes in heroism so much as to spend decades of his own life exploring what it looks and feels like. Whatever resonance these themes may hold for a given spectator, one unexpected bonus we all reap from his devotion is an X-Ray view upon the artistic bankruptcy of both Snyder’s imitators and predecessors, namely the middle-manager nobodies charged with bringing out every new scoop of Marvel slop. Yes, I suppose this is the “at least Snyder’s films were made by a human” defense, but it’s more than that too, it’s what to make of Snyder wearing his heart on his sleeve and citing every dorky film favorite of his to persuade you any of this supreme silliness matters. Because you do in fact need to treat this stuff like it has some place in conversation with the myths and fables to which they’re often compared for it to carry any actual sacrilegious charge. To do so, as Snyder obviously intends, needn’t make high art of superheroics, but it does make low art of them; besides, we should be well past the point now at which we can read low art *as low art* against the achievements of antiquity. Snyder’s omnivorous sampling makes him an exemplary postmodern auteur for a national (post-) cinema now steeped in his chosen vernacular, but I suppose the question might still remain as to whether that’s something worth celebrating, what difference it makes if Snyder perfects the godforsaken genre he’s just burned down behind him while serving as useful Randian stooge. Does he just not care that his own experiments in expression help legitimize a rival studio’s even more corporatized methods? Personally, out of pique or pettiness, I love that the Snyder Cut obliterates any claims to artistry the MCU has yet mounted, and that it exposes Disney’s content machine as the gutless exercise in brand management it is. Snyder’s devotion to cinema, whatever the word means to him, is his greatest asset, and it’s damn sure DC’s best when he’s among their ranks: what kind of capitalist simp would prefer Marvel at this point against its obviously superior competitor in hegemony? Wasn’t that the whole point of all this free market shit? With JUSTICE LEAGUE, Snyder set himself a challenge no one but he could meet in this arid, financialized filmmaking climate. Maybe, for you, a better superhero film already exists. Or perhaps, understandably, you’d prefer not to engage the inescapable topic at all. But with Snyder against Marvel, there can be no contest; THE AVENGERS are piss now. Art won, Snyder won. (We still lose, but today it feels good.) The empire will soon strike back, but on the day it finally crumbles, when superheroes at long last go out of style, we’ll have the Snyder Cut to thank for its powerful blow against a regime of visual artlessness. As Shyamalan showed us in GLASS, the new generation is re-learning what’s possible through their eyes, through their omnipresent screens. To Marvel, that’s an untapped business opportunity. For Snyder, it’s a fresh chance, a new way to share and be moved by art, the furthering of an alliance between artists and audience. Quite frankly, we need all the help we can get.

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