An ugly, micro-managed, cynical comic-book movie

David G. Hughes on Zack Snyder’s ‘Justice League’ (2017)

Say what you will about Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016), but it was certainly a film made with a singular, uncompromising vision and a distinctive aesthetic. It was an auteur piece. In market terms, the DC/Warner Bros. behemoth has hitherto distinguished its product from the Marvel competitor by placing trust in the vision of its central creative mastermind, Zack Snyder. Where Marvel reliably provides primary coloured, well-oiled fun and humour, Synder is preoccupied with symbol, ambiguity, and has, dare I say, a more interesting relationship to the topic heroism.

In crude terms, DC was the graphic novel to Marvel’s comic book. But capitalism has a way of homogenising. Justice League, the latest film in the “DC Extended Universe”, gives all the fans and critics who bemoaned the pace and thematic ambition of Batman v Superman everything they ever wanted—but to the detriment of us all. The result is a cowardly, botched, tonally awkward, micromanaged, forfeited, slapdash slice of Marvel-envy.

It would seem you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. A fan imprimatur had been delivered and Warner Bros., in a supine surrender to market orthodoxy and fanboy pressure, eagerly listened: more humour, more Marvel, less duration, less Snyder. Avengers alumni Joss Whedon was hired for re-shoots, trite humour was written, Ben Affleck played it for laughs, and Danny Elfman, composer of the Batman (1989) score, was brought back alongside his iconic tune.

Snyder has always been a problematic auteur to anyone with an ideological aversion to his visual Objectivism, machismo fetishism, and fascistic aesthetics, but he also has a natural talent for visual drama and has sincerely attempted to deconstruct the American superhero myth and emphasise fallibility and vulnerability. In his world, Superman and Batman were exceptional beings, but they also had problems. And the world had problems with them.

No such dynamic exists in Justice League; all of the characters and the interesting—I would even say radical—work that had been done has been reduced to an infantile interest in gaudy costume and fantasies of perfection and power, the equivalent of watching school children hit toys together. Most egregiously, this pertains to Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot). All of the empowering fervour of Patty Jenkins’ excellent origin film has been reduced to conspicuous backside shots and an intimation of romance between her and Bruce Wayne.

There is nothing wrong per se with taking superheroes back to their adolescent appeal, and indeed there are certain charms in Justice League that pertain to this. We see Commissioner Gordon (J.K. Simmons) adorning an anachronistic fedora hat, and Wonder Woman prevents a British Museum heist in a manner truly evocative of Golden Age comic fantasy. This also helps to excuse the risible script and its abysmal expository dialogue by recalling those hackneyed speech bubbles of a mid-20th century comic. As faint praise goes, Justice League replicates the experience of an incidental (and rushed) weekly comic book tale. Consequently, the accumulation of heroes that we are told to anticipate as a cultural event is nothing short of bathetic and disappointing.

Furthermore, if you’re going to take a nostalgist, retro approach, take that approach. Confusingly, the films aesthetic, exemplified by the poster, embraces the polar opposite in comic heritage—the photorealistic grandiosity of Alex Ross’ artwork, and Miller-esque references to societies current woes. This while at the same time being wholly uninterested in using superheroes as a site to explore theology, society or politics like Ross, Miller or Snyder beforehand. This is more interested in triviality. At its best, and certainly in its intellectual ambition, this shares purpose and quality with any one of the many direct-to-video animation films based on the Justice League panoply of characters.

Similarly to these animations, this barely feels like a live-action film. A running plot in the adult animation series, BoJack Horseman, concerns the central horse actor character being digitally replaced in an entire film without audiences knowing, and subsequently being nominated for an Academy Award. Watching this film with its crummy video game aesthetic, distracting shiny costumes and overabundance of CGI at an anthropocentric level (I’d estimate 30-40% of the humans we see on screen are not humans), you can’t help but wonder if that was the case here, for the acting is extraordinarily inhuman and placid, especially from walking statue Henry Cavill. The difference between BoJack and Justice League: there’s no chance any of these actors’ digital surrogate will be nominated for an Academy Award.

Speaking of horses, they say a camel is a horse designed by committee. Justice League is the camel of cinema—micromanaged to death, artistically cowardly, devoid of spiritual purpose. It feels as if a lumbering robot machine has been force-fed a bunch of agenda’s and wallets and deadlines and spat Justice League out. We are left to ask at the enervating conclusion of this mess, “did a person – a human being – even make this?!” This is a feature devoid of humanity, of purpose, of value (despite being one of the most expensive movies ever made).

This is especially disappointing coming off the success of Wonder Woman, a film replete with human warmth. Justice League isn’t in any way offensive or unenjoyable, but it is inoffensive or unobtrusive to the point of tedium, its myopia bare before us all, its commercial vacuity visible in every frame. For an apologist and advocate of the DC Universe, the film’s value rested in an obdurate belief in a unique vision, despite the naysayers. Justice League, a film purportedly about heroism, is, in fact, a display of cowardice, succumbed by fear and the swarm of Parademon interests that pray on it. Any film that has an algorithmic understanding of what makes audiences tick has no understanding at all. This film deserves its failure.

Justice League is showing in UK cinemas now.

David G. Hughes

By David G. Hughes

David G. Hughes is the Northern-born, London-based Founder & Editor-in-Chief of Electric Ghost Magazine. He graduated in Film Studies (BA) from King's College London and Film Aesthetics (Mst) from The University of Oxford. He has written for Film International, Little White Lies, and more.