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I have a prevailing theory on cinema that every film contains within itself a scene that perfectly summarizes it: a situation or line of dialogue that encapsulates what the film is about. Mary Poppins (the prime and proper babysitter) leading her children through a chimney, the composer Salieri reading (hearing!) Mozart’s manuscripts in Amadeus, Ray Kroc explaining why McDonald’s true success is in its name near the end of The Founder: a synecdoche, as brainier readers will call it.
If Justice League has any synecdoche scene, it’s probably the moment halfway through the film where our heroes are on the verge of being swallowed by a torrent of digital water and Alfred, Batman’s perennially sarcastic butler, comments: “we might not have thought this through”.
This might not be your first impression when you consider the history behind Justice League, from its director swap between Zack Snyder and Joss Whedon, its much-maligned reshoots, the contractual necessity to digitally erase Henry Cavill’s moustache and the fantastically inflated budget of $300 million (making it the third most expensive film ever made, unadjusted for inflation) this all led towards, and which the film seems unlikely to justify in box-office draws alone after a disappointing $95 million opening weekend, roughly half what Batman v Superman drew two years ago.
Instead, the impression one is left with is a broth that has spent too much time in the kitchen and gone through too many cooks’ hands. And this is, admittedly, the impression the film itself leaves you with, from its inconsistent tone and inability to juggle seriousness and humour to its jagged plot-structure and byzantine (read as ‘absent’) character arcs. But upon reflection it becomes clear that all this confusion stems from a lack of straightforward thought – perhaps an excess of ambition – on the cooks’ part. All the years and millions of dollars this broth spent in the kitchen feel wasted because the minds behind it did not understand how and when its ingredients worked, or how to put them together (for perspective, this film’s budget could have financed two Blade Runner 2049’s, three Dunkirk’s, ten Baby Driver’s, fifty-four Loving Vincent’s, seventy-five Moonlight’s or one-hundred and seven The Killing of a Sacred Deer’s).
Paradoxically, Justice League’s greatest failure may be that it is not as painful to watch as Batman v Superman, likely due to Warner Bros.’ push for a stylistically ‘safer’ movie. That film’s spectacular dysfunctionality, with flashbacks being jammed without context or payoff into the middle of unrelated scenes, is replaced with tame mediocrity in Justice League’s expected and formulaic structure (the villain’s cosmic backstory, the recruitment of each League member, the team’s struggle to work as a team) that becomes a chore to endure. We recognise the set-up and the intended conclusion immediately, like a magic trick we have seen a dozen too many times, and it draws us out of the experience.
Decidedly, it is unfair in this day and age to criticize a superhero film for being formulaic. What hasn’t been done yet? Whether it be a straight-forward team-assembly (X-Men, The Avengers), a light-hearted comedy (Guardians of the Galaxy, Deadpool, Spider-Man: Homecoming) or a tastefully dark and realistic take on the genre (The Dark Knight, Logan), every kind of wheel seems to have already been invented. Justice League fails not because it botches an attempt to replicate any one of these styles, but because in their desperation to make it as widely-marketable as possible, the film’s creators attempt (and fail) to satisfy all of them.
And this may not owe to the much-maligned reshoots as everyone fears. Leaked material from Snyder’s original cut includes, for example, Ray Fisher’s Cyborg experimenting and growing with his new powers, lending credence to the rumours that he was supposed to be the ‘heart’ of the film. The theatrical version of the film inches towards this – an early scene between him and his father in their apartment has echoes of the ‘human monster’ theme of films like Elephant Man, but any emotional tension dissolves when he starts awkwardly hovering around the room, making the whole exchange ridiculous. For its dissonant tone, abysmal CGI and inconclusiveness this scene, too, could serve as a synecdoche for Justice League. The CGI that makes Ciaran Hinds’ villain Steppenwolf look like a videogame character; the strange, repressed aggressiveness that all characters seem to have towards each other deep down (the League only really ‘comes together’ after a revived Superman beats them to a pulp), aborted plot-threads (Batman is said to be getting ‘too old for this’, until he isn’t), absent motivations (Aquaman has no internal reason to do anything – which might be, in fact, why he does next to nothing in the film) and most critically a deep misunderstanding of the characters.
Superman, in particular, seems to perpetually escape the filmmakers’ comprehension. One issue here is scale: Superman makes the Justice League useless, since not even their combined efforts can seriously compete against him and he can do everything they can, but better and faster. Not only is the final battle over as soon as he arrives – he does everyone’s jobs better than they do as soon as he enters the fray. The second issue stems from this: Snyder seems unable to see why someone as powerful as Superman would be interested in helping people (the simple reason that Superman is not a psychopath doesn’t seem to convince him). Enter the ham-fisted Christ allegory.
The flaws that plague the film as it exists would likely not disappear if Snyder’s original vision were realized, since most of these are conceptual: the film cannot decide whether it wants to be a serious treatment of superheroes’ effect on society like Man of Steel, an epic like Wonder Woman, a comedy like Deadpool… And in trying to be all, it succeeds at none. All the things that, on paper, should make a good film are there, but much like the film’s heroes they do not work well together. The old dreary stylistic nightmare of Batman v Superman doesn’t seem preferable, however, and the minds behind the DC Universe seem unable to decide which course of action to take – whether to appeal to the ‘grim-dark superhero’ niche that seems to be dying out, or whether to continue the stylistic cacophony of Suicide Squad and Justice League. Poor box-office returns are unlikely to convince them to can the whole affair, either. Maybe the true synecdoche for Justice League is Superman’s line: “you won’t let me live – you won’t let me die!”