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Anyone inclined to view the existence of Zack Snyder’s Justice League as just an exercise in modern fanbase power might care to shift their gaze from the pop-culture web to the business blogs, where the 2020 launch of Warner’s HBO Max streaming service was called “a total train wreck of a flaming disaster” (per industry commentator Richard Rushfield), among other things.
Pop-culture and business have not been separate for a long time, even though interpreting the art but ignoring the economic practices behind it remains arts criticism’s permanent blind spot. But with HBO Max locked in competition with a Disney+ service so muscular it can map out ten Star Wars TV series and ten Marvel TV series in the same PowerPoint presentation, the idea that Warners found a whopping $70 million to overhaul the first version of Justice League (2017) just because fans felt its iteration of Superman was a bit of a downer is a fairly naive theory. This is corporate war, and we are all conscripted.
The entire new item, built from footage Snyder filmed for the original project and now overseen by him to completion, plus a few minutes of new material filmed under Covid restrictions with a handful of returning actors, could hardly be called a restoration or the film Snyder intended to release in the first place – as if Warners would have put a four-hour superhero film into cinemas in 2017 without the studio head being carted off in a straitjacket. Instead it’s the conjunction of multiple forces arriving from different directions. Some of these have been swirling for years, such as the constant recycling of past material for a permanent nostalgia festival, a trend enabled and amplified by a digitised culture and now so telescoped that something all of three years old can be treated as an item from the archives to be spruced up. (But at the same time Zack Snyder’s Justice League is also testament to how seamless digital effects can now be.)
Other relevant issues have just turned up in a rush, like the need for Warners to be nice to executive producer Christopher Nolan after the tortured release of Tenet (2020) mid-pandemic, and the equal wish to quietly erase Joss Whedon, the uncredited co-director but obvious co-driver of Justice League v1.0 and now fallen from whatever cultural grace he was felt to have.
From this tempest the Snyder Justice League surfaces, and brandishes its dissident credentials immediately when it transpires that this entire superhero epic will be framed in a square 1.33:1 aspect ratio. Which turns out to restrict its crisp 35-millimetre lustre not one bit. And having matched the format of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Mirror (1975), Snyder copies one of Tarkovsky’s shots at the 13-minute mark – at least according to the pattern-recognition gurus of Twitter. (Did Snyder really do this? Can you guarantee that he did not?)
With double the original film’s running time but the same character arcs to draw, Snyder has room to self-indulge a taste for slow-motion and fill in some of the first version’s plot holes. The alien Steppenwolf, still voiced by Ciaran Hinds but now redesigned into something less likely to be found at the top of a beanstalk, is actively alerted to the death of Superman (in 2016’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice) rather than seem just to be passing by, and is seeking redemption of his own in the eyes of uber-villain Darkseid.
Cyborg (Ray Fisher) gets a deeper backstory of loss and regret, although still just happens to be in the right place quite often. Aquaman (Jason Momoa) is, if not exactly a Shakespearean prince in exile, then at least given enough depth to have prepared the ground for his own subsequent film, as was the intention at the time.
But this is just the content; with superheroes the form counts just as much. Zack Snyder’s Justice League takes a leisurely roam through the visual and aesthetic codes of the man with his name in the title: the elevated body-consciousness delivered without cruelty; the use of introspective needle-drops without detectable irony (Nick Cave here, twice); the sense of moral purpose that some apparently find indistinguishable from religiosity or fascism but which just means Snyder’s superhero films reject the notion that everything has to be in decline, something the Marvel Cinematic Universe takes as read.
And the sense that something unusual might happen any minute. That maybe-Tarkovsky moment comes as an Icelandic woman sings something between a love-song and a hymn to beefcake Aquaman as he propels away like a torpedo, which is engagingly odd.
But truthfully nothing in this film matches the untouchably nuts sequence in Batman v Superman when Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) sends a jar of urine to a US Senate committee prior to blowing it up, essentially the world’s most intransigent tech bro assaulting the United States Capitol building rather than be reined in – a scenario now eye-opening on multiple levels.
Snyder ends Justice League v2.0 in the only suitable manner, by not ending it. Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) has a lengthy apocalyptic nightmare and a philosophical argument with the Joker (Jared Leto, imported or perhaps in all the ways that matter cut-and-pasted from 2016’s very un-Snyder Suicide Squad)… before a different flying god, new to the franchise, descends and tells Wayne that he’ll basically be at this war forever.
He, and we, may very well be.
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