starring Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Gal Gadot, Amy Adams
screenplay by Chris Terrio
directed by Zack Snyder
by Walter Chaw It opens with soundwaves visualized as ripples in the air--Superman's (Henry Cavill) death cry touching every part of a blasted world as the protection and decency he represents is murdered. I have historically hated Zack Snyder's vision of this universe because it felt grimdark in a weightless way, the posturing of an emo teenager who hasn't earned his weariness and cynicism. It felt like a put-on. Immature. When the worst parts of comic fandom coalesced to demand a director's cut of a genuinely abominable film, Justice League, I, partly out of self-protection from a hateful horde and partly out of a sense of moral superiority, looked upon the project as first impossible, then misguided. I thought myself better than all this, which is unforgivable. I guess I wanted to believe that in a world in which I have figured nothing out, I had at least figured out that anything championed by trolls and incels could have no possible value to someone like me--who, of course, has nothing in common with these troglodytes except, you know, for the loneliness and the self-loathing and the suspicion of corporate-think. Maybe it's just fear that makes me as hateful as they are. And maybe it's just fear that makes them as hateful as they are, too. I think what's most surprising to me about Zack Snyder's Justice League (hereafter ZSJL) is how skillful it is as a diagnosis of the horrific, unfillable void that drives the very population most responsible for its existence. If the messages of the film are internalized, it may even help.
ZSJL feels like therapy, not just for the audience that needs it but for Snyder as well. That is, it feels like a question ardently asked. A lot has been made of how it's in Academy Ratio and, scoffingly, how this is another example of Snyder's hubris. (In fact, Snyder fell in love with the squarer aspect ratio after shooting sequences for Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice in IMAX.) It's curious that the same charges are not levelled at Kelly Reichardt, say, when she decides to do an idiosyncratic thing like this. We don't call it hubris if we like the person doing unconventional shit. I think Snyder puts this in Academy Ratio because there's this thing that happens when you watch a film in a theatre--especially in a traditional theatre, sans stadium seating--where you spend it with eyes uplifted in a state resembling genuflection. The King Vidor-directed section of The Wizard of Oz, the "Over the Rainbow" sequence, ends with a looping camera movement that closes on a low-angle shot of Dorothy asking, "Why can't I?" as she gazes into the heavens. If you were watching it in Radio City on opening weekend, you would be sitting among hundreds of fellow penitents, eyes to the heavens, in something that looked like prayer. I learned to think about film this way through the French extreme film Martyrs. I love horror movies, by the way. Some of my more "serious" colleagues do not. They're like I was when I decided to judge a film before I had seen it, no matter how little evidence and knowledge I had to do so. Turns out, what I really had an abundance of was encouragement from people I wanted to like me. That makes me a troll. I need to do better, but it's so intoxicating to be part of a mob, isn't it?
Anyway, I believe this film is in a vertical format because ZSJL is essentially a Virgilian poem about the movements of gods among men. Literal ones in an extended battle sequence where we see Ares (David Thewlis) wade into mortal combat against an interstellar invasion force. One thing I had forgotten I love about the Donner Superman films is the sense that Clark Kent (Christopher Reeve) was this thing pretending to be human but definitely not human. The great mystery of a character like Superman is that, like Tyrell's replicants, he is more human than human. What is it that drives him? He is Jesus, who is God deciding to make himself human for a while. He is Odin. He is the pantheon of every religion's gods who spend time dressed up as people. Are they pretending? They must be, right? But how can you know what they're doing? They are not you or I, they are something else. Better to diagnose the motives of an insect. The thrill of that recognition of essential difference is hard to articulate. I have felt it a time or two in the presence of artists I admire: here you are, flesh and bone, and yet when you open your mouth, art emerges. I have felt it in the presence of professional athletes. I had that feeling repeatedly during ZSJL, particularly in Snyder's presentation of Wonder Woman, which is at once completely alien and weird--and empathetic and relatable. She's introduced foiling a terrorist takeover of a bank. Here, Snyder perhaps over-uses slow-motion, but he uses it in such a way that when he allows Wonder Woman to move in "real-time," well, it is a thing of wonder. I've watched that sequence a dozen times now. It is possibly my favourite moment in any superhero film because it nails the awe of what a Greek god would seem like to us to see her in violent motion. ZSJL is, in many ways, the adaptation of Dan Simmons's Ilium I have always wanted.
This is also the version of Wonder Woman I have always wanted. She is fundamentally unknowable but cares about us anyway. The allure of Superman is the same for me. Like the allure of Godzilla for the Japanese. We began these cycles of extreme worship of superhumans who destroy cities in the same proximity to 9/11 as Godzilla was to the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. To explain the world, we have demigods that raze everything but hopefully care enough to move us to a safe distance before they do. In the end, their victories are not our victories, since we do not share a common cause, although their defeat means our annihilation. In Snyder's other DC adaptations, Man of Steel and the deeply loathsome and discomfiting Batman v Superman, these monsters don't give a shit about us. If invincible monsters don't think we matter, then it's the very definition of nihilism. In ZSJL, Wonder Woman risks everything to save a group of civilians and takes a moment afterwards to ensure that everyone's okay. A little girl in the crowd asks if she can be like Wonder Woman when she grows up. Of course she can't, but Wonder Woman tells her she can be anything she wants to be. Of all the things I didn't expect from ZSJL, it was this surpassing and consistent kindness. Batman pats a cop on the shoulder and tells him he should probably retreat to somewhere safe; he'll take it from here. Tragedy has a way of making you older in an instant--and kinder. More protective of hope, too. The person who made this movie is not the same one who made Man of Steel and Batman v Superman. He's evolving. Or, you know, the product of his hand is.
The star of the new cut is Ray Fisher's Cyborg, née Victor Stone, a high-school-football superstar who loses his mom (Karen Bryson) in a car accident that almost claims him, too. He's resurrected as a cybernetic Frankenstein by his father, Silas (Joe Morton), a brilliant--and mad--scientist who grafts alien technology onto his son to revive and rebuild him. Victor is introduced scoring the winning touchdown in the big game (and no one has shot a football game with such totemic extravagance since Tony Scott's The Last Boy Scout) that features one of the film's three countdown clocks, though this one is nonsense because once a play starts in football... Never mind, who gives a fuck? His team exultant around him, he searches the stands for his father and sees only an empty seat. Suffering the silent treatment, Silas tries to apologize for his past absences, for working too much as everything of importance aged and died untended around him, but Cyborg is unmoved. My mother lives about ten minutes from my house, and I've talked to her exactly twice in the last year. I wish I were better than this. I wish we had a relationship that could heal the way I see it healing in popular entertainments. Cyborg at last sheds tears once Silas dies, as fathers do. I thought I was ready for my dad to die after a couple of years of illness and all my decades of bitterness. What you mourn most after losing a parent is, I suspect, the relationship you wish you had with them. ZSJL gilds no lilies about this, and in the past I think it would have felt like nihilism, but here, it feels like wisdom. Sometimes these relationships don't heal until one of us is dead. Our lives are brutal and short.
Cyborg joins Batman (Ben Affleck), Wonder Woman, Aquaman (Jason Momoa), and The Flash (Ezra Miller) in a collection of people orphaned in one way or another. Their backstories share traumatic losses, and all they seem to really want in this film is the chance to reconcile in some way with people who are already gone. They align, however reluctantly, because Earth is under threat from Steppenwolf (a CGI shrike voiced by Ciarán Hinds), the lapdog to a world-eater called Darkseid (voiced by Ray Porter). Steppenwolf himself gets an opportunity to reveal how he has disappointed his dark father and hopes to earn a reunion with him one day. All of ZSJL becomes this process of completing splits from parental figures in order to move forward in ways healthy one hopes, arrested one fears. Wonder Woman is goaded to rage by the suggestion she's left her mother to die while she pursues...what is it that she pursues? Independence from her legacy as an immortal left in flesh rather than stardust? She is a god. What must it feel like to be a god pretending to be human? Aquaman refuses his birthright and asserts his "mongrel" caste; The Flash wants only for his incarcerated father (Billy Crudup) to keep hope alive; and Batman? Fully orphaned. Superman? Orphaned not once, but twice, and while his adoptive mother is still alive (Diane Lane), she's lost their family's farm to foreclosure. You know, I've spent my life as a self-loathing Asian-American in denial of who I was and feeling like an alien in every context. ZSJL identifies why I have always loved the strangeness of these superheroes. Maybe their strangeness is powerful. What would it be like if we felt that? Would we use it for good, or would we become hateful trolls demanding our due in blood? When this group of foundlings and outcasts boards a plane to what will probably be their demise, Batman claps Cyborg on the shoulder and says that he was destined to fly. It's not the last time this film made me cry. I wasn't expecting that, either.
ZSJL gives us a melancholy Lois Lane (Amy Adams) apparently absent from worth following her lover's death. She's depressed and, more than grief, the film feels like an expression of depression: deep and sepulchral. All of the cities in this film, including the underwater Atlantis, are in shock. The ripples of Superman's death, of hope's death, have left a dreadful wake. I've experienced this collective dismay firsthand in Littleton, where I lived circa the Columbine massacre. For months, the whole town spoke in hushed tones. Lois gets up before dawn to buy a cup of coffee at the corner cafe. A cop asks her why she doesn't leave the city and she says because she likes it there. When Superman is resurrected with the same Monkey's Paw technology that saved Cyborg's life but made him a monster, it's Lois's appearance before him that stops Superman from murdering everyone in his reanimated confusion. I like an exchange where Aquaman shares an old Atlantean saying that goes something like, for everything you take from the darkness, you return something to the darkness. I like it because it speaks to a script (by much-maligned Chris Terrio) that in this uncorrupted form is really quite beautiful. It speaks to the idea that there are no shortcuts to wisdom, that we earn these scars we carry. Superman returns to the foreclosed farm in the middle of America, Smallville, where he was raised by rural folks around a set of simple, idealistic maxims. There's a scene later on where Batman, in his alter ego as a rich person largely overmatched in matters of cosmic conflagration, extends a gesture of enormous material generosity that Superman, because of his morality and despite his God-like power, is incapable of providing for himself. "Thanks don't begin to..." he says, and his friend responds, "I'm just fixing a mistake." That made me cry, too.
What this film is ultimately about are those lessons that are difficult to learn though inevitably taught. We will lose our parents if everything goes right, and sometimes our kids if everything goes wrong; we are not in control of anything, and thinking that we are merely amplifies the suffering once we're reminded of our relative smallness. No heroes are coming to save us, but we can find salvation in the families we make for ourselves from the rubble of our lives. We need others. And that thing that is so intoxicating, this rapture of the many, can easily turn into a mindless horde if we're not careful, instead of a place that is nurturing and accepting of our differences and shame. Wonder Woman tries to recruit Cyborg to the Justice League one evening, and she does it not by invoking how great powers come with great responsibility but by empathizing with his grief and offering him support in it. When he finally grows into responsibility, Snyder lets Wonder Woman give him a look, unnoticed, of pride. Later, Aquaman says something like how it's unfair to ask Cyborg to take on this burden so soon after his father has died--and as his last act in the film, Aquaman tells his new friends that he has to go see his dad. There's a moment where Cyborg is tempted by the phantoms of his parents and the promise of a relationship with them that is not fractured. A fantasy. "Come to me, my broken boy," the simulacra of his mother beckons. "I'm not broken," Cyborg says. "And I'm not alone." I don't know that he discovers the sense of self to say something like that without the kindness of someone who sought him out because she saw his value when he didn't, or the fellowship of others who have offered to carry some of the weight for a while if he gets tired.
We get entire mainframes of strong, legible action (and the fall of Themyscira is fucking astounding for its visual coherence and respectful, even celebratory representation), but all that's really on ZSJL's mind is how important it is to care about each other and to see that this stranger before you is in pain, just like you. I regarded Snyder's Batman v Superman as this genuinely vile indulgence in the very worst of who we are that dragged the hopefulness of my youth through a sluice of bleak imagery and self-pity. I see in ZSJL a complete rebuke of that. The choice these oversized signifiers have is the same as ours, and it's a simple one: Knowing that everyone you meet is carrying the burden of their lives, do you approach that knowledge as a responsibility to honour or a weakness to exploit? These heroes are characters in our collective Passion Play. They are representatives, broad and magnified, of our best and worst parts; Snyder invites us to gaze upon them as intimations of our immortal, archetypal selves. Father, son, mother, daughter, wife, husband, widow, and widower. We try on a few of these identities over the course of our lives. And we look, as we have always looked, to simple fictions populated by magnifications of our desire for guidance. ZSJL is now the standard for telling these ridiculous stories, these Iliads and Aeneids we construct in place of any real national or cultural (and by extension personal) identity. It says there's strength in us if we don't despair. That if we don't see greatness in ourselves, we must allow others to see it in us. And though we may be exhausted, there are miles to go before we sleep.