Friday, March 19, 2021

Rise of the Guardians: ZACK SNYDER'S JUSTICE LEAGUE

How appropriate that Zack Snyder’s vision for Justice League ended up being a long, melancholy, mournful, patient, troubled and yet ultimately hesitantly triumphant movie about resurrections. There’s a Superman who died in the climax of 2016’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and will eventually be revived with alien magic. There’s an ancient pact between man and gods due to be restored in order to combat an alien invasion. There are heroes who once had hope who will find their reasons for fighting again. Elsewhere there’s a dying teenage hacker robotically revived by his scientist father, and a speedy young man hoping to restore his father’s good name. There’s even the villain’s plot: to unearth antique terraforming machines long-buried and bring about devastating world-changing power to prepare the way for fiery apocalyptic inter-dimensional conquerors. There’s something curiously moving about all of these images and statements and motifs of death and rebirth, about parents missing children, mentors losing pupils, lovers separated by loss, defenders drained of their will — and at every step the slow work of building coalitions to protect and save. That it was all there, before he left the project due to a family tragedy, before its initial 2017 release buried those ideas under reshoots and reedits by Joss Whedon that made it into something poppier and emptier and deeply confused, makes this restored and completed cut not only a total improvement in every way, but something of a resurrection itself.  

Snyder’s vision of the DC universe, it’s clear to see, is dark and alienating in many ways. His 2013 Man of Steel takes the last son of Krypton not as uncomplicated superhero, but as the alien being he is. (Henry Cavill’s otherworldly handsomeness helps there.) It takes him seriously, and sees that he's a little scary, as it scrambles the usual take in what, after decades of superhero movies' samey bright quips and weightless consequences-free spectacle, stands out as unusually weighty, destructive, calamitous. It has a certain power. Similarly, Snyder’s grim versus followup snapped into clearer focus for me these days. After the year we’ve had, is there any doubt a real Superman would not exactly unite our divisions? I wrote at the time that that film is “intent to imagine a worst-case scenario superhero world, in which they’re…vigilantes viewed with suspicion, fear, and worship, and who nonetheless must muster the energy to save the planet.” I called the movie cynical and heavy and curdled, and I don’t think I’d change my mind about those adjectives, but I would change my mind about that being a bad thing. Maybe it’s just the passage of time, or the tenor of the times, but I found myself, in revisiting the Snyder-verse over the last few weeks, sympathetic to and engaged by his attempt to try something different. After all, we have so many superhero stories that go the same route over and over and over again — hitting the same beats, making the same poses, telling the same moral lessons while ignoring areas of culpability these larger-than-life figures would have in something like the real world. Why not try to spin a new myth out of old symbols? Snyder is a powerful image-maker for good and for ill, but in this new cut of Justice League he puts some of his finest filmmaking to use clarifying and extending his vision for this comic book universe.

His Justice League assembles in a film full of typical Snyder touches: obvious symbolism, thick layers of atmosphere, slow-mo poses and vivid pop art combat, moody music and acrobatic violence, terse exposition and pulp poetry, flashy comic book fashions and rippling physiques. But its very idiosyncrasy is what makes it so compelling, and its excess so watchable. He’s using the language of blockbusters to muscle in his mythmaking, to pour out his heart into these squares of hectic collisions and languidly drawn emotions. It’s outsized — every frame squared off by cinematographer Fabian Wagner in tall boxy IMAX aspect ratio — and sometimes corny — like a robot-man envisioning the economy as an enormous bear and bull fighting — but it’s always clearly springing out of a singular, complicated vision with its inconsistency and eccentricity earnestly displayed. Here’s a boy trying to save a girl in a slow-mo sequence agonizingly stretched until it’s almost romantic. Here’s an army of Amazons fighting against a marauding alien, their queen's voice quaking as she tries to warn her exiled daughter. Here’s a grieving reporter in a soft heart to heart with her dead fiancé’s mother. Here’s a father and a son grappling with catastrophic change, a source of connection that nonetheless drives them further apart. Here’s the heir to Atlantis brushing off his birthright. Here’s the solo vigilante forced to admit he needs some help. It all builds to calamitous action, and that’s satisfying enough as those things go — and probably the best Snyder’s ever done it — but it’s the long build up — nearly three whole hours of it — devoted to characters and their tentative connections forging and accruing that’s most interesting.

That’s not to say it all works. The thing stretches to just past four hours and hits some of the same thinness that structured the first theatrical cut. The gloopy animated villain and his world-ending plot is never quite as sharp as the best of its genre competitors', and some side characters get lost in the shuffle. (I found the fleeting appearance of an unbilled surprise pretty much a whiff, and a newly shot nightmare at the end of the epilogue a bummer of a conclusion that probably should’ve gone post-credits as it spoils the mood of the main story’s resolution.) And it’s still in some way playing grab-bag with the standard tropes. But the superhero genre provides us so little majesty these days, it’s satisfying to watch Snyder get there. It put me in mind of Ang Lee’s Hulk and Guillermo del Toro’s Hellboys and Sam Raimi’s Spider-Mans, movies of this kind that have big CG spectacle and swinging action and popcorn plotting that somehow manage to be personal and eclectic visions, about real human emotions buried under the spandex and shining through the actors’ intimate moments between slam-bang high-speed collisions. He poses his performers iconographically, and they all fit the parts well. Jason Momoa is an ideal charismatic reluctant Aquaman; Gal Gadot is still a fine Wonder Woman; Ezra Miller is good comedic relief Flash; Ray Fisher does swell robo-soul searching as Cyborg; and Ben Affleck’s Batman has never been better. Snyder has them bring out flickers of humanity in the grinding exposition and explosions. The whole long picture is evocative, exciting, exhausting, and always distinctive. Even when it’s silly, or soggy, at least it’s sincere. It’s exactly what it wants to be — a thunderous cracked fantasy of a fallen modern world that maybe, just maybe, can be temporarily solved by restoring something we love.

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