Culture

Justice League Is the Epic We Deserve

Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), Batman (Ben Affleck), and Flash (Ezra Miller) in Justice League (Photo: Clay Enos/Warner Bros.)
Zack Snyder compiles his greatest hits and our era’s greatest hopes in a masterpiece that is nonetheless imperfect.

‘Keep it moving,” Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) commands her Amazon soldiers in Justice League as they prevent supervillain Steppenwolf from stealing a “Mother Box,” one of three mysterious components that form life’s ultimate energy source. This is the moment that the movie Justice League begins to soar. It’s one of those wondrous Zack Snyder extravaganzas that fulfill the aesthetic potential of comic-book graphics and achieves essential cinema kinetics.

Our culture has lost appreciation for the true aesthetics of cinema, which suffer from competition with inferior forms: television, video games, even comic books themselves with their two-dimensional limitations. This disaster is compounded by Hollywood’s commitment to superhero movies that manipulate the ready-made comic-book audience by appealing to its shallowest adolescent instincts. The Christopher Nolan Batman films, with their pseudo-profound nihilism, were destructive enough. An even worse influence was the Marvel Universe films that lacked artistry. Ironically, Marvel movies also refused the seriousness that Nolan had faked — a feat of such capitalist cunning that it flattered consumers’ egos. Plus, those Nolan and Marvel films were all poorly made.

Zack Snyder’s audacity in creating a comic-book movie renaissance (which began with the complex, ambitious Watchmen) has inspired philistine resentment from reviewers and fanboys who don’t want cinema. They’ve been desensitized to the form’s vitality and richness. (Like civics, art is no longer being taught in schools.) The schoolyard game of lambasting Snyder’s magnificent Man of Steel and the even more intricate Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice almost directly parallels the unsubtle breakdown of our political process. And this year’s post-election delusional praise for the utterly mediocre Wonder Woman is a symptom of our current political paralysis.

By coordinating DC Comics’ superhero characters into the fight against Steppenwolf, Snyder attempts to extend his saga from Dawn of Justice. Studio interference (Warner Bros. envy of the lucrative Marvel franchise) and personal tragedy have prevented Snyder from completing his vision on a scale commensurate with the ever-astonishing Watchmen. But as Aquaman (Jason Momoa), The Flash (Ezra Miller), Cyborg (Ray Fisher), and Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) join Batman (Ben Affleck) in the most-intense-yet fight for human life, what remains of Snyder’s handiwork — after the studio imposed The Avengers dullard Joss Whedon on the final product — is still a triumph.

Look hard at the “Keep It Moving” sequence: Hippolyta and her platoon of female warriors coordinate their actions with lassoes, with swords, and on horseback and with sheer physical ingenuity in a palpitating relay. Each link of this race (a quick step-by-step battle) visualizes flight, which is an escape from ordinary human limitations, and struggle, which gives it all moral weight: The fate of the world is at stake.

But so is the fate of popular movies, which have suffered horribly this year, no matter how much Wonder Woman fans cling to their “resistance.” The “Keep It Moving” sequence gives a taste of what Woman Woman could have been with a real director. Snyder conceives the DC superheroes as representatives of our own culture’s adult conflicts — and a modern version of our spiritual, heroic heritage. Even Aquaman, The Flash, and Cyborg display emotional contradictions, and all are delightfully performed because they are fully conceived; their ambivalence deepens their participation in battle. This isn’t the cartoon solidarity of Marvel’s The Avengers, because Snyder ingeniously connects these figures to the passions of cultural history.

His imagery is classical, mythic, and erotic, whereas the males and females in The Avengers were kitsch, and Nolan’s Batman films were decidedly asexual. Snyder’s sensuality recalls Josef von Sternberg, whose great films (The Salvation Hunters, Blonde Venus, The Shanghai Gesture) were also misunderstood as camp, even though they contain the essence of cinema as imaginative, photographed experience.

Like Sternberg, Snyder can similarly shift into grave spirituality (profound metaphor), as he does in the expanded-time sequence where Batman loses his catapult gun and Wonder Woman loses her sword: They reach for the objects eluding them, shot at a suspenseful angle, and then The Flash intervenes, flying through the air, inside slo-mo time. It is so hyper-visualized that it is beyond anything Whedon has ever done. It’s pure Zack Snyder — Justice League features the year’s best action sequences since Zhang Yimou’s The Great Wall and Luc Besson’s Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets.

Against all unrelenting studio and media efforts to arrest cinema as juvenile pastime, Snyder exults in its adult spirituality, sensuality, and kinetic intensity.

After Marvel has cheapened our pop dreams, Snyder enriches them. From Steppenwolf’s towering horned malevolence (modeled on Tim Curry’s Darkness in Ridley Scott’s 1982 Legend) to the diluvian sequence that introduces Momoa’s voluptuous Aquaman, Snyder uses the superhero form to evoke our culturally established dreams, myths, and hope. Against all unrelenting studio and media efforts to arrest cinema as juvenile pastime, Snyder exults in its adult spirituality, sensuality, and kinetic intensity; he urges that we keep cinema moving.

It’s obvious that some edits have abridged Snyder’s handiwork (including the Superman plot resolved from Dawn of Justice). Conceived in terms of magnitude, Snyder’s vision goes unfinished like Sternberg’s I, Claudius (1937), whose surviving footage we saw only in The Epic That Never Was, the 1965 documentary on the making of the film. It’s the chaos of our time, not Snyder’s lack of artistry, that keeps him from fulfilling his vision. Just as we get the politics we deserve, this truncated epic masterpiece — Zack Snyder’s greatest hits — is equal to our cultural hopes and follies.

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