The explosion of internet video in the past two decades has brought about the most maddening game of them all.
I’m talking about the “what-if” game, as YouTube pontificators the world over have given us a little too much to think about. What if Kevin Durant never joined the Golden State Warriors? What if Will Smith took the role as Neo in “The Matrix?” What if Hillary visited Wisconsin? These questions can come in all forms for all subjects, and while it’s interesting to consider, most “alternative scenarios” usually aren’t any more exciting than what went down in real life. Many times, it’s a pointless exercise, a case of mental self-gratification that plays out stronger in your head than it does on screen.
One such pointless exercise escaped the mental fortress and came onto the screens of HBO Max this past month, as director Zack Snyder was able to complete his original vision for the film “Justice League,” which released in 2017 to mixed reviews at best. When viewing the original material, the tonal differences scene to scene were confusingly clear to even the dimmest analysts.
This was due to a tragic situation, as Snyder’s daughter passed away in the middle of filming, leaving Joss Whedon to take over Justice League’s creative direction. The Snyder trademarks and Whedon’s punching-up of the script landed the blockbuster in eternal purgatory, not knowing what type of movie it wanted to be. I made the choice to watch the 2017 “JL” over another comic book movie that released the same weekend, “Thor: Ragnarock.” That decision was as ill-advised as, well, hiring a comedic visionary to handle a Zack Snyder film.
I do want to say at the outset that it is indeed a credit to Snyder to finish a movie that occurred during a period of significant grief, and I wish him all the best. However, this was a what-if game that did not need to be played. There was already baggage oozing from “JL,” as well as Snyder’s previous DC Comics effort “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.” “BvS” was, and this was not intentional, the funniest film I’ve seen in a theater not named “Talladega Nights.” The depression, the brooding, it was too much for my brain, as it short-circuited and resorted to laughter for the final 90 minutes. Seeing Superman weeping with charred bodies around him, courtesy Lex Luthor blowing up the United States Capitol? That’s priceless comedy, both from the visual and from the knowledge that it was supposed to be a “serious” event. The overly dark tone flipped the film the other way, making it a near-comedic romp. After all of that ill will, bringing back “JL” for another round is like trying to reform the XFL. It’s just not going to happen successfully.
The new “JL” cut is definitely not a distorted vision, as Snyder’s depressive playbook is back at work here. Unlike “BvS,” this wasn’t aggressively depressing (though there were spots of that), so I couldn’t really laugh. It was a four-hour slow-drain of my spirit, like dealing with Parasite instead of Metallo. The look of the film is monochrome, from the heroes to the villains, leading to action scenes where you don’t know who is who. There isn’t a sunny day to be seen in the movies locales, whether it be Metropolis or the other side of Earth. The guys in the sound truck were told to blast ancient hymn fare through the runtime, making sure you know how dour everything is. If we need to be told something is serious, without an inherent investment in the movie before that point, I call that trying too hard. Add those peripheral attributes together, and you have a Doomsday-like villain of a film, if the hero of the story is your attention span. I had to take breaks every 30 minutes or so, just to remind myself that the outside world exists and that it’s not as dark as Snyder believes.
Speaking of “the outside world,” the defenders of Snyder films like to point out how the director is a wiz at depicting comic book characters in a “real society.” This argument is mistaken, and I can give you two concrete examples within what people seemingly enjoyed most in “JL.”
Cyborg is the hero that gets the most added screen time from the 2017 to 2021 versions, with an added backstory straight out of Hollywood. A quarterback at “Gotham City University,” the young hero scores a game-winning touchdown against Wisconsin, followed by his mother picking him up. While on the way home, they’re blindsided in an accident that takes the mother’s life, leaving Cyborg to be rebuilt as, well, Cyborg. I say the backstory is straight out of Hollywood, because it is. Snyder wanted to have a scene showing that Cyborg was a top athlete, followed by a scene of him and his mother’s accident. Fine enough, but for all the talk of “the real world,” he makes the transition as awkward and otherworldly as possible. Think about it, if a quarterback at a D1 school scores a game-winning TD, what’s he going to do? He’s going to either party, party or party, not be picked up by his mom like he’s 12 years old. Later on, when Cyborg is in his robot form, he is angry at the world and at his father for saving him. Again, this makes for “movie scenes,” but it doesn’t make for real-world connection. If I was on death’s door, only to be rebuilt as a robot that has super strength and can send nukes at will? I would feel pretty good about my lot in life, as well as my father scientist who saved me. Even the moodiest of teenagers would recognize that.
The other highlighted character of Snyder’s was Darkseid, the big bad of the comics who desires the universe. This added 30-odd minutes of screen time can also be summed up in those three letters: W-H-Y. In the Marvel movie universe, we know exactly why Thanos wants to cut out half of all life, and even if we don’t agree with the motive, it adds a layer of depth to the character. With Darkseid, there’s no motivation we can even begin to decipher. Do they make money on Apokolips? How do they sustain themselves? If Darkseid conquered the universe, why would he want to walk around as the ruler of nothing? Motivation is the basis of all strong film villain, and through all the flash of CGI computer screens, it seems Snyder forgot about reality.
I left the new “JL” cut less frustrated than the original material, but I ca’t help the sense of non-accomplishment here. The majority of the film was setup for other films that, in all likelihood, aren’t going to happen. It’s playing the what-if game again, this time on multiple projects you know won’t come to fruition. The push for Snyder’s cut of the movie came from dream scenarios of what the “true” Justice League can look like on film, but the movie played out much the same as the 2017 version. It was overhype met by an underwhelming result, coupled with the double-disappointment of non-existent sequels.
Now, I leave you on one final what-if. What if the DC movie universe forgot about broodiness, focused on the one film that did work for them (“Shazam”) and moved forward in a more coherent direction?
See, even I’m being self-gratifying. The what-if game is addicting, right?