Like so many superhero origin stories, the 2017 “Justice League” was an orphan, left fatherless and later adopted by a foster parent who, while experienced in the role, mistreated his ward and did not raise it for success.
The result was the black sheep in the DC Extended Universe, a patchwork of half-baked ideas and ill-fitting elements, every bit the Frankenstein’s monster as one of its central characters, if substitute director Joss Whedon had cared about fleshing out such allegory.
The true-life tragedy that wrested filmmaker Zack Snyder away from the “Justice League” project was the suicide death of Autumn, his adopted daughter, in March 2017. After rebuilding his life — along with a much-publicized social media campaign spurred by spurned fans — Snyder got the studio money and support to finish his original vision. The aptly titled “Zack Snyder’s Justice League” is a mammoth re-imagining in both size and scope. The four-hour behemoth is a cinematic singularity. It is good and bad; epic and intimate; bombastic and quiet; sprawling and focused, absorbing and plodding. It defies description, yet stirs examination. It is mind-numbing and soul-stirring.
And yeah, it’s better than the last one.
The central narrative from the ersatz “Justice League” remains: in the wake of Superman’s death in “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice,” the world’s remaining, disparate superheroes must band together to combat otherworldly forces bent on global destruction. What is vastly, stunningly different is the film’s approach to world building and character development. The most stark example is Ray Fisher’s Victor Stone, aka Cyborg, now a full-formed tragic character, estranged from his biotechnician father (Joe Mortan) until a car wreck kills his mother and leaves the dismembered, near-death Victor as the only thing that could apparently bring him closer to dad: a science experiment.
The gizmo that transforms Victor into a half-man, half-machine is a Mother Box, the on-the-nose name for a trio of ancient cubes that, when unified, would raze the planet. They are coveted by the omnipotent worldeater Darkseid, and gathering the boxes falls to Steppenwolf (voiced by Ciarán Hinds), a horned foot soldier sent to Earth with an army of flying cannon fodder. Like everything else in Snyder’s “Justice League,” Steppenwolf gets an upgrade in both appearance and backstory — this Steppenwolf is a damaged demigod who just wants to earn dad’s approval.
Snyder’s two previous DECU entries — ”Man of Steel” and “Batman v Superman” — were steeped in a fickle conception of loss as a mere framing device. Undoubtedly and understandably chastened by his personal travails, Snyder’s focus in “Justice League” sharpens to the lingering effects of death on the living, particularly as it relates to the connection between parents and children. There is Victor’s love-hate feelings for his father coupled with the demise of both his mom and his humanity, a pain that binds Victor to Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) and her history of loss and regret. There is Barry Allen, aka The Flash (Ezra Miller), whose mother was allegedly killed by a father who now demands that his loyal son stop visiting him in prison, that he abandon him. There is Arthur Curry, aka Aquaman (Jason Momoa), a mixed-race misanthrope who resents the Atlantean mother who abandoned him as a child and rejects the underwater birthright she left him. Even with Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck), the paragon of superhero orphans, there is the retooled relationship with Alfred Pennyworth, played by Jeremy Irons. It is not accidental that this is the first version of Alfred not depicting performing any butler duties. This Alfred is not a man-servant, but instead a partner, a father figure.
When the eventually resurrected Superman (Henry Cavill) ventures on a path of self-rediscovery, the journey is accompanied by the voices of his two fathers, one Heavenly and one Earthly. This is Superman, transfigured. One of the most striking changes from the previous “Justice League” is that Wonder Woman goes from being steadfastly against the idea of raising Superman from the dead to passively going along with the plan — only Aquaman registers an objection this time around. Bruce Wayne is still the spearhead, completing Batman’s turnaround from once wanting to kill Kal-El.
Still, I like that in Snyder’s hands, Wayne never quite shakes the notion that while the world cannot survive without Superman, it might not ultimately be able to survive with him, either. That Clark Kent might be just one broken heart away from becoming a dystopian dictator.
That lingering fear of “something darker” is projected in the film’s coda, another episode in Wayne’s recurring “Knightmare” about an apocalyptic alt-future. The 18-minute scene is most popularly received for the return and redemption of Jared Leto’s Joker (first and last seen in “Suicide Squad”). While Heath Ledger remains the best movie Joker, Leto establishes himself here as the most disquieting version, a grotesque amalgam of audacity, lunacy, savvy and true terror. However, the true import of this seemingly globbed on sequence is to illustrate the alternative consequences of loss, the razor-thin margin between loss as a spark for transcendence or a catalyst for corrosion, evidenced here by the dire alt-paths that possibly could be followed by Superman, Bruce Wayne, Joker, Curry’s love-interest Mera (Amber Heard) … and perhaps Snyder, as well?
“Zack Snyder’s Justice League” feels like an epic-long counseling session, the cinematic embodiment of its creator working some things out. It is not a great movie, but it is a noteworthy, engrossing, demanding, and provocative one. As his last act in the film, Aquaman tells his new kinspeople that he’s going to visit his dad. Wouldn’t, and shouldn’t, we all? He, like the film, is an orphan no more.
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