Whatever your opinion on Zach Snyder’s previous two Superman installments, they were approached thoughtfully. Man of Steel charted a stranded god, finding his place on Earth and coming up wanting. Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice was mankind’s response to that god’s very existence. Both proposed humanity as selfish, inchoate, teetering on the edge of oblivion, and distracted by the infotainment of 24/7 cable news–and then tried to absorb its alien savior into that scheme (all the more clearly defined in the second film’s extended cut). This was matched by Snyder’s skewed, stylized violence: Superman (Henry Cavill) didn’t just float into the air, he sonic boomed. Similarly, Batman (Ben Affleck) lurked like Alien and terrified even those he rescued, while Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) shrugged off building leveling blows with a smirk. Furthermore, these figures experienced the world through hallucinatory tableau, their internal head spaces seamlessly integrated with reality. Their very presence had gravity, warping the world around them.
The latest DC film, Justice League, takes shears to these operatic trappings. Snyder’s industrial/metal fantasia aesthetic is still there–but robbed of its timing and oomph. Dream sequences are absent. Concrete buckles and craters, but this never results in anything seismic. The film’s getting the band together plot–where Batman tries drafting Aquaman (Jason Mamoa), Cyborg (Ray Fisher), and the Flash (Ezra Miller) into a group to fight a coming alien invasion, following Superman’s death in the previous film–never examines any potential tangent, leaving a half dozen or so story and thematic ideas dangling (spinoff hooks, likely). The most intriguing of these is Batman’s guilt complex expanding to include Superman: he spent the entirety of the Batman v. Superman attempting to murder the Last Son of Krypton for misguided, reactionary reasons, only to watch his nemesis sacrifice himself for the greater good. Here, Affleck’s Batman drinks frequently and goads his fellow heroes into attacking him, even goes off on a suicide run against vampiric parademons. The notion he might be orchestrating the League not only to atone for his betrayal of Superman the martyr, but as a Rube Goldbergian attempt to end his life has the potential for a fascinating bit of comic book melodrama.
Like everything else, though, it goes unexplored. Dialogue is interjected to keep proceedings superficially chummy, likely input from co-director Joss Whedon (credited only with the screenplay). Conflict is frequently undercut or written out in the following clip. These characters don’t even interact with the world much: they show up to rescue the odd civilian, but if these mortals react at all it’s one-note gratitude, summarized in a closing monologue that aims for Hallmark sentiment. Their presence is treated as banal.
The result of this is a film which operates more like a TV pilot, and a cheap one at that. Actors are lit in ugly, orange tint, while rear-projection-esque green screen gets overused in action sequences to the point of tedium. Given this is the format popularized by Warner Bros.’s rival superhero factory Marvel, I’m curious to see how much of this is down to Snyder himself, studio notes demanding the production ape the competition, or Whedon, who helped shape Marvel with his two Avengers movies. Whatever the case, Justice League is a step back, the weirdness and danger of Snyder’s deities replaced with plushies and safety blankets.