The DC vs Marvel thing has been with us since superhero comics took off in the 60s. Some fans gravitated toward the more straightforward, earnest leanings of DC, others to the edgier personality Marvel developed. Taste is subjective (you say tomato, I say Batfleck…) so arguments as to which body of work is superior are futile. But when it comes to committing their respective properties to a filmed treatment, comparisons between the studios are inevitable, especially when plots parallel to the degree that Zack Snyder’s Justice League and the Avengers two-part finale Infinity War and Endgame do.
It’s understandable that when Zack Snyder set out to fix the mess that was made of his 2017 Justice League he brought the weight of his personal tragedy. His hand had already been getting heavier with each of his projects, though, and given unlimited control – and running time – to redo Justice League, he’s delivered a 4-hour trudge through the valley of darkness.
That kind of journey isn’t necessarily boring. But with this particular one, once you realize that there’ll be no twists on this path, that it’s just a straight slab of newly-laid asphalt through a dark landscape over which something shiny will occasionally fly, you wonder why you’ve been forced to walk so slowly. It’s not about the indulgent run time – Marvel took 5½ hours to tell their version – it’s about how the writers and filmmakers use the time. The end result here obviously won’t bother DC devotees, as again, they prefer more straightforward presentations and champion their heroes no matter how compromised the depiction. For the rest of us, well, it’s hard to get excited about a 4-hour movie led by Ben Affleck’s Batman when something like WandaVision, which was also themed around the grief-induced resurrection of a beloved hero, managed to pack so much more cleverness, surprise and delight into each 40-minute episode.
ZSJL and the Avengers finale(s) both center around characters with near identical backstories and super-abilities – Batman and Ironman. That Robert Downey Jr created a more memorable version of his character than Affleck did of Batman is well-accepted on both sides of the aisle, so we’ll move on from that. Like Ironman in Infinity War, Batman has to bring together a team of superheroes, some of them reluctant, to form a super-team because Only United Can We Defeat the Villain.
Both stories sport a planet-destroying baddie searching for a set of magical objects that when brought together will make him all-powerful. Which heroes and villains and narratives came first in their respective comics isn’t the point here. It’s which studio built a more robust cinematic universe around their superteam and super-villain, and thus allowed fans, both established and new, to become more deeply invested in the eventually outcome.
Marvel was laser-focused on their MCU from 2008’s Ironman. Over the next 10 years, the studio spent 11 films just on the three core superteam members – Ironman, Captain America and Thor – and Avengers team-ups before arriving at Infinity War. These and the several other properties brought to cinematic life in the same time period included origin story films and sequels that seeded and began to weave together narrative elements that would come together spectacularly in Infinity War and Endgame. That’s something like 50 hours of back-story going into the finale.
As for origin stories and any seeding of ZSJL narrative elements, DC was so focused on stand-alone movies over the past decade that they left almost no crumbs for viewers to follow to a big event that brings big characters together. You have to give Snyder credit for trying to get so much done in 4 hours, but each time he has to step to the side to tell an origin story, we lose investment in the main narrative, which is already less complex (and thus less compelling) than its Marvel parallel.
Most of the origin asides are satisfying in themselves, notably Cyborg’s, which had been minimized in the 2017 version. By increasing Cyborg’s presence, Snyder has added much-needed dimension to the narrative: Cyborg is the only POC character on the (movie version) core team of the Justice League or the Avengers; he has a more emotional backstory; and he was created using one of the magical boxes the villain is after. Snyder’s cut has also helped right the behind-the-scenes controversy over Josh Whedon’s alleged harassment of Cyborg actor Ray Fisher.
Along with the stop-and-start pace, we get the full impact of Snyderstyle, which has soaring, beautifully-executed action scenes land with thuddingly flat character development (Cyborg an exception). Wonder Woman is in school-trip tour director mode, making sure no detail is missed, no matter how obvious. She’s not alone in this task, either. Most of the lines are delivered as if explaining plot points to an 8-year-old. Example: Batfleck spends the first two hours unsuccessfully trying to repair a fancy helicopter he designed. When, in a dire moment near the end, Cyborg shows up in the helicopter to rescue the team, Batfleck exclaims “He fixed it!”. Ya think? If I had been watching this in a theater, I’d have assumed some kid in the audience yelled that instead of the dark-souled character on screen that usually speaks in a barely audible growl. This style of writing and line delivery is a taste I know, and intended to be more like a filmed comic book, but it doesn’t do the actors any favors.
When there are sparks of personality to be had, Snyder chooses either to wet towel them (out of fairness to the less nimble actors, maybe?) or load them all onto a couple characters. In the case of the Justice League, those would be the young, fast-talking Flash and ornery iconoclast Aquaman. Yet few of Flash’s quips land, and Jason Mamoa seems so fed up with being presented as man-candy (“let’s do one more, Jason, and pull that shirt off even slooower…”) that he comes across more petulant than feisty. And speaking of Jason stripping, why if Aquaman has to de-shirt to go back into the sea, does he not have to de-pant? More logic and man ass would help any movie, would it not?
And let’s not get into how Superman is (not) used. Well, let’s get into the fact that he’s bare-chested half his short screen time, but otherwise, it’s a surprising waste of their biggest character. When the team uses one of the magic cubes to resurrect him, he appears hovering above Metropolis in the same outfit Aquaman uses to go back to the sea, and he’s pissed off. “He’s confused, he doesn’t know who he is!” Wonder Woman explains to everyone younger than eight. Evil Superman starts eye-lasering everything and everyone in sight, and as usual it’s well-executed, but this time it’s also a rare moment in the film that’s freed from formulaic character drudgery. Bad Superman even picks up the huge head of his own toppled statue and throws it at Batman, which shows that his dark side has a sorely needed sense of humor. The whole time we’re thinking, yes, goddammit finally, Zack, fuck with this character but good!
Alas, the underlying wholesomeness of Snyder and DC is not going to allow for that. Up steps Lois Lane, who quickly deploys Lesson 1 from the manual So You Have a Superhero Boyfriend. She calms the monster by welling up her eyes and whispering his name. He ceases the hostility, floats down and takes her to brunch.
As for twists, that’s all, folks! The team thwarts the villain and we get our poster shot of the restored Justice League (characters and franchise). The studio has deemed this a satisfactory conclusion for this one-movie series, as it announced there are no plans for the sequel hinted at in the epilogue.
This is a pretty telling indication of DC’s lack of faith in the universe they’ve cobbled together. You know they brought in every screenwriter from Dark Knight to Shazam! to try to get even 90 minutes of story out of Darkseid’s return to claim the Anti-life Equation, and there just isn’t enough there.
What’s to become of our beloved characters? Will Batman survive yet another recasting? Where will Wonder Woman go now that Snyder and Patty Jenkins ruined her most interesting nemesis in WW84? Will anyone follow Aquaman to another film if he won’t drop trou? Can we bear another second of Jared Leto’s Joker?
DC, if you really are interested in elevating your brand, in bringing more gravity to your universe, you have to push your boundaries. Limiting edginess to villains or corralling it into artsy one-offs isn’t going to do it. Evil Superman is your savior. Embrace his bare-chested badness.
Zack Snyder’s Justice League is on HBOMax.