We interrupt the work on your regularly scheduled F&SF review to bring you the following:
(warning: spoilers ahead)
RURAL MARYLAND, March 20: I have now watched the Snyder cut.
Feel free to skip to the end if you just want a pithy take on the thing (there’s a bajillion of them out there already, might as well add mine to the pile). Read on if you don’t mind the spoilers.
The movie opens with a dramatic moment right from the heart of the previous film in DC’s attempted universe building: the death of Superman. The camera pauses as the kryptonite-tipped spear penetrates both our hero and the villain he is attempting to destroy. It’s a long pause, too, shot in super slow motion, with much overlaying of effects and visuals. We see other people there, watching, unable to stop what is happening. Many pensive stares are shared.
Then Superman screams.
Not once, but several times. Our hero is so powerful that we are treated to the shock waves of his screams traveling around the world, heard by many Very Important People who will show up in this film (and some who have no role to play at all, but we linger on them as though they are also Very Important for some reason, even though they aren’t).
The entire sequence feels unending. It’s probably 4 or 5 minutes of screen time for this isolated moment, which is not even part of this movie but part of the previous one. And that, in a nutshell, is what you get for the next nearly 4 hours of run time for this monster of a movie.
Long pauses with overly dramatic music designed to let you know “it is time for you to feel something,” tossing in voice overs here and there as extra notification of the pensiveness. People staring off into space over long, lingering shots, the camera panning to focus on a swing or some other abstract item. A color palette best described as “grey and silver is the new beige.” The kind of movie spectacle made by someone who saw Laurence of Arabia one too many times and thought that might be translatable into a superhero movie, as long as you combine it with the Godfather, the Punisher’s wardrobe, a narrow 4:3 aspect ratio, and stuff as much ennui and brooding into it as you can.
Let’s start with what’s actually good about this film. There’s a story here, an actual story that makes sense, moves from point A to B all the way to Z. Snyder has corrected all the storytelling mistakes of that misbegotten original film the studio demanded and Whedon delivered. It’s a good story, too. It could have been a great story with the shifting of focus from Steppenwolf – the generic baddie monster guy and his and his boss’s lust for their magical McGuffins – to the painful loss of Superman and his eventual return. That’s the real arc of the story, the real bones beneath the CGI and big budget battle sequences. How we mourn, how we wish for someone to come back, and what happens when they do. How do we respond to that?
Unfortunately, other then a few minutes of Superman being confused and fighting his potential friends and allies before running off with Lois, we don’t get to explore the value of his return. We don’t get to see how that is reflected in the world he resides on. How people react to it beyond the obvious joy of his family. His confusion is too quickly over and he’s our Superman, ready to defend the world and dish out truth, justice, and…
… a black costume? He’s emo superman now? Ugh. One of many absolutely and undeniably bad choices this film makes. With silver Cyborg, deeply gray batman, Diana’s muted browns and golds, he should have stood out in his red and blue uniform. It would have been a brilliant counterpoint to all those muted colors. A visual statement of “joy is returning to our world.” Instead, only Barry – our geeky version of the Flash – has anything approaching a, uh… flashy look. And his costume is not great to begin with (what’s up with those weird shoulder cups?). Basically, if you’ve seen the movie poster – an image of our heroes all in black and white – you know what this film looks like.
Another positive in the film was to give Cyborg a far deeper and more interesting place in the structure of the narrative. Enough so that he should have had his own film. While the flashbacks are often dull, bog-standard-and-trope-filled info dumps (I mean come on, American film makers, how many times are we going to dip into the “slow motion football game where our hero scores the winning touchdown” and the “daddy was absent and that made me sad” stuff?), his overall arc is the most complete of any characters and the most interesting.
But again, that should have been its own film. DC was so miffed at the failure of Batman v. Superman that they decided to try and cram an entire series of film introductions to major characters all into one entry. It’s no wonder that the original version was total and utter crap. There’s just too much to say in just under 2 hours. Stuff has to get cut, and the more you cut, the more you weaken the structure of the narrative. Every single major character here should have had their own film first to set up the big blockbuster. Had DC had the guts to do that, and hired competent writers and directors, they would not have had to roll the dice on one big giant team film to accomplish what Marvel has done so well with many separate movies.
Wonder Woman is solid in this entry, though her role is less important than it felt in the original version, or the previous entry (Batman v. Superman). But she’s one of the few characters not moping about staring off pensively into the distance, which makes her unique and immediately more likeable than anyone else. I loved her fight scene near the beginning, where she takes on a bank full of terrorists who want to destroy four city blocks to send some sort of message. The action is gorgeously choreographed, the blend of real actors and CGI masterfully done. Even the slow motion shot of her launching herself and the bomb up through the ceiling into the sky where it can explode harmlessly is good dramatic suspense and one of the few times slow motion seemed warranted.
Yet here we pause and should note a few things. For one, the scene in the original version was brighter in color, the score much more upbeat (the theme from Wonder Woman). Everything seemed more hopeful. Here it’s all dark and dreary and bloody (Diana literally explodes a man with her magic bracelets), but it still works as a set piece. The whole film is much gorier than the original theatrical release, in fact.
And that was a scene that added NOTHING to the entire film. We already know Wonder Woman. We know what she can do physically, who she is as a character (though maybe we should explore this newer version with her killer instincts). We know that despite her losses in life, she isn’t going to brood and stomp around and be all “mean girl” to everyone. We’ve been introduced to this character. Why waste a sequence on an action scene that had zero bearing on the entire rest of the film?
There are so many scenes that serve zero purpose. In one scene, Martha Kent shows up at Lois’ place in the city to tell her “it’s time for you to get back to life.” Great advice, but it’s not even Martha Kent. Surprise! Upon leaving, Martha transforms into the Martian Man Hunter (part of DC trying to expand their universe). It makes no sense AT ALL given we haven’t seen any of this character before. Why would he take on Martha Kent’s role as caregiver to encourage Lois to move on? Why didn’t Martha go to her sooner? Why doesn’t Lois go hang with Martha so they can grieve together? Why even?????
Then there’s the ending. And another ending. And another ending. Snyder gives us denouement after denouement, seeming to want to give every character a final chance to stare off into the distance while a voice over helps them reflect on the values they’ve learned in the film, all to the booming score that demands we FEEL THINGS. And when they’ve all had their moment to end things? He tosses in an epilogue for good measure, a dream sequence that – yet again – has NOTHING to do with the film, sets up nothing that is likely to come later, and only gives Snyder and DC a chance to toss the Joker into this whole framework for shits and giggles I suppose. And it’s Ledo’s Joker, but at least he’s a better character here than in that terrible Suicide Squad film. Heck, I might even want a whole movie based on that dream sequence, it was fascinating to watch Batman and the Joker needling each other emotionally, both much older now and broken even further than before. Then again, maybe not, it seemed too depressing.
Snyder and the studio needed to find a middle ground. The studio was stupid for requesting all that they wanted but in a 2-hour movie. Snyder was stupid for wanting to make this four-hour bloated monster film he desired. They could have met in the middle at 3-hours and gotten one hell of a great film by letting Snyder do this same story and then trimming all the useless fat he’s inserted. Stuff like the endless scene of Aquaman saying no to Batman and leaving… while we get a long pause to listen to Icelandic singers send him off while fondling his sweater (hey, he’s a hunky guy, I might want to fondle his sweater, too… but still).
There are multiple scenes of Lois mourning superman, easily trimmed to just one. Lois gets really short shrift in this film in fact. We either see her moping, or we see her with Superman. We never get to see her working, even though she’s going to work every day. She’s reduced to a moist towelette to reflect our sadness at Superman’s passing, even though we all know Superman is going to return in this film.
Beyond Wonder Woman and the other Amazons, this film seems to treat major female characters as something to make our brooding, angry heroes feel better, and that’s a real shame. Lois as a character has always been complicated by her relationship to Superman and his protectiveness of her. But at least in the 70’s we got a character who, instead of waiting for her man of steel to show up, was willing to charge into danger to get the story she thought needed to be told. This Lois is sad and depressing and we never find a core to her beyond her love for a dead man. You’ve hired an actress nominated for six academy awards to play her, and this is the best you can give her to work with?
The cinematic of the film would have been lovely if not for the color scheme chosen and the 4:3 aspect ratio. Seriously, ditch the 4:3. It did not give viewers the effect hoped for by making everything seem more “vertical.” It only served to make the film LESS of the grand spectacle it should have been. Snyder tries to create a movie that shows us superheroes as mythology and gods, then destroys the effect by narrowing our vision. Myths are wide and grand and huge, not encroached on both sides by walls that contain our dreams and desires. At the very least, when Superman returned he might have gone widescreen to reflect this quality, a la adding color to Wizard of Oz after the transition to the land of Oz.
So, what do we have? A film that corrects the story telling beats of the previous entry, pluses up the arc of one character in a positive way, and then promptly ruins everything it attempts to do with endless drudgery through long, pensive stares, unnecessary scenes that advance nothing, music that hits you over the head instead of subtly propping up the emotions of a scene, and info dumps that just slow everything down to a further crawl. At the same time, and despite it’s length, it fails to give secondary characters anything meaningful to do other than serve as props for the heroes, and washes it all down with a thin coat of Vantablack so that everything feels monochrome throughout most of the film.
And does most of it without humor or joy. Barry gets a few funny lines, which feel awkward (but he’s awkward, so that’s all a wash). Aquaman is bro-douche humorous, which… bleck! Batman gets the funniest line when, in answer to the question “What’s your super power” he says “I’m rich.” But DC continues to push dark super hero stories that feel almost Nietzschean in their design, without any of the real joy of comic books. Marvel has done a far better job of balancing darkness with the light of humor. I’m not sure DC will ever understand this, though Wonder Woman did it very well in her own first film. Earlier Batman entries (the Burton years) also did this well.
This film could have been great. It might have been the Godfather of super hero movies. Instead, it comes across as an overly long art school major’s idea of heroic film making than of Coppola. It serves as a cautionary tale that longer does not always mean better, and that studios and directors need to find a happy middle ground between what is desired and what is needed. On the Reynolds Wrap-up scale from 1 to 10, I’m giving this film a 4. It’s an improvement over the original, but only marginally, and it makes all new mistakes to replace the old ones.