Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson has been eyeing a superhero costume for over eight years. He’s been attached to a Black Adam project since 2014. The character is best known in DC comics as a villain for Shazam, although the mythology and rules of that universe get some revisions under this new vehicle. Johnson plays a Middle Eastern godlike figure who shuns being a selfless champion of the little people. If you’re an easy sell for superhero movies, there’s enough visual bravura and smash-em-ups to at least sate your appetite for CGI fisticuffs. By the lowered standards of the DCU, this is a thoroughly average movie. It has a certain childlike Saturday morning cartoon appeal that doesn’t try too hard to be taken seriously and goes about its business with a workmanlike degree of efficiency. The action is easy to follow and the obsessive slow-mo style feel like comics splash pages come to vivid life. I liked the warm, golden color palate and Mid-East setting as distinguishing features. There is an audience for Black Adam, I am certain, but it’s also getting harder to just accept average superhero movies given the glut of superhero cinema. The hero’s journey of this would-be villain becoming more a grumpy antihero is rote and predictable, including a really lame villain to make Black Adam look less bad in comparison. I didn’t care about big CGI demon goon fighting for control of a magic throne. The character arc is supposed to be about agency and responsibility, but it gets reduced down to a morally simplistic “I guess I won’t kill all the bad guys all the time” re-evaluation. The plotting and structure is also misshapen; the entire first half of the movie feels like the second half of some earlier movie we missed out on. The fighting can also get annoyingly repetitious. The Justice Society has two major members, Pierce Brosnan as Dr. Fate and Aldis Hodge as Hawkman, and the rest are afterthoughts, as if the producers leveraged including more big screen debuts in case the central character wasn’t enough of a draw. Anyway, the Justice Society and Black Adam go through half a dozen fights and I just got bored by their bickering. The premise of a Middle Eastern superhero, a champion for the Muslim world, would be a radical idea worth exploring the geopolitical ramifications, especially the fears this could raise in conservative and twitchy Western societies that this could be seen as akin to a superhero arms race. That direction might veer away from the intent of the character but that’s also the far more interesting story. Still, it’s The Rock as a superhero, and his enormous charisma can carry even an ordinary action movie to greater heights.
Nate’s Grade: B-
Matt Reeves is a director who has found a way to inject soul into blockbuster movie-making, notably shepherding the last two films of the revived Planet of the Apes series. Who would have guessed at the turn of the twenty-first century that the two co-creators of Felicity would go on to helm such monumental properties like Star Wars and Batman? Reeves has reliably proven himself on increasingly bigger stages, and that’s why I held out hope that yet another Batman reboot would be worth the effort under his care. Let’s face it, dear reader, we’re probably never going to be more than three or four years removed from some kind of Batman movie, whether a continuation or another reboot. If we are going back to the Bat basics, I trust giving the franchise over to exciting artists like Reeves. I was hoping for a Ben Affleck-directed Batman after he slipped into the cowl in 2014, but it was not to be even though he was the best part of the Zack Snyder run. After multiple production delays, we now have The Batman, and it’s the next big box-office hope for desperate movie theaters until the oasis of summer releases (some are even charging a heftier ticket price, so consider it a blockbuster tax). As a slick comic book spectacle, The Batman is a three-course meal that could have sensibly pushed away earlier. You’ll feel satisfied, full, a little addled, but if dank serial killer thrillers are your thing, you’ll definitely be hungry for more even after nearly three hours of Reeves’ deep danky dive.
Gotham City is on the verge of a new mayoral election, and it’s also on the verge of a killing spree. A masked man identifying himself as the Riddler (Paul Dano) is targeting the elites of the city with cryptic notes addressed specifically toward “The Batman” (Robert Pattinson), the newfound vigilante trying to instill fear in the hearts of would-be criminals. The key ends up being Selena Kyle (Zoe Kravtiz), a waitress at Gotham’s grungy club that also happens to be a popular market for the big crime bosses. Batman enlists the help of Selena to put together the clues to predict the Riddler’s next target and to uncover decades of corruption infesting the city.
The Batman exists in a specific cinematic universe far more in common with the rain-soaked, gritty serial killer thrillers of David Fincher than anything from the previous DC movie universe. This is a pulpy, stylized movie that feels akin to Seven or Zodiac, and not just in its protracted length. It’s a methodical movie that takes its sweet time dwelling in the decrepit details. The plot is very similar to the serial killer formula of finding that first alarming murder and clue, leading to the next, learning more from each additional target to try and discern a pattern of connectivity, and finally learning that the grand scheme goes deeper than imagined, and is usually personal. It’s more based as a detective procedural than any previous Batman incarnation, including missions where the Dark Knight goes undercover or enlists others to gather intel for his investigation. If you’re the kind of person that’s been dreaming of the quote-unquote world’s greatest detective to do more sleuthing and less typing at magic computers, then your time has come. This is a very dark and very serious movie, though it doesn’t feel too suffocating. Fun can still be had but on its own terms, satisfaction from building momentum, seeing how this world incorporates familiar faces and Batman elements, and deepening the lore of this city’s complicated history. Nobody is going to be making any “I gotta get me one of these” quips. It’s hard to even remember a time Batman had nipples on his chest plate and a Bat credit card.
This is also the first Batman where I can vividly feel the anger resonating from its title character. In this new timeline, we’ve thankfully skipped the origin period (and even more thankfully skipped watching Bruce’s parents die on screen for the sixteenth time or so), and we’re now two years into Batman being Batman. He’s still figuring things out but his effect is evident. Reeves has a terrific introduction of various acts of crime across the city and cross-cutting the criminals staring at the Bat signal in the sky and then nervously looking at a corridor of shadow, fearful that the caped crusader could emerge at any moment. When he does finally arrive, this Batman walks with such heavy plodding steps for dramatic effect (and reminiscent of some Goth club kid). This version of Batman relishes delivering pain. He wallops his opponents with abandon, and the intensity of the physical performance from Pattinson really impresses. This is Batman as a rampaging bull, leaning into fights, and also carelessly blase about enduring damage. You will watch Batman get shot dozens of times and he just keeps fighting, so overcome in the moment with the drive of his own violent vigor. Bruce Wayne hasn’t exactly been portrayed as a stable and well-adjusted man in the other movies, but this is the first Batman that made me a little scared about what he might do to others and how cavalier he was taking all this damage.
On that note, Pattinson proves himself more than capable of shouldering the weight of the franchise. Upon news of the former Twilight star’s casting, fan reaction across the Internet was apoplectic and rotten, ignoring the fact that Pattinson has gone the 90s Johnny Depp route and purposely leveraged his good looks to work with an eclectic group of filmmakers and odd roles (see Good Time, The Lighthouse, and The Rover). Pattinson has become a very interesting young actor, and it’s funny to me that ten years after the release of the final Twilight, we have one half of the undead couple playing Batman and the other half nominated for Best Actress for portraying Princess Diana. I would say they’ve proven themselves as legit thespians. Anyway, the Batman franchise has a long history of negative fan reaction to casting, from Affleck to Heath Ledger to even Michael Keaton, that is then rescinded upon seeing the movie, and I expect the same to occur for Pattinson. He actually plays Bruce Wayne something like an atrophied vampire, barely keeping the visage because the costume is the real him. Although, if this is a Batman who prioritizes the night, I think if I was a criminal, I would just start planning on committing all my many crimes during daylight hours (strictly keeping to banking hours).
The supporting cast is as deep and as talented as the Nolan films. Several villainous characters are in their early stages of our conceptions. Kravitz (Kimi) is the real breakout star. While she cannot supplant Michelle Pfeiffer as the top Catwoman, Kravitz makes the role her own. Selena is more a socially conscious antihero trying to fight back against bad men in power abusing that power. Her own goal aligns with Batman’s, and the two become intertwined allies with a clear romantic frisson emerging. This is a Catwoman I would like to see again. Dano (Swiss Army Man) is effortlessly creepy as the morally righteous and unhinged Riddler, more akin to Zodiac or Jigsaw than Jim Carrey’s wacky version. He’s menacing and the tricks he does with his voice are unnerving, except, however, when his voice hits higher pitches and then he sounds like a whiny child needing to go to his room. Colin Farrel (The Gentlemen) is nearly unrecognizable under pounds of makeup that make him resemble a disfigured Richard Karn (one wonders why the movie didn’t just hire Richard Karn himself) and he’s having a ball. Jeffrey Wright (Westworld) has a weary gravitas as a younger Jim Gordon, the only ally on the police force for Batman. Andy Serkis is a welcome presence as the dutiful Alfred, the last familial bond Bruce has, though he spends most of the time off-screen probably due to Serkis directing 2021’s Venom 2.
Reeves might not have the signature Gothic opulence of a Burton, the visual flair of a Snyder, or the zeitgeist-tapping instincts of a Nolan, but he is a supremely talented big screen stylist. There is a deeply felt tactile nature to this movie, from the streets to the alleys to the homes. It feels wonderfully alive and especially dirty. The entire movie feels like it has a visual pal over it, favoring burnt orange, and the cinematography by Greig Fraser (Dune) is ornate and often mesmerizing, begging you to just immerse yourself in the details and compositions. The influence of Fincher is all over this movie, but there are far worse auteurs to model after than the man who elevated serial killer thrillers to high art. I appreciate how Reeves stages many of his bouts of action, including one sequence of Batman taking out a group of gunmen glimpsed only from the staccato flashes of muzzle fire. Reeves is a first-class showman when it comes to introductions. I mentioned Batman’s introduction, but Reeves also delivers splashy entrances for Catwoman, the Riddler, and even the Batmobile, which comes to monstrous life like a kaiju being awakened. The explosive car chase with that marauding muscle car is the action high-point. The movie is further elevated by Michael Giacchino’s pounding musical score. It’s not an instantly iconic Danny Elfman theme but it is stirring in how thunderous it announces itself.
I wasn’t feeling the length of the movie until its third hour, and that’s where my friend Eric Muller cites that The Batman is suffering from a Return of the King-level of false endings. Just when you think it’s wrapping up, there’s something else, and just when you think it’s now finally coming to a close, it’s got another sequence and attached resolution. It’s during this final third hour that I feel like the movie could have been trimmed back. While it ends on a high note and brings characters to the end of their arcs in a clear fashion, part of me really feels like a bleaker ending would have been appropriate for the rest of the movie we had. I won’t specify for the sake of spoilers but you’ll know it when it happens, and it could have ended on a note of the villain more or less winning the larger war on their own terms. It has such a power to it, tying elements together that had been carefully kept as background for so long as to be forgotten only to bring them back to assert the full power of an insidious virus. I think the movie would have been a more fitting ending on this dreary note, with our heroes having lost, but of course the studio wouldn’t want its $200 tentpole to end with its main star bested by pessimism. Again, this is merely my own personal preference, but after two-plus hours of rainy gloom and doom, it feels more fitting to end on a dour note (also akin to Seven or Zodiac) than on inspiring triumph.
This is also perhaps one of the most disturbing PG-13 movies. I might caution parents about taking younger children to watch. The mood of this movie is very dark and somber and the details of the Riddler’s acts of terror can be very horrific to contemplate. There are also intense moments like listening to a woman being strangled to death, twice. It all started making me think maybe Reeves and company could have pulled back and left more to the imagination. I’m not saying the movie’s tone is inappropriate for the material, it just occasionally luxuriates in the grimy details and pitched terror and trauma of its victims that can be unsettling and unnecessary.
Even with the heaviest expectations from the hardest of fans, The Batman is an unqualified success. It’s not in the same category of Nolan’s best but the ambition and execution place Reeves only just outside that hallowed sphere of blockbuster showmanship. It also hurts that The Batman lacks an exciting anchor that can break through the pop-culture clutter, like a dynamic and ultimately Oscar-winning performance from Heath Ledger or Joaquin Phoenix. It almost feels like a Batman miniseries that you might want to continue tuning into (Reeves is developing a few Batman-related projects for HBO Max). Overall, The Batman is an exciting and intelligent blockbuster with style, mood, and a clear sense of purpose. Reeves remains an excellent caretaker of any pop-culture property and proves big movies can still have souls.
Nate’s Grade: B+
When Disney foolishly fired writer/director James Gunn for offensive past tweets, tweets the studio had already known about before hiring him to helm the first Guardians of the Galaxy Marvel movie, the brass at DC was more than happy to pounce. They offered Gunn the opportunity to tackle any of their many superhero properties. Gunn had earned a reputation as a blockbuster filmmaker whose bizarre sense of humor and style made him just as much as selling point as the property itself. Gunn gravitated to the Suicide Squad, though he didn’t want to be beholden to the 2016 film from writer/director David Ayer. The studio gave Gunn free reign. He could do whatever he wanted creatively, which just happened to be an extremely violent, R-rated sequel that also serves as a soft reboot. Gunn was the perfect person to tackle a project like The Suicide Squad and even with all his goofy humor, gallons of gore, and slapdash dispatching of numerous big names, there’s a real affection for these scruffy characters. Not that there was a big hurdle to clear, but this is clearly the superior big screen Suicide Squad.
Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) has assembled another team of criminals and has-beens and tasked them with a mission. If they fail, or deviate from their orders, she will detonate an explosive placed within the skulls of Task Force X a.k.a. the Suicide Squad. Skilled marksman Bloodsport (Idris Elba) is extorted into being the defacto leader of a band of squabbling misfits that includes Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), the patriotic warrior Peacemaker (John Cena), the vermin-controlling Ratcatcher (Daniela Melchior), and even a giant living shark, King Shark (voiced by Sylvester Stallone), with a voracious appetite. The squad must destroy a scientific station on an island nation that has undergone a military coup and great political instability. Within that station, run by mad scientist The Thinker (Peter Capaldi), is a threat that could doom the world. Enter the Suicide Squad, but can they even be bothered to save the day?
It feels like Gunn wanted to take the most ridiculous, pathetic characters in DC cannon and then find a way to make them appealing and worth rooting for. There is a strategy to take the scraps of the comic book universe and to make gold out of them. Case in point, Polka Dot Man (David Dastmalchian), a figure easily ridiculed by fans and populating just about every list of the worst villains of comic book lore. Gunn takes the maligned character and says, “Yeah, I’m going to keep his dumb power of flinging polka dots, and by the end, you’re going to care,” and you do care, or at least I did over the course of the film’s 132 minutes. Gunn is drawn to strange, dysfunctional found families, the misfits of society who find an unexpected kinship with one another. You can tell that even when Gunn is at his most irreverent, he still has an acute sense of reverence. The team-comes-together aspect of these sort of movies plays as a predictable but satisfying formula, and while I wouldn’t say anything took hold of my emotions like the best of the Guardians entries, I did come to care about the core of the team. I cared about the father/daughter dynamic between Bloodsport and Ratcatcher. I cared about Polka Dot Man coming into his own as a hero. I cared about King Shark feeling like he had a group of friends. The fact that I typed those last two sentences, which would sound insane absent context, is a testament to Gunn’s strengths.
The climactic villain, whom I will not spoil, is the greatest example of making the most with the least. It is immediately goofy to the point of laughter but still threatening and creepy. Gunn has taken one of the weirdest characters in comics and given it its due. Even by the end, as this villain is vanquished (not a spoiler), the movie finds a small moment to re-contextualize this absurd character as another victim. It was happier before being kidnapped and experimented upon by its devious captors. Even that extra passing consideration is impressive.
The movie also lets its weirdos have their fun. Watching bad guys, who are somewhat bad at being bad guys, try their hand at being good guys, but badly, or at least not as well, has plenty of comedic possibility as well as setting up the redemption and community payoff. The opening beach assault sets the sardonic and sloppy tone. I consistently enjoyed the contentious banter between the different members of the Squad and the jockeying for position. The gag about Polk Dot Man envisioning every enemy as his abusive mother is enjoyably goofy when visualized from his perspective (Elba’s line reading for “It’s YOUR MOM!” is a delight). King Shark’s dullard nature is a routine source of comedy that almost wears out its welcome. Nothing seems out of bound for him to say or do, whereas the others have more defined comedy boundaries. I laughed out loud frequently though some of the comedy bits feel a bit too stale and juvenile even for Gunn (a 69 joke?). This all feels very much like this is Gunn’s $180-million-dollar Troma movie he miraculously got to make with a studio blessing. The violence is over-the-top, occasionally gasp-inducing and occasionally beautiful. That’s an odd but an adept combination for Gunn as a filmmaker, a man who digs into the grimy bins of exploitation cinema and elevates it upon a bigger stage while still managing to stay true to his own silly style.
Gunn hasn’t dulled the darker reality of his rogue’s gallery either. Bloodsport and Peacemaker get into a macho contest of killing foot soldiers in increasingly theatrical and flamboyant ways where their flippancy and hostility toward one another is the joke. King Shark is portrayed as a dumb brute who also tries to eat team members. Many, many characters have similar back-stories where their parent or guardian or captor experimented on them and live with the lingering trauma, trying not to have their pain define them. The 2016 movie wanted you to see the Squad as PG-13-approved antiheroes. The 2021 movie wants you to remember that they are indeed crazy, demented, dangerous, and murderers. Even Peacemaker, meant to evoke shades of the patriotic Captain America, says he will ensure peace “no matter how many men, women, and children I have to kill.” Harley isn’t fetishized as a punky pinup in short shorts like in 2016 (digitally shortened), but she’s still a psychopath who makes impulsive decisions. Her recognition about always falling for the wrong kind of man is a mixture of sadness, character growth, and a clear reminder that you should not let down your guard around this woman.
Spending time with these characters is made even better from the superb casting. Elba (Hobbes and Shaw) is the biggest welcomed addition; his character was likely initially intended to be the continuation of Will Smith’s Deadshot. Elba is charismatic and self-effacing and handles the comedy and action with equal measures of confidence. When he loses his patience, or opens up about his hidden phobia, it’s even more amusing because of how it contrasts with how naturally suave he is as a default setting. I wasn’t missing Will Smith at all with Elba and his natural accent. Robbie (Bombshell) was born to play Harley Quinn and should hopefully get many more opportunities. Cena (Fast and Furious 9) is so natural at comedy and slides comfortably into a macho blowhard coming into conflict with the other alpha males on the Squad. I loved the simple visual of him strutting around in vacation shorts for a long period of the second act. Viola Davis (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom) is always excellent and might be the scariest character of them all. There are many joke characters played by actors firmly in on the tongue-in-cheek game.
As a second chance at franchise-making, The Suicide Squad is a brash, bloody, and irreverent retake and the best DCU movie yet from a studio that seems to be throwing anything at the wall to see what potentially sticks. That has its benefits, like allowing Gunn the creative freedom to make a movie this crazy and schlocky and entertaining. It’s a shame, then, that this Squad movie looks like it will make a whopping hundred million less in its opening weekend at the box-office compared to its 2016 predecessor. It’s a sign that the traditional theatrical market hasn’t quite rebounded from COVID-19 (even Marvel’s own doesn’t look like it will crack $200 million domestic). It may also be a sign that audiences are not terribly interested about a sequel to a movie they didn’t really care for five years prior. Beforehand, I would have bet even money that the studio would give a blank check to bring Gunn back for more after he fulfills Guardians of the Galaxy volume 3 for Marvel, but maybe that’s not the case. Maybe The Suicide Squad will be more of an entertaining one-off than the start of a new direction for this lagging franchise. Regardless, if anything good came of Disney firing Gunn on dubious terms, it’s the existence of this movie in the interim for the in-demand filmmaker. While not everything works in The Suicide Squad, and the emotional depth is sacrificed for giddy gory bombast, it’s what you would hope for with the combination of James Gunn, wacky superheroes, and a commitment to an R-rating.
Nate’s Grade: B+
My friend and writing partner Ben Bailey asked me to host an extensive essay he was compelled to write after watching the four-hour Snyder cut of Justice League. I’ve never featured anyone else’s words or opinions on this review blog before, but it’s been so long since he really devoted himself to an artistic analysis, and with such detail, that I felt compelled to publish it on my personal review platform. Behold, a guest essay on the nature of Art, Ayn Rand’s Objectivist theory, super heroes and their appeal, Zack Snyder as a filmmaker and philosopher, and capitalism.
“Zack Snyder’s Justice League and The Virtue of Shallowness: An Essay In Search of a Point” By Ben Bailey
All Art is self-indulgent, but not all self-indulgence is Art.
Back in 2010, legendary film critic Roger Ebert famously groused that video games could never be Art. His reasoning was largely an attempt to grasp at the essential definition of what Art is, and how it can and cannot be applied to various artistic mediums in order to claim supremacy for his preferred medium, cinema, over one he pompously scorned. At the time, as a 25-year-old man-baby gamer, I objected strenuously to his argument but not in a way that I could articulate with the same thoughtful presentation with which he made his case. I just instinctively rebelled against the notion that a thing I loved in the same way Ebert loved movies could not be Art like movies clearly are because smart people like Ebert said so. I was still struggling with what Ebert struggled with in his piece, as I hadn’t yet developed a working definition of what Art actually was. Unlike Ebert, who never settles on a definition and just decides to declare himself right, I have since found one that at least works for me, and now in the cold hard light of 2021, I’m forced to conclude that Ebert was sort of correct but not for the reason he thought he was. The vast majority of video games are not Art, just like the vast majority of movies, TV shows, and books are not Art, because Art is something special and pretty hard to achieve in a capitalist society designed to stifle creativity at the altar of marketability.
For me at least, Art has a practical and a poetic definition. The practical one can best be distilled as, “Deliberate creative expression done for its own sake.” Artistic Intent is everything. It has to be something done on purpose, not something retroactively defined as Art by someone experiencing it separate from the Artist. It has to be a creative expression, which is to say something done to reflect the internal life or point of view of the Artist as opposed to something a craftsmen might build to be functional but not intellectually or emotionally inspired (All Art is craft, but not all craft is Art). And most importantly, it has to be done for its own sake, free of any creative compromise. For something to be Art, the Artist has to do it because it is something they simply must do, because it is born inside of them and must be birthed through the process of creative expression so that it isn’t left stillborn inside their soul to rot and kill its host. If it is done for any other motive, for profit or to cater to the whims of a prospective audience, it ceases to be Art and becomes Commerce, a commodity that belongs to the world and no longer to the Artist.
The poetic definition is a bit looser as you might expect: “Art is the process of making your dreams come true.” It is how we physically manifest our imagination into literal reality, recreating what is inside of us to bare our souls to the world, not because it matters what the world might think of them or who might want to buy or sell the product of their representation, but simply because the soul of an Artist burns bright and the fire has to go somewhere. Many things are mistaken for Art because they are created with the same tools through the same mediums. A really entertaining movie you love might seem like Art to you, but chances are, just given the realities of how movies are made in the studio system, it wasn’t created by an Artist or group of Artists collaborating to bring something beautiful into the world from their own minds. It may have started out that way, or that may have been the hope at the outset, but inevitably to get the thing made, money people began to influence what it should be, and test audiences and marketing algorithms ultimately dictated its form. A spatula might be used to make pancakes or spank your lover, but that doesn’t make your breakfast foreplay.
You might have noticed by now that my conception of Art is marked by an almost Platonic ideal of the Artist as Rugged Individualist, perhaps an expansive application of Auteur Theory that would mean almost nothing could be Art if it involves any kind of collaboration. That’s not entirely untrue, as I am trying to say that Art is a very rare and exclusive thing, at least when it comes to the kind of creative works we are typically exposed to in a society built on commercial industry. But to clarify, multiple Artists working together on a shared vision like a film or video game, while always more difficult to coalesce than one person articulating a singular vision like a painting or novel, can still be Art as long as the intent remains pure, or if the idea of purity sounds a bit fishy to you, at least free of external influences from non-Artists. Still, it’s just easier to conceptualize the Auteur as Artist for the purposes of discussing artistic intent, eschewing the messiness of multiple Artists trying to figure out the workable common denominator of their unique perspectives. If Art is a person making their dreams come true, the fact that it is their dream and no one else’s would seem to be the pertinent factor in assessing whether it is true to what it is. You might call it the Virtue of Selfishness. And that is where Zack Snyder comes in.
At this point, I don’t think I need to provide too much on the history surrounding the supposed epic tragedy of behind-the-scenes studio machinations that was the 2017 Justice League film. Suffice it to say if you don’t know, the theatrically released version of the movie was a sort of Frankenstein’s monster of two competing visions, one the culmination of original director Zack Snyder’s bleak, realistic take on DC superheroes introduced in two previous films, and the other a studio-mandated effort to re-shape the project to dilute Snyder’s influence and better ape the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) through the inclusion of re-shoots, re-edits, and post production work provided by the MCU’s most notable director at the time, famed garbage person Joss Whedon. The result was widely regarded as mediocre at best, a mishmash of clashing ideas and tones representing diametrically opposing perspectives on what a superhero movie should be. It was assumed at the time that the relative critical and commercial failure of the film meant that it and the cinematic universe it spearheaded was, much like Snyder’s conception of the DC Universe, completely hopeless. And then some weird stuff happened.
A strange confluence of circumstances involving the changing nature of our engagement with modern media, the increasing ubiquity of streaming platforms challenging and possibly supplanting the theatrical model of film distribution, and also a freaking pandemic, led to Snyder getting an incredibly rare second bite at the apple in the form of the Snyder cut. A long fabled, often dismissed as mythical truer version of Snyder’s masterpiece, the Snyder cut had been cruelly torn from him and mutilated beyond recognition by shortsighted naysayers who just didn’t understand the deep and profound things the director of Sucker Punch was trying to say in the movie where Lex Luthor apparently pees in a jar to make a point to a senator before killing her. Or I don’t know, maybe he got his assistant to do it before sending her to die in the explosion he didn’t tell her about? Okay, that’s not the point, but Batman V. Superman is still really stupid. The point is, fans demanded it, and Warner Bros.’ long history of poor decision-making led them to provide a whopping 70 million dollars, roughly the budget of an entire year’s worth of quality Blumhouse movies, to complete a thing that was supposedly already basically done. And now it’s here.
If you didn’t pick up on my reference earlier to the Virtue of Selfishness, consider yourself lucky to have never been exposed to any kind of deep dive into the nonsense of Objectivist “philosopher” Ayn (rhymes with “whine”) Rand. I use “philosopher” in quotes because Rand famously rejected all philosophers post-Aristotle other than herself, most likely because all of modern philosophy might as well be collected with the subtitle: “Why Ayn Rand Is An Idiot,” so her rejection of them was likely a preemptive strike done with the same degree of defensive self-awareness that led her to rail against government hand-outs her whole life only to accept Social Security and Medicare in her autumn years. The Virtue of Selfishness refers specifically to a collection of essays encapsulating Rand’s ethical vacuousness better than I could with any description, so I would say you should just read it, though you really shouldn’t. You could also check out her much more popular and well known novels, the CEO’s on strike fantasy Atlas Shrugged, or The Fountainhead, about a self-described brilliant artist who would rather see his greatest work destroyed than allow it to be altered by the people with the moral temerity to think they had the right to dictate what it should be just because they paid for it. Coincidentally, Zack Snyder has been trying to make that book into a film for years.
Snyder is, by his own admission, a devotee of Ayn Rand and a committed Objectivist, and despite my already established aversion to this worldview, I want to state clearly here that I don’t bring this up to say that Zack Snyder believes in something I find ridiculous and is therefore a ridiculous person. I might think that if I got to know him, but that isn’t the point I’m making here. I have no reason to think that Snyder isn’t a perfectly nice, intelligent person as an individual, at least by the standards that we might judge those things in the abstract. I don’t know the man personally, so I don’t know for a fact that his love of a philosopher who said we owe nothing to each other means he believes the same thing wholeheartedly, and I have no way of knowing how he might translate his conception of Objectivism into his daily interactions with other people. He may be a sweetheart or a total bastard for all I know. As a filmmaker, however, I feel like I can say with some degree of certainty that his Randian worldview is at the forefront of his creative vision. If his movies are any indication of his artistic intent (as one assumes they should be), the Artist’s fire that burns in his soul is one that seeks to burn down the liberal social order predicated on the notion that our success as a civilization requires that we care about each other.
I would submit that the reason Zack Snyder’s approach to superhero movies feels so strange and off putting to so many people, whether or not they can articulate why, is because it lacks empathy. That isn’t to say that a movie or even a work of Art requires empathy, but its absence always feels wrong because art is the language of the soul, and having no interest in appealing to our shared humanity is the spiritual equivalent of gibberish. It feels especially wrong in superhero fiction because empathy is the basis for all superheroes on a fundamental conceptual level. The thing that makes them heroes is that they care about other people and, because of that, dedicate their lives to helping others. The people with similar powers who only use them for personal gain or to hurt other people, because they don’t believe we owe anything to one another, are the bad guys. So when Snyder, a filmmaker who views the world and the worlds he creates through the literal and figurative lens of Randian self-interest, tries to realize the characters of Superman, Batman, or Wonder Woman, it does not occur to him that anyone like them would ever sublimate their own selfish interests for the good of humanity. He has no frame of reference for altruism, so he can’t relate to characters designed to be the personification of it.
Snyder’s Superman spends almost the entirely of Man Of Steel rejecting the idea that he should use his amazing powers to help anyone, and only begrudgingly takes on the threat of General Zod when he is personally threatened and it is in his interest to fight, famously failing to even try to save Metropolis from the destruction wrought by his battle because civilian casualties were immaterial to him. In the sequel Batman vs Superman: Dawn Of Justice, the idea that all of this superheroic carnage has any real toll on real people that we should care about is addressed almost as a petty response to the backlash Man Of Steel faced for its callous depiction of the character, with Batman representing the side that at least cares enough to seek revenge, only to be revealed as short sighted in his zeal to defend humanity from this all-powerful alien god after a few common enemies and a coincidence involving their mothers’ names causes him to see the monster as a misunderstood hero. In between this convoluted arc, we have a montage of Superman saving lives that is one of the most morose series of images ever put to film, suggesting its the last thing he wants to spend his time doing. We see Wonder Woman coming out of hiding after decades of refusing to use her powers for the good of anyone, and we also find out that Batman, the billionaire who spent his life and vast wealth defending the innocent from evil, has since broken his oath never to kill and seemingly delights in sending criminals to prison branded with a symbol that almost assuredly marks them as targets for rape and murder.
Back in 2019, Snyder directly addressed the criticism of his dark, “realistic” approach to superheroes, and specifically the idea that Batman would kill, by saying “It’s a cool point of view to be like, ‘My heroes are still innocent. My heroes didn’t fucking lie to America. My heroes didn’t embezzle money from their corporations. My heroes didn’t commit any atrocities.’ That’s cool. But you’re living in a fucking dream world.” And you know what, he’s absolutely right. It’s a dream world called comic books. You could say the same thing about something like Star Trek, the idea that we could all give up on greed and completely restructure society around the idea of helping each other is pretty naive and will probably never happen, but that’s not the point. The point is to imagine a world where it could happen, compare that imaginary world to our own, and think about what we might need to do to bridge the gap between them. Fantasies aren’t supposed to be realistic, they are supposed to be inspirational and aspirational. Most billionaires do probably embezzle money, and most people given the powers of a god would probably be corrupted by that power and commit atrocities. But what if they didn’t? What if those people were innocent do-gooders who helped other people instead? That would be super, and pretty heroic at that.
Of course, Snyder is in no way obligated to like or care about what superheroes are traditionally meant to represent in order to make movies about them, but it begs the question of why he would want to spend so much of his time and effort crafting an entire series of superhero movies if he doesn’t. A cynical approach to answering that question might start with the dumptruck of money Warner Bros presumably wheeled to his home, and might even posit a sort of trollish pleasure in taking down something he clearly detested through creative deconstruction a la Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi. Or perhaps his motives were even more insidious. Perhaps he hates the very idea of altruistic superheroes and altruism in general so much that he dedicated an entire film franchise to subverting our love of superheroism so that we would lose hope in the empathetic message they are meant to inspire, and with nothing else left to cling to, fully embrace our Randian dark sides. For the record, I don’t think it’s any of those things, but any one of them would be more interesting that what I think the actually answer is, which gets me to my biggest problem with Snyder’s work overall, and especially his latest magnum opus, the Justice League Snyder cut.
Every single movie Snyder has ever made has been at its core a parable extolling the virtue of selfishness, but none of them were intended to be that because they were never intended to be anything. If Snyder were a political or philosophical polemicist for Objectivism or any ideology, I would at least respect the intellectual exercise even if I couldn’t appreciate the end result, but that’s not what Snyder does. While his visual style is marked by hyper-realism, all slow-motion grandiosity, his storytelling is focused on reflecting the real world as he sees it, and his point of view just happens to be skewed the way it is. Remember, he doesn’t want to live in a dream world of his own making, he wants everything to be like the real world, which he just happens to see as one where nobody cares about or likes each other. Beyond that, there’s no inherent meaning in anything he does, which is insane considering how skilled he is at creating visuals meant to evoke the feeling of deeper meaning. When Aquaman stands on that pier with waves crashing over him and “There Is A King” playing in the background, it certainly feels like its saying something, but what? He’s sad? Angry? Symbolic of… anything? When Superman poses like Jesus, he’s clearly not meant to represent any form of Christ narrative I’ve ever read, but the image is iconic and memorable and just feels important somehow, and that’s all that matters.
Snyder’s shallowness is not in and of itself a problem, even if given his talents it represents a crushing waste of potential. The problem is that when your movie is four hours long and serves as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to rectify the injustice of studio meddling as a battle cry for every artist who ever had their work stolen from them, not having anything of importance to say and adding literally nothing of substance to the two-hour studio cut everyone hated is maybe the most disappointing thing you could have done. Obviously, the tragic circumstances surrounding his leaving the project in 2017 and the seemingly shady way Whedon was brought onto the project do not make Warner Bros look good, but if I’m supposed to believe this narrative that Snyder was betrayed and his dream project was bastardized by philistines, I shouldn’t be coming away from his original vision with so much more respect for the mediocre hatchet job. I know the prevailing critical consensus coming out of this is that whatever you may think of Snyder’s version, it’s at least better than the Joss Whedon version, but these people are just wrong.
Comparing the two cuts is apples and oranges. One of them is a movie, created under the auspices of a studio director’s responsibilities to their contract, and the other is a vanity project with no such restrictions. Whedon completed a film that was palatable to a wide audience and within a reasonable running time to be shown in theaters, which is presumably what the studio thought Snyder was going to do too. If we are to believe that what we have now is Snyder’s true, uncompromised vision for it, then what was he going to do when they told him you can’t put a four-hour movie in theaters? What would he have cut to get it to two hours? If I had to guess, I’d say probably almost everything Whedon did, since the stories are so similar that its clear the content Snyder put back in was largely superfluous to the narrative. Most of what Whedon cut was unnecessary slow-mo, call backs to movies we wanted to forget, and setups for movies nobody wanted, and redundant moments already covered elsewhere. All the action scenes are present between the two cuts, except for the completely pointless Flash sequence, but in the Snyder cut they’re all twice as long. Same beats, same information conveyed to get the point across, just longer and less well paced than in the theatrical version.
Is Steppenwolf a more interesting villain now that we know he serves Darkseid because of some past mistake we don’t know about, rather than just assuming he does it because he’s from Darkseid’s totalitarian world where everyone serves him? Does Darksied’s comical incompetence as a despot make him a more enticing prospect for a sequel, somehow forgetting that the thing he devoted his life to searching for was on the one planet he failed to conquer, which just so happens to be the one planet where they left behind all those doomsday devices waiting centuries to be easily activated? We’re told it’s such a shame that we missed out on the great character of Cyborg, and now we finally get to see what could have been, but to quote the black clad Superman at the end of the Snyder cut, I’m not impressed. What more did we learn to deepen his story? Daddy never came to his football games but he still misses him when he’s dead? Riveting! Did we need a six-minute excursion into his mind palace with a voice over explaining all of his powers like we’re children when the original just demonstrated all of them by showing them to us? And what does it all amount to? In the end, he gets to ascend to his rightful place as the least interesting mopey superhero who hates being a superhero with all the other mopey self-hating superheroes. Hooray?
Naturally, you’re probably thinking, it wasn’t all just cuts, what about all that stuff Whedon added in? “What about brunch?” you say. Sure, I’m not going to defend everything Whedon did to make his version work. You’re mileage may vary; I would say about half of his new additions worked for me and half were cringe worthy, but the good half seems even more vital now than it did when we didn’t know the alternative. The brighter color palette alone is a welcome change from the dreary, washed out look of the Snyder cut, and for every bit where Flash wedges his face in Wonder Woman’s cleavage, we get one like Cyborg laughing about his injuries after stopping the mother box, the only moment in either version where he resembles the fun, lighthearted character from the comics and TV shows. The Flash never gets his hot dog-strewn first meeting with Iris West, but he gets a heart-to-heart with Batman about how being a real hero means saving people one at a time that speaks to the greatness of both characters in a way nothing in the Snyder cut does. When Superman smiles in Joss’ version, it’s because he’s saving lives and he’s happy when he gets to do that. When he smiles in the Snyder cut, it’s a menacing sneer because he’s about to lay the smack down on a weaker opponent to show him who’s boss. And then we get that delightful Russian family.
Yeah, I know, you hate the Russian family, and I get it. I hated the Russian family when I first saw the 2017 cut. Why would they waste time showing these characters who don’t seem to have any bearing on the story? The thing is, we only thought that because we were treating this superhero movie like a superhero movie, where we don’t necessarily need to be reminded that superheroes save lives as long as that’s a base-level assumption. But in Snyder’s world, it isn’t. In his cut, there’s no family to save because who cares about saving families? The stakes in the Whedon cut are clear and personal, real people will be hurt if they fail. We are them and they are us. It’s not subtle but neither is anything Snyder has ever done in his life. In the Snyder cut, we know that the Earth is doomed, but it’s all theoretical, our entire planet reduced to the same collateral damage that Metropolis became in Man Of Steel, where the people are there, we assume, but they don’t matter enough to be our focus. And in the end (of the Whedon cut anyway) the villain is defeated by his own fear, because the fear he represents cannot stand up against what the heroes represent in opposition to him: love, for each other and for the world they fight for. In the Snyder cut, they just savagely whale on him, stab him, and cut his head off with terrifying glee in their eyes, and then we cut to a flash-forward into a future world seemingly based on the Injustice video game series where we find out they failed to save the planet anyway.
Again, I would like to stress that I am not making a one-to-one connection between filmmaking style and personal character. I’m not saying that Zack Snyder the person doesn’t care about people, and I know Joss Whedon doesn’t. I assume that before he shot those Russian family scenes, he made sure to make some of his female employees feel like dirt because making women cry is the only thing that gives Whedon an erection. But the real-life context matters. You might be asking why I keep bringing up the Ayn Rand stuff even though I don’t even think he’s intentionally injecting it into his movies. It’s because when I saw the original 2017 cut, I was disappointed but I didn’t hate it. When I saw this new cut, I was incensed, and I couldn’t quite figure out why until that side of it clicked for me. I went through something similar with Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood. Everybody was loving it but I couldn’t explain quite why I didn’t until it dawned on me that it wasn’t anything about the filmmaking but the larger context, a director who made millions working with Harvey Weinstien, making a love letter to old Hollywood in the wake of the Me Too movement centered around the exploitation of an actress and making the story about two clueless men. It just felt wrong, and I’m finally to the same point with Snyder’s movies.
The 2017 cut of Justice League came out shortly after the election of our fascist, white supremacist, and eventually traitorous former president Donald Trump, a man so comically evil that he literally served as one of the inspirations for Lex Luthor when he was transformed from a mad scientist into an 80’s-style corporate tyrant. His rise to power, or rather the lie he tells people about being a self-made man and not a trustfund baby, is basically a Randian Horatio Alger story, and not just because both men were fabulists rumored to be pedophiles. You might even call him a Randian Superman, and the line from Randian Self-Interest to CEO worshiping Social Darwinism to Trumpian fascist strongman politics is undeniable. This new Justice League, where Zack Snyder tries to turn all my favorites superheroes into fascist action figures, comes out only a few months after a bunch of traitorous right-wing scumbags tried to raid our nation’s Capitol to usurp our democracy at the whims of a would-be king. One technically doesn’t have anything to do with the other, but the images are iconic and the connection just feels like there’s something meaningful there, even if it’s unintentional. I just can’t treat Snyder’s bad politics as just some interesting facet of his directing style anymore. I don’t want it in my polity, I don’t want it in my entertainment, and I sure as hell don’t want it in my superheroes.
So what was the point of any of this? Why start with that long boring excursion into the definition of Art? And what’s more, if Art is the one place where the Virtue of Selfishness makes sense, where does any audience or any would-be critic like myself have any place to question an Artist like Zack Snyder? Why write 20-plus long paragraphs, the Snyder cut of Snyder cut hot take think pieces, if an Artist should never care about what anyone thinks of what they create? That’s where I’ve been the last few days. As you might guess, I find the whole notion of Art criticism to be utterly worthless and without merit. The entitlement that audiences have surrounding the Art they consume is equally abhorrent to me, as if what they think of something should have any bearing on the form it should take. So where does that leave me? Feeling like a hypocritical piece of garbage.
I keep coming back to The Fountainhead (as a metaphor, not the actual book, because I read it once in college and that was enough). The protagonist Roark was hired to design a building and insisted he could blow the thing up if they didn’t let him build it the way he wanted, and when he does, he goes to trial, and makes a passionate plea in defense of his own rights over his creation that wins over all the doubters who couldn’t force him to conform to tradition. I keep wanting to force this narrative where Snyder is Roark and the saga of the Snyder cut is his quest to finally build that eyesore upon the skyline the way he always wanted, but it just doesn’t work for me. Art is deliberate creative expression for its own sake. The Snyder cut is certainly deliberate, and while it was made at the behest of the studio for a profit and an audience, I’m even willing to give Snyder the benefit of the doubt that he didn’t care about either of those things and really did set out to make it for its own sake. But then there’s that middle part, creative expression, something that reflects the internal life or point of the view of the artist. What if there’s nothing interesting about the internal life to reflect, and any apparent point of view is accidental and despicable at that? Is Zack Snyder the architect Frank Gehry, building beautiful sculptures people just happen to live and work in, or is that just who he thinks he is and who we want him to be, and really he’s just a very skilled craftsmen with nothing to say? How boring and uninspired can a work of Art get before it ceases to be Art at all from the sheer weight of its pointlessness?
Roger Ebert tried to say that video games could not be Art, but really he just didn’t understand them or like them, and for years, similar charges have been leveled at comic books and comic book movies. Whatever I might feel about Snyder or his work, he has been instrumental in lending a degree of legitimacy to comic book storytelling in the minds of a lot of people who otherwise dismissed it. Maybe not as much as the MCU has, but he’s still a part of it, and as a lifelong comic book fan, I can’t ignore that. I feel like I should be right there with everyone else, if not loving the Snyder cut, then at least loving what it represents, that for once the little guy won over the big guy, even if the little guy is usually on the side of the big guy unless he’s the one getting screwed, and he didn’t really win so much as reveal his limitations and give me a reason to say “I have more respect for Joss Whedon as an artist” which is something I never wanted to say again. But I’m not there, and I don’t think that’s what this represents, and really, I just wish that someone else, or really anyone else could have gotten the opportunity that Snyder did. Maybe this release makes that more likely in the future, but I don’t have much hope for that. I don’t have much hope for anything left in me anymore because I just watched a four-hour Zack Snyder movie and I’m pretty sure our future is going to be a Randian dystopian Knightmare. Release the David Ayer cut! Release the Gareth Edwards cut! Release the Lord and Miller cut! Release the Michael Cimino cut! Release all the cuts!
Just try to keep them under two hours, please.
Zack Snyder had a unique situation that many filmmakers would never get close to fulfilling. He departed the 2017 Justice League movie in the wake of a family tragedy, Joss Whedon was hired to direct and rewrite extensive reshoots that totaled an estimated additional $30 million dollars, and the world was given the strange amalgamation of two different filmmakers, along with the nightmare-inducing CGI baby lip to replace actor Henry Cavill’s mustache. The 2017 theatrical release of Justice League was meant to be a significant milestone for the DCU, launching an all-star assembly of superheroes and setting up future solo adventures and franchises. It was meant to be a major kickoff and it was simply a major shrug. The general public was indifferent to the 2017 League, and it seems like the DC brass is positioning for a cinematic universe do-over, retaining the elements they liked (Jason Momoa, Gal Gadot) and jettisoning the other pieces to start anew. In the ensuing years, fans have been petitioning for the fabled “Snyder Cut,” a theoretical version of Justice League that was closer to Snyder’s original artistic vision before the studio intervention and interloping of Whedon. It became a joke on social media and then one day it became real. Warner executives, seeing opportunity with the rabid fanbase, decided to give Snyder an additional $70 million to finish his version of Justice League. It would be an exclusive to their new streaming platform, HBO MAX, and Snyder could complete his version without artistic compromise. The resulting four-hour version, titled Zack Snyder’s Justice League, is less a movie than a mini-series, and a rare chance for a director to complete the story they wanted to tell without artistic compromise. After having watched the full four hours, along with re-watching the 2017 version again for comparison, The Snyder Cut just feels like the original version only longer. I would actually advise people that if they haven’t watched either Justice League to simply catch the 2017 version. At least its mediocrity is half your time investment.
Once again, months (?) after the death of Superman (Cavill), Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) is traveling the world and recruiting a very specific group of job candidates. He needs serious help to combat an oncoming alien adversary, Steppenwolf (voiced by Cirian Hinds). The cosmic Big Bad is looking for three special boxes, a.k.a. mother boxes, to destroy the world and make way for his master, Darkseid. Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) helps Batman convince the half-man/half-machine hybrid Cyborg (Ray Fisher), underwater dweller Aquaman (Jason Momoa), and hyperactive speedster Flash (Ezra Miller) to form a league of sorts to thwart Steppenwolf.
I think it’s unfair to judge the 2017 film to the Snyder Cut as a movie simply because this version never would have been released in theaters. No studio would have released a four-hour version. The two edicts that Whedon was given by the studio when coming aboard the project was that it could not be over two hours and to lighten it up. Imagine what the 2021 Snyder Cut would look like if Snyder was then tasked to cut it down to a more manageable two-hour running length. I predict many of the same scenes being eliminated or dramatically trimmed down. That’s the main takeaway from the Snyder Cut, that there is more room for everything, and quite often too much room. I swear a full hour of this movie might be ponderous slow-motion sequences. Plot-wise, Zack Snyder’s Justice League is pretty close to what was released in theaters in 2017. The action sequences are extended longer (Steppenwolf’s attack on the Amazons has increased from six minutes to a whopping twelve minutes) but I don’t know if they’re dramatically improved. Instead of two punches there’s four; instead of one chase, there’s two. It’s that kind of stuff, filling out the sequences but not really elaborating on them in an exciting fashion that reorients the moment. I liked some additions, like the inclusion of blood during the underwater Atlantis fight because it added a neat visual flair, but the added action is often obscured by visual decisions that dis-empower the experience (more on that later). I found myself growing restless with the movie. All that added time allows some sequences and plot beats to breathe better, but it also allows Snyder to meander to his greater indulgence (more on that later as well, notably on the multiple epilogues). The four hours feel like Snyder’s kitchen sink approach, and with the benefit of years of hindsight from the critical and fan reception of the 2017 version, he’s able to spend tens of millions to correct mistakes and improve a flawed film.
I hate how this movie looks for multiple reasons. The most obvious difference is that the aspect ratio has been altered to a 4:3 ratio more reminiscent of pre-widescreen television. Why is this the case? Snyder has said he cropped his movie to this boxy format so that it could be played on IMAX screens. That’s fine, but why crop your movie now months if not possible years before it will ever play on IMAX screens? When it comes time to adjust for the IMAX screen, adjust then. Why must every viewer see this limited version now on their widescreen televisions at home? It’s just so bizarre to me. It would be like if Quentin Tarantino reasoned that his movies will eventually play on airplanes, so he better get ready and cut back his widescreen into a flat, pan-and-scan mode, and he might as well include alternate takes and scenes to cover for those that would be deemed too profane or intense for the all-ages captive audience of an airplane, and then that version was the one he released to all audiences and we were stuck with it. Snyder had millions of dollars to reshoot his epic and he lopped off the edges, meaning you’re getting more movie but also less (at least the footage predating the new reshoots) in every second because of the framing. The grandeur of the superhero saga is also extremely hampered by the drab color palette. Snyder has always preferred muted colors to his movies but his Justice League drains all life and vibrancy. Everything is literal shades of grey. Color is not allowed to exist in this universe. A sunset is almost comical. Apparently, there’s going to be an official black-and-white version but we’re already practically there. Some could argue the oppressive grey is meant to evoke the grief and heaviness of the picture, and I’ll give you some leeway with that, but the drab colors also nullify the visuals. It’s simply harder to see everything that’s happening even during the daytime, and then you tack on the ugly CGI that makes everything look like a fuzzy video game. For a movie that has cost potentially over $350 million dollars combined, Justice League looks so phony. Maybe that’s part of Snyder’s overall stylized look, he’s never really been one to visually ground his operatic action spectacles, but I feel like the aspect ratio and color palate just make it worse. For those four hours, this is often a very visually unappealing movie to watch.
With the added time, there are definite benefits and characters that are lifted by the extra attention. Chief among them is Cyborg, a character that felt like a Swiss army knife in the original who was just there to perform whatever techno jazz the movie required at a moment’s notice. With the Snyder Cut, the character becomes more engaging and given a fuller arc relating to the relationship between father and son. The father’s placement in the story actually matters and Cyborg has more of a personal journey coming to terms with his new abilities. There is a back-story with his frayed relationship with his father, his accident that caused him to become the creature he is, and a reoccurring theme of a son blaming his father and the father trying to reconnect with the son he refused to part with. I still think Cyborg ranks low on the list of superheroes, but the additional scenes give the character more weight, more tragedy, and more intrigue. Another added benefit is that Steppenwolf’s motivation is improved as well as his look. He’s now outfitted with a herring-bone armor that twitches over his body. It’s a more intimidating look than what he had going on in 2017. I also appreciated that he now has more motivation other than “conquer the universe” because now it’s “conquer the universe to get back in the good graces of the boss.” Steppenwolf is trying to repay a debt and make amends, and that makes him slightly more interesting than his generic motivation in the original theatrical cut.
However, not all the new editions are as smooth or as helpful. The added time with the rest of the Justice League doesn’t seem to have added anything to their characters. Each one’s arc is more or less the same from the 2017 version, except now we have even more scenes of Wonder Woman wondering whether she needs to get off the sidelines and be more involved (the events of WW84 conflict with this timeline) and Aquaman rejecting his call to adventure from the Atlanians. Neither is a richer portrayal and the scenes are redundant. Take Wonder Woman finding out about Steppenwolf’s attack. In the 2017 version, her mother lights an arrow and it sails into Greek ruins, signaling her daughter, who knows what this means. In the Snyder cut, the arrow still lights the Greek ruins, but now Wonder Woman visits the ruins, she gathers a stick, she wraps a cloth around it, she dips it in kerosene, she lights it on fire, she enters a secret room because of the arrow, she jumps down a cliff, she finds a hidden temple with hieroglyphics warning about Steppenwolf and the mother boxes and Darkseid. Even if you really wanted the end where she sees those hieroglyphic warnings, why did we need these many steps to get there? The opening hostage/bank heist scene is given far more attention, with multiple scenes of hostages being terrorized, and then Wonder Woman literally vaporizes the chief terrorist. A little girl looks at her, likely traumatized for life by the whole experience, and says wistfully, “I want to be like you when I grow up.” She wants to be a murderer? In Snyder’s universe, Superman kills people, Batman kills people, so why not Wonder Woman too?
The revised introduction of Barry Allen is also regrettable. He’s applying for a dog walking job and a car accident occurs and he saves the day, but not before slowing down time in a frustrating manner. This is because he seems to be dawdling while the rest of the world is frozen, which makes the event seem less special. His movements seem less urgent than Quicksilver in the X-Men films when he would perform the same memorable slow-mo set pieces. I disliked that the Flash’s big involvement in the final showdown was literally running around in a circle, a repeat of what he had done prior. Also making the slow-mo save introduction less special is the fact that the Flash picks up a hotdog floating in midair for silly reasons. It’s drawn out with interminable slow-motion and the song choice is baffling, a common theme throughout Snyder’s movies. I think he’s been smarting ever since he painfully paired Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” with a sex scene in 2009’s Watchmen, and now we must al endure similar awkward auditory pairings. Every song inclusion just feels wrong here. As Aquaman is drinking and walking along a pier, in slow motion, we hear “There is a Kingdom” by Nick Cave, and it just doesn’t pair right, especially in contrast with the hard-rocking guitar riffs from The White Stripes in the 2017 version. For good measure, Snyder even includes another “Hallelujah” cover by the end for good measure, as if he’s still fighting this same battle over musical taste.
And then there’s the barrage of epilogues, each the start of a story never to be continued, and it approaches the realm of self-parody (spoilers to follow). We get three endings, the first an extension of the post-credit scene from the 2017 version where Lex Luthor (Jessie Eisenberg) suggests the formation of a Legion of Doom for villains. He even shares with Deathstroke (Joe Manganiello) that Bruce Wayne is Batman. Well, that could be an interesting next step, but we know it’s not to be so it becomes just a teasing preview. The next ending cuts forward in time to the dusty, apocalyptic vision that Batman had in Batman vs. Superman, and he’s got a crew including an older Flash, Meera (Amber Heard, why does she have a British accent now?), and even Jared Leto’s Joker. They’re facing off against a villainous Superman who has been driven mad by the death of Lois Lane (Amy Adams), which is pretty much the plot of the Injustice games. The Joker is antagonizing Batman with some references to killing someone close to the Dark Knight, and this whole sequence amounts to Snyder basically saying, “Hey, here’s where I wanted to go with things but you’ll never see it.” Then there’s a third ending, because the second is revealed to be another dream/vision for Batman, where he meets Martian Manhunter, a character that, other than diehard comic aficionados, no one cares about and has been given any reason to care about. The guy just introduces himself and Batman is like, “Oh, cool,” and that’s the ending Snyder decides to close his four hours with. There is a literal half-hour of epilogues and false endings to finish with and I was exhausted. I owe Peter Jackson an apology.
In my original review of the 2017 Justice League, I wrote, “I think I might have actually preferred Joss Whedon not being involved and simply releasing the full Zack Snyder cut. It would have been stylistically more coherent. Much of the Whedon reshoots do not feel like they are for the better. To be fair, he came in late and this franchise behemoth had already gone too far to fully alter its fate. There are small moments that work but the big moments are what fail. This movie is missing setups, payoffs, and character arcs. It’s missing pathos and emotion. It’s missing memorable action sequences that are exciting and varied. It’s missing basic internal logic. It’s missing a greater relevance.” Some of those issues are resolved with the four-hour Snyder cut and too many others still remain. At the end of the day, this is still just a longer, bloodier version of a mediocre superhero movie, except now we get stuff like Batman saying the F-word, so I guess that’s cool. I have more of an artistic appreciation for what Whedon had to pull off to even wrangle this beast into two hours. I’m happy Snyder was able to fulfill his complete vision and that HBO MAX offered a platform that would provide such a rare opportunity of expensive art unencumbered by studio meddling. I can’t say it’s worth your four hours, nor can I say it’s dramatically better than the 2017 version because whatever benefits it offers are weighed down by the extraneous, the redundancies, and the length. As it stands, I feel I have no choice but to grade Zack Snyder’s Justice League the same as the 2017 Justice League.
Nate’s Grade: C
Big, colorful, and brimming with optimism easy to scoff at, Wonder Woman 1984 (WW84) is finally here to save Christmas and maybe movie theaters and it’s an escapist treat. It won’t register among the best of superhero cinema but will likely keep a smile on your face.
In 1984, Diana (Gald Gadot) is working at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington D.C. and fighting crime as her costumed alter ego. She’s never quite moved on from the death of Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) back in WWI and she dearly needs some friends. Barbara (Kristen Wiig) is a mousy co-worker who comes across a mystical artifact, a rock that magically grants wishes. Barbara wishes to be strong like her boss/idol Diana and she gains new intoxicating power. Max Lord (Pedro Pascal) is a wannabe TV pitchman and an empty suit, fleecing investors and barely keeping ahead of his own Ponzi scheme. He learns of the magic rock and wishes himself to become the rock itself, turning him into a living genie. From there, Max’s wishes are spinning out of control, placing the world in greater crisis. Diana is torn because, before Max absconded with the wish rock, she wished for her heart’s desire, the return of Steve. Stopping Max and reversing the effect of the wishes means having to say goodbye to Steve all over again.
The original Wonder Woman was a break from the pallid doom and gloom motifs that Zack Snyder established, and the sequel goes even further with its candy-colored recreation of the 1980s. I was wondering if there would be a good reason to set the movie specifically during the 80s, and it’s mostly for the Cold War and Yuppies. I was pleasantly surprised that Jenkins and company don’t overdo the 80s nostalgia or the fish-out-of-water comedy for Steve Trevor. I thought this was going to be the entire reason for the throwback setting, and this time instead of Diana marveling at a modern world she did not understand it would be Steve. If you’ve watched the film’s trailer, then you’ve seen all of those jokes at Steve’s expense. That’s it. WW84 can manage to surprise you, mostly in a pleasant manner. Its sincerity is its biggest virtue. It’s a movie about plenty of goofy things but at its core it’s about relatable desires and struggle.
WW84 is an improvement over the original in the action department. Returning director Patty Jenkins feels freed of emulating Snyder’s house style and brings a welcomed sense of levity and playfulness to the action. The fight choreography makes significant use of Diana’s lasso, opening up the playing field for her to swing around wildly, at times even literally riding the lightning. At points the lasso seems to have a mind of its own and able to divide into fragments. It’s something that helps separate WW84 from the glut of other superhero movies and it offers pleasing visual variance for the fights. There’s a car chase midway through the film where Diana has to leap from speeding truck to speeding truck, dodging goon gunfire. It’s an exciting and sustained action sequence, yet even across the Middle East, chase clichés will reappear, like dumb kids playing in the street ignorant to any emerging noise like a caravan of speeding vehicles. Jenkins seems even more adept behind the camera for the action, delivering big stunts and memorable spectacle ready to make a splash on a big screen. However, some of the CGI can be shockingly dodgy for a big-budget blockbuster and a final confrontation with a CGI-hybrid creature unfortunately reminded me of the lamentable Cats.
The magic wish rock setup shouldn’t be any harder to believe than, say, a secret island of immortal female warriors or just about anything in the absurd and absurdly entertaining 2018 Aquaman feature film. If I can accept a drumming octopus, I can accept a magic wish rock. WW84 hinges on the concept of the drawbacks of creating your own false reality where every wish comes with a cost and an increasing flood of alarming consequences. It it better to just accept the comfort of lies or accept hard truths? The characters even name-check the classic short story The Monkey’s Paw recognizing the ironic trap. That doesn’t stop characters from struggling with the pull of their burning desires, and it makes for an agreeable return for Steve Trevor. Ever since it was revealed that Pine’s character was returning, I was worried what the possible explanations could have been, pessimistic it would be satisfying. Is he going to be a clone? Reincarnation? The grandson who happens to look identical? The screenplay by Jenkins, Geoff Johns, and Dave Callaham finds a way to make it work by bringing him back through magic but with restrictions. In a very Source Code sort of style, Steve is operating in someone else’s body, but only Diana sees Steve. It’s a decision that frames the return in a personal way that also reminds us what is eating at her. It’s been 70 years and she hasn’t moved on from the man she loved, which can be viewed as sad, romantic, and unquestionably unhealthy. It’s a familiar character arc, having to move on from a loved one and accept grief, but it still works, and it humanizes this mighty Amazon warrior woman. It’s a worthwhile development that opens up these living gods into emotional, vulnerable beings.
With the wish plot comes some gripes and lingering questions. I kept asking, “Is everyone simply not seeing what’s happening?” or, “Is everyone forgetting what has happened?” The scale of the wish consequences is substantial and very public but it never feels like the world is registering just how fantastic these supernatural shenanigans are. In 1984, Wonder Woman is fighting crime as a hobby but still not a named and identified hero. The world does not seem aware of the presence of super beings and amazing powers living among us. So as Max continues his wish-granting ways there are immediate consequences of huge staggering scale, but nobody seems to register how weird and not normal things are, like a giant 50-foot wall suddenly appearing in Egypt. People should be asking what is going on or what others are doing. Therein lies the lingering problem with setting this movie in the past. Much like the 80s-set X-Men: Apocalypse, the events presented generate questions to why future-set movies seem to be ignorant of these same events. If Wonder Woman comes forward and addresses the world, why is she still hiding her identity in 2016’s Batman vs. Superman? And if she learns more about her own super abilities, why does she not make use of these very helpful skills in 2017’s Justice League? These sound like quibbles, and they mostly are, but the movie would have benefited from being a little more judicious with its rules and applications because I started wondering if everyone was oblivious.
I was genuinely surprised how much screen time and consideration was afforded to the primary villain. No, I’m not talking about Barbara/Cheetah, who could have been completely cut from the film. I’m talking about Max Lord. He’s arguably in the film as much as Diana. He’s a con man trying to be a successful TV pitchman and oil tycoon but really he’s trying to be a “somebody” to make his son proud. The problem is that his goal always seems to be just out of reach no matter what is gained. This part confused me. After successful wishes with power and money, Max seems to desperately continue searching for more. I suppose it could just be a general “power-hungry corruption” explanation but I kept asking when enough was enough, and that’s likely the point. I don’t know if Max Lord is a character deserving of this much consideration, but the approach appeals to the film’s empathetic mentality that no one is beyond reach. Rather than the villain having to be physically defeated, WW84 rests on emotionally appealing to a broken man’s sense of self. It makes for a more intriguing conclusion in a superhero realm than merely out-punching the CGI antagonist, like the clunky, lumbering finale from the prior Wonder Woman movie.
The conclusion of WW84 rests upon millions having to make a personal sacrifice for the greater good, which is a lovely sentiment that we could all use at this point after a dispiriting 2020. However, this year has also proven for me that the conclusion of WW84 is pure escapist fantasy. Throughout a deadly pandemic, the United States has been beset by too many people refusing to endure inconveniences in the name of protecting others and saving lives from COVID-19. The cost-benefit doesn’t add up for many if they can’t see the results, never mind the harsh yet sterile reality of over 300,000 dead Americans and counting aided by this selfish obstinance.
Gadot might not ever escape the long shadow of playing a famous superhero but she’s settled into the role nicely and even gets to flex some untapped acting muscles. I was skeptical of Gadot early when she was hired but became a believer in 2017. She definitely has an unmistakable presence onscreen. Gadot’s best moments aren’t even the punching and kicking, which she does with gusto, but the moments where she has to make grand appeals and hard decisions. There are a few emotional moments where Gadot’s familiarity with the character blends together and she and the filmmakers are not afraid to show strength in other ways other than brawn. Gadot still has a very enjoyable chemistry with Pine (Hell or High Water) that makes them a winning pair. One of the film’s highlights is a personal flight through fireworks that delivers sheer joy for Steve Trevor. His awe about the future and getting one more spin with life itself is heartwarming. Pascal (The Mandalorian) is going big and hammy with his performance that reminded me of the Richard Donner Superman movies. Wiig (Ghostbusters) is the big miss for me. She’s not convincing as a threatening foe and her early scenes as a klutzy, put-upon dweeb feel overdone and yet insufficient. We needed more establishment of Barbara’s life before her wish to better recognize why she would never want to go back. One reoccurring street harasser doesn’t cut it.
Wonder Woman 1984 is fun, splashy, and doesn’t lose sight of its characters and their emotional states even as it elevates the world-annihilation stakes. It’s a movie that seems more confident in its identity than the first film. It accepts that it can be silly, it can be sincere, it can be exciting, it can be smaller and more personal, it can be hokey, it can appeal to your best self. It’s overly long (the opening flashback of young Dianna in the Amazon Games could have been ditched entirely) and not everything works, but the problems are easier to digest and forgive with what does work. It might be the last blockbuster for some time given the uncertain theatrical landscape so I’ll take it. WW84 isn’t the swaggering solo venture the first film proved to be, but I would say it still makes for a mostly satisfying and fun experience that plays to the strength of the creative team.
Nate’s Grade: B-
There has been a lot of discussion over Joker, a new dark R-rated spinoff unrelated to other comic book movies and directed by the man who gave the world The Hangover films. Director/co-writer Todd Phillips desired to tell a character-driven drama that explored how Batman’s most notorious villain, and perhaps the most widely known villain of all pop culture, became exactly the clown he is. Some people said the Joker didn’t need a back-story, others said that Phillips had no place dabbling into the realm of superhero cinema, and there were plenty of others who expressed unease that the movie might inadvertently serve as an inspiration for disaffected loners looking for encouragement to make others feel their pain and suffering. After all those think pieces and cultural hand-wringing, Joker, as the actual movie, isn’t quite the transgressive experience that others feared and that the movie very much wants you to believe.
Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is a quiet, pathetic man who is being ground down by the forces in his life. He has a unique medical condition that causes him to break out in hysterical laughter when he’s nervous or upset, which only makes others feel nervous and upset. It’s hard for him to keep his job as a for-hire clown and his therapy and medicine are being eliminated thanks to budget cuts. He cares for his elderly mother (Frances Conroy), crushes on an attractive neighbor (Zazie Beetz), and dreams of being a stand-up comic who will one day grace the set of his favorite late-night talk show host, Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro). Arthur’s life changes from one night of extreme violence and how it shapes his concept of himself and society. He’s tired of feeling bad for who he is and he’s going to realize his true potential on the biggest stage.
There’s something, excuse the modern parlance, quite “edgelord” about the film and its artistic approach. It’s very eager to be dangerous, edgy, disturbing, and there are certainly extended moments where it achieves these goals, notably thanks to Phoenix’s performance. However, I was cognizant of how eager the film was to be gritty, and dark, and different, to the point that it felt like the whole enterprise wasn’t just trying too hard to be different but wanted you to know it was trying. After a while, you just have to shrug and say, “Hey, movie, I get it.” This guy’s life ain’t too hot. The first 45 minutes could probably be condensed in half. The first two acts feel redundant as they establish the many trials and tribulations of this man on the edge of a broken society that has abandoned him. Because of this, Joker can be an entertaining experiment in solo superhero stories but there is a critical absence of depth that keeps the film from going beyond a stellar lead performance. It’s a Martin Scorsese hodgepodge, a cover song for a famous villain.
This is the kind of movie where subtlety is rarely used, which increases the sensation that it’s trying too hard because it seems like it’s saying all of its points with exclamation marks. Even in the opening minutes, while Arthur is applying his clownish makeup, we hear a voice over narration from a TV newscaster who is essentially screaming to the audience all of the important social contexts for the setting (Things are bad! People are mean! The economy is bad! People are getting desperate! What has the world come to?!). There’s a fantasy experience where the characters are just openly explaining their desires. The visual metaphors are pretty simple, like the idea of hiding behind a mask (don’t we all wear masks, man?) and the intimidating set of stairs ascending to Arthur’s apartment that he must climb. So many supporting characters act like mouthpieces for larger collective groups, like a paid therapist who tells Arthur that the people with money don’t care about her or Arthur, the little people caught in the machinery of runaway capitalism, or Thomas Wayne as the callous and cold business elite who seems disdainful about any sort of empathy for others that challenge his responsibility to a larger society. De Niro’s talk show host feels like an amalgamation of a lot of different themes, like daddy issues, the media, but also the representation of ridicule as comedy and mass entertainment. There aren’t so much supporting characters as there are ideas, and in a weird way this could have worked, as if each figure represents some different level of psychosis for Arthur, almost as if it was repeating the 2003 movie Identity and everyone really is a reflection of Arthur’s damaged personality. The inclusion of Beetz (Deadpool 2) is more a plot device meant to humanize Arthur, but the entire premise feels like it’s missing development to make it believable, and ultimately this is the point of her character but it’s a long wait for a reveal for a character that is superfluous at her core. It’s the kind of movie that thinks we need to yet again see the definitive formative act of every Batman movie.
The movie does pick up a momentum when Arthur starts to get set on his way toward becoming the clown prince of crime. When the Joker gets his first taste of violence, in self-defense, the clown vigilante becomes a symbol for a reactionary contingent of Gotham’s lower classes. The groundswell of support provides a welcomed sense of community for a man who has been secluded for his idiosyncrasies, but it’s a celebration of a loss of morality, and so to fully embrace this tide of supporters he must give away the last of vestiges of his soul. This downfall allows for the movie to feel like it’s finally committed to something, where the setups are finally starting to coalesce around a character who is now driving his story rather than being the recipient of misfortune. The violence becomes more shocking and Arthur stops caring about hiding who he really is, and that’s when the movie becomes the full force it had been promising. I was tapping nervously throughout the final thirty minutes because I was anticipating bad things for anybody on screen. Phillips can use this anxious anticipation for unexpected comedy too, like where a character was trapped due to their unique circumstances and whether they too were in mortal peril. I wish Phillips had pulled back because there’s a perfect visual to conclude his movie, that brings the entire self-actualization and loss of morality full circle, and yet the movie gives us another two-minute coda.
Joker certainly feels like Phillips’ version of a Scorsese movie, for better and for worse. If you’re going to imitate anyone, it might as well be one of the greatest living filmmakers whose crime dramas have reshaped the very language of the movies and how we view violent crooks. The go-to response I’ve seen is that Joker is a combination of Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy. I’ll readily agree with the Taxi Driver comparisons. It’s everywhere. We have a disaffected loner who is turning sour on an increasingly hostile and unstable society he views as beyond repair. Even the shot selections, camera movements, and 1970s era set design evoke that influence. The King of Comedy is more a facile comparison, as Arthur is a disturbed man trying his luck at standup comedy, failing, and becoming more unhinged. The real reason reviewers seem to be making this connection is the inclusion of Robert De Niro, and it feels like that is the only reason he’s actually involved, to ping back to King of Comedy. The idea of a stiff actor like De Niro being a glib talk show host, even in the 1970s, seems like a bad fit. The other real film influence I don’t see getting as much recognition is Network. This is a tale of one man tapping into a vent of anger and starting a movement that ripples out beyond them into something uncontrollable.
Phillips is best known for his comedy work but I could feel his leaning to do a straight genre picture. In other reviews, I’ve cited Phillips’ keen eye for noir-flavored visuals (think of the car traveling across the desert as seen through the reflection of sunglasses in The Hangover). He had the chops to tell a straight genre crime thriller, so it’s not surprising that Joker is a slickly made, unsettling, and effective movie when it counts. This is a grimy-looking New York City, I mean Gotham City, where the garbage piles high (another not so subtle visual metaphor) and the city feels like a maze all its own crushing our main character. The cinematography is great with several strong moments that amplify the mood of unrest and distaste. The crafty costumes by Mark Bridges (Phantom Thread) lend to the overall authenticity of the period. The cello-heavy score by Hidur Guonadottir (HBO’s Chernobyl) is very evocative and ominously conveys the turmoil bubbling below the surface in a manner that doesn’t feel like pandering. This is a good-looking production made by talented technicians and Phillips has enough skill to pull it all together, even if that aim is really to recreate a style of another filmmaker and the time and place of his films.
I’ve purposely saved the best for last, and that’s Phoenix as the titular character. He is mesmerizing as a broken man trying to find his place in society and flailing wildly. His uncontrollable cackling is so unsettling that when he broke into laughing fits, I could feel myself getting more and more unnerved. At first it was the awkward sympathy of watching a man struggle to get through his disability, trying to compose himself, and embarrassed for the discomfort he was projecting. The very sound of the cackling trying to be contained, as a friend and co-worker Jason credited, watching the laughter catch in his throat, it had such an immediate, almost physical reaction in me. Later in the movie, I cringed because it made me worry what was going to happen next because I know it’s a precursor to bad feelings. When he’s becoming more comfortable with his impulses and dark thoughts, you notice the cackling starts to ebb away. There’s a small moment that I loved where after he flees from his first murder he runs into a bathroom, and once his breathing calms, it’s almost like his body is commanded by some spiritual serenity as he begins to dance. Phillips allows the scene to breathe and play out, to invite the audience to join. This little motif probably appears a few too many times, but it’s a beautiful little moment of physicality that expresses the chaos becoming harmony within a man. Phoenix lost 50 pounds for the role and his gaunt, haunted frame reminds you how much of a shell of a human being this character feels like. He even tells his therapist that he questioned whether he was even a person or not. Phoenix burrows deep into the character and unleashes a committed intensity that is impressively communicated through his sad, reedy, sing-songy voice, his slippery stances and body language, and the madness that seems to resonate from his bulging eyes. Even when the movie is repeating its steps and tricks, it’s Phoenix that constantly gives back to the audience. It’s a performance certainly worthy of Oscar attention and plaudits, though in my mind it’s still a step or two below the instantly iconic, and Oscar-winning, performance from Heath Ledger.
Joker is a movie and should not be held responsible for the actions of others and what they may read from the film. I don’t sense Phillips and his team condoning their protagonist’s lawless actions, and the violence is often undercut so that it feels more disturbing than triumphant and exhilarating. When Arthur does get his first kill, the audience has likely been silently rooting for him to fight back, to punish the wrongdoers, but the movie draws out the scene in a manner that’s akin to a wounded animal panicking as it scrambles for its life and a cold execution. It’s not meant to be cool. Phoenix’s performance elevates the entire enterprise and will unnerve as much as it ensnares. It’s not a subtle movie at all, and it hugs the works of Scorsese a little too closely, both in tone as well as visual symmetry. It’s trying very hard to be nihilistic, edgy, and provocative (this isn’t your “normal comic book movie” it wants to scream with every frame). Arthur just wanted to make people laugh, the movie tells us, but the joke was on him after all (subtlety). If anyone is inspired from this movie, I hope it’s to seek out other Scorsese movies.
Nate’s Grade: B
It seems like the secret to the success of the DC movie universe is making fun, lower stakes adventures with the characters the public has the least knowledge about. Shazam actually begun as a “Captain Marvel,” and now comes on the heels of the MCU’s Captain Marvel. We follow Billy Batson (Asher Angel), a teenage orphan trying to find his missing mother. He stumbles into a wizard’s realm and is given a special power whereupon he turns into a square-jawed, broad-shouldered superhero (Zachary Levi) by saying “Shazam.” What follows is like a superhero version of Big and it’s goofy, charming, and reminiscent of an 80s Amblin movie, where children’s movies were allowed to be a little creepy and weird. The movie is light, cheerful, and heartfelt with its doling out of family messages to go along with the slapstick and personal growth. It’s very much envisioned from a young boy’s fantasy perspective of being a super-powered adult, where the first things to be done include buying beer, going to a “gentleman’s club,” in between testing out bullet invulnerability and flight. Levi (TV’s Chuck) is excellent at playing an adult version of a kid. I was initially dismissive of his casting but he’s perfect for this part. There’s a satisfying sense of discovery for Shazam and his excitable foster brother (Jack Dylan Grazer) that doesn’t get old. The movie is more concerned with how the superpowers are affecting Billy’s relationships and sense of self than any larger, planet-destroying danger. The film even sets up its villain (Mark Strong) by giving him a decent back-story and opening the movie to explain his crummy family. It’s not a three-dimensional villain by any means but the attention given to make him something more is appreciated. The other foster kids in Billy’s new family are more archetypes but amusing, and their involvement in the final act raises the joy level of the finale. Shazam! is a movie where people are genuinely excited to be superheroes or associated with them, and that gleeful, buoyant revelry is downright infectious.
Nate’s Grade: B+
It’s hard not to talk about the fledgling DCU without grading on a curve. Wonder Woman was a great success and a definite step in the right direction but it still had clear Act Three problems. However, when your previous movies are the abysmal Suicide Squad and Batman vs. Superman, anything in the right direction is seen as enlightenment. There are currently no planned Superman films, no planned Batman films, and it looks like the teetering DCU is banking its future on the success of Wonder Woman and Aquaman. If you had told me that the future of an interconnected series of franchises would rest upon the shoulders of a man who talks to fish, I would have laughed. Enter director James Wan, best known for the Conjuring franchise and plugging into Furious 7 without missing a beat. Warner Bros. desperately wanted Wan’s stewardship to get a notoriously difficult comics property to float in the modern market. The early marketing was not encouraging but I held out a slim degree of hope that Wan would make it work. While Aquaman as a whole has its share of problems, Wan has done it. He’s made a big screen Aquaman movie that is fun, visually immersive, weird, and packed with great action. I was just as surprised as you, dear reader, but the smile on my face was evident.
Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa) is heir to the undersea throne of Atlantis. His mother (Nicole Kidman) fled her arranged marriage and had a son with a human lighthouse keeper. She retreated back into the ocean to prevent further harm to her shore side family. Arthur is approached by princess Meera (Amber Heard) to return to Atlantis and claim his birthright to the throne, currently occupied by Arthur’s half-brother, King Orm (Patrick Wilson). The reigning king is planning to unite the seven sea kingdoms to launch an attack against the surface-dwellers. Arthur must go back to the people who reportedly killed his mother and challenge his half-brother for supremacy. Along the way he’ll have to venture across the globe with Meera for a series of adventures to reclaim lost artifacts, while also dodging Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), a pirate gifted with underwater technology who swears vengeance against Arthur for letting his father die.
Make no mistake, there is definitely a ceiling capped for Aquaman. The characterization is pretty standard stuff with little added nuance. It’s a dash of Chosen One destined to bridge communities, a dash of Prodigal Son outcast trying to make amends and duty, and there’s the general pledged vengeance that reappears again and again for motivation. The plot is reminiscent of a video game, structured so that Arthur and Meera have to travel from one stage to another, finding an important artifact and then going to the next stage. Sometimes there are mini-bosses at these various video game stages. The antagonists are acceptable but without much in the way of depth or charisma. You might even find yourself agreeing with King Orm as far as his pre-emptive strike over mankind (the latent racism of “half-breeds” maybe not as much). The leads are also given little. Momoa (Justice League) is a naturally charismatic actor but his range is limited; he basically has two modes, off and on. This might have been one reason why the screenplay resolves to merely push him toward his “call to action,” which I thought was his Justice League arc. Still he’s an affable and handsome presence even with lesser material. Heard (London Fields) is struggling to find her character’s place in the story. She’s a romantic interest, quest cohort, and there are attempts to push through more feminist agency but it’s too murky. It feels like she’s trapped by her character and her giant Halloween store red wig. If you cannot get over these deficits, it’s going to feel like a relentless 143-minute video game.
And yet the movie works thanks to the talents of Wan and the overall abundant sense of exuberant fun. Wan has become a first-class chameleon, able to adapt his skill set to whatever genre he attaches himself to, be it high-octane car chase thriller, slow burn horror to grisly torture porn, or now splashy superhero blockbuster. Early on, I knew we were in good hands when Wan showcases a destructive fight scene between Kidman and a group of aqua storm troopers in long takes and wide angles, letting the choreography speak for itself and allowing the audience to fully take in every smash and crash. The action is consistently interesting and filmed in ways to highlight its best points. An underwater brotherly battle takes the movement within water into account, adapting fight choreography to add this new dimension. That’s what good action movies should be doing, applying their unique settings into the action development. There isn’t a boring action moment in the film. Even when we get to the big CGI armies duking it out, Wan instinctively knows to pull back to avoid overkill. Even the otherwise normal hand-to-hand combat is clever and consistently entertaining. The highlight of the movie is actually on land, an extended chase through the villas of Tuscany. Arthur and Meera are battling Black Manta but they’re also divided, and Wan’s camera will zoom back and forth between the two, connecting each on their parallel tracks. They jump from tiled roof to tiled roof, escaping danger. There’s one super aqua storm trooper who takes a more direct approach and just runs through room after room, and the camera follows him on this direct line of destruction. There’s even a payoff where Meera uses her powers in a wine shop to her great advantage. It’s moments like this where Wan is clearly having fun and demonstrating that he and his team have put good thought into their action.
The visuals are wildly immersive and amplify the sense of fun the film has to offer. There are plenty of cinematic reference points of influence here, from George Lucas to James Cameron, but Wan and his team do an excellent job of making this universe feel full. We visit many different undersea realms and people, including seahorse people, crab people, and just taking ownership of the weirdness without irony is refreshing. With the exception of Momoa’s need to undercut moments with quips, the film feels genuine and proud of its old-fashioned mentality, taking the ridiculousness and treating it with sincerity. That doesn’t mean there aren’t campy and absurd moments that are enjoyable precisely because of their camp and absurdity. There are people riding great white sharks and battling crab people to the death. How can that not be silly? There’s one group of creatures that feel plucked from Pitch Black, a band of feral monsters vulnerable to fire. There’s a fun and effective sequence where Arthur and Meera must dive to escape with their lit flare and we see the full totality of their situation, a literal sea of these monsters breaking apart just so as they dive. It’s a creepy moment made even better by Wan’s visual choices, which always seem to correspond to what’s best for the experience. The special effects are uniformly great and the attention to the undersea worlds is pristine.
Ultimately your view of Aquaman will come down to what you’re willing to forgive in the name of fun spectacle. Its best Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) equivalent are the pre-Ragnarok Thor films. There are definite deficits with the minimal characterization and the familiar hero’s journey plot arc, but the execution level and the sheer energetic entertainment are enough to rise above. The action sequences are routinely thrilling, eye-catching, and wonderfully alive and clever thanks to Wan. They’ve found a way to make Aquaman cool and fun, which is what rules the day when it comes to the film version. Aquaman is another step in the right direction for the notoriously gloomy DCU. If Wan was attached for a sequel, I’d genuinely be interested. This is nothing you haven’t seen before in any number of movies (just now underwater), it’s not exactly intellectually stimulating or emotionally involving, and yet the sheer success of the visuals, action orchestration, and the sense of fun override the rest of the detractions for me. It reminds me of the Fast and Furious franchise. I don’t care a lick for any non-Rock/Statham characters; I’m just there for the physics-defying stunts and set pieces. It provides the goods when it comes to action spectacle, and so does this movie. If you’re looking for a 90s throwback to big, fun action movies, then take the dive with Aquaman.
Nate’s Grade: B