“You’re not brave. Men are brave,” Batfleck told the Man of Steel in director Zack Snyder’s cumbersome Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. I hated that line. To me it had seemed the epitome of the over-the-top, macho bullshit Batman is always in danger of succumbing to in the wrong hands.
“You’re not brave. You’re a little boy. I’m a big strong man, because I’m tough and grim and that’s what a man is, and by the way I just discovered the work of Frank Miller.”
I walked out of Batman v. Superman angry. Not disappointed. Angry. But it stuck with me. It stuck with me and despite myself my mind would return time and time again to various moments throughout the film. I found myself considering it. Digesting it.
“You’re not brave. Men are brave.”
Macho bullshit, or theological outrage?
“You’re not brave. You’re a god. You don’t know fear and you don’t know bravery because you don’t know what it is to be human. You don’t know what it is to be fragile living in a world that can kill you by accident. You cannot save us from ourselves because you will never know what it is to be us. You’re doomed to frustration and failure. And what then?”
Zack Snyder’s superhero films have no interest in being the Marvelous “world outside your window.” They’re more attempts at reflecting Joseph Campbell’s monomyth against a battle of minds and souls and ideologies. Hefty stuff. A reach that neither Man of Steel or Dawn of Justice were able to close fingers around. But they were each a helluva reach.
Justice League doesn’t feel that way. Very much an empty bath tub, Justice League feels like a panicked response to the backlash against Dawn of Justice in which all of the tropes of a Snyder film were numbed, rather than just the problematic ones.
I often found myself frustrated with Snyder’s previous films because of the contrast between their best and worst moments, between their potential and their actuality, between the leap taken and the distance traveled. But Justice League feels like less of a leap than a hop, like Zack Snyder’s ambitions have finally started to bear the weight of critical reception.
A lot has been made of the possibility that Justice League would feel like a battle between two voices, Snyder’s and Joss Whedon’s, who was brought in to complete the film when Snyder dropped out for personal reasons. But the only tug of war I felt in the film was between the lofty, operatic vision of Snyder and a very corporate, frugal sense of uncertainty holding that vision back.
There’s the slimmest thread of Snyder’s ambitious storytelling here, a messianic thread that casts the five marketed Justice Leaguers as sort of apostles, with Ben Affleck’s Batman playing the role of a repentant betrayer trying to make good. At times the film very much feels like Man of Steel 3, a third act following that familiar but fascinating template of life, death and rebirth. But the scope of that narrative, which reigned unshackled in the two previous acts, is downplayed in Justice League.
There are also hints of Snyder’s more problematic tendencies. The film opens with a laughably bleak montage of a world without Superman, and it’s hard to shake the feeling that Snyder’s camera has less respect for Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman than Patty Jenkins’ did. But even these more irritating quirks are toned down. Peaks and valleys alike are buffered and filled in so that unchecked ambition is replaced by a sense of noncommittal, corporate safety.
Writing about Justice League I feel myself warming up to it, coming to terms with what it is rather than mourning what is isn’t. But I can’t shake the feeling (and it is just that, a feeling) that Snyder was reined in on this film because of the lackluster response to Dawn of Justice, and because of that it’s follow-up is, if not outright worse, at least exponentially less interesting.