Justice League, or, Has Anyone Made a “League of Their Own” Joke Yet? There’s No Crime in Bat’s Hall? Something Like That? I Don’t Know.

justiceleague

Batman v. All Kinds of Folks: Noon of Justice

“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.

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Permission to Treat the Batman as Hostile, or, Batman Versus Superman Colon Dawn of Justice

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LOGO MASH-UP ATTACK

With 2013’s Man of Steel it seemed director Zack Snyder was intent on applying Christopher Nolan’s gritty Dark Knight aesthetic to Superman. Structurally, Man of Steel very much feels like Batman Begins and one would be forgiven for thinking that Snyder was something of a Nolan acolyte. With that film’s successor, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, however, Snyder proves himself a far more loyal disciple to the likes of comic book writer and artist Frank Miller, whose distinctive insistence on redefining what popular culture thinks of the Dark Knight can be felt throughout the film.

With Man of Steel, Superman was course corrected, moved toward the operatic grit of Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy. The tone of Superman was adjusted to mimic the tone of Batman, and in response, the Batman of Dawn of Justice is proportionately moved further into the bleak shadows to compensate. On a scale where a sad face is Batman, a smiley face is Superman and a neutral face lies somewhere in between, Man of Steel flattened out Superman’s smile and Dawn of Justice knocks Batman off the scale completely.

The Batman of Dawn of Justice, played by Ben Affleck, isn’t just bleak. He’s hostile. Not just to the criminals he brands but to the audience. He dares you to like him. He dares you to tell him what Batman does and doesn’t do. He aggressively challenges what Batman is supposed to be in 2016. He embodies the sort of confrontational maverick spirit of Frank Miller’s Batman texts.

Frank Miller wrote Year One, for many the defining Batman origin story, and The Dark Knight Returns, widely considered to be the greatest Batman story ever put to paper. His Batman is a one-eyed man in the land of the blind, cursed to be the only one able to see through a soft, shallow world of senseless violence and half-hearted political correctness. He’s better than the world around him, he knows it, and he’s less than gracious about it.

He’s a jarring reaction to the biffs, pows and bams of Adam West’s caped crusader of the 60s, a whiplash-inducing course correction.

He’s also kind of a dick.

And that was in 1986.

By the time Miller wrote All-Star Batman & Robin, the Boy Wonder in 2005 his Batman was still reacting to popular culture’s perception of the character and, adjusting for inflation, had gone from kind of a dick to an all-out sociopath having sex on rooftops to the soundtrack of screaming criminals burning to death on the streets below.

A little over ten years later Snyder carries that torch forward, continuing Miller’s tradition of presenting popular culture with a Batman it doesn’t necessarily want, and one that doesn’t seem to want them either. The Batman of Dawn of Justice carries on less in the tradition of Nolan’s gritty realism and more in the vein of Miller’s blatant hostility towards the concept of what Batman should be. Like Miller’s Batman of the 80s it proves to be something of a reaction to what the world thinks of Batman. Like Miller’s Batman of the 00s it proves to be an overreaction no one necessarily wanted.

There’s an inarguable difference in quality between Miller and Snyder’s Batmen, undoubtedly because the latter is largely an adaptation of the former. It seems pretty clear already that Dawn of Justice will never garner the reverence of Miller’s best texts. Even its best Batman moments lack compelling context, and are best when you mentally pry them free of the film they’re buried in. But the feeling I get watching Ben Affleck’s Batman operate with such glorified cruelty is the most accurate filmic representation I’ve encountered of the sort of weary fascination Miller’s Batman instills in me.

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is burdened by a script that too often forces you to do its work for it, putting the onus of rationalization, logic and character motivation on the viewer. By design it isn’t really fun, or funny and it seems content to wade in a tone of helpless despair. But if nothing else, it manages to mimic the confrontational hostility of the Frank Miller Batman texts that have become inseparable from the character.

While Zack Snyder hasn’t created a triumph akin to Dark Knight Returns, he has still rather successful emulated one of the most important creators to ever interact with Batman. Dawn of Justice is not Snyder’s Dark Knight Returns, but it just might be his All-Star Batman & Robin, the Boy Wonder.