How We Move Our Stories Forward: Thoughts on Snyder’s Justice League

When Zack Snyder shot to directorial prominence with his second film, 300 (2006), and entrenched his popularity with Watchmen (2009), he became centred in a downright ugly cultural discourse. These films strove to adapt Epic, Thought-Provoking graphic novels with great fealty — and visually, often succeeded, right down to matching shot-for-shot how parts of each story looked on the original page.

However, the graphic novels Snyder chose to adapt (i.e. a slice of history contemptuous of women, plus his version of a story that makes rape a key part of a major female character’s arc) meant that his films became more than a rallying cry for “taking comic art seriously”. For many, they also reinforced ideas about “superior” graphic novels being highly male-oriented and violent texts. As such, if people didn’t like Snyder’s films, it was because they were too tethered to “PC politics” to appreciate “real” art. For many fans, any critique of the character arcs, dialogue, storyline, and overall thematic heft in these films didn’t account for the fact that Snyder was an “auteur” lifting Serious, Challenging Literature from page to screen.

When Snyder entrenched himself in DC superhero canon, this cultural schism deepened — in large part, because the DC universe is fraught with fundamentally flawed superhero narratives. Batman in particular is a troubling story of a man born into a family fortune, whose childhood trauma somehow justifies spending his life blowing money on elaborate gadgetry to fight mainly street criminals with legal impunity, instead of using his immense wealth to make Gotham’s safety net stronger for all. “Batman” as a superhero narrative is incredibly popular — and yet, it’s also a perfect reflection of Western wish-fulfilment not for a better world, but for a world in which sufficient wealth grants you unlimited personal agency and intrinsic moral righteousness. How do you remediate a story where abusing capitalist excess makes you “the good guy”?

Snyder’s first film in this DC sequence, Man of Steel (2013), proposed an “out” to the vigilante-justice trap by matching superhero canon to another larger-than-life story cycle: Christian mythopoetic tradition. After all, Superman is already a superior agent sent to Earth in an act of love, whose great miracles on Earth are meant to inspire and protect. Add in the fact that Superman is given an earthly mother and father to go along with his cosmic maker and you’ve got all that you need for archetypal resonance.

Man of Steel is pretty blunt about this alignment, too, because it makes Clark Kent 33 years old for main events in its story: the chosen son who has to make a great sacrifice because the ghost of his father up on high has sent him to Earth with this mission. Moreover, Kent’s foes are fellow Kryptonians very unsubtly tethered to Epicurean ideals: a narrative choice that abundantly invokes Roman civilization’s philosophical conflict with early Christianity. Indeed, this film’s heavyhanded Christian bias could perhaps be summarized by the following, cringe-inducing line, by one of the Kryptonians then in battle with Kent:

“The fact that you possess a sense of morality, and we do not, gives us an evolutionary advantage.”

Now, on its own, that level of philosophical incoherence just comes off as tediously two-dimensional storytelling. However, the idea of playing out in full the mythopoetic resonance of Superman-as-Christ was still enough to give many fans the idea that Snyder had a vision. That he was going somewhere with his plans for the DC universe. He wasn’t like those big-blockbuster-team directors over at Marvel, with their marketing-algorithm-driven, paint-by-numbers approach to adapting comics for the big screen. Rather, he became, for many, a sort of Howard Roark figure, who knew exactly what sort of shape each DC film should take — and damned if fans of his work were going to let his “architecture firm” (i.e. the studios) stunt his genius.

Many folks who already didn’t enjoy the masculinities foregrounded in his films were even more alarmed by the toxicity of many of Snyder’s fans: those, that is, who were generally raising up DC storylines (the Joker especially) as part of a general “resistance” to what they regarded as a recent and accelerating emasculation of Hollywood, along with general society. Snyder’s career highs were unfolding, in other words, against a backdrop of angry (white) male persons, many of whom liked to tank the ratings of films with strong female and/or more prominent BIPOC casts before the films had even come out. Snyder’s choice to shape DC’s core stories around Christian mythopoetics became, for many in the middle of this toxic moment, a rallying cry in the “fight” to maintain “traditional” Western storylines in mainstream media.

Batman vs. Superman (2016) then became one of Snyder’s most contentious films precisely because its production history added fuel to the toxic-fanbase fire around this idea that Snyder was a studio-stunted auteur, fighting singlehandedly to save mainstream media from the scourge of social-justice-driven creators, especially across the street at Marvel. Yes, okay, the regular cinematic BvS release was a mess… but the coveted director’s cut was longer, and would surely vindicate Snyder’s original vision!

Personally, I found the Ultimate Edition poorly scripted, heavyhanded, and a slog. However, the Snyder cut did help me understand what Snyder was driving at with his approach to Batman. What do you do with a “hero” like Batman, who wastes his fortune on vigilante games instead of seeking broader systemic change?

The answer’s pretty simple, in Snyderverse: If the Superman arc covers New Testament themes, Batman’s a perfect fit for the Old Testament — a king struggling with his empire, afflicted by visions of apocalypse and ruin that only he can put off by answering the call to battle. Consequently, Batman vs. Superman becomes one long, dream-sequence struggle for an Old Testament-esque ruler still coming to terms with the arrival of New Testament amid an ongoing fight with Lucifer, who’s represented here via Lex Luthor and some incredibly unsubtle set design. (Oh, and Batman and Superman’s ridiculous bonding moment over learning their mom has the same name, in the middle of a massive fight scene? That’s supposed to be a reminder of shared origins, which means they’re meant to unite in the struggle against “evil”.)

Super super super unsubtle alignment of Lex Luthor with Lucifer, via the print of Gustave Dore’s “The Fall of the Rebel Angels” (1868) in the background of Luthor’s office in Batman vs. Superman.

Nuance, in other words, has never been one of Snyder’s strengths. And it hasn’t had to be. He’s rallied a significant fanbase around the idea that his work with DC is a full-on defense of Western Christianity’s symbolic power, and that Good Superhero Storytelling is inherently gritty, masculine-forward, and laden with serious existential questions. Not like all those chumps who get excited over every next bit of spoofy, goofy cut-and-past Marvel-verse, right? No: DC-lovers, some fans believe, are an intellectual cut above.

And then there’s Justice League

Suffice it to say, then, I wasn’t much interested in the rest of Snyder’s work. I understood what he was aiming for, I found his cinematography at times interesting, but I didn’t see him pulling off his stories well.

(I will, however, say that the internet was a cruel, callous place for Snyder when his daughter ended her own life, and he stepped down from the original Justice League project to be present with his family. The abuse and derision heaped upon a grieving father at that juncture, in large part as a kind of retaliation for the toxic fanbase his films seemed to be nurturing, was absolutely unacceptable.)

And when the hype rose around “The Snyder Cut” of Justice League (2021)? The internet definitely saw an uptick in deeply toxic fan cultures and debates. A trailer with a particularly silly line by The Joker didn’t help. Early critical reviews called the film bloated, complained about the slow-motion scenes, mocked the screen size (1.33:1) and title cards, critiqued female storylines, derided its colour palette, and suggested that it was internally incoherent. I was ready to give it a hard pass and enjoy something else instead.

Then I read a Twitter thread by a comic-book artist who had adored Justice League comics while she was growing up. She talked about her love of the characters, her rise in the industry, her excitement to work with her favourite comic artist in the world… and how wonderful she’d found Justice League. I wish I’d saved that thread, so I could link it. (Will link it here if I can find it again.) But it did its work, and I queued the film.

Four hours, give or take! I watched Justice League over three days while working out, so I could tune it out if it bored or annoyed me — but to my great surprise, it didn’t. I enjoyed the inciting action, which (among other things) showcased Amazonian bravery around an ancient danger, but I especially perked up when I saw that all the film’s true brutality was minimal and taking place decidedly off camera. The film’s first hour felt… courteous, even… as it walked us through Bruce’s failed recruitment of Aquaman, Alfred being Alfred, Diana saving lives and inspiring children, Diana’s day job, Aquaman brooding in his xenophobic home of Atlantis, Martha in mourning, Lois in mourning — and, of course, the arrival of Steppenwolf, an alien seeking redemption by conquering worlds for his cosmic nightmare of a master, Darkseid.

But the scene that really hooked me happened an hour in, when Diana visited Bruce to share what she’d learned about an ancient nemesis now on Earth. Here, she describes the last time that Men, Atlanteans, Amazonians, and People from the Sky put aside their differences to stop three Mother Boxes (living machines that can return matter to preceding states) from forming a Unity that would destroy the Earth. It’s a dramatic story, centrally serving to establish parameters for the remainder of the tale. And… it’s funny.

It’s intentionally funny, too — because while Diana talks, we’re watching the triumphant Justice League of millennia past split up the Mother Boxes. We see one go to the Atlanteans, who make a great show of preparing secure quarters for it. We see one go to the Amazonians, who also go to great lengths to build a protective enclosure for it. And we see one go to the Ancient Men… who dig a shallow hole in some random squat of forest and leave the doomsday device there. In unguarded dirt.

Snyder’s film has other moments of understated humour — like a later cut-scene between the Justice League facing down a fortress to be scaled and the whole gang then taking the stairs — but this first one is what made me realize I wasn’t watching another Batman vs. Superman. So much of what made Snyder’s other films fail (for me) was their insufferable humourlessness, which further seemed to suggest that Serious Films Cannot Be Funny. Yes, having The Flash in the League inherently offers warm-hearted comedy relief at many junctures in this film, but we needed a filmic narrator committed to the same.

And sure enough, in a way that Man of Steel and Batman vs. Superman did not, Justice League laughs at itself — or at least chuckles, a bit.

The core of the film is also remarkably attentive to narrative detail, considering some of its eccentricities: Everything that’s brought up gets used. Radical changes to the world are preceded by smaller observations hinting at their possibility. And in terms of general plotting, the structure is well-scaled to its length: going from a range of inciting incidents that introduce us to the film’s key players; to the movie’s core mythology (introduced an hour in by Diana, as noted above); to a critical conflict halfway through that ups the stakes for the good and bad guys; to having all key pieces in play at the three-hour mark for a half hour Epic Battle in which everyone gets to shine; to a twenty-minute epilogue that sets up a range of possible next films.

That epilogue, granted, is stuffed with Batman’s messy dreams of apocalypse and ruin (it’s where the Joker finally shows up; and Lex Luthor makes an appearance; and Batman fixes America’s foreclosure crisis… for Superman’s mom, at least; and Batman meets The Martian Manhunter — you get the idea. It’s where Snyder packed in all the rest of the movie’s material, in an all-Batman-all-the-time-smorgasbord).

But, up until that point you’ve got an orderly, traditionally structured film of around three and a half hours.

So. Let’s talk a little bit about some other directorial choices:

The screen size didn’t bother me; in fact, quite a few shots looked exactly as they would in the pages of a comic book, and the frame size absolutely reinforced that impression. The colour palette was also fine for me: both because the death of Superman is plainly a pall upon this world, and because Snyder’s use of contrast was sharp enough for me to follow action sequences coherently. Title cards, too, just gave me a sense of flipping from one issue to the next in a larger story arc — and gave the epilogue more wiggle-room, like a series of one-page teasers at the back of specific comic-book issues.

But mostly, Snyder’s use of slow-motion felt perfectly suited to his subject matter.

Some folks think this was unnecessary padding, another sign of Snyder’s directorial “arrogance”, but we have a wide range of characters in the Justice League whose powers allow them to experience time differently: from Cyborg, who’s literally part-digital-entity; to The Flash, who can break the Speed of Light but knows he shouldn’t; to Superman, who can see through time and space in ways that others can’t; to Diana, who can process events far faster than mere Men. (Poor Aquaman and Batman, trying to keep up.)

Slowing down time as often as this film does allows us to establish those skills from each superhero’s perspective, instead of always from an outsider’s vantage point, with that signature superhero blur. They’re not normal human beings, after all, and it makes sense for stories told about superheroes to be shaped at times by how they see the world as they move within it. It’s not like we’re constantly seeing the world through Superman’s eyes (super creepy Terminator vibes there!), but when we do follow a superhero’s slow-motion world here, we learn something about how differently a crisis seems to someone with extraordinary abilities. This narrative choice also becomes plot-critical on a few occasions — like when Barry notices he’s on the verge of breaking The Rule while speeding up to a Mother Box (a key set-up for when he later breaks said rule), and when Barry notices that Superman can see him while he’s zipping about.

What else is there to say about the regular mechanics of this film?

It feels silly to note that Justice League passes both the Bechdel and the racialized Bechdel test (low bars, both), but considering how many of Snyder’s films don’t do well by female characters, and are championed by toxic fans as “alternatives” to Marvel’s engagement with contemporary social justice discourse, it bears noting that Snyder’s Justice League naturalizes quite a bit of representational range (even going so far as to rename Arkham Asylum a “Home for the Emotionally Troubled”). Not surprisingly, either, considering his family’s loss, the film is dedicated to Autumn Snyder, and campaigns around its release have been used to raise funds for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. There’s even a billboard in the film promoting the organization, with the message YOU ARE NOT ALONE.

While Bruce drives off with Barry, an AFSP billboard is plainly visible behind the car, and reads “You are not alone”.

As for individual character arcs, well, Aquaman’s one-note grumpiness underwhelms, granted, but Diana felt well-enough developed early on that she could focus on helping others for the rest of the film. Also, Cyborg’s growth arc felt full, as did The Flash’s, and I was glad to see Steppenwolf given a deeper reason for his commitment to conquering Earth than “He Bad”. Mostly, though, this is a story of Superman’s resurrection, and the debt Batman tries to repay by bringing together the Justice League to protect the Earth from an ancient foe — and it shows.

I didn’t write this post, though, to try to convince folks to watch this film. I would never tell someone You Must Watch This Thing (and Love It), and I can understand why someone would not want to sit through a four-hour film with a colour palette they don’t enjoy. (Or hang out with superheroes so long in mourning.)

I do think, however, that many criticisms of this film are drawn from toxic-Snyder-fanbase-fatigue, and from the tedious glorification of Snyder as a “genius” for having advanced a vision for DC canon that matches iconic superheroes to Western-Christian mythopoetics. I also think it’s fair to be exhausted, especially when the last two films were pretty heavyhanded slogs used to further stoke the flames of a culture “war”. And I think Snyder knows that, too, because he was originally set to produce an adaptation of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, but even he has wisely decided that the U.S. is currently too “divided” for him to pursue that project in good conscience. (Good. May he put it on hold forever.)

To the Point We (Finally) Go!

So, why did I write this post, then? Well, because, putting aside the massive ideological conflicts and very real fanbase toxicity surrounding Snyder’s films, I actually like what Snyder’s grappling with, at the core of his DC films. I think some of his directorial questions are good ones. Can we integrate today’s stories within humanity’s much longer history of writing about gods and godlike beings? And if so, can we move those ancient stories forward, by using today’s superhero tales to phase out the worst of what’s come before?

Much as I like those questions, though, I’ve never fully enjoyed Snyder’s follow-through before — even when I’ve appreciated moments of cinematography that felt directly, gorgeously lifted from actual comic-book pages. Man of Steel tips its hand early and often into a spiritual self-righteousness it doesn’t earn, because it paints its ideological opposition in too-weak strokes, while Batman vs. Superman is best “enjoyed” as prophetic dream-sequence, because it doesn’t have enough real-world logic for its representations of epic struggle to hit the mark.

Justice League, though, finds many of Snyder’s worst excesses reined in. (Though for some reason there’s another version of “Hallelujah” in the credits score. Ugh. Once in Watchmen was more than enough.)

And yes, I know that talk of “excess” being “reined in” is a dubious claim to make about a four-hour movie, but from how Justice League depicts violence without exploiting it, even in its terrorist scenario; to how it uses slow-motion to help us inhabit the different subjectivities of its superhumans; to how Diana’s prominent role in the film offers an automatic offset to the centrality of Western-Christian mythopoetics embodied by Batman and Superman; to Honest-to-Dog moments of sly visual humour; and most of all, to how the film celebrates what unites us over what divides us… there’s simply more opportunity here than in any of Snyder’s previous films to reflect on what superhero stories “do” for us in general.

After all, we’ve been talking about Greater Powers for a long time as a species: whether as animists, polytheists, monotheists, or atheists raised in cultures shaped by the lot. And why not? Why not tell stories about super-beings, whether or not we believe they’re real? It’s often motivating simply to talk about people who can do more than most of us ever will in real life — and then, to find everyday ways in which to make the most of our own gifts in turn. Just as children role-play adult activities to learn them, so too do adults continue refining and re-forming stories of ourselves and our societies all our lives — which is why the media items we consume, the stories that dominate in the mainstream, matter ever so much.

So. In the middle of that cultural whirlwind of narrative possibilities and toxicities?

At their worst, Snyder’s films connect superheros to a long tradition of aspirational godmyths.

And at their best, they do, too.

And because Snyder’s Justice League — to no one’s greater surprise than my own! — feels to me more like the latter than the former, it’s left me thinking about how else we might move our ancient stories forward.

What other, better social narratives might we build upon the best of what’s come before?


M L Clark talks superheroes, godmyth, Zack Snyder’s DC films, & fan culture

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