Review Re-con-Snydered

This article was originally written by Gene Ching and I for KungFuMagazine.com in November of 2017. I’ve included it here for archival purposes and will use this space to provide the PLUGO cut once I finally make it through all four hours The HBO JUSTICE LEAGUE.

“Gathered together from the cosmic reaches of the universe, here in this great Hall of Justice, are the most powerful forces of good ever assembled: SUPERMAN! BATMAN! WONDER WOMAN! And AQUAMAN!”

Justice League movie poster

Movie-goers and fans have been awaiting this movie with mixed feelings.  Warner Bros. has been stumbling to keep up with the machine that is MARVEL studios. Their success with BATMAN BEGINS (2005) and the DARK KNIGHT trilogy (2008, 2012) as a whole is a somewhat distant memory, while their recent offerings have been both hit and miss, e.g. WONDER WOMAN (2017) and SUICIDE SQUAD (2016). Now the time-honored schoolyard debate over Marvel versus DC is mainstream; even the most casual audience member will likely find themselves comparing franchise launch formulas.  And given how much JUSTICE LEAGUE mimics the Marvel style, it’s impossible not to compare.  JUSTICE LEAGUE poaches many of Marvel’s signature trappings, from the animated icon intro for the DC logo, to the snappy banter between superheroes, to the end credit scenes (Spoiler Alert – the scene at the very end of the credits gets the fist pumps from stalwart DC fans). On top of those stylistic similarities, comic fans may notice that the connection between this movie and Marvel’s productions can be drawn by the king of comics himself, Jack Kirby. The artist behind all but Doctor Strange and SpiderMan was also the creator of DC comics’ Fourth World where JUSTICE LEAGUE derives its catalyzing but unfortunately-designed adversary, Steppenwolf.

A word on Production Designer Patrick Tatopoulos. Beyond having an excellent first name and a pretty awesome last one, over the years I’ve come to recognize and appreciate if his work on movies like DARK CITY [1997], PITCH BLACK [2000] and the UNDERWORLD franchise [2003-2009] before encountering the Zack Snyder house style in 300:Rise of an Empire in 2014. “But what was he doing in those intervening years?” I’ll imagine you hadn’t asked, he was appearing as a judge on one of the few reality T.V. shows I actually bothered to watch, FACE-OFF. From 2011 to 2014 Tatopoulos played one of three judges on this make-up effects competition show where he challenged, critiqued and judged young make-up artist hopeful to win the season’s grand prize. The show was a weekly study in the efforts involved to bridge the differences between one’s creative vision and the constraints of time and resources. Given the option of a redemption round in the form of Snyder’s cut, he delivers a design refined and released from the muddled qualities of the theatrical cut. This success after a second pass is a recurring theme over the additional two hours and two minutes.

The Marvel film franchise formula, formally known as the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) began with IRON MAN (2008) and culminated with the AVENGERS (2012). Rather than provide an introductory movie for each character, Warner Bros plunged audiences into the deep end of their 80+ years of comic continuity with their not-so-well received BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE (2016). It was no easy task for a movie to serve as a sequel to THE MAN OF STEEL (2013), a teaser trailer for WONDER WOMAN and a prequel to JUSTICE LEAGUE.  Henry Cavill, Ben Affleck and Gal Gadot reprise their iconic roles alongside Oscar winners Amy Adams (Lois Lane), Jeremy Irons (Alfred), and J.K. Simmons (Commissioner Gordon) as recurring supporting cast.  DC’s film franchise is formally known as the DC Extended Universe (DCEU).

Over the course of his latest attempts, director Zack Snyder may be trying to invent a new kind of movie – let’s call it a ‘Franchise Chapter’ for now. It may be a task for which he’s not singularly suited. Known mostly for his adaptations of other properties, most notably the graphic novels 300 (2006) and WATCHMEN (2009), his lone original movie SUCKER PUNCH (2011) proved almost derivative of the entirety of pop-culture. Snyder’s greatest strength has been his visual panache, particularly when giving life to drawings found on the comics page and the action sequences around them. By turning to Joss Whedon, to write the screenplay and finish directing (uncredited) JUSTICE LEAGUE, becomes brighter, friendlier and funnier, more like what audiences come to expect from Superhero flicks, largely thanks to Whedon’s work for Marvel.

Wonder Woman, Cyborg, Batman & The Flash

The Super Friend Sidekicks The Super Intern?

Alas, who might have played the Wonder Twins?  Chloë Grace Moretz as Jayna?  Taylor Lautner as Zan? Should DC continue to pursue the comedic angle, perhaps we’ll find out someday. However, beyond reuniting characters from previous DCEU chapters, JUSTICE LEAGUE must also serve as an origin for several new characters. The newest addition is Cyborg played by Ray Fisher.  Created by Marv Wolfman and George Perez, Cyborg first appeared in THE NEW TEEN TITANS #1 (November 1980), an updated version of what was originally a team of sidekicks: Robin, Kid Flash, Wonder Girl and Speedy (sidekick to Green Arrow). Some may recognize the character from Cartoon Network’s animated series TEEN TITANS (2003-2006) or TEEN TITAN GO (2013-today). His upgrade to Justice League status is a recent phenomenon and a step away from African and African-American superheroes whose names begin with “black” and powers function as a metaphor for racial stereotypes.  Blade, Luke Cage A.K.A. Power Man, Black Panther and Black Lightning are just the few who have or will see screen time. Here, Cyborg functions as tech-support and essentially an exposition machine. It’s a flailing attempt to introduce some diversity into a privileged cinematic cast.  

It’s with the Victor Stone/Cyborg story arch where Snyder does a good amount of redemptive work. From the movie’s very beginning, Cyborg and his relationship to the alien Mother Box (aka the change machine) is a much more significant and satisfying story arc. Compared to that cardboard cutout of some Russian family which confused so much of the theatrical cut’s last act, this may be some of Snyder’s better writing.
I suppose this is as good a time as any to acknowledge that this may be the saddest super-hero movie yet. It’s a palpable sadness for those aware of the Snyder family loss and that inexplicable connection to the story of the franchise’s production make’s it even more meta. In another world, his theatrical cut would also be different. HBO’s gamble may have payed off, letting him indulge in a four hour cut clarified what a Franchise Chapter could be.
Remarkably, but perhaps not surprisingly, he frames large themes around the relationship between parent an child. The “Martha” connection from BvS is still laughable but surprisingly, the time devoted to depicting the parenting a super-hero proved rewarding. Some new choices made for Martha Kent are a bit baffling this time around but there’s a symmetry to the Hypolita’s long distance trust in Diana and the hands on approach of Dr. Sylas Stone, Victor’s father. Even Snyder’s unforgiving portrait of Batman as a failed father figure to Joker Robin is offset by Jeremy Iron’s take on an Alfred as a happily retired Tony Stark; can you imagine the story that would connect this Alfred to the young Bruce Wayne of JOKER? (2019) I digress, but there’s even a bit of a father-in-law vibe going on between him and Wonder Woman. Unfortunately none of that helps the characterization of Barry Alan and his incarcerated father.

Much more entertaining is Ezra Miller’s portrayal of the Flash. Written as everyone’s inner geek, he gets many of the funniest lines and a torrent of movement-oriented puns. The Flash may be the perfect character for Snyder’s visual depictions; his penchant for expanding and compressing time and motion within an action sequence flows freely when the Flash is on the run. Perhaps he even beats-out the innovative super-speed sequences Bryan Singer came up with for X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST (2014) and reprised in X-MEN: AGE OF APOCALYPSE (2016). 

Leave it to Miller’s backwards facing take on the Flash to be one of the aspect Synder’s Justice League left more cringey than before. Pitched as the maladjusted comics-nerd of the bunch some of the him/her humor from the theatrical cut came under a different light after revaluations about the Whendon set. But Snyder’s attempt at a more innocent love-at-first-sight romance just ends up seeming weird. Slow motion flying hot dogs? Really? Here, The Flash is not so much a character as a cypher for comic logic exposition and a dei ex machina delivery system. Also, he runs kinda weird.
The FLASH

Big Screen vs. Small Screen

Click for more details about The Flash on tv.

But fans may have grown used to super-speed due to the success of THE FLASH television series on CW. TV is the place where DC characters are thriving, particularly when compared to Marvel’s television shows – we’re looking at you IRON FIST!  Currently, DC dominates comic-derived TV.  Superman makes guest appearances in the popular CW series SUPERGIRL (2015-today), Batman is portrayed as his younger pre-costumed self in the FOX prequel series GOTHAM (2014-today) and obviously, the Flash is the titular hero in the aforementioned show THE FLASH (2014-today).  However, all of these series star different actors in the roles with completely different story arcs.  On TV, Superman is played by Tyler Hoechlin, Bruce Wayne is David Mazouz and the Flash is Grant Gustin.  These are all separate timelines, independent of the DCEU.  Supergirl doesn’t exist in the films as of yet.  After so many Batman origin films, Warner Brothers wisely chose to skip all that with Affleck’s portrayal, and besides, GOTHAM is a prequel series.  And THE FLASH takes place after the period when JUSTICE LEAGUE is set, although Miller’s vs. Gustin’s interpretations of the role are quite different.  Miller’s version is a nerdy naïve loner on his first mission.  While also socially awkward, Gustin’s depiction is more charming, at the center of a team of crime-fighting friends, and as JUSTICE LEAGUE hits screens, his Barry is engaged to be married.

The television success of DC comics is not just contained to aforementioned superhero titles. Along with ARROW (2012-today) and LEGENDS OF TOMORROW (2016-today), shows like iZOMBIE (2015-today), LUCIFER (2016-today) and the irreverent PREACHER (2016-today) are also DC properties. That list will grow even larger with the forthcoming series BLACK LIGHTING, DMZ, KRYPTON, RONIN, SCALPED, TITANS and Y: THE LAST MAN.

Some of those were pretty OK; others not so much.

So what of those discrepancies between the DCEU and TV’s universe? (DC’s TV universe is formally dubbed the Arrowverse after CW’s first DC success story series, now six seasons strong, ARROW.) Fortunately, THE FLASH TV show offers an easy out.  In the series, parallel universes, or multiverses, play a major role.  The show is based on EARTH-1, and in Season 2, major plot developments circle around EARTH-2.  In a crossover episode, the Flash visits Supergirl on a third alternate earth.  And in a pivotal twist in Season 3, Flash alters the timeline, which as we’ve seen with STAR TREK (2009) can boldly go on a completely alternate course, with no continuity issues. With all of these manifestations of earth in the Multiverse, perhaps JUSTICE LEAGUE is taking place on EARTH-PRIME for audiences of EARTH-X.

It should be noted that Snyder leans heavily into the concept of a multiverse, having Diana describe Steppenwolf’s royal family of New Gods as coming from a difference universe entirely. How does she know? Who cares, the exposition is very Lord of the Rings but fore all the heavy lifting Gal Gadot does for the sake of this movie, she is no Cate Blanchette when it comes to luminous disembodied narration. Once (if) you’ve made it to this movie’s ending then you might appreciate the decision to show a good amount of what a sequel would have looked like.

The Super Fights

Aquaman in action

Just like any action film, fight scenes are critical to the Superhero genre, and today’s physics-bending CG-heavy action puts a Fight Choreographer in a unique position.  Wayne Dalglish served as Fight Choreographer for JUSTICE LEAGUE.  Dalglish is an accomplished martial arts champion, having won numerous world titles from ISKA, NASKA and NBL.  His martial roots are in Taekwondo and Shorei Ryu Karate, and as a notable testament to his talent, he was chosen for the illustrious Team Paul Mitchell at the young age of nine (Team Paul Mitchell is the leading Sport Karate professional demo team, sponsored by the well-known hair product company).  And Dalglish has worked on plenty of films already, as a stuntman as well as a Fight Choreographer and Coordinator in BATMAN V SUPERMAN, WONDER WOMAN, and crossing that great comic divide, stunts and motion-capture for DEADPOOL (2016) and Stunt Coordinator for the upcoming DEADPOOL 2 (slated for June 2018). Dalglish was renowned for his Bo staff skills, and there’s a quick nod to that with spinning Trident flourish by Aquaman, but for the most part, his choreographic style is overshadowed by the special effects.  There’s a lot of throwing superheroes and villains through walls, all CG, which doesn’t give that much latitude for complex fight scenes.

What’s more, Snyder seems obsessed with sword hotties attacking giant foes with flying flèche sword cuts.  Perhaps it is some holdover to SUCKER PUNCH, but he keeps returning to that image.  In almost every fight scene, Wonder Woman flies at a huge villain with a close-up of her gorgeous screaming face and her sword drawn back to chop.  It’s a great image but played out ad nauseam, so much so that it becomes the takeaway from every fight scene she is in.  It’s a shame because given Daglish’s background, he could have surely put together some stronger sword fights.   

Ironically, Gal Gadot sells a punch better than any of her male cast mates.  It’s somewhat reminiscent to how Scarlett Johansson delivers more intricate fight scenes as Black Widow in the Avengers movies – ScarJo was actually even pregnant during the filming of AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON (2015).  It’s tough to be the one girl in a guy club of superheroes.  However, Gadot has a real-life martial background that the others do not.  She served for two years in the Israel Defense Force as a gym trainer on a base in her native Israel.  It gives her fight scenes just a little more authenticity, at least the ones where she’s not doling out CG with flying flèche sword cuts.  

Wonder Woman and her sword

Wondering About The Wonder of Wonder Woman

By grossing over $821 million worldwide, WONDER WOMAN broke records, broke the glass ceiling for women-led and directed films, and launched a movement.  WONDER WOMAN has always been a champion for women’s rights, so much so that she was appointed as an Honorary Ambassador for the Empowerment of Women and Girls at the United Nations for real, in the real world, EARTH-X, or whatever.  On October 21, 2016, Gal Gadot, WONDER WOMAN director Patty Jenkins, and star of the original WONDER WOMAN TV show (1975-1979), Lynda Carter, were all in attendance for the ceremonial launch at the United Nations.  The goal of the U.N.’s campaign is to achieve gender equality by 2030. 

But Hollywood heads box office results and the success of WONDER WOMAN has also launched a bevy of film projects hoping to capitalize on a new emerging genre, dubbed ‘Female Strong’ – action films with female leads.  This year also saw Charlize Theron in ATOMIC BLONDE and Kim Ok-bin in THE VILLAINESS, two intensely hard-hitting ultraviolent films with female heroines, as well as MRS. K, starring veteran Kung Fu queen Kara Hui in her self-proclaimed final action film.  And coming soon the a theater near you, RED SPARROW starring Jennifer Lawrence, BRUISED starring Blake Lively, PEPPERMINT starring Jennifer Garner, PROUD MARY starring Taraji P. Henson, ANNA starring Sasha Luss (from Luc Besson), CHARLIE’S ANGELS directed by Elizabeth Banks, RED SONJA (uncast), as well as on the small screen, KATE (from the ATOMIC BLONDE crew for Netflix), HANNA (based on the 2011 Saoirse Ronan film for Amazon Prime), and surely more to come.

Although some of these projects were in development prior to the success of WONDER WOMAN, they are all now in the shadow of DC’s Amazonian princess.  And it’s the one sector where the DCEU bests the MCU completely. While Marvel Studios continue to drag their feet on a much demanded  BLACK WIDOW, it will have taken 20 movies before their first female lead  film hits theaters, CAPTAIN MARVEL  will star Brie Larson and is secheduled for 2019.  Meanwhile, the DCEU is already developing BATGIRL and GOTHAM CITY SIRENS.  GOTHAM CITY SIRENS centers on a trio of super villainesses: Catwoman, Poison Ivy, and scene-stealer of SUICIDE SQUAD, Harley Quinn.  Margot Robbie has already committed to reprising that role.

Women-led projects in the wake of WONDER WOMAN signal a potential paradigm shift.  But what will the tide bring in for the next DCEU ‘franchise chapter’?

As it happens, a lot can happen in a year or two. In the intervening years Waner Bros. released BIRDS OF PREY (2020) on the eve of what would be the calamitous global pandemic, we are all so keenly aware of. The press-screener I attended for purposes of a review remains my last visit to a public movie theater. That review can still be found online. towards the very end of that year Warner Bros. sought to redefine theatrical releases using the HBOmax online platform to release WONDER WOMAN 1984 to all subscribers. It would have been a coupe against the delayed release of MARVEL Studios’ own super-series WANDA-VISION; if only it wasn’t so embarrassing. There’s no doubt that Gal Gadot shines in the more brightly staged eighties, but returning to the low-to-the-ground fighting on display here truely shines a light on how bad an idea it was to have her swinging on a golden lasso like a certain spider-man. One can only hope a third sequel will act to redeem and bring coherence to Wonder Woman’s promising start.
Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman, on the set of Justice League

The King of the Seas

Aquaman has been the butt of many a joke, from Homer Simpson praying to him for salvation from drowning to numerous spoofs on SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE and ROBOT CHICKEN. Even in the comics, his talking to fishes has been used to comedic effect.  He even once used a “shell-phone,” get it?  It was an inspired choice to cast Jason Momoa over another blonde-haired blue-eyed actor. For an idea of how that may have looked, check out Sam Claflin’s depiction of Finnick Odair in THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE (2013).

Casting the former GAME OF THRONES heartthrob may not be as out of the blue as one may think. Cultures from the Pacific Islands are trending, as evidenced by Disney’s well received, and highly enjoyable MOANA (2016), whose source material clearly influences Aquaman’s design and portrayal. Comic artists would cry if they had to draw the intricate tattooing that adorns most of Momoa’s bare-chested hard body, and audiences should rejoice that Gal Gadot is not alone in receiving the loving gaze of a lingering camera. With plenty of shirtless Momoa and Cavill, there’s a healthy serving of beefcake, far more than the borderline gratuitous Wonder Woman booty shots.  But for those who prefer a well-executed fight scene over an animated children’s musical, one need go no further to see more of this islander trend than the brutally sanguineous THE DEAD LANDS (2014). This New Zealand made film brought their indigenous martial art of Mau Rakau to the silver screen.  Let’s see Aquaman do that with his trident.  

Momoa’s imposing physique, even among his burly buffed co-stars, is bolstered by his charismatic affability that nods playfully to the character’s iconic absurdity.  Chugging whiskey and chuckling at Batman’s costume, this is an Aquaman to party with, repeatedly. It’s something to look forward to as his titular film is scheduled to dive into theaters come Christmas 2018.  It’s the next DCEU ‘franchise chapter’ in the queue, before 2019 brings a major marvelous move (as in the original Captain Marvel, not the current Marvel comics’ version – comics have so much backstory that it gets confusing if you dive too deep).  SHAZAM will be the ‘franchise chapter’ in the wake of AQUAMAN and will feature Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson. Then it’s the return to their Amazonian ace card with WONDER WOMAN 2, assuming none of the other projects in development take precedence.  After that, CYBORG is confirmed for 2020.  

AQUAMAN will be helmed by James Wan, director of the 7th chapter of unexpectedly tenacious Fast & Furious franchise, FURIOUS 7 (2015). It will co-star Amber Heard as the water-wielding Mera, who appears all too briefly in JUSTICE LEAGUE. Fight coordination (presumably underwater) will be handled by none other than Jon Valera, fresh from his wildly successful work on THOR: RAGNAROK (2017), where he helped a modishly Polynesian-looking Hulk smash!  If AQUAMAN surpasses JUSTICE LEAGUE in the same way WONDER WOMAN surpassed BATMAN V SUPERMAN, then there’s hope that the currents will be in favor of DC’s cinematic fortunes. A cameo appearance by everyone’s favorite Amazon would surely not hurt, but preferably with a diving attack, or maybe even more Atlantian lassoing, just not anymore flying flèche sword cuts.

Ben Aflick (Batman) and Gal Gadot (Wonder Woman) with director Zack Snyder
In 2017 I wrote the review AQUAMAN: D.C’s Most Marvelous Movie for Kung Fu Magazine.If you haven’t already seen it and decided for your self, there some stuff about the martial arts behind the trident which was neat. Years later, I find myself appreciating his DCEU work and would find myself cautiously hoping for a follow-up in a year or two. I guess it’s taken me 10 years and a week to get over that Sucker Punch.

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