‘Zack Snyder’s Justice League’ is finally on the way – but does it have to take itself so seriously?

The director's superhero epic will be a dark and gritty affair, but what happened to the silly, bonkers comic book movies that used to dominate the multiplex?

For three long years the cry has gone out, on Times Square billboards, on planes buzzing major gatherings and across the Internet. A thumping chant akin to those that brought down the Berlin Wall, freed Nelson Mandela and got Snakes On A Plane made. The rich and powerful figures pulling the strings were bombarded with tweets and messages repeating its mantra, like an online pitchfork army marching on Warner Bros. ‘Justice for Justice League!’ it went. Release the Snyder Cut!

For those of you who’ve perhaps had more pressing issues on your mind of late, some background. In 2016, principal photography wrapped on DC’s hotly anticipated Justice League movie, in which some of the world’s most beloved superheroes – and a couple you hadn’t really heard of, and one who was dead (wasn’t he?) – joined forces to defeat a gigantic, box-obsessed goat bloke called Steppenwolf. Director Zack Snyder planned a lavish film running to almost four hours but Warner Bros. bigwigs, viewing a rough cut, pressured him to pare the film back to a more palatable 120 minutes. In 2017, rocked by his daughter’s suicide, Snyder stepped down from the film altogether. The brighter, zippier reshoot and edit by replacement director Joss Whedon, cutting out extraneous plot lines and characters, was hammered by critics and failed to break even by a cool $100 million.

Ever since, fans of the DC universe have been campaigning for the release of Snyder’s original epic, and likely substantially darker, vision – he is, after all, the man behind 300 and Watchmen. Finally, Warner Bros. has crumbled to fan demand and Snyder is currently completing his cut of the film, to be released in its full, unexpurgated glory on HBO Max in 2021. Snyder has been dropping hints about appearances from comic book favourites like The Atom, The Green Lantern and supervillain Darkseid – and even though his Batman v Superman flick wasn’t exactly Citizen Kane, triumphant fans are nonetheless certain that his version of its sequel will finally be the serious, Oscar worthy masterpiece that Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman and the other three deserve and demand.

Zack Snyder
The Flash, Batman and Wonder Woman in ‘Justice League’. Credit: Warner Bros.

That’s Batman, who spent the ‘60s prancing around in a skin-tight grey catsuit dodging cartoon ‘POW’s every time he thumped a henchman. And Superman, who once subdued an assailant from Krypton by smothering him in a massive cellophane version of his insignia. These are characters who’ve spent the majority of their on-screen lives being mildly camp replications of their comic strip origins. Can’t we just let them be a bit crap again?

After all, the superhero film used to be the only genre that was actively allowed to be rubbish. Their garish colour schemes, paper-thin plots, one-dimensional bad guys encased in foam rubber and headline stars that couldn’t act their way out of a speech bubble were all part of their appeal. They were 90 minutes – tops – of utterly predictable eye-candy popcorn fodder that you went to see to turn off your brain, gasp at a bit of state-of-the-art CGI and forget your shitty life exists for a few hours. They captured the joy of a firework display in that all you have to think is ‘ooh!’, ‘aaah!’ and ‘I wouldn’t get so close to that thing, mate’.

The Dark Knight
Christian Bale played Batman with a seriousness that hadn’t been seen before. Credit: Warner Bros.

At some point though – around when Christian Bale got involved – we started to take comic book films way too seriously. All of a sudden superheroes needed to be rounded characters with inner turmoils and believable motivations, not just weird vigilantes with nipples on their body armour. Fans started becoming overly precious about the canon, complaining if a particular supervillain’s second cousin’s back story contradicted a detail in Obscuricon Comics #3865 when, to refocus perspective for a second, they were fighting a hero who’d turned magic when they got bitten by a nuclear tadpole (or something).

The studios began feeding off the obsessiveness of the Internet’s new superhero devotees. Over time the movies became universes with labyrinthine spinoffs and origin stories, then started merging into trilogies of three-hour crossover epics full of emotional character arcs and interpersonal development threads. The stand-alone, self-enclosed, pop-in-out-of-the-rain superhero flick became rarer and rarer until you virtually needed a month of prequel revision and back story research before you could even consider venturing to the Vue. Then the genre turned dark, violent and gritty, and where once was a piece of colourful, throwaway entertainment we now had what was essentially fancy dress night in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. The superhero movies of 2020 are expected to aspire to Apocalypse Now in their scope, sincerity and import; they’ve entered the realm of Serious Cinema. The CGI might still be cutting edge but, in mindless escapism terms, half the time you might as well go catch a Scorsese retrospective.

Sure, we’ve enjoyed the ride of Avengers: Endgame, we appreciated the power of Joker and we’re looking forward to Netflix’s new adaptation of The Last Days Of American Crime, a comic book translated into Tarantino-esque heist thriller. But can’t we just get straight to the bit where the superhero looks like they’ve died but hasn’t, rescues the captured sidekick and blasts the seemingly invincible space villain in its handy ‘weak spot’ with their one easily definable superpower again? Let the fanatics have their dark and ponderous Snyder Cut – Synder himself deserves the closure more than anybody – but the fun, lightweight, kinda-crap-if-you-think-about-it-too-much Justice League we’ve got still stands as a classic of the superhero movie’s codpiece-over-tights tradition. And they could certainly do with a bit more of the old BIFF! BANG! POW!

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