We might live in a climate of uncertainty where one misjudged political comment threatens to ignite World War III at any moment (would somebody please mute Sean Spicer's mic?), but if one thing's for sure it's that superhero movie fans will spend the next six months passionately debating Justice League — specifically, whether or not DC's biggest movie to date will actually deliver the goods.
#JusticeLeague, of course, is a sequel to Batman v Superman, meaning the saga of Justice League is also a sequel to the saga of BvS — the hype, the too-spoilery trailers, the dreadful reviews, the huge box office returns, the fierce war fans waged against critics, and the media's ferocious, ongoing assassination of Zack Snyder and the #DCEU. The question now is whether history will repeat itself.
Warner Bros. and DC would like the saga of Justice League to follow a different pattern — hype, well-received trailers, more hype, strong reviews, record-breaking box office, and perhaps a few apologies directed Zack Snyder's way.
To that end it felt massively symbolic that they chose to drop the first proper Justice League trailer on the one-year anniversary of Batman v Superman hitting theaters. Bold move, clear message: We're doing it right this time.
As somebody who loves dark movies and finds most of the best comic book heroes (X-Men aside) on the pages of DC Comics, I would more or less kill for Justice League to be great — and after a reassessment of BvS one year on, I came to a conclusion about Zack Snyder's unique style of filmmaking. It's at once a fascinating realization and something which could prove to be the undoing of Justice League.
Zack Snyder Is Obsessed With Creating Moments
It doesn't take a particularly deep level of analysis to reach that conclusion. Anyone can see that Batman v Superman is a movie which lurches wildly, almost shamelessly from one "moment" to another. Cinema is built on iconic moments. The presence or absence of one can be the difference between a great film (like, say, David Fincher's The Social Network) and an all-time classic (like Fincher's Fight Club).
The Social Network is a superb, massively entertaining piece of filmmaking, but Fight Club has the moments which linger in the memories of all who watch it — that first punch-up in the parking lot, "The first rule of Fight Club is...", the final scene with The Narrator and Marla watching skyscrapers crash down to the ground in a moment of perfect chaos. Moments like that are what audience and filmmaker dream of.
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Batman v Superman is desperate to join the exclusive pantheon of films like Fight Club and Pulp Fiction which birth iconic moments, and Zack Snyder's almost unparalleled eye for visual iconography is both his biggest strength and weakness as a director. When he transplants scenes directly from page to screen, literally bringing comic books to life, it's breathtaking. Often those moments are done in slo-mo, like the shot of Martha's pearls being ripped from her neck, just so we can indulge longer in the beauty, in its sheer sense of epic imagery.
Nobody in their right mind could even attempt to deny Snyder's skill for creating visuals that pop. The problem is that Snyder's moments are often built entirely around that visual. It leaves no room for subtlety. You don't watch a great Snyder scene and find yourself shocked by the way it unfolded. He doesn't withhold information from the audience, like Fincher, and wait to release it at the moment of maximum impact. In other words, the moment never really involves any thought, or any big realisation that what's going on isn't what we thought was going on. It's never a game-changer. It's simply surface-level beauty.
And there's nothing wrong with that from time to time, but it's trick he repeats almost countless times throughout Dawn of Justice, without the connective tissue between moments to give them any deeper meaning or real sense of satisfaction.
To give Snyder his due, there's one exception to this criticism in Batman v Superman, and it also happens to be the very best scene in the movie.
As Senator Finch (Holly Hunter) grills a condemned Superman in front of a packed congressional hearing on Capitol Hill, she comes to two gradual, horrible realizations — the first, that the drink on her desk has been tampered with. The second, that Lex Luthor is conspicuously absent, his seat beside Mercy Graves unclaimed.
All of the groundwork which Snyder had laid in a previous scene between Finch and Luthor now comes full circle as she, and crucially, we, realize only once it's too late that Lex has orchestrated something terrible. The audience is given a couple of seconds to soak up that dread as Finch pivots the drink to read the ominous words Granny's Peach Tea scribbled on the label...
...and then a bomb detonates, instantly killing the hundreds present.
The scene works because it establishes that Lex's hyperactive personality and irritating habit of speaking a hundred words when ten would do are actually a ruse designed to make people dismiss him as a loud-mouthed, narcissistic millennial. It raises the stakes of a movie which previously had felt like much feuding about nothing. It gives him character development when he's not even on screen — that's great storytelling.
With the congressional scene, BvS succeeds in creating a moment which actually services the narrative. But it's just one, in a sea of altogether more hollow moments.
Looking forward to Justice League, then, can we expect Snyder to tone down his Snyderisms, or will the obsessive need to reach the next moment continue to eclipse actual storytelling?
The early signs are encouraging. The fact that the trailer gives away almost nothing of the plot specifics suggests Snyder is deliberately holding back this time, that the moments he creates in Justice League might operate on narrative, rather than just visual levels.
It's worth remembering that Batman v Superman was fresh territory for the director. Unlike 300 and Watchmen, which were almost shot-for-shot adaptations of graphic novels, Snyder was cherry-picking visuals from a variety of different comics. The idea of lending visual iconography to an original story was solid, but the story itself wasn't strong enough to escape the feeling that it was all style over substance.
With Justice League, easily the most important movie so far (and for the foreseeable future) in the DCEU, a director balancing both a high level of talent and a mob of very vocal critics has the opportunity to learn from what came before — and if he gets it right, Snyder's dream of creating moments which dazzle in isolation and stack up to create a genuinely great piece of cinema could finally come to fruition. That really would be a moment to remember.
Justice League hits theaters November 17, 2017.