Age Of Heroes
With Age Of Heroes, Tom Breihan picks the most important superhero movie of every year, starting with the genre’s early big-budget moments and moving onto the multiplex-crushing monsters of today.
Zack Snyder’s Justice League is a big ask: a ponderous and worshipful four-hour version of a failed blockbuster that nobody liked in the first place. But the moment that the Icelandic ladies started singing, I knew I was in.
Early in the fabled Snyder Cut, Ben Affleck’s tired-eyed Bruce Wayne goes in search of Jason Momoa’s vascular Aquaman in deepest Iceland. Aquaman, who’s not yet interested in joining the superteam, makes his dramatic bare-chested exit back into the sea. As he departs, a mob of fishing-village ladies immediately harmonizes an ethereal hymn to the fish-man. The lead maiden, a mournfully thirsty look in her eyes, grabs the sweater that Aquaman left behind, lifts it to her nose, and inhales deeply.
The scene is only a minute and a half long, but it seems to go on forever. While it serves no narrative function, it still communicates a crucial piece of information to anyone watching. The scene lets you know that you are in for some true mythic, operatic freak shit and that the next four hours will not even attempt to speak the zippy, quippy language of recent-vintage superhero cinema. If you’re going to hang with this maximalist vision, then your only option is to submit completely, to let these absurd images wash over you. The scene also helpfully indicates that you’ll be better off if you’re high.
On some fundamental level, Zack Snyder’s Justice League exists as an olive branch to a loud and very online contingent of fans. Zack Snyder’s first two DC superhero sagas, 2013's Man Of Steel and 2016's Batman V. Superman: Dawn Of Justice, were both brutalist and vaguely worshipful fever dreams—conscious attempts to cut against the grain of the Marvel entertainment machine. Both were hits, but they didn’t make as much as their MCU competition. They were also punishing trudges that took themselves seriously to comical degrees; the Batman V. Superman bit where the two warring heroes finally bonded over having mothers named Martha became an instant pop-cult punchline. As Snyder attempted to pay off all that build with his Justice League movie, Warner Bros. executives blanched, pushing Snyder to ram as much Marvel-style brightness into the finished product as possible.
Then, tragedy. When Snyder was nearly done with his version of Justice League, and still butting heads with Warner execs, his daughter Autumn died by suicide. Snyder, understandably disinterested in fighting the studio anymore, walked away from the project. DC had already brought in Joss Whedon, director of the first two Avengers movies, for rewrites. He essentially took over as director, too, reshooting much of the movie and reconfiguring the whole thing. The end result was a jarring tonal mess, a film at war with itself. This was the visionless vision of Justice League that nobody wanted.
The movie drew dismal reviews, pissed off its own audience, and did spectacularly mundane box-office business. DC’s cinematic universe pivoted away from internal consistency, instead zooming in on individual characters, one at a time. Before long, we had another Joker. Soon, we’ll have another Batman, too. DC had built up its movie hopes on the foundation of Zack Snyder’s vision, and then they had condemned that vision and demolished everything. Zack Snyder moved on to Netflix, where he could make his orgiastically hyper-violent zombie movies in peace.
But not everyone was done with Zack Snyder’s vision. After previous AV Club columns, in which I panned 300 and Watchmen and Man Of Steel, I learned firsthand that Snyder’s ride-or-dies rival the BTS Army as the internet’s most aggrieved, energetic, aggravating fanbase. So I can only imagine what happened in the Twitter mentions of every last Warner functionary. The broad strokes of the “release the Snyder Cut” fan campaign—the flying banners over Comic Con, the Times Square billboards, the fundraising drives—are well-known. The constant siege of online complaint has been less documented, but it must’ve really been something. Finally, in what amounted to an admission of institutional folly, DC announced that the Snyder Cut would be released.
When the campaign started, though, there was no Snyder Cut—or, at least, there was no finished Snyder Cut. Warner, needing content for its new HBO Max streaming service, dumped $70 million into the effort to finish it. Snyder himself completed the effects, commissioned a new score, and brought in the Justice League cast to film a few more crucial scenes.
The timing was good. Zack Snyder’s Justice League arrived on our TVs a full year into a seemingly endless pandemic, at a time when the world was starved for grand-scale spectacle of the imaginary variety. (We had, admittedly, just seen the Capitol riot, a real-life grand-scale spectacle that was the end result of a different kind of fan-army initiative.) In those depressing depths, when many of us grabbed ahold of anything that felt like a shared cultural experience, the Snyder Cut glimmered like a diamond.
It’s hard for me to imagine any universe in which I would’ve plunked down $15 to see the whole four-hour Snyder Cut in a movie theater, but that was never an option. The Snyder Cut exists in a whole different kind of attention economy. It was always a product of the internet. In a time when the internet was the only meaningful vector to interact with the rest of the world, the Snyder Cut became a flashpoint for excitement. The tribes of man came together online to defeat a common enemy: boredom. The Snyder Cut helped.
I have written plenty of unkind things about Zack Snyder’s works in the past. I actively hated both Man Of Steel and Batman V. Superman. But Zack Snyder’s Justice League got me. In its sheer Wagnerian excess, it’s clearly the vision of one person, and there is power in its preposterousness. I still don’t understand what the Motherboxes are, but Snyder treats them as something more than simple McGuffins, filming them as if they demand 2001-style religious awe. In Snyder’s hands, Superman’s temporary death leaves Lois Lane in a perpetual state of rainy greyscale Nick Cave mourning. The Flash, whose Marvel-style comic prattling gets old fast, is granted a beautifully stupid superhero meet-cute that does Whedon better than Whedon. (Shortly before the arrival of the Snyder Cut, Whedon was unmasked as an on-set shitbag, and his new villain status definitely helped drive the appetite for a de-Whedonized Justice League.)
Plenty of the bones of the Snyder Cut were evident in the theatrical Justice League, including the neat touch where Superman returns as a fearful and wrathful demon god. In that theatrical version, though, Snyder’s rhythms and sensibilities had been completely bowdlerized, the film forced into incoherence to fit a corporate-mandated two-hour runtime. The Snyder Cut, by contrast, has time to bathe in slow-mo painterly imagery, to fully savor the image of Batman perching on a skull-head gargoyle like he’s posing for a metal album cover.
In plenty of important ways, the Snyder Cut does not turn Justice League into a good movie. The dialogue is still rote, and many of the performances are still wooden. Gal Gadot still has to spout mythic exposition, which isn’t really a part of her limited skillset. Plenty of the CGI still looks like ass. The restoration of Cyborg’s grief-stricken backstory gives the character some much-needed gravitas, but it doesn’t do anything about the unfortunate decision to make him look like a half-assed Michael Bay Transformer. And while chief heavy Steppenwolf gets more context, too, he still comes across as a replaceable CGI bad guy.
Still, it’s possible to watch the Snyder Cut without feeling like a number on a spreadsheet, which has increasingly become a problem in the whole algorithm-dominated field of superhero cinema. To Snyder’s great credit, his whole Justice League vision owes very little to previous non-Snyder comic-book films. Instead, the Snyder Cut seems to be in conversation with previous generations of blockbusters. Joe Morton, for instance, essentially plays his own Terminator 2 character again. Some of the battle scenes feel like Lord Of The Rings tributes. And Snyder’s not above quoting himself: In the flashback to Darkseid’s past battle with Earth, Zeus looks a hell of a lot like Gerard Butler in 300.
The heroes of Zack Snyder’s Justice League are all, in one way or another, grappling with intense grief, usually over losing family members. There’s some poetry in Snyder finishing his version of Justice League while dealing with his own grief. Still, emotional resonance is not what I get from Zack Snyder’s Justice League. I prefer to bask in the sheer grandeur of Snyder’s imagery. You could get lost in the oddball majesty of this streaming opus, and that’s what makes it a truly pleasurable stoner movie. Maybe that’s one of the reasons it’s best experienced from your own couch.
In a lovely bit of showmanship, Snyder saved his greatest ideas for the very end. As the Snyder Cut rumbles to its close, he cuts to a desiccated nightmare future where Superman is a minion of Darkseid, where Aquaman and Lois Lane and Harley Quinn are all dead, where Batman grunts “I will fuckin’ kill you” at Jared Leto’s wisely-redesigned Joker. What a maneuver! With Snyder essentially written out of DC continuity, the man returns to reduce that continuity to charred ashes. It’s a teaser for a follow-up movie that will probably never be made. Snyder gets to coyly tease the end of his own Justice League cycle, once again firing up his fan army. And if DC never capitulates and hires him back, then Snyder never has to answer pesky questions like how the fuck the Joker was ever going to help stop Evil Superman in the first place. I love it.
If Snyder never makes another Justice League opus, that’s fine with me. The release of the Snyder Cut was not a replicable phenomenon. It was a one-time thing, lightning in a bottle. It seems unlikely that the Snyder Cut will inspire future superhero films, though it does point to a future where every fan-favorite cult object will get an all-too-extensive redux. (Taylor Swift’s chart-topping 10-minute version of “All Too Well” is essentially the pop-music version of Zack Snyder’s Justice League.) For a brief moment, though, Snyder’s portentous, overbearing revision brought a jolt of weirdo fun to a bleak time. For that alone, Zack Snyder is a hero.
Other notable 2021 superhero movies: For half of the year, with big theatrical releases still an impossibility, Marvel focused on its slate of TV series, all of which topped out at “pretty good.” By mid-summer, though, the machine was back in operation. Later this month, we’ll get to see the long-awaited Spider-Man: No Way Home, which seems likely to become the highest-grossing film of 2021. For now, though, that distinction goes to another MCU property, the fun but predictable martial-arts fantasy Shang-Chi And The Legend Of The Ten Rings—as good a demonstration as you could want of Marvel’s reliable charms and of its artistic ceiling.
I really liked Marvel’s first movie back. It’s no masterpiece, but the extended flashback Black Widow played as a zippy riff on James Bond archetypes, with some good dysfunctional-family comedy baked in. Given the drama surrounding its release and Scarlett Johansson’s lawsuit against Disney, Black Widow seems likely to stand as one final goodbye to the MCU’s early days.
Marvel’s big flex this year was supposed to be Eternals. A newly minted Oscar winner taking on a batshit story about cosmic immortals protecting Earth from interstellar hell-beasts should’ve been as ecstatically weird as Zack Snyder’s Justice League. Instead, Eternals played out as a tin-eared attempt at crowd-pleasing gruel. It showed all the limitations of the Marvel method and none of the magic. At some fundamental level, Eternals seems to resent its own existence. Marvel has made bad movies before, but none of those movies made me feel like I should stop watching Marvel movies the way this one did.
Thus far, my favorite Marvel film of 2021 has been the one that doesn’t involve the MCU (nearly) at all. Venom: Let There Be Carnage is a beautifully unpretentious B-movie that gives Tom Hardy multiple chances to act like an absolute freak and that ends mercifully after 90 minutes, a.k.a. 37.5% of a Snyder Cut. Let There Be Carnage is essentially a surrealist queer romantic comedy dressed up in knowingly unconvincing superhero-flick drag, and that’s why it rules.
DC ended 2020 with the release of the galactically stupid Wonder Woman 1984, and the Snyder Cut existed in contravention of studio strategy. But give DC credit for handing James Gunn a huge budget to make a gloriously violent blockbuster-sized Troma film. His Suicide Squad is bleak slapstick that pushes its gore to downright sickening levels, and it awaits its destiny as a barf-bag sleepover classic. Maybe it’s a little too easy to present a version of subversion that’s mostly just superheroes killing and dying gruesomely, but that shit still works on me.
Outside of Marvel and DC, the only major superhero film of 2021 is Thunder Force, a broadly comic Melissa McCarthy Netflix movie. It looks dumb.