Make Superman Great Again!

Posted: January 15, 2018 in Baer, Film, Uncategorized
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Author Brian C. Baer clearly had some complicated feelings to work through with regard to the recent release and general quality of Justice League. As such, he has been working on this analysis of the film as a reflection of the times that it was created in. While initially a bit unwieldy, Brian has pared down his thoughts into a length that’s much more manageable*. Enjoy his look at the unintentional timeliness of this film…

It’s easy to see that Zack Snyder’s Justice League was meant to address something fundamental about this moment in history. This is made clear from the film’s opening credits, with its lingering shots of newspaper headlines decrying a planet without hope, just as the real world might feel to audiences in November, 2017. The world on screen, for all its demigods and aliens, also contains terrorism and corruption and all sorts of injustice. In the DCEU, for example, Prince and David Bowie are still dead.

The world of the movie was always intended to look like one the audience left outside the theater. But when the film’s well-publicized production issues mounted, its timeliness came into sharper relief.

Only in 2017 could Warner Bros., in their zeal to recreate the fun and continuity-rich payoff of Marvel’s The Avengers, hire that film’s writer/director to rewrite and reshoot much of their film with only months to spare. Only in 2017 could the appearance of CGI characters like Cyborg and Steppenwolf vary so drastically from one theatrical trailer to another. Only in 2017 could a franchise’s fifth installment be used as a second soft reboot.

SupesAnd only in 2017 would it be so difficult to separate the product from the producers and their process. Every road bump along the making of Justice League was so well publicized that it became difficult to sit in the theater and wonder if the superheroes could defeat the alien invasion. Viewers were more likely to be wondering what scenes were reshoots, or if Henry Cavill’s mustache had been CGI’d out of certain shots, or the DCEU was doomed to collapse like Universal’s “Dark Universe” franchise, or what the eventual Rotten Tomatoes score might be.

This movie is a perfect time capsule for the age of cinematic universes and constant internet fan speculation and the overwhelming desire for pop culture figures that inspire hope. For all its flaws and highlights, Justice League may live in infamy as the most 2017 film ever made.

The year’s social and political issues are all present and typically rather transparent. The villain, Steppenwolf of Apokolips, quite literally rules by fear. Parademons, his winged infantry, can sense the emotion and are drawn to it. The more a group of people are afraid, the more powerful he becomes. Given the state of rhetoric in 2017, this feels applicable to many public figures.

aquaAquaman is overtly introduced as a superhero for the climate change era. He discusses the rising sea levels and is shown bringing food to a village that is trapped by inhospitable nature. But in Jason Momoa’s characterization, we can see he stands for more than that. At every turn, Aquaman sympathizes and sides with refugees in all forms. He seems more comfortable helping a starving, displaced family than doing the more superheroic stuff the team requires from him.

Justice League also contains a theme of recapturing the past. But that past which characters seek is typically altered or mythologized. All the better to connect it to the persistent movements to make Britain and the United States, for example, more like a past which may never have really existed.

battleThe flashback we’re given of Steppenwolf’s first defeat feels far more fantastical than anything else we’re shown in the film’s running time. The vague geography and uncertain timeframe of the sequence casts further doubt on its plausibility. The story of this battle is told to the audience by Princess Diana, who makes it sound more like a fairy tale than a history lesson.

The heroes do some recapturing of their own, with their plot to resurrect Superman. After being rendered temporarily dead at the end of Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, the character is brought back and made a more literal symbol of hope to brighten the hopeless world. This is helped by the changes behind the camera, such as post-production’s decision to lighten the film’s color palate to make the reds and blues of Superman’s suit pop.

The revision of this classic character goes deeper, though. Zack Snyder’s take on the last son of Krypton, dating back to 2013’s Man of Steel, was controversial. Some viewers found him to be too sullen or brooding. Audiences were thoroughly divided by his city-smashing duel with General Zod, not to mention snapping the villain’s neck. But the prologue to Justice League, set either before or during Batman V Superman, is just an extended close-up of Henry Cavill being patient, humble, and charming. The team states that resurrecting Superman may result in him coming back “different”. The film asks us to believe he was different than we’ve seen him before, even in this same franchise.

bvs2This theme is an apt reflection on the state of Warner Bros. and the DCEU, as well. The cross-brand franchise was born out of Man of Steel, a film that consciously bucked the traditions of previous incarnations. Unlike Superman Returns, which had gleefully encumbered itself with the style and continuity of the Richard Donner films from thirty years before, the DCEU was designed to be tough and gritty and modern. There was no room for nostalgia or tradition. But with the exception of Wonder Woman, the films middled with audiences and critics even as they turned profits. With an eye on the critical and commercial darlings made by their rivals, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the DCEU wanted products that could really win over the fans.

This is where Joss Whedon, the last-minute co-writer and uncredited co-director, fits in. As the writer/director of the first two Avengers films, he knew the right tone to strike for successful blockbuster superhero team flicks, and as a lifelong comic book fan, he knew how audiences wanted to see these popular characters portrayed. While he softened the rough edges and lightened the color palate, he also hired on Danny Elfman to rescore the film. Elfman had previously scored the two popular Tim Burton Batman films in the early ‘90s, and sure enough, strains of that theme tune are heard at pivotal moments in Justice League. While still a very different portrayal of Batman, the music attempts to tie Ben Affleck to Michael Keaton. More telling than this is the iconic John Williams suite from Superman: The Motion Picture that can be heard when the Henry Cavill incarnation swoops in to defeat Steppenwolf.

The struggle over how much of the past to accept into modern society, and the argument over how much of the past even happened the way we believe it did, is central to 2017. This has played out across headlines all year. We’ve seen it in the expectations of an incoming administration, Brexit negotiations, the removal of Confederate Civil War statues, and just how much an old fashioned “boys club” mentality leads to workplace sexual harassment.

While other superhero films have reflected social issues (the LGBTQ metaphors in X2) or the state of society (the focus on post-911 mentality in The Dark Knight), never before has such a specific moment in history been captured during that very same moment. Time will show how memorable Justice League is, but it will always function as a time capsule for the year of its release.

*Feel free to start the petition for Comic Book Media to release Brian’s Ultimate Director’s Cut of this article in the comments.

  1. briancbaer says:

    Reblogged this on .


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