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A Mighty Heart

In A Mighty Heart, Angelina Jolie finally proves her Oscar win wasn't a fluke —Matt Anderson (DVD review...)

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Zack Snyder’s Justice League fixes the most egregious problems with the Joss Whedon cut, but it also introduces a fresh round of troubles.

Cut!

Super friends meet Commissioner Gordon
Super friends meet Commissioner Gordon

The best thing about this extended cut is it has a completely different conclusion that outshines the pathetic climax of the theatrical release. The Whedon cut featured an ending that was so lame, it was baffling (Whedon’s screenwriting credit has been removed from the Snyder cut). The new ending is better. However, it goes on and on as pieces are put in place for the series that was expected to follow. Sometimes less is more, but that’s hardly the lesson here.

It’s surprising how much from the theatrical version has been excised. Unfortunately, gone are the lighter elements Whedon brought, including a kinda cute opening of smartphone footage capturing Superman talking to a couple kids. This is now fully Snyder’s “O woe is the world” view of superherodom. Personalities, humor and sunshine, ye be banished here. Somewhere between the two versions there’s a Super-Duper Extra-Deluxe Cut that offers a little more balance.

Zack Snyder’s Justice League certainly serves as a legitimate alternative to the MCU. The fact it even exists is something of a marvel in its own right (and pardon that allusion). Buoyed by fan outcries after Whedon butchered Justice League (the endgame of Snyder having to leave the movie after a personal family tragedy), Snyder was given $70 million to go back and finish the movie as he originally envisioned it. The result — and it’s not all that cynical of an observation — is available exclusively on the recently launched HBO Max (which rolls under the parent company of WarnerMedia) in order to pump up subscriber interest.

It’s a different headspace. It’s R-rated and clearly not aiming at mass appeal. As a single standalone movie, though, it tries to do too much. Hence its unwieldy four-hour run time that never would’ve flown as a theatrical experience (fully twice as long as the 2017 theatrical cut). That’s part of the beauty of the MCU’s approach. Characters have been introduced via standalone movies over the course of 12 years; Justice League throws in major new characters — Flash and Cyborg among them — without giving them the space they need to grow their appeal.

Much of what ailed the Whedon cut still ails the Snyder edition. Ben Affleck’s Bruce Wayne is still in a tug-of-war with George Clooney’s for the bottom rung. Jesse Eisenberg is still a poor choice for Lex Luthor. The romance between Superman and Lois Lane is still every bit as cold as pre-explosion Krypton.

It all starts with this bit of fan service, a title card before the movie begins: “This film is presented in a 4:3 format to preserve the integrity of Zack Snyder’s creative vision.” That 4:3 aspect ratio is intended to retain the presentation of the IMAX format. And that vision brings back Tom Holkenborg’s score – replaced by Danny Elfman in the theatrical cut. It’s nearly wall-to-wall music that ends with a pretentious addition: Allison Crowe covering Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah over the end credits. Eyes roll along with the credits.

So, apparently, back in 2017 Warner Bros. didn’t care to preserve Snyder’s creative vision in virtually every sense possible. And the statement is rather disingenuous in itself. In conjunction with this Snyder cut, Batman v Superman has been rereleased on digital with enhanced color and the 4:3 aspect ratio restored, but that version is not available on HBO Max. Ostensibly, the preservation of integrity has its limits in the otherwise limitless world of streaming.

Style!

In 2006, Zack Snyder pioneered a certain style of filmmaking with 300. It was as if movies and graphic novels got together and had a baby, one with such an over-achieving macho mindset it bordered on the Pythonesque level of self-parody.

The problem is that style of filmmaking has its boundaries. Ultimately, it becomes less of a filmmaking exercise and transforms into something more akin to motion comics. Here’s the bottom line: Snyder’s cut is four hours which includes a remarkably small amount of natural light and an overabundance of CGI sets and landscapes. Even in the handful of scenes filmed on location and not overrun by CGI in post-production, the sky tends to be overcast.

The end effect is like watching somebody else play a video game for four hours. A sense of the tactile, a grounding in some level of reality, is all but gone. How will this movie hold up 50 years from now? It might very well be dismissed the way some pass by the groundbreaking efforts of Ray Harryhausen; but he put the effects in their place, in service to the story. To make the impossible seem possible.

The artifice doesn’t even attempt to capture a sense of photorealism. It gets tiresome and it’s a problem that’s not limited to Snyder’s approach. So much of Justice League (pick your cut) — by way of both look and story elements — feels like Marvel’s Avengers: Infinity War. Arguably, that’s the second worst of the current 23 MCU theatrical entries, behind only The Incredible Hulk (2008). Infinity War didn’t even feel like a movie, there was so much CGI, such lack of humanity and such a fixation on technology. But the Russo brothers brought that same sense of over-engineered artifice to their latest effort, Cherry. It’s a much smaller movie about a drug-addled army vet who robs banks to pay for his habit. But the heart and heartache were buried under distracting film technique.

Snyder is – at the very core — all technique. If Justice League dialed it down on the CGI and brought a focus back on humanity — a reason to care, a sense of gravitas – there’d be a compelling movie on the screen. As it stands, after making it through this somber extended exercise, there’s an overwhelming desire to go outside and hug a tree. To bask in some sunshine. To feel... anything.

Action!

There goes the sun
There goes the sun

One of the then-perceived positive aspects of the theatrical Justice League was it felt a little breezier and more energetic than Snyder’s typical slogs (such as Watchmen and Batman v Superman — which also received extended cuts on home video). There was reason to be cautiously optimistic the DC cinematic universe had turned the corner and was going to be fun again — something further borne out with Wonder Woman’s standalone features.

But, alas, Snyder’s brought back the gloom, the doom, the somber and sucked the fun right back out with this R-rated edition that includes a few “F” bombs amid the burdensomely dark tone that sets this one’s target audience at the most patient and dedicated of basement dwellers.

The fact this cut breaks the story out into six chapters — each given a title — and a 20-minute epilogue makes it clear Snyder is still obsessed with the graphic novel experience. It’s all about creating celluloid frames that recreate comic book frames. For all the effort, for all the money and for all the creative power both in front of and behind the camera, it’s jarring the end result engenders the same emotional and intellectual sensations as the old Hanna-Barbera Super Friends cartoons. It’s an odd miscarriage of filmmaking.

At one point, Wonder Woman rescues a class of schoolgirls on a tour. As one girl stares up at her in astonishment, she tells the girl, “You can be anything you want to be.” It’s a great response — and it’s not in the theatrical cut.

That’s where the story’s focus could’ve — and should’ve — been. Even as Diana Prince and Bruce Wayne corral others to join their league, a powerful theme could’ve hung on that line. Do you, girl. Do you, dude. And make the world a better place while you’re at it.

Instead, it’s all about the dark side, led by Darkseid, Steppenwolf, Lex and the tease of other super villains. Plenty of dark, but so little light.