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Winter 2024 – Week 8 in Review

Hello folks, and welcome back to Wrong Every Time. This week in film screenings was defined by an unexpected themed project, owing to the recent dumping of basically the entire Snyderverse onto Netflix. That’s right, we watched some goddamn superheroes, munching through, if not the majority, at least a generous selection of the various Justice League-adjacent film productions. The picture that emerged was of a franchise in disarray, tonally at war with itself owing to the obvious contrast between Snyder’s preferences and Marvel’s template, forever juggling its need to appeal to a superhero-fatigued general audience with its dedication to a more angular, ‘90s-reminiscent era of comic drama. You know I like an interesting failure, so let’s dive right into Zack Snyder’s doomed empire!

Well actually, let’s skip Man of Steel entirely, as that’s precisely what my housemate did when commencing this project. Which sort of points to a fundamental issue of building the Justice League for movie audiences: Superman is both overexposed and underdeveloped, a character for whom creating interesting drama essentially requires flipping the script on what Superman fundamentally represents. Snyder, in his supremely Snyderian way, apparently decided his twist would be “what if Superman kills” – a fundamental misunderstanding of the character that would carry on into his next production.

For that is where we actually began, with the grim and gritty Batman vs Superman. This one calls back to the Frank Miller comics Snyder so obviously loves, pushing both Batman and Superman into new realms of moral ambiguity. Batman shoots guns in this one, and brands his enemies, and possesses a fervent desire to obliterate the Kryptonian who has so carelessly chosen to make earth his home. Unfortunately, if you stretch Batman and Superman’s personalities so far that they no longer resemble Batman or Superman, your story will ultimately fail to say anything about their actual personalities – and what’s more, you’ll probably alienate audiences who are actually familiar with those characters in the process.

Snyder is clearly going for one demographic and one demographic only: fans of the ‘90s grim reimaginings of classic heroes, alongside new smoldering antiheroes like Spawn and Cable. There is certainly an audience for such stories, but it’s not a Marvel-sized one; it is instead the cadre of middle-aged fanatics and their cultural successors who have evolved beyond “I love Superman because he’s cool and strong,” but not yet into the realm of understanding decency and kindness are actually more profound than cynicism and scorn.

There’s nothing wrong with making movies for that audience, and I actually quite enjoyed Batman vs Superman’s purity of form. There’s none of Marvel’s irritating, tone-deflating quip density here; just grim solemnity and grandeur, heavy punches and lots of those stirring visual compositions that Snyder does so well. The film also possesses a genuinely nuanced thematic throughline; Batman’s “no man should have the power of a god” argument is challenged and complicated throughout, with his initial complaint that Superman would be biased in his application of justice ultimately twisting around to serve as Superman’s redemption, owing to his undeniably human desire to save his mother. Both characters are framed as complex hypocrites doing their best in a troubled world, and that’s the kind of heroic revision I can absolutely get behind.

We then journeyed onward to Wonder Woman, which is less of an interesting failure than a genuinely successful, reasonably entertaining superhero film. I know, boring, right? Anyway, Wonder Woman’s period setting (Diana versus World War I) gives it some real dramatic juice right from the start, and that’s further bolstered by Chris Pine’s magnetic presence. In spite of lacking the Marvel bonafides of an Evans or Pratt, Pine is likely the actual best actor of modern Christendom, possessing the ability to go poignant and steel-hearted (Hell or High Water) or deliriously goofy (Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves). Here in Wonder Woman, he puts in one of his most impressive performances yet, nearly convincing us in the audience that Gal Gadot could have chemistry with anyone.

Because yes, Wonder Woman indeed does star Gal Gadot, and she continues to be the least talented A-lister in Hollywood. I know at this point she’s a proven selling point, and that’s really all that Hollywood producers care about, but doesn’t anyone upstairs in Hollywood actually watch movies? The woman simply cannot emote to save her life, but fortunately, as the fish-out-of-water stick-in-the-mud Diana, that sort of works for her character here. Pine and his crew of combat veteran irregulars provide a sense of warmth while naturally humanizing the overall war project, doing their level best to paper over the emotional void that is Gadot. It more or less works!

With our prep work complete, we then charged onward to the actual Justice League. And bo-ho-hoy must Snyder have gotten some notes after Batman vs Superman, because jeez, this film is in an entirely different genre. I hate to say it, but watching Justice League actually made me kinda curious about the fabled “Snyder Cut” – this film is such a hatchet job of character intros and muddy CG and quips that I simply have to assume some other version makes more sense, lest I truly accept all of those hundreds of millions were intentionally dedicated to… this.

For all its faults, Batman vs Superman at least possessed a coherent, defensible tone and a clear thematic intent. Not so for Justice League, which simply cannot decide whether it wants to continue Snyder’s grim fantasy or stop for a coffee shop AU escapade, bouncing frenetically between scenes of overwrought CG destruction and quips by friggin’ Batman. Only Momoa seems truly in his element in Justice League’s odd conflation of melodramatic heroism and self-deflating Whedonism, but that’s only because he’s the one character not stranded between incompatible conceptions of superheroic identity. I doubt Snyder’s version is good, but I imagine it’s at least coherent – this Justice League, in its desperate attempts to emulate a Marvel model that’s frankly beneath its dignity, is not.

Not content with simply witnessing the downfall of Snyder’s personal ambitions, we then struck out onwards towards his empire’s peripheral territories, checking out the generally well-received Shazam! And yeah, I can see why people like this one: charming leads, a strong found family focus, and a coherent comedic tone evocative of the Kick-Ass/Super era all make for a jaunt with focus and identity, a defiantly small-stakes adventure about finding out what and who are truly important to you.

Zachary Levi stars as the hero-sized version of Shazam!, who is actually Billy Batson (Asher Angel), a teenager on the cusp of escaping from his latest foster family. Gifted the power of the gods, Batson and his foster brother Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer) swiftly set to work exploring the limits of his abilities, and earning a sizable social media following for Philadelphia’s homegrown hero in the process.

Crucially, Shazam! focuses far more on Batson’s relationship with Freddy and desire to find his absent mother than the outcome of any titanic battles. It’s essentially a story of two lonely kids finding family in each other, meaning the humorous back-and-forth of the two testing Shazam’s limits doubles as emotional texture for its eventual high-stakes finale. The film actually feels pretty close to the opposite of a Snyder film; Snyder takes the grandeur and glory of superheroes as self-evident, whereas Shazam doesn’t take its action all that seriously, but is one-hundred-percent invested in the emotional lives of its young protagonists. And with a genuinely funny script and convincing performances by its young leads, Shazam proves the comedy superhero well has yet to entirely run dry.

We finished off our exploration of the Snyderverse with Black Adam, Dwayne Johnson’s ill-fated attempt to rise into A-list action star status. And yeah, I can see why this one failed – I don’t know if it was the direction or Johnson’s own misguided ambitions, but someone decided The Rock should restrain himself to “stoic and troubled” for this production, and unlike Cavill or Affleck, the dude just does not possess the acting capacity to pull it off.

Admittedly, Johnson’s character doesn’t really offer him much room for maneuvering. As the reincarnation of an ancient champion wracked by ambiguous-till-act-three feelings of guilt, he is narrative-bound to only halfheartedly reciprocate the provocations of Amon Tomaz (Bodhi Sabongui), the young boy serving as his guide in the modern world. Johnson only really shines when he’s playing exaggerated versions of his public persona: confident, funny, heavy on swagger, and just a touch of self-deprecation to make all the rest feel moderately relatable. While there are some fun details in the margins of this one (Pierce Brosnan plays some kind of alien-helmed sorcerer!), Johnson’s inability to flex his natural charisma in the lead role results in a frustratingly stilted experience.

And that covers our expedition into the Snyderverse! Honestly, while I have a litany of complaints about its various film features, I ultimately don’t think this project’s failure was of its own making. There is absolutely room for Snyder’s grim, majestic take on superheroes – frankly, I actually prefer his grandeur and melodrama to Marvel’s tendency to always apologize for its own genre. The project seems like it was doomed by a misinterpretation of the market; while superheroes were certainly a hot commodity when these films were first coming out, that passion was mostly a result of the Avengers’ initial momentum, which even Marvel failed to maintain in the wake of its grand finale. In truth, I’m guessing audiences were already at capacity for their superhero tolerance, and also primed for lighthearted quippery more than stone-faced solemnity. Plenty of unforced errors here, yes, but I ultimately have to see Snyder as, more than anything else, a victim of timing.

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