A four hour movie about fighting invading hordes can obviously not be about nothing. It has a very basic plot that we can all follow. Famously, only Ghostbusters is a movie about nothing. It has a plot, but it is thematically empty. Even the most cookie-cutter Hollywood movie gives someone, somewhere, something. I find meaning in most of them, I freely admit. Art is subjective, yada, yada. So I was surprised to find myself at an absolute loss after four hours of punching aliens. I love watching aliens getting punched, I even like it in Man of Steel, but this left me empty. What is Zack Snyder’s Justice League about?
The plot is simple (that’s not a criticism): Batman made a promise after the death of Superman to unite the heroes of earth to meet the coming alien threat. He does, they resurrect Superman, fight the bad guy, the end. Steppenwolf, the bad guy, wants to conquer the earth for his master Darkseid. He does this by uniting three AI computer boxer into The Unity, which can then rearrange matter to his tastes, in this case make earth a desolate planet and its inhabitant into parademons. The team consists of Batman, Wonder Woman, Flash, and Cyborg (and eventually Superman).
We all know how the “Snyder Cut” came to be by now. Like the fans of Sherlock writing letters protesting his fictional death (the tweeting of the day), they managed to resurrect the dead. The result is a four hour experience that tells a much more coherent tale than the original. The motivations are clear, the action more engaging, and as a consequence the final hero pose is more deserved. As the credits rolled I found myself thinking about what the story I had just watched told me, and I found myself surprised by drawing a blank. Let me go through my own various interpretations and how I came up short.
My first instinct, and I’m certain I’m not alone in this, is to say the movie is about teamwork. Batman repeats that he made a promise to Superman, and when the team is assembled, that promise is fulfilled. We could extrapolate from this and say that the film wants us to see how they have learned the lesson of Batman V. Superman. We need to come together and realise we have much more in common than we think.
The great irony that the team needs to unite in order to break apart the Unity is, obviously, very obvious. I leave it here without comment.
The teamwork, the putting aside of our differences, falls flat or completely apart when taken as a whole. The film doesn’t really revolve around the great difficulty of uniting the team. Flash is “you had me at “I’m Batman”, no difficulty recruiting there. The blink-and-you’ll-miss-it conflict between the Amazons and the Atlanteans is dismissed in the movie by Aquaman. He hasn’t accepted the throne of Atlantis, so he has no stake in whatever old grudge Wonder Woman is trying to bury, so we don’t either.
Cyborg is a bit reluctant, but needs only a single conversation to join. His story might hint to another reading. He has a “I’m not a monster, I’m not alone” lesson to learn. Despite his much better storyline in this version, his ultimate lesson seems to say that suicide through sacrifice is noble and morally obligatory, a staple of such films. It’s a reinforcement of the lesson Superman taught us in the previous movie. We need not worry that this grim lesson is left standing, however, because both sacrifices amount to nothing. So the big take away seems to be that superheroes are indestructible.
The next overarching theme I tried to extract was that we can’t hide ignore the fight just because it doesn’t threaten us directly. It is our moral duty to help when we can. It’s a lesson the Martian Manhunter (what is art, really, I think, as I type this out) espouses at the end of the film, presumably from watching the big heroes fight. He has finally taken an interest in the world. I can’t even begin to say how few straws this theme has for us to grasp at.
The main problem, I think, that undermines any attempt to read such noble themes into the film is the utter lack of humanity. Apart from the few scientists kidnapped by Steppenwolf, and Lois Lane (who is given a supernatural level of significance anyway and so doesn’t really count), there is no humanity in this film. It’s like the film is terrified someone will accused them of treating humanity as expendable, as in Man of Steel, so instead of engaging with that question it simply removes humanity. I don’t just mean the lack of regular humans, but normal human emotions. Lines fall flat, faces look bored, and the one emotional loss in the film barely gets any time at all in a four hour movie. If the film is about anything, surely it is that we all have to come together and fight for our home, for earth? But there is no one here to fight for, only other superheroes, all indestructible. Even the vision Cyborg has of a destroyed earth features no destroyed humanity. It is instead centered around Wonder Woman’s funeral and the losses our superheroes might experience.
After 3,5 hours the story concludes, but the film was not done.Snyder left nothing on the cutting room floor. It’s not so much a director’s cut, but everything they ever shot for the film. The last sequence is confusion itself. Not because I don’t understand what happens beat by beat, but I honestly have no idea what it wants to say. Superman will one day have a Wanda moment and destroy the world? I was watching a film placing laughable future sequel promises, with no intention of ever fulfilling them. It felt like a failed experimental art piece commenting on the superhero genre’s problem with passing the buck to sequels.
Ghostbusters is argubly about nothing, but it gives me a lot. Entertainment, affection for the characters, awesomeness, quotes, and much more. Mentioning that film is not meant as a comparison. I just note it as a way to say what I mean when I say this film is about nothing. Justice League is probably about a lot for a lot of people, but it is the first film that gave me nothing. It gave me no entertainment or message or cool Snyder scenes to admire. It gave me no annoyance or disagreement or love-to-hate it feelings either.
The only thing I can say is that the film is about indestructible superheroes in an indestructible Hollywood machine. It tells us that no force from anywhere in the universe can change the outcome of a superhero movie. Everyone goes back home, the film ends, the film tells us about the next threat that will be the same as the previous one, only there will be bigger fights, the film ends again.
In this way perhaps Zack Snyder’s Justice League is the most honest superhero movie yet? It is about nothing else.