Wonder Woman has appeared in cinemas twice since Gal Gadot graced our screens earlier this year, donning the gold tiara and swinging her truth lasso. The first, a biopic of the superhero’s real-life creator, Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, shows how greatly the character has been homogonised since her progressive, button-pushing origins in the 1940s. Her history in bondage was a rejection of the damsels in distress trope, and means to become “an emblem of dominance through submission”.
The second, director Zack Snyder’s Justice League, shows Wonder Woman’s rather different and dispiriting position in the current, male-dominated blockbuster dojo: as token woman in a testosterone-charged boys’ club. Everybody knows – to borrow the title of a Leonard Cohen song – that Hollywood has a big gender problem, and instead of countering it (Rome wasn’t built in a day, etcetera) the Amazonian warrior’s presence in this mostly charmless superhero mash-up only draws attention to it.
A melancholic version of that song, Norwegian pop star Sigrid’s pristine voice replacing Cohen’s gravelly baritone, plays during early moments of Snyder’s film, as America comes to terms with the recent death of Superman (Henry Cavill). The director replicates the formula of his high impact, Bob Dylan-infused intro credits to 2009’s Watchmen, deploying the poet’s famously sardonic lyrics, though the meaning of the song appears to escape him: it is about things everybody knows to be true but are uninterested in changing, or powerless to do so.
The villain, as is the case in many of these movies, is indistinguishable from countless other mythically styled brutes.
One would have thought it was the opposite way around in Justice League, being about a chivalrous super-powered ensemble determined to prevent humankind from going to the dogs. There is never a chance that Superman will become, as Cohen put it, “a shining artifact of the past.” Some may wonder if – or to what extent – the Man of Steel will be used as a deus ex machina, airlifted into the narrative by the screenwriters (Chris Terrio and Joss Whedon) at an opportune moment.
The villain, as is the case in many of these movies, is indistinguishable from countless other mythically styled brutes, who are indestructible for most of the running time then all of a sudden extremely vulnerable. Beastly alien monster Steppenwolf (played in motion capture by Ciarán Hinds) is determined to wield absolute power by taking possession of three ‘mother boxes’, which, if I interpreted this correctly, are supercomputers nobody knows how to operate.
It is up to the Justice League to stop him. The group, excluding the incapacitated Superman, consists of rich man Batman (Ben Affleck), robot man Cyborg (Ray Fisher), aqua man Aquaman (Jason Momoa), and, for comic relief, wisecracking man-child The Flash (Ezra Miller). In one scene the group are positioned underneath a harbour, so water can flood in and Aquaman can save the moment. Elsewhere Woman Wonder leaps through the air after her sword, which she needs awful quick but is just out of reach – so The Flash runs to it and nudges the weapon in her direction.
Not all the candy-coloured bombast in the world can disguise the fact that Ben Affleck, the mopiest Batman of all time, clearly doesn’t want to be here.
The screenplay configures, as one might expect, dilemmas for the characters to overcome by using their powers. This is a contrived way of writing, but not without a satisfying problem solving element. Sadly, Justice League then degenerates into a jumbled free-for-all, in the anything-goes, brand-colliding, biff-n-boff spirit of Nintendo’s Super Smash Brothers.
Prior to the screening I attended, a prize was offered for the best dressed, and a handful of people in cosplay were judged by audience clap-o-meter. On his way back to his seat, the victor – The Flash – exclaimed “we’re all winners!” The joke proved strangely prophetic. Snyder, who withdrew mid-shoot following a family tragedy (with Joss Whedon taking over) sends his champion character to the frontline, giving the rest of the team coach’s awards – as if to say ‘congratulations for trying’.
Justice League is visually competent, Snyder and cinematographer Fabian Wagner heavy on motion and tracking shots, an image moving one way often cutting to another continuing the direction, which has a fluid quality. Predictably, that delicacy gets thrown out the window when the special effects go into overdrive. Not all the candy-coloured bombast in the world can disguise the fact that Ben Affleck, the bulkiest and mopiest Batman of all time, clearly doesn’t want to be here, triggering memories of the #SadAffleck meme. Ben, we feel your pain.
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