Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Zack Snyder's Justice League: A Modern Take on Le Morte D'Arthur

Left: a still from Excalibur (1981) with Nigel Terry as King Arthur on his wedding day. Right: from Man of Steel (2013) with Henry Cavill as Superman/Kal-El, sitting in a church. Neither are particularly subtle about Christological references.

This month marked the 40th anniversary of a film adaptation of Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur: John Boorman's Excalibur, released on April 10, 1981. It was an R-rated, dark-and-edgy take on an already-dark spin by a hardened War of the Roses veteran on the superheroes of Malory's day: Arthur, Lancelot, Gawain, and Guinevere. The 1981 film befuddled critics as overly long, unfocused, pretentious and self-serious... but utterly beautiful to look at. Roger Ebert began his review this way: "What a wondrous vision 'Excalibur' is! And what a mess. This wildly ambitious retelling of the legend of King Arthur is a haunting and violent version of the Dark Ages and the heroic figures who (we dream) populated them." Play the trailer below for a glimpse of what he meant.


Excalibur is now a cult classic which I'd honestly have a hard time recommending to casual audiences, but it did kickstart the careers of several household-name actors today, including Patrick Stewart (as Leodegrance), Liam Neeson (as Gawain), and even Helen Mirren (as Morgana le Fay). The movie also left quite an impression on a then-14 year old Zack Snyder. Snyder has made a name for himself in directing spectacular film adaptations of comic books such as 300 and Watchmen, but of all the movies that must've influenced him over the years, Snyder rates Excalibur as his #1 favorite; in his words, "the perfect meeting of movies and mythology". Excalibur's influence is felt throughout his latest release: Zack Snyder's Justice League, which debuted last month on the HBO Max streaming service.

"Now, wait a minute", you say. "Last month? Didn't I already see that flop back in 2017, or on cable sometime since then?" No, my friends. I'm being stone cold serious when I say that Zack Snyder's Justice League, aka the Snyder Cut--despite having the same cast and overall plot as that 2017 abomination--is fundamentally a different movie. This is not a director's cut in the usual sense of the word, even considering ones that have more-or-less replaced the original theatrical releases such as Ridley Scott's Blade Runner: The Final Cut or Zack Snyder's own Batman v Superman: Ultimate Edition. The 2017 release has as much right to be called "Zack Snyder's Justice League" as the zombified corpse of a long-dead loved one has the right to be called grandma. 

Before we continue, a brief recap for the uninitiated: the short version of this drama is that Justice League was the third installment of a planned 5-film arc to jumpstart a series of interconnected movies for Detective Comics characters, to compete with Disney's incredibly lucrative Marvel Cinematic Universe. The first two, Man of Steel (2013) and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016), were darker and more serious takes on superhero cinema than the Marvel films. During the filming, the studio executives of Warner Bros. were alarmed by the under-performance of Zack Snyder's previous films at the box office and demanded extreme rewrites for a lighter, more family-friendly tone. A tragedy occurred when Autumn, one of Snyder's eight children, committed suicide. Snyder stepped down as director to take care of his family and the studio hired Joss Whedon (director of the first two Marvel Avengers films) to replace him, overseeing post-production and 2 months of extensive reshoots, with a studio mandate to cut the final runtime down to 2 hours. The final result was a mess that decimated entire character backstories, filled the gaps with bad jokes and visual gags, and made no one but the studio bosses happy. (They needed to get the movie released before WB's impending merger with AT&T in order to get their bonuses.) Ever since then, all attempts to sustain a shared film universe for DC Comics characters have stalled. Every DC movie since 2017 has been a solo adventure that essentially ignores Snyder's work.

The villain Steppenwolf, completely redone in postproduction for a much more fearsome look in the Snyder Cut (right). Steppenwolf is played by Ciaran Hinds, the only actor to appear (in some form) in both Excalibur and Justice League.

And then... Covid-19 happened. The film industry ground to a halt and most movie theaters suspended operations entirely, but massive numbers of people were stuck at home with a lot more time to watch TV. To be clear, Covid-19 and its aftereffects have wrecked serious, long-term damage to our social fabric. But... if there's just one thing I can be thankful for over this past year, it would be that Covid gave us the necessary conditions for Warner Bros. to roll the dice and indulge the fans. Snyder was granted $70 million to finish the cut of the movie he had on his laptop all these years and make it fit for home release in order to shore up subscribers for HBO Max (owned by WarnerMedia). This included bringing Ben Affleck back in costume to shoot a new Batman scene during Covid-tide. At last, Zack Snyder's Justice League premiered at a whopping 4 hours 2 minutes: exactly the same as Kenneth Branagh's 1996 adaptation of Shakespeare's Hamlet, the longest major studio theatrical release in history! It took me a little while, but after first rewatching Man of Steel and Batman v Superman with some friends at my house (which they had never seen), we watched the Snyder Cut over two sittings. They had never seen the "Whedon cut" for Justice League either, so their viewing here was unsullied by past experiences.

So, how was it? My impression is best summed up by quoting something said to Superman by his natural father, Jor-El (played by Russell Crowe) first in Man of Steel and replayed in the Snyder Cut: "in time, they will join you in the sun, Kal. In time, you will help them accomplish wonders." In context, Jor-El is reassuring his son that the people of Earth will eventually accept him as a hero, even if they're afraid of him at first. As a viewer, I mean to say that if the Snyder Cut was actually the original 2017 release all along, I don't think I would've appreciated it as much back then as I do now. I left the theater in 2013 after seeing Man of Steel with a vague sense of disappointment. In 2016, Batman v Superman just felt a little too left-field. But now, revisiting them all as a (slightly!) older man, I have a better understanding of where Zack Snyder was coming from with these takes, and I'm here to say that I am now all in for it.... even the not-so-subtle Christological references with Superman. 4 hour runtime? I hope the next one is 6 or 7! 

"In time, they will join you in the sun, Kal. In time, you will help them accomplish wonders."

A (mostly) spoiler-free review

Understanding that most of my readers tend to stop by here more for my thoughts on history and religion rather than because they share my love of comic book cinema, it seems like a good idea to include a spoiler-free synopsis based on the assumption that you haven't seen any of these movies before:

Zack Snyder's Justice League continues the story right where Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) left off, which in turn continued the story of Man of Steel (2013). Man of Steel is a complete origin story for Superman, as played by Henry Cavill, which is less interested in "truth, justice, and the American way" as it is a first-contact story, answering "what if an invincible alien actually crash-landed into the world as we know it and was raised by humans?" Batman v Superman continues to grapple with that idea, with special focus on the trauma caused by the destruction of large parts of the city of Metropolis during the final fight between Superman and his adversary, General Zod, which led to upwards of 5,000 in civilian casualties. Batman, as played by Ben Affleck, is introduced in this world as an older vigilante who's grown weary after 20 years stalking the night with seemingly little progress to show for his efforts. Wonder Woman, as played by Gal Gadot, appears for the first time ever in a major motion picture as a demigoddess who has been hiding among the world of mortal men for a hundred years. Both films are necessary viewing to appreciate Justice League. There is also a standalone origin story for Wonder Woman (2017) which is widely regarded as one of the best movies in the entire comic book film genre. It's not necessary, but it certainly helps, and was designed to integrate into Snyder's series. Finally, while the Dark Knight trilogy of Batman films portrayed by Christian Bale are not part of the Justice League continuity, their director--Christopher Nolan--was the man who handpicked and anointed Zack Snyder to succeed him for future DC films. Nolan was a producer for all of the Snyder DC films, and his influence is still present throughout these pictures to varying degrees.


The very first scene in the Snyder Cut takes us back to the climax of the second film, whereby the last anguished cry of the slain Superman (I'll explain later why that's not a spoiler) echoes across the entire world, awakening one out of three ancient artifacts called Motherboxes. Like Sauron's One Ring of Power, the Motherboxes call out to their creator, a galactic conqueror of worlds known as Darkseid. Each one has been in the care of the races of Earth for millennia: humans, Atlanteans, and Amazons. Together, they have the power to reshape worlds, and so put Earth on the crosshairs of one of Darkseid's chief minions: his uncle Steppenwolf (played by Ciaran Hinds), who has been disgraced by past failures and is desperate for a major victory to regain his master's good graces. Against impossible odds and wracked with guilt over his role in bringing about Superman's death, Bruce Wayne, aka the Batman, travels across the globe to honor Superman's sacrifice and assemble a team of superpowered individuals to save Earth from the brink of total annihilation.

Unlike Marvel's first Avengers film, which built upon five standalone movies before trying to mash their heroes together on a single set, DC seems to have taken the opposite approach by introducing a bunch of characters at once and hoping for successful solo movies later. The single biggest cause for the 4-hour runtime is in adding the necessary exposition for us to sufficiently care about three new heroes: Aquaman, the Flash, and Cyborg. The first two need little introduction, but the last is less familiar. Brought on the page in 1980, Cyborg is the "newest" of the Justice League characters, but proves to be the lynchpin of the ensemble in this telling. Victor Stone (played by Ray Fisher) is a college football player who loses his mother and very nearly dies himself after an auto accident, until his absentee father--a lead scientist at STAR Labs--uses a Motherbox to rebuild Victor's body in a last-ditch attempt to save his life. Now more machine than man, Cyborg resents his new form and his father's efforts to repair their relationship. Every member of the League has problems, but Cyborg carries the biggest burden in this film; its greatest story arcs revolve around his path toward reconciling with his father and his fate.

Ray Fisher's performance as Cyborg, almost completely gutted in the 2017 release, is now restored to the point of being almost the main character.

If I continue to dwell on the tragic backstories, the relative lack of jokes and witty banter compared to the Marvel films, the distinct Snyder-isms like constant slow motion shots and moody chiaroscuro lighting that probably doesn't translate well on lesser-grade TV screens, and that 4-hour runtime, I run the risk of sending most of you running as far from this movie as possible. But I'm here to tell you that these are all features, not bugs! A month ago, if you had asked me whether I preferred Marvel or DC movies, I would have picked Marvel (with an exception for DC's Batman, of course). But after Zack Snyder's Justice League, I see the entirety of Snyder's vision for the DC franchise with new eyes. A convert's zeal. Now, at last, I see where he was going with those crazy Superman stories, and it's honestly more brilliant than I ever expected. The entire premise of the "Snyderverse", as his movies are collectively called, hinges on the viewer buying into one idea: that comic books are myths for the modern age. If you can think of Superman and Wonder Woman on the same terms as Hercules or Beowulf, you just might suspend your disbelief enough to be taken in for one heck of a ride. On this basis, I rate Zack Snyder's Justice League a 9 out of 10 on my scale of comic book movies. That places it on the same rating I would give The Dark Knight, the first Wonder Woman, and Avengers: Infinity War/Endgame. My only 10/10 on this scale is (for my own highly subjective reasons) The Dark Knight Rises.

Comic book characters as mythic heroes: a legitimate take?

Am I really saying that DC Comics are worth teaching in school or held on par as classical literature? No, of course not. But it's perfectly legitimate to accept that stories grow up with their tellers. They evolve over the generations until they become something else entirely. Even retelling the same story over and over again with slight variations--such as, for example, the murder of Bruce Wayne's parents (1989 in Batman, 1995 in Batman Forever, 2005 in Batman Begins, 2016 in Batman v Superman, 2019 in Joker)--isn't necessarily a bad thing as long as each version speaks effectively to another audience. I've said before on this blog that medieval storytellers would have been confused by modern critics' preoccupation with "original stories". For them, "original" (if they ever really used that word at all, as we think of it) was more literal: getting back to the origin--that is, the heart--of an idea. It's why they enjoyed telling the stories of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table over and over again, changing things here or there, adding a twist or two, and openly ripping other storytellers' ideas without attribution. Each telling brought a few more "fans" into the mythos until Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae, which told of Britain's founding by the Trojans and King Lear dividing the realm among his three daughters as matters of real history, exported the legend of Arthur everywhere across the European continent. Chrétien de Troyes added Lancelot to appeal to French audiences, but now we can hardly imagine the Round Table without him. 

The most definitive of all Arthurian works was a compilation by Sir Thomas Malory: Le Morte d'Arthur, one of the first books ever printed by Caxton's press in England. It was the first major work of fictional prose in the English language. I introduced this book at the beginning of this article as a darker take--at least in some ways--on familiar stories. In Malory's world, even the noblest knights are not spared from ambition, treachery, and doom. After all, Arthur's fate is spoiled in the very title... and why I thought, from a medieval point of view, mentioning the fact that Superman dies at the end of Batman v Superman isn't much of a spoiler. (Indeed, that plot point was based the comic book arc "The Death of Superman" from 1993. The ending was given in the title specifically to stir up comics sales.) This bleaker outlook isn't too surprising when considering the author. Sir Thomas Malory was a warrior and parliamentarian who fought on both sides of the tumultuous Wars of the Roses. He played the game of thrones, switching his allegiance from York to a pact with Warwick the Kingmaker to oust Edward IV. Aside from conspiracy to treason, Malory's extensive rap sheet included highway robbery, breaking and entering, and even "rape" (which at the time may have been consensual adultery). It was during his time in prison that he wrote Le Morte d'Arthur. It was not printed until 1485, about 14 years after Malory's death. The book enjoyed several reprints until Cromwell and the Puritans held England hostage to a decade of dourness. From there, Le Morte d'Arthur languished in obscurity until the Romantic and Medievalist revivals of the 19th century. We have Malory to thank as the primary inspiration for Tennyson's Idylls of the King and, into the 20th century, T.H. White's The Once and Future King.

This brings us back full circle to the most faithful adaptation of Le Morte d'Arthur on film, as proclaimed on the movie posters themselves: John Boorman's Excalibur. It opens with the retelling of Book I--how Arthur was conceived--in graphic detail. King Uther Pendragon lusts after the Duke of Cornwall's wife, Igrayne, and begs for a sorceror's aid. Merlin casts a spell to allow Uther to enter Igrayne's bedchamber in the likeness of her husband, but in return, Uther must give up the child that results from this unnatural union. So begins an attempt to capture the epic scope of Malory's book, the  entire life of King Arthur, over a paltry 2 hours and 20 minutes. Nigel Terry plays as Arthur in all stages of his adult life, from when he first draws the sword from the stone to when he sails away for Avalon, weathered by age and the trauma of having to kill his own son born from incest. Throw in a bunch of gritty battles with awkward grunting and other sound effects, Guinevere's adultery with Lancelot, a crow gouging an eye out from a corpse, a final battle against Mordred with Carl Orff's "Carmina Burana" roaring in the background, and this overarching theme of how the arrival of Christianity and Camelot gradually sever man's connection to nature and magic, and you have Excalibur. Whatever John Boorman was trying to do with this movie, it certainly wasn't for parents to keep their kids entertained for a couple hours so they could do some shopping in peace. 

I honestly don't count Excalibur among my own all-time favorites, but I appreciate what it tried to do: re-adapt and elevate the Arthurian mythos into an epic for modern times. It kicked off an entire decade of sword-and-sorcery movies ranging from Conan the Barbarian to Legend, Ladyhawke, and The Princess Bride... but none of these stand out as bold and weird as Merlin, with a chrome plate for hair, saying with utmost seriousness for the camera, "The days of our kind are numberèd. The one God comes to drive out the many gods. The spirits of wood and stream grow silent. It's the way of things. Yes... it's a time for men, and their ways."

Nicol Williamson and Helen Mirren as Merlin and Morgana. They disliked each other in real life, which director John Boorman felt made their performances more convincing.

The Round Table, reborn

Have you ever wondered why the stories of King Arthur's court emphasized the shape of his furniture? According to the Norman author Wace, Arthur ordered a round table so that his knights would no longer quarrel amongst themselves at their seating order in the court. In a world defined entirely by hierarchies, the Round Table captured the medieval imagination by letting people imagine a place where great men held each other as equals. Among them sat Kay, Arthur's own foster brother. Perceval, the first quester for the Holy Grail. Lancelot, whose forbidden love divides the court against each other. His son Galahad, purest of all knights. Each knight was worthy of his own series of solo stories, but together, the Knights of the Round Table stood larger than life, more like gods than men. Their stories so enchanted the people of medieval Europe that they had "Renaissance fairs" even before the Renaissance. They were feasts in honor of Arthur and his companions called "Round Tables", which typically involved jousting and other forms of mock combat, and cosplaying as famous members of Arthur's court around an actual round table. The most famous specimen to survive is the round table commissioned (probably) by King Edward I in the 1270's, which was later repainted by order of Henry VIII and now hangs on the wall of Winchester Castle. Round Table tournaments were the inspiration for Edward III to found the Order of the Garter. The meeting place for this association of the 24 most esteemed and elite members of English society came into focus once again last weekend, when the funeral of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh at St George's Chapel in Windsor Castle was broadcast around the world.

In today's culture, the closest phenomenon we have to a Round Table is DC's Justice League. Its most famous members have transcended all boundaries of geekdom to become true household names. People who have absolutely zero interest in comic books or their film adaptations will still know what the red-and-yellow S symbol represents, or that Batman's real name is Bruce Wayne. For Zack Snyder, being given the keys to the DC empire back in 2010 must have seemed like a chance to tell a story with the same sense of grandeur as his all-time favorite film. 

Snyder's first entry, Man of Steel, opens with the alien world of Krypton: a civilization in terminal decline. Its members are dressed in a style I could only describe as "what if the Byzantine Empire had gone on for another 40,000 years". Jor-El solemnly predicts that his infant son will be like a god to the people of Earth, then sends him away like baby Moses in the basket. Later in the film, General Zod solemnly orders "release the world engine!", which leads to Superman hurtling into a fight of titanic proportions with a kraken-like machine. The final fight with Zod spreads across Metropolis, but unlike  the same scenario in 1980's Superman II (or, more recently, the alien invasion of New York in 2012's The Avengers), Snyder doesn't shy from the idea that an all-out fight between two aliens with godlike powers in a major city would probably cause the deaths of thousands. Like Sir Thomas Malory, who is only ever interested in telling us about quests and high deeds to the exclusion of anything mundane, Snyder keeps us a thousand feet in the air at all times.

The Wayne family walks out from a screening of The Mask of Zorro in the very first scene of Batman v Superman. The year is 1981, as the marquee signals the impending premiere of Excalibur. A formative moment for director Zack Snyder, hinted at during a formative moment for Bruce Wayne.

If Man of Steel's theme was "gods among men", Batman v Superman's would be "gods versus men". A title card near the beginning takes us back to the previous movie's final fight with the ominous words: "METROPOLIS: MANKIND IS INTRODUCED TO THE SUPERMAN". Amidst the rubble, Bruce Wayne stares up into the sky, wondering if all his wealth and natural abilities could possibly be enough to protect humanity from a force like Superman. Later on, Lex Luthor tells an audience at a house party the story of how Prometheus, a hero among men, dared to steal fire from the gods (while Wonder Woman, literally a daughter of Zeus, listens anonymously in the crowd and rolls her eyes as if to suggest that's not what really happened). A theft does occur soon after... but from one mortal man to another. Bruce steals kryptonite, the one and only thing that can harm a Kryptonian, from Lex. But for all his inventiveness, Batman shapes the kryptonite into the most primitive form possible: a spear. Like, perhaps, the Spear of Destiny? Snyder's movie is fixated with the question of what it would take for Superman to become the villain, and whether a Prometheus could rise up to stop him.

Finally, in Zack Snyder's Justice League, the theme becomes "gods led by men". Batman is changed by the events of the last film. He no longer fears godlike beings; now, moved by the example of Superman's last sacrifice, he seeks to lead them in battle against other gods who threaten Earth with oblivion. Or, to put it another way, men in this story finally take their place among the ranks of gods. And if it wasn't obvious, at the end of the movie, Bruce begins plans to rebuild his ancestral home with a round table at the center, with six chairs and room for more.

In the Snyder Cut, during a premonition of a dark future with an evil Superman, the Kryptonian AI in Superman's ship says "the future has taken root in the present". This is a direct quote from the movie Excalibur. Merlin says "the future has taken root in the present" during the conception of Arthur. For just as Arthur is both the salvation and the doom of Camelot, so too is Superman the salvation and the doom of Earth.

After having seen the Snyder Cut, the bitter taste of the original 2017 theatrical release in my recollection has been totally washed away, and I'm left wondering if Warner Bros. will ever allow Zack Snyder to continue his vision by making more DC movies. Will we ever see a Man of Steel 2? How about standalone movie starring Ben Affleck as the best Batman ever? Is the Snyder Cut doomed to forever be a storytelling cul-de-sac, a cruel tease of a future that might have been? If so, perhaps that will free Zack for something even better: time to work on a King Arthur movie of his own.

Below, an excellent trailer for all three of Zack Snyder's DC films, now dubbed as a "trilogy":

The movie Excalibur is referenced even in the 2019 film Joker, which isn't actually set in the same continuity as the Snyder films. Nevertheless, the movie poster is seen on the right of the above frame on the night of the Waynes' murder.

Postscript: "Wait... weren't you going to compare the Whedon and Snyder Cuts?"

As much as I enjoy nerdy dissections of the two cuts, I realized a lengthy discourse on the differences is well beyond the scope of my headline, would require a lot of audio-visual references, and have already been covered in far greater detail by other people. Instead, I'll forward to you links to three videos that cover the basics:

"Justice League vs. The Snyder Cut - Filmmaking Comparison" by Thomas Flight HERE (26 minutes). A breakdown for people interested in cinematography and visual artistry, without going into deep inside-baseball discussions on lore or Easter eggs for longtime comics fans. The video focuses on tone, coloring, storyboarding and the like. I highly recommend it. Some of you may recognize the film poster in the host's background.

"Justice League: How Score Can Change a Film" by samsonspin HERE (23 minutes). As strange as it feels to compare the great Danny Elfman unfavorably against a guy who calls himself Junkie XL, only one of these conveys the appropriate tone for this particular movie. The Junkie XL score wins by a mile.

And finally, only for people who've already seen the Snyder Cut: "Final Battle Against Steppenwolf Comparison" by Nerdy Sage HERE (3 minutes). Steppenwolf's final fate is dramatically different. Only the Snyder Cut treats us to the most epic end for a villain ever seen in superhero cinema, in the form of what amounts to a 3-way Mortal Kombat fatality. If this scene had been the only difference between the two cuts, it still would've been enough to improve the Whedon Cut's rating by a whole point.

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