Snyder v Whedon: Eclipse of Egos

 

Well, it’s here.

The long journey from fanboy wetdream to actually finished film-type thing is complete and we now live in a world where Zack Snyder’s Justice League is a reality. I won’t bother recounting its journey to the not-so-silver screen beyond the broad strokes since so much has been written in the broader geek-o-verse about the fabled “Snyder Cut” and how it came to not-be and then sorta be:

After the stratospheric success of The Dark Knight, Warner Brothers seemed to hope that director Christopher Nolan would be a central architect in their attempt to match the sprawling narrative and unimaginable financial success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Nolan was a producer and writer on the first ship commissioned for that would-be cinematic fleet: Man of Steel. But Nolan really wanted to just go on to make increasingly inscrutable puzzle boxes out of celluloid, so the reigns of the DC’s new “universe” of movies were placed instead in the hands of Man of Steel director Zack Snyder. Snyder moved forward to advance his vision of a DC film series with his own singular style.

What came next was, um, not good.

But Batman v Superman: Insert Title Absurdity Here did make money, so the ball kept rolling. The reception to what some coined the DC Murderverse, though, was increasingly making Warner Brothers nervous about that “vision” of Snyder’s (at one point, he wanted to make Superman the bad guy). They scaled back his planned two part Justice League movie and kept a wary eye on the production. Then, when Snyder suffered a terrible personal loss and had to step back, they swooped in. They hired Joss Whedon, director of the first two Marvel’s Avengers movies to rebuild and reshoot a Frankenstein version of Justice League. It didn’t work. Between awful CGI to erase Henry Cavil’s Mission Impossible mustache (which Paramount, in a feat of legendary pettiness, would not allow him to shave for the Justice League reshoots) and the tonal clashes, Justice League was a mess. Its box office returns showed it, too.

But from the bowels of the Internets, came a revelation: There was a Snyder cut of the movie! The movie he intended existed out there somewhere. It had only be let loose into the light of day.

Well, no there wasn’t. Snyder may have had a rough cut using tons of his original footage (and there were tons of it, apparently) but it was nothing ready for release–and not just for lack of post-production work. In fact, now that Warner Brothers is desperate to convince people they should continue paying for HBO Max, they’ve bankrolled Snyder’s version of Justice League. Most of the footage did exist, but there were reshoots to finish his vision of the film and that vision has shifted since he’s added new scenes never imagined when he was doing principal photography. All this supposedly cost $70 million.

And what have we reaped?

Honestly, it’s mostly the same movie, but with any lighter touches Whedon added erased. All of Snyder’s brutality and his signature aesthetic now permeate every frame. And there are a lot of frames. The movie is four hours long–more proof that what we’re looking at now would never, ever have released in theaters.

The obvious question is: well, which one’s better? Snyder’s or Whedon’s? At this point, after watching the new version, I’d have a hard time calling a winner. The simplest answer is that neither is very good. Both are arguably better than Batman v Superman. Since it has room to actually provide context for the characters and villains who were shoehorned into the first version and since it maintains a singular, if nihilistic tone, I suppose many will argue that Snyder’s version is “better,” for whatever that’s worth. But it seems like a narrow set of criteria. Yes, some characters get much more development in this version–Cyborg and the villain Steppenwolf in particular, but many on the Internet have also pointed out how Wonder Woman is no longer “den mother” to the League, so that’s an improvement–but the new Snyder Cut mostly replaces an overstuffed, rushed film for a plodding, lumbering one. For every cheesy moment from the Whedon version that is cut, Snyder seems to offer up his own (usually just really dull, stinker lines of dialogue). And on top of those shortcomings, he piles on his signature wanton brutality, making the DC heroes overly violent, even murderous. (Spoiler: Superman’s resurrection scene now makes it clear the Man of Steel is perfectly willing to slaughter Batman before he gets his senses back.) But the greatest excess of all comes in Snyder’s half-hour epilogue which continues the Batman-is-somehow-clairvoyant-now bit from Batman v Superman but throws in a long, tedious exchange with Jared Leto’s regrettable Joker to boot. Whedon’s Justice League was a hot mess, but at least that was obviously the product of excessive studio meddling and a clear hatchet job. This turkey is all Snyder’s own.

What interests me more than the films themselves, though, is the story of these two men whose names have gone on the respective versions. It’s a story we can only see the vaguest outlines of. Ferreting it out requires subtlety and inference–so Snyder and his fans probably aren’t interested.

I became aware of Snyder and his oeuvre quite gradually. I’d seen and mostly liked his Dawn of the Dead remake. It was a solid entry in a genre that I thought really deserved to die already, pun intended. But I really, really enjoyed his 300 when it came out. I remember extolling it as the “ultimate guy movie.” In fact, when I got my first Blu-Ray player, that was one of the first discs I bought.

I was disappointed when I realized that not only was it a poor showcase of the HD movie format (because Snyder had stylized the digital product to emulate grainy film stock), but more so because one of my favorite pastimes is to enjoy bonus features on films I enjoy, like commentary tracks. But in Snyder’s commentary on 300, I really didn’t hear any insight into the choices in the production or discussion of the film’s characters or themes. It seemed like he spent all of the track that I bothered to listen to commenting on which rocks were real and which were CGI. I might be being unfair in retrospect, but I’d never listened to a director who seemed so superficial and showed so little insight about his or her creation.

Then someone, somewhere pointed out to me that really, the whole movie was just war porn and then I felt more than a little ashamed of how fond of it I’d been.

Man of Steel was certainly a serviceable Superman movie and I thought it boded well for what Warner Brothers was doing. Those hopes were dashed by Batman v Superman: Wait, Is This a Court Case? But to understand Snyder as a filmmaker, I don’t think that’s the movie to focus on. If you really want to understand where he’s really coming from, watch Sucker Punch.

In that 2011 film, a young woman played by Emily Browning is locked away in an asylum–a gritty asylum, of course, because this is Zack Snyder. Oh, did Snyder make a claustrophobic film about the psychological consequences of confinement or about characters overcoming adversity through camaraderie or something like that? A sort of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest for young girls?

Of course not.

You see, Browning’s character, who is only ever identified as, get this, “Baby Doll,” deals with her excessive and gratuitous trauma by escaping into a fantasy world. But it’s apparently not her fantasy world; instead, it seems like this fantasy world was concocted by a 13 year old boy.

Or, you know, Zack Snyder.

In this alt-reality layer of the film, Browning and her co-inmates (all of them played by actresses who are just way too good for this–even Vanessa Hudgens deserves better, for Pete’s sake!), are bad-ass action babes. Scantily clad, but skilled and tooled up for mayhem. They fight samurai, steam punk mech things, and, oh god, I just don’t remember. I never finished the thing. If there’s ever been a $200 million movie that’s more self-indulgent than this one, then I can’t think of it. After studying Snyder’s excesses in his filmography, it’s just impossible to see these sexualized young woman kicking ass as anything other than a pure manifestation of the man’s id on screen.

Obviously it’s dangerous to think you know a celebrity from their work and from their public statements. But in Snyder’s cheerleading over the years for his version of Justice League and in his petty, sniping tweets since his version was greenlit, it’s also hard not to see that same image: a 13 year old boy getting to make rad movies. A little bundle of toxic masculine id run amok…with a budget. His Superman and Batman and Wonder Woman kill people because he likes bloody action. Anything else seems juvenile to him (when the opposite seems more true to me).

But what of Joss Whedon?

My familiarity and appreciation of his work goes back further. I arrived late to both the Buffy and Firefly trains, but came to appreciate both stories deeply, introducing my kids to them in turn. His first film, Serenity, as the culmination of the Firefly story has always been one of my favorite films (and my model for quit-while-you’re-ahead storytelling). He established a reputation as a fantastic serial storyteller, particularly with ensemble casts. His fictional universes, each distinct, crackled with their own energy. Buffy characters spoke in a pop dialect too clever and too cool to be real. Firefly characters drawled in a surreal blend of Old West hokeyness and badly translated Chinese curse words. His shows wove humor, action, and real heart together in unexpected, no, in seemingly impossible ways. Buffy’s the perfect emblem. A pro-feminist take on navigating adolescence where the horrors of growing up become literal horrors. It was smart. It was unconventional. It was Joss Whedon. When Avengers was a huge success, we fans were elated on his behalf and looked forward to what he could create with all limitations thrown off now that he’d knocked it out of the park so well for Marvel.

The funny thing, though, is that nothing really came. There was that neat, intimate version of Much Ado About Nothing, but no new series. No new films. He did one more big paycheck for Marvel. Then accepted the Justice League hatchet job. Finally this past year came word that he would be creating a new series called the Nevers. (Victorian female super heroes…it sounded very Joss Whedon, but I’m so sick of superpowers, I can hardly stand it.) Now, though, he has walked away from that production for “personal” reasons.

Of course, those reasons might have a lot to do with the swirl of stories around his personal conduct. The uproar started when Ray Fisher, who played Cyborg in both versions of Justice League, started noisily complaining about both Whedon and higher-ups at Warner Brothers. He characterized Whedon as “abusive” on set. Of course, it was easy to dismiss Fisher as acting like a prima donna. He’d come largely from theater and maybe he just didn’t get the demands of making a big budget movie. Whedon was great with his actors. We all knew it. He had a stable of personalities–Tudyk, Acker, Denisof–who he worked with again and again. They loved him as much as we loved him! Fisher seemed like an outlier, probably influenced by what had to be a difficult shoot to rebuild a theatrical product from Snyder’s excesses. The Whedon version of the film had, after all, cut a lot of his story arc to make the film fit in a two hour format. Fisher was probably just crying about sour grapes…

Yeah, so, about that.

In the intervening weeks and months, the bloom has continued to come off the Whedon rose. Several members of his past casts, most notably Charisma Carpenter and Michelle Trachtenberg, have come forward to support Fisher with their own stories of feeling “abused” by Whedon. It cast in new light some of the accusations from his ex-wife about conversations where Whedon tried to justify his infidelity in ways that, well, sounded like something a Joss Whedon character would say. I feel like the nail in the coffin of the old image of Whedon that fans believed in came from Buffy herself, Sarah Michelle Geller, who briefly chimed in on the controversy to say that she had little to say, but that she supported those speaking out and did not want to forever be associated with Whedon’s name.

So here we have two directors with undeniably distinctive styles and visions in cinema who both also look to be separate portraits of the megalomania that sitting behind the camera seems to breed–or attract?

One, a man-boy with a camera and the other, a “casually cruel” auteur too in love with his own sense of himself to really see himself.

Or so it appears from the outside. Like I said, I know it’s a fool’s errand to try to psychoanalyze anyone from their work. Though he seems to lack self-awareness, Snyder’s bombast may only be one side of his personality. I don’t know him.

I thought I knew Whedon. That may sound like a naive thing to say, but Firefly was my favorite show (before a certain other series came out). I’ve watched and rewatched it dozens of times. My daughter and I have marathoned all of Buffy more than once. Angel was interesting at times, if uneven. Dollhouse had some great ideas that clearly never had room to develop.

Through his lens as a writer and director, we saw a vision of the world that was fascinating and enlightening.

(Now we all have to ask, what do we make of art made by a jerk? I mean, Hemingway was kind of an asshole, right? But still a genius.)

So even though I should know better by now, I still find myself wondering about the real Joss Whedon. His stories often have characters who rise and fall. Flawed heroes who lose their heroism, sometimes their humanity. He’s good as crafting tragic arcs, even tragic downfalls. Maybe, in the end, he became one of them, felled by his own harmartia.

If so, then at least he is aware, as anagnorisis–recognition of the fault–is a prerequisite for the true tragic hero to fall from grace. And when it comes in real life, not in a movie, then who knows what comes after…

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