When it comes to superhero cinematic universes, the well-established wisdom at this point is that Marvel did it right and DC has done it poorly.
People speak about the development of the Marvel Cinematic Universe in the hushed tones with which one talks about scientific breakthroughs or deconstructed chicken pot pies. And it’s true that under the leadership of Kevin Feige, Marvel Studios has been very patient, first building franchises for a number of key characters and slowly using those films to create a shared universe out of which they launched massively successful team films that, in turn, introduced other characters who could then get franchises of their own.
But as astonishingly successful as Marvel’s strategy has been, it was relatively low risk. Starting with individual character films gave Marvel the ability to build interest in the heroes they wanted at the foundation of their universe, while allowing them the freedom to bench or reconfigure the use of a certain character if its film didn’t end up landing. In other words, before swinging for the stars with Avengers, Marvel had built in plenty of room for themselves to slow things down, course correct, or not even go there.
Along the way the MCU (and of course it has an acronym …) developed a winning point of view that combines humor and humanity in ways that hearken back to the earliest successes of Marvel moviedom, the original X-Men and Spider-Man films.
Meanwhile, under director/screenwriter Zack Snyder, the DC strategy seemed to entail rejecting every single good idea that Marvel had done. Rather than building a universe slowly, Snyder launched right in, immediately following up stand-alone Superman story Man of Steel with a Batman/Wonder Woman/Superman crossover (Batman vs. Superman). That was then followed by a full-on team story, Justice League, with only Wonder Woman getting a film in between.
And where Marvel’s voice and vision opted for a Han Solo-esque roguish charm, lots of patter and bravado hiding very fallible and funny characters, Snyder’s conception from the beginning was of a dark and brooding universe in which each of our heroes was alone and, to great extent, alienated from the broader world. Rather than being predicated on the hope and idealism with which Superman is usually associated, Man of Steel read like a piece of Superman fan fiction written by Batman in his spare time. Clark Kent lives in secret, struggling largely in silence to figure out when and how to use his powers for good, and more or less terrifying everyone with his power and the sheer destruction that ensues in his presence. Truly the ending of the film is like 9/11 writ large: whole areas of New York City stand-in Metropolis being destroyed by Superman’s battle against the other Kryptonians, and without Clark even seeming to notice.
It was a deeply strange portrayal of one of the world’s most inspirational characters. Rather than building interest in the DC universe, the film seemed intent on putting people off it. Later, Batman vs. Superman would go on to make more money than Steel, but not at the scale anyone hoped. The follow-up Justice League — which Snyder began but was finished by Joss Whedon of Avengers fame — earned less worldwide than either of the prior films, despite introducing Aquaman, the Flash, Cyborg, and DC’s great cosmic villain Darkseid.
That seemed the end of the story—and thank goodness–until Snyder superfans began demanding to see his cut of Justice League, and they just would not quit until it was finally greenlit in the early months of the pandemic. HBO Max just released it last month.
Clocking in at four hours and starting from the most Snydery of Snyder ideas — Superman screaming in slow motion while the sound waves of his death cry reverberate across the planet — the Snyder Cut seemed ready to offer just more of the series’s nihilistic despair and dread.
What a surprise to discover that, in fact, the film is both deeply and unexpectedly meaningful and a fruition of the Snyder DCU. Where Man of Steel and BvS are desperately sad affairs that serve only to make their heroes seem more isolated and alone, the Snyder Cut of Justice League takes those characters and its new ones on a journey from their alienation and distrust slowly into vulnerability and an appreciation of the friendship that the world offers you.
And as daunting as the film’s four-hour length seems in theory — I watched the film in chunks of thirty or forty-five minutes — in practice the length allows Snyder to spend real time with each character, to explore their individual losses and dreams, and to make their conversions to a broader sense of self and life feel truly earned. While only Superman rises from the dead during the film, all of these characters begin trapped in one kind of death or another. To see them shake off those chains and risk again proves to be deeply moving.
In no small part, that emotional power comes from the reality of the endless moment of stasis/death in which we’ve all been trapped for so long now. Watching Justice League, it turns out that maybe the Snyder-DCU was less ill-conceived than made too soon. A movie about an alienated force for good trapped in a world of nihilistic violence just didn’t make the same kind of sense in 2013 as it does now, after four years of MAGA hats, children in cages, unrestrained violence by law enforcement, and government sponsorship of white supremacy, fascism, and fear.
Likewise, the idea of a universe built out of heroes who are each isolated and distrustful makes much more sense in the context of our current annus horribilis, in which we have been confronted every day by the threats to our very existence posed by other people and our government. Aquaman doesn’t want to have anything to do with his people, and, on many days in the last year, neither did a lot of us, as we watched both friends and strangers disregard every warning from the CDC while always finding someone else to blame or attack.
As much as I delight in them, the Marvel movies are with rare exceptions a fairy tale in which our world is painted as far more harmonious and bent toward justice than actually is the case. What Snyder has made is something far bolder — a story of heroes that refuses to be propaganda selling us convenient social fictions. Instead, it charts a path forward that begins in the fractured, painful realities of our actual experience, and grounds success in patience, toil, and sacrifice.
Where the Marvel movies seem to suggest down deep we really are all in this together, the Snyderverse acknowledges quite rightly that we’re not, but shows us a way that we might come to be.