In the much anticipated or anxiously awaited or absolutely dreaded or naively heralded (please take your pick) third instalment of Zak Snyder’s DCU trilogy, Earth is under attack from an apocalyptic threat led by Steppenwolf and his search for Motherboxes…… (Yawn. Stop.).
Sorry, let’s start that again. Zak Snyder’s third part to his DCU trilogy begins with cellphone footage of Superman explaining the symbol on his suit. This brief clip is there to remind us that he is dead, having succumbed to the onslaught of Doomsday in the earlier Batman vs Superman, but also to remind us that all is not lost. However, while this is an attempt to set up the theme of hope that is supposed to be the subject of the film, it is jarringly noteworthy because Superman’s upper lip looks like something from the third Hobbit movie where seriously poor SFX have been put to work to hide a moustache. Yes, for some reason, best explained by Hunter Harris in Vulture, Henry Cavill was sporting a ‘tache at this point in the reshoots, and the film company he was then contracted to for his role in MI6 wouldn’t let him shave it off. The great idea, it transpires, was to CGI it away. So, as we sit and mourn the loss of the world’s greatest hero and prepare ourselves for his possible return, all we can think is what the fuck is wrong with his face.
He actually looked like this, apparently.
But that’s nothing new because Christopher reeve actually looked like this, so…
Anyway, it turns out this attempt to hide something out of place, something incongruous and inappropriate, something that shouldn’t be there–specifically a big hairy moustache–becomes the key to understanding the film. Let me explain.
In his previous two DCU movies Zak Snyder asked us to wade knee deep through a pool of misery and nihilism that had the consistency of a jar of refrigerated molasses. We’ve had a Superman that’s happy to let the world burn in his personal fight with Zod, and then a really miserable Superman cruelly degraded by Batman who is shown to freely endorse torture. There was no light only darkness. Even Superman’s costume had lost all its vibrancy and colour as the world slowly turned into a grey and hopeless morass of Batman’s self-loathing and fear. Both critical and box office evidence suggested these two films missed the mark by some way.
Anyway, Snyder seems to have registered there was a problem with his earlier doom-laden offerings and this time was clearly trying to offer us something positive, and Superman’s appearance right at the beginning is a rather didactic attempt to tell us that hope is precisely what this film is going to try to give us. Whether this was an insertion requested by Joss Whedon rather than a central component to Snyder’s vision we will probably never know. Whatever the answer, the opening scene is a rather heavy-handed declaration that this film is about the return of hope in the face of total darkness ,threatened by Steppenwolf and his horde of undead cyber-locust (that’s right, cyber-locust … or techno-Wicked-Witch-of-the-East-monkeys. Whatever.).
I don’t want to go into just how badly this evil threat is visualised in the film (it’s as bad as Superman’s non-moustache), but Steppenwolf is supposed to be the avatar of utter hopelessness that our merry band of Leaguers will overcome. To this effect, Batman calls on Wonder Woman, who is already aware of the invasion due to Steppenwolf’s assault on Themyscira, and the two of them set about recruiting Aquaman, The Flash–who functions as the cooky Spider-Man, laugh a minute guy, and is central to the film’s one excellent moment when he helps villagers escape their town that Steppenwolf is laying siege to–and Cyborg. Cyborg is actually quite an interesting character given current politics. A young black man struggling to attain control and autonomy over his body is a really interesting idea right now, but Aquaman is just a bit of tattooed eye-candy whose sole purpose is to enable Batman/Bruce Wayne to keep trying to make a joke about talking to fish funny (it never is, by the way).
But I digress. The film is supposed to be about hope. We are told this at the beginning, in the middle, and then at the end when Lois Lane (who serves no purpose in the film, but does take time to explain how she can no longer work without her bf around) tells us explicitly that hope has won, and that we mustn’t give up on the idea that we can find the light. However, if you’re relying on your characters to literally deliver a lecture on what the film has been about you either think your audience is comprised of idiots or you’ve failed (again) as a film-maker. The problem is, the film is really just one more iteration of that utterly boring trope of global annihilation and “good” triumphing over “evil”, the story itself isn’t about hope. That’s a message that needs bolting on as an afterthought.
In the end, the film is still one that is weighed down by darkness, fear and hostility. Even when Superman returns we have to sit through a scene in which he headbutts Wonder Woman in the face. I mean, c’mon! So the film still drags us through the misery and the nihilism of existential demise, and despite the (flat) jokes, despite the presence of Wonder Woman, this film only just manages to drag itself out of the hole dug for it in the previous films. The darkness of those two movies sits there like Henry Cavill’s big, black, hairy, unwelcome moustache, and they can’t get rid of it no matter how much they try to cover it up, or airbrush it away. Despite the noticeable return of colour in the closing scene of Wonder Woman rounding up some bank robbers, the opening minute of Superman’s monologue in which we’re asked to forget about the moustache that isn’t there but still manages to distort his face is everything you need to know about this film.