by Shawn StJean
Imagine you’re poor Joss Whedon; I mean, sure, presumably you’ve got some money stashed away, by now. But if you’re reading this, you know about the network interference with shows like Buffy, Firefly, and Dollhouse.
So you’ve co-written the screenplay for a huge blockbuster, and you’re suddenly tapped to finish the directing chores for a colleague, Zack Snyder, who vacates the chair due to a family tragedy. I think we all feel for Snyder. No one should take this post as dismissing all the work he did. But as for Whedon, it’s a thankless job. He knows all-too-well that creative work by-committee rarely works out; he’s, at heart and in his post-TV incarnation, an auteur. I’m guessing here, but the film was hugely budgeted and the studio bean-counters are going to mandate that the job gets finished with a minimum of re-vision-ing. The release date looms, the trailers are out. “So, Joss, work your magic, but without seeming to work it, or actually changing anything.” Um. Got it. Sure.
Some may argue that Snyder ought to get a Director’s Cut for Blu-Ray, and maybe he should. He probably will–it’s good marketing. So I’m here suggesting merely an alternative: a Whedon Cut. Wouldn’t these two competing texts make back whatever money the studio felt it should have made in theaters, in the first place? After all, the film got some abysmal reviews. It may show 70% positive on imdb.com, but the 40% critics’ score on rottentomatoes.com would seem to be more accurate of assessments on the ground.
Is the film broken? It’s at least cracked. I’ll forgoe rehashing some of the familiar complaints: the dubious CGI, the ogling of Wonder Woman by the camera. Bottom line, the narrative suffers from some fundamental problems, and all the humor in the world can’t redeem it. It can’t be–and doesn’t need to be–scrapped. But it does need re-editing, with a consistent, auteurial vision.
One of the major quandaries is/was shared with the comic books: how to get Superman back into the land of the living? After all, we all live by a fundamental human truth: dead is dead. But in fiction, we fantasize otherwise. Everyone from Mary Shelley to Stephen King had a resurrection story (confining ourselves to the past two centuries.) The problem remains, how to do it without seeming stupid, disrespectful, or a George Romero wannabe. Whedon spent plenty of time working in the horror genre, so he knows full well the thematic dangers of raising the dead. Buffy, of course, hinted strongly that she’d rather have been left on the Other Side, and vampire icon Spike sang out “Let me rest in peace!” in the show’s most famous episode, “Once More, With Feeling.”
This re-edit of Justice League (okay, yes, what follows is my own idea. I didn’t even speak with Whedon. He must have lost my number. So I’m projecting it onto him,) could be done for very little money: it requires a re-shoot of one major scene, but only the rehiring of Ben Affleck for a day or two, and Gal Gadot for a single day. And some supporting editing to existing footage. Optionally, a short argument scene between Gadot and Affleck.
Here’s my proposal: In the film’s theatrical release, while performing the resurrection ritual for Superman, at least two characters voice the opinion that “This is a bad idea.” ‘Cuz it is. Yet somehow, they do it anyway. Then it doesn’t even turn out very bad. If you took a ten-minute bathroom break at the wrong time, you missed the consequences of this ghastly and ill-conceived scheme entirely.
INSTEAD, have Batman go off alone, in secret, to the Kryptonian doohickey chamber and bring Superman back to life, a la Frankenstein’s lab. CUT the silly scene of Flash and Cyborg digging Supes up. It belongs in the archives. This is not Gene Wilder and Marty Feldman.
After all, it’s Batman with the guilt over Superman’s death. He’s a loner by nature. It’s consistent with his character to have him say “Fine, I need you guys to fight parademons, but I’m quarterbacking this little game, and I don’t need anyone’s buy-in.” He can’t fight everyone, while he fights Steppenwolf. Especially Wonder Woman. So he goes off the reservation. His hamartia is in his perfect faith that he knows best–even though the previous film proved him wrong.
This would really change the points of gravity of the whole film–its essence of conflict. At what cost, Justice? Are we willing to sell our souls, to avoid slavery? Is anything sacrosanct, in a world of horrors? And who decides?
Add a new Ending scene, after Steppenwolf’s defeat, where the Big Three confer privately. It’s a sort of Sergio Leone face-off (Tarantino, if you prefer). I don’t even think you have to re-hire Henry Cavill–just CGI Superman in. I’m sorry, but it worked for most of his scenes, already.
WONDER WOMAN: You were right about one thing, Bruce. This team needs leadership. An army must have a chain-of-command. We can’t defend the Earth against threats from outside, if our own soldiers wander off on their own.
BATMAN (cowl drawn back to show Affleck’s face, brooding): I agree, Diana. There’s only one problem [he glances sidelong at Superman.]
WW: We can trust Clark; trust each other. We have to.
SUPERMAN: He doesn’t mean that. He means: Which of us will be that leader?
Ominous music. The camera pans slowly, around each of their faces, does a second circle around their full bodies facing each other, speeds up and tracks out to a longshot revealing they’re standing in the new Justice League orbiting satellite, and keeps circling out into space to show the Earth, the solar system, and the galaxy. It pauses momentarily, to show an odd, incoming ship: BRANIAC’s.
COMPUTER: Analysis concluded. Kryptonian life-energy re-acquired in third quadrant, on Sol-3.
BRANIAC [tethered by several cables between his humanoid head and the ship]: Acknowledged. Just what we’ve been waiting for. An ally.
Camera continues to spin out. Credits roll. Music theme comes up.
Much better set-up for a sequel than the Lex Luthor/Deathstroke “League of our own,” post-credit scene, which only promises more silliness. Although that could be left alone: I could see Braniac manipulating such an Injustice League as part of his own nefarious, grand scheme. And Darkseid manipulating, or at least observing, him in his turn. There’s the checker players, and the chess players. Thanos is bound to come up short of expectations in Marvel Studios’ Infinity War (another silly premise). Make Darkseid the best onscreen villain ever, by having him sit back and manipulate all the pieces, using DeSaad for expositional dialogue.
Now, because any fanboy can do script-doctoring in retrospect, I want to add a few points of rationale here, for the proposed changes.
- The film, as finished, lacked what was absolutely vital: a proper villian. Steppenwolf is bush-league, not Justice-League. Make Batman the villain. Not in a permanent way, obviously, and not in a “misunderstood Dark Knight way.” This whole enterprise of a League has a steep learning curve. He doesn’t know how to “play with others,” as Jim Gordon suggests. He has to learn he isn’t always the smartest guy in the room.
- Superman as everyone’s pawn is something, to my knowledge, that’s never been done. He’s a living weapon. Batman’s, Braniac’s, Darkseid’s. Maybe Luthor’s. Let him grow, too–into someone who has to rediscover his roots, his Smallville basic morality: let the “S” stand, after too much service to others’ agendas, for “Self-Reliant Man.”
- Give the master-narrative more depth. If DC has had one weakness compared to Marvel, pretty much forever, it’s that it’s both more complicated and less sophisticated, at the same time. Too many Earths, too many doppelgangers, too many silly villians and flying heroes. Hell, even Aquaman looks like he can fly in this film. And that’s to cover up the fact that he’s silly: “Can you really talk to fish?” Guys, you can’t mask all the inherent flaws of your cast by making a joke out of them (this narrative insecurity is revealed by the fact that not one, but two major characters [Flash and Aquaman] function as comic relief, and one as a straight-man [Cyborg].) Instead, Embrace the flaws. We all have ’em. Humanize the cast. Batman is frustrated by his lack of super-powers, and forced relaince on tech. Fine. He’s gonna overcompensate by bringing in the Kryptonian bigger guns. Wonder Woman can’t bring herself to override Batman’squestionable leadership decisions. Okay. She needs to develop moral courage, as well as physical. Superman relies too heavily upon his powers. Very well. Make his resurrection mean something: he should change–first for the worse, and then for the better. If it were me–and speaking of returning to one’s roots, I’d follow the lead of the comic books here: make his powers diminish. Focus on the Man; and Super will take care of itself.