I’ve found the longest movie ever made: it’s not Jacques Rivette’s thirteen-hour “Out 1” or Christian Marclay’s twenty-four-hour supercut, “The Clock,” but the four-hour recut of “Justice League” by its original director, Zack Snyder. It is a grind, it is a slog, it is a bore—it’s a mental toothache of a movie, whose ending grants not so much resolution as relief. It’s also a movie of an inglorious paradox: its sluggishness is inversely proportional to the rapidity of its action, the brevity of its dialogue, and the accelerated pace of its many (oh, so many!) battle scenes. This is largely because its scenes are chopped down to a bare informational minimum, leaving no room for thought or emotion, and also because its tone is so stentorian, so weighty with ostensible importance and ponderous with presumptive authority, that even its rapid parts feel torpid. It’s a not-quite-living imitation of a movie, a self-parody that lacks even a touch of humor—because, at the slightest sting of wit, its entire membrane of fakery would burst and leave hardly a piffle of vapor behind.

The story is simple enough, and rich enough in its elements of symbolic fantasy, for what could have been a swift yet substantial spectacle. Superman (Henry Cavill) has died an awful death, and a band of venerable evildoers, led by Darkseid (Ray Porter), wants to profit from his absence by conquering the last world in the universe that’s resisting it—namely, Earth. A horned and winged metallic insect-like monster named Steppenwolf (the unfortunate, unrecognizable Ciarán Hinds), on the outs with his lord and master, DeSaad (Peter Guinness), obsequiously promises to fulfill the mission needed for dominion—to gather three MacGuffins, three so-called Mother Boxes that, if brought together and synchronized, will give Darkseid unchallenged power over Earth and the rest of the universe.

Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) refuses to let this happen. He shows up in a Scandinavian dive bar waving around money to have a chat with Aquaman (Jason Momoa), who prefers to go swimming by himself while women on the shore chant eerily, as in “Midsommar.” In an august, London-like city, Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) is conveniently standing on high, on the outstretched arm of a rooftop statue, when a psychopathic gunman and his henchmen barge into a museum and hold schoolchildren hostage. When the kingpin is preparing to shoot them down, Wonder Woman deflects his machine gun’s worth of bullets and shazams him through a wall and into the street, leaving nothing of him but his hat, which floats down onto the hood of a police vehicle, as if taunting the officers for their impotence and invoking, with a fascistic glee, the need for such superheroes. A nerdy teen-age aspiring pet-shop employee named Barry Allen (Ezra Miller) super-saves his friend Iris (Kiersey Clemons), who’s driving a convertible, from a crash with a truck, and gets recruited by Bruce Wayne for superhero duty as the Flash. And a teen-ager named Victor Stone (Ray Fisher), who’s bitterly angry at his scientist father, Silas (Joe Morton), for putting work first, is even angrier after being grievously injured in a car accident in which, moreover, his mother (Karen Bryson) dies; Silas then brings Victor back from near-death as a superpowered cyborg who is fittingly called Cyborg.

When Steppenwolf and his swarm of metal bugs show up among the Amazons to steal one of the MacGuffins, he reveals himself to be the bright knight of pseudo-Biblical oxymorons, declaring, “I have come to enlighten you in the great darkness,” but the horde of Amazons, exhorted by their leader, Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), to show the metal bugs their fear, roar back, “We have no fear!,” then everyone yells and a great churning follows—clang clang zoom zoom thud smash bellow groan—to the sound of thudding timpani-driven musical banalities, ending with a long bass fart. Hippolyta, with her broom-like helmet à la Marvin the Martian, and her surviving troops flee the subterranean compound as they seal it off behind them, grabbing the glowing box and watching the whole gigantic dome—indeed, even the cliff it’s mounted on—collapse into the sea thunderously but as inconsequentially as a house of cards. She watches the winged things buzz up from the water, leading to a battle on the plains, where Steppenwolf manages to abscond with a Mother Box. Then he gets a second, and to prevent him from getting the third Bruce Wayne tries to Batmaniacally unite the other four warriors into a fighting force, one of great symbolic and mythopoetic echoes. Yet this supergroup of five heroes isn’t quite enough: they need the missing Superman, and the team puts together a plot to reanimate him. (The possibilities of Superzombie are significant but go largely unaddressed, and are resolved in a super-obvious plot point involving Lois Lane, who’s played by Amy Adams.)

It isn’t so much a visual spectacle as a super-heaped serving of visual product—synthetic, ersatz, homogenized, adulterated visual product, featuring so many ingredients of such dubiously artificial provenance as to leave no flavor, no nutrients, nothing but bloat. The images depict the miraculously impossible and render it casually, cavalierly, with bland certainty in lieu of discovery, effortful quantity in place of simple wonder (although one catchy moment got me to look twice: Steppenwolf, in a subterranean hold, puts his clawed hand into a device, gets zap-infused with blue lightning, and is suddenly alone on a vast, sere plain.) The movie’s symbolic dimensions are similarly absurd, when not oblivious. In a big and noisy flashback battle, a lost golden age of heroes united to save the Earth makes the hacking and spearing shockingly Eurocentric, as if only Aryans were destined to join with Amazons and Atlanteans to ensure the fate of humankind. Aquaman turns up—accompanied by a song about a king—looking like a backlit plastic Jesus, and there’s an undeveloped hint of “The Merchant of Venice” when Steppenwolf’s very fate is suspended over his ability to repay his master a colossal debt. The practicalities are no less risible, as when Wonder Woman, in her human guise as the archeologist Diana Prince, flies to Greece (or flies commercial—who knows?) and, with a miraculous appearance of a stick, a rag, and a bucket of gasoline, lights her way into a basement where she reads Darkseid’s name on a stele. (A flashlight wouldn’t do?) The text is no better—Affleck and Gadot especially should get Oscars for not cracking up at the hacked-up, alphabet-primer dialogue that they have to deliver with earnest grandiosity.

I found something fascinating in the clashes of Snyder’s 2013 film “Man of Steel.” There, in his own numbingly excessive way, Snyder faces tensions between the sensory and the moral, between inner needs and a sense of duty, between spectacle and substance—the pleasure of violence and destruction versus the call to virtue. Working closely with one character and one set of myths, Snyder suggests a self-conscious helplessness in evoking finer feelings by means of crude furies. Perhaps mere practicalities—the hot breath of Marvel’s cinematic universality—have, since then, been weighing on him, and his effort to participate in a cinematic universe of his own seems tinged with panic, with a desperation that tilts the scales in favor of spectacle over substance and action over its implications. In “Man of Steel,” Snyder gets a maximum of emotion from a virtual character map, of distance separating Superman from Clark Kent—and Kal-El from his father, Jor-El. In the revamped “Justice League,” Snyder gets a similar energy from the character of Cyborg, whose conflict with his father, Silas, intersects with the sense of isolation, of irreparable otherness that he feels as a robotized being who owes that very identity, and his very survival, to his father. Cyborg’s powers, as Silas tells him, are disproportionately colossal—including the ability to control the world’s financial systems and to unleash nuclear war “with a thought.” It’s an amazing, if absurd premise, teeming with philosophical and psychological possibilities, but here it gets played for a one-wink joke, and never filters into the character’s imagination or action at all.

Indeed, the worst thing about this overwrought and underthought superspectacle is the trivialization, manipulation, and deformation of the sincere and serious emotions that undergird and motivate its cast of heroes. The characters’ backstories (filled in with stamp-sized tidbits of information and image flashes) involve grief and loss, anger and guilt, physical and emotional trauma, sundered family bonds and painful isolation. The grotesque simplifications of heroism and villainy that “Zack Snyder’s Justice League” offers leave, nonetheless, a lingering vestige of melancholy, of solitude, a sense of a fragmented world of broken ties and desperate longings. And it offers only one way to deal with them: become a vigilante, and the world will be lucky if you consider yourself a good guy or gal rather than a rogue. There are no poets and prophets among the emotionally wounded; there’s only redemption through violence and a sense of grim, fierce, unambiguous, unambivalent, purely partisan purpose. As Silas tells Victor, “Heal, love, win.” All that seems to interest Snyder is the winning.

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