“I don’t care how many demons he’s fought in how many hells.
He’s never fought us. Not us united.”
In 2017, Warner Bros. and DC released Justice League; the fourth film in the DC Extended Universe, and the third film from Zack Snyder – finished by Avengers director Joss Whedon, after Snyder stepped away from the project due to a personal tragedy. That theatrical release was, and I say without hyperbole; Not Good. It quickly became one of the most critically panned big budget superhero movies in history, with an awkward tone, a disjointed story and a lot of other thematic issues (not to mention the reported problems on set, especially in Whedon’s alleged treatment of Ray Fisher during production). The dire response to the film led to an unexpected path; rumours began to circulate that Snyder actually had a completed cut of his original vision of the film, and #ReleaseTheSnyderCut began to trend on social media; attached to a campaign that itself became particularly toxic and violent at times. However; Snyder himself began to fan the flames of the movement, with support from a number of the stars of Justice League, and after a 3 year campaign, Warner Bros. announced that Zack Snyder’s Justice League would be coming to HBO Max and associated platforms in 2021; a mammoth 4 hour production that Snyder would be taking a year to complete.
I note that last part specifically for a reason; the Snyder Cut was not finished, and I feel like anyone who writes a review of this piece should make that clear. The campaign to release this film was centred around the idea that Warner Bros were holding a piece of finished media away from the audience who wanted it; punishing a filmmaker for not producing the results which they expected from previous entries in the series by not releasing a piece of work they had made. That is not the case, and Snyder was not done with the film before the agreement was made to release it. This is something I knew going into it, and it’s something which undoubtedly influenced my response to it while watching it; as was the knowledge of the ferocity of the campaign to have it be released in the first place – something covered in depth by Aja Romano for Vox, in this article: https://tinyurl.com/2mvzmrsm
With all that in mind:
Zack Snyder’s Justice League is the sequel to Batman vs. Superman: Dawn Of Justice. Superman is dead, and Bruce Wayne is scouring the world for metahumans who can come together to protect the world from other extraterrestrial or superpowered threats. Unbeknownst to him, that threat has already arrived…
The basic story framework is exactly the same as with the theatrical release of Justice League; Steppenwolf has come to Earth at the behest of his master, Darkseid, and is working to retrieve the Mother Boxes; three items of alien technology with the power to terraform any planet (and do any number of other things, depending on who is operating them. That link to Darkseid is made much more implicit here than in the theatrical release, and Snyder does show us Darkseid on multiple occasions, building on the immediate danger of Steppenwolf on Earth with the greater threat of Darkseid looming in the background. That expansion of narrative overall is certainly where this cut finds the majority of its strength; and the story feels a lot more coherent, and follows on better from the climax of Batman vs. Superman than the original release did. The extra narrative also makes character actions seem more purposeful, and the scenes we missed from the theatrical release are a big part of that. We also get to see a lot more from the actors, with more time given to their individual stories. Bruce Wayne benefits the most from this, and Ben Affleck is allowed to bring a lot more joy and hope to the character as he travels the world, recruiting his heroes ahead of the oncoming storm. The parallels between Bruce in Batman vs. Superman and Justice League are a lot more clear here, and Snyder mirrors some scenes from the former in the latter to help bring that distinction home – though that’s more effective if you’ve recently rewatched Batman vs. Superman, which isn’t an undertaking I would recommend if you didn’t enjoy it in the first place. Superman also benefits from a readjustment of characterisation, and after his resurrection appears much more empathetic, and more human in a way; I think the most interesting potential follow-up to this cut would have been seeing how that character would have continued to develop, and whether Clark Kent would have become more akin to the character we know and love from the comics; kind, thoughtful, and ready to give it all in defence of mankind.
It’s certainly clear that Snyder had a very purposeful vision with the direction that he wanted to take this story, and we see it play out in this movie – but that clarity of narrative, while certainly a boost for the coherency of the film, is also where my first big issue with this cut comes in – this movie is too long.
Yes, the narrative benefits greatly from having the extra time to tell it; but for me, that does not make the film great. If anything, it detracts from the storytelling intent, because if you cannot fit the story you want to tell into a more standard runtime; then the narrative should be split into multiple projects or needs to be reworked altogether. At a time where the general public still publicly balks at the idea of a 3 hour runtime, presenting a 4 hour film feels, to me, to be self-indulgent; especially considering the content of that narrative. The detail relevant to the main plot is understandable, but there are plot elements that could (and I feel should) have been handled elsewhere. Introducing two DC mainstays in The Flash and Cyborg in a team-up film like this allows Snyder to explore some of the larger plot elements within a more focused segment dealing with their introduction, but Ezra Miller (The Flash and Ray Fisher (Cyborg) deserved to have their own individual films to properly introduce their characters before being brought in for their first team-up. While both actors benefitted from a greater screen time here and, like with Ben Affleck, got the opportunity to show a lot more range for the characters they are playing, introducing them within Justice League like this means that, not only do we need to see a condensed version of their origins in order to limit the time spent on them (and, indeed, we don’t actually get to see how Barry Allen does get his speed powers at all); but it also results in an extended runtime for this piece. I would have liked to see how a stand-alone Cyborg origin film in particular would have worked; especially as if it had come between Batman vs. Superman and Justice League, it would have given the opportunity to introduce us to Victor Stone and his family, but it also could have begun to establish some of the other elements that are introduced in Justice League before we got to them, such as the Mother Boxes (which are an integral part of Cyborg’s own origin). Snyder shows us Barry Allen’s development with physicality as much as with dialogue, as Barry grows from someone without confidence in himself into a true hero; which is represented in part by him finding control of his feet – but he’s also already at the point where he has designed his own incredibly technical suit, and has a hidden lair full of high-tech equipment; it seems unusual that he would still be stumbling when he uses his powers at that point. A separate origin could have dealt with those character points in advance, and had his conflict within the team come through more from his age and immaturity, raising doubts as to whether he belongs on a team with experienced humans and an advanced biomechanic entity.
Another method of reducing the runtime could have been to cut back on the use of slow motion. This film has so many slow motion sequences, that it’s kind of unbelievable. It’s an established effect when used to demonstrate speed in a film, and the effect is used very effectively around The Flash; giving us an insight into how his speed interacts with the world around. The sequence following Superman’s resurrection, as he catches up with Flash’s speed and starts to bring the fight to him, is incredibly impactful – but that impact is reduced by the overuse of slow motion. There’s a slow motion shot of Lois Lane walking in the rain right at the beginning of the film; and while it has the potential to bring an emotional weight with it, it’s not even the first of slow-motion in this piece. My fear is that Zack Snyder risks becoming to slow-motion what Michael Bay is to lens flare; and the overuse of it to try and create a dramatic feeling reduces its impact in action sequences, and vice versa.
Other hallmarks of Snyder’s previous work are present here too, with muted colours being pervasive throughout a lot of this piece. Where there are pops of colour, the visuals benefit from it; but by keeping that filter over the majority of the piece, the world still feels a little dull and lifeless around the characters on screen. The release of a black and white version, which landed on HBO Max today, is unsurprising and will undoubtedly make it feel even more empty – I will not be watching it to be find out. The action set pieces, despite that overuse of slow motion, are excellent. The opening battle between the Amazons and Steppenwolf’s parademons is effective in establishing the villains as a genuine threat, with Earth’s most powerful warrior race being handily dealt with; and every other fight working to build on some issues from Snyder’s previous DC outings. Namely, our heroes are visibly seen actually saving members of the public and attempting to avoid even collateral damage to them; with the exception of our introductory sequence to Wonder Woman, in which we see her drop the side of a building onto police officers on the street, in direct contradiction to how she has been presented in both of her solo outings to date. In fact, I do wonder if Snyder has watched Patty Jenkin’s Wonder Woman outings, as even the Amazons aren’t characterised in the same way; and instead of the effective and sensible armour one would expect a race of warriors to wear, we do see a number of the Amazons in the stereotypical “metal bikini” take on female armour; an unfortunate side-effect of the testosterone-fuelled misogynistic outlook that weaves its way in the undercurrent of all Snyder’s films. Characterisation is also lacking somewhat in the villains; I was disappointed that Steppenwolf and Darkseid both have pretty generic “monster” voices, when a more interesting characterisation was available. I had to go to IMDB to find out that Ciaran Hinds was the voice of Steppenwolf, because it’s so distorted that I couldn’t tell it was him. The CGI also is not great for these characters. I appreciate that Darkseid may have been designed by teams who were working on him during the pandemic, and did not have access to the same resources they usually would (again, this cut was not complete in 2017); but Steppenwolf’s design is overly busy, relies a lot on the mirrored elements of his armour, and (while thematically appropriate to comic design) looks very much like a generic videogame boss in its realisation.
The villains are also hurt by what appears to be a pretty major plothole, which I admit may have been explained by a line of dialogue (it was very difficult to maintain full attention for the full 4 hours), but I have to bring up – so detailed spoilers coming. Diana explains the story of the first time Darkseid attempted to invade Earth, thousands of years ago, in order to acquire the Anti-Life Equation; and how the great warriors of the planet came together, with the help of the old gods, to see him and his army off – the only time he has ever been defeated, supposedly. When he fled, his armies left the Mother Boxes behind, and he has cut a path through the universe to try and find the planet that defeated him, and get his revenge. But Steppenwolf is drawn to Earth by the Mother Boxes, and knows that all three are there when he arrives – and yet, it’s halfway through the film before he realises that this was the planet that defeated Darkseid in the past. Something doesn’t add up – that means that either Darkseid forgot that the Mother Boxes were lost on the same planet that he found the Anti-Life Equation on, or that he has lost other Mother Boxes on different planets and is pretending he’s only been beaten once? It’s a strange contradiction that has been playing on my mind since I watched the film, and to my knowledge there’s nothing in it that explains that contradiction away (and I certainly won’t be watching it a second time to try and find out if I did miss something), and I will admit, it did break me out of the narrative as I stopped to try and figure out how that contradiction came about.
When all is said and done, Zack Snyder’s Justice League is fine. The action is impressive and the narrative is definitely more cohesive and considerate than it was in the 2017 theatrical release, and it’s clear that Snyder had a clear direction for how he wanted this film to play out. He’s talked in interviews about wishing to embrace the rich mythology of the DC universe, and I think that is both his triumph and, ultimately, his downfall here. While I do believe that Warner Bros and DC should be looking to create superhero films that are different to what Marvel are doing (after all, they’ve already done it), this high-drama, almost operatic approach to filmmaking is not the right way to go about it to generate a mass-market appeal. Zack Snyder deserves to be recognised as an auteur filmmaker, but I don’t believe that his style is a good fit for a project of this type. 300 was as successful as it was because Snyder took a real story and elevated it to the level of mythology, but is that approach appropriate for a world of aliens, gods and machine men; does it work when your central characters are already fantastical? It is hard to ignore the influence that the success of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy has had on how DC and Warner want the DCEU to be presented; but that stands in complete parallel to how Snyder works, and trying to blend his love of high mythology with the gritty realism of the Nolan films is like mixing chalk and cheese. Bringing Joss Whedon in certainly proved to be the wrong choice as well, since we wouldn’t be here at all if the 2017 theatrical release hadn’t crashed and burned as hard as it did.
As I said, Zack Snyder’s Justice League is fine. If you love DC comics, then I wouldn’t discourage you from watching it. If you love Zack Snyder’s previous works, then this is absolutely for you. I wouldn’t direct anyone else to sit down for this one, though, because it is just not good enough to be as long as it is. I certainly don’t agree with those calling it a masterpiece.
Shazam! is still my favourite DCEU movie.