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Zack Snyder’s Justice League

by on March 19, 2021
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[This is a SPOILER-FREE review.]

Since you may be embarking on a 4-hour journey (or may have already), I’ll get this out there at the top of the review, so as not to add to your plate:

Is Zack Snyder’s fully realized vision for Justice League better than the 2017 theatrical cut? Yes.

Is it a good movie? Not really — well, kind of, in places. But overall, no.

Justice League has had perhaps one of the most tumultuous and interesting journeys of any major tentpole blockbuster in the last decade. The film was originally under the directorial reins of Snyder, coming off his divisive (to be generous) first two films for the DC superhero franchise, Man of Steel and Batman v. Superman. But after his daughter Autumn died while he was mid-production, and understandably not feeling up to the task of finishing the film (especially under the thumb of a creatively stifling Warner Bros. Pictures), Snyder stepped down from the project, and Avengers director Joss Whedon was hired to complete the film.

Whedon’s version would require extensive reshoots and gargantuan edits to turn it from an epic Snyderian vision into what was probably thought by studio execs to be a safe, crowd-pleasing blockbuster akin to typical Marvel Studios fare. The film was panned by critics and audiences alike, mostly due to its phony wit, cookie-cutter characters, and clearly hacked-to-the-bone story. As a result, it severely underperformed at the box office.

What arose from Justice League’s ashes was a hashtag—a “movement,” if you will—#ReleaseTheSnyderCut. Fans of Snyder’s previous work felt cheated by a shifty corporate film studio, and surmised that Snyder’s original vision had to be out there somewhere. Falsely, the movement largely perpetuated the unfounded idea that there was some totally complete cut of the film lying around in the Warner vault—a concept that makes literally no sense if you understand anything about how film production works. Regardless of whether it existed yet or not, these fans demanded, on social media and online forums, that Warner pony up and allow the completion and release of “the Snyder Cut” of Justice League. The movement was comprised largely of right-wing consumers, and bore all the characteristics of a typical conservative conspiracy.

But in early 2020, this movement was validated by Snyder himself, teasing out hints on his social media that the Snyder Cut, in some form, did exist. Eventually, WB made an official announcement that Zack Snyder’s Justice League would become a reality, through $70 million of additional reshoots and VFX (which should have come as a sign to the #SnyderCut blowhards that maybe it didn’t previous exist as completely as they’d imagined), and would debut on their new streaming service, HBO Max.

Fast forward to 2021, and we’re here. The Snyder Cut is upon us, in all of its 4-hour, 6-part (technically 8-part?) glory.

So what is Snyder’s vision, after all this time? Well, in short, it was a doubly long version of the theatrical cut, with a few more villains, several more sequel setups, a lot more slow-motion (seriously, it’s like half the runtime), and a light dollop more humanity applied to some of its main characters.

The core story remains almost entirely the same, with a few tweaks to make more sense of things: in the wake of Superman’s death at the hands of Doomsday in Batman v. Superman, and having premonitions of a coming extraterrestrial threat, Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) sets off around the globe in search of more superhumans. He enlists Diana of Themiscyra a.k.a. Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), Arthur Curry, the Aquaman (Jason Momoa), speedster Barry Allen, not yet named “The Flash” (Ezra Miller), and more reluctantly, Victor Stone (Ray Fisher), a college football star-turned-cyborg after a groundbreaking, life-saving operation from his genius father Silas.

About the same time, an alien conqueror named Steppenwolf arrives on Earth—this being the threat Batman had envisioned. He brings with him an army of parademons, flying humanoid-insectoid warriors, in search of three cubes of power, the Mother Boxes, which hold the power to transform life into something new, at the cost of what already exists. Steppenwolf comes as a herald of Darkseid, an even more powerful and ruthless warmonger, who wants to control Earth and the rest of the universe because reasons.

If you’ve seen the theatrical cut, you pretty much know how this story plays out. Snyder’s version keeps most of the same key plot points, using its additional two hours to add details to characters and smooth out logical inconsistencies in the narrative. Unfortunately, though, this extra time is not used nearly as efficiently or effectively as one might hope. Most of the additional scenes feel like little more than filler, added simply because they could be, not because they bolster the story or its themes.

However, there are benefits to the length, the crowning one being Ray Fisher’s Cyborg. He just gets so much more to do, graduating from “overly edgy, nothing secondary” to arguably the main character of this movie. His tragic history and bleak outlook are given proper context, and his importance to the team is underlined, circled, and highlighted. Looking back, it’s easy to see why Fisher was so publicly upset by the theatrical release, given the difference in his character (not to mention the alleged abuse and mistreatment at the hands of the now-scorned Whedon). Cyborg is the closest thing to a great character this movie achieves.

Additionally, Barry gets just a smidge more exploration, including a major power showcase in the final fight. I’d love to dig into that one, and some of my problems with it, but there be no spoilers here. For now, I’ll say that it is emotionally and musically one of the most effective moments in the film, but I couldn’t help but feel like it was unearned and a little out-of-nowhere, with huge ramifications for the ease with which Barry pulls it off. But I suppose that is for the upcoming Flashpoint film to unpack.

Unfortunately, the rest of the cast is left with little more than they had in the Whedon cut. Don’t get me wrong: they certainly have more screen time, but not much is done with that extra room to make them feel more human or emotionally charged. Wonder Woman is relegated to the role of exposition machine, and frankly, Gadot lacks the charisma to sell that kind of dialogue in a captivating way (of course, she isn’t helped by Chris Terrio’s bland, inhuman writing). Batman is the organizer, getting a few throwaway lines about his responsibility to assemble a team in Superman’s absence, and otherwise pretty much just mediates the team dynamic. And Aquaman is appreciably less artificially jokey than in Whedon’s version, but no more exciting.

I’m guessing the characters are left largely untouched because Snyder, being Snyder, was more interested in awkwardly fleshing out the world with setups for other films, and indulging his worst instincts to sit on an “epic” moment for way too long. His “strengths,” as they were, are as a creator of spectacle—compelling combinations of movement, light, and physical drama splashed across the screen—and a loose leash on runtime allows him to run wild with shot after shot of slow-motion (occasionally ramped down to even slower-motion), dreamlike CGI compositions of characters performing some kind of visually interesting action.

The general consensus on Snyder seems to be that “even if you don’t like him, he’s got a strong command of visuals,” and I’ve always been inclined to lightly disagree with that. I do think that is his strongest trait as a filmmaker, relative to his lack of tact or subtlety in delivering a theme, or his general disinterest in portraying his heroes as multidimensional. But with the exception of some of his greatest cinematic moments (a couple sequences from 300, Watchmen, and Man of Steel come to mind), I find his airbrush-y, digitized-Frank-Frazetta aesthetic to be somewhat garish and indulgent, and his penchant for washing every frame in dark greys, browns, and oranges as of late to be an eyesore. This entire movie, I kept feeling like my eyes would eventually adjust and I’d start seeing the color—but no, the movie really is just that desaturated and dull.

And no, the “artsy” 4:3 aspect ratio does nothing for the movie. It was a purely superficial move on Snyder’s part. If anything, I think it takes away from his spectacle a bit.

Likewise, popular composer Tom Holkenborg (previously known as JunkieXL) completely drops the ball on this one, despite doing a fairly effective job on Batman v. Superman. I was never as big a fan as many are, but even I was surprised at how generic, repetitive, and unexciting almost every music choice in this film was. There is a particularly odd choice, whenever Wonder Woman does anything, to repeat the same female, Middle East-inspired wail, over and over again. About halfway through the movie, it becomes almost self-parody. And then it keeps popping up.

Zack Snyder’s Justice League is not entirely unworthy of admiration. The Cyborg boost earned a lot of points in keeping me interested in an otherwise unbearably textbook “team up to save the world” film. And I have to respect Snyder for his passionate dedication to creating the film he wanted to create—and, for once, committing to the idea of a story about heroes, hope, and coming together, rather than a broody morally-muddled mess of inappropriate, poorly executed allegory and biblical intertextuality. For a film as long and melodramatic as this one, it’s deceptively simple and straightforward. It is, in a weird way, Zack Snyder restrained—or maybe more accurately, “refined.” For all the unnecessary subplots about Lois Lane buying coffee and Steppenwolf simping for Darkseid, and the laughably excessive use of slow-motion, Snyder really is just telling a rousing superhero story, and attempting (as best he can) to give it a heart. And that goes a long way to keep this film from being an absolute chore.

If you love Zack Snyder, I would think you’d like this movie. There’s less “post-9/11 Bush’s America” theming than usual, so I’m not sure, maybe it’ll lose some Snyder fans there. But it’s otherwise completely, unabashedly him. Even if you have mixed feelings on Snyder’s work, or like me, are generally turned off by it, there may still be something to appreciate here. The film’s surprising optimism and heart are admittedly just a little bit infectious.

That being said, many even-slightly-better movies accomplish all this and more in half the time. There’s absolutely no reason this movie needed to be 4 hours long if only one (and a half) of your heroes is going to become a real character.

Huh, that dumb meme about Avengers: Infinity War’s “script economy” is starting to make a lot more sense now.

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