Review – Zack Snyder’s Justice League
Directed by: Zack Snyder
Produced by: Charles Roven & Deborah Snyder
Written by: Zack Snyder, Will Beall, and Chris Terrio
Release Date: March 18, 2021
It’s difficult to talk about Zack Snyder’s Justice League without talking about its older bizarro clone from 2017, simply titled ‘Justice League’ sans author attribution. Likewise, it’s almost impossible to watch the film if you’ve seen the original Frankenstein’s monster of a movie without constantly thinking back to that experience and noticing what’s different without much effort. When it comes down to it, Zack Snyder’s Justice League (which I will henceforth refer to as ZSJL for the mercy of my fingers) is the same skeleton as the 2017 film. The story beats are, at their core, either identical or very similar. However, like a house that’s been remodeled, though the floor plan might be recognizable, everything from the roofing to the baseboards is new and ever so slightly different. Also, someone added a few new rooms. Some of those rooms feel like they should have been there from the start, and some of them are glorified storage cabinets that probably weren’t necessary. But when WB gives you a renovation budget of 70 millions USD, you make the biggest damn house you can.
And so it goes with the release of the long fabled Snyder Cut, finally unearthed, finished, and unleashed to the masses on HBO Max at a whopping four hours in length. It feels like a strange side effect of the Covid pandemic that’s gripped the world and shut down movie theaters for the past year as of March 2021 along with the long of WB’s burgeoning streaming service, and would almost certainly not exist without that mixture of elements. Yet, here we are, four years after the critically and commercially maligned theatrical draft of the project, ready to watch a product that we were told multiple times over the years was not real, and never would be. The real question now is, does it outshine the 2017 version of the first ever big screen DC superhero team up? Find out in our review of Zack Snyder’s Justice League.
For those just joining us, or who skipped or don’t remember the original theatrical version of this movie, the premise goes a little like this: Superman is dead at the hands of a cave troll. Sorry, I mean, Doomsday. Batman has been warned of an enemy of some sort coming to earth by a twitchy Lex Luthor via Jesse Eisenberg, and has told Wonder Woman that they need to find and unite the other super beings in their world to combat this nebulous threat. The threat comes in the form of an invasion by the demonic Steppenwolf from the hell world of Apokolips, searching for three artifacts known as Mother Boxes that will unite and do… something. To stop him, Batman will have to gather the world’s soon-to-be greatest heroes and, inevitably, when that isn’t enough, resurrect the fallen Kryptonian. This all remains more or less true in Zack Snyder’s Justice League.
The biggest change in this restored, original vision of Zack Snyder’s Superhero get-together is just a general addition of breathing room. Though we’re familiar with Bruce Wayne, Clark Kent, and Diana Prince from previous films, ZSJL bears the burden of introducing the audience to two new characters almost entirely from scratch. The 2017 cut of Justice League made some significant changes to the presentation of Barry Allen and Victor Stone, and after watching this new cut of the movie it is immediately apparent how much these cuts really hurt the perceived soul of the film. Some might call this new version ‘bloated’, but the increased scope for these two heroes is appreciable.
Victor Stone, also known as Cyborg, is elevated from a moving, breathing plot point in what might be the biggest set of additions. Whole sub-plots, scenes, and backstory are reintegrated into the movie that make victor a much more well rounded character with an actual arc throughout the movie. Somewhat ironically, the portrayal of Cyborg in the Zack Snyder cut and the fleshing out of his relationship with his father and the world around him makes him far more human.
Second to that are the changes made to Barry Allen. Barry only really receives one additional scene in the film, and arguably it’s a scene that could easily be removed without losing much in the plot or character. What really sticks out for Barry is the actual tone and importance of the character. In the 2017 cut, Barry is very much the inexperienced new kid, requiring a pep talk from Bruce Wayne before engaging in the very first major battle of the film. His role in the ultimate climax of the film is essentially played for laughs as he’s shuffled off to the side to rescue a stranded family and play second fiddle to a CGI Henry Cavill carrying an entire building several feet away.
Barry is still the same hyperactive, somewhat awkward ball of energy as played by Ezra Miller in this version, but he is noticeably more competent. Requiring neither pep talks, nor pratfalls onto anyone’s chest for giggles, this version of The Flash clearly knows how to use his powers. Thanks to that, he’s granted a much deeper level of agency in this film. Without giving too much away for those who haven’t braved the four hour journey yet, Barry now plays a crucial role in the final third of the movie that is both awesome to watch, and perhaps lays the seeds down for the upcoming Flashpoint movie that is still planned as of 2021.
Finally, third and perhaps most unexpected, is a complete overhaul of Steppenwolf. Steppenwolf in his 2017 incarnation was entirely forgettable except for just how jarringly generic he was as a villain. In this expanded take on the story, we receive a much broader portrayal of the character and his motivations, to the point where we perhaps even feel a little sympathy for him. He’s a warrior that’s been outcast from his home due to some unexplained great failure in the eyes of his master, and he seeks the Motherboxes to rectify this mistake by transforming the Earth into a new Apokolips. The expanded scope of Steppenwolf makes him not only a more believable foe for the heroes, but also gives us the chance to see fan favorites like big bad Darkseid and his creepy side piece Desaad waiting in the wings. On top of that, the original design of the character has been restored from the brief post-credits scene in Batman V Superman, which is a much larger and more intimidating presence.
Aside from those three major character renovations, the actual story structure of Justice League remains largely intact. Scenes are different enough without the Joss Whedon rewrites and reshoots to make an appreciable difference in tone and tenor, but don’t expect a wholly different outcome. By the time the end credits roll, Superman has been resurrected, the team has come together, and Steppenwolf has been sent back to Apokolips… though his return trip has been altered in a significant way. To give away too many of the differences here, as much as there are a lot of moments I would love to point out, would truly defeat the purpose of watching this new version in the first place, but rest assured the changes are worth watching.
None of this is to say the movie is without flaws. It has plenty of them. For one, it’s four hours long. While the character expansions of Cyborg, The Flash, and Steppenwolf make it a much better picture, there’s just as much in the movie that could easily be cut out to bring it down to a more manageable three hours. Thereby making more akin to Batman V Superman Ultimate Edition, or the directors cut of Watchmen. It really feels like Snyder left nothing on the cutting room floor; even things that could have been. Entire introductory scenes for The Flash and Wonder Woman that, though providing some nice character moments, add nothing to the overall narrative or propulsion of the plot could easily be cut. Scenes could be shortened, tightened, edited down, without really losing anything on a Joss Whedon edit level. The movie is extremely self indulgent, and it could be argued that it has every right to be after the fiasco that Zack Snyder went through to get here, but I eagerly look forward to the inevitable two and a half hour fan edit a year down the line.
Cinematography and Acting
There’s no question that Zack Snyder knows how to set up a shot. Irrespective of how you feel about the structure of his stories, Snyder always crafts a compelling frame full of eye candy. Whether it’s the blooming browns and reds of 300, the noir stylization of Watchmen, or the colorful if somewhat vapid visuals of Sucker Punch, the man has a knack for larger than life pictures. Justice League is no different. As has become something of a running joke with Snyder’s work, Justice League employs a somewhat ridiculous usage of slow-mo (IGN clocked it at literally 10% of the movie’s run time), but that slow mo seems to exist almost to re-translate some of these comic book panels back from celluloid to still images.
Snyder made the purposeful choice to present the film in a 4:3 aspect ratio to match IMAX screens, and so that there would be no details in any shot lost to the viewer. The more squared ratio seems somewhat archaic in the era of 4K HD screens, now more than a decade removed standard definition CRT sets, but it’s less distracting than you would think. That said, I also don’t think it adds that much to the film, and I don’t see any way you would lose that much by bringing it back down to an anamorphic resolution. Maybe another idea for the eventual fan edit that I’m sure will hit the internet at some point.
The performances in the movie are mostly solid. Ben Affleck broods around as a significantly less murdery Bruce Wayne than the one we met in Batman V Superman, Henry Cavill’s appearance as Superman in the film is short but good, and Gal Gadot is fine as Wonder Woman, though some of her line reads are a bit stilted. Given that this was all filmed almost half a decade ago, I think it’s fair to say she’s had time to grow into the role since then. Ezra Miller’s acting isn’t… bad, per se, I just don’t particularly care for the hyper-neurotic, ADHD version of Barry Allen he’s been cast as, which isn’t really his fault. Ray Fisher really gets to shine as Cyborg in this cut of the movie, which is an opportunity that feels like it really was robbed from him in the Whedon cut. There’s been a lot of behind the scenes drama between Fisher and WB/AT&T that I won’t get in to here, but seeing how much more he got to chew on in this version of the film definitely lends some amount of credence to his grievances.
Zack Snyder’s Justice League is a four hour indulgence that is worth at least one watch through, especially if you came away from the 2017 release with the same feeling of profound disappointment as I did. It’s clearly a labor of love, and the result of a multi-year campaign to see its release, and that is at least worth some merit and attention. Does it earn its four hour runtime? Not exactly, there are bits that could be trimmed back, and without a clear indicator of a future in this version of the cinematic DC universe, a lot of the last quarter of the film feels entirely unnecessary. However, the movie deserves credit for restoring what was clearly a much bigger, better, grander vision for this franchise than the anemic shell it was reduced to when Snyder had to step away from the project four years ago, and shouldn’t be overlooked. Watch it all at once, watch it in chunks, watch it in color, watch it in black and white (a separate option released on HBO Max, speaking of self indulgence…), just hit that play button at least once, you won’t be sorry you did.
Unless you’re our esteemed colleague Alan, who absolutely hated the film! Want to know more? Check out our One-Off Zack Snyder episode of BGCP: Disassembled to find out what I and three other writers on the site thought of the film, and hear one of us nearly have a coronary over how much we despised it! It’s good fun, I promise.
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