ZACK SNYDER’S JUSTICE LEAGUE
Studio: Warner Bros. Pictures
Release Date: HBO Max/Video on Demand – March 18, 2021
Description: In Zack Snyder’s Justice League, determined to ensure Superman’s (Henry Cavill) ultimate sacrifice was not in vain, Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) aligns forces with Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) with plans to recruit a team of metahumans to protect the world from an approaching threat of catastrophic proportions. The task proves more difficult than Bruce imagined, as each of the recruits must face the demons of their own pasts to transcend that which has held them back, allowing them to come together, finally forming an unprecedented league of heroes. Now united, Batman (Affleck), Wonder Woman (Gadot), Aquaman (Jason Momoa), Cyborg (Ray Fisher) and The Flash (Ezra Miller) may be too late to save the planet from Steppenwolf, DeSaad and Darkseid and their dreadful intentions.
The Zack Snyder’s Justice League screenplay is by Chris Terrio, story by Chris Terrio & Zack Snyder and Will Beall, based on characters from DC, Superman created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. The film’s producers are Charles Roven, Deborah Snyder, with executive producers Christopher Nolan, Emma Thomas, Wesley Coller, Jim Rowe, Curtis Kanemoto, Chris Terrio and Ben Affleck.
By James Harvey
After years of lobbying from a devoted (albeit troubled) fandom, the much-anticipated “Snyder Cut” of 2017’s Justice League has arrived in all it’s glory and, without a doubt, it’s an arrival worth marking. Not only can Zack Snyder’s Justice League (ZSJL) be considered a noteworthy win when it comes to artistic integrity in the very consumer-driven film-making industry, but it’s also the grand execution of a fan-favorite-though-imperfect interpretation of The World’s Greatest Super-Heroes that will certainly be talked about for years to come. And while ZSJL is a legitimately fascinating film which greatly improves upon the first Justice League, it’s own shortcomings threaten to diminish its well-earned stakes and excitement.
To start, a shade bit of back-story is required to provide the context for the existence of ZSJL. Following the tragic death of his daughter, as well as intense pressure for Warner Bros. executives following the critical thrashing of his overly grim Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, director Zack Snyder decided to step back from Justice League late into production, leading the studio to bring in Joss Whedon to finish the film (and to give it more of a mandated Marvel’s The Avengers feel). However, that ultimately resulted in a clunky, bland mess of a movie, which itself created such a furious backlash from Snyder’s fans that, well, we ended up here. With Snyder back and his original vision for the Justice League restored and available for public consumption, and the result is perhaps his best DC Comics-based feature film to date, as imperfect as it may be.
Please note this review will be as spoiler-free as possible.
To put it simply, ZSJL essentially plays out like an expanded, alternate cut of the 2017 original, running at almost double the former’s total running time – at just over four hours – but offering the same basic story. ZSJL follows most of the same beats, though here it’s accompanied by a wealth of excessively expository and extended scenes. It’s not until the film’s climax do things noticeably detour from the 2017 iteration, but even then it’s not as much of a deviation as expected. If you know the story from the last Justice League movie, then you know roughly how events will play out for the most part as, unlike the previous version, we finally get to see every facet of Snyder’s vision as intended and in immense detail.
Unfortunately, there’s just too much here, to the point where it’s unwieldy. ZSJL is built on the idea of having Snyder’s vision fully realized, and it is, but that ends up being detrimental to the movie itself. Many, many scenes continue for far longer than they should, and others easily could’ve been removed entirely. Not only does this kneecap the film’s pace, but it robs some key moments of their emotional strength. Cyborg and The Flash have great arcs here which benefit nicely from the film’s extended runtime, both enjoying clear and riveting story-arcs, but the remaining Leaguers mostly feel like walking plot devices lost in an ocean of listless scenes rather than characters invested in saving the world.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty of excellent and legitimately awe-inspiring moments littered throughout the movie but, as a result of the four-hour run-time and the overall agenda of the movie to deliver Snyder’s full vision, those moments are sometimes buried beneath the bloated or unnecessary scenes that make up a solid hour (at least) of the movie’s runtime. This strips the film of its pace and its urgency, resulting in a viewing experience that at times feels shapeless and meandering, and can be legitimately exhausting. The first two hours especially buckle under this and, with the excessive amount of exposition and set-up, could prove to be a challenge for some viewers. This also negatively impacts the story ZSJL is trying to tell, as it’s easy to lose track of certain characters, developments and plot points, making revelations later in the film needlessly confusing (though only briefly so, at best).
Still, ZSJL does earn the title of “epic,” but it’s an uneven one that could (ironically?) do with some trimming. Somewhere in this four-hour plus film is a 2 1/5 – 3 hour edit that could possibly be one of Snyder’s best ever. While there are plenty of resuscitated sequences that should stay in, there’s just as much (if not more) that could be tightened up or lost all together. By trimming down this four-hour epic, which almost feels more like a rough cut than an actual finished director’s cut, it could give ZSJL the pace and direction it needs. As we move from scene to scene with no rhyme or reason, each one just playing out and moving on, there’s no drive or propulsion. And while it’s likely going to be one of the most talked about scenes, ZSJL‘s “Knightmare” sequence is so excessively indulgent and painfully unnecessary, and could be removed without losing a single thing as it truly serves no real story purpose (especially since ZSJL is the end to Snyder’s “trilogy”) except to offer a peak at what will never come.
That said, plenty of the new material in ZSJL is well-worth including and key in getting across the epic scope and tone Snyder is attempting to pull off. The alien threat looms larger and the dread surrounding it more palpable. The expanded look into Cyborg and The Flash’s backstory is not only some of the film’s best material, but is absolutely crucial to the story and our investment in this world, and having it restored here gives the film an immediate leg-up over the 2017 iteration.
To dig in, the Flash’s introductory scene, with him as Barry Allen (The Flash) saving an unnamed Iris West, considered extraneous and removed from the 2017 Justice League, is a visual splendor and legitimate attention grabber. You just can’t look away! It tells the audience basically everything they need to know about Barry (even hinting at a thing or two which come into play later in the film) and firmly establishes him as our ‘in’ into the bigger world of Snyder’s universe. Plus, Allen here gets a much better introduction in comparison to the 2017 film, plain and simple (weird hot dog stuff aside). While Cyborg is the heart of ZSJL, The Flash is our ‘everyman’ and is key to helping us accept and learn the rules of this very different reality. Don’t get me wrong, though, as Cyborg’s role is just as crucial and engaging.
Unceremoniously cut from the 2017 version, Cyborg’s difficult journey is given its due here and ZSJL is all the more better for it. Stone is the emotional core that drives this film, and Ray Fisher rises to the occasion, giving us an absolutely standout performance that’s also arguably the film’s best. It’s an unbelievably heartbreaking and riveting performance, and Fisher is hypnotic whenever he’s on the screen, buried under CG or no. If any good comes from Snyder’s Justice League finally seeing the light of day as intended, it’s that Fisher’s stellar portrayal of the beloved comic character is now out there for all to see. As with The Flash’s excised material, Cyborg’s story getting the time it deserves makes us just that much more invested. Even in the film’s slowest moments, he cuts right through all the fluff and demands our immediate attention. Cyborg’s “I’m not broken” moment, in the film’s climax, will go down as an all-time great.
Unfortunately, the impact of the four-hour runtime on most of the other characters is debatably negligible. Aquaman gets a couple more scenes and some slight development, but not much, with the character’s meaty backstory clearly pushed to the back-burner to be dealt with in his then-upcoming solo film. Wonder Woman gets a couple nice moments, including a cute scene with Batman, and is able to sell Steppenwolf’s threat during the big climactic battle, but is little more than walking exposition. Batman follows the same basic story beats as the 2017 film with the same ultimate goal – to resurrect Superman – but this time it’s not to deal with his guilt over his role in the Man of Steel’s death, but instead to use him as a weapon. Batman is also less of a jerky quipster and is much more likable in comparison to the 2017 version. The film’s main antagonist, Steppenwolf, also gets fleshed out a bit more, but nothing really changes for him save for a little backstory to explain his motivation for going after the Mother Boxes (but he does get a makeover which walks the line between excessive and awesome). In fact, most characters from the last movie (save for the Russian family, who were created just for the 2017 cut) get a few more beats to enjoy but, again, those don’t really add anything to the overall story (with the exception of Cyborg’s father and the extended Darkseid cameos) as, again, most of these are the result of extended and deleted scenes inserted back in that maybe should’ve been kept out.
Roughly the same can be said for ZSJL‘s action sequences. Out of the gate, they regain the flow and cohesion that the 2017 version trimmed out, feeling more complete and important to the film’s story. They’re lush, extravagant and – especially in the film’s climactic battle – eye-poppingly stunning. Unfortunately, most fall victim to some of Snyder’s story-telling shortcomings and lean too hard into ‘cool for cool’s sake’ without thought of what it means for the characters of stories. There is a surprising amount of blood here, which makes the Leaguer’s heroic feats appear more ghastly than gallant.
While ZSJL treats death as a very real thing – it’s a key plot point and of intense debate between the burgeoning superhero team members – but only when it comes to matters of the story. When an action sequence hits, well, the death toll tends to rise quickly, blood flies and no one really bats an eye. The action sequences in the 2017 Justice League were adequate, though clearly toned down and lightened up. ‘Harmless’ is a good descriptor. Here in ZSJL? Not so much. During an early action sequence where Wonder Woman saves a group of hostages from some terrorists – the scene is in both versions of Justice League – it’s distracting and somewhat shocking to see here the smears of blood and the noticeably increased violent tone. This also undercuts a scene right after Wonder Woman saves said hostage, where she comforts a little girl, mere moments after absolutely decimating the terrorists. It’s absolutely jarring. Snyder knows how to film an action sequence, and they’re stirring and heart-pounding, but the cognitive dissonance between the movie’s core themes and its action beats can be off-putting. That said, for those who’ve enjoyed Snyder’s previous DC Comics-based theatrical features, this likely won’t bother them at all.
Even with it’s many issues, ZSJL remains an interesting watch nonetheless. Despite its problems, the film is packed with a wealth of great character moments, stunning visuals, clever storytelling tricks, and one creative idea after another. Make no mistake, Snyder is undeniably talented and this film is undoubtedly a labor of love (not just for him, it seems, but for the entire cast and crew, with an extra nod for Tom Holkenborg incredible ZSJL score). And as much as his strengths shine through here, so do his weaknesses. Story ideas and character depictions are inconsistent and at times underdeveloped, with some story-telling choices (such as unnecessary cameos and twists) seemingly predicated on how cool it would look without concern for the plot, and big themes are occasionally undercut in service of bombastic set pieces and flashy super-powered action. Out of his entire filmography, no more is that tonal conflict on display than here. ZSJL gives us the best of Snyder, but also his weaknesses, too. Still, you have to admire and respect the vision that Snyder has crafted and stayed devoted to for so long. He has clearly poured every inch of his being into this movie and it shows. There’s such an impressive amount of care and attention given to every frame, every design choice, almost all of it. And while this doesn’t carry over to developing a stronger, more coherent story, ZSJL nearly flies alone on Snyder’s will and determination. It’s commendable and worth acknowledging, fan or not.
In the end, ZSJL is unlikely to sway the minds of anyone who doesn’t enjoy the director’s previous efforts. Personally, the moment Superman didn’t leave a few dollars behind for the clothes he snagged during an early scene in Man of Steel is the moment I knew Snyder’s take on Superman didn’t match up with the hero I’ve been reading for over thirty years, and that’s fine. While his take might not line up with what I consider to be true of DC Comics’ greatest heroes, I still appreciate and commend his vision and incredible dedication. There are moments here and there, where this Justice League feels like the one that has enamored fans for decades, but those are fleeting. That said, ZSJL may be Snyder’s most straight-forward and (ironically?) accessible approach to these characters yet, especially in comparison to his dour, cynical take on Superman in the Man of Steel and whatever was happening in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Fans of the director will consider this another homerun, and rightfully so. It’s a film that unquestionably succeeds despite its flaws. It’s a triumph and a fitting climax to Snyder’s cinematic journey through the DC Universe. Even for those simply curious about the movie, perhaps intrigued by its troubled and very public history, should give it a shot despite the hefty time commitment required.
Zack Snyder’s Justice League, as imperfect as it may be, is a grand achievement for Snyder, and a gift to his legion of devoted fans. It’s his ultimate statement on the DC Universe and the characters he’s worked to bring to the big screen for nearly a decade, making for a flawed but intriguing (and at times actually inspiring) experience. It’s lengthy four-hour-plus runtime and an overabundance of scenes best left on the cutting room floor can make it a challenging watch, but the film still succeeds despite its faults. While this movie might not change the minds of the most adamant Snyder supporter or detractor, regardless, it remains a legitimate curiosity that is well-worth a closer look. Recommended, but with reservations. Watch at your own risk.