Film Review: Zack Snyder's Justice League

Directed by: Zack Snyder; Runtime: 242 minutes
Grade: C+

The story behind the original theatrical release of Justice League almost overpowered the execution of the film itself, yet that’s arguably even more of the case with this long-awaited, almost mythical unveiling of the “Snyder Cut”. Confirmed to exist by the likes of Jason Momoa, it quickly gained a reputation for being a much-longer and tonally different iteration than Joss Whedon’s serviceably lukewarm reshoots, rewrites, and recuts, and by default was assumed to be the superior version by fans of the movie universe. As a direct result of an aggressive internet campaign and with the introduction of HBO’s new streaming service, HBO Max, the suits at the top and original director Zack Snyder -- who, for those in the dark, also directed Man of Steel and Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice -- came to an agreement that would bring him back to salvage his original vision of Justice League for the new streaming service. Well, after tons of money dumped into it and a long wait, it’s finally here … and? Again, while it certainly does improve upon what came before it in ways, a good 4-hour movie that doesn’t make.

If you’re after a rough synopsis of this story’s founding of the Justice League, the presence of the main villain Steppenwolf, and the need for Superman after his death, check out previous reviews of the theatrical cut -- like mine! -- for that. With that out of the way, the comments that Zack Snyder’s Justice League is literally the same movie as the one from 2017, only longer, should be put to rest: this is not quite the same thing as a slightly tweaked “extended edition”. Motivations have been adjusted. Characters have more substance. Some unpopular quirks from the previous cut have been removed. The visual effects have been extensively reworked, from the design of the main villain to the landscape. To cap it off, this new cut places a stronger emphasis on one of DC’s most significant villains, Darkseid, as the primary impetus for not-so-big bad Steppenwolf coming to Earth. There are noteworthy alterations, and Snyder should be commended for having the bravado to go back into this project with a dark history and realizing his vision.

In another sense, this Snyder Cut of Justice League is absolutely “the same movie”. Some things simply cannot be altered without rewriting the script, chiefly that it’s all about chasing down the trio of magic supercomputer “Mother Boxes” that restructure and annihilate life when they’re synced because the script says they do. This new Snyder Cut offers a modified explanation as to why the boxes were abandoned on Earth in the first place, and the answer isn’t convincing, pushing the narrative even more into the shallow, logic-deficient spectrum than it already was. There’s also a clash of ideas in Justice League, in which Batman / Bruce Wayne scrambles to gather together these superheroes to combat a powerful other-worldly villain all on the backbone of them being able to overcome anything if they’re united … yet completely acknowledges that they’re screwed without bringing Superman back from the dead. The Justice League can do it, so long as the near-impervious and overpowered Man of Steel is around.

So no, the Snyder Cut is neither a pointless extension of the theatrical version of Justice League nor a transformation into the hidden masterpiece that the project’s most stalwart supporters hoped it would be. What Zack Snyder’s Justice League ends up being, however, is an improvement with drawbacks: a project that takes fewer steps back than it takes forward, and a project that makes one understand why parts might’ve been restructured in the first place. Perhaps the most high-profile aspect of this whole thing would be the character of the mechanized super hacker Cyborg, the center of controversy regarding Joss Whedon and how he streamlined Ray Fisher’s role in the narrative. The breadth of his character has been restored, and it’s pretty easy to chalk it up as one of the noteworthy successes in this experiment with rejuvenating the original content. Cyborg does harness more of the “heart and soul” of Justice League here through a bleaker, more affective story; Ray Fisher has some justification behind being disappointed, though I believe the magnitude of his content being reinstated has been oversold.

The antagonist Steppenwolf remains a mess, though, and he isn’t helped by the added larger role for the presumed future DCEU supervillain, his boss and relative Darkseid. Plenty of digital work went into transforming how he looks, and the outcome tends to be a mixed bag of eye candy and dull continuity. The theatrical cut’s design may’ve been bland, but it still captured some of the original character’s vaguely humanoid appearance, whereas this restored “original design” looks like the craggy defeated villain from Batman vs. Superman -- an awkward realization of Doomsday -- glued a bunch of knives all over his body and came back for Round 2. Coupled with the presence of Darkseid, it starts to seem like the rest of the DC villains worth putting onscreen are stony-skinned, broad-faced goons with endless swaths of winged faceless underlings at their disposal. While it’s understandable that Steppenwolf might’ve been remolded to look more like he’s from the same bloodline as Darkseid, this also reveals a lack of inspiration behind the antagonist forces up against the League, regardless of whether they're drawn from the source material.

Perhaps the most noteworthy and substantive change to Zack Snyder’s Justice League might be both its most reverential to the comics and, oddly enough, its most detrimental to the film as its own entity. Fans will get a charge out of it, but the restoration of supervillain Darkseid's heavier presence in the story also makes the film itself more cluttered, also introducing a secondary method of widely eliminating planets and lifeforms. Look, I understand the jolt of excitement that’ll come over fans when hearing certain things being name-dropped in a Justice League movie, but the inclusion of a more interesting “side plan” or “Plan B” that the real villain will execute later diminishes the impact of what’s going on here and now with Steppenwolf, which already struggles with 3 awkwardly volatile MacGuffin-like boxes being hunted down by a second-rate lackey (that still requires Superman to beat). This is one of the instances where any changes in the theatrical cut make some sense: in a movie already filled with a slew of new characters and hokey plot devices, it’d be best to leave the actual reveal of Darkseid and his bigger ambitions for a later date, if it comes.

Even though it was a rushed two hours, the original version of Justice League still does a fine enough job of giving the characters breathing room to be introduced and develop as beings, from the penniless and sarcastic youngster Flash to the gristly, boozy cynicism of Aquaman. Goes without saying at this point, but Affleck's Batman and Gadot's Wonder Woman are standouts regardless of the version. The Snyder Cut may add to certain aspects of their characters -- and, by undoing some of Whedon’s modifications, subdues them -- but for the most part, they feel roughly the same and not overhauled like Cyborg. Something else about this film as a whole remains true: there are too many new character concepts packed into too tight of a window, in which Snyder tries to force into existence something akin to the Marvel cinematic universe in a fraction of the time. An extra hour doesn’t help this, especially when it’s these additional character moments where the movie also indulges in more of Snyder’s slow-motion music video level of content. Pacing is certainly an issue with this lengthy cut of Justice League, and these elongated stretches feel like where the tightening or removal of content would be most justified.

Quick admission: I’m not much of a fan of Superman, but the charm and poise of Henry Cavill makes it very difficult not to embrace his rendition of the character on at least some level. To that end, the quest to resurrect Superman -- regardless of how exasperating the character’s endless powers may be -- remains an effective aspect of Justice League, amplified in Zack Snyder’s cut by delivering pure, unadulterated fan service. The most mocked aspect of Whedon’s Justice League, the awkward Superman intro where his mustache has been digitally replaced with an entirely new lower part of his face, has obviously been removed entirely. In its place, Snyder returns to the more successfully emotional aspects of Man of Steel in how he revives the Son of Krypton, both physically and emotionally, and yeah, there’s a black and silver suit involved. Whether this expanded glimpse into his comeback is any good or not, whether this and that make enough sense, becomes less relevant when Kal-El reemerges in those threads ... albeit, much, much later in the film. Between Cavill, the music and the spike in cinematic energy, it’s worth it.

Zack Snyder’s grand finale still has the same rough framework as the theatrical cut, but it feels very different in both tone and visual design. A frequent complaint with Snyder’s films have always been how dark and grim they are, and it’s pretty clear that creative decisions were made to “brighten up” the ending for theaters, from lighting up the sky with an apocalyptic orange hue to making dialogue quippier and emphasizing that the superheroes cared for civilians in the surrounding area of the final battle. For better and for worse, Snyder reverses these adjustments to craft a final act more aligned with his insistently gloomy sensibilities, shrouding everything in near-grayscale darkness and making it so the heroes are concerned with nothing else but their primary mission. It’s also more violent, leaning into its R-rated possibilities with the caliber of bloodshed. Those who were adamant about the theatrical cut’s inferiority will automatically see these changes in a positive light, but those changes also result in a leaden, nonsensical conclusion that misperceives decapitations and time travel as quality.

Opinions and attitudes about the Snyder Cut have run hot over the past year, with one side fully on the bandwagon with championing the continued potential of the Snyderverse and the other side arguing that his Justice League would follow suit with the rest of his subpar-reviewed superhero work. Regardless of where one falls on this spectrum, either side or in the middle, there should be at least one takeaway after finally seeing Zack Snyder’s Justice League: this is the cut that matters. There’s talk about which version will be the “canonical” choice for DC’s cinematic universe, but it’s a discussion that really doesn’t carry much weight, as they both essentially reach the same destination once it’s all said and done. One just takes the longer, preferred route with more interesting things to look at and has an ending that hits differently; either way, if they’re ready for Justice League 2, it’ll be easy to write a follow-up that essentially branches off from both. Thing is, even with a bizarre 4x3 aspect ratio, nobody’s going to want to go on Joss Whedon’s bumpy ride anymore after seeing this Snyder Cut.

Photos: WB/HBO


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