Review – Zack Snyder’s Justice League

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Overview

Synopsis Following the death of Superman, three ancient artifacts known as the "Motherboxes" have awoken. An ancient godlike being called Steppenwolf has come to Earth to retrieve them, and the only way to stop him is for Batman to form a team of Earth's mightiest heroes.

Length 4 hours, 2 minutes

Release Date March 18th, 2021

 

Rating R

Distribution Warner Brothers/HBO Max

Directing Zack Snyder

Writing Chris Terrio, story by Zack Snyder, Chris Terrio and Will Beall

Composition Junkie XL (Tom Holkenborg)

Starring Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Gal Gadot, Ray Fisher, Jason Momoa, Ezra Miller, Willem Dafoe, Jesse Eisenberg, Jeremy Irons, Diane Lane, Connie Nielsen, J. K. Simmons

Following a prolonged three-year campaign by DCEU fans to “Release the Snyder Cut”, HBO Max has finally finished and released the director’s cut of Warner Brother’s Justice League film! 

Zack Snyder returned to the project after a several-year hiatus from directing to handle the aftermath of the tragic suicide of his daughter, Autumn. Now with his newest film Army of the Dead being released on Netflix in April, he’s set to return in a big way! 

But will his return prove DCEU fans right about his vision for the comic book franchise or will this recut of the film merely prove to be a novelty to bolster an otherwise struggling streaming service? 

Content Guide

Violence/Scary Images: Some gore that wouldn’t be appropriate for young kids. When some characters die there’s blood splatter seen, and several characters are depicted being vaporized down to their skeletons. A character is stabbed and decapitated. 

Language/Crude Humor: Some excessive language including one use of Batman saying f***.

Sexual Content: Nothing explicit.

Drug/Alcohol Use: Alcohol is consumed in social settings but not to excess. 

Spiritual Content: Defeated and mind-controlled beings from other planets are referred to as “parademons” though despite their namesake they bear little in common with the Christian definition of a demon. The film features a history that includes the existence of the “old gods” such as Ares.

Other Negative Content: Themes of the dangers of the existence of Godhood and nihilism.

Positive Content: Themes of hope, protecting life and faith.

Review

Spoiler Alert for the Theatrical Cut of Justice League, as well as references to a handful of cameos by characters not in the original version. 

I’ve been very interested to finally watch Zack Snyder’s director’s cut of Justice League. The original release of the film in 2017 did not work out kindly for anybody involved. Zack Snyder had to walk away from the film for personal reasons and was never fully welcomed back onto the Warner lot to direct another film (including his upcoming film, Army of the Dead, which he took to Netflix). Joss Whedon’s career fell apart after the movie. Executive Producer Geoff Johns was fired over the film. Most of the actors like Henry Cavill and Ben Affleck moved on to focus on different projects like The Witcher

Overall, the project was a total bust. It never fulfilled any of Warner Brother’s ambitions to create a new superhero cinematic universe that could compete with The Avengers and the studio has since largely shifted gears into making competent mid-budget films like Shazam and Joker

The “Snyder-Cut” itself has been the subject of vicious fanboy debates among DCEU fans who wanted Warner Brothers to break down and release a director’s cut from the movie’s original director, but the politics of doing so weren’t in the studio’s favor until 2019, when Snyder and the actors started campaigning to raise the $70+ million dollars necessary to finish the recut. It wasn’t until HBO Max shilled out the money necessary to fill the demand for original streaming content that the project got off the ground.

 

The final result is a gargantuan four-hour long epic action film that bears only a passing resemblance to the movie that was placed in theaters in November of 2017. That’s not to say the film is substantially different. Both the Joss Whedon cut and the Zack Snyder version of the film are virtually identical in terms of plot and structure. The difference is that almost every piece of the puzzle has been interchanged between cuts. Aside from a handful of the more expensive-looking VFX shots, almost nothing from the theatrical cut is identical. They don’t even seem to have used the same takes of the same scenes. 

The pieces fit together to create two very similar films at a passing glance, but in their totality they comprise two completely different stories and visions.

It’s through that lens that I think is the most interesting to look at and assess Snyder’s version. On its own, it’s very hard to judge. It’s easily the most visually cohesive and functional DCEU film since Man of Steel but it’s also nowhere near as dramatically engaging or vibrant as Aquaman or Wonder Woman. At best, I’d say that Zack Snyder’s accomplishment here is a personal one. He’s repaired a film that was frankensteined together by corporate committee-think and rushed into completion by a very different filmmaker and engineered to look something like what the theatrical cut COULD have looked like circa early 2017 without interference. 

If you liked Batman vs. Superman and you wanted more of it, then this is a film that you will certainly enjoy. If you didn’t like that film or the theatrical cut of this film, you likely won’t enjoy this either. 

That said, Zack Snyder’s Justice League is going to go down in history as one of the most interesting films of all time for the very specific reason that it now exists as a film comprised of the visions of two very different artists. We have a $300 million dollar compromised version with scenes filled in by Joss Whedon and the purer recut version that’s closer to Snyder’s vision. 

Both of these directors have very different ideas about what the superhero genre is given their very different life experiences, philosophies, and approaches to filmmaking. Whedon treats the Justice League characters much like he does in The Avengers: they’re relatively personable people with normal quirks and anxieties who need to overcome their limitations to save the world. Snyder’s Justice League characters are all nigh-omnipotent Godlings whose whims and powers shake the world and single-handedly control the destiny of humanity. 

What we’re left with is a $370 million dollar test kitchen that future generations of film schools are probably going to use as an exercise to explore intent and execution. It makes for an amazing case study to explore how different artistic voices can create wildly different stories using the same basic framework. 

Consider how Whedon’s scenes make the film overall more casual and personable. His edit of the film puts more emphasis on everyday people and the effect Superman’s death had on everyday life. We get more scenes of everyday people struggling and reacting to life without Superman. The meet and greet scene between Martha Kent and Lois Lane in his version is more light-hearted but informed by a casual sense of loss between those characters who relate to each other over their mutual connection to Clark Kent. 

Or consider Batman and Flash’s relationship in the Whedon cut. My favorite line in either cut of the film was Bruce Wayne’s line to Barry when he’s having a moment of anxiety about saving people being tortured by Steppenwolf. 

Maybe the biggest difference is Superman himself. Neither film gives him more than a few minutes of screen time but Whedon’s cut is completely different. His version of the film begins with a cellphone video of Superman talking to children about his favorite things in the world. That’s then cut into a montage of people mourning his death. Whedon, more or less, reimagines Henry Cavill’s Superman to look and function more like the goofy Richard Donner version of the character. The only time he carries over any of Snyder’s ideas is when he inserts a one-liner during the fight scene of him against the Justice League where he asks Batman “Do you bleed?” (clearly a goof on Snyder’s overt seriousness and how out of place it can feel). 

Snyder’s cut removes ALL of this stuff. We still get a Martha-Lois bonding scene but it’s treated far more direly than what we got in the theatrical version and then weirdly undercut by a cameo by Martian Manhunter. There are still jokes in the Snyder-Cut to add levity but the overall tone is still far direr and intense. Most of the additional two hours of footage added are just connective tissue between the big plot moments from the original story. There’s more traveling, more moments of downtime, more setups and more payoffs. 

Much the same, Snyder’s Superman is also far more integral to the plot of this film, far less jovial, and given a few moments of actual self-reflection to work things out. Despite only appearing two-and-a-half hours into the film, he feels like he’s almost given a completion to his character arc in the first two movies. He actually seems to come to peace with his role as Superman just in time to arrive at the final battle. It’s not much but at least it feels like Snyder gave him more hope and sincerity than any version of this character so far. 

Snyder’s characters are far more cast in bronze. He all but worships these characters with religious awe and wants to place them on a pedestal to be adored for their incredible feats and accomplishments. They still have character arcs and individual stories but the humanity of these characters feels far more strained. With the exception of Cyborg (who’s been completely transformed into the best character in the entire film), most of these characters feel far more emotionally distant than before given that the film’s plot doesn’t allow them many chances to talk, bicker and self reflect. 

The difference between these films is that of cohesion and focus.

The theatrical cut is a patchwork of incomplete ideas, themes, and tones, but the moments Whedon does add give more humanity to the characters, focusses the story, and removes unnecessary teases for potential sequels (of which there are at least 3-4). His version of the film emphasizes the heroic nature of the characters and adds more everyday human personalities for characters like Flash to save in between action beats.

Snyder’s film is more visually, tonally, and emotionally cohesive and it’s overall a much better film. That said, it’s also colder, longer, more tedious and likely to alienate viewers who don’t have the stomach to sit through an action film longer than The Irishman. I can also totally see why Warner Brothers took one look at the rough cut of the film in April of 2017 and said “We need to scale this back into something manageable at any cost so we can make our money back”. 

That does leave the film and Snyder’s vision for the DCEU in question. The movie does tease sequels that aren’t likely to go into production anytime soon, if ever. The film’s mere existence seems to suggest that Snyder is trying to work his way into the good graces of Warner Brothers to iron over their differences and get the sequels to this film in production again. That said, I don’t think the film is ultimately going to end up being more than a novelty to sell HBO Max subscriptions. 

At the moment, Warner Brothers don’t seem to have a desire to pursue Zack Snyder’s rumored plans for Justice League 2 and Justice League 3. The studio seems quite content in making moderately budgeted sequels to Aquaman, Shazam, Wonder Woman and Suicide Squad alongside launching the new Robert Patterson/Matt Reeves Batman films. Maybe they will finally finish that Flashpoint Paradox film they’ve been talking about which could reset the timeline of the franchise. Then again, they’ve also been talking up films for Black Adam, Batgirl, Gotham City Sirens, Green Lantern, Nightwing, Lobo, Deadshot, Superman, Joker (multiple versions) and half a dozen spin-offs.

Warner Brothers doesn’t know what it wants to do but I don’t foresee them dropping another $600 million dollars as a loss-leader to get the franchise going again after all three of Snyder’s films underperformed at the box office. Now that J.J. Abrams is attached to Warner Brothers as an executive producer, I highly doubt that he’s going to allow Snyder to come anywhere near his new plans to rebuild the DCEU in his own image. 

Still, I am thankful we got the Snyder-Cut. It will go down in history as one of the most notable mainstream blockbusters in history and will serve as a fascinating lesson for students of film interested in exploring the complex facets of corporate filmmaking from an artistic and financial perspective. 

Positives

+ Improved visual cohesion
+ Improved color grading
+ Overall more logical and coherent story

Negatives

- Similar dramatic and thematic problems from Man of Steel and BvS
- Extremely long runtime
- Unnecessary sequel setups for Justice League films that likely won't be made

The Bottom Line

Zack Snyder's cut of Justice League is a huge victory for creative freedom and artistic vision in Hollywood! Even though it carries on most of the same problems his storytelling in other films yields, it can't help but feel like a celebration of pure artistry (even when it's a deeply compromised work of storytelling). While it likely won't change the direction of DCEU films going forward, it is a piece of work that ought to be moderately celebrated!

 

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Tyler Hummel

Born into the unexplored residential backwater of Chicago, Tyler Hummel is a graduate of Tribeca Flashpoint College where he studied Sound Design for Film and Interactive Media. When he isn't hosting his public access talk show The Fox Valley Film Critics or collecting DragonBall Z figurines, he enjoys writing and directing short films. As with Rick from Casablanca, "he's a man like any other man, just more so!"

1 Comment

  1. paschott on March 22, 2021 at 5:37 pm

    I think that summary of the way the heroes are set up helps me quite a bit. I was never impressed with the dark, gritty feel from Snyder. Man of Steel gave me a Superman I just didn’t care about – I never really rooted for him even as he worked to save the world. I never even bothered with BvS, partly because I thought it was quite contrived and still too dark. I appreciated having heroes who inspired me and thought that the original theater release for JL did that reasonably well. Wonder Woman did that even better. I left those movies feeling like I’d seen a hero. I left Man of Steel and the more recent Batman movies just feeling … indifferent.

    I pretty much already knew this wasn’t going to be a movie for me. But hey – there are people excited to get it and I’m glad they’ve got something they can possibly be happy about. 🙂

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