I won’t go into the background. We know the origin tale of Zack Snyder‘s original vision of Justice League, and his terrible family tragedy, and the continued tragedy of the studio interference that led to the theatrical release, directed by Joss Whedon (although the theatrical cut still lists Snyder as director, so…). We know the campaign, the reshoots, yada yada yada. But now the question remains: was it all worth it?
I may not have been the core audience for this film pre-release, since I absolutely loathe Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice and have been getting nothing but sketchy vibes from both Snyder and his hoards of fanboys (our group chat and Facebook feed has been something else this past weekend); but, I will admit that this cut of Justice League is a superior film and actually shows some growth with Snyder and his vision of these characters. He does seem to have learned some lessons from whatever it was he was he thought he was doing with BvS.
With a stumbling first hour (and, look, I absolutely do not care about anything in the Knightmare future at all), this film offers much more satisfying character bits that actually flesh out the characters of Barry Allen (Ezra Miller) and Vic Stone (Ray Fisher), and make villain Steppenwolf’s (Ciaran Hinds) motivation much more clearer, thus increasing the stakes of the film.
Following the death of Superman (Henry Cavill) at the hands of Doomsday — and boy do we linger on that sequence — Batman (Ben Affleck) and Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) set about trying to track down several other metahumans that have been only hinted at, having hidden themselves away from society. Once together, they encounter Steppenwolf at a silo, and, getting promptly beaten, realize the only being capable of defeating Steppenwolf — and, by extension, hold off the coming of the leader of the New Gods, Darkseid (Ray Porter) — is Superman. Resurrecting Superman comes with its own risks, but, ultimately, his reappearance is enough to keep the forces of Darkseid and Apokolips at bay. For now…
If that sounds awfully familiar, it should: the story beats are exactly what was released in theaters some four years ago. The entire first hour of the film is a rearrangement of the later section of the first act of the theatrical cut, with the opening Superman death scream being the impetus for the Mother Boxes awakening– which attracts Steppenwolf’s attention. From there, the film immediately jumps to Batman tracking down Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa), while intercutting with the Mother Boxes awakening, and Wonder Woman relating Earth’s first encounter with Darkseid, some five thousands years in the past.
This opening hour is probably the weakest aspect of this new cut: much noise has already been made of the over-abundance of slow motion shots. But that actually isn’t an issue. Snyder views these characters as gods among humans (akin to the NetherRealm video game series, Injustice), so the framing and lingering of them in this context makes sense, and most of the musical cues for Wonder Woman especially are not only distracting, but get overused to the point of being silly. There’s such a self-seriousness with how the film treats theses characters in the first half that it borders on parody; the wailing war-cry to Wonder Woman is so wildly distracting.
While the action beats are more coherent and well structured, there are additions of gore that seem…odd. Case in point, Wonder Woman’s thwarting of a terrorist attack includes her throwing one against a wall; it isn’t enough for her to just knock him out, the end result is a growing pool of blood, and a bloody crater where he’d impacted. Always there seems to be a beat that lingers just a second too longer, the addition of blood that adds nothing more than just its own addition, of shots that add texture, but no subtext. Snyder’s stated that he “makes movies for grown ups” (in this movie that features a man dressed as a bat, water breathers, aliens, and fucking Zeus), but that doesn’t necessarily mean “grown up movies need to include de-saturated color, bloody violence, and Batman saying ‘fuck’ for…some reason?” But then again…this is definitely his movie: goofy musical cues, overly busy armor design, cringy dialogue and all.
But that’s only the first hour. Once the plot is in motion and the movie gets going, it gets going. The Flash and Cyborg are considerably improved by the increased run-time; no longer relegated to bit players, they have actual motivation and development, and that makes the entire rest of the film that much richer. No longer is their relationship boiled down to a few lines of dialogue while digging up Superman’s body; we see how their otherness affects them and brings them together, making their friendly fist-bump at the end actually mean something other than looking cool.
And finally, seeing the Speed Force in a feature film — one that seems to understand how uniquely important the Flash is as a character — was a delight. While people may be more excited at seeing Superman wearing the color black, I was genuinely excited to see him arrive just in time for the final battle, and to hear the new motif that Hans Zimmer had written for him, once again.
With some tighter editing and a co-writer capable of tempering Snyder’s more self-indulgent, and questionable, decisions, this would have been an enjoyable theatrical viewing. This movie is a vast improvement on Snyder’s last foray into the DC Universe, and it seems that he learned most of the right lessons from BvS, which seemed to boil down to “make a watchable movie that is enjoyable”.
There’s just enough genuine hope for each individual character by the end of the film to have made the effort worth the trouble. That is, at least until the Knightmare stinger… Ugh. Really, the entire movie could have ended without this addition and have been much stronger, since it would no longer be hinting at a future that would never be explored (but that’s just me). I have been to every Snyder film on opening day since 300 came out — and yes, I went to see BvS opening night — so my criticisms are not to the director, but to specific works, and I would probably have added this to that list as well, and not regretted it.
This film is an impressive achievement, and were circumstances different, and a pandemic not roiling the world, it is doubtful that Warner Brothers would have bothered to revisit this project. While this version hints at projects that won’t come to pass (and that might be a blessing, considering some of the more wacky ideas Snyder was looking to explore in the sequels. WOW.), for what it is — an Elseworlds type of adventure — it is strong. The #SnyderCut even hints at Ryan Choi’s (Zheng Kai) future work as the Atom, or the mere existence of Martian Manhunter (Harry Lennix), who probably would have been a big help during the Steppenwolf attacks!
While this is not The Greatest Movie Ever Made, and it’s not even the best DC Comics movie ever made, Zack Snyder’s Justice League is a vast improvement, and there’s enough richness in there to have made it worth the time. I genuinely enjoy this movie. Just after that first hour. 4/5 Martian Manhunters Popping Up At The Very End When He Probably Should Have Helped Fend Off The Alien Invasion.
Zack Snyder’s Justice League is now streaming on HBO Max.