Film Review – Zack Snyder’s Justice League
Zack Snyder's Justice League
We can’t talk about Zack Snyder’s Justice League (2021) without talking about the story that led up to its release. While in the middle of initial production in 2017, Snyder suffered a terrible family tragedy. Not having the energy to continue working, Snyder decided to walk away. Joss Whedon was hired to step in and complete the project. Reports state that Whedon changed much of the material, going for a lighter tone, reshooting and editing large portions of it while inserting his own brand of humor. The result felt like a mish mash of conflicting ideas – Snyder’s somber, operatic approach against Whedon’s more colorful optimism.
The critical response was mixed. I didn’t hate the theatrical version of Justice League. It was better than the nihilistic Batman v Superman (2016), but it did feel like a patchwork job. Storylines were incomplete and character development was pushed to the side. It was as though everything were combined on an assembly line that was moving too fast. In the years since, rumors started circulating over Snyder returning to the project to complete what he started. Internet buzz got to extreme highs, in which the fan movement to #ReleaseTheSnyderCut became a mainstay on social media. And now here we are, four years later, with HBO Max releasing Snyder’s vision in all of its glory.
There’s one thing WB/DC deserves credit for – they are willing to let their artists inject their own personalities in tentpole franchises. Where most of the MCU films look and sound the same, each entry in the DC universe incorporates a vast array of styles and tones. This goes as far back as Batman Returns (1992) which worked more as a “Tim Burton Movie” than a “Batman Movie.” Wonder Woman (2017) does not look like Aquaman (2018), which does not look like Shazam! (2019) or Birds of Prey (2020). For better or for worse, filmmakers have more wiggle room to play with these worlds and the characters that populate them.
Snyder takes this opportunity and carries it to full fruition. At a monstrous four hours long, he operates completely free, unrestrained from studio interference or the need to appease a certain demographic. This is his creation, showcasing both his strengths and weaknesses. I cannot recall another superhero film this ambitious, even Avengers: Endgame (2019) feels restrained by comparison. Snyder opts for a number of creative choices – from presenting the picture in a 4:3 ratio (the screen looks more like a square than a rectangle) to dividing the timeline with chapter titles. He does away with much of Whedon’s humor, going for a more muscular, serious atmosphere. The bright colors of the theatrical release are washed out and the rock and roll soundtrack is replaced with more melancholic songs.
Story arcs that were removed in the theatrical release have been restored and expanded this time around. The basic plot is the same, with villain Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds) – re-rendered to look more menacing – coming to Earth in search of three “Mother Boxes” to give him unlimited power. In his way are Earth’s defenders: Batman (Ben Affleck), Superman (Henry Cavill), Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), Aquaman (Jason Momoa), The Flash (Ezra Miller), and Cyborg (Ray Fisher). We get more backstory of Steppenwolf, now understanding his motivation to win favor of the mighty Darkseid (Ray Porter) like a son wanting to impress his father.
Of all the characters who suffered under the cuts of the theatrical release, Cyborg/Victor Stone benefits the most from Snyder’s version. We get a ton of his background, learning how he was once a high school football star, but after a tragic accident was put into a robotic body to save his life. His relationship with his father, Silas (Joe Morton) is the heart of the movie. Silas’ guilt over seeing his son losing his body, combined with Victor’s feelings of isolation and loss, makes for the strongest emotional undercurrent. To go even further, just about every major character is in conflict with the legacy of their parentage. From Wonder Woman’s connection to her mother (Connie Nielsen), to Aquaman’s reluctance to take his father’s mantle as the king of the ocean. The Flash wants to help his imprisoned father (Billy Crudup), and Batman…well, we’ve been down that road a few times, haven’t we?
Which brings us to Superman. In my review of Batman v Superman I wrote, “I don’t know if Snyder doesn’t understand the character, or if he simply hates him.” Snyder doesn’t show contempt for the Kryptonian this go around, but he continues to have trouble handling the character’s motivations. The writing (screenplay by Chris Terrio), fumbles between Superman being an indestructible god and the wholesome kid from Smallville. Instead of Clark Kent having a sense of responsibility as a product of his upbringing, Snyder appears intent on having his personality fueled by the loss of a father both from Krypton and Earth. But that inner turmoil goes nowhere.
Superman is positioned to be the central figure to help the Justice League stop Steppenwolf and Darkseid, but he is treated as a plot mechanic instead of a fully formed person. We get a sequence where Superman remembers the lessons both of his fathers bestowed upon him – to do good and inspire the world – and yet we see little of him doing that. His relationships with Lois Lane (Amy Adams) and his mother (Diane Lane) are paper thin. He just seems to exist out of necessity. One of the big changes Snyder brought to Superman was the use of his famous black costume (lifted from the popular “Death of Superman” comic book storyline), but there’s no explanation for it other than it looks cool.
Those who do not adhere to Snyder’s direction will not be won over. He indulges his well-known traits: the overuse of slow-motion, the abundant CGI, and violence as pure exhilaration regardless of its meaning. The constant slow-motion works as a test to see how much we can take. If we ran all the slo-mo shots at normal speed, we could very well end up with a two and a half to three-hour runtime. Snyder opts to play scenes out to cumbersome lengths, tossing in every bit of detail he can. The movie does not need to be a full four hours. When Aquaman departs from a Nordic village, we have to endure the villagers singing the entirety of their farewell song to him. When the Amazon warriors shoot a blazing arrow into the sky to communicate with Wonder Woman, we have to sit through the entire ritual of revealing the arrow, lighting it, and sending it on its way. The pacing is all over the place. This is not an experience that flies by. You have to sit with it, live in it, and go through every high and low point with the characters.
But even with all of my misgivings about it, I can’t help but by won over by the overwhelming audacity of the whole piece. You have to hand it to Zack Snyder – every ounce of himself is on display here and he made no compromises. I would rather see a filmmaker swing for the fences and miss as opposed to settling for being safe or mediocre. He came back from a personal loss and put his heart and soul in every frame, and for that he should be commended. Zack Snyder’s Justice League is not a perfect movie, but it validates its existence through sheer scope and force of will. You may or may not like it, but you have to respect it.