I will be the first to admit that I’ve been hard on Zack Snyder’s Justice League. The entire thing felt like a big marketing ploy for HBO Max and Snyder’s almost arrogant attitude towards the whole thing rubbed me the wrong way. Why is the movie in a special screen size? Oh, the trailers are in black and white? Your name is bigger than the title of the film? It all screamed trainwreck and I was there for it.
I’ll also be the first to admit that I gave Justice League a decent review. I found the film flawed in many ways and tore it apart but also kind of enjoyed myself when watching it. After subsequent watchings, I think my score might have been too generous and I’d probably lower it if I could but coming out of it I had had fun. I’m not on the negative side of the DCEU here. I kind of like it but I just didn’t see Snyder, the man who gave us “MARTHA!,” delivering anything but a mess given four hours and complete control.
This is all to say, that I’m am utterly gobsmacked that I truly enjoyed watching Zack Snyder’s Justice League and it is actually better than the theatrical release. Very flawed, but better.
Zack Snyder’s Justice League
Director: Zack Snyder
Release Date: March 18, 2021 (HBO Max)
This really is Zack Snyder’s Justice League. The film is drastically different with most of the similarities coming in the action set pieces, though even those are directed differently. The general gist of the film is the same: Steppenwolf has come to earth to merge the Mother Boxes and Batman (Ben Affleck) is putting a team together to stop him. The similarities end there. Here Steppenwolf is a fawning henchman for Darkseid, a supergalactic villain looking for something called anti-life, not a walking sky laser cliche. Batman is actually less dour but, wracked with guilt over the death of Superman, is on a quest to discover other heroes to join him in fighting the coming war, eventually (and I do mean eventually) recruiting Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), Cyborg (Ray Fisher), Aquaman (Jason Momoa), and The Flash (Ezra Miller). The five, discovering they have the power of a Mother Box in their hands, use it to bring Superman (Henry Cavill) back to life so he can punch Steppenwolf real hard.
The screenplay is about as subtle as a Steppenwolf’s constantly shifting armor. Like most of Snyder’s writing, metaphor and symbolism are replaced with people just saying whatever feelings are going on inside the characters. Characters often talk to themselves about the emotions they are having and themes are spoken out loud; at one point Wonder Woman literally kneels down to a little girl and tells her that she can be anything she wants. At another, The Flash spends a solid minute during the climactic scene explaining his relationship with his father to himself. It’s odd because Snyder is also showing these things visually too so it’s taking the old adage and doing both parts: show and tell.
That being said, when the screenplay isn’t being hamfisted it’s actually built a lot better than the theatrical release. The film’s story makes a lot more sense. You can understand why Steppenwolf is doing what he’s doing and, while still very cliche, he’s fleshed out a lot more with the inclusion of Darkseid in the film. This isn’t just our heroes hurtling towards a generic showdown anymore, the team building and connection feels more substantial. It also doesn’t feel like it’s trying to be a Marvel movie, which might be its greatest strength. While the Flash may be the movie’s comic relief, the film as a whole treats its characters seriously. Unlike previous Snyder attempts at being really serious, it works. It is tonally appropriate for a film about rebuilding after loss, especially in a movie involving so much death and loss. To be clear, this isn’t the dire sludge that was Batman v. Superman but it’s not the “need a joke here” that permeates through most superhero screenplays.
More importantly, the characters do get to breathe. Cyborg is an afterthought in Justice League but in Zack Snyder’s Justice League he is the beating heart of the film, making the Batman/Superman plotline less important overall and actually giving the character a chance to develop. Cyborg here is a fully fleshed-out character, with entire scenes devoted only to him and his relationship with his father, who was mostly removed from the theatrical release. It is eye-opening in terms of what Snyder saw in the future for the character and in Ray Fisher’s performance. Both are intriguing and make you feel sorry that this Cyborg is no more thanks to Fisher’s ongoing dispute with WB. The same goes for The Flash, who gets a lot more screen time and hero moments throughout, opening up the character a ton more and progressing him away from just being a walking joke box.
Still, even with the two characters get their screen time back the movie is still trying to do too much in too little time with too many moving parts. At times, especially in the beginning of the film as Snyder is introducing everyone and their powers — often in slow motion, the film feels more like a collection of superhero vignettes than a coherent movie. While character development is better it’s still woefully lacking for a team-up film like this. Despite the four-hour running time, the team’s formation still feels rushed at times, and its themes of unity and teamwork forced. There are, of course, visual moments where the heroes coming together stir these feelings but that’s more thanks to Snyder’s uncanny ability to make things look cool than the movie’s creation of emotional connectivity.
And yet, conversely, the film needs a good editor. It’s no wonder they didn’t call it The Snyder Cut because that suggests that something was actually cut at some point. Snyder spends expansive amounts of time — often in slow motion — simply watching the characters do something cool or delivering mountains of exposition. One long scene simply involves the heroes standing around a table as the camera spins around them desperately trying to make five people standing around a table talking seem exciting.
Then there is the slow motion. If more than half this film is in slow motion I wouldn’t be surprised. Snyder uses it as a sledgehammer to create cool-looking moments. An almost entirely unneeded football sequence with Cyborg before his accident plays out almost entirely in slow motion for no reason at all, delivering some cool shots but extending the run time while losing momentum. I lost count of how many times the film kicked into slow-mo and played a trademark Zack Snyder “sad song” over the scene, a ploy the director can nail but uses as a crutch. His pretentiousness is almost galling at how important he wants to make every damn moment in the movie.
Here a bit of editing could have saved the day again because it’s the overuse that’s the issue, not the use itself. That is to say, that Snyder’s action is still top-notch. The action sequences, most of which still survived in the theatrical release, seem more coherent this time around. The final big battle in the destroyed Russian town, now devoid of the odd family subplot, is a blast to watch. The motivations, locations, and tactics of the heroes make a lot more sense now even if they’re pretty cliche for a superhero film. The sequences build energy to explosive slow-mo conclusions. There are just a lot more fantastic “oh shit” moments and it’s thanks to Snyder’s strong eye for visuals and, of course, the slow motion.
There’s also some self-editing I’m surprised that Snyder didn’t commit to. With his version of the DC Universe basically defunct, the film really does spend a lot of time trying to build up an expanding universe that will never happen. If this truly is a dead-end cinematic universe then why not make a tighter film with less teasing of spin-offs, sequels, and plotlines? The two worst culprits of this are Martian Manhunter’s awkwardly shoved in appearances and the return of Jared Leto’s Joker. Joker’s coda for the film is clearly showing off the direction Snyder wanted to take the franchise and feels like the movie we all feared his cut would be. It feels forced and gritty just to be gritty, like a moment just for having a moment. Snyder being Snyder.
However, the above complaints are all things that Zack Snyder does and if you give Zack Snyder free reign Zack Snyder is going to Zack Snyder hard. You can’t blame a zebra for having stripes, right? With that in mind, the film is actually a lot of fun to watch. Its segmented format, each section broken up by title cards, makes some of the disjointedness feel intentional and helps with the run time. As discussed, his action is strong as always and the film looks good, it pulls you in and is engaging to watch. While some of the CGI is clearly lacking the faults can be excused because, surprisingly, the movie feels more colorful than Whedon’s version. I’m not sure if the color palette was shifted for the film but it looks like Snyder finally got the message that turning the contrast down to zero wasn’t the best idea. It’s not Marvel bright but it feels like someone actually lit the sets this time.
Part of that is that brightness isn’t just physical, though. The actors actually seem to want to be there a lot more. Considering most of the scenes would have been their actual first takes, it makes sense, and brings life to the characters and team. This feels far more like a group of people in a movie together. They play off each other and, while still not fully executed, this actually feels like a superhero team working together. There might not be that same moment as in Avengers where the camera spins around our heroes and it just feels right but the film does produce a Justice League team you want to see again.
It is a little unfair to compare Justice League to Zack Snyder’s Justice League. Joss Whedon being a total dick notwithstanding, Snyder got four hours to pull off his vision with a cast that was clearly happier to be there. Had Snyder released theatrically, whatever he released would not have been this long and that would have made many of the same faults that hampered the theatrical release show up here. He has time to expand Cyborg and Flash because he has time. If he didn’t Snyder’s extensive slow-motion sequences would have felt all the more useless and far less cool to watch. This is a director’s vision writ very large with little to no intervention and a theatrical release would have never gotten that.
Zack Snyder’s Justice League gives us a glimpse at where the franchise could have gone. At the end of my review of the theatrical release, I said I was finally excited about where the DCEU could go. Now, I’m surprisingly disappointed that we won’t get more of Snyder’s vision. His cut of the film makes it seem like he learned his lessons from Batman v. Superman and was working to deliver something that fans would like and stood out from Marvel’s visual. It’s possible Zack Snyder had finally found the right balance to make the DCEU work, we’ll never know now but at least we have something fun to watch.