2021 | R | starring Ben Affleck, Gal Gadot, Ray Fisher, Jason Mamoa, Ezra Miller, Joe Morton, Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Jeremy Irons, Connie Nielson, Diane Lane | directed by Zack Snyder | 4 hrs 2 mins |
4 out of 5 stars
When Warner Bros rushed Justice League into theaters in December 2017, it smacked of desperation and popularized the term “Frankenfilm”. League was seen as a desperate attempt to play catchup with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which at the time had several Superhero Team-Up films under their belt, as well as an attempted course correction from Zack Snyder’s darker world-building that made Man of Steel and Batman vs Superman such controversial adaptations. Snyder stepped away from production after the tragic loss of his daughter and Warner Bros brought in Avengers director Joss Wheedon to finish edit, reshoot and generally add some Wheedon humor that was making the Marvel films so popular. The film is a terrible, a barely coherent, tonally disastrous mess and at the time we were told that it was mostly in keeping with Snyder’s notes and vision. Shocker, we were lied to. An internet campaign to #ReleasetheSnyderCut was born. Enter HBOMax – a new streaming service with more money than God looking for content to entice subscriptions in a post-Covid climate where brand new movies aren’t being made – and boom – we have the modern miracle that is Zack Snyder’s Justice League. It’s not quite Netflix pulling The Other Side of the Wind out of a French vault, but it’s close.
In a Steve Jobs-esque twist, the man at first believed to have destroyed the DC Universe with over-indulgence is back to redeem it – if only for a brief moment. Snyder’s Justice League is shockingly good. It’s all the more favorable that we don’t need to imagine a way that this movie could have gone wrong, we have it committed to celluloid in the studio release. My 1.5 / 5 review of Justice League is here in which I erroneously credit the film’s faults to Snyder. This cut proves I was dead wrong.
In the most broad strokes, Justice League has the same story it did in 2017, and indeed the same story as most superhero films – a hulking God-like villain seeks magic McGuffins, the assembly of which will destroy/remake the world. The plot is that simple, now modified to make sense. The death of Superman caused a rift in the world and awoke 1 of 3 “Mother Boxes”, matter-creating devices so powerful they were divided among the Amazons, Mermen and Humans in ancient times to keep the world safe. Now they call to Steppenwolf (now with a spiky CGI upgrade) who portals to Earth to assemble them. Fearing the coming apocalypse, Batman (Ben Affleck) and Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) travel the world to assemble a team of superhumans of their own.
The Snyder Cut restores classically strong story structure to this film. Events and action that seemed rushed, random and nonsensical in 2017 are now properly set-up and recontextualized so that when those fight scenes do come they have the satisfying feel of a proper payoff. What were random displays of might in the light-and-sound show of the first film now have a sense of tension because Snyder has amped up the power of our villain to overwhelm our heroes. Snyder’s changes range from the wholesale restoration of large plotlines to re-scoring scenes that change their tone to removing Gal Gadot butt shots the studio perverts at Warner Bros – who pretend to be champions of women – insisted on adding. Oh yeah, and it’s a whopping 4 hours long.
Does Justice League really need to be longer than Lawrence of Arabia? To correct all the mistakes of the DC Universe, it kind of does. One of the crucial reasons the first film didn’t work was because DC (who let’s not forget has been around this block before with Tim Burton’s Batman movies hitting big and then the franchise flaming out), in their race to catch Marvel, didn’t do the groundwork of giving individual films to all the characters before the big Team-Up. As a result half the cast – Aquaman (Jason Mamoa), The Flash (Ezra Miller) and Cyborg (Ray Fisher) were strangers next to Superman (Henry Cavill, introduced in Man of Steel), Batman and Wonder Woman (both introduced in Batman vs. Superman). The gargantuan running time of Zack Snyder’s film does that brick laying. We get a better sense that Aquaman can’t just be found in this small fishing villain, but is a guardian over it. We get a terrific car-crash introduction for Flash. Most of all, we get a fleshed out father-son story for Cyborg and a better grasp of his powers (God-like in a world run by computers). We get a longer fight scene between Steppenwolf and the Amazons that restores dignity to both and Steppenwolf with his own layered father/son story desperately trying to please monster-behind-the-curtain, Planet Destroyer Darkseid. The wacko scene of resurrecting Superman’s corpse is rescored and recut to remove the tacky macabre and give it some depth. A small runner of Lois Lane (Amy Adams) visiting his memorial every morning works to thread that plotline through the story given that it is a full movie’s length before Superman appears in the film. The amazing thing is, Zack Snyder’s Justice League is almost perfectly paced. It is packed to the seams with content and in all that time, it never drags.
Zack Snyder’s Justice League is presented by HBOMax in a shot-for-Imax 4:3 aspect ratio that doesn’t match our widescreen TVs to, as the opening disclaimer notes, preserve the director’s vision. When was the last time you heard anyone care about respecting a filmmaker’s vision? Particularly for a big blockbuster studio film like this. It’s so refreshing!
Does this movie work by itself, I think it does. It is equally interesting as an insight into the studio process. What was shot and reshot and spent millions on and tossed on the cutting room floor here is shocking – and says a lot about how little Warner Bros things of the moviegoing public. Snyder stepped away to deal with a personal tragedy (I was genuinely moved by the film’s final dedication to his daughter), and WB used the opportunity to lighten the mood, add bad jokes, ironic snark and generally make the film more Marvel-esque, bringing in Wheedon to be the dutiful hatchetman and chop this thing to ribbons. Snyder’s version has heart and takes this story of Gods among men, if not seriously, genuinely.
Where the finale felt perfunctory and messy in the Wheedon cut, it feels satisfying and even thrilling in the radically retooled Snyder version. Everyone is given their moment, the stakes are higher and it pays off bit’s set up 3 hours earlier. All is not perfect, the film’s Epilogue is an endless anti-climax that sucks the urgency from the film and only serves to set up sequels after sequel we will probably never see. It’s a glimmer of that over-indulgent “post-apocalyptic Batman” Zack Snyder we know all too well.
It is the economic reality of big studio blockbusters: the bigger the film, the bigger the budget, the more the studio will need to protect their investment and parts of the story will need to be tinkered with to attract the largest audience possible. Zack Snyder’s Justice League is a lengthy, indulgent, R-rated work built exclusively for fans. It is rare opportunity to see a movie of this size and scope in the pure, undiluted vision of the filmmaker behind it. Not an opportunity to be missed.