When I opened the Batman v. Superman review with a bit of housekeeping, it was more setting my personal expectations in juxtaposition to my response when I faced the big damn thing in the cinema. As I open this review of Zack Snyder’s Justice League, it is necessary in identifying what this object is (though not in determining one’s feelings about the movie, in my opinion).
Early in 2017, several months into the post-production phase of Justice League – the follow-up to Man of Steel, Batman v. Superman, and Wonder Woman intended to act as DC Films’ response to the Avengers, the culmination of DC trying to catch up with Marvel Studios’ ability to adapt all their comic book properties into a unified franchise… a “cinematic universe” – Zack Snyder shocked the industry not only with an announcement that he and his wife/producing partner Deborah would be stepping down from the project but the reasoning being that they needed to be with their family during a trying time: their daughter Autumn had commit suicide a few months prior to that announcement.
Joss Whedon was named as the person to take over the post-production and the understanding in 2017 was that while reshoots were still needed to complete the movie*, what we were getting wouldn’t be too far off from Snyder’s intentions. So when Justice League opened in October 2017 to negative reviews and becoming the first out-and-out box office failure of the DCEU**, there was little-to-no evidence of a “Snyder Cut” that became a rallying cry for a small contingent of fans for Zack Snyder’s Superman films. But #ReleasetheSnyderCut became a thing nevertheless in spite of the quixotic appearance of anyone who waved the hashtag on virtually every corner of Warner Bros.’ social media reach. For my part, I started off thinking it was morbid and entitled to ask a filmmaker to return to the project he stepped down from because of a traumatic moment in their life until Snyder and his family began voicing their appreciation for the continued interest in his version of the movie, at which point I stopped pretending that I was doing the Snyder family any favors. I just didn’t think the thing existed, that it wouldn’t differ that much from what was released if it did (certainly not the time travel thriller that Snyder and Chris Terrio originally wrote and some contingent of the fans held onto as lost footage), and the fans were chasing a ghost.
But it was eventually undeniably clear that Snyder felt he had unfinished business with the project, followed by reports of how Whedon (with the support of Geoff Johns & Kevin Tsujihara) usurped as much of the tone of the film as possible and that Snyder’s departure had as much to do with the exhaustion of that fight and dealing with the grief over his daughter simultaneously, and then it was explicitly stated that Snyder had a personal workprint cut in existence and exclusively in his possession when he walked away from the project. In the summer of 2020: the announcement was made. Perhaps it was a bid by Warner Bros. to try to bring more interest into their new HBOMax streaming service, perhaps it was an attempt to finally shut up the hashtags (which would be unfortunate since now we have #RestoretheSnyderVerse happening despite Snyder’s statement that this would be his last word on DC Comics), but in any case… Warner Bros. announced that they’d be releasing Snyder’s cut of the film, officially titled Zack Snyder’s Justice League, on HBOMax.
And to be quite fair, this version was not intended to ever be released: it was originally a workprint in every possible sense of the word, just living on Snyder’s computer as a curio to share with friends about how he envisioned it. But here we have it now, properly finalized and polished 70 million dollars of post-production later without the slightest inhibition towards its 4 hour and 2 minute runtime that ensured this is not the sort of movie version you release in the hopes of a commercial success and I must say…
Damn, it feels good to have a superhero made by like a single human being and not a committee.
There is no shortage of issues to be had with Zack Snyder’s Justice League as would be the case with any movie that seems an unfiltered spilling of a director’s indulgences, even when you ignore that Snyder is a filmmaker with a pretty spotty record. And yet here we are with a movie that finds no scruples about those flaws as part of the free exercise Snyder finally had in restoring his intentions with the project.
Premise-wise, it’s the same basic events of the 2017 version: As scripted by returning Batman v. Superman writer Chris Terrio (from a story developed by him, Snyder, and Will Beall), the world is living in the aftermath of Superman’s (Henry Cavill) sacrificial death to defeat Doomsday at the end of that movie. Inspired by the three of them coming together during that phyrric victory of a battle and under the certainty that something bigger is coming to threaten the Earth, broody billionaire brute Bruce Wayne/Batman (Ben Affleck) and ancient amazonian warrior Diana Prince/Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) take it upon themselves to put together such a team that match Superman’s power to meet the threat. That threat turns out to be an army from the planet Apokalips helmed by a towering New God by the name of Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds), who seeks out a trio of powerful Mother Boxes with which to enslave Earth and then the universe beyond. Wayne and Prince, for their efforts, eventually lasso in speedster Barry Allen/The Flash (Ezra Miller), underwater exiled prince Arthur Curry/Aquaman (Jason Momoa), and the self-described and tragic Victor Stone/Cyborg (Ray Fisher).
The manner of this material’s expansion towards filling that four hours, though, is among many areas where Zack Snyder’s Justice League lands as – I kid you not – the fastest four hours I have ever spent watching a movie. For one thing, it is just filled with incident: maybe not the best structured – there’s a sense of this movie being made up more of “MOMENTS” than an actual singular narrative and that’s certainly as double-edged a sword as it can be within this movie, not to mention there is a deficit in the arc-shaping for either Wonder Woman or Superman that one can’t not notice in comparison to their solo films in this franchise. There’s also just the vibe that Snyder didn’t want to waste a single bit of footage he shot for this movie, whether part of the original shoot in 2017 or the re-shoots once this release was greenlit, and we could argue moments like the reveal of a new ally to the titular Justice League or the overglut of Return of the King-style multiple endings: two of which telegraph themselves more as glorified post-credits sequences that just got placed before the end credits instead, the third is so obviously the best possible end note for the movie and its themes that it annoys me the movie ordered it first in that epilogue. But still the amount of continuous things happening in the movie is a constant source of momentum for this movie that makes 4 hours swing right by.
Among that extra stuff being the proper on-screen meeting of Steppenwolf’ superior, his angry nephew Darkseid (Ray Porter), who in turn shades Steppenwolf from just a default CGI beast for the heroes to punch out into a player in the game with his own personal stakes, informed by how Darkseid has scorned and punished Steppenwolf as a functionary over their unfortunate history. And Darkseid’s presence in turn introduces a whole lot of grandiose mythical material from Jack Kirby’s New Gods (which Steppenwolf and the Mother Boxes were already pulled from in the theatrical release), some of the craziest imagery and mythos-weaving that either of the big 2 comic book companies ever witnessed. The material in Zack Snyder’s Justice League doesn’t feel any less boringly normalized from Kirby’s colorful and trippy cosmic visuals than the theatrical cut, but credit where it’s due: Snyder does make all of this stuff feel proper big the way that armies of ancient warriors and beings on a planetary scale should feel, through a visual decision we’ll get to talking about later.
But returning to that extension of material: the REAL benefit falls almost entirely on the character of Cyborg himself. It’s absolutely astounding how much stake Cyborg and his father Dr. Silas Stone (Joe Morton) have into the Mother Boxes as MacGuffins, beginning with the fact that a dying Victor is revealed to have been rebuilt as Cyborg by his father with the same technology as the Mother Boxes and culminating Cyborg’s clear position as the de facto protagonist who exemplifies the emotional tenor of the group as a whole (and, it is certainly argued by partisans of this Snydercut, the mindset of Snyder himself as he re-assembles Cyborg’s proper role as the heart of the film). I feel incredibly bad particularly for Fisher as it looks like the lion’s share of his material was hacked away by Whedon, ostensibly in the midst of behind-the-scenes conflicts the two had which Fisher opened up about around ZSJL‘s release. It is absolutely the sort of stuff that would boost a mainstream feature debut like Fisher and instead it appears his career has been cut off unceremoniously. And while it’s the case that all the characters get further material to shade in their backstory (which Miller and Momoa do mixed work with; I sadly think Snyder never had a clue what to do with Momoa’s Aquaman the way James Wan did), Cyborg’s is to the degree that one of this movie’s chapters is fully devoted to his developing backstory without seeming like that much of a divergence from the primary conflict at hand.
Which calls attention to the other major way that Zack Snyder’s Justice League truly flew by: it is set up in 6 chapters and an epilogue, a structure that makes the story feeling episodic in a way that actively moves and allows us to checkpoint ourselves with such an intimidating runtime (or to keep track of where one’s at if you decide to watch it in more than one sitting). Maybe the only complaint I could have about this approach is how obviously it brings attention the fact that I prefer the first hour over the second hour and then so on, but the first hour is some of the most thrilling “re-introduce the characters” material I’ve seen so that sets a high bar that I’m find with the movie slowly falling below. So we have a delivery system that brings attention to how far the movie gets and a shading of characters that actively aids the emotional stakes of the storytelling to make this certainly the best paced piece of, I’d argue, the entire DC Extended Universe to this point (Aquaman may be the only challenger to that title).
But it’s not just that Zack Snyder’s Justice League does the impressive task of making its four hours anything but a laborious slog to watch. It’s how much of a punch it packs in four hours worth of images, shot by Fabian Wagner with a major desaturating of color that could be seen as a parody of the lifeless monochromatic style that Snyder indulges with. This turns out to be a more calculated move that only results in the moments that have a major color element interrupting the subdued visuals with profundity***. But the real point of interest is that Snyder has this time opted to arrange for the movie to be presented in an open matte Academy aspect ratio: 1.33:1. The result is an expanding of the visual information filling out the frame (ostensibly this was done in mind for a potential IMAX release and I’m pretty sad that didn’t come to pass) and while Snyder’s explanation of making the superheroes “vertical” is kind of dubious (the frame is still wider than taller), it pays off heroically well to the point that I’ve come to understand what he wanted to do and why. In a film looking for all sorts of manner to portray the heroes as titanic, the low angles Wagner and Snyder utilize only feel further underlined by the extra space to make these figures tower or soar over us, feeling truly aspirational in a bluntly visual language. This fundamental change for the Snydercut is absolutely the one that makes me the giddiest, the element that feels most fundamental to making a movie ostensibly made up of the same bones and then some more feel like a majorly more effective work of pop art.
Pop art that is at the end in the name of a singular vision, lest we forget that the “Zack Snyder” in the title is more than just a title change. It’s not only that the Snydercut feels like a reinstatement of Snyder’s impetuous choice of themes and aesthetics as mentioned above, but that this particular story feels like the perfect context with which to just let loose on every obnoxious aesthetic concept he had: superheroes – gods among men – battling it out with cosmic entities. Snyder is married to slow motion? Well, that’s what the Flash is best represented through, an explosion of blue lightning bringing the entirety of the action to a freeze beyond the anxious crawl of our red speedster (and may I just say that it is really glorious to find out that the gag of Superman moving his head turning out to be a Snyder decision rather than a Whedon decision only happens to indicate which director is wittier‡. I promise this is the last time on this post I will talk about the Whedon cut, because I do want to write that version its own review someday). Snyder’s into warrior-esque violence? Good thing he has the ultimate warrior Wonder Woman to scratch that itch with her epic battle poses against Junkie XL’s memeable “ancient lamentation music” cues (Junkie XL’s score particularly fits Snyder’s style in a much better way than Danny Elfman’s work for the theatrical cut, even if I much prefer Elfman’s score as music in and of itself), even if it may be fundamentally at odds with the ostensible pacifism of Patty Jenkins’ films. Snyder’s all about verticality? Well, Superman is the quintessential man who could fly, rising up with all the grace and power one expects. Snyder wants desaturation and shadows? Batman is the night. And all these entities receiving an endless supply of splash page moments because of the sincere enthusiasm with which Snyder and company get to represent all these powerful beings.
That enthusiasm particularly cuts through moodiness and darkness that has been considered the signature of DC comics films, well before Snyder even started making movies but pretty well embedded by Batman v. Superman. That sobriety is not absent from Zack Snyder’s Justice League, but the film responds to it with the sincere excitement inherent in its production in way that feels like the pay-off to all the characters’ doubts in the films before: most pointedly in Batman, who went from the vicious nihilist he was in the 2016 film to someone desperately holding out on a faith in his allies without feeling inconsistent, and Cyborg in his pained journey to confronting the Mother Boxes with the line “I am not broken… and I’m not alone”. And while I like to imagine this essential soul of Zack Snyder’s Justice League could have been carried out in some capacity without attributing this project as something therapeutic from what had to have been an awful year for the man, the fact that the movie’s very last note is to dedicate itself to Autumn and the desire to bring these characters to their own sense of peace tells me not to be so daft. This is at the end of the day a personal project in popcorn movie clothes, not at all marketable the way that every superhero movie is expected to be in this day and age.
And art when it’s so brazen is very exciting to me on its own terms, but the fact that Snyder’s satisfaction at finally closing this chapter of his Superman trilogy is expressly shared without disguise towards every single viewer, no matter how many sequel threads he’s recklessly included, no matter how loose it unwinds with each hour, no matter how many overcomplex CGI designs he uses to realize his massive scale battles… it all hits me right where I like to see it. I should probably one day get tired of saying movies are most enjoyable when made by people who enjoy making them, but clearly that philosophy has brought me to find newborn esteem for Zack Snyder, a filmmaker I’d entered the 2010s with pretty firm dislike and entered the 2020s ready to align with his boyish inclinations in making “cool”-looking movies. His inclinations have unveiled themselves to something fairly close to everything I’ve ever wanted out of superhero movies, not only bringing me to believe a man can fly but that a man can rise from the grave to do so.