‘Zack Snyder’s Justice League’ Review
Well, it’s finally here. The long-awaited “Snyder Cut” of the 2017 blockbuster superhero movie Justice League has been released and is currently available to stream on HBO Max. Officially titled Zack Snyder’s Justice League, the project has been anticipated by fervent fans and defenders of director Zack Snyder. Snyder directed two previous efforts in the so-called “DC Extended Universe”: 2013’s Man of Steel, as well as 2016’s Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. The aforementioned Justice League included Superman (Henry Cavill), Batman (Ben Affleck), and Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), as well as new characters like Aquaman (Jason Momoa), the Flash (Ezra Miller), and Cyborg (Ray Fisher).
However, as production on Justice League was wrapping up, Snyder had an unthinkable family tragedy occur and had to bow out of the project post-production. Warner Bros. then handed the directorial reins to Joss Whedon, who had written and directed The Avengers and its sequel Avengers: Age of Ultron for rival Marvel Studios. Whedon shot new scenes, inserted more comedy, and generally tweaked Snyder’s original vision. When Justice League finally debuted in theaters in November 2017, it was met by a mixed reception from fans and critics, which resulted in a disappointing box-office run. In the wake of the original movie’s failure, Snyder’s fans and defenders have argued that had he been allowed to complete his original film, it would have turned out differently.
This became the #ReleaseTheSnyderCut movement, which lobbied Warner Bros. to release Snyder’s original cut. In May 2020, Warner Bros. announced that they had reached a deal with Snyder that would allow him to complete his initial vision for Justice League.
Clocking in at four hours, twice the runtime of the theatrical cut, Zack Snyder’s Justice League is far more than a mere director’s cut. It is, in many ways, a very different film from what was released in 2017. It is more of a reimagining of the original concept. It’s a lot more engaging and entertaining. It’s also much bolder, clearly the result of a filmmaker devoted to telling a story the way he wanted to tell it. While it’s not perfect and certainly has its fair share of flaws, Zack Snyder’s Justice League is a marked improvement on its theatrically released counterpart.
The movie is broken down into 6 parts and an epilogue. It more or less follows the plot of the theatrical cut, but with some deviations and a lot expanded upon. Much of the action revolves around antagonist Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds) coming to Earth to find Mother Boxes, powerful objects that could grant him world domination. As the world grieves Superman’s sacrificial death as depicted at the end of Batman v. Superman, Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) seeks out new superheroes to help save the world. As Wonder Woman, Aquaman, Cyborg, and the Flash all eventually join him, Steppenwolf devastates Wonder Woman’s home of Themyscira and Aquaman’s ancestral home of Atlantis, gathering more Mother Boxes and power. The team decides that their best hope against Steppenwolf is to resurrect Superman through the power of the one Mother Box they have in their possession. When Superman does return, he’s not immediately the hero he used to be, as he tries to fight his former friends and allies. Eventually, it’s up to the newly assembled Justice League to go all-in for a final, climactic battle at an abandoned nuclear site in Russia, where Steppenwolf hopes to perform the final ritual to take over the world.
And yet, the movie is 4 hours long, and that doesn’t even begin to summarize all the side-plots, character development, and other machinations going on within the narrative. But that time allows space and room for scenes to breathe, to develop tension, and to build up the prospect of these heroes coming together to stop the bad guy. There is an easiness to Zack Snyder’s Justice League that the theatrical cut simply didn’t have. It’s easy to slip into, and while things can sometimes take you out of the experience, it’s not nearly as boring or as much of a slog as its theatrically released counterpart. It’s also funnier than the theatrical cut, and the dialogue and character interactions generally feel more natural.
Character motivations are much clearer this time around, as informed by expanded backstories. The character who gets fleshed out the most in this new edition is Ray Fisher’s Cyborg. Fisher, who has been outspoken in his disdain for Whedon and how drastically the production was interfered with, really shines as his character is given much more backstory, development, and depth. Also of note is Ezra Miller’s Flash, who still is the comedic relief of the film in a lot of ways but doesn’t have as many corny jokes and definitely doesn’t seem to be as pathetic a figure as his theatrical cut counterpart. The Flash even ends up saving the day at the film’s climax by reversing time in what I believe is supposed to be a nice homage to 1978’s Superman. This is a marked difference for a character that Batman had to demand to save just one person in the theatrical cut. Wonder Woman and Aquaman feel more like themselves here, more like the characters that would make their respective spin-offs so successful. Also expanded is the role of the overarching uber-bad, Darkseid (Ray Porter). He is alluded to in the theatrical cut, but in Zack Snyder’s Justice League, he is featured outright, a menacing master for whom Steppenwolf is operating. Darkseid is an imposing figure in the DC universe, one of its most famous antagonists, as well as one that influenced the development of Thanos for rival Marvel Comics. His cinematic debut is a more than fitting one.
This movie is crafted well, and while Snyder’s love of a darker color pallet is prominent, it’s not as distracting as it might’ve been in previous DC directorial efforts. Images pop in this version, and the camera takes time to linger on shots and locales. It resembles and feels closer to Lord of the Rings or Snyder’s own 300 than it does, say, an average Marvel-team-up movie. The special effects are also much better in this rendition, and while they’re not anything we haven’t necessarily seen before, they are very well done. The most controversial thing about the visuals seems to be the unusual choice of a 4:3 aspect ratio, which means two vertical black bars encompass either side of the presentation.
And yet, the movie isn’t perfect and does have its flaws, most of which stem from its massive runtime. There are many scenes in this cut that don’t have to exist at all. Had this been edited down to a more traditional two-and-a-half or even a three-hour runtime, a lot of these unnecessary scenes would simply not be included. The pacing in the first part of the movie is also an issue, there’s a reason the theatrical version sped up the introduction of characters as opposed to what Snyder does here, which are character introductions that have been significantly elongated, mostly setting up exposition and backstory before the action even really gets rolling. It’s clear that various fans and editors will continue to toil and tinker with Zack Snyder’s Justice League for years to come, trying to give it a more traditional runtime without sacrificing this version’s coherence and the other things that make it work.
The most egregious offender of wasted time is the entirely unnecessary epilogue, which mostly consists of teases for future Justice League sequels and character additions that won’t get made now. Additionally, there’s another “Knightmare” scene that showcases a dystopian future where Superman has gone bad, the former members of the League are trying either to kill him or send a message about Lois Lane (Amy Adams) into the past in order to prevent…something? A similar “Knightmare” scene in Batman v. Superman was one of the more baffling things about that movie, which is saying a lot. It is similarly awkward here, particularly because of a cameo appearance by Jared Leto’s widely-dismissed take on the Joker, who had only previously appeared in 2016’s Suicide Squad. There doesn’t seem to be much of a point to his cameo, other than to have Leto’s Joker murmur “we live in a society” in the movie’s trailer, which generated buzz, bewilderment and plenty of memes.
I also must admit that I have also wondered about how the differences in presentation affected my judgment. I saw Justice League theatrically in an admittedly mostly empty theater, whereas Zack Snyder’s Justice League was enjoyed in the company of socially distanced friends on a friend’s flat-screen television.
Overall, I must admit how surprised I am with just how much I enjoyed Zack Snyder’s Justice League. It’s big, it’s epic, and it feels like an appropriate culmination and crescendo for this superhero universe. It’s clear that Snyder’s original vision for the film was compromised, and why the studio saw fit to remove as much as it did. So many of the things they ended up removing don’t just work, but work well, which is truly baffling. This new edition does a fitting justice to its iconic characters in a way the theatrical cut never did and it feels like a vindication for Snyder.
To see how well this ultimately turned out as the final product of Zack Snyder’s efforts brings me a deep sense of satisfaction. Certainly, I’m sure many factors motivated the decision to make this new cut of the movie, such as the fan outcry, growing HBO Max’s membership base, and the relative easiness of assembling the cut during a pandemic, particularly as most of it was already shot. The budget for this project was $70 million, which mostly went to special effects and some small reshoots with the original actors. I’m sure HBO Max will get plenty more than their money’s worth.
When I wrote about the announcement of Zack Snyder’s Justice League last year, I said that “this movie that most of us had written off three years ago is now having an unexpected second life, and I, for one, find that incredibly fascinating.” But at the end of the day, I’m glad that a studio chose to do right by someone who had suffered an immeasurable tragedy, and whom they had seemingly screwed over in the midst of that staggering grief. For a multitude of reasons, this project was very personal. Easily the most touching thing to come from the movie is a simple title card that comes up at the film’s conclusion, right before the credits, dedicating it to Snyder’s late daughter, Autumn, who had committed suicide.