A Review of Zack Snyder’s Justice League

The fact that Zack Snyder’s Justice League is a good film is almost as impressive as the fact that it even exists in the first place. 

Photo Courtesy of HBO.

Photo Courtesy of HBO.

Let’s rewind: in the early 2010s, to compete with the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), Warner Bros. Pictures launched the DC Extended Universe. They hired Zack Snyder to direct the first film in the series, Man of Steel, and its sequels Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (BvS) and Justice League. But after his first two films underperformed (Man of Steel was mediocre and BvS was a tedious and bewildering trainwreck) the studio demanded massive changes to the already half-finished Justice League. Although Snyder initially fought the studio meddling, he stepped back from the project after his daughter’s unexpected death. Warner Bros. brought on Joss Whedon to oversee reshoots of an estimated three-quarters of the film. This turned out horribly; Justice League’s theatrical cut was hot corporate garbage, and over the past year, members of the film’s cast — particularly Ray Fisher, who played Cyborg — have revealed that Whedon was an abusive monster on set. Following the release of Justice League, there was a long, enthusiastic, and occasionally toxic fan campaign to #ReleaseTheSnyderCut, a campaign which achieved remarkable success in 2020: Warner Bros. committed to finally releasing a cut of the film over which Snyder had complete and total creative control.

This brings us to today. Three and a half years after the theatrical cut of Justice League bombed with critics and the public, there is now a version of the film available on HBO Max that is four hours long, cost an additional $70 million dollars to finish, and also has the Joker in it. Such a thing is completely unprecedented. Never in history has a Hollywood studio essentially tried to “do over” a blockbuster film like this. It has never happened before. So it is all the more mind-boggling, then, that the Snyder Cut isn’t actually half bad. 

At minimum, the Snyder cut of Justice League is superior to the theatrical cut in almost every conceivable fashion. Whedon’s version of the film wanted to be The Avengers but instead only reached the heights of Thor: The Dark World: it was incoherent, tonally dissonant, unfunny, flat, misogynistic (see: Flash face-planting into Wonder Woman’s boobs), and racist. It was a grotesque Frankenstein’s monster assembled in a Warner Bros. boardroom, a focus group fever dream. In contrast, the Snyder Cut has one unified creative vision, and it knows exactly how to accomplish its artistic goals. Although the narratives of the films are functionally the same (though there were a couple crazy moments in Snyder’s film that made me scream “That wasn’t in the theatrical release!”), the Snyder Cut tells its story with infinitely more style, coherence, and care.

And as promised on the tin, this truly is Zack Snyder’s film. All of the hallmarks of his style are present: desaturated and dramatic visuals, artistic visual effects, beautiful cinematography, unrestrained slow-mo action, in-your-face Christian symbolism, corny and occasionally stiff dialogue, lots of hot shirtless men, etc. It is unapologetically and indulgently Zack, so your mileage is going to vary depending on how much you can get out of his work. But as someone who isn’t his biggest fan, I found the dialogue effective, the visuals striking, and the story engaging, idiosyncrasies and all. Even the fact that the film is presented in 4:3 aspect ratio, “to preserve the integrity of Zack Snyder’s creative vision,” didn’t particularly bother me, as strange a choice it was. In terms of aesthetics, the only things that annoyed me were the occasional visual effect — Steppenwolf’s cutlery couture is not a great look — and the soundtrack recycling too many of its songs for multiple scenes.

Snyder has reigned in a lot of his worst impulses as a filmmaker here, or at least contained them. The movie still has about 20 minutes of unnecessary, stupid teasers for sequels that are never going to be made, but it was nice of Snyder to quarantine them all at the end of the film instead of interspersing them throughout the story as he did in BvS. This film has no substantive Martha moments, although there are occasional beats that elicits similar, gleefully confused reactions (In no particular order: Snyder symbolizes the economy with a giant CGI bear fighting a giant CGI bull in front of a bank, there’s plot-important police sketch art that looks like an eight-year-old drew it, the Martian Manhunter). And although the tone is still serious, this film has more moments of humor and light than Snyder’s previous DC outings; it strikes a delicate balance between gravity and levity which suits his style. In a significant departure from the dreary, depressing tones of Man of Steel and BvS, this is a film with a heart, a film that is ultimately about hope, faith, and teamwork. Snyder has never been a particularly deep filmmaker, and those are not particularly deep themes, but they don’t need to be deep in order to resonate, and the characters and story elevate them. 

Whedon’s version of the film wanted to be The Avengers but instead only reached the heights of Thor: The Dark World: it was incoherent, tonally dissonant, unfunny, flat, misogynistic (see: Flash face-planting into Wonder Woman’s boobs), and racist. It was a grotesque Frankenstein’s monster assembled in a Warner Bros. boardroom, a focus group fever dream.

The most unforgivable indulgence of the Snyder Cut is that insane length. Even so, for a four hour film, it wasted remarkably little of my time. Those four hours are dedicated to introducing and fleshing out the six main characters and the complicated plot, giving everything enough time to breath that the unfurling of events and characters feels natural — mostly. The few logical leaps that the plot makes are, given the runtime, frankly unjustifiable. The film is slow and ponderous, but not boring. I was engaged the entire time, which is impressive considering that I watched the theatrical cut the day before. Reducing Snyder’s film to three hours would require deleting some great scenes, and I struggle to imagine a coherent version of the film that is any shorter. Of course, that’s not really an excuse; if Snyder needed four hours to tell this story, he should have told a different story. The film is still too long. But for what it’s trying to accomplish, its length is perfect.

As a result of that crushing length, the story makes more sense and every single character is more developed. The villain, Steppenwolf, is no Thanos, but he’s gone from a big bland CGI momma’s boy to a character with an interesting backstory and comprehensible, even sympathetic motivations. You almost feel kind of bad when the Justice League curbstomps him at the end of the film. The protagonists are also much more compelling. Wonder Woman has a sweet moment with a schoolchild she rescued, Batman is no longer the comic relief, Superman moves his face muscles into a smile a few times, Aquaman’s side plot makes sense now, and Flash does much more in the story and has all of his worst jokes cut (though there are still some duds). 

Then there’s Cyborg, who is easily the standout of the film. Not only is he central to the plot but he also is the film’s emotional core, and his story epitomizes the struggle of the Justice League and the theme of teamwork and hope. Ray Fisher’s performance is powerful and compelling, and he shines in every single one of his scenes, and his arc is the most emotional of any of the main characters. Ben Afflek’s Batman may be the film’s lead, but Fisher is its star. This moving performance is exclusive to the Snyder Cut, as Fisher was excised almost entirely from the theatrical release of the film and Cyborg rendered an unmemorable side character who said “Booyah” once and did basically nothing else. (The theatrical cut of Justice League removed or minimized the roles of practically every character of color in the film, whether they were central characters or extras). The fact that Fisher was all but removed from the theatrical release is a travesty of the highest order, and seeing his performance in the Snyder Cut is one of the highlights of the viewing experience.

I enjoyed the four hours I spent with Zack Snyder’s Justice League. But I can’t say I recommend it to anyone who isn’t invested in comic books, Zack Snyder’s ouvre, important pop culture moments, or seeing Joss Whedon take a massive L. It’s a good movie, but only if you’re willing to buy into the weirdness and commit to the runtime, and not everyone is going to want to do that. Which is fine, because Snyder wasn’t trying to be accessible to a wide audience; he was trying to create the film he wanted to make, and I respect that.

I’ll admit: I wasn’t expecting the Snyder Cut to be particularly good. I was fully prepared to take glee in all of its failures, to revel in and feed upon its mistakes for a thousand moons after its release. But the movie works. Despite all of its idiosyncrasies, despite its flaws, despite the meandering story and the runtime and the stiff dialogue, it works and forms into something that is perhaps greater than the sum of its parts. Here is Snyder at his best, embracing what works about his style while growing past the mistakes that held back his previous DC films. Honestly, it’s a joy to see: to see the failures of Joss Whedon and Warner Bros. thrown into such sharp relief, to see Ray Fisher and the other actors of color in the film get their moments in the spotlight, and to see a years long fan campaign end in unprecedented success. This is the comeback story of the year, and it’s culminated in victory.

Snyder dedicated the film to his late daughter, Autumn. During the credits, Allison Crowe performs a touching rendition of “Hallelujah,” which was her favorite song. During an interview with Vanity Fair, Snyder said, “Without [Autumn], this absolutely would not have happened.” This film is a labor of love, and a tribute to someone Snyder loves deeply— isn’t it a joy to see it be received so positively then? There is a unique sense of triumph to success of the Snyder Cut that not every film carries with it, a unique sense of importance. Perhaps, even, a sense of justice.

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