Zack Snyder’s Justice League (2021)
Director: Zack Snyder
Starring: Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Gal Gadot. Ray Fisher, Jason Momoa, Ezra Miller, Willem Dafoe, Jesse Eisenberg, Jeremy Irons, Diane Lane, Connie Nielson, J.K. Simmons, Ciarán Hinds
Runtime: 242 minutes
Zack Snyder’s Justice League is here. That’s a sentence a lot of people thought no one would ever be able to say and almost everyone with an interest in either comic books and or film has a passionate opinion on whether the massively expanded version of the 2017 DC superhero crossover should or shouldn’t have been released and whether or not the fact that it has been is a good or bad thing for the entertainment industry. But regardless of how they feel about the long, complicated process of getting it out in the world one thing viewers should be able to rejoice about, if they could put their personal biases aside, is that Zack Snyder’s Justice League, or the Snyder Cut, as it’s more commonly referred to, is damn good. Not only is it an almost unbelievably vast improvement over the rightfully derided theatrical version but it’s a spectacularly enjoyable film on its own terms that makes convincing arguments in favor of both an interconnected DC film franchise and artistic freedom in blockbuster filmmaking. It’s a well-deserved, hard-won win for director Zack Snyder and he and everyone else involved should be proud.
For those who don’t know, the (relatively) brief version of the extraordinarily convoluted story of the Snyder Cut is this: in 2017, Snyder was deep into production on the hotly anticipated first live-action Justice League film when his daughter Autumn committed suicide. Snyder understandably chose to step away from the film for a time, not feeling up to the difficult task of finishing a superhero blockbuster that the studio (Warner Brothers) was watching extremely closely. Rather than delay the film to a later date so Snyder could finish it after having sufficient time to grieve, WB brought in Joss Whedon, who had just directed the first two Avengers movies, claiming that he would guide the film through the end of production and the editing process, as well as whatever reshoots or modifications were needed, but insisted that he would do so in accordance with Snyder’s intentions for the project. In reality, WB, disappointed with the critical and box office performances of Snyder’s past DC films wanted Whedon to use hasty reshoots to move the film away from the dark tone of its predecessors to more closely resemble a lighthearted Marvel Cinematic Universe movie, which they believed would make it more popular with audiences. The result was a Frankenstein’s monster of a film in which Snyder and Whedon’s styles clashed with one another and behind-the-scenes issues resulted in some truly embarrassing sights. It received a deserved critical thrashing and was a complete box office disaster. Although Justice League was almost immediately forgotten by the general audience, rumors soon began to swirl among dedicated fans (the most disappointed with the theatrical release) that Snyder was much further in the filmmaking process before leaving than had been let on and that he might have even completed an early cut of his drastically different version of the film. These fans immediately took to social media with calls to “Release the Snyder Cut”, and while industry officials and insiders stated either that such a thing didn’t exist or that its release was completely impossible, to paraphrase Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor from Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, the bell could not be un-rung. Although parts of the Snyder Cut community became toxic, leading dissenters to label the entire group as such, the campaign (which has also done a ton of praise-worthy charity work, mostly for suicide prevention) continued to become more well-known and popular, with even unrelated celebrities and filmmakers contributing, until fans rejoiced in May 2020 when it was announced that Zack Snyder’s Justice League would be released on HBO Max, with Snyder even being given an extensive extra budget for post-production changes, including additional photography, to get even closer to his unimpeded vision.
The basic premise and plot are some of the few things that remain the same across both films. With Superman (Henry Cavill) dead following Batman v Superman, forces from the alien world of Apokolips led by Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds) invade Earth in the name of Darkseid (Ray Porter). Bruce Wayne/Batman (Ben Affleck) and Diana Prince/Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) work to build a team of superhumans, including Arthur Curry/Aquaman (Jason Momoa), Barry Allen/The Flash (Ezra Miller), and Victor Stone/Cyborg (Ray Fisher), to defend the planet. In the course of the conflict, the team (which is never directly referred to as the Justice League) discovers a way to resurrect Superman, before the final battle with Steppenwolf. Although chunks of Snyder’s footage were used in the Whedon version that’s effectively where the similarities between the two end. Almost every measurable element of the film is entirely different, including the tone, editing, audiovisual style, and narrative arcs. But the most obvious difference is the length. Whereas Whedon’s version was required to meet a strict two-hour runtime, the Snyder Cut comes in at a whopping four hours and two minutes. That’s become one of the many things about the new film that is controversial but it does make an important point about the film, that being that it is a pure encapsulation of Snyder’s filmmaking style.
This is the quintessential Snyder movie not just because its crazy history has made it the most well-known but because it represents what its director chose to make with almost complete creative freedom and his most vast resources. That means it’s full of Snyder trademarks (the massive length being one, the extensive use of slow-motion being another) and while the legion of detractors will see that as a bad sign it makes for a much more rewarding and enjoyable experience than the corporate-controlled theatrical release and one of the more unique, even visionary comic book adaptations put to film. Because, while this isn’t the case for all of his movies Snyder’s style works for the Justice League, arguably more so than it did even his past superhero movies. But surprisingly enough it’s also one of his most accessible films. The basic heroic team-up premise means that the plot and approach to the characters is much more easily digestible than in either Man of Steel or especially Batman v Superman and I feel that if it had been released theatrically this Justice League would have been much more of a crowd-pleaser. Even the length, which will understandably be a deterrent to some potential viewers, is handled well. The film is divided into seven chapter-like parts (six regular ones and an expanded epilogue) that help give a sense of progress throughout the lengthy narrative (and make it ideal for home viewing). But it’s pacing is also simply excellent and while I did break my viewing up into two sessions I could see myself watching the whole thing in one go in the future. Viewers will be surprised at how breezily the film moves. It does start off gradually but this is ultimately for the best. One of the worst things about the theatrical cut was how inconsequential everything seemed. Here the methodical early chapters build up the threat of Steppenwolf’s invasion as something truly frightening which makes the final confrontations much more intense and as a result the heroes’ ultimate victories actually feel rewarding and earned.
Marvel prides itself on making its characters seem as down to Earth as possible (even in the movies not set on Earth) and I doubt DC or any other similar franchises will achieve the same degree of reliable success this has earned them but Snyder shows there is another way to approach this kind of material by treating the League like living gods. That doesn’t mean the characters aren’t relatable, because they are, but they’re also presented as majestic, larger-than-life figures and this gives the film a great sense of scale and importance. Under Snyder’s direction, the camera worships the heroes, notably in a low-angle shot of Batman perched atop a gargoyle and the lengthy scene of Aquaman stripping off his shirt as he calmly strides into a stormy sea. There are a couple of scenes throughout the film that could have been cut out or trimmed but they’re mostly moments that stop to ponder the significance of beyond human beings that make the world of the film feel unique and well-rounded so they do add to the experience. Part of the reason the Snyder Cut has more of an epic appeal is that in the years between the theatrical release and now the cast and characters have become much bigger deals. DC refused to copy Marvel’s gradual approach to building a cinematic universe and as a result, only Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman had been properly introduced before the 2017 film was released, robbing it of the full team-up experience as audiences had no real investment in the other heroes. Since then Momoa has headlined the billion-dollar Aquaman solo film and Miller’s Flash made his most warmly received appearance in a game-changing cameo in DC TV’s Crisis on Infinite Earths crossover, not to mention Cavill continuing to raise his profile with other blockbuster projects and Gadot starring in a second Wonder Woman film. Thanks to all this the Snyder Cut feels like more of a full-blown crossover of major stars.
The majesty Snyder brings to the characters also applies to the spectacle. Most of the major action scenes existed in some form in the theatrical release but Snyder’s versions are much longer, more detailed, and simply more skillfully shot. Snyder’s previous comic book movies showed that he knows how to stage superhero battles to make the characters seem as powerful as possible and the characters with strength-based powers like Superman, Aquaman, and Wonder Woman once again come across as genuine forces of nature, with Diana getting probably the largest assortment of great action beats overall. But whenever the Flash does his thing it absolutely steals the show. To depict superspeed most filmmakers fall back on using slow-motion to show how things look to a speedster’s perspective and true to form Snyder definitely uses that trick plenty (and uses it well) but I also appreciated the choice to let some scenes play out in real-time, with Barry zipping around confused onlookers, only visible as a blur that saves them with actions they can’t even comprehend. The lightning he emits makes for some really striking images and a big moment for the character in the final battle is one of the film’s best. Snyder packs so much into the visuals of these scenes that it can be hard to comprehend it all but it’s not hard to appreciate the immense visual creativity on display.
The four-hour runtime is also predictably a great benefit to the development of the characters. Whedon gave Bruce a couple of very nice quiet moments but otherwise, his approach to the character was all wrong, with the reshoots forcing him into too many comedic beats that undermined his competence and felt out of character, with Affleck’s disdain for the new approach often painfully obvious. Aside from the absence of a few dialogues with Diana that I missed the Dark Knight is put to much better use in Zack Snyder’s Justice League. Filled with new optimism after Superman’s sacrifice Bruce is still in a more lighthearted place than viewers are used to seeing him and Affleck’s charisma is on full display as he smiles and cracks wise more than Batman actors usually get to but the character is still going through an interesting struggle that builds on his portrayal in Batman v Superman. Bruce feels a tremendous amount of remorse for his quasi-villainous actions in that movie, especially his persecution of Superman, and the film ponders whether this is causing him to go about his quest to form the League with unhealthy desperation, with loyal butler Alfred Pennyworth (Jeremy Irons) stating that “Your guilt’s overcome your reason.” Affleck is clearly much more invested in this material and his intense performance is a reminder of why he’s one of the great screen Batmen. Gadot is, as always, utterly perfect as Wonder Woman. Diana is still in the midst of a compelling struggle to get over the loss of Steve Trevor in her first solo movie (which came out just a few months prior to the theatrical release) but I also liked the addition of her mixed feelings about being isolated from her Amazon family, particularly her mother, Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) on Themyscira. Unfortunately, her arc doesn’t reach a totally satisfying conclusion. Both Diana and Bruce could use one or two more reflective scenes, though ultimately they still work as the movie’s anchors thanks to Affleck and Gadot’s work. Jason Momoa can’t play up Aquaman’s sense of humor to the same extent as he does in his solo movie but his wired energy makes the character a very interesting presentation. Arthur is still struggling with self-acceptance and his twisted relationship with Atlantis at this point and his bitterness leads him to be the team’s loose cannon, even if his compassion also shines through eventually in some sweet scenes. Flash and Cyborg are without a doubt the biggest beneficiaries of the contrast between the two versions of the film. Ray Fisher has been vocal about his disgust with how Whedon reshaped his role in the film and it’s easy to see why. Victor is arguably the most well-developed character in the Snyder Cut and Snyder himself has called him the heart of the movie. Significant screen time is devoted to Victor’s background and as a result, the conflicted dynamic between him and his father, Silas (Joe Morton) is much more complicated and compelling. Fisher’s work subtly takes Victor through a moving journey as he struggles to overcome his anger and trauma and his personal development is woven into the film’s climax beautifully. The character’s powers are also expanded on significantly in interesting ways, with one scene in which Victor hacks an ATM to give a single mother some much-needed money being one of the most touchingly human examples of heroism in the film. Ezra Miller’s performances as Barry Allen have been another point of controversy about DC’s films and viewers who truly can’t stand his portrayal likely won’t have their minds changed by his performance here but those who go in with open minds might be surprised at how enjoyable Barry is in the film, as I was. Miller is still responsible for a lot of comedic relief scenes and his performance still has the jittery, hyperverbal qualities that have become divisive but he does a better job of toning it down when the script calls for it than he did in the theatrical version. Snyder’s film also portrays Barry as more competent and complex than Whedon’s and between these points and the impressive visuals associated with the character I was very much looking forward to The Flash movie by the time the credits rolled. Out of the Leaguers Superman gets the smallest part, which is unfortunate given how Snyder’s DC films are on some level supposed to be a Clark-centric story. But Cavill is quite charming when the focus is on him, making a compelling case for why he deserves more outings in the role, and scenes he shares with Amy Adams’ Lois Lane and those which call back to Man of Steel are heartwarming.
Adams and Morton are both the most heavily featured and strongest members of the supporting cast, with the former in particular getting to play out a discreet but strong arc as Lois navigates grief. Jeremy Irons is again a more or less perfect Alfred but his role is mainly comedic. Steppenwolf is another character that benefits greatly from the original vision of the film being restored. Not only is the redesign of his CGI body much more intimidating and better animated but the character also has a motivation that’s at least coherent and understandable this time, even if he’s still not really a memorable antagonist. Due mostly to the vastly different runtimes there are more than a half dozen characters in Zack Snyder’s Justice League that don’t appear at all in the theatrical release, and many of them are major players in the DC universe. The most important is Porter’s Darkseid, whose imposing presence adds extra gravity to the plot, even if his role is mostly meant to set up the sequels we might sadly never see. Big-time Hollywood stars like Willem Dafoe and Joe Manganiello appear as Aquaman‘s Vulko and Slade Wilson/Deathstroke, respectively, with Man of Steel and Batman v Superman alum Harry Lennix reprising his role as Secretary of Defense Calvin Swanwick, whose true identity is revealed as a DC fan-favorite. But the highest-profile addition to the cast is Jared Leto, who reprises his version of the Joker from Suicide Squad. Leto’s role and most of Manganiello’s occur during an extended flashforward sequence in the epilogue, that while a tantalizing bit of world-building for those hypothetical sequels is honestly superfluous to the story of this film. Still, it’s undeniably thrilling to see Leto and Affleck face off and the former has improved on his unfortunate performance in Suicide Squad somewhat.
Zack Snyder’s Justice League won’t please everyone and a lot of potential viewers have a variety of understandable opinions on what it means to the worlds of DC, filmmaking, and the wider entertainment and artistic industries. But if they can put those aside and view it strictly on its merits as a film (superhero and otherwise) they will find a bold, uncompromising, and supremely entertaining creation completely unlike anything that’s come before it and is worthy of the historic characters it adapts.
- The film is presented in the 4:3 aspect ratio it was shot for as per Snyder’s wishes. It’s definitely a somewhat strange choice given that most viewers will be watching on home televisions but the film is immersing enough that it’s not really a problem.
- Other than the suicide prevention work the most important thing to come out of the whole Snyder Cut saga has been Fisher publicly accusing Whedon of unprofessional and abusive behavior on-set, which Fisher says was enabled and exacerbated by certain Warner Brothers executives. This has led members of the cast and crew as well as those of other Whedon productions to come forward and will hopefully lead to more change in Hollywood’s often toxic culture.
- Affleck will appear alongside Miller in The Flash (which also features Michael Keaton’s version of Batman), and Momoa and Gadot are both set for future Aquaman and Wonder Woman films and possibly more appearances. Beyond that, it’s unclear whether any of Snyder’s main cast, including Cavill, will reprise their roles going forward.
- Diane Lane delivers a really moving dialogue as Clark’s mother Martha roughly halfway through the film but a subsequent plot twist (which in and of itself is cool) lessens its impact.
- Zack Snyder’s latest film, Army of the Dead, is now streaming on Netflix and screening in select theaters.
Zack Snyder's Justice League
Zack Snyder's Justice League is worth the extended wait, presenting its director's unique and striking vision of DC's greatest heroes in a film worthy of them.