“They said the age of heroes would never come again.”
There isn’t a movie quite like Zack Snyder’s Justice League — or, as it’s more infamously known, the ever-elusive “Snyder Cut” — and it would take several reviews worth of context to properly lay out the backstory for what brought this superhero fantasy epic of another era into being. For now, here’s the short version. In 2017, Zack Snyder had to step away from finishing his work as director on Justice League due to a family tragedy. Joss Whedon, director of the first two Avengers movies for Marvel and Disney, stepped in to complete the ensemble comic book film, but in many ways, his version of Justice Leauge ended up being a stripped down, bizarro interpretation of Snyder’s more ambitious, sprawling vision.
You’ve probably heard the rest of this story by now. Whedon’s bare-bones, generic, rush-job of Marvel mimicry failed to land with audiences and critics. If not for the whirlwind success of Wonder Woman months earlier and Aquaman a year later, it might’ve permanently doomed DC’s extended universe of films. Regardless, its failure to launch did put a screeching halt on the trajectory of Warner’s creative blueprint, which up until that point had been an episodic, interconnected narrative with a repeatedly mentioned “big bad” teased with each subsequent release, far more akin to Marvel’s cinematic gambit from over the last 13 years.
Since Justice League’s failure to assemble box office or cultural impact, Warner’s plan has been to release one-off comic-book movies bouncing around between various continuities and directing styles. So a film like 2019’s Joker had carte blanche to tell a standalone story about the supervillain without having to connect anything — even the casting — to the “Justice League Saga” of films featuring Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Gal Gadot, Ray Fisher, Ezra Miller, and Jason Mamoa. While other DCEU films like Birds of Prey and Shazam! have only been tangentially connected to these films in terms of tone and cinematic flavor.
By this time last year, it seemed like Warner had all but officially written off a true sequel or continuation of the story and ideas introduced in Justice League, namely the over-arching New Gods premise that would’ve branched off into even more DC mania. But a vocal contingent of fans, many of them particularly devoted to Snyder’s stylistic approach to the DCEU dating back to Man of Steel and arguably Watchmen, vigorously argued and demanded Warner hashtag-release the “Snyder Cut,” an urban legend of sorts, in which a finished or near-finished version of Snyder’s original Justice League could perhaps redeem the franchise and reverse the studio’s decision to “Whedonize” this long-awaited team-up beat-em-up.
The problem, of course, was that at that point, there had been no indication whatsoever that a director’s cut was even close to being releasable, if it even existed. There was, however, an “assembly cut” of unfinished footage that would still need millions of dollars of labor, practical effects work, and plenty of other resources to complete. So many, like myself, never imagined Warner would actually green-light such an expensive endeavor, even assuming Snyder himself would be willing to step in and finally make the movie he wanted to make all along. To make matters worse, a loud, toxic segment of the “Snyder Cut” movement continuously harassed just about anyone skeptical of this cut ever coming out and managed to effectively poison the discourse surrounding its future.
Despite all the needless drama, a more benign, good-faith effort to push the “Snyder Cut” into reality picked up serious momentum, especially when the stars of the film and Snyder himself got involved. Eventually, Warner saw an opportunity to spend the money necessary to let Snyder finish the movie and market it as an exclusive release on their shiny, new streaming service, HBO Max (which was and still is in dire need of some buzzy, new titles). Rather than make a pittance from home video sales like with the “Ultimate Edition” of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Warner could justify the move by drumming up paid subscriptions. Thus, they gave Snyder a year to deliver, and deliver he did with Zack Snyder’s Justice League, which is about four hours long (so double the runtime of the theatrical cut).
Again, there’s nothing quite like Zack Snyder’s Justice League, a film that feels more like a big-budget HBO mini-series in terms of format, but with all the whiz bang pop of a billion dollar summer blockbuster. It’s certainly bloated, though it’s coming out at a time when audiences are more starved than ever when it comes to cinematic spectacle. It’s about as ambitious in its labrynth of costumed subplots as something like Captain America: Civil War, but it’s a far more coherent and narratively rewarding picture than a lot of what Snyder has produced before, particularly compared to the mess of misery that was Dawn of Justice.
In fact, Snyder clearly learned a few lessons from that aforementioned film and took positive steps to avoid its many, many pitfalls, without losing the grandiose approach that admittedly made it stand out amidst blander, safer explorations of the modern superhero mythology. Though it also helps that Snyder had this extra year (and the gift of further hindsight) to tighten every possible bolt of what is essentially a stream of deleted scenes connected to a semi-familiar plot structure involving mother boxes, alien gods, and a unity of unlikely heroes.
It’s easy to see why Justice League was originally planned to be a two-parter, with most of the first half focusing on the fallout of Superman’s (Cavill) death triggering a scramble to pick up his slack in the wake of new heroes like Flash (Miller), Aquaman (Momoa), and Cyborg (Fisher) joining the ranks of Batman (Affleck) and Wonder Woman (Gadot). The second half is essentially one big third act in that regard, and it’s here where the film hits an impressive, energetic stride that never quite quits.
The main heroes have far more time to interact and add their own respective flair and agency to the plot this time around, with arcs that are finally understandable and tie in to some incidentally tear-inducing themes about fatherhood and healing through new purpose. This noticeably stands out considering how Snyder and his longtime collaborator and wife Deborah (a producer of the film) have had to personally grapple with the tragic loss of their daughter to suicide, and the film makes several efforts, both overtly and sub-textually, to let viewers know they are not alone. All this and more lends this new league into being of their own. One where the narrative about resolving division and coming together manages to echo the combined efforts of countless people clamoring to see their dream of a film come true.
Not every character lands with equal weight. Cyborg’s journey is given far more deserved attention considering his complicated backstory, and the film does a better job expanding the possibilities of his powers as much as it does the turmoil he faces over his father’s decision to make him what he deems a “monster.” Flash is toned down a great deal, but the fan service jokes still come about as fast he moves. Wonder Woman gets a far more satisfying introductory action sequence, which ends up being one of the most tense scenes and a highlight of the character’s still-growing legacy on the big screen.
The weak links here are sadly Aquaman and Superman. Aquaman is a strange case, because he happened to be one of the few dazzling delights of the 2017 version, pumped up with a rocksteady verve that made him the designated edge lord of the group, absurd as that probably sounds. He sinks into the background of most scenes in this extended version, and outside of a few familiar moments of expected badassery, nothing new or even visually engaging is added like it is with some of the other characters.
For Superman, the problems remain as they have been since Man of Steel, though to a lesser degree because the weight of the movie doesn’t fall on him, ironically enough. He’s still a blank stare of a Jesus stand-in, who never seems to have anything interesting to say about the fascinating circumstances surrounding his existence. His undying connection to Lois Lane (Amy Adams) and his mother (Diane Lane) still comes off as performative and obligatory, never essential beyond dialogue insisting otherwise. It doesn’t help that he’s absent from the majority of the film, but also gone from Whedon’s bubblegum arcade version is an attention to Superman as a symbol beyond some passing visual cues and slap-dash lampshading. There are moments concerning the possibility of Superman’s return that are clearly to designed to make moviegoers practically levitate out of their seats in excitement, and it’s not like Hans Zimmer’s score from Man of Steel (which joins this film’s composition by Junkie XL) fails to meet the moment.
Thankfully, there’s so much sheer movie in Zack Snyder’s Justice League, it’s easy to forget about the downsides and revel in the film’s true commitment to visual storytelling powered by scenes having the most of everything. The most lightning effects, the most cameos, the most staring out into the distance while perched on structures made out of metaphors. The entire picture is incredibly sweeping in terms of production design, which is odd considering the confined “box” aspect ratio the film employs throughout, instead of a more traditional widescreen canvas to contain this overstuffed film’s overstuffed settings.
Zack Snyder’s Justice League will almost certainly go down as the superior, super-powered reimagining of a studio note gone wrong. But it should also be noted for how much has been cut, rather than simply added for the sake of justifying this entire exercise. It cuts out Danny Elfman’s score, but replaces it with Junkie XL’s moodier, operatic rendition more befitting of Snyder’s high-minded, monumental atmosphere. It cuts out desperate rewrites of Superman as a Boy Scout symbol all along, and it replaces these efforts with Bruce Wayne’s more emblematic guilt of a “mistake” he needs to undo. And the poppy, uncanny valley of intermittent color is replaced with a more consistent color palette and costume design, specifically with major touches to Steppenwolf’s entire presence, complete with a rich backstory that lifts him out of the depths of forgettable supervillain hell.
But one of the film’s most unfortunate limitations is its various promises of movies and payoffs that will likely never come. It’s far too distracting to dwell on plot detours and character reveals for sequels that would require a rewriting of the stars to fulfill at this point. Though considering the abilities of these onscreen heroes and the filmmakers behind their resurrection through a second act retrofitted into a six-part director’s cut, perhaps that’s not actually so impossible.