A film review by Craig J. Koban March 25, 2021

ZACK SNYDER'S JUSTICE LEAGUE jjj
½ 

2021, R, 242 mins.

 

Ben Affleck as Bruce Wayne / Batman  /  Henry Cavill as Clark Kent / Superman  /  Gal Gadot as Diana Prince / Wonder Woman  /  Jason Momoa as Arthur Curry / Aquaman  /  Ezra Miller as Barry Allen / The Flash  /  Ray Fisher as Victor Stone / Cyborg  /  Ciarán Hinds as Steppenwolf  /  Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luthor  /  Amy Adams as Lois Lane  /  Amber Heard as Mera  /  J.K. Simmons as Commissioner James Gordon  /  Jeremy Irons as Alfred Pennyworth  /  Diane Lane as Martha Kent  /  Connie Nielsen as Queen Hippolyta  /  Billy Crudup as Henry Allen  /  Ray Porter as Uxas / Darkseid  /  Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luthor  /  Jared Leto as Joker  /  Joe Manganiello as Slade Wilson / Deathstroke  /  Willem Dafoe as Nudis Vulko  /  Robin Wright as Antiope  /  Kiersey Clemons as Iris West

Directed by Zack Snyder  /  Written by Chris Terrio 

ORIGINAL FILM

George Lucas once famously stated that movies are never finished, they're abandoned by their makers.  

I think that has an awful lot to do with the financial and bureaucratic motivations of the corporate studios that fund and release said films.  By hook or by crook, major tentpole blockbusters have production timelines and release dates that need to be met in order to turn hefty profits, even if that means compromising a director's vision. 

No more are Lucas' words more applicable than when one considers the whole production release debacle that typified JUSTICE LEAGUE.  And to say that this major DCEU entry had a controversial history making it to the silver screen is the grandest of understatements.   

Following the release of director Zack Snyder's MAN OF STEEL and BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE, JUSTICE LEAGUE was meant to be a massive event film putting all of DC's mightiest heroes together as a jumping off point for the greater DCEU.  Snyder, by his own admission, had a vast and sprawling cut of the film that may or may not have been split into two entries, but Warner Brothers - after the lack of box office and critical success of BVS - insisted on two things: a no longer than two hour running time and a much, much lighter tone.  Personal tragedy struck Snyder with the death of his daughter, which forced him to leave production before competition.  In a shocking move, Warner Brothers hired THE AVENGERS director Joss Whedon to come in and "finish" JUSTICE LEAGUE, and by finish that actually meant cutting Snyder's running time down in half and rewriting/reshooting what has been reported to be 80-90% of his footage.  In its remade and vastly re-edited form (and inexplicably with Snyder's name still credited on-screen as its sole director), JUSTICE LEAGUE was released in 2017 to a fairly vocal fan and critic backlash and massive box office disappointment. 

As for ZACK SNYDER'S JUSTICE LEAGUE?  Bare with me.  I'm getting there.  Context is important. 

A few years back Snyder revealed that a four-hour plus version of his JUSTICE LEAGUE was actually in the can, but would probably never see the light of day.  Fans responded in one of the largest movie-centric social media movements ever to pressure Warner Brothers to "Release the Snyder Cut."  The studio caved and in a completely unheard of move gave Snyder $70-80 million to finish off his cut with complete creative autonomy.  Flash forward to last Thursday and the newly minted ZACK SNYDER'S JUSTICE LEAGUE was unveiled via the streaming platform HBO MAX in the U.S. (and via Crave TV in my own home and native land of Canada). 

And, boy oh boy, there's a lot of film to talk about here. 

 

 

In terms of a basic narrative, ZACK SNYDER'S JUSTICE LEAGUE is pretty much the same as the "JOSSTICE LEAGUE", but with many large alterations in execution (which I'll get to later).  As for a recap, this new edit follows up on the death of Superman (Henry Cavill) at the end of BVS, which now means that Earth is severely exposed to powerful extraterrestrial threats.  Bruce Wayne/Batman (Ben Affleck) has had apocalyptic visions of an invasion to potentially come for some time, so he and new ally in Diana Prince/Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) attempt to recruit other "meta humans" to form an alliance to thwart the still unveiled menace.  They manage to nab Arthur Curry/Aquaman (Jason Mamoa), Barry Allen/The Flash (Ezra Miller) and Victor Stone/Cyborg (Ray Fisher) to begin preparations for the arrival of a demonic alien army led by the towering Steppenwolf (voiced by Ciaran Hinds), who's coming to Earth in search of three mystical "Mother Boxes" that - when combined - will allow the holder to control the known universe.  As Steppenwolf unleashes hell on our planet and decimates his way through the heroes, Batman discovers that they could use one of the Mother Boxes to resurrect Superman, which becomes especially important when the whole team realizes that Steppenwolf is actually just a servant to a more powerfully terrifying threat. 

Okay, let's talk changes for this new iteration. 

It cannot be overstated how vastly different ZACK SNYDER'S JUSTICE LEAGUE is in every conceivable manner (outside of its basic premise of the league gathering together to thwart an unstoppable monstrous force from the cosmos).  Firstly, this new version preserves Snyder's 242 minute running time versus the 120 minutes of the theatrical original, complete with Blu-Ray-esque chapter titles and an epilogue (this gives the film the feeling of a mini-series in feature length form).  Also, the screen aspect ratio here is also noticeably shifted, as Snyder originally sought to release his film on the more boxy and vertically tall IMAX screens around the world (meaning that this is streamed with a square-like 4:3 "academy ratio" on your big screen TVs at home, so don't adjust your sets, folks).  The tone has been completely altered here too; gone are all of the Whedon's chirpiness, verbal gags, and overall brightening of the picture and instead we get something more purposely somber and meditative.  That's not to say that ZACK SNYDER'S JUSTICE LEAGUE is without humor, but gone are the beyond obvious attempts by Whedon to make it feel tonally more like a part of the MCU versus the already established DCEU.  Related to this shift in tone is a surprising R-rating attached by the MPAA; this cut contains more bloodshed (and shockingly a few F-bombs, even one uttered by the Dark Knight himself) than its antecedent. 

Beyond superficial alterations, ZACK SNYDER'S JUSTICE LEAGUE truly stands apart in the avenue of storytelling real estate.  Afforded with much more time, Snyder is able to keep the basic framework of what happened in the 2017 film while completely reconfiguring his film's beginning, middle, and ending (the latter of which features a wholly altered final confrontation between all of the heroes and Steppenwolf).  Speaking of villains, this new edit does wonders as far as Steppenwolf is concerned.  Beforehand he was this garishly ugly looking CGI-beastie with no personality, no back-story, and flimsy motivations.  Now, he has been granted a tremendously improved and more sinister CGI makeover from Snyder and actually has a more fully fleshed out story arc as far as his reason for being on Earth, which relates to troubled relationship with his master, Darkseid.  And as opposed to being cryptically and vaguely name dropped in dialogue in the 2017 JUSTICE LEAGUE, Darkseid here makes several tangible appearances and is a far more satisfying and ominous presence this go around.   

There's also a plethora of wonderful universe and character building now as well, with multiple characters getting additional scenes, origin details, and embellished elements added in to make their inclusion to the roster of heroes feel more meaningfully robust.  Mamoa's Aquaman is given a lot more to do now, not to mention that there are more cameos made by his fellow Atlantians.  Miller's Flash gets a whole new and visually exhilarating introductory sequence featuring the jittery kid trying to get a job at a pet store, only having to use his super speed to abruptly leave a save a beautiful woman from being killed in a freak car accident (you can tell where the film's added budget went in sequences like this).  Perhaps the biggest character victory lap is taken by Fisher's Cyborg, who was almost a non-entity in the original JUSTICE LEAGUE.  Now, Cyborg's whole "Frankenstein" origin story is supremely expanded upon, as is his tumultuous relationship with his scientist father who saved his life and essentially created him (Joe Morton).  Cyborg becomes the emotional epicenter of dramatic interest here, and his storyline reaches a point of painful tragedy that's not even hinted at with what we got before.  Considering all of the publicity that has been generated as of late about Fisher's accused mistreatment by Whedon on the reshoots, it's painfully hard to overlook just how shamefully marginalized his hero was in hindsight.  In ZACK SYNDER'S JUSTICE LEAGUE he's given full reign to fully (no pun intended) shine as a member to this costume clad squad, and one that is fundamentally integral to the overarching storyline altogether. 

There are even more changes abundant here, like how patient Snyder is with returning Kal-El back from the dead, and with a sleek all new black costume (Cavill's Man of Steel doesn't make a re-appearance here until nearly the two and a half hour mark).  The manner that he factors into making a pitch perfectly timed appearance to save Batman and the team in the final climatic act is different and builds towards one other hero lending a universe saving assist that was fairly awe inspiring (the final confrontations between everyone doesn't occur until nearly the three and a half hour mark).  All of this is driven home by a propulsive and engaging score by Junkie XL, who previously scored BVS for Snyder before getting the heave-ho from Warner Brothers and Whedon as they opted to get Danny Elfman to totally re-score the 2017 JUSTICE LEAGUE, to mostly flat and uninspired levels.  All of this builds towards an ending (or should I say multiple endings) that unfortunately emphasizes some of the faults with ZACK SNYDER'S JUSTICE LEAGUE, like suffering from RETURN OF THE KING-itus in the ways it can't seem to simply...end.  There's also a very, very fan service-y epilogue scene set in a nightmare apocalyptic future Earth that seems more hastily added on than something that felt germane and required with what came before. 

There are other issues at play here too.  The running time sure seems like a sore point for most, which is understandable.  I've read of some people labeling this ultra-long cut as crazily self-indulgent.  My response to that is to empathize with the maker: Imagine being a director with a vision for a gargantuan scaled production that squashed overused genre conventions and clichés that had to step down from said production due to personal tragedy to then see almost all of his footage re-shot by someone else and with a running time cut by fifty per cent to be theatrically released.  The four hour running times does thankless wonders for JUSTICE LEAGUE on multiple aforementioned levels, and in terms of pacing it's remarkably nimble footed for such a long film.  Still, though, this begs looking into one of the central ironies of ZACK SNYDER'S JUSTICE LEAGUE: This is such an empowered and unified avant garde super hero blockbuster vision that commendably never tries to plagiarize the MCU playbook and instead be its own unique entity...but this long, R-rated version would have never been theatrically released by a studio.  Even I'll concede that Snyder was perhaps a few disciplined edits away (with 20-30 minutes of fat trimmed) from securing a slightly shorter, but exceedingly well rounded film ready for theatrical consumption and success (and, yeah, there's no need for this film to be R, and only minor snippets here and there could have garnered a more studio/box office friendly PG-13). 

WATCH MY FULL

REVIEW HERE

Having said all of that, ZACK SNYDER'S JUSTICE LEAGUE is the proverbial real deal.  No question.  And one thing you can't take away from this gigantic undertaking (or the two previous DCEU prequels that came before it) is that they have a genuine awe inspiring ambitiousness and distinctively singular vision (there's that word again) that are not trying to slavishly regurgitate what the direct competition is doing, nor does it ever feel like a hatchet job property haphazardly engineered by committee with no cohesive vision at all.  Like MAN OF STEEL and BVS, ZACK SNYDER'S JUSTICE LEAGUE takes an admirable level of calculated risks with the material, and some of those swing for the fence chances that Snyder has taken don't work and, to be fair, alienated viewers.  But he nevertheless took them and he dared to take them, which is something you can't say about most other pre-packaged assembly line comic book movie extravaganzas in existence.  And that's what makes ZACK SNYDER'S JUSTICE LEAGUE a triumphantly successful follow-through on a once near mythologized promise from its filmmaker that a longer, better, and more satisfyingly complete version of this super hero squad's story is out there.  

I'm glad that Snyder was able to finish his film as opposed to abandoning it to being a well-talked-about asterisk in one of the most troubled movie production stories ever.  

 

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