Zack Snyder’s Justice League, 2021.
Directed by 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 Nielsen, and J. K. Simmons.
Zack Snyder’s definitive director’s cut of Justice League. Determined to ensure Superman’s ultimate sacrifice was not in vain, Bruce Wayne aligns forces with Diana Prince with plans to recruit a team of metahumans to protect the world from an approaching threat of catastrophic proportions.
You won’t find a movie talked to death more exhaustively this year than Zack Snyder’s Justice League, a most unexpected do-over for director Snyder after the original 2017 cut of his superhero epic was executive-meddled into soulless mediocrity.
A desperate Warner Bros. tapped Joss Whedon to lend the troubled project his Avengers touch through extensive reshoots. The result was a watchable enough yet thunderously dull $300 million misfire, so obviously focus-tested into beige flavourlessness as to come and go without much of a trace, seemingly dooming the studio’s plans for the wider, MCU-aping DC Extended Universe.
Three-and-a-half years later, the world is a different and unpredictable place. People are at home a lot more for obvious reasons and studios are tripping over themselves to cash-in on the streaming media boom and bolster their bespoke platforms – all part of the reason this second go-around even exists at all.
Snyder was given $70 million to complete post-production – comprised largely of visual effects, editing, music, and shooting a small amount of new footage – on the so-called “Snyder Cut,” which to some represents a triumph, no matter its quality, of passionate fans, and to others a studio kotowing to the fair-weather fancies of social media users.
But the only question that really matters is – is Zack Snyder’s Justice League a better movie than the “Whedon Cut?” The answer may be a qualified yes, but it is absolutely an emphatic yes. Next to the studio-mangled chaos of the theatrical release, it finds comparative order and delivers, yes, justice for Snyder’s vision, uneven and unapologetically indulgent though it unmistakably is. All in all, no three-star movie has been this fussed-about in recent movie history.
Snyder’s full fat, four-hour version of the film – doubling the length of the original – retains basically everything that worked in the 2017 version, while ditching most that didn’t. The outcome is absolutely transformative, and if nothing else a fascinating example of both how editing can re-shape individual scenes, and how thoroughly studios can tinker (or tamper?) with the projects they bankroll.
The base kernels of the original story largely remain, though the most cynical, obvious efforts of the Whedon Cut to sanitise Snyder’s film into a plainly affable MCU-style superhero movie are largely gone. Entire sequences are cleaved away without a trace – most mercifully that wretched third-act Russian family subplot – while the distinctly Whedon-y quipping and eyebrow-raising sexism present in his cut have been largely jettisoned.
The result is a film which actually feels like it belongs to the vision of a filmmaker – flawed and often tone-deaf though Snyder is – than the whims of a studio anxiously wringing its hands over the commercial disappointment of Batman v Superman. The algorithm-produced stink of the 2017 film is largely gone, and the ambitious effort that remains genuinely feels like an epic rather than Warner Bros. frantically scrambling to recoup its investment.
I shan’t speak much of the plot here because, honestly, you probably already know it. The big bad New God Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds) comes to Earth in search of the three Mother Boxes, ancient relics which will allow him dominion over the planet and endear him to his nephew and master Darkseid (Ray Porter), who was previously defeated by the planet’s finest warriors.
But of course, Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) and Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) are busy recruiting superheroes – Barry Allen aka The Flash (Ezra Miller), Arthur Curry aka Aquaman (Jason Momoa), and Victor Stone aka Cyborg (Ray Fisher) – to form a team to repel Steppenwolf and his army of terrifying Parademons. Yet there’s one hero conspicuously absent – the seemingly-dead Superman (Henry Cavill).
Right from the jump, Zack Snyder’s Justice League benefits from the opportunities afforded by its larger canvas, taking time to let scenes marinate and allowing audiences to drink in relatively important exposition breathlessly sliced away in 2017.
Steppenwolf may still be a generic, uninteresting CGI golem, but at least his motivations are clearly defined and easily understood this time. The original plan was for Steppenwolf to open the door for Darkseid to play the Big Bad in Justice League Part 2, though mercifully Darkseid does make a few sporadic, appropriately fan-serving appearances throughout.
What really makes the Snyder Cut an improvement, though, is that effectively an entire movie’s worth of character development has been restored. As exhausting as a four-hour Zack Snyder movie might sound at the best of times, it’s clear that he shot reams of meaningful material, such that whittling it down to even three hours would’ve been a relatively painful feat.
The primary beneficiary of this added breathing room is unquestionably Cyborg, transformed from a forgettable prop into a character with a discernible arc and clear purpose in the plot; he gets about 20 minutes of screen time devoted solely to his backstory, and for fans of the character it’s sure to be absolute catnip.
Elsewhere The Flash’s rescue of Iris West (Kiersey Clemons) has been reincorporated, and while absolutely an unnecessary addition given her total absence of character, it at least introduces her prior to a planned role in the upcoming Flash solo movie.
Willem Dafoe fans gutted to see him excised from the 2017 release will be pleased to see him also show up for a few scenes here as Aquaman’s mentor Nuidis Vulko, sporting a glorious mop of hair no less, while Amber Heard’s Mera gets a few extra moments of screen time, sporting a baffling English accent despite rocking an American one in the Aquaman solo flick.
Elsewhere Bruce Wayne and Alfred (Jeremy Irons) are also allowed more time to chit-chat, and Lois Lane (Amy Adams), while not getting up to much investigative derring-do, at least feels less of an arbitrary accompaniment than she did in the theatrical cut. Don’t expect to see much more of Superman here, but at least the distracting digital lower-jaw of the Whedon cut is now a distant-if-horrifying memory, and the long-awaited Black Suit Superman gets a riotous coming-out party.
Wonder Woman benefits the least from the added material, though that tracks given that she’s had two solo movies with audiences, and the extra time is clearly better spent on her comrades. Beyond crucially developing the heroes as characters with delineated backstories and personalities, Snyder’s film actually bothers to show them operating as a team rather than simply waiting to tee up their next individual action beats.
Though several set-pieces are functionally similar, many have been radically re-worked through editing, especially the resurrection of Superman and the final battle against Steppenwolf, the latter ditching the hideous red hue of the Whedon cut and transforming it into an epic, half-hour-long super-brawl.
The cumulative effect convinces of Snyder’s vision, redeeming it from the embers albeit not without some significant asterisks. The four-hour runtime is well-suited to streaming, where the film’s shrewdly selected chapter divisions allow audiences to treat it like a TV miniseries. As a theatrical concoction, though, a three-hour cut would’ve been a smart compromise between the clipped-to-hell Whedon version and this throw-everything-in alternate. In short, it’s really long.
It is a film by turns exhausting and fascinating, so rich in overwrought imagery and drama and yet, entertaining in its unrestrained bombast. It is rough and unvarnished at times – particularly the visual effects, which range from acceptable to laughable – yet those fans who helped hashtag the Snyder Cut into existence will likely feel gratified with and vindicated by the final article.
The worth of Warner Bros. spending $70 million to upgrade a failed film to “pretty decent” will likely be debated for years, but for those left disappointed by what came before, it’s tough to imagine many of them viewing this as anything less than a marked improvement.
Zack Snyder’s Justice League may be messy and excessive, but it’s nevertheless a beguiling exercise in cinematic reclamation; for better and occasionally for worse, Snyder’s movie got its soul back.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.