Zack Snyder’s Justice League
Yep, we’re doing this. I find it useful that I have had a few weeks to fully absorb the experience of this, probably the most talked about directors cut since Ridley Scott just could not stop having a go at Blade Runner. What was it I said about the Joss Whedon cut of this film: “an extra 20, 30 minutes may have done Justice League the world of good…Part of me is a little interested to see Snyder’s original 170 minute cut, even if that would probably come with lots of new problems.” Well, here we are, only it’s more like 230 minutes. More than enough time to fix some of the original versions many problems, and more than enough time to create some new ones at the same time.
I’m ambivalent enough about the circumstances that have led to the creation of this, a new enough version that I’m comfortable dubbing it a new film. On the one hand, if Zack and Deborah Snyder are able to find some form of closure for the death of their daughter through the completion of this film, then I think they can make a 20 hour version, and anyone who says they shouldn’t can, with respect, have sex with themselves. On the other, the movement behind this film and lots of its marketing, has a basis in the very worst parts of the internet, the kind that made Joker, one of the worst films of recent years, the undeserved success that it was. I was rooting for Zack Snyder’s Justice League – lets just call it ZSJL going forward – just as much as I was rooting for what came out in 2017, but was apprehensive about more than that running time. One full-on four hour sitting later, did ZSJL redeem the flawed creation of too many minds, or is it the ultimate exercise in not leaving well enough alone?
In the aftermath of Superman’s (Henry Cavill) death, Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck), fearful of an attack from extra-terrestrial invaders, embarks on a mission to unite various super-powered beings in defence of Earth. There’s Amazonian Diana (Gal Gadot), half-Atlantean Arthur (Jason Mamoa), speedster Barry (Ezra Miller) and cybernetic Victor (Ray Fisher), who all come together despite their differences and complicated backgrounds. When Steppenwolf (Ciaran Hinds), the intergalactic vanguard for the mighty Darkseid, attacks, they are all that stands between him and the Earth’s destruction.
So, it’s sort of inevitable that I compare ZSJL to the Joss Whedon version, but I will try and focus as much as I can on the newer edition, to evaluate it first and foremost on its own merits. And, to give a brief summary: I liked it. This is as complete a Justice League story as we are ever likely to get from these versions of these characters and from this director, and the solidity, and sheer scope, of Snyder’s vision shines through, from a stylized look at the final moments of Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice all the way through to watching Jared Leto’s Joker spar with “Knightmare” Batman in a dark, twisted future we’ll probably never get to see expanded upon. If nothing else, Zack Snyder’s Justice League really is Zack Snyder’s Justice League.
There is a tonal consistency here that, being blunt, is absolutely crucial. Love it or loath it, this is a film that grasps a hold of grimdark as its guiding star, and everything in the film, be it the cinematography, the script, the acting, the backstories, lends itself towards that. Gone is the half-and-half approach where Snyder’s Gothic predilections were mixed with Whedon’s light-hearted quipping: that produced a mess in 2017, that has been rectified now. So, Batman doesn’t open his conversation with Aquaman by saying “I hear you talk to fish”, instead he’s right to the business of getting Arthur Curry to fight aliens. Some will hate the deliberate darkness of it, the lack of pop or colour, but it cannot be denied that this is a more consistent, more thematically clear production, and I really think that the material is all the better for that.
The expansive length has, as you would expect, good aspects and not-so-good aspects. Split into five meaty chapters and then an equally meaty prologue, having just under four hours to play with means that everybody gets lots of extra scenes, everybody gets lots of backstories, everybody gets a few more moments of epic action and incredible demonstrations of their powers. The characters of ZSJL are more fully formed than they were in 2017, most especially Ray Fisher’s Cyborg, who comes close to being the main player for stretches, and Jason Mamoa’s Aquaman, with ZSJL properly serving as the backdoor pilot for his film that it should have been: Willem DaFoe and Amber Heard show up in properly-fleshed out roles in his parts of ZSJL, to an extent that actually feels distracting at times.
Barry Allen’s desperation to make something of himself so he can help free his father from an unjust prison sentence, Wonder Woman’s connection to past struggles against Darkseid, even Steppenwolf gets a bit more time here to be an actually three-dimensional being, and not just some bland CGI monstrosity for Superman to throw himself at. Snyder has far more time for the likes of Aquaman, Flash (and look at that, a superhero film that understands “less is more” when it comes to the comic relief character) and Cyborg than Whedon did, perhaps betraying a studio-driven insistence that Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman – the tentpoles – get the lions share of the screen-time in 2017. This expanded focus, and actually the reduction in time for others – Superman only appears in Part Five – is to be welcomed, making this seem like an real league of equals. So is the appearance of Darkseid as Steppenwolf’s puppetmaster, and a greater effort to tie everything together into an eons-long narrative.
The result is that the film feels properly epic and huge in scope, an enormous planet-spanning battle against evil invaders. Far more than the 2017 version, ZSJL captures the sense of this DC Universe being an enormous, deep thing, with a mythology in its past and in its present that you actually want to watch more of. Crowning moments for each individual superhero, where they get to flat-out save the world through some incredible mastery of their powers, feel much more impactful (one towards the end, featuring The Flash, really whets the appetite for a stand-alone there). But the film also manages to marry that to something very personal: Cyborg’s strained relationship with his father, Arthur Curry’s vagabond life, Lois Lane’s grief, these are all things that help to ground the film so it isn’t just demi-gods throwing lumps at each other.
Of course, it’s is long. Too long. You couldn’t imagine sitting in a cinema to watch this in one sitting, (even if I did that in my bedroom watching on a phone and all, albeit a phone with good resolution). There are plenty of instances where Snyder has indulged himself a bit too much, and I don’t just mean the incredible overuse of slow-motion effects from start to finish. No, I mean scenes: one that springs to mind in a lengthy sequence involving the Amazonian warriors lighting a beacon fire for Wonder Woman where we have to see the idea presented, the fire lit in an elaborate ceremony, Diana seeing the fire, and then Diana travelling to the fire: roughly 5-10 minutes of screentime that could be nicely cut down to the necessary essentials. It’s one example of many, and I would say for every three scenes, action beat or conversation that gets expanded, there’s one that doesn’t need the girth. What does the inclusion of the Martian Manhunter (Harry Lennix) really accomplish here?
Yet, in a way I acknowledge as a little strange, ZSJL didn’t feel as ponderous and slow-moving as I thought that it would. Snyder actually manages to pace out his action beats pretty well, in a formula that marries battles to plot not unlike that of the MCU really. I never felt bored watching this film, just maybe occasionally wishing that it would move along a little faster: I choose to watch it in one sitting because I think this is how the director wanted it to be seen, but looking back I do think the miniseries option should have been considered. There’s a more palatable three or four episode show to be made out of this material, and it was released on TV after all.
Visually, this is, as Snyder’s films nearly always are, a bit of a marmite experience: you either like his stylised dark preferences, or you think it’s one of the worst things you have ever seen. You should be able to get beyond the 4:3 eventually: God knows you have enough time to. It certainly marks ZSJL out: in ratio and look this is about as far from the sometimes garishly colourful MCU as you can get, and I imagine that is very much the intention of the director. But it’s also cleaner in look than it was in 2017, if that makes any sense. The effects are more mature, the costumes that little bit more realised, the backgrounds and the colour palette that little bit more considered and fully thought out. It’s still dark, make no mistake about it, but it isn’t as dark as, say, 300, nor as faux bright as Watchmen.
More important, numerous edits, inclusions and deletions have made the property much more engaging from a visual perspective. There are a thousand different examples I could focus on, but to speak in general terms things flow a bit easier in action scenes, seem a bit more natural in dialogue-focused segments and there are just better choices made all round. Major things like Henry Cavill’s CGI mustache removal are no longer factors, while minor things – Superman’s entry to the films final battle is 300% better accomplished here, the Ukrainian family that Whedon used as a “Look, they save people!” crutch in the finale are thankfully dismissed, I could go on – just build up, and up, and up. Snyder is pretty much the same director he was over a decade ago, but he is the only director here at least. It seems like such a simple thing to say, but it bears repeating: I would rather a film have one creative direction and look unpalatable, than have two creative directions and look like a ridiculous smorgasbord of tones and styles. ZSJL has that one creative direction, and while you might get sick of the shadows, the slow motion, the repetitive action moves and the sense that Snyder has limited imagination when it comes to choreography, blocking and resisting “bad-ass” framing, you will have to admit that it is better than mixing and matching with an entirety different aesthetic.
Musically the film is a little all over the place. Snyder’s never been very good when it comes to the inclusion of songs in his works, and there are a bunch of them that get thrown in here for montages or moments that don’t quite fit, or are a bit too on the nose. A really glaring one is some kind of Icelandic choral offering early on, that is far more bemusing than it is interesting. Junkie XL’s score is not hugely more noticeable than the one made for 2017, and there is little else to add. An epic film really needed some epic audio, and ZSJL just doesn’t have that. No offence to XL, who has done much better with other projects, but I do feel like this kind of production needs someone like Hanz Zimmer at the tiller of the music (Zimmer is co-credited on some themes, but that’s all). I’ll make an exception in my thoughts for the credits version of “Hallelujah”, by Allison Crowe, which has ties to the person the film is dedicated to, and is a beautiful rendition.
There’s probably no greater example of the difference between 2017’s Justice League and ZSJL than how they end. Joss Whedon’s version had a mid-credits scene where Superman and The Flash jokingly start a race to prove which one of them is faster. Snyder’s version has an elongated glimpse into an apocalyptic future where a Batman-led Suicide Squad plans a hit on an evil Superman, with Bruce Wayne jawing at that fascinating, if still infuriatingly immaterial, vision of the Joker. To call the change stark would be a wild dangerous understatement: one is just the MCU-style writ, clumsily, onto DC, the other is Zack Snyder teasing us with what’s left of his unformed vision, which going by the word of the man himself constitutes two more additional films. Will we ever get to see them made? Never say never I suppose, especially not after the movement that got ZSJL made and released, but should it get made? I’m erring towards no, that it would be better for DC and WB to move on from Snyder now and stick to their more individual focus when it comes to their superhero property. But would I watch continuations if they were to be made? Yes, yes I would.
I suppose that is the deepest triumph of ZSJL: it’s a redemption of sorts for a franchise that seemed fit only to be mocked by an internet community that has made an entire industry of podcasts and Youtube accounts out of running things down. That same industry was rearing back to do the same to ZSJL, family tragedy be damned, but the impact has been significantly less hard than some would have anticipated, or that some particularly joyless people were hoping. ZSJL is the best DC film that Snyder has come out with, and I think is a pretty good film in its own right. Once you get beyond the incredible length, which alone marks the film out in the larger superhero genre, and can count yourself as someone who doesn’t dismiss the cinematography from the outset, then there is a lot to enjoy in ZSJL, a film that respects its characters and where they came from, and crafts an engaging, and entertaining narrative with really epic pretensions.
The truth is we, “we” being the community who flock to comic book movies likes flies to excrement, need films like ZSJL. You may not want to hear that, but it’s true. It’s different. It stands out. It doesn’t feel like it’s been designed by a committee who are trying to appeal to every demographic, it doesn’t have the sense that it was dragged down by studio notes to make it funnier. It’s not a masterpiece, far from it. It’s OK to think it ugly, one-note, narrow-minded in who it is trying to be for. It’s too long, Snyder has never really evolved as a filmmaker from a visual perspective, musically it’s underwhelming and ZSJL will never be able to separate itself from the deplorables who had a major hand in its creation. But its existence is not a crime, or some fault of the industry. ZSJL justifies itself, if for no other reason than the obvious passion behind it. This may well be the end of Zack Snyder’s run in DC, and if so it ends on a high, and I hope he and his wife have the peace they need. Recommended.
(All images are copyright of HBO Max)