For all of the choices made by Warner Brothers in their attempt to release Justice League in 2017, what sticks out is how ugly it was. Even as a film I found moderately enjoyable at the time, it’s hard to avoid the distinct choices made that almost seem like purposeful ways to clash against director Zack Snyder’s particular aesthetic. Wherever people may land on the fan-demanded restored cut of Justice League, one could at least hope it gets acknowledgment for being, quite often, a visually stunning film. Issues aside, Zack Snyder’s Justice League has clear aspirations of being a film from the studio that gave audiences The Lord of the Rings. That sort of scope is welcome for a movie focused on some of the most famous superheroes taking on a planetary destruction-level threat, even if it sometimes stumbles over its bloated runtime to deliver on such straightforward ideas.
There may have actually been more twists, turns, and surprises in the road leading up to this 2021 director’s cut release of the compromised 2017 version than what occurs in the actual film, but now is not the time to enter into such a battleground. As it stands, after much demand from a vocal group (containing its own share of heroes and villains), and circumstances related to the reality of today, and a studio’s need to raise the subscriber numbers for HBO Max, decisions were made, and Snyder’s film has been finished as originally intended. The big question now – was it worth it? As a film, minus any outside implications or future expectations, was a completed 4-hour version of Justice League worth all of the trouble?
It is hard to say no to this question. In today’s film world, where Marvel and DC superhero films are the most popular form of blockbuster, I’m far happier to side with filmmakers delivering on a specific vision. We’re at a point where a studio knows they can rake in big bucks with a minimum of effort, so long as it features enough buzz-worthy moments and likable actors sporting superhero duds and shouting out well-timed quips. With that in mind, having seen all of what the major players in this genre have to offer, there’s never a sign of laziness. Instead, much has come down to adapting a formula to fit into the realm of what a supposed visionary filmmaker wants to accomplish.
This Justice League is very much a Zack Snyder movie. It is a film from the man who made an expensive near-3-hour Watchmen movie, doing the best he could to maintain Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ deconstructionist and satirical messages while still presenting something a mainstream audience could enjoy. Justice League is very much a follow-up to his polarizing Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, only this time, where that film wanted to take heroes to their lowest point, this film’s intent is to build them back up into something strong enough to ward off threats, let alone show what good can be done when a strategy involves working as a team.
From a plot standpoint, viewers will not get much more than what they’ve already received. Following the death of Clark Kent (Henry Cavill), the world is now under threat of the tyrannical Darkseid (Ray Porter), who has dispatched Steppenwolf (Ciaran Hinds) to Earth, where he will search for the three Mother Boxes, which will allow for Darkseid and his armies to essentially take over the planet. To stop this, Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) intends to gather together Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), Aquaman (Jason Momoa), The Flash (Ezra Miller), and Cyborg (Ray Fisher) to stop Steppenwolf and who or whatever else threatens the planet.
Obviously, one would expect a film that’s two hours longer than the previous cut to have significantly more to say about these characters and this story. The former is true to a point. Each character has considerably more to do, thanks to the extended amount of time devoted to showing off their individual scenes. Despite having his own movie (and continuity) at this point, Momoa has more interactions with Willem Dafoe’s Vulko and Amber Heard’s Mera. Miller’s Barry Allen gets plenty of time to shine, given the literal jolt of energy he brings to an otherwise dour film, but we even see the extent of his abilities thanks to additional scenes helping to set up his eventual standalone feature, which includes one with Keirsey Clemons’ Iris West.
The most important addition, however, is easily what we see of Fisher’s Cyborg. The theatrical version stripped this character down to the bare minimum, and yet I found Fisher’s presence to be quite compelling. Snyder’s cut of the film restores Victor Stone’s backstory, complete with plenty of time for his father, Silas Stone (Joe Morton), to shine as well. Now there’s plenty more context to apply to Cyborg, which makes sense given Snyder’s choice to essentially center the film around this character. Yes, Batman is the one who gathers these characters together, but Cyborg is the heart of the film.
This is all well and good for the heroes (though Affleck and Gadot still seem as though they were more invested in their previous DCU features, and Snyder continues to have no real use for Amy Adams’ Lois Lane that’s not related to plot advancement), but what about the villain? At four hours, one would think we’d have a compelling villain to counter the heroes. Sadly, that’s still not the case. Despite strong enough CGI work to realize these comic book creations, Darkseid is waiting for another film to do more, while Steppenwolf is a near-unstoppable being looking for three McGuffins. We may learn a bit more about who these bad guys are, but their motivations are shallow, and there’s next to nothing in terms of character, let alone any sense of charisma.
Fortunately, the focus is on the superheroes and the characters they’re involved with, and Snyder has no problem romanticizing them as much as he can. Even when steeping this film in a level of darkness that’s not quite as amusing as the over-the-top angriness that ran through Dawn of Justice, but still shadowy enough, Snyder wants us to see these characters as the modern equivalent of Greek gods (yes, I’m aware Wonder Woman is connected to the Greek gods that actually existed alongside Atlanteans and Green Lanterns from this universe’s past).
One of the best aspects of BvS was how it painted those characters as grand Alex Ross comic book panels come to life. Cinematographer Fabian Wagner doesn’t quite pull off that same sense of dark wonder Larry Fong previously delivered, but the framing of these characters often feels comic-inspired. The choice to present this Justice League in the box-like Academy ratio is a very noticeable one but were the intended IMAX showings to have occurred, I can understand how this visual presentation brings a different sense of grandeur, emphasizing the stature of these figures and how larger than life they are. At the same time, Snyder’s emphasis on close-ups lends this superhero movie an interesting dramatic weight in its best moments.
For all of the work done to give proper attention to the main characters, or at least consistent character work for the ones who matter most, it’s just a shame the film is overloaded with explanations and plot instead of something more compelling. For all its issues, Batman v Superman made the most out of its goofy premise thanks to wild philosophizing by Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor, left-field and quirky choices (Granny’s peach tea) to counterbalance the film’s consistently grim nature and motivations that felt inspired by the modern political climate. Justice League, for all the time spent with these people, doesn’t have a whole lot to say outside of some basic ideas one would hope to glean from the simplest of superhero films.
The importance of this comes from a general feeling I’ve gotten out of Snyder’s efforts in the DC Universe. Frankly, I’m just not as entertained as I’d like to be by these movies. As detailed in this rambling account of what I felt while sitting for multiple hours with my lovely girlfriend, taking in this grand DC opus, I certainly have a level of admiration for what’s being attempted and find plenty of positive qualities in many choices that were made. However, in movies that have now featured Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, The Flash, Cyborg, Darkseid, and various cameos, shouldn’t I be having more fun?
This isn’t a matter of which comic book universe I prefer or what I expected going in. It’s purely built around my tastes and sensibilities not quite jiving with what Snyder has built up, and a lack of thematic weight to make up for it. I do find this odd, as I like other Snyder films and other recent DC Universe films. With these features, though, while I’m happy to smile while Batman mows down armies of parademons while in his Batmobile, among other moments built around the excitement of seeing these super friends fighting alongside each other, there’s little else of value I find to grasp onto. At least BvS had the benefit of adding a side of weird to its serious story. Justice League heads down a more traditional path, despite being coated with elements that add up to a Snyder film.
Still, is Zack Snyder’s Justice League a triumph? For Snyder, the cast and crew, and his legion of fans, I’m sure it absolutely is. For me? It only does so much to counter the previous version. It’s significantly different (and, yes, better) as far as presenting this particular story in a consistent manner. Wanting to operate as an epic, while I don’t think the pacing does the film any favors, I can see what Snyder is trying to accomplish with his level of patience. However, I can only speculate why WB went in an entirely different direction, rather than find a stronger middle ground in how to shorten up this film while still preserving Snyder’s appropriate credit.
While the film doesn’t entirely work as far as matching its aspirations, there’s certainly enough here to recommend, even if audiences take different approaches to watching this 6-part (plus epilogue) film. I haven’t even mentioned the film’s final moments setting up events that will either never occur or take new form, given the new direction the DC Universe has turned toward in the years since the original film’s release. With all of that being said, people wanted to see Zack Snyder’s take on the Justice League, and for better or worse, in all of its glory, if this version of the age of heroes is now at an end, a good enough culmination has been restored.