There have been stories of gods and monsters for as long as there have been oral traditions in communities — stories of creation, stories of destruction, which warn of great evil or encourage altruism. Some of these stories turned into myths, others have been the basis of faiths, and captured the imaginations of readers since the printed word. Others, more recently, have turned into legends in the form of comic books.. With the advent of radio, the motion picture, and television, these stories had the ability to spread beyond their small communities and into the world, opening the door for even more believers. To turn on the television is find yourself with any number of live-action adaptations from any number of comic creators: Marvel, Veritgo, DC Comics, Image Comics, and others. Comic book stories are everywhere, but this does not mean they are for everyone, particularly when the types of stories don’t mesh with the expectation of the audience. Enter director Zack Snyder, invited by Warner Bros. Pictures, after his successes with 300 (2006) and Watchmen (2009), to bring his same style and vision to their live-action adaptations of celebrated DC Comics characters. He would direct two films completely — Man of Steel (2013) and Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) — before bowing out of directing Justice League (2017), his third film in a five-part arc, when a family tragedy required him to step down. Then the theatrical release happened and it was ripped apart by critics and audiences alike, prompting the largest supporters of Snyder to take to the Internet with a simple idea: Restore The Snyder Cut. Just over three years since the theatrical release of Justice League, a version of the film considered an alternate take by WB but the official version of the fans, Zack Snyder’s Justice League is seeing the light of day. What was expected to be an absolutely unremarkable consumer-demanded product ends up being one of the best DCEU films WB has produced, filled with outstanding action set pieces, moving character beats, and the kind of presentation longtime DC Comics fans have longed to see on the big screen.
Following the events of Dawn of Justice, the world mourns the loss of Superman (Henry Cavill), while those who knew him are unsure how to go about their lives. After a chat with Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg), Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) knows that there’s another attack from other-worldly individuals coming, he just doesn’t know when or by whom. Powered by the promise he made at Superman’s grave to protect the world from whatever is coming next, he uses the information from Luthor to track down three known metahumans — Victor Stone (Ray Fisher), Barry Allen (Ezra Miller), and Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa) — in the hopes that they can band together to stop whatever’s coming. None of them have to wait too long as the alien warrior Steppenwolf (voiced by Ciarán Hinds) appears with his parademons in tow, returning to Earth after 5,000 years in a bid to appease his master, Darkseid (voiced by Ray Porter).
If you’re coming to this with zero knowledge of what happened between WB and Zack Snyder before the release of Justice League, you might want to either check out this interview conducted in August 2020 between myself and The Cine-Men co-host Darryl Mansel with CinemaBlend’s Managing Director Sean O’Connell who wrote the recently released book detailing the events, “Release The Snyder Cut: The Crazy True Story Behind the Fight That Saved.” There was a lot going on before Joss Whedon (Marvel’s The Avengers/Avengers: Age of Ultron) was brought in to finish Justice League when Snyder stepped down and plenty after that make the journey to this moment entirely unreal. In addition, it’s worth noting that I do not enjoy either Man of Steel or Dawn of Justice and only barely found merits in Justice League. Noting this matters because, quite frankly, Zack Snyder’s Justice League (ZSJL) is absolutely remarkable. Moreso than with his other films within the DCEU, ZSJL demonstrates a stronger understanding of the characters and presents an adventure that’s more solid and more (appropriately) serious in tone and narrative. Because there is no studio mandate for the film to be a specific length and tone, ZSJL is far freer to tell the story that was always intended. For comparison, Marvel couldn’t do Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) until it had established other otherworldly characters so that it was much easier to accept that there’s a sentient tree who only speaks in one three-word sentence. The heights ZSJL reaches, along with the obvious comfort of the established cast (Affleck, Gadot, Cavill, Lane, and Adams), is only possible because of the previous two films setting the stage. Whatever you may think of them, and I have plenty to say on both, ZSJL uses the foundations to move these beloved characters into the kind of story that DC Comics fans have longed for and does it in a way which is profoundly satisfying.
ZSJL isn’t the wholly new cinematic experience that HBO Max is touting. It’s not to say that it’s the same film (it’s longer by 100% and is presented as six parts with an epilogue), it’s that destination is the same by way of a slightly different journey. Bruce Wayne still goes to the remote village to find “The Aquaman,” but the execution is different. The footage released in the Snyder-Era of shooting that showed Bruce traveling by foot, we get to see that. In addition, the way Bruce engages with the community to find “The Aquaman” is staged differently and in a manner that falls in line with what DC Comics fans expect of character affectionately known as “The Detective.” Similarly, while we do see Barry go visit his father in prison, it’s only after we’ve seen Barry rescue a nameless woman (Kiersey Clemons, listed as Iris West) which means we get to see the previously presented-as-nebbish speedster in action, as in, almost true to physics “in action.” The character is sold as having “never done battle” in Justice League despite his intro in Dawn of Justice being him stopping a robbery in civilian clothes and a brief cameo in Suicide Squad (2016) where he captured Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney) in official costume. Similarly, much of Arthur’s comical “bro” aspects are gone, leaving him more pensive and easier to take seriously when he speaks. The presentation was fun in the theatrical, but his presentation here allows for the characterization to be received more easily, same with Barry. These small changes to personality have giant ripple effects to the larger story, impacting dialogue which, in turn, requires a few scenes and action sequences to play out differently. More often than not, the changes here improve and enhance the overall experience. For those who have been a part of the Snyder Cut Movement, pay attention to the scene where Bruce drives Barry from the warehouse apartment: you’ll likely tear up as I did. One other change, the violence is more akin to Dawn of Justice, so much so that the film is rated R for violence and profanity. To give you an idea, the sequence with Diana and the terrorists near the beginning of the film feels a lot like the fantastic Batman takedown sequence in Dawn of Justice. Snyder has set up a world where there are consequences to actions: violence = pain. There’s plenty of that going around and the only ones who enjoy it are going to be sitting safely from the comfort of their couches.
Changes, however, don’t always mean improvements. In this case, for every instance of “more Amy Adams!” or “Harry Lennix is back as General Swanwick?,” there’s also more world-building that needs to occur in order to have anything in the end possess any kind of mutually satisfying ending for the audience and characters. To be more precise, while it’s great that newer characters get more screen time, Ray Fisher as Victor Stone especially, in order to give them the time necessary to understand them, everything else basically stops. This was a problem in the theatrical edition, as the narrative became too heavy under the weight of exposition and character introductions to the point of noticing time passing. As I believed then, I’m even more certain now, Victor needed a movie before this in order to establish his significance prior to this story. If not for a passing line in dialogue, you’d never know that what happened to Victor to make him a cyborg occurred roughly a year before the death of Superman. That’s a long time to wait (from the character’s perspective) to learn a lot of what he does in this film. When you consider how much time is dedicated to Victor in ZSJL and that the runtime is 4hrs 2min, Victor does basically get his own film, it’s just to the detriment of the whole. It’s not a slog, mind you, it just slows down the momentum of the ticking clock that starts the moment Steppenwolf arrives and the hunt for his MacGuffin begins. The overall narrative needs Victor’s story for any part of the conclusion to work, it’s just a shame that Fisher didn’t get to do that in his own film before uniting with the others. There’s also an overreliance on voiceover to communicate with the audience. In the theatrical, this meant Diana narrating the events of Steppenwolf’s first appearance on Earth. In ZSJL, Steppenwolf is replaced by Darkseid and the scene is both extended and made more grand. But this means a longer voiceover which becomes noticeable after a while, so much so that when two more extended voiceover sequences occur, the emphasis on telling, not showing, is prominent (a particular weakness in Dawn of Justice). This reliance on intertextuality becomes even more obvious when Superman dons the black-and-silver suit from the “Return of Superman” run of comics. In issues, the suit is described as a Kryptonian recovery suit, designed to increase the amount of energy from the sun Superman absorbs to help him get to full power. In ZSJL, he wears the suit without explanation, passing by his regular suit (which he wore in the theatrical edition). Those in the know understand the significance, but casual viewers or Snyder fans may not understand it beyond matching the visual aesthetic.
What stands out the most, and perhaps what makes the film more palatable than the two prior films, is that ZSJL does not follow the same path of personal exploration. The folly of Man of Steel is it’s an origin story of an immigrant trying to understand his role in a foreign land except the individual at the center is disconnected from everyone around him. Upon learning his heritage, he comes face-to-face with a member of his community, long thought gone, and is met with threats of violence and genocide. This is certainly interesting thematic material, especially when considering the additional layers of destiny versus choice that are thrown into the mix (even if the execution is contradictory at best). To follow, Dawn of Justice went a step further, examining how fear and rage can make good men cold, making the world’s greatest detective into nothing more than a calculating murderer. This would be interesting if not for the fact that Bruce’s perspective of Superman is justified by the violent, often brutal, actions Superman continues to take in the film. It certainly doesn’t help that so much of Dawn of Justice tells the audience that Superman is to be referred as a savior yet does little to show us Clark’s perspective in the acts of saving. This, combined with Superman’s blindness to his own hypocrisy when he calls Batman judge, jury, and executioner, makes the more earnest elements seem like excuses to spout eloquent words to hide nonsense. All of the previous is, for the most part, lacking in ZSJL with the themes supported from just about every scene, action, or dialogue. ZSJL is about broken people finding a home together. In what’s become a rallying cry for Snyder’s supporters, Bruce says to the newly gathered crew, “They’ve never faced us before. Not us united.” The possibilities which come when a group of talented individuals, those who are removed from humanity but find themselves faced with protecting it, put their differences aside and come together toward a common goal. Seeing these heroes banding together is fantastic as a life-long comic fan, but it means so much more. It resonates that much more powerfully because the film takes the time to make the required connections among the characters for them to bond. They have each failed in some way, are determined to do better, and find the strength to do good as a unit. It works as a theme and it’s supported from start to finish by the script. If nothing else, this hints that any future stories might continue along this path, exploring the follies of our heroes without losing sight of their moral compasses or creating narrative inconsistencies.
When all’s said and done, like the Ultimate Edition of Dawn of Justice before it, Zack Snyder’s Justice League is the far superior experience. It may be longer, but the additions make the story grander and profoundly deeper, leading to a conclusion that’s far more emotionally satisfying. Considering that it cost WB $70 million to complete what some consider a crazy social experiment lead by the fans, it would be surprising if WB decided to allow Snyder to finish his five-film arc no matter how well ZSJL is received. WB has already officially declared that only the theatrical version is considered cannon, serving as the jumping off point for the other stories which followed (Birds of Prey, Shazam!, Aquaman) and those that are still to come. However, to leave the Snyderverse with only the three stories — Man of Steel, Dawn of Justice, and ZSJL — would be extensively dissatisfying and would certainly leave a sour taste to anyone who would come to find the films later. It’s not because ZSJL ends unresolved, it has a clear button. It’s that the epilogue makes it plain that ZSJL is only the beginning and I, for one, am intrigued to see where it goes. I’m on record as saying that even though I’ve hated all the choices made thus far with Clark Kent/Superman, I would finalize my judgement of Snyder’s take on The Boyscout (my most cherished comic character) when his five-film story is done. Thus far, I’m not fully impressed, yet, with ZSJL completed, there’s suddenly excitement to see where it goes.
Your move, WB. We’re watching. And now there’re more of us united.
Available for streaming on HBO Max beginning March 18th, 2021.
Theatrical or home release currently rumored, but unconfirmed.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.