Zack Snyder’s Justice League is a fascinating film to review, with the complete story of its genesis being truly intriguing. If you didn’t like the 2017 cut of Justice League and therefore have no interest in ZSJL, just know that this version is both very different and astronomically better.
For those unfamiliar, following the mixed-to-negative reception to director Zack Snyder’s previous DCEU entries (Man of Steel and Batman v Superman), Warner Bros got cold feet about Snyder. In their eyes, their darker tone was why they were less popular than Marvel’s more comedic approach, and Snyder began receiving notes to add more humour. Eventually, Joss Whedon of Avengers 1 and 2, was brought on to rewrite some scenes for that purpose. Then in May 2017, Zack Snyder’s daughter tragically committed suicide, causing him to step down from the project. Whedon took over directing duties and reshot large portions of the film (and allegedly caused on-set issues of his own), resulting in a simplified plot, awkward humour, and reduced character development. Only about 20-30 minutes of the theatrical cut were Snyder’s footage (who originally shot ~4-5 hours). The final product was a tonally confused, rushed mess that led to the fan-driven #ReleaseTheSnyderCut movement.
And to everyone’s surprise, they did it. ZSJL, in all its 4-hour glory, is a worthy follow-up to MoS and BvS (this coming from a defender of both films). Continuing the story immediately after BvS, Superman’s death inadvertently causes a new threat to approach Earth, with a group of unlikely heroes having to join forces to stop it. The general synopsis of the film is the same as before, but with much needed context, character, backstories, and development (particularly with Ray Fisher’s Cyborg and Ezra Miller’s Flash), the film actually has weight. There is a dramatic and narrative purpose for everything that happens, and the extended runtime allows for scenes to linger, adding gravitas that was sorely lacking in 2017. Fisher and Ben Affleck are standouts here, which is ironic since their roles were previously the most reduced. Strangely, this is arguably Snyder’s most restrained DCEU film (runtime notwithstanding). While still decidedly grand and operatic in scope, it is lighter in tone (especially compared to BvS), and what humour is present feels mostly natural (unlike the forced ‘brunch’ joke from JL2017). As per usual, Snyder’s visuals do not disappoint and the plot is entertaining.
While infinitely better in every regard than the original version, it is still full of some very on-the-nose dialogue, particularly from the villain, Steppenwolf. Though his character design is excellent (especially compared to the absolute joke from 2017), and he is suitably intimidating, his dialogue is often expository, both in terms of motivation and backstory. The extended runtime does inevitably include some scenes that don’t feel entirely consequential or necessary, and there’s probably an even tighter 3.5-hour movie in here somewhere. Admittedly, some of my issues with the theatrical cut are still present here (whether it be certain scenes or lines of dialogue), and a few plot contrivances, and logical inconsistencies strain credibility.All that said, as someone who defends both Man of Steel and Batman v Superman (while finding many flaws in them), and as someone who prefers a more mythical take on this genre, this is the film I wanted the first time around. It probably won’t win any converts to the genre, and Zack Snyder critics might see it as a 4-hour self-indulgence fest, but I’d still recommend giving it a shot. It is a grand, epic story that’s presented with a distinct style and vision. And while not all of it lands, I’ll take an ambitious, yet flawed film over a corporate, focus-tested “product” any day of the week. Even if I didn’t end up liking it, I’d still be happy that it exists. The fact that I do like it is a nice bonus.
Image: Gage Skidmore via Wikimedia Commons