Producers: Deborah Snyder and Charles Roven Director: Zack Snyder Screenplay: Chris Terrio Cast: Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Gal Gadot, Jason Mamoa, Ray Fisher, Ezra Miller, Joe Morton, Jeremy Irons, Amy Adams, Connie Nielsen, Diane Lane, J.K. Simmons, Zheng Kai, Ciarán Hinds, Ray Porter, Billy Crudup, Karen Bryson, Willem Dafoe, Robin Wright, Russell Crowe, Amber Heard, Jared Leto, Harry Lennix, Jesse Eisenberg, Joe Manganiello, Kiersey Clemons and Peter Guinness Distributor: Warner Bros./HBO Max
It’s definitely bigger, but is it better?
That’s the question posed by “Zack Snyder’s Justice League,” which is available exclusively—at least for now—on HBO Max.
For those who might not be in the know, it’s an alternative version of the “Justice League” superhero movie that came out in 2017 to a middling response from critics and viewers, though some of us found its brevity and lighter tone praiseworthy contrasts to the earlier films in the series. The picture was the sequel to Snyder’s “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” and the continuation of the “DC Universe” franchise that Warner Bros., owner of the DC Comics brand had placed under his overall supervision.
By the time Snyder was finishing “Justice League,” the studio had grown discontented with his dark, gloomy perspective on the DC superhero franchise, since most moviegoers clearly preferred—based on box-office receipts—the mega-successful Marvel juggernaut that had been subsumed into Disneyworld. Snyder also suffered a personal tragedy in the death of his daughter.
So when the studio invited Joss Whedon to come aboard to “help” Snyder finish “League,” he decided to step aside and give Whedon free rein to make it his own. Whedon did, indulging in extensive rewriting, reshooting and re-editing (and, from what we now know, engendering some bad feelings on set). He ultimately delivered a shorter, fleeter and somewhat sunnier movie than the one Snyder envisioned, signaling the change that also marked “Wonder Woman” and “Aquaman,” both from other directors.
But dissatisfied fans began to clamor for the studio to release the “Snyder cut” of “Justice League” to see what they’d missed out on. Perhaps realizing that giving the movement what it wanted could be a financial boon, Warner executives slowly came to approve the idea.
But there was no “Snyder cut,” since he’d never really finished the shoot, nor fully edited and processed what he had shot. So the studio ponied up an additional $70 million in addition to the $300 million or so it had spent on the original for him to make a movie that actually never was, and is now using it to encourage fans to sign up to its new streaming service to see it—a clever business ploy.
So is “Zack Snyder’s Justice League” worth all the hullabaloo? The answer, in short, is not really.
It does possess one major benefit over the previous version, which will no doubt henceforth be called “Joss Whedon’s Justice League.” From a narrative perspective it’s simply clearer, leaving fewer loose ends to meditate on.
The overall trajectory, however, remains the same. Bruce Wayne, aka Batman, foresees some sort of alien invasion of earth and seeks to assemble a team of heroes to prepare to resist it. In addition to Diana Prince, aka Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), who’d already joined with him and Clark Kent/Superman (Henry Cavill) to battle Doomsday in “Dawn of Justice,” he brings on—after some initial reluctance—Arthur Curry/Aquaman (Jason Mamoa) and Victor Stone/Cyborg (Ray Fisher), and with much less need of prodding, Barry Allen/The Flash (Ezra Miller).
Their immediate foe is Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds), who has been sent to earth to find and unite the three “Mother Boxes” that arrived aeons ago to prepare the planet’s conquest but were lost when that invasion was repulsed by Amazons, Atlanteans and the Olympian gods banding together despite their differences. (Now encased in gleaming armor, Steppenwolf looks a bit more formidable than he did in the previous movie, but he’s still a fairly dull villain.) To defeat him the newly-formed quintet must resurrect Superman and enlist him in their battle. Working together, the now-sextet is victorious.
While the basic plotline is the same, Snyder’s version varies from the 2017 film in many particulars. (Spoilers follow, so be cautious.) It adds substantially to the back stories on The Flash and, especially, Cyborg, offers a different take on Superman’s rebirth, and piles climax upon climax, restaging the final confrontation with Steppenwolf in a fashion that recalls the widely derided final twist of Richard Donner’s “Superman.” It also adds brief scenes with characters familiar from other films in the series, as well as additional footage for some others, like Steppenwolf’s master Darkseid (Ray Porter) and his henchman DeSade (Peter Guinness). And it includes big but essentially extraneous set-pieces, like one of Wonder Woman foiling a hostage-taking at a bank and another of The Flash saving his girlfriend-to-be Iris (Kiersey Clemons) from dying in a car crash. Individually they’re impressive, but add little to the overall mix.
To top it off, Snyder appends to the picture—already divided into six chapters, with titles like “All the King’s Men”—an epilogue that consists of teasers for his once-planned sequels to “Justice League,” in which, among others, Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg), Deathstroke (Joe Manganiello), the Martian Manhunter (Harry Lennix) and the Joker (Jared Leto) appear. In short, a “restoration” of a film that never was concludes with previews of films that will never be.
The result is an epic-sized spectacular, at 242 minutes twice as long as Whedon’s version (though since there are more than eight minutes of final credits, the actual narrative is just shy of four hours). And it feels every bit of that length, the result of Snyder’s propensity for lugubrious pacing and poster-like posing of his icons, as well as for going into slow-motion at the slightest provocation.
To be fair, his “League” does convey in undiluted form Snyder’s vision—unrelentingly funereal and serious, it confuses solemnity with profundity, and to prove the point erases utterly the attempts at humor (to be sure, pretty anemic) that Whedon inserted: though Miller’s boyishly exuberant, eccentric Barry Allen provides some lighter moments and Jeremy Irons’ wry line readings as butler Arthur might bring a smile, the material focusing on Cyborg is so grim that even Affleck’s gloomy Batman comes across as upbeat by comparison. The dialogue throughout, credited to Chris Terrio, sounds clunky in its attempt at gravity.
Another aspect of Snyder’s vision is simply visual. That doesn’t refer just to the appearance of the action sequences, which are mostly dark and rather murky, with lots of gauzy afterimages. It’s related to the size of the frame: the film is presented in the boxy 4:3 format that preceded the advent of widescreen. Presumably that’s because at the beginning of the project the director was thinking in terms of its screening on IMAX screens, but whatever the case, it will now strike one as odd on a typical home system.
Otherwise, it has the look familiar from “Man of Steel” and “Dawn of Justice.” The color palate, courtesy of production designer Patrick Tatopoulos and cinematographer Fabian Wagner, is muted; it’s telling that when Superman reappears, he’s decked out not in his familiar blue and red costume, but a black and gray version. Editing hardly seems to be the term for what David Benner and Dody Dorn have accomplished; their motto seems to have been “When in doubt, leave it in.” And Junkie XL’s score drones on throughout, its dirge-like tone suffusing every scene, even those in which the heroes triumph.
As for the performances, Miller, Mamoa and Irons stand out in a generally somber ensemble; they can offer little shading to their one-note characters, but they’re more energetic than the others, who mostly pose and try to look stern.
It’s possible that “Zack Snyder’s Justice League” will prove exactly what the fans of his previous DC Universe efforts were thirsting for when they agitated for the release of his “cut.” Most other viewers will find it a case of too much, too ponderous, a popcorn movie pretending to be a piece of art.
And if you think this review is long, just wait until you watch the movie.