Film Review: Zack Snyder’s Justice League
(NOTE: This review contains spoilers for Zack Snyder’s Justice League, please read at your own discretion)
Well, you all did it. After years of whispers, of leaked footage and of support from cast. From his cryptic comments on the social media platform of which I’m certain he is the only patron to now, Zack Snyder has completed his vision of Justice League…sort of. Acknowledging that the HBO MAX release of Justice League will be his last DC Film, Snyder lays it all out there. And the results?
Well, it exists, I suppose.
I’ll start with this: Zack Snyder’s Justice League is, technically, a better film than the 2017 theatrical release. It is generally more tonally consistent, the awkward humour has been mostly removed, and some characters are given much better arcs; Cyborg, played by Ray Fisher, is just straight up given an arc he did not have in the theatrical cut. This *should* mean it’s a better film, right? Not exactly.
For all the additions to the mythology and the improved arcs of characters like Cyborg and Steppenwolf, Zack Snyder’s version of this story is fundamentally the same as the 2017 cut, only with an extra two hours of footage added in.
Before we get into specifics, we need to talk about structure and presentation. Upon the announcement of its release, Snyder stated that his version of Justice League would be a miniseries, but then it wasn’t, but then the release still features 6 segments, plus a prologue and an epilogue. The film’s editing is scattershot, jumping from Themyscira to Gotham to Metropolis to Steppenwolf’s base, moving from character to character with self-contained scenes as if it were meant to be episodic.
Justice League’s structure is caught between being a feature film where every scene is meant to propel the narrative forward, and that of a miniseries where every episode has its own mini-narrative and you can have characters appear in one scene within an hour that focuses on their story. A perfect example comes in the midst of the climactic showdown between the League and Steppenwolf’s forces, where it cuts from the action to Superman walking the halls of his ship until he finds the black suit that he inexplicably chooses to wear. You simply cannot have it both ways, and as a result of this tug-of-war the pacing is unbearable. It takes an hour before Batman learns who they’re fighting and what is happening, and more than two hours before they even decide to bring Superman back to life. There is just not enough story here to justify the length of this cut.
Of course, this was always going to be the problem with DC’s approach, by making Justice League after a single Superman movie, a Batman/Superman movie in which Batman has been Batman for twenty years, and one Wonder Woman film. In order to have a team, three major characters all needed to be given sufficient screen time to establish their backstories, who they are, and their own personal conflict, who then all in turn need their own supporting characters established to work off of. Cyborg fares the best of this since he is connected with the Mother Boxes, and his relationship with his father is given a pretty decent amount of time to develop. Barry Allen kinda-sorta has a story that’s mostly set up for his own film, and Aquaman literally just shows up to help because Mera told him to.
Even Cyborg himself, despite having the best arc in this cut, is painfully dull to watch. Fisher does his best with the material, but the added footage is comprised primarily of empty exposition and confusing visuals, and scenes with his father, which would have made for an interesting dynamic…in a Cyborg film. This is not a Cyborg film, and it’s not a Flash film, and it’s not an Aquaman film. It’s barely a Justice League film.
Rewatching it with this new footage, it’s clear how little chemistry any pairings of the cast have with one another. Affleck and Gadot feel like they’re speaking different languages to one another, and it never feels for a second like any of these characters enjoy being around one another. It’s just a miserable blob of performances that all congeal into this beige paste on screen.
For the changes to characters that come about as a result of the new footage, perhaps the one who is most negatively impacted by these changes is Cavill’s Superman. While in the theatrical cut Superman is shown being lighthearted and kind, in the Snydercut he’s still the quiet juggernaut who likes to float out and be the focal point of Jesus imagery, whose main contribution to the final battle is just punching Steppenwolf in the chest over and over. Despite the conversations in the movie involving Lois talking about how the world didn’t know Clark, it never feels as though the creative team behind these movies ever knew him either. It’s an indictment of the fact that Snyder has never gotten Superman correct, and that he’s always been more interested in making Superman a God, rather than making him a man.
Now, let’s talk about presentation. The film is presented in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio, supposedly to “preserve the integrity of Snyder’s vision”, yet all this aspect ratio does is make every visual effect and action scene look as though it were a CG cutscene in a PS2 game. I am truly sick of the muddy tones and muted metal design of every character. Steppenwolf’s redesign is meant to be more intimidating, yet it is so over-designed that he is a blur of metal and pointy bits that all blend together into this ugly grey. This is truly an ugly-looking film, and it’s bizarre to say that about a Snyder project. Usually, the one thing he excels at are his visuals.
If you’re wondering why I’ve barely spent anytime on the story and the additional characters added to this cut, it’s because they leave no impact. Ryan Choi has no purpose beyond being an assistant to Silas Stone, setting up his own film. Darkseid is a fun foil for Steppenwolf, but he again doesn’t have much to do other than be the mastermind. Martian Manhunter is so embarrassingly shoehorned into this film that I honestly believed after his random reveal upon speaking with Lois as Martha that he wouldn’t show up again. When he did as the final note of the film, announcing he is there to help to a sleepy Ben Affleck, it felt like a parody. Despite being the swan song for Snyder’s vision, this cut is still making the effort to set-up storylines and characters we will never see explored.
The entire Knightmare dream sequence, meant to setup films that will never be made, is the worst part of the entire film. Adding this onto the end of the runtime, after the conflict has been resolved, is so transparently the result of DC and HBOMax capitulating to the whims of online fans wanting to see this because of Snyder egging them on for years. It adds nothing to the story, nothing to the characters, and is merely a pat on the back to everyone who begged for it to be filmed. All I have to say about Jared Leto’s performance of Joker is that I hope it is the last time we ever see it.
The internal struggle of this film and my thoughts on it can be summarized in the scene in which Barry Allen saves Iris West for the first time. What should be a poignant scene, in which Barry sees Iris up close as he saves her from a car crash, is ruined by CGI hot dogs. Imagine the impact of this scene if there had been no slow-motion sequences until Barry uses his powers for the first time onscreen, when he saves the woman who will someday be the love of his life. It would be the Big Fish sequence of comic-book films, but instead we get hot dogs and a painfully out-of-place cover of “Song to the Siren”. Zack Snyder clearly wants to be taken seriously as an artist, but he keeps getting in his own way.
Even then, this film lacks the insane creative decisions that comprise the other films Snyder had directed on his way to Justice League. There’s nothing like Pa Kent telling a young Clark to let kids drown, or Lex Luthor leaving a jar of piss in Congress right before he blows it up. There’s no Batman branding people, there’s no “Do you bleed?”, there’s not even a “Save Martha”. For all of the mythology surrounding this cut, and the years and years of fans rallying for its release, in the hopes it would restore the DC universe to what fans of of the architect wanted, it was for all naught. Zack Snyder’s Justice League is a whimper of a final note for his vision of the DC universe.
Now, let’s never do this again.