As released in 2017, Justice League gave Zack Snyder director credit for what would be his third entry in the DC Extended Universe, after Man of Steel and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. In reality, the theatrical release was a compromised vision for a number of reasons. First, Warner Bros. appeared to get somewhat cold feet after his first entry received tepid reviews, with critics then savaging his second.
With Wonder Woman approaching release in mid-2017, there seemed to be some doubt as to whether Snyder’s grimy, dark vision was any longer the way forward for this IP. Rumours circulated that the cut presented to the studio was considered ‘un-releasable’, and that major reshoots would be required. Before this could happen, Zack’s daughter, Autumn, lost her life to suicide in March 2017 at the age of 20. Distraught, Snyder exited the property, leaving an unfinished film, or, at least, a film not wanted by the studio.
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In what appears to have been motivated by a mixture of wishing to ape the success of competitor Marvel Studios, and a desire to move away from the Zack Snyder vision in which they appeared to have somewhat shaky confidence, writer and director of The Avengers, Josh Whedon, was brought in to oversee the overhaul of the film, but with a mandate for the work – sans credits – not to exceed two hours.
With the film’s Superman, Henry Cavill, contracted to keep the facial hair he was sporting for Mission Impossible: Fallout, and the film’s Batman, Ben Affleck, not really in quite the shape he had been for principal photography, the reshoots would stand out a mile as the actors would look different, complemented by some rather unfinished looking CG, as the movie raced towards its release date. Reviews were poor, and box office barely exceeded $650 million (The Avengers took north of $1.5 billion five years earlier), leaving this shared universe with an uncertain future, and fans of Snyder’s work left to social media to start a campaign for Warner Bros. to allow the director to complete his original vision.
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So, in 2021 we have Zack Snyder’s Justice League (ZSJL), a 242-minute 4:3 academy ratio offering (bizarre, given the explanation was that this would evoke the IMAX experience when our home televisions are not really suited to this and, in any case, IMAX is shot at 1.44:1). This version tells the same basic story: Steppenwolf comes to earth to find three ‘mother boxes’, then to work to bring the third into a shared ‘unity’ that will enslave and terraform the planet. Bruce Wayne (Affleck), together with Diana Prince (Gal Godot) put together a team, including Victor Stone/Cyborg (Ray Fisher), Arthur Curry/Aquaman (Jason Momoa) and Barry Allen/The Flash (Ezra Miller) to try to stop him. In the course of this, they attempt to use one of the boxes (the one which saved Victor’s life after a near-fatal accident and transformed him into Cyborg) to resurrect Superman (Cavill), who then goes on to prove he could have handled Steppenwolf by himself, to be honest.
The differences in the two version of the story are vast, and, in quality terms, nearly all of the differences favour the Snyder cut. Let’s start with the considerable negatives. First, the film is wildly too long. Now, it is doubtful – even without the two-hour mandate attached to the theatrical release – that Snyder would have submitted a four hour film to go into cinemas. It must be remembered that this is the result of four years of reflection, and a product created for the HBO Max home streaming offering – complete with $70 million spend to complete effects and perform a few days of additional photography. The film is chunked into a prologue, six chapters, and an epilogue, so it is easy to watch the film episodically.
That said, it is almost two hours before we see Batman in costume, nearly three hours before we see Superman, and far too many scenes linger way beyond their useful life. The Flash activating the mother box to reanimate Superman is a scene that could lose several minutes; the duration between deciding to bring back Superman and actually doing it is excessive. The epilogue is too long, and the new ‘knightmare’ scene, whilst atmospheric, runs five minutes and adds nothing, other than to reiterate a deep-seated fear of Superman that Batman has been experiencing in dreams since the previous film – dreams he fears may be premonitions. The length is overdone for a number of reasons, but it is hard to escape the feeling that part of the problem is that to develop characters with whom we have spent so little time requires time that isn’t needed if the team-up comes after the solo films: this universe has been created backwards, and it shows.
The film properly introduces Darkseid as Steppenwolf’s overlord, then does little to suggest why he should be feared. We even see him soundly beaten the first time he tried to conquer Earth (yes, we are aware that is likely his pre-Darkseid Uxas persona, but general audiences will not know or care about this, and it undermines the character. This is quite apart from the logic fail that he seems to have forgotten that Earth was the planet he had tried to conquer).
Steppenwolf (Ciaran Hinds) is overhauled, visually, for this film. He looks like a PS4 character rather that a PS3 character, however. The design is better, far more detailed, and the character has more pathos, coming off, as he does, like a child seeking a parent’s approval, but he is still more promise than execution. Snyder detractors will find all of the facets of his work that they dislike on full display here: self-important dialogue, ponderous scenes extended even further through insane overuse of slow-mo (it’s at Paul WS Anderson levels here); desaturation to the point that everything can tend to look a little lifeless. The aspect ratio, whilst easy to overcome in a film of this length – as, essentially, you stop noticing it after a while – is a big mistake in a film that is meant to scream ‘epic’.
That said, this is far superior both to the theatrical version, and to Snyder’s own Batman v Superman (BvS). The former suffered from tonal whiplash as the competing visions of two vastly differing directors were smashed together, and then edited to the point that any interesting story needed to be rushed out as verbal exposition. As for the latter – well, that’s a discussion for another time – but in both theatrical and extended versions, the characters had to make exceptionally stupid decisions to make the plot work, and that story hinged on some incredible leaps of logic; and, worst of all, it was really boring.
ZSJL handles its running time better than the far shorter BvS. Cyborg goes from the character in the original Justice League release that was shoehorned in – exacerbating the justifiable sense that this was the wrong way to build a shared universe – to a fully realised creation, complete with properly told backstory and a recognisable character arc. The story of his college football career (which is beautifully shot, and feels very ‘comic book’), and the accident that nearly claimed his life, along with the visual representation of how his powers work, are highlights of the film, and it is a tribute to Ray Fisher that it left an appetite whetted for the solo film that will now likely never happen.
The Flash is a stronger character for a few establishing scenes before we get to his meeting with Bruce – and the dropping of the goofy prison jokes from the theatrical release. The Whedon quips are largely absent and, while the portrayal would be less grating if Miller played the character less like the victim of a caffeine overdose, the downplaying of the humour – just a little – works well. Batman feels a little less like a spare part this time. In the theatrical release, it was reminiscent of watching Moby at Glastonbury years ago – essentially with the performer running around the stage with nothing to do while a recording of his music plays.
Here, Batman is the conductor of the orchestra; last time, he was essentially unemployed, as he put the team together very quickly in the film’s truncated running time, then had nothing to do when teamed with those of real power. The excising of the pointless Russian family subplot – which did nothing to make us care about these random people – is to the film’s benefit. Visuals are also far stronger, as the fake-looking red skies of the Whedon version are replaced with something more natural looking. The best example of this is the epilogue scene with Luthor on his boat. This scene is virtually the same as in the released version, but has an ordinary night-time sky, rather than a background of odd-looking peach and vanilla colours.
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Zack Snyder’s Justice League will do nothing to win him any new fans, and everything to convince his fanbase further of his qualities, as this is everything he is as a filmmaker turned up to 11. What he has done here, however, is to produce a coherent work that (would have) suggested a future for this shared universe, in a way that his previous film (and the Whedon cut of this story) did not.
The scale feels far grander than the theatrical cut, with chapter two, in particular evoking Lord of the Rings in size and style, and the mother boxes feeling somewhat One Ring in presentation – with their having a will of their own. Despite the insane length (which could have lost 40 minutes without really losing any content – just tightening scenes) – a feature of the botched conception of how to build a universe – this feels ponderous only occasionally, and in fact our characters come off as fully developed, fully motivated people for whom it feels more natural to root. This could be Snyder’s best entry in the DCEU, and may even be his best work since his 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead.