REVIEW – Zack Snyder’s Justice League (2021)

As a fan of director’s cuts, I am glad there are people involved with this movie that have a version they can finally be proud of. However, the “improvements” made in this version of Justice League are almost all undermined by an inability to rein in those changes/restorations or even to apply them in an interesting or coherent manner. There are many moments I genuinely enjoyed but again it’s a result of good ideas ruined by uninteresting characters and an inability to tell a decent story resulting in a dull and pretentious slog.

Some of the best director’s cuts are about elaboration, clarification, or restoring deleted moments. The “Snyder Cut” is more or less a different film trying to tell the same story as the theatrical cut, like an adaptation or remake rather than a director’s cut. It’s akin to listening to two drunks tell the same terrible tale, one doing beer bongs and they’re somewhat amusing and the other’s on Japanese whiskey and a bit full of themselves but can still form complete sentences.

To say that it’s better than the theatrical release still doesn’t actually mean it’s good it just means it’s “not good” for different reasons. And that’s one of the more frustrating things about Zack Snyder’s Justice League.

When I look back at his other films (outside of the DCEU) I realise that I am somewhat of a Zack Snyder apologist… I enjoyed the problematic 300, I still think that Watchmen is a near-perfect adaptation (including the changes he made that I feel were necessary for a movie version), and I still defend the INTENT behind the story for Suckerpunch while conceding it’s a bad film I enjoy. And yet I don’t enjoy his handling of these iconic DC Comics characters. Man of Steel was at least interesting if misguided and Batman V Superman was a complete and utter garbage fire. These add to my frustration because the other DCEU films, in particular Wonder Woman, Aquaman, Shazam!, and Birds of Prey, I did enjoy and to a point even love. Justice League was the only one I avoided until recently.

Even with the “improvements” over the theatrical release, it’s now clear that Snyder, along with writer Chris Terio (who also co-wrote BVS) are both unsuited to the material. Either that or they needed someone to rein in and refine their ideas. It’s also interesting to note that Snyder is at his best with stories that are already well-established and well told (like Watchmen or even his Dawn of the Dead remake) whereas Suckerpunch (which he co-wrote) was big ideas done poorly.

Now, I feel as though all that was necessary as a bit of background and disclaimer going into more of my analysis of this film. SPOILERS FROM THIS POINT ON…

From the moment the movie begins, the differences to the theatrical release are recognizably Zack Snyder. The removal of that clumsy attempt to make Superman more relatable or recognisably a “hero” is gone (which I’ll get to later) making way for Snyder’s signature style of excruciatingly slow storytelling. Without someone to rein in his choices, what is normally a great aesthetic in small doses now becomes self-parody. Every sequence is longer than it should be, every shot lingers for longer than is needed, the over-use of slow motion (in particular for a character that can move faster than the eye can see) as well as for moments that really don’t need it. An hour could have easily been cut from this four hour running time and that’s before the extra 30 minutes that could have come about from cleaning up and streamlining the story itself.

I binge TV shows and occasionally marathon certain series of movies, so I have little to no problem with the length of the movie, especially if I’m sitting at home in control of the play button. But four hours is a major ask to watch characters I have little reason to care about. The theatrical version at least made an attempt to create interesting characters that have distinct personalities but somehow the “Snyder Cut” removes all of that to make most of them brooding loners, which would’ve been fine if that wasn’t their defining characteristic.

Batman’s guilt and motivation to correct his mistake is so watered down it’s almost non-existent, his interactions with Diana (both cute and confrontational) are also trimmed down and sterilised. Diana’s hesitance and objection to resurrecting Superman is also removed as well as a pairing down of her mentoring and motivating Cyborg, reducing her to simply the source for exposition (which was redone and made somehow worse). That’s still more than what Aquaman had to do, with most of his humour gone Arthur was basically just walking eye candy. It’s curious that in removing some of the jokes that didn’t land with Barry, it also included the “Save one person” pep talk Batman gives Flash, which is unfortunate because that was a legitimately interesting bit of motivation. And that scene of him rescuing the woman in the car was very much self-indulgent (like most of the movie).

The only character that benefitted the most from the changes was Cyborg. There was a genuine attempt at fleshing out his character and I was all for it… until it took a step too far and tripped over its own feet. There were legit ideas being presented about his origins and backstory but. again, without someone to help trim the fat or process these raw ideas they ended up either being a tad dull or clunky. (I can imagine a much more interesting take on Cyborg’s origin where Batman has to confront Victor who’s abusing his abilities, even if well-intentioned and helping people, but doesn’t want to repeat the mistake he made with Clark).

Fans are right to praise how better written Cyborg, the only main black hero, is but seemingly ignore how all the women are short-changed. Wonder Woman as exposition machine aside, Lois Lane’s entire existence is still about moping over the death of Clark (although somehow it was more interesting in the theatrical cut – maybe because there was less of it?) having her coincidentally be in the area when Clark was resurrected is lazy and less interesting than the implication that she was an active part of the plan in the theatrical cut. Mera had some fight in her but ultimately has to be saved by Arthur, the introduction of Iris West was not only creepy and an entirely unnecessary scene (the fact you don’t know what scene I’m referring to says a lot) but her sole purpose was to be rescued by Barry. Similar with Lisa the waitress whom Victor helps out with an injection of cash into her back account. While I’m glad these actors have been restored into the movie (the reaction that “Lisa” has gotten on Twitter is genuinely heart warming, because she was good in small role) they are all just props in this film. Even the most important moment involving Martha Kent reduces her to a mere disguise for Martian Manhunter.

An argument could be made that Queen Hippolyta was more than just a prop but that would ignore how ineffective she and the rest of the Amazonians were in trying to seal him in a tomb… y’know the villain who can travel via portal.

Steppenwolf’s redesign ends up being a lateral move. Making him more beastly (a departure from his comic book look) does add a certain other-worldliness to him, however, his unnecessarily spiky armour is overdesigned to the point of parody and is very 90’s era Image Comics ridiculousness. He was neither dangerous nor compelling in the theatrical cut but now he’s even less threatening, reduced to a mere thug thanks to the addition of Darkseid.

Because he overdoes things to the detriment of the idea, Snyder is incapable of teasing the audience so instead Darkseid (admittedly looking very cool) is over-exposed and doesn’t feel like the ultimate looming threat. In Diana’s exposition flashback, Steppenwolf is replaced by Darkseid on the battlefield, which is curious because the resulting defeat of that battle being recounted actually makes Darkseid look rather weak. Originally, Steppenwolf’s personality and motivation benefitted from being the loser of that encounter and being chased off Earth but in Snyder’s version he’s just a boring henchman.

I’m focussing so much more on characters here because they really should have been the focus of this movie rather than the tedious lore and world building and endless shallow attempts to make everyone look sad and lonely. That’s one of the frustrating things about Cyborg’s development in this movie is that for all the interesting ideas presented about him, which were so poorly and clumsily implemented, he probably should have been the heart of this story. Hell, there should have been an emotional core to this story, anywhere from anyone. The theatrical version tried to do that with minimal success but Snyder’s version does away with that almost altogether.

Perhaps the most egregious of this, and going back to the idea of characters as props, is the erasure of any element of Kal-El that made him the down to earth good guy that Superman should be. Sure it was a problem back in Batman V Superman when he was just Dr Manhattan in Superman cosplay, and yeah that phone video at the beginning of the theatrical cut of him talking to those kids was rather awkwardly done, but here Snyder makes him a near-literal “McGuffin” in a film with so many McGuffins already some of which don’t actually do anything but we’re told they’re bad. And the final injustice (PUN) was putting him into the black suit as some sort edgy revelation, completely undermining the importance of the characters and instead accentuating him more as a weapon rather than a hero. It’s the ultimate in fan wank.

Speaking of fan wank, you know that meme that fans of The Mandalorian love to share that supposedly illustrates how Jon Favreau and Dave Filoni write that show – playing with action figures. Well, Justice League is the worst version of that. At the very least, “kids” have a basic grasp of these characters as they play with their toys. None of that awareness is present in the Snyder Cut.

And because of the lack of decent characterisations, most of the meat is in the tedious lore and shallow attempts at set pieces and actions scenes, most of which do nothing but pad out the running time. Those quiet moments that are meant to illustrate how sad these characters are but only offer a veneer of depth and meaning rather than backing it up with any substance. Just because there’s MORE stuff doesn’t mean it’s good, it simply dupes viewers, giving the illusion of coherence because it feels like it’s deep and sprawling and deathly serious.

The unwillingness to “trim the fat” makes the experience such an uninteresting slog. The Iris rescue could easily have been cut and not changed Barry’s character at all, Willem Dafoe’s cameo is purely about setting up the Aquaman movie, and the entirety of the “Knightmare” epilogue was pure and severe fan service, just to name a few things.

This is why I find this movie so frustrating because there are plenty of good ideas being put into play, moments I enjoyed (at the very least in isolation), but the lack of decent application or going too far with them undermine the story. Diana learning about Steppenwolf and Darkseid instead of already knowing makes for an interesting scene (let down by the poor exposition later), Victor’s connection with Bruce’s prototype carrier had lots of potential but fizzled out, his father’s sacrifice in order to make the final Mother Box trackable was such a cool idea and should have had more emotional impact but it was poorly illustrated and set up. Teasing Martian Manhunter would’ve been a great (to use some wrestling lingo) pop but to do it twice and one of those times was to take away the agency of an important female character lessens the surprise. The list actually goes on, it’s swings and roundabouts throughout this movie and is why I keep referring to the changes as “improvements” instead of improvements.

What I find the most amusing is for all the levity and humour that was criticised and labelled as belonging to Joss Whedon in the theatrical cut, a lot of it remains in Snyder’s version and they fall even flatter than before due to how dour and depressing his cut of the movie is. There’s no proper ebb and flow if everything is meant to be super dark and serious, so those instances of levity just feel more out of place.

Some have made a big deal of it but I didn’t have a problem, in of itself, with the 4:3 format. I know it’s because that’s the format for IMAX, which is how this was filmed and I grew up in the era of 4:3 televisions and still watch shows from back then as I please. My only contention is the idea of getting “more picture” because that doesn’t mean an weful lot when more picture just means more pointless negative space. As visually creative people (in my case graphic design) it’s important to know how to crop an image to fit the format needed as well as creating a focal point as part of basic composition. And unwillingness to do that leads to pretentiousness.

That’s basically what this film amounts to as a whole: dull, shallow, and pretentious.

And that annoys me because I can see the good ideas at play, I even enjoy moments and sequences in isolation, we’ve all seen how good a movie in the DCEU can be, both Gal Gadot and Jason Mamoa have proven to be charismatic and engaging in their solo movies if you give them decent enough material, I still maintain that Ben Affleck makes for a great veteran version of Bruce Wayne, and Henry Cavill looks every bit the part of the last son of Krypton but in three/four movies the closest he’s ever been to a recognisable Superman is that phone video footage with the dodgy CG moustache removal.

I hesitated in writing a review because just thinking about Zack Snyder’s Justice League made me tired. And it made me tired because it frustrated me. It frustrated me because I so hoped against hope this could at the very least be “good enough” if only to justify all the shite some of the actors experienced (for what it’s worth I don’t even like Firefly). I guess the consolation is that they do now have something they can be proud of.

And there are of course plenty of fans who enjoyed this, no doubt about that but it’s still not a good movie. Again that’s fine, as I admitted before, I’ve enjoyed things that are “not good” but Justice League was never going to be good when in the hands of someone who doesn’t get the material or its enduring appeal. In any case I just hope this puts an end to all of this.

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