Zack Snyder’s Justice League: Review
There are many reasons that Zack Snyder’s Justice League (aka Justice League: The Snyder Cut) exists, almost none of them having to do with the actual film itself.
The first and foremost reason is that it is (relatively) cheap advertising for HBO Max, the streaming service owned by AT&T, which owns HBO and Warner Bros and DC Comics. Warner paid $70 million to build this version of the film, which was mostly spent on special effects and some reshoots. $70 million isn’t nothing, but for a major superhero film it’s dirt cheap (there’s also the $250M-$300M the company already spent on the much-maligned theatrical cut, of course, but that’s already been costed out in Warner’s ledgers). That outlay gives HBO Max what is now its signature event — here’s something that you could only get thanks to streaming, and only thanks to HBO Max. Given the flood of reviews, features, reactions and awareness that ZSJL has generated since it was announced, this is the best $70 million that HBO Max could have spent on advertising.
The second reason is that it gives Warner another (again, relatively cheap) way to right the foundering ship that is its cinematic DC universe properties, which financially and culturally are playing a distant second fiddle to the immensely profitable and popular Marvel universe of films and (now) TV shows. The underwhelming financial and critical performance of the Justice League theatrical release is the event that threw the current iteration of the DC cinematic universe into doubt, so there’s irony in this iteration being a vehicle to prop it up. But it just means that the bar for this version to clear is low — as long as it’s better, in some ineffable way, it’s a win.
The third reason is that it gives Warner Bros a public avenue to repair its relationship with director Zack Snyder, who left the previous version of this film after the death of his daughter, but not before there had already been some pushback from the studio about the direction and tone of the film. When Snyder left the film, Warner brought in Joss Whedon to finish it (and, as it turns out, substantially rewrite and replot it). On paper, this looked like a grand idea: Whedon had written and directed two immensely popular “Avengers” films in the Marvel universe, both of which featured ensemble casts and multiple storylines, which of course was what Justice League was all about.
In reality, it resulted in a bit of a tonal mess for the theatrical release, and now we all know Whedon was allegedly something of a dick on set, which has led actor Ray Fisher to publicly denounce his behavior, with Gal Gadot and Jason Momoa supporting his claims. Snyder being asked to do a redo and refresh of the film is a way for Warner to offer a public mea culpa for what had happened while at the same time getting something out of it. Why be enemies when you can be friends.
The fourth reason is that it helps rehabilitate Zack Snyder as a director and architect of the DC Universe. It’s worth remembering that there was (and is) a persistent concern that Snyder’s good-looking-but-dour-as-fuck version of the DC universe wasn’t quite on point, particularly when the candy-colored Marvel universe was out there, sucking in money and positive reviews. It’s not for nothing that the single most financially-successful DC film of the “Snyderverse” era is Aquaman, i.e., DC’s very own candy-colored superhero film, and one conspicuously lighter in tone relative to its compatriots.
After the theatrical release of Justice League, the nerds of the Internet took it as an article of faith that Snyder’s version had to have been better, and that he had been wronged, by Warner and Whedon and by the universe. Once again, a low bar, but if Snyder’s cut of the film was better, than his reputation would get a boost, and indeed, per point two above, the whole “Snyderverse” might be in line for critical and cultural reappraisal.
Again: None of this is about the film in itself. Justice League ain’t exactly The Magnificent Ambersons, which is a deep cut reference for you film nerds out there (if you’re not a film nerd, that’s Orson Welles’ second film, which in its original cut was alleged to be genius, and which was forcibly taken from him by the studio and recut into a shorter version, with all the cut footage destroyed). But the idea that a director’s vision was compromised and a better, more significant version of a film exists is in itself narratively compelling. However, I am very certain, that’s not the reason this version of Justice League exists. No one who held the purse strings for this version of the film splashed out millions in the strong belief that a creative vision had been wronged and, thus, there had been a moral crime that had to be righted. If there was no HBO Max, there would be no ZSJL, except possibly as a crappy no-effects extra on a “Deluxe Edition” home video package for the six people who still buy movies on physical media.
For whatever reasons ZSJL exists, it does exist, all four hours of it, and I watched it.
And how is it?
Meh, it’s fine.
Which, to be clear, is an improvement on the theatrical release version of the film. I can say I saw the theatrical release of the film. What I can’t say is that I remembered it at all prior to watching this version. There were bits in this new version for which, when they happened, my brain was all oh, yeah, I think I saw that part before, but honestly that’s all I got. It’s not a good sign when one’s memory of a $250M+ tentpole film is “I know I put it in front of my eyeballs but otherwise I got nothin’.” I’m pretty sure I’ll remember at least bits of this version, so that’s a win.
But being able to remember it doesn’t mean I feel compelled to care about it, and that’s the real problem with the Synderverse DC films. They look great and I dig the vibe — I like the Snyder aesthetic, personally — and, also, with the exception of the first Wonder Woman film, I find it hard to give a shit about any of them. I don’t hate them, but I don’t especially like them either (more accurately, I like them just fine — in the moment. More on this soon). They exist, and that’s about it. The problem with the Snyderverse films is not that they’re dour but that they’re empty. They’re not compellingly written, either in the larger plot sense or the smaller character sense, and when you’re done watching them, most of what you’re left with is a sense that you sure looked at something expensive.
(The other thing about this version is that it is almost certainly not what “The Snyder Cut” would have been in 2017. If the universe had rolled differently that year, Snyder would have been compelled to turn in something in the “two hours and thirty minute” range, not a four-hour version that exists only because you’re watching it somewhere you can pause at any time to pee and/or get snacks. This is a Snyder cut. It is not the Snyder cut, the one that the Internet nerds were clamoring for. I think you could certainly have gotten “the” Snyder cut out of this cut — there’s a whole lot that could have been trimmed down and still have this be a coherent experience — but we’ll never see it.)
The bones of this version are largely the same as the theatrical release: Earth is threatened by an alien invader who will destroy the planet for reasons that make no sense and no one really cares about, so Batman (and here’s where I note that as a Batman, Ben Affleck is a really excellent Bruce Wayne) assembles a team of “meta-humans” to fight said alien invader and his army of CGI effects. Oh, and along the way they need to find a way to resurrect Superman, because the Jesus metaphor that has developed around that character is not nearly subtle enough. Snark aside, this is standard super hero movie stuff — minus Superman’s resurrection it is literally the plot of all four Avengers films — so the question is how the film rings the changes.
And some of the changes are all right! For example, giving The Flash and Cyborg better backgrounding. The Flash gets some dimensionality to his past life, and Cyborg gets his actual origin story. These really should have been handled in their own films, incidentally. One of the problems both versions of Justice League have is that they’re precipitate — only one of the heroes of the Snyderverse had had their own film at that point. But when you have four hours to fill, you have to fill them with something, and here we are. These bits are pretty decent.
Some of the changes are less all right! Like stopping the story dead for clunkily-handled exposition, which happens several times, and shoehorning in secondary characters mostly so you can say “hey, look, it’s that guy from that thing,” whether “that thing” is from the DC universe or some other film from whence they’re better known. The most obvious version of this (and it’s not a spoiler, as it’s in the trailer) is the appearance of the Joker, who is literally only there for the most pandering of fan service for the Internet nerds. I hope you’re happy now, Internet nerds. There’s a lot here that’s here because Snyder got four hours to fill, not because it matters to the actual function of the story.
“I’ve got four hours to fill” is in fact the organizing principle of this version of Justice League. This film is a buffet, basically: you get a lot of stuff and you get a lot of that stuff, even if some of the dishes are entirely unrelated to others. Everything tastes all right, which is to say the individual bits, whether action sequences or character moments, are all done competently, and with That Certain Snyderness that hopefully you’ve come to see.
But as a side effect, it’s pokey and it wanders about doing one thing and then the next, and as a result it doesn’t build particularly well. When the third act of this film comes (in Part Six, as this film has, in a nod to its streamy nature, voluntarily chopped itself into six 30-to-40 minute segments, not including an almost entirely unnecessary epilogue), you feel that you’ve been delivered to it by the film, but not driven to it. I was oh, right, big finish, mighty heroes, got it. The finish was perfectly well done! Just not arrived at with popcorn-munching urgency.
So it’s slack and flaccid? No — again, everything is perfectly competently done. I wasn’t bored, and I didn’t get lost. I just didn’t feel much about any of it other than the basic sense of being entertained in the moment. Being entertained in the moment isn’t bad! But then the moment’s over. I won’t be dwelling on the events of or characters in ZSJL for any great length of time.
This is a problem for what was meant to be (and now in a distaff way still is meant to be), a critical tentpole of a franchise. I’m perfectly happy to have seen this iteration of Justice League. But it did not bring out a desire in me to have any more of it. The film leaves lots of places for putative sequels to go, since, after all, Justice League was at one point meant to have sequels. But if you told me tomorrow they’d greenlit Justice League Two: Snyderpocalypse, my reaction would be, well, okay, nice for everyone involved to be employed. Which, in keeping with the theme of this review, isn’t really about the film itself.