HBOMax Reviews – Zack Snyder’s Justice League

When I typically write these reviews, I try to do them with as much emotional distance as possible. I don’t like using the word “I” in these pieces. I believe a writer should be beyond that and write as scholarly as possible. But keeping that distance is very difficult when looking at these particular movies. I love DC Comics, but part of being a fan of those books is taking in a lot of garbage. It also means multiple iterations of the same characters and some nonsensical story beats like Superbly Prime changing history by “punching the walls of reality.” Try explaining that one to normal people.

At their core, the DC superheroes are like the pantheon of Greek Gods, as opposed to Marvel’s Avengers, who more often than not come off as an extension of the US military machine. However, a big part of that core is understanding Superman. 

Though the DC’s heroes can be aligned with gods, the most essential aspect of Superman is his humanity. Depending on the writer, he’s a character who can either juggle planets or turn back the flow of time. This makes him hard for many people (and even most writers) to wrap their heads around. The dichotomy of Superman isn’t that he has the powers of a god. It’s that he chooses not to act like one. It never even occurs to him to behave in that manner. Superman’s greatest fear is his inability to save everyone. But so many choose to ignore the “man” part of the character and instead focus on the “super.” It’s why there are so many evil Superman stories out there. It’s easier for people to relate to flaws and imagine what evil men might do with those powers. It’s more difficult (not boring) to craft a story about his most important, and endearingly human, attribute.

I did not care for either Man of Steel or Batman v Superman because I genuinely feel that Zack Snyder doesn’t understand the core of the character. Henry Cavill does. He portrays the character with as much humanity and pathos as his scripts allow. Snyder, on the other hand, never seemed interested in this aspect of the character. From the neck-breaking to Pa, “Let ’em all die!” Kent, Snyder’s version of Clark Kent, doesn’t feel like a person who’d grow up to become the world’s greatest superhero. Yes, there was great mourning when the character died in BvS, but it never felt earned. That version of Superman never reached those heights, even if that’s what the films tried to have the audience believe. 

I was pleased when Joss Whedon came in to “finish” Snyder’s Justice League film, but I never had any faith that the movie would be any good. When that version of the film premiered in November of 2017, I was hardly moved. It wasn’t terrible, but it was nowhere near as good as it should have been considering the talent and source material. But with the framework Whedon had to shape, could it possibly have ever been good? I didn’t think so.

After years of speculation, mostly from people online who don’t understand the meaning of “rough” or “working” cut, Warner Media announced that Zack Snyder’s Justice League was indeed going to happen. I thought this would be a horror of a film that would be self-indulgent, pretentious, and would miss the entire point of the characters. In a way, I was correct. But in another way, I was very wrong.

Zack Snyder’s Justice League (2021)

In these pieces, I typically review the plot, the story structure, and some production aspects. But because this movie so different, it needs to be examined differently. I enjoyed the film for the most part. This four-hour monster is somehow more digestible than its four-year-old predecessor. However, there are several glaring issues. 

What makes this film so intriguing is that this is a movie we’ve all seen. The plot is pretty much the same. The characters are the same. The endpoint is the same. Yet, the road map is different. The very nature of acting is based on choices. Same with storytelling. In this film, we see the same actors playing the same characters. Under a different direction, there are many alternative choices on display. 

Imagine if Alfred Hitchcock directed Clark Gable and Vivian Leigh in Gone With The Wind. We’d have the same Rhett and Scarlett, but the movie would feel so strange because of the differences between Hitchcock and David O. Selznick. You’d have a completely different film, which is what happens with the varying Justice Leagues. I can’t think of another example except for Paul Schrader and Renny Harlin’s different takes on the Exorcist prequel, neither of which were very good.

The primary driver of the film’s first half is Batman. Ben Affleck’s character feels like someone who’s trying to atone for his sins. Of course, the less we remember the “Martha” thing, the better. This version of Gal Godot’s Diana is more violent than in her own films, while Ezra Miller’s Flash still plays the comic relief, but he’s more subtle this time around. There are moments of levity, something lacking in both the previous Snyder outings. Still, the moments feel a lot more genuine this time around.

The most significant change in the film is Ray Fisher and Joe Morton’s portrayals as Victor and Silas Stone. Cyborg is just kind of there in the Whedon version, and his father comes off very much like a heartless Victor Frankenstein. Here, it’s different. Because Batman, Flash, Aquaman, and Wonder Woman have their own films, they all have relatively flat character arcs. They can’t change much because they all have (or had in 2017) their own upcoming films. Instead, Cyborg becomes the film’s central character. Vic Stone’s relationship with his father is the backbone of the movie. Silas Stone is probably the most sympathetic character in the film. He’s an absentee father who learns to be a better dad far too late and then does everything in his power to save his son, including sacrificing his life. Morton probably gives the film its strongest performance.

Steppenwolf, the film’s primary villain, had absolutely no character or agency in the Whedon film. Here, aside from the spiky visual upgrade, we find a failure of a villain struggling to find his way back into Darkseid’s good graces. The first two-thirds of the film is his quest to locate the Mother Boxes. Steppenwolf is searching for the artifacts and struggles to find them rather than showing up in the right places. Our villain has a story arch of his own, and when he is defeated, the audience can say, “well, yeah, he was always a failure. Imagine when Darkseid gets here!” The film also gives the viewers a twisted window into the world of Apokalips. We see Desaad and Granny Goodness (no Kalibak, unfortunately), and we get just enough of the man himself, DC’s answer to Thanos, Darkseid.

The film’s final act is a much more cohesive piece that eschews much of the League in-fighting that Whedon leaned into. What we’re left with is an intense action set-piece that is both exciting and satisfying. When Superman saves the day, the moment feels more earned than Snyder’s previous efforts with the character. It seems that a lot of the issues that were levied against Synder’s interpretation of the character are addressed here. Our interaction with Superman is limited, and the movie is better for it. Snyder just doesn’t get Superman. Even some of his choices here are strange. The black suit, which served a function in the comics, is only present because it looks fantastic. In one of the film’s fifteen epilogues, we see the traditional Clark Kent, like he can just go back to work at the Planet after being dead for three months. I say three months because it’s slightly implied that the always-criminally-underused Amy Adams’ Lois Lane is pregnant with who we can assume is baby Jon Kent. It all works, but just barely.

The film is not without flaws. The opening sequence is full of pretentiousness and an overwrought script. There’s an incredible amount of exposition in the movie, but it’s doled out much more effectively here. The Barry Allen-meets-Iris West scene is laughable. Iris and Barry literally can’t take their eyes off each other (and we only know it’s Iris cause they announced who Kiersey Clemons was playing). This instant infatuation causes a terrible car wreck. Barry races, in slow-motion, to rescue Iris in a scene set to a song that doesn’t fit the moment at all. It plays like a poor man’s version of the game-changing “Time in a Bottle” sequence from X-Men Days of Future Past. Evan Peters’ Quicksliver does many of the same things as Ezra Miller’s Flash but, this scene pales in ingenuity and execution. 

There are so many Easter Eggs in the film, which plays great to the fanboy audience (of which I’m a proud member), but lands flat with a more casual viewer. The appearance of J’onn J’onzz, the Martian Manhunter, who plays a pivotal role in the source material, really jumps starts the third act of the film. However, the character really isn’t introduced. He kind of just shows up (in a place you wouldn’t expect) without much setup. It turns out we’ve seen him before, but the rest of the audience has no idea who he is until the twenty-fourth epilogue.

I joke about the number of JL epilogues but, Zack Snyder’s Justice League takes thirty minutes to end after Steppenwolf is defeated. We get a Return of the King-style wrap-up where we see what just about every character is up to in the following months. This would be fine if it didn’t feature a reworked version of the Lex Luthor/Deathstroke post-credit sequence from the original film. Even that would be fine if things ended there. Instead, we get a ten-minute dream sequence of a dystopian future featuring another version of the evil Superman. The scene shows us that Slade Wilson/Deathstroke, a villain we just met in the previous scene, might eventually join Batman to face this evil Superman. However, all this scene really serves to do is give Snyder a reason to shoehorn the Jared Leto Joker into the movie. In this iteration, he’s copied Heath Ledger’s more famous look and gotten extensive laser tattoo-removal surgery. This is the most bloated, unnecessary scene in the entire film and almost colored my outlook on the whole project.

Alas, we have more! Bruce wakes up from this terrible nightmare (it was all a dream…or was it?) to meet the aforementioned Martian Manhunter for reasons. Thus our film is finally over. It really feels like Snyder knew he would never come back to these characters and wanted to get all of his ideas out of his head.

The strangest part of the experience is the bizarre musical choices. There is no through-line with the score. Sometimes it’s a peculiar juxtaposed mix of things, like Snyder’s clear love for Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah. Other times, it’s his use of over-the-top choir music. The music can be very distracting at points and does more to hinder the scenes the anything.

But on the whole, I enjoyed the movie. I don’t know if I’ll commit another four hours to view it again any time soon, but I don’t regret watching this version of Justice League. It’s Snyder’s best work on these characters, but at the same time, it’s kind of a cheat code.

This version of the film is not what Warner Execs saw when Snyder originally left the project in 2016. This is a four-hour movie. There is no chance Warner would have released this particular film as is into theaters. Corporate movies need to stay closer to two hours from a pure economics standpoint. You can sell twice as many tickets for a two-hour movie as you can for one that’s four-hours long. That’s why even three-hour films are a significant rarity in Hollywood. The story in Snyder’s JL is much more cohesive than Whedon’s because he has twice as much room here to play. If 40-50% of this movie had to be edited out, it would have suffered from much of the same storytelling issues as its predecessor. Because WarnerMedia needed content for HBO Max, this movie could exist in this form. Without the streaming platform’s struggles, we don’t get this movie. It’s a project born in failure.

For a four-hour-long movie, Justice League strangely feels like there is more to explore with these characters. We don’t get a ton of Lois Lane or even Barry Allen’s origin. Perhaps Justice League would have been better as six-part miniseries, something closer to the WandaVision or Falcon/Winter Solider rather than a traditional film release. Unfortunately, such a project or a home for it like HBO Max didn’t exist in 2016. What hurts Justice League the most may have been that it was slightly too ahead of its time.

But the narrative issues in this movie don’t belong to either Snyder or Whedon. The real problems of the Justice League franchise fall firmly on the shoulders of Warner Media. They’re the ones who wanted to go in the opposite direction of Marvel and rushed to get the Justice League movie out before they were ready. This film, in all of its incarnations, has to shoulder so much responsibility. There’s no way it couldn’t be this long and be even a half-decent coherent film. 

This Justice League benefits from hindsight. Warner twice saw what didn’t work with this movie. This is the third incarnation of the film, and while they may not get everything right, they certainly got it a lot better this time around. 

Zack Snyder’s Justice League is bloated and pretentious yet is still somehow thoughtful and enjoyable. It, unfortunately, serves too many masters. While Justice League didn’t catapult DC into the same stratosphere as Marvel Studios, it’s a fascinating experiment into corporate filmmaking. The film should be watched by anyone who cares about the character or genre of film in general.

***

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