‘Zack Snyder’s Justice League’: Zack Snyder’s best work, but it’s still a Snyder film
I have been a DC fan all my life. When everybody else in my high school was into the Punisher and the X-Men, I was one of the literal handful of kids looking up in the sky because Superman was THE guy. So when it was announced that Warner was finally building a shared movie universe of its own superheroes (the most iconic in all of comic book literature, if I may say so), my personal reaction was ”finally.”
The so-called DC Extended Universe has been one huge spectacular mess. Man of Steel had the promise of a protector that people will “follow into the sun” but did not follow through; instead we got a desensitizing series of earth-shattering slugfests that went on for too long; when it did, it ended in a forced headsnap. Batman v Superman posed the question of what it means to have a Superman in the real world, and answered with a Funeral For a Friend that said Friend did not earn, narratively. And then we got 2017’s Justice League, an attempt to course-correct the plot and characterization errors of the first two films at the expense of world-building, consistency, and drama. Its satellite films are confounding: Suicide Squad was an unwatchable mess, Wonder Woman was a total joy while its sequel was a fun but bloated ride, Aquaman was just okay, Shazam was an earnestly fun but underbudgeted film, while Birds of Prey made you revel in glorious ultraviolence while wondering why you needed to see it in the first place. No, Joker does not count (it’s not part of the “DCEU”).’
The problem has always been due to Snyder’s understanding of the superhero-as-god. While it is true that DC’s strength lay in its mythical heroes, he seems to have stopped at its surface-level bombastic aspects. You have the destruction porn in Man of Steel and the fire-and-brimstone battle in BvS. Sure, it looks good, but where is the substance? The dialogue about Superman’s impact on the world was reduced to media soundbytes and a montage sequence, as if to tell us that Superman is just already a paragon without the audience being shown it. Sure, we have not seen previous Supermen throw a single punch pre-Snyder…but making him “badass” is not how you bring modern audiences to appreciate him; you just make them mistrust him all the more. Too square for modern audiences? Look at Marvel’s Captain America.
But what can you expect from a guy whose formative visual influences were Heavy Metal Magazines, and thinks of the Justice League as “a bunch of misfits” (note: they’re not. You’re talking about Doom Patrol, man).
The circumstances of Snyder leaving the Justice League project were tragic, but as Avengers director Joss Whedon took over people felt a sigh of relief. Until this happened:
And that’s when we knew the franchise was in trouble. And no amount of course-correction by Geoff Johns and Warner could fix this (Johns would make up for it later on in Wonder Woman, Aquaman, and Shazam, though he got fired just as Shazam was starting to be in production because Justice League tanked).
When the #ReleaseTheSnyderCut movement happened, I was initially skeptical. Why would I want Snyder back in the franchise? Why can’t he just do his own thing and not mess with DC’s pantheon any longer?
I am now glad he actually finished it.
Zack Snyder’s Justice League is essentially the same story as the “Josstice League” one, but this four-hour epic dwells on what the 2017 film glossed over: the stakes and the backstory. While we already saw the Amazons fight it out with Apokoliptian stooge Steppenwolf, in the Snyder Cut Steppenwolf felt like a force to be reckoned with . There is a weight in the character’s performance that was lacking in the 2017 version, and a more visible body count that really showed viewers how unforgiving this “stooge” is. Imagine if Darkseid came to earth.
In this cut, we finally see Darkseid in his current evil glory. There are also the other evil New Gods Desaad and Granny Goodness. What makes the fear factor work in the Snyder Cut is how the Big Bad creeps all over everything, that each step is a direction towards the inevitability of his rule (he is not conquering a universe, he’s conquering multiverses! One Darkseid to rule them all!). Even when the heroes win in the end, Darkseid still ends up knowing that the Anti-Life Equation is on earth…which means he still won. Ray Porter’s Darkseid voice also sounds how I have always imagined him to be: cavernous, impossibly rough, and just the right amount of abysmally horrifying that he does not end up a caricature.
Batman (Ben Affleck) is less of a joke in this version, and Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) is in full take-no-prisoners (she has a high body count in this film) warrior mode. Ezra Miller’s Barry Allen (he ain’t the Flash here yet, as we’ve seen elsewhere) is less irritating in this movie, and he actually saves the day via time travel and the Speed Force. Ray Fisher has been controversial in the news as of late, but his Cyborg is the heart of this film. He is not just a human R2-D2 in this one.
Within the Snyder context, Zack Snyder’s Justice League is actually good. But it is not perfect, either.
The Snyder Cut runs for four hours mainly because Snyder threw everything including the proverbial kitchen sink just to take his time on character backstories, and that is where the movie gets bloated. The reason for individual films is so you can develop the characters there, and turning a team-up film into one giant playpen; Marvel has captured that formula to a tee. So now Snyder is forced to tell their stories within the team-up film, and it can get a bit dragging. However this is where the surprises also come in: Snyder can actually do drama without the stylistics of his previous work. His shots dwell on emotions, on reactions, and reactions to reactions, which is refreshing to see in between the larger-then-life set pieces he can’t help but throw in (it’s Snyder after all).
While the film has a smoother narrative that depended on a longer running time, Superman remains the biggest problem of this universe. It is sad because while Man of Steel was supposedly the lynchpin of the entire DCEU, all we have left are the things told the viewers in prior films. Superman’s return still does not feel earned enough (because his death was not earned either), and it can leave a viewer cold. Without a charismatic and inspirational Superman, any attempts at a DCEU will never perfectly work. Also: black as the outfit for a symbol of renewed hope does not work.
And what was the point of that Epilogue? That the victory in this current movie was pointless? That Superman turning bad again and again is an inevitability? The black suit would have been better for that future.
Some parts of the 2017 version would have worked on this film: the opening Batman rooftop scene to establish an investigation, the Flash’s musical cue in the battle with Superman, and Superman’s quips in the end battle (why Whedon thought it was necessary to scrap all that, only the producers would know). The Snyder Cut could have been edited down to three hours, at least.
And lastly, the 1.43:1 aspect ratio. While I can accept Snyder’s reasoning that superheroes are “vertical” icons, I would have to disagree. Myths are about the expanse, not the verticality. It is not enough for people to look up, but for the mythmaker to bring the people along by expanding the world.
Like it or not, what seems obvious here is that this “definitive” Snyder version feels more like a labor of love than his previous works. While the excesses are still there, “heart” remains a core of this film. The filmmaker has not exactly kept secret that finishing the film was a form of personal closure, and no one can deny him that.
Current DC Films president Walter Hamada has called the Snyder Cut a “narrative cul-de-sac,” and one can see why. There really is no room for this in the DC movie universe moving forward. But if ever they do, can they fix the Superman problem first?