Film Review: Zack Snyder’s Justice League is a vast improvement in every conceivable way

Let’s be honest; the 2017 version of Justice League was one of the biggest cinematic disappointments of the last decade. What should have been the glorious peak of the DC Extended Universe was ultimately a sloppy, disjointed mess that was the inevitable result of switching directors at the eleventh hour. After the tragic death of his daughter, Autumn, director Zack Snyder handed the project over to Joss Whedon and the rest is mostly remembered for the ghastly digital removal of Henry Cavill‘s moustache.

Reshoots and script rewrites saw Justice League limp into cinemas barely resembling Snyder’s original vision for the film. It was crucified by critics and its worldwide box office of $657.9 million was barely half that of its rivals of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Almost immediately, the rallying #ReleaseTheSnyderCut calls of fanboys all over the globe began, demanding Snyder be given the chance to complete his original film. Most of us never thought Warner Bros. would actually listen.

The studio had been in a similar predicament before when Richard Donner was controversially fired from the production of Superman II in 1978 despite 75% of the sequel already in the can. It would take almost three decades for The Richard Donner Cut to see the light of day. Perhaps if Twitter was around in the late 70s, fans wouldn’t have been waiting so long. Four years after the Whedon misfire and Snyder fans have finally seen their wish come true with the director being handed $70 million to complete post-production on what will be known as Zack Snyder’s Justice League.

As much as it pains many of us to give credit to a social media campaign that often fell into shamefully toxic behaviour, this new cut of the 2017 disaster is a vast improvement in every conceivable way. Its plot is cohesive and coherent. Its darker tone permeates throughout the entire piece. There’s deeper character development for all involved. The visuals are often spectacular. And the four-hour running time (yes, this thing runs for four hours) isn’t quite as nauseating as initially feared. When all is said and done, Zack Snyder’s Justice League is surprisingly pretty damn great.

The plot of the 2021 reimagining is roughly similar to that of the 2017 beast, so there’s hardly a need to go into any great detail with the plot. But, for those uninitiated, let’s break it down as briefly as possible. Bruce Wayne/Batman (Ben Affleck) and Diana Prince/Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) are struggling in the wake of the ultimate sacrifice of Clark Kent/Superman (Henry Cavill) seen at the end of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. With Earth left vulnerable sans its mightiest defender, the duo join forces to recruit a team of metahumans to help protect the world.

On their list are Arthur Curry/Aquaman (Jason Momoa), a half-human and half-Atlantean demigod with superhuman strength and aquatic abilities; Barry Allen/The Flash (Ezra Miller), a socially-awkward science nerd who can move at superhuman speeds; and Victor Stone/Cyborg (Ray Fisher), a once-promising college footballer who was cybernetically reconstructed after a near-fatal car accident, thus turning Victor into a techno-organic being.

While some in the trio are initially hesitant to join Bruce’s crew, their hands are essentially forced by the arrival of Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds), a booming alien creature intent on destroying anyone who gets in his way. Steppenwolf has arrived on our planet in search of three powerful Mother Boxes, which will allow the alien’s big, bad boss Darkseid (Ray Porter) to take over our planet. Struggling to combat Steppenwolf and his army of Parademons, the newly-formed Justice League must resurrect their fallen comrade if they’re any hope of saving the day.

Presented in 4:3 Academy ratio intended for IMAX screens (which a pre-film title card informs us is intentional to “preserve Zack Snyder’s vision”), Zack Snyder’s Justice League immediately sets itself apart from every other superhero film by refusing to be filmed/screened in the widest format possible. It’s a curious choice, especially given there are no current plans to show this film in IMAX cinemas (though, you’d have to assume it’s coming down the line) and this aspect ratio will surely have as many fans as detractors.

Personally, I found this stylistic choice gave the film a refreshing comic-book aesthetic that forced Snyder to construct his shots within the confines of the squarish ratio much like a comic-book artist would. There’s finesse and consistency to the visual style that was severely lacking in the 2017 edition. While Whedon’s version was an explosion of hues more akin to the world of Marvel, the colour palette in Snyder’s cut is typically muted and understates. It’s all purposeful to match the decidedly dark tone Snyder is so well-known for.

Freed from the confines of classification restrictions, this version is far darker than what we were served up four years ago. There’s even a few naughty words thrown in occasionally that you would never hear in other superhero flicks. While nowhere near the level of something like 300, Snyder adds a necessary dose of brutal violence and CGI blood splashes into the fight scenes that will delight older fans. He’s completely redesigned the Parademons into something far more terrifying and menacing that will potentially horrify younger viewers. This is inherently an adult film, so consider yourself warned if you were intending to plonk your kids down in front of the television for four hours this weekend.

Steppenwolf has also been given a total CGI upgrade, which was desperately needed after the catastrophic visual designs regurgitated onto the screen in 2017. He’s still a garishly unsightly beast to behold, but his updated design is leaps and bounds ahead of the previous version and casts the baddie as a genuinely menacing threat to humanity. But it’s the character motivation where Steppenwolf has hugely improved. In Whedon’s edition, he seemingly had no motive for wanting to destroy Earth other than, well, he’s the film’s villain. Snyder creates a detailed backstory for Steppenwolf that provides clear and concise motivations for his dealings on our planet, which also allows Darkseid to feature more prominently as an overarching Thanos-type villain for a sequel that will sadly never materialise.

With a four-hour running time most directors could only dream of, Snyder is giving permission to take his time with the film’s plot and character development. This allows each character to have their moment in the spotlight before their interactions with the other members of the team. It also means by the time they all eventually form together as a collective, it actually feels organically earned this time and not horribly rushed like the previous version. Snyder is afforded the luxury of allowing plot elements and narrative threads the time to breath, which builds nature tension to the bombastic finale you’re actually looking forward to seeing in this edition.

Almost all of the characters benefit from the extra screen time, particularly those who weren’t blessed with ample moments in the 2017 incarnation. Bruce is given more time to showcase his standing as the de facto leader of this motley crew of superheroes while also tinkering away with inventions and bantering with his trusted butler, Alfred (Jeremy Irons). With the extended running time, Superman doesn’t appear until a good two-and-a-half hours in and his role remains largely the same, albeit with the long-awaited introduction of his infamous black suit.

Gadot is still saddled with delivering the often stilted dialogue of Chris Terrio‘s screenplay and there’s a ghastly moment where Terrio attempts female empowerment by virtue of Diana informing a young schoolgirl she can do anything she sets her mind to that comes mere moments after Wonder Woman has murdered a terrorist. But Gadot is as effortlessly warm and charming as she has been in every Diana outing and her natural charisma consistently shines through.

Aquaman feels less of a goofy dude-bro in this version, namely due to Snyder properly exploring his Atlantean heritage and his connection and obligations to its people. Arthur is given the opportunity to actually connect with his fellow team members, allowing Momoa to feel like part of the ensemble and not just a meat bag cast to occasionally dump out zippy one-liners. Miller’s penchant for fast-talking comedy is amplified by additional screen time for Barry. Given the film’s darker tone, his humour provides tremendous levity at the right moments and Miller is blessed with diving deeper into Barry’s past, courtesy of extra prison scenes with his father, Henry (Billy Crudup).

But the true success story of Zack Snyder’s Justice League is the enormous expansion of Fisher’s role as Cyborg. Much has been learned of Fisher’s mistreatment at the hands of Whedon during the reshoots and reedits that drastically reduced Cyborg’s role in the 2017 version. The character almost felt like an afterthought in that film. Thankfully, Snyder restores the discarded plotlines involving Cyborg’s troubled relationship with his father (and cybernetic creator), Silas (Joe Morton) that add deeper emotional resonance to Cyborg’s character and Fisher’s performance. Fisher owns this character and is finally given the expansive role he deserved.

While Snyder clearly has a swarm of unwavering fans, he’s always been a filmmaker with a penchant for the same frustrating filmmaking tendencies that expectedly feature heavily in this new version. An excessive use of slow-motion sequences? Check. Bleak production design with a flat colour palette? Yep. An endless stream of visual effects? Definitely. Genuinely confounding soundtrack choices that make no sense in the context of the scene? Oh, yeah. We know his style by now, and you’ll either be loving everything Snyder cooks up in this film or it will drive you mad.

For all Snyder’s faults, the man knows how to craft stunning action sequences, and he serves them up in spades over the course of this four-hour spectacle. Whether it’s a thrilling set-piece on the Amazonian island of Themiscyra or a glorious retelling of an ancient war between the unified alliance of Olympian Gods, Amazons, Atlanteans, and humans and Darkseid (yes, this version retcons Steppenwolf out of this scene), Snyder crafts several visual feasts that should have received their glory moment on the big screen. And the terrific finale is rousing, thrilling, and, thankfully, not as garishly over-stylised as Whedon’s version.

This entire film is an experiment in self-indulgence. Rarely in the history of cinema has a filmmaker been given carte blanche to create something like this. And it’s clear Warner Bros. stayed completely out of Snyder’s way, mostly due to the fact they knew they didn’t have to worry about box office receipts or setting attendance records. We can prophesise whether this film would have earned more than Whedon’s version, but you cannot possibly tell me the studio would have released this four-hour film in cinemas back in 2017.

The film wraps up with an extended Knightmare epilogue (featuring a few cameos that will remain unspoiled) that seems to suggest where Snyder would have taken the franchise if Warner Bros. were to give him the chance. Whether that opportunity arrives is still anyone’s guess. This entire sequence adds an extra 20-odd minutes to the film to set up a sequel that likely will never exist. If that isn’t abundant evidence of Snyder’s self-indulgence, I don’t know what is. Is the entire epilogue rather pointless, given it’s a tease of nothing to come? Maybe, but it will give fans that final thrill they’ll be clamouring for.

Zack Snyder’s Justice League is either an example of the power of fandoms eliciting the kind of content they desire from a studio or an instance of a studio kowtowing to toxic pressure that may set a dangerous precedent for decades to come. Perhaps it’s both. Whether Warner Bros. should have rewarded bad behaviour by delivering this film or simply ignored the #ReleaseTheSnyderCut cries and just moved on with the DCEU franchise is a question for another time. For now, Snyder has finally delivered the film these beloved characters deserved and that has to cause for adoration and celebration.

FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Zack Snyder’s Justice League is now streaming in Australia on Binge and Foxtel.

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