When Warner Brothers, owners of DC Comics, decided to create an extended superhero universe to rival that of Marvel Studios, they brought in Zack Snyder, who brought with him the same dark ethic he had employed on 2009’s Watchmen. Unfortunately, much of DC’s output did not fit comfortably into that role and the initial result was an emo Superman in 2013’s dour Man of Steel; a friend of mine on Facebook summed the movie up perfectly when he said, “Superman has never been less fun.” Nevertheless, he returned 3 years later in Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice which drafts in Wonder Woman and, while slightly better, still manages to be quite dull despite have all three of DC’s most beloved characters. Fortunately, not everyone was as committed to the ‘Dark DC’ concept as Snyder and Patty Jenkins’ 2019 Wonder Woman has a much lighter Marvelesque tone.
Zack Snyder started out on Justice League in 2019 under the proviso that he would lighten the tone, as Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice had been much criticised for its depressingly dark mood. After initial filming, Warner Brothers still thought the film was too dark and drafted in Joss Whedon for rewrites; but Snyder never filmed any of the rewritten material as a family bereavement caused him to have to step down as director. Whedon took over directorial duties (uncredited) and the resulting film was praised for its more accessible tone but criticised for its confusing narrative. Two years later and Snyder has convinced Warner to let him create his own indulgently long 4-hour edit of Justice League for broadcast on HBO Max in the States and Sky Cinema here in the UK.
At one time during its long period of development, it was intended to release Zack Snyder’s Justice League as a 4-part mini-series and I have to say that I think that would have been a much better format. It’s only because of lockdown that anyone finds the time to sit down and watch a single 4-hour movie; it requires an enormous commitment of time and 4 manageable episodes would have been a far preferable way to watch it. Bizarrely, this cut has also been produced with an aspect ratio of 4:3, which almost nothing has used on television since the late 90s. Apparently, this is so it can be shown in IMAX, but since the amount of people who are likely to see it on an IMAX screen represent only a tiny fraction of its potential audience, this does seem a lot like cutting of your nose to spite your face.
As you would almost certainly expect, this is a darker vision of the Justice League (if you were expecting it to be a laugh riot, what were you thinking?) but it’s not as dowdy a film as Batman vs. Superman and is still easily the most enjoyable of Snyder’s DC works. There’s a lot of new character moments, which add to the plot but very much tend towards the earnest and angst ridden. The film takes itself so very, very seriously that at times it is unintentionally hilarious. I couldn’t help but laugh out loud at the moment where the townsfolk of the Scandinavian town where Aquaman is laying low spontaneous burst into a sombre folk song, which made the whole scene look like a TV ad for international craft beer. There are a lot of very meaningful scenes in this accompanied by one song or another and married up with the film’s
In fact, if you took out all of the slow motion, this exact same cut would probably have clocked in around the 2½ hour mark. If they had gone down the route of making this a mini-series, then I suspect the repeated elements like the slo-mo music video moments would have been less noticeable, but when you’re subjected to several of them over one 4-hour sitting, you really can’t help but notice.
Much improved though it is, Zack Snyder’s Justice League retains many of the problems that dogged the original; for starters, the plot is unmistakably similar to The Avengers (for Tesseract read Mother Box, for Nick Fury assembling a team read Bruce Wayne assembling a team, for all-powerful alien overlord Thanos plotting behind the scenes read all-powerful alien overlord Darkseid plotting behind the scenes – the list goes on). Also, the plot still sags appallingly at the three-quarter point – possibly even more so now; as the action is building to a climax, we take 20 minutes out so that Superman can return to Smallville and straighten things out with Lois and Ma Kent. Finally, the climax is every bit as hard to follow as it used to be, even though they’ve had 110 extra minutes to set it up.
I’m still not a fan of Batman’s costume in this; I get that it’s supposed to make him look muscular but most of the time it just comes across as lardy, especially when the bulky chest-piece pushes up giving him a double-chin. Ben Affleck’s performance is still very flat, never quite hitting the beat as either debonair playboy or dangerous obsessive and Jeremy Irons’ Alfred seems to just chunter away in the background for the most part. Bruce has a lot of nice bat-machines at his disposal but appears to crash every single one of them! It’s a miracle he’s not bankrupt by now! Cyborg (Ray Fisher) and Aquaman (Jason Momoa) both get plenty to do, so there’s no sense in which they’re second fiddle to the ‘big three’, but the latter is much better (and less Thor-like) in his 2018 solo film and the former cries out for a film of his own which he is now unlikely to get.
Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman and Ezra Miller as the Flash effortlessly steal the show (Wonder Woman and the Flash would make a great film) and hopefully we haven’t seen the last of either of them. That seems unlikely in the case of Wonder Woman, who is steadily making her way to being the biggest cinematic hitter of the DC universe. If anyone had said 10 years ago that Wonder Woman would be outperforming the big boys at the box office, they’d have been stripped of their subscription to Empire, but she is – and that can only be a good thing. She’s by far the most reliable character in this film and you can’t help thinking that if the chips were down, she’s the one that you would want on your side, not schizoid Superman or anger-management Batman.
Speaking of Superman, he has a chequered history in this movie. Having ‘died’ in Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice (Happy Easter, kids!*), the makers wanted to imply that he wasn’t going to be in Justice League, producing posters and trailers that were remarkably Supes-free, but the marketing men wanted something to stick on a lunchbox, so merchandise started appearing that clearly featured the Man of Steel. Henry Cavill was allegedly less than enthusiastic to return after the critical mauling of Batman vs. Superman, and he’s not given a lot to work with in this film. His best scenes are all out of the suit in his badly-timed sojourn to Smallville, before he rejoins the affray in a new black and silver Superman costume. For heaven’s sake, Hollywood; when are you going to get past this good guys wear black shit? It’s so 1990s!
It’s naïve to think that this cut of Justice League would ever have reached the cinemas; besides it being far too long (theatres would only be able to fit in 3 screenings a day max), there is profanity and gore that the studio would have had to cut to achieve their desired PG-13 rating. The problem is that there’s an enormous gulf between the kind of movie that Warner Brothers want to sell and the kind of movie that Zack Snyder wants to direct; the studio want a superhero film that will not only draw crowds, but also sell action figures and Happy Meals™, whereas the director basically wants to remake Watchmen with the authentic characters. Ultimately, it’s Warner’s fault because if you want a kid-friendly movie you hire a kid friendly director. If you buy a dog with sharp teeth, you don’t complain when it turns round and bites you.
Zack Snyder’s Justice League ends with indulgent epilogue that’s so looooong it makes the ending of Lord of the Rings feel like a jaunty ta-ta. Although I’d enjoyed the film, I genuinely spend the last 10 minutes internally screaming “For God’s sake, just END!” Part of this is a post-apocalyptic dream(?) sequence in which Batman is reluctantly working with Jared Leto’s Joker. This was obviously intended as the lead-in to a sequel that will probably never happen, as Warner Brothers have lost faith in the ‘extended universe’ and moved on to lighter fare like Shazam! There’s also a cameo by Martian Manhunter but, to be honest, I don’t know how much any of this would mean to the casual viewer, as opposed to the die-hard comics fan.
I’ve used the word ‘indulgent’ more than once in this review and not without reason; Zack Snyder’s Justice League is an indulgence in every sense of the word. No-one was really crying out for this to be released, but it has been and I’m glad it has been. It’s an entertaining glance into what might have been. Now, I praised the film version of Justice League for its lighter tone, because I generally don’t go for all this ‘dark’ stuff, BUT it was very mixed up film and clearly a troubled production. This version is far from perfect, but it has much more focus and at least knows what it is. I don’t think that either cut is even close to being the perfect JLA film, but they each have their own particular charm. Will I by sitting through 4 hours of Zack Snyder’s Justice League again anytime soon? Unlikely… but that doesn’t mean I won’t ever watch it again. Not a masterpiece, more of a curio.
*Yes, I appreciate the irony. Don’t write in.
‘Zack Snyder’s Justice League’ is currently showing in the UK on Sky Cinema.