Zack Snyder's Justice League

Zack Snyder's Justice League ★★

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

A flag planted on a barren world.

I want to start off by saying that I have nothing personal against Zack Snyder. As far as I can tell, he is the real deal: an auteur without an ego, a genuinely nice person, an artist who cares for everyone who works under him. That's a rare thing in the film business, and it's something everyone should be happy about.

I also have nothing but sympathy for him and his family in regards to the tragic circumstances that led to his original departure from this project. I cannot even imagine what it must be like to lose a child, and knowing that he dedicated this film to Autumn was enough of a gut punch to make me consider not writing this at all.

But I had to. Liking or not liking these movies has turned into this bizarrely moral thing that I think does a disservice to Snyder, ourselves, and the culture at large. There are so many exterior elements that have affected how the Snyder Cut came to be and how it's been received that simply have nothing to do with the movie itself, and we need to talk about them.

First, Joss Whedon has recently been unequivocally exposed as a horrible, abusive person. Regardless of whatever quality his gun-for-hire version of Justice League did or did not have, the downpour of stories about his behaviour have turned the Snyder Cut's mere existence into a giant dunk on the internet's enemy of the moment. The hate on Whedon as a human being is justified, and I certainly don't think there's anyone who believes the theatrical cut is something worth defending from an artistic standpoint. But it's morbid to realize that the timing of the Buffy cast's revelations turned them into essentially free marketing for this movie. Using them as ammunition to prop up someone's preferred version of a superhero movie trivializes the stories of survivors. It's a gross sentiment I've seen a little too much of on social media.

Second, the reason we can watch the Snyder Cut at all is because a phone company that doesn't understand how the film industry works happens to own a movie studio, is desperately trying to increase subscribers on a fledgling streaming service, and noticed that a lot of online nerds would not shut up about its potential release. I know many would consider this academic now, but I'm not letting it go: the Snyder Cut exists because a toxic fanbase mounted a full-scale harassment campaign until they got their way. This is not hypothetical. It is a statement of fact. They barraged every WB account with demands, they swarmed on randoms expressing their opinions, they lobbied insults and death threats at critics who didn't write positive reviews. It does not matter that some who wanted to see Snyder's vision didn't participate, that Snyder himself doesn't seem to understand or claim the worst of his fandom, or that a few of them even raised money for charity in Autumn's honour. The message is clear. "Give us what we want, or else." Those are the people you have to thank for making the Snyder Cut a reality. Denying it serves no one.

And third, we've been stuck inside for a year and everyone has been losing their minds. I've seen more than a handful of people re-evaluating their takes on Snyder's previous DC movies in preparation for this, and look, everyone's opinion is their own. But the movies haven't changed, and what didn't work about them then still doesn't work about them now. There's this concept of "aging well" (or not) that is 100% foreign to my brain in regards to art criticism because I fundamentally do not believe that the quality of a piece of art changes depending on when a person engages with it. The person is what changes, not the art, and a lot of people have done a lot of changing in the past year. This "embrace chaos" mindset has seeped in due to the world essentially being in an apocalyptic state for the past five years, a state that's been accelerated by a global pandemic, the climate crisis that's causing tangible destruction to our planet's habitability, and a wide scale radicalization of younger generations against the late stage capitalist machinery that is grinding their future to dust for a few extra pennies. So why not get "Snyder-pilled" and hop on board this particular brand of big budget pseudo-philosophical edgelord nonsense? Nothing matters!

While influential on its presence as a cultural artifact, none of these ultimately have any bearing on the Snyder Cut's actual qualities. That having been said, I think it's important to acknowledge these factors because they absolutely have painted how this film has been discussed and received, and being upfront about them means it's possible to be a bit more honest about what this film actually is: a four hour assembly cut that is still basically the same movie as the one released in theatres.

It's obviously longer. It's certainly more visibly Snyder's. But the core plot, structure and most of the scenes are intact. The theatrical cut may have sanded off Snyder's idiosyncrasies, fucked with the colour grading, and inserted some microwaved Whedon dialogue to paper over the seams, but it stands to reason that a large amount of what was cut in 2017 likely would've been cut regardless of who was in the director's chair by sheer virtue of what is economically feasible when a movie is released in theatres for a general audience versus when a movie is shoved onto a streaming service to get comic nerds to stop yelling at you on Twitter. There is no universe where Snyder's four hour magnum opus would've been carted into cinemas, and certainly no universe where it would've been profitable. The Snyder Cut exists because it doesn't need to be profitable; it's an experiment to see if it will do anything to drive HBO Max subscriptions. But even at this length, the idea that this was going to be some mythical "completely new movie" as opposed to a plus size redux was always patently absurd. There's only so much you can modify in the editing room. At a certain point, the movie is the movie.

This matters because it's responsible for one of the Snyder Cut's principal flaws: it's two hours worth of story stretched out over four hours worth of film. The first 45 minutes flow pretty well, and could easily fool you into thinking this might actually work out. But as the table-setting scenes drag on and on, the truth that emerges is that the movie is essentially stuck in its first act for two hours straight. What's even stranger is that all this extra runtime isn't used to deepen the characters, who almost uniformly are stuck in the same action figure affect from the theatrical version. The lone exception to this is Cyborg, who is the only character who has a coherent arc informed by backstory, motivation and identifiable growth. It's a shame all his material was cut, because it's far and away the best stuff in the movie.

Nobody else is extended the same grace. Ben Affleck still doesn't feel like he wants to be here, and this version of Batman is still completely incongruous with the psychopathic madman from Batman v Superman. Superman is still talked about like a heroic symbol despite no one considering him that way in the previous films and his absence having virtually no impact on the world of this one. Amy Adams receives third billing but is barely in the movie. The only noticeable change to Wonder Woman is that she gets even more exposition speeches than last time, and Gadot's voice-over is somehow even worse. Ezra "Chokeslammed A Fan" Miller's take on Barry Allen is slightly less egregious this time out because his worst jokes were apparently Whedon's, but he still serves no discernible purpose beyond his powers being useful for plot minutiae. All the Aquaman stuff is ridiculous.

What the extended and reinserted scenes do give the film is improved tonal consistency, which is an asset. It isn't as much of a hodgepodge of studio notes and test screening suggestions as the theatrical cut. There's also more runtime for side characters and extras, which does make the world feel more lived in, but not to the extent that I cared about it. The world of the DCEU is still too thinly-sketched to feel like a believable space, being more of a collection of go-to environments with nothing coherent tying them together.

Also reinserted is Darkseid and some extra DC lore stuff, all of which are setups for sequels and spin-offs that aren't going to happen. Darkseid isn't secretly the villain of the movie, by the way. He's in it for five minutes total, clearly intended as the bigger scope villain of Snyder's multi-film plan rather than the final boss of this one. There's nothing wrong with teasing the future, but his appearance rang utterly hollow since the sequels to this have already been cancelled. Darkseid also gets his ass kicked in the flashback scene where he attacks Earth the first time, which takes the wind out of his sails as a threat. Probably should've kept Steppenwolf for that one.

Speaking of Steppenwolf, the notion that this movie "redeems" him is a reach at best. We do at least get an idea of why he's doing what he's doing (he wants to get back in Darkseid's good graces and return home after some unspecified failure, which is weird, because having him be the guy that failed to conquer Earth back in the day would have made that more potent), but his design is awful and his writing is a collection of sci-fi villain clichés. He never registers as an intimidating threat beyond us being told he is one, nor does he have enough charisma or definition to get invested in as a character. He's still just a big guy trying to get three Cosmic Cubes so he can take over/blow up the universe.

What's really funny about all the DC lore shoved back into the movie is that almost no context is provided for any of it. Explaining who Darkseid actually is, what he wants, the New Gods, Apokolips, Parademons, the Anti-Life Equation, the Knightmare world, etc. was apparently something they left for the next movie. I was chuckling imagining general audience goers who clicked out of curiosity trying to figure out what the hell all this stuff is supposed to be. Heaven forbid any of them get as far as Diane Lane morphing into fucking Martian Manhunter, lmao

But the real underlying issue with the whole enterprise is that beneath some cool action scenes and the repaired connective tissue, there isn't a solid idea of what this movie is about beyond its plot mechanics and franchise ambitions. For all the talk of Snyder's operatic sensibilities and the appeals to mythic gravitas he loves to slather on his films, this is still a movie about a super team coming together to stop an alien from destroying the world. That's totally fine, but there isn't anything deeper going on beyond that, and certainly not enough to meaningfully distinguish its core ideas from the theatrical version. For all the extra bells and whistles and the hyperbolic claims from DCEU stans that Snyder's restored vision was going to be some philosophical masterstroke masquerading as popcorn cinema, the Snyder Cut of Justice League is ultimately . . . . a longer cut of Justice League.

Then again, I guess the lesson of all this is that if you yell loud enough and long enough, in the end you get what you asked for.

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