Movie Review: Zack Snyder's Justice League
Wow...it's been a while huh? Well, let's dust off this keyboard and see if I've still got it, shall we?
November 17, 2017.
Yes, I saw the theatrical cut of Justice League opening night and yes, I recall my positive review that I posted on this very site. And in some ways, that’s the problem with reviewing a movie immediately after you see it…and/or after one or two viewings…or in the theater. No matter how impartial a reviewer tries to be, well, there’s always the moment itself, the atmosphere, the anticipation and, especially in this instance, the want and or need to emphasize the positive over the negative. After all, the point of a positive review is to get other people’s butts in seats some that something you really liked will end up making money and more of it will be produced…right?
So, again, I remember what I said about “Josstice League” and, given the context of the time, as well as a lack of any insight into what the alternatives were, I stand by what I said.
But now that I’ve seen the Snyder Cut? That cinematic abomination is dead to me. And while a thorough review really ought to go through all the reasons why, well, honestly, there’s just so much that Whedon did wrong, so much that WB looked at and for whatever reason opted uniformly for the weaker version that this review would be far longer than I care to write and you’d care to read. Instead, we’ll try to hit the major points…not only on how Zack Snyder’s original vision is the Epic that comic book movies have been waiting for but why you really need to see this version, even if both the original cut or Snyder’s initial DC efforts have left a bad taste in your mouth. We’ll try to do this by dispelling some of the more common criticisms of the current cut.
It’s basically the same movie.
Horseshit. I mean, seriously, I’ve heard this from people that should know better. It’s like saying that Deep Impact and Armageddon, the dueling killer meteor/asteroid movies of the late 90’s are the same movie. Yes, both can be summed up with the same sentence: Killer asteroid/comet approaches Earth and mankind races for a way to avoid extinction, but the cinematic experiences are drastically different, Armageddon being rather brainless with more of an action movie slant (aside from countless scenes of Liv Tyler looking all doe-eyed) while Deep Impact opted, sometimes excessively so, for emotion and character moments. On topic, both “Josstice League” and Justice League can be summed up with the same sentence: DC’s heroes unite to revive Superman in order to stop Steppenwolf from finding the Mother Boxes. But holy shit there’s so much more to the experience than this.
Snyder’s version of the film actually adds depth to the three Leaguers who, prior to 2017, had not yet had their own movie yet: Cyborg, Flash and Aquaman. And you can tell that this movie was indeed geared toward the initial WB plan of spinning out these solo movies from Justice League as it provides a good functional knowledge of The Flash (just starting out), does a fantastic job of setting Aquaman for his own solo movie (which would come out just over a year later) and exponentially deepens Cyborg, who truly does serve as the heart and soul of this film.
Let me take a moment to single out Cyborg…as Ray Fisher does an amazing job with his performance. You see, when Justice League was rebooted in the comics in the wake of the Flashpoint Paradox, I was one of the many that got a little chaffed at Cyborg’s inclusion as one of the founding members. And there was really no good thought process behind my bias…simply that he had always been a Teen Titan and my mind had filed him away as such. [Nevermind the fact that he was a member of the League in your favorite version of the Superfirends growing up…The SuperPowers Team: Galactic Guardians…jackass. – Ed.] But I got used to it. Had Snyder’s vision been allowed out earlier, I’d have been a much more vocal supporter of this choice, as we’re shown explicitly just how powerful he is, particularly in this day and age. But when it comes to Fisher, this cut of the film really gives him the full opportunity to display the character behind the power, the depth, the hurt and also the hope that drive him forward…and with that hope, why he fits in to the League.
Hope. That’s a word you’re going to be reading a lot in this review…probably. I mean, I dunno...you think I have these rants planned out or something? [He doesn't. - Ed.]
The other thing that needs to be quickly pointed out is how the League itself forms. In “Josstice League”, it’s a rough start. The team is rife with conflict: Batman’s obsessively driven by his guilt, Wonder Woman isn’t ready to reveal herself to the world at large, the Flash is naïve and unfocused, Aquaman is dead-set on being a loner torn between two worlds and Cyborg seems more machine than man with little to no emotion. This comes to a head when deciding whether or not to resurrect Superman and nearly fractures the team beyond repair. In essence, in the theatrical cut, the team doesn’t feel like a team until the very end and…well…I remember being in the theater and buying it at the end…but it didn’t feel earned. I bought it because I wanted to buy it. The Snyder Cut is vastly different. Yes, there’s some friction, Cyborg only signs up when his father is kidnapped by Parademons and Aquaman retains his gruff exterior. But the decision to resurrect Superman is one that the entire team comes to, albeit some more hesitant about it than others. And the story is structured in such a way that we as viewers see the team gel over time, becoming the Justice League, so that by the time the climactic battle with Steppenwolf happens, we buy that these superheroes are acting as one, as a team, to save the earth. This cohesiveness as a team, this unity of purpose, is so much more refreshing than what we see in the theatrical cut…which ends up trying to be too Avengers-y: “We’re chaos, we’re a ticking time bomb” as Bruce Banner said in that film. That works for Marvel when they’re staring down an alien invasion, sure, but when you’re up against the epicness that is Jack Kirby’s New Gods? No. Just no.
That fucking Russian family is gone. Completely. That alone makes the Snyder Cut infinitely better.
The last thing I want to touch on in this section is the word EPIC. And make no mistake, this film is EPIC in the strictest sense of the word. The stakes are EPIC. Sure, Steppenwolf is still the primary antagonist and, as other reviewers have stated, he’s given much more depth here than in the theatrical cut. In “Josstice League” he’s really just “oooo…cosmic threat” in the Marvel sense: a one to two dimensional character that brings the standard impending doom if he’s not stopped. Think, say, Ronan The Accuser in both Guardians of the Galaxy and Captain Marvel. In the Snyder Cut, Steppenwolf is trying to get back into Darkseid’s good graces after having participated, albeit briefly, in a rebellion on Apokalips before realizing his error and turning on those that would seek the stone despot’s throne. For this, Steppenwolf is banished, forced to bring 50,000 worlds to heel before being allowed to show his face on his home planet. He’s weary, he just wants to go back home…his motivation simply to curry favor once more. And that is brought to life so much better here. And while the CG on him can still get a little rough at times, he does look far better here than he did in the theatrical cut. Also, yeah, I do agree with other reviewers that a hint of color, be it the characters traditional green and black or the SuperPowers or more recent iterations’ red and black, would’ve made the character far more visually interesting.
The film is epic also in its structure. It takes its time, goes over the needed history and never shies away from what it’s intended to be: mythological. While the story is rooted in myths of Amazons, Atlanteans and a great prehistoric battle between Men, Gods, New Gods and Green Lanterns, the story ITSELF is also mythology…just as DC Comics are in general when they’re done right. I’ve always maintained that the folks at ToyBiz (and subsequently Hasbro) hit the name of their action figure line just right: Marvel Legends. Marvel is legends: a traditional story sometimes popularly regarded as historical but unauthenticated. And no, no one is trying to argue that Captain America or Spider-Man are or were real, but there is a realism, a connection to reality that serves Marvel and their storytelling well. Those that get DC understand that their storys are MYTHS: a traditional story, especially one concerning the early history of a people or explaining some natural or social phenomenon, and typically involving supernatural beings or events. The supernatural, or in these instances, the superhuman, are core and integral to these tales. Zack Snyder’s Justice League steers into this concept: this is unabashedly a story of Gods, of supernatural forces and the film uses every technique, including Snyder’s predilection for slow-motion.
One thing that might be off-putting for those who have either grown up with widescreen TVs or were early adopters of the letterbox format, like myself [Do you remember how much of a pain in the ass it was to order letterboxed editions of old VHS tapes? Or having to read on early DVDs as to whether or not the disc you were holding was widescreen or pan-and-scan? – Ed.] is Snyder’s reversion to the 4:3 format. Yes, if you think about it, it is indeed pan-and-scan. Well, kinda. It shares the format, but honestly, it’s also the same ration that IMAX uses. And holy fuck I would give up my left testicle to be able to see this on that giant IMAX screen. Snyder’s explanation seems legit to me: he wanted the screen to reflect comic book splash pages. And, yeah, that seems to fit. With larger than life characters, such as the Justice League, you would want them to be more tall than wide. Ultimately, even though it goes against every grain of my cinematic sense to type this…it works. It really does. For some, it may take a moment to get over the bars along the side of the image, but nonetheless, it works. I think the important thing to remember, and how I got through it, is to remember that with pan-and-scan, the image, the director’s vision, was being cut. Someone in the movie studio was telling you where to focus your attention. In pure geeky comic terms, pan-and-scan was Jack Kirby being inked by Vince Colletta – erasing details for little to no reason. In this 4:3 presentation, the format is intentional…you’re not missing anything. If anything, putting in a standard letterbox format would be doing the same injustice. Anyway, it’s this IMAX viewing ration really does help maintain that epic feel.
There’s one last thing to talk about when it comes to epic, but it’s also a common complaint, so it gets its own heading…
The Four-Hour Length
Now, I’ve gone on the record about this. I miss movies with epic length. Let me refine that, GOOD movies with epic length. If a movie uses its time wisely, as many of the classic epic films do (Ben Hur, Lawrence of Arabia, Braveheart), I don’t care how long it takes for the story to be told. A well done epic will hold your attention in such a way where 4 hours melts away in no time…where it feels like maybe only 90 minutes or 2 hours have passed. Snyder has succeeded in pulling this off for the most part. Sure, during my second viewing, I found little bits that could’ve been tightened up or edited out…but I have to admit, I think most of these are in the first half hour. Of course, your mileage is going to vary dependent on your investment in these characters, your attention span and your bladder. But for the most part, Snyder’s pacing is spot on: scenes are allowed to breathe while not wrecking the flow, establishing shots serve not only to set up the scene ahead but also as a pallet cleanser and ultimately, kind of like Tarantino’s films, the insertion of chapter breaks actually gives the viewer not only the chance to pause, get up, stretch, pee, etc., but gives the viewer a sense of accomplishment and the motivation to push on, a feeling of progress. If I’m being grossly optimistic, even a sense of “oooo…what’s next?!?”.
It’s also worth noting that the 4 hours are put to good use. I already talked about the improvements to characters in the film…Snyder uses this extra time to full life, full dimension to these characters. This time allows the story to breathe, immerse the viewer not only into the world but its events. “Josstice League” was very plot driven: this has to happen, then this, then this and done. Snyder’s cut shows you why things are happening, why characters do what they do and most importantly of all, why you as a viewer should care.
To anyone that’s complaining about the length of the film, seriously, get over yourself. In this day and age of binge watching, sitting down for 4 hours ain’t no thing (as the phrase goes). And with the chapter breaks, again, you’ve got your pause points. Of course, as a fan of epic films, I am going to recommend that you plant you butt in that couch and you sit down for the whole thing to get the total experience…but I get it, I’m weird. Well, that and 4 hours is a decent commitment. And I’ll certainly agree with other reviewers and say that there’s likely a really awesome 3 and a half hour cut to be had here…but come on, no one bitched about 3 hours of Avengers Endgame. No one bitched about all three of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings Trilogy. But here we are…suddenly because DC, Zack Snyder or insert your favorite target here has had the gall to try and take up all this time, you’re pissed? Nope, sorry, your excuse isn’t valid here.
Zack Snyder…or…”I didn’t like the previous films, why should I watch this one?”
I remember when he was confronted by studios with making his vision for Dune less than two hours, director Alejandro Jodorowski bucked against the idea. “Why? I use as much time as I need to make my story. If I make a 12 hour movie, then I make a 12 hour movie!” [Although to be fair, it WAS Crazy Uncle Jodo...soooo...there's that. - Ed.] If you look at Snyder’s DC work, going all the way back to Watchmen in 2009, he’s always been better at telling stories in a longer form. Only 2013’s Man of Steel doesn’t have a director’s cut. So with the remaining films; Watchmen, Batman V Superman and now Justice League, his longer cuts of the film have been trimmed down and, according to critical and popular reception, always to the detriment of the films in question. Watchmen plays better in its three-hour cut…and strangely enough, perception of this film has grown more positive in its wake. BvS was widely mocked for its theatrical cut, but later in the year for its home video release, the Ultimate Edition was released. While the change in opinion and perception wasn’t widespread, this three-hour cut did indeed sway some opinions and the added time was seen as an improvement. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that when not only do you whittle away a story meant for 3-4 hours down to two…and even worse have it whittled away by a committee that has no stakes or investment in the creative vision being put forth (and in the case of Joss Whedon the added crime of trying to mimic Snyder to the point of parody), it’s not surprising that when “Josstice League” is compared to the Snyder Cut, well, the end result is that one looks like a steaming pile of…ahem…celluloid, while the other looks like an epic film. Ultimately, we’ve had three films now…Warners should have caught on by now: don’t try to constrain Snyder to a particular time frame to tell his story. It just doesn’t work.
Okay, so maybe you didn’t like the previous entries…the “orgy of destruction” at the end of Man of Steel was just wrong and BvS was just too dark. Well, the thing is that the cycle of ‘life-death-rebirth’ I talked about in my initial “Josstice League” review is still here, perhaps even moreso. Not just the rebirth of Superman, but a rebirth of hope as well. It’s Batman’s motivating force: Superman’s death has filled him with the hope that men are still good…and still worth defending. Wonder Woman finds herself finally climbing out of the shadows on the tails of Batman’s newfound hope, setting an example for not just her heroic compatriots, but for everyone, even little girls. Aquaman’s hope slowly grows as he once again makes contact with Atlantis, again, setting the stage for his own film. Cyborg sees that throughout all his pain and suffering that his gifts are just that, gifts and can change the world for the better. The Flash finally gets the direction he needs to make his future. This story is filled with positivity. Yes, it’s told in a mature way and no, it’s probably not okay for the little ones [Although honestly, the R rating here seems a bit excessive, it’s more PG-13. – Ed.] but just like the ‘birth-death-rebirth’ story arc Snyder’s films follow, this rebirth phase, this third film, is essentially brighter. It’s been funny, in the time it’s taken me to finally sit down and write my review, I’ve seen plenty of other reviewers not only be surprised they found themselves embracing this film but also some have even changed their opinion of Snyder’s other DCEU work. And with the final chapter of the arc in place, a viewer can indeed now watch the story in its entirety…how it was imagined from the start.
But look, I’m not gonna pretend that Snyder isn’t a divisive filmmaker. He is. Some people don’t like his work, some call it style over substance…and what you see here isn’t really going to change minds. It is Snyder unbound. If you hate his use of slo-mo? Don’t watch this. His music selections? Better pass. And while I feel his storytelling is probably at its best here, I can see where, again, it’s not going to fit to every taste.
Let’s talk about music…
I have to be honest…I actually didn’t mind Danny Elfman’s score to Justice League, especially at the time. It didn’t seem like the standard lazy Elfman score (soundtrack aficionados will know what I mean, running violins and all) and yeah, nostalgic me fell hard for the incorporated old themes, his own Batman theme and John Williams’ Superman March…and, if I’m being 100% honest, I’m SOOOOOOO tired of the standard Hans Zimmer BWAAAAAAM that seems to inhabit EVERY film score these days, whether it’s composed by him or not.
Having listened to Tom Holkenborg’s original score to this Snyder Cut, Zimmer-esque as it is, well, once again, I’ve gotta walk back a documented opinion. You see, my mistake was that in light of my Zimmer-fatigue, I’d forgotten one very important aspect of cinema…the score is a vital component of the journey. When done well, a film score ties not only the movie together, but in this case, a series of films. Thus, cues from Zimmer from the earlier films in the DCEU are echoed and expanded upon here…showing changes or growth within the characters. And it’s something that didn’t dawn on me during my viewings of “Josstice League”. In watching the Snyder Cut, however, we become aware of these recurring themes and how the reflect how the world and our characters within it has changed since BvS and while I still am tired of this style of composition, I cannot argue against how important this consistency is.
Is this a perfect film? No. For myself, I just can’t get behind Ezra Miller and this interpretation of the Flash. And yes, there are a number of CG shots that still look either very basic or unfinished. Lastly, the ending does have a bit of ‘Return of the King syndrome’ where it does drag on for a bit too long. Am I biased in my review? As an early supporter of the #ReleaseTheSnyderCut movement, maybe. If I’m being completely honest, there are some scenes and lines I miss from “Josstice League” that aren’t here. But there’s no arguing that Snyder’s cut of the film not only improves exponentially on the theatrical cut, but it is a richer and more rewarding cinematic experience. Characters and events have depth, heart and genuine impact. And while four hours on the surface may seem like a bit much, the film wastes very little of this time. There is a bit of a slow start, but once the ball gets rolling, the time flies by…and that’s a real compliment to Snyder’s pacing. The film is every bit as epic as advertised…and as it needed to be. The difference in quality here is likely to give rise to conspiracy theories (Was Joss trying to sabotage the DCEU? Did WB want to sabotage this film to punish Snyder for BvS?) and honestly, given that vast gulf between the quality of the two films as well as all the background stories of this troubled production, yeah, it’s hard not to give those theories any traction…because in comparing the two, some of these decisions are of such a cataclysmically stupid quality that you cannot help but wonder if someone had it in their mind to sabotage this thing. Yet…here it is. The fabled Snyder Cut. And it’s good. It’s DAMN good. And for that, we're busting out our highest rating - the Hypno-Cat.
So yeah, I’m on board for phase two.