The roller coaster story behind “Zack Snyder’s Justice League” is probably more legendary than anything the filmmaker could ever put on screen. From the troubled production of 2017’s “Justice League” to the enormous social media hashtag movement that brought Zack Snyder’s full vision to life, the history of this new four-hour epic is as fascinating as it is unheard of. News of the #SnyderCut (as it affectionately became known as) immediately stoked the excitement of legions of DCEU fans who were stung by Joss Whedon’s 2017 mess. It was also met with its share of scoffers made up mostly of soured critics, Marvel die-hards, and others who were overly anxious to write it off from the start.
To get a better understanding of the Snyder Cut‘s significance you need to know its backstory. Zack Snyder was given the keys to DC’s version of the MCU and his universe was to be anchored by the Justice League. His story arc began with “Man of Steel” followed by “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” and was to wrap up with a “Justice League” trilogy. But as shooting completed for his first “Justice League” film Snyder was forced to leave the project following a devastating family tragedy. Instead of waiting for Snyder to return, an already unhappy Warner Bros. brought in Joss Whedon to oversee post-production. Whedon made major changes to the script, dramatically lightened the tone, oversaw numerous reshoots, and whittled the running time down to two hours. Cinematographer Fabian Wagner would later say only 10% of what he and Snyder shot made Whedon’s theatrical cut.
While Whedon’s “Justice League” was certainly lighter and goofier, it was also mediocre at best and considered a box-office bomb, falling $60 million short of what it needed to break even. It led to Warner Bros. abandoning Snyder’s vision and reworking their DCEU strategy. In a nutshell Zack Snyder’s “Justice League” trilogy was over before he had an opportunity to make the first movie. But then rumors of a full director’s cut began swirling around on social media. Snyder confirmed its existence and soon the call for the Snyder Cut to be released picked up steam. Even members of the cast and crew (including Gal Gadot and Ben Affleck) joined the chorus. In an unprecedented move Warner Bros. gave Snyder and his cut the green light, pitching in $70 million for added scenes, editing, and visual effects enhancements. Enter “Zack Snyder’s Justice League” now set for its big release on HBO Max.
It should be said that even without its troubled production, it was going to be an uphill climb for this “Justice League”. Many people had revolted against Snyder’s daring vision. It clashed with everything we had been programmed to expect from superhero movies. Even more, it looked at two iconic characters from pop culture at specific times in their lives that have rarely been explored. Snyder’s Batman is older, worn down from over two decades of fighting crime. The “beautiful lie” that brought Batman out of the depths is also the weight pulling Bruce Wayne further and further down. He now teeters on the precipice. Alfred knows it and now the citizens of Gotham fear this more violent Batman as much as the criminals. Bruce has lost faith in humanity and he’s reached a point where yes, we see him kill. Snyder knows the longstanding ‘rules’. So what happened to Batman? What brought him to this place? Can he find redemption?
At the same time Snyder’s Superman was just beginning his journey on earth. Both “Man of Steel” and its direct sequel “Batman v Superman” dealt with Clark finding his place in a world not ready to face his existence. With Clark’s arrival came a new era of the meta-humans and it brought him face-to-face with the uglier sides of humanity – our penchant for hating what we don’t understand; our sheep-like tendency to follow the wrong voices. In many ways Snyder’s Lex Luthor embodies that very misguided and destructive nature. It’s the world Clark’s cynical but wise father was shielding him from. So of course Superman would be conflicted and unsure of himself.
These darker layers of humanity are still missed by many of Snyder’s most vocal detractors yet they are integral to his more probing vision. This is a major reason why Whedon’s romp clashed so profoundly. But with “Zack Snyder’s Justice League” that essential narrative and tonal continuity is restored. This is the follow-up “Batman v Superman” deserved – an audacious effort that not only builds on the story its two predecessors was telling, but that opens up those films in several thrilling ways that I don’t dare spoil.
One of the biggest and best changes comes with the characters themselves. This “Justice League” feels like a meaningful continuation of some journeys and an exciting introduction to others. These aren’t the walking punchlines from Whedon’s “Avengers” knock-off. The cringe-inducing silliness has essentially been wiped away (kinda like Whedon’s name in the credits). In Snyder’s cut, he and screenwriter Chris Terrio take their characters seriously, often looking beyond their superpowers to their personal struggles, imperfections, and insecurities. These are ingredients sorely missing from the 2017 film. And while mankind has a crucial presence, this film’s chief focus remains on the heroes burdened with saving it.
But this is still a movie based on arguably the most iconic superheroes in comic book history and Snyder does them and the genre justice. For all of the humanity infused into his characters, there is just as much out-of-this-world, super-powered awe. “ZSJL” is like a graphic novel brought to life with dazzling action sequences and digital effects that are consistently mind-blowing. The astonishing CGI helps visualize some truly magnificent worlds. It also creates these grand and sometimes edgy cinematic set pieces that are some of the best you’ll see in a superhero movie. Staying with the technical stuff, it takes no time getting used to the much talked about 1.33:1 aspect ratio. I was skeptical going in but after seeing the beautiful full images without the tops and bottoms chopped, I was quickly won over.
Perhaps the most amazing thing about “ZSJL” (besides its very existence) is how well it flows from start to finish. And how for four hours there is never a lull or any downtime. That’s because Snyder and Terrio pay attention to every character both intimately and in battle. None of our time with them feels wasted. Ray Fisher’s Cyborg is the biggest beneficiary. Not only is it a great performance from Fisher, but this portrait of the tortured Cyborg is so much more complete. Same with Ezra Miller’s Flash who is now naturally awkward and funny rather than an annoying stooge. Both Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) and Aquaman (Jason Momoa) get several scenes that better link them to their solo films. And as expected Ben Affleck as Batman and Henry Cavill as Superman remain terrific fits. And unlike before, this time we get a villain that we understand. Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds) was egregiously shortchanged in the 2017 film. Here he’s menacing, motivated, and is a precursor to a far greater evil. Then weave in a rich, stellar supporting cast full of familiar faces and a few fascinating new ones as well.
“Zack Snyder’s Justice League” is a new movie in practically every way. You see it in the intimate character development, the flow of the story, the jaw-dropping digital artistry. It’s also refreshing. I like the MCU. I’ve seen all of the films multiple times each. But after 23 movies, nuances and all, you grow accustomed to the tone, the structure, etc. Thankfully Zack Snyder went for something different rather than copy a tried-and-true formula. But his “Justice League” is more than simply a movie full of ambition. It’s a truly great blockbuster, one that surpasses the earlier theater release in every conceivable way. Would we have ever gotten this four-hour sprawling superhero epic in 2017? Doubtful. Will this film change the minds of those determined to dislike Zack Snyder’s take on the DC universe? Also doubtful. But personally speaking, I’m thrilled this movie exists and yes, I can enthusiastically say “I want more”. “Zack Snyder’s Justice League” premieres March 18th on HBO Max.
VERDICT – 4.5 STARS