Review: 'Zack Snyder's Justice League' (2021) Dir. Zack Snyder
When Zack Snyder left 2017s 'Justice League' due to personal tragedy, Joss Whedon came in to re-shoot and re-write much of the film. Now, Snyder is back with 4:3 vision as intended...
As the world mourns the death of Superman (Cavill) at the hands Doomsday, Bruce Wayne (Affleck) and Diana Prince (Gadot) face a new threat – the arrival of Steppenwolf (Hinds) from the planet Apokolips, hunting for intergalactic Motherboxes with enough power to destroy worlds.
Bruce forms a team of super-powered beings including Barry Allen (Miller) known as The Flash, Arthur Curry (Momoa) who is Aquaman of Atlantis, and Victor Stone (Fisher) known as Cyborg. These heroes must face their new roles and learn to work together.
As this new alliance see how powerful Steppenwolf is, Bruce decides they have only once choice; use the Motherbox technology to resurrect Superman to fight with them. With intergalactic villain Darkseid (Ray Porter) closing in on Earth with Steppenwolf's help, the Justice League must put their face in Superman and each other to fight and save the world...
We all know of the troubles the DCEU has faced. No matter what we say or how we look at it, DC fan, Marvel fan or both (or neither), the attempt to create their own slice of comic-book cinema lore has been a hard journey. It's been hard to find a film that many fans and critics agree on, bar one perhaps. Yet it was building to this moment; the moment when famous superheroes of the DC world unite on the big screen as Marvel’s Avengers did in 2012.
Sadly, when director Zack Snyder had to leave the production of the film due to personal tragedy, fellow comic book whizz Joss Whedon stepped in to oversee the outcome. Whedon gained $20m in re-shoots, re-writes and re-edits to strip away much of Snyder's vision and shape it into his own.
Yet after a less than warm response to the film in 2017 that tore apart the fanbase, a petition and hashtag campaign was launched targeting Warner Bros which was simple in it's message.
Rumour of a 3 - 4hr film soon swelled months later with many cast and crew later speaking up about their experiences with both Snyder and Whedon, and how much of each director's idea ended up in the initial release and how much was cut. Fast-forward nearly 4 years later, and with upwards of $70m invested back into Snyder's creation, the director and studio returned to piece back together the true, intended version of 'Justice League' which would clock in at just over 4 hours and feature new characters, action, plot-lines and narrative arcs. It was a project that grew, literally, from the DC fanbase and now arrives on HBO Max, Sky Cinema and soon on DVD and Blu-ray.
My interest in DC spawned from Superman and Batman, and even that isn’t based on comic-books or TV. Michael Keaton’s 1989 Batman and Christopher Reeve’s 1978 Superman are my visions of these heroes. The other incarnations that have come and gone either work or they don’t, but I try them all and have admiration for them. I don’t read comics, I 've seen a few of the animated series and I don’t follow the overall lore. Same as Marvel (which I know even less about), my introductions are all film based.
I digress. I didn’t go into this new version with high expectations, based on the previous attempts from Snyder at this expanded universe, nor did I go in with any knowledge about plots or characters from his original idea. I enjoyed 2017s 'Justice League' as a casual DC film fan, and since then have learnt to understand more of the characters from their solo films. I feel this new release owes a great deal of why it works because since then we've had 2018s Aquaman and two films with Diana Prince; 2017s Wonder Woman and 2020s Wonder Woman 1984. It allows us to revisit this film with a lot more scope and understanding about the Justice League than we did the first time around, and Snyder gives much more time seeing some initial backstory and motive to the heroes and their own worlds / cultures under threat.
Onto our core League, who work together well as a unit. All bouncing off each other at certain times in the story and offering fresh conversation, action and emotional responses from the others to prevent things going stale.
Jason Momoa’s Aquaman stands tall since his solo outing, and as we get more backstory to his Atlantean links, this (coupled with the solo film) makes him one of the strongest and interesting of all our DC heroes on screen, and only benefits from his solo film. The lore of Atlantis is given more time to shine also, with supporting cast Willem Dafoe and Amber Heard popping up for the ride.
Ezra Miller as The Flash has enough slow motion, dizzying camera work and comical touches as he moves at super-human speed. Miller is quirky and light-hearted which works at times, but more often than not he’s irritating and comedic which feels forced and un-natural alongside the others. It doesn't help that his introduction his laced with a god-awful soundtrack, a strange hot-dog/car crash victim love story and just an overall less than exciting scene compared to the others.
Ray Fisher as Cyborg finally gets the chance to shine as he still comes across like he is the heart and soul of these meta-humans, and seems to do an awful lot more that he should be given credit for. With Whedon only teasing his backstory in 2017, here Snyder gives him the story we wanted to see just who Cyborg / Victor Stone is and his painful journey to become the hero he arrived at being, sharing the story with Joe Morton as father Silas for more beneficial screentime and understanding of his powers.
With the rumoured 'The Flash' solo film due in 2022 but no word of any Cyborg stand alone movie, it feels that it's too little too late to continue the further adventures of this Justice League, which is a shame because they deserved more of a chance to build on their own legend.
Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman gets much better treatment as a character; a hero and warrior, than just someone who was there for gratuitous ass-shots and CGI fights. From her introduction in London to foil a terror attack (convenient), she maintains her almost animalistic power and fury against evil, while actually being given time to show some of that humanity that embodies Diana. What Gadot brought to her debut solo film in 2017 resonates here even more than the flat Wonder Woman 1984, and even now it's clear she's being fronted as the strongest asset to the team and current franchise. Yet infuriatingly she still spends most of her time with that knot in her brow, always looking concerned and/or perplexed.
Ben Affleck returns as Bruce Wayne / Batman, continuing his run from Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. It's no crime he has to share a story and screentime with such a wide host of characters, but it's still a shame Affleck didn't get his solo outing to really tap into that more mature, world-weary Wayne we've not seen before on film. He's solid as a brooding, strong and capable Dark Knight and has the aura of a natural leader to this new age of heroes, which is just what we want to see.
And then we have Henry Cavill as Superman, absent for over half the film. From his return to action which is rather good and actually quite exciting, it doesn't forgo the theme of a darker, more sinister age of heroes, and Supes continues to be that darker, troubled and sinister hero. His return sequence is one of the best in the film, and Snyder cuts a stylish, dangerous action sequence that removes silly humour but still knows how to push the comic-book buttons.
Plagued by CGI and memes since "moustache-gate", Cavill has had a bad rep as the Man Of Steel, not helped by the lacklustre "Batman v Superman" and now this. He's still not been given the material he needs to sell audiences on a new Superman, but here at least Snyder manages to drag him back to audience-pleasing levels and allow him to rise again to levels we've not seen this Superman do since 2013, and there are glimmers of him actually being, well, super!
Cavill doesn't convey much natural charm or humour, and he's not the best actor out there, sadly still making this Superman a little wooden at times.
Returning cast are there to, such as Amy Adams, Jeremy Irons, Diane Lane and Jesse Eisenberg to once more continue the journeys and arcs that have been in motion since 2013s Man of Steel, with a lot more focus on the drama and relationships. While they don't really get much to do until much later in the film, seeing them pop in and out at least maintains how important they are to the key players.
And not just re-working the villainous Steppenwolf with motion capture and voice talent by Ciarán Hinds, we have far more understanding of why he is on Earth and searching for three galactic world shaping machines; the Motherboxes. Steppenwolf is the Lord Vader to Darkseid's Emperor Palpatine, portrayed by Ray Porter in motion capture. Our CGI Darkseid is the CGI Thanos of the DC universe, and now has a whole army beneath him to carry out his invasion of Earth and seek out said Motherboxes. His appearance in this gives the story that much more needed context and wider scope, with time taken to explain the why and what and when.
The action is fast, frantic, loud, explosive and full of the death-defying, physics-breaking CGI pacing we've come to expect from these superhero movies. Thankfully the core League is never lost within the CGI, making sure we spend time with them during conflict to understand actually see what they are doing and why, and gone away are the Whedon edits of camp comedy. The final showdown is beneficial of this, with more more threat and sacrifice placed on our heroes, and you get a sense this really is a battle of the ages that none of them have seen before. It's bigger in scale and style, as it should be for the culmination of this epic.
Also gone is the comforting Danny Elfman heroic score, but Tom Holkenborg (aka Junkie XL) returns with Snyder to give a totally new score to accompany this new cut. Gone are the subtle hints of 'Superman: The Movie' and 'Batman' themes, and included are a much more grounded blend of drama, excitement, pathos, wonder and heroism that compliments what we see on screen. It's almost apocalyptic punk-cum-synth rock. We also get a lot more original music used with hints of R&B, soul and soft rock, all with that edgy Junkie XL editing.
For a 4 hour film, this surpsingly doesn't drag very much. It has moments of fast-paced story telling and moments of slow exposition, but they work hand in hand to build the bigger picture to get you invested and understand proceedings and live the journey with them. Yet a good 1 hour of the run-time must be down to the slow-motion shots, because they are here so much you'll get used to it, from falling snow to falling spaceships, to sesame seeds and hot dog sausages.
Keep your eyes peeled too for some nods and winks to the much larger DCEU out there in terms of fan-favourite heroes and villains making small appearances.
While 2017s offering was a flat-out popcorn munching movie, this vision is a much deeper exploration of the DCEU and the League as a whole, clearly with Snyder setting up so much for future offerings thanks to the amount of additional scenes, re-shoots and production on offer.
The scale of set designs, special effects and attention to detail to make the DC world as authentic and exciting as possible is something that Snyder clearly has passion for, be it the costumes, the gadgets that Batman uses or the detail of Gotham City or planet Apokolips. It's testament to the fanbase that have enabled Snyder's vision to finally come to light, and kudos to him and his team for putting so much heart into the project.
A pleasing opportunity to see the intended version of the big DCEU gamble which repairs some of the damage done in 2017. It's all for the fans, but a shame we may never see what could have been for World's Finest after this, if Snyder's vision had been told 4 years earlier.
'Zack Snyder's Justice League' is a co-production between Warner Bros. Pictures, DC Films, Atlas Entertainment and The Stone Quarry