Warning: This review contains full spoilers for Zack Snyder’s Justice League.
A landmark in cinematic history, whether famous or infamous, the fabled Snyder Cut of 2017’s Justice League has landed on HBO Max. It’s real, it’s finished and it’s… fine? Hopping easily over the low bar of improving on the Theatrical Cut, Zack Snyder’s Justice League is an impressive, but deeply flawed film. Diehard fans who campaigned for this day will likely be satisfied by its additional content, while everyone else will probably be left wondering what all the fuss was about.
After his divisive superhero showdown, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, introduced the scattered members of the Justice League, Zack Snyder seemed poised to take a larger role in the DCEU moving forwards. Tragically, partway through filming the first team-up movie, Justice League, Snyder lost his daughter and had to drop out. After this, Warner Bros. brought in Avengers director Joss Whedon to finish filming, which resulted in a tonally disjointed, CGI-lipped, mess of a film.
Fans inevitably weren’t thrilled with this watered-down version, leading to calls for Snyder’s original vision to be fulfilled, with the hashtag, #ReleaseTheSnyderCut, soon trending worldwide. Some fans took things too far, engaging in toxic behaviours online, including death threats to any studio executive perceived to be standing in the way of the film’s release. Against all odds, this viral campaign actually succeeded, with HBO announcing Zack Snyder’s Justice League for its new streaming service in 2021.
Broadly, the story of this cut is largely the same as the version released in cinemas: Alien warlord/goat cosplayer, Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds), comes to Earth with an army of Parademons to find and unite three magical McGuffins called Mother Boxes. With Superman (Henry Cavill) ostensibly dead, Batman (Ben Affleck) sets out to do some uniting of his own, bringing together Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), Aquaman (Jason Momoa), Cyborg (Ray Fisher) and The Flash (Ezra Miller) to defend the planet.
The plot touches on a lot of elements, while doing none of them justice.
Since one of the major problems with the Theatrical Cut of Justice League was its bland, uninspired plot, it stands to reason that no amount of editing would make it better here. While the restored materials do bring some much needed coherence, providing key logic and motivation to the action, they also bring more problems. Stilted, dialogue and pace-killing exposition dumps are rife, and while the actors do their best with it, deliveries are wooden more often than not, vanishing any possibility for emotional investment.
The bloat isn’t helped by an excess of subplots, to make up for the fact that this rushed team-up hadn’t laid the groundwork in Marvel fashion. Working as a backdoor origin story for Cyborg, Flash and Aquaman, as well as trying to form a satisfying narrative, the plot touches on a lot of elements, while doing none of them justice. Frustratingly, there’s a lot of potentially poignant moments here, but with all the development crammed together, there’s no room for any of it to breathe, and it all winds up feeling hollow.
What really does no favours for the main plot is the inclusion of two brief teases of much more interesting stories. The first, a flashback to the ancient armies of Earth (including Greek gods, Amazonians, Atlanteans and a Green Lantern) fending off the invasion of Darkseid (Ray Porter), is a blistering sequence that plays out like Lord of the Rings meets 300. As this is clearly meant to parallel the union of heroes at the end of the film, this epic clash can’t help but overshadow the less bombastic finale we end up with.
The second tease actually may result in a full-length film one day, if Snyder fans have their way (again). Returning to the “Knightmare”, first introduced in Batman v Superman, this sequence sees Batman, Flash and Cyborg in a post-apocalyptic landscape, teamed up with Deathstroke (Joe Manganiello), Mera (Amber Heard) and Joker (Jared Leto). It’s weird, it’s unexpected, and it promises a Justice League story truly unlike any that have come before. The only shame is that it feels so tacked on to the rest of the film, and they couldn’t contrive a better way to include it than “Batman has a bad dream again.”
It seems a disservice to [Batman] for him to be largely relegated to a supporting player in his first big team-up.
While the story doesn’t particularly benefit from this redux, the characters fare infinitely better. Cyborg is the most dramatic change, going from a barely present bit-player to the true heart of the film. Though his arc with his father, Silas (Joe Morton), and coming to terms with his cyborg body is pretty compelling, it once again suffers from lack of room to unfold, and further emphasises that it would have been better suited to a solo film.
Aquaman and Wonder Woman each get a couple of extra scenes to further define their stories, and Flash gets a lot more to do this time around (though Ezra Miller is no less insufferable in the role), but Batman finds himself weirdly sidelined. After going toe-to-toe with Superman in his last appearance, it seems a disservice to the character for him to be largely relegated to a supporting player in his first big team-up, especially when Supes himself gets the chance to really grow into his character later on.
Next to Cyborg, the biggest character change is Steppenwolf. Previously a bland, grey villain with no motivation beyond simply being evil, here he at least has something driving him. Having his conquest act as penance for a past betrayal of Darkseid gives an air of desperation to Steppenwolf, making him surprisingly sympathetic as the film goes on. The downside here is that the trait of being evil for evil’s sake just gets passed up a level, with Darkseid looming as an imposing, but ultimately one-dimensional overlord.
Darkseid isn’t the only character appearing here that wasn’t in the Theatrical Cut, but he may as well have been. The big new inclusions are Martian Manhunter (Harry Lennix), a pointless, gratuitous cameo that does nothing to serve the plot, and the Joker, whose appearance, performance and dialogue somehow made the character even more of a misfire. Deathstroke gets slightly more to do in the Knightmare, but it’s bittersweet, as we’ll probably never see Manganiello’s Slade face off properly with Affleck’s Batman.
Even the best filmmakers need producers and editors to draw some boundaries.
As perhaps the most Snyder film ever made, there are certain stylistic staples that can be expected. The brutal and bloody action sequences make full use of the R rating, the cinematography yields shots that look pulled from a comic page, and, of course, there’s tonnes of slow-motion. While the latter is overused to the point of self-parody, Snyder’s commitment to style over substance hits the mark consistently, with new inclusions like Superman’s black suit and the Flash’s time travelling sure to please comic fans.
Another key fix from the Theatrical Cut, Steppenwolf’s design is vastly improved, making him more distinct and less of a joke. Darkseid also looks pretty intimidating, especially in action, and Martian Manhunter looks about as good as he was ever going to. Aside from some rushed compositing in the Knightmare, the VFX are solid enough, but the murky colour palette is still unforgivably bland, and, in tandem with the repetitive score, it leaves action sequences sometimes feeling like a bad Doom ripoff.
With Snyder in full control, the film is much more tonally consistent than its theatrical counterpart, not just in itself, but with Snyder’s previous DC works, Batman v Superman and Man of Steel. The downside here is that even the best filmmakers need producers and editors to draw some boundaries. Seemingly including every frame that was filmed, Justice League is inexcusably long, bloated and self-indulgent. Add to this the pointless and pretentious 4:3 aspect ratio, and its hard to not wonder what heights might have been reached with just a little studio oversight.
With everything else put to one side, the most notable thing about Zack Snyder’s Justice League is its cultural relevance. This is the film that relentless fan pressure created, for better or worse. And while that pressure hasn’t exactly formed a diamond, it’s not caused a train wreck either. In the end, despite whatever Snyder may have wanted, this film has become more about the conversation around its creation, than superheroes. Is it better than the theatrical cut? Without a doubt. Better than Batman v Superman? Yeah, probably. Worth all the toxic behaviour from overzealous fans online? Not even close.
Verdict: 3/5 Paddles