REVIEW: Zack Snyder’s Justice League (2021)
A peculiar melange of excitement and trepidation has surrounded the build up to Zack Snyder’s Justice League. It’s a film that has dominated the #discourse since its announcement back in February 2020, calling into question all manner of aspects related to the film. The death of studio interference, auteur theory, and the very concept of director’s cuts were all clumsily tied together underneath the umbrella of the final installment of Zack Snyder’s Superman trilogy. There is a wealth of discussion to be had on all those topics related to The Snyder Cut, but one must first answer the 4-year-long, burning question; has it all been worth it?
The plot of The Snyder Cut is mostly recognisable from its 2017 counterpart, it’s in the detail where the films differ. Steppenwolf, an evil being from another world, is seeking the Mother Boxes, three living machines protected on Earth by its protectors – the Amazonians, the Atlanteans, and humankind. Uniting the boxes results in the end of the world, so it’s up to the titular Justice League – non-existent at the film’s opening, following the death of Superman at the end of Batman v Superman – to stop this from happening and save the world. You know, superhero stuff.
Now, this is the tricky part. It’s almost impossible to find a place to start when addressing the pros and cons of a four-hour film. Questions are sure to be asked on the merits of having all 242 minutes to dissect, whether it’s all completely necessary for the film we’re presented with, and whether it’s a slog to sit through. I’m as surprised as anyone when I say this, but The Snyder Cut is, against all odds, rather good.
One of the benefits of the gargantuan runtime is the film’s ability to let it all breathe. Characters feel far more convincing this time around, the villainous motivations are far clearer, the confusing elements of the 2017 edition are almost non-existent, and the action – oh boy, the action – rivals the best superhero action we’ve seen in recent years. Zack Snyder was presented with a difficult task with this film, having to tell a story of its own while setting up future films in the wider DCEU and introduce not one, not two, but three new superheroes to round off the Justice League. It’s quite an achievement to say that the film doesn’t feel four hours long until you’re well into its clumsy, 25-minute epilogue after three-and-a-half hours of genuinely well-paced comic book storytelling. Multiple sittings may be required for many, but I’ve watched 90-minute films that feel longer than this one.
With only Batman (Affleck), Wonder Woman (Gadot), and Alfred (Jeremy Irons, on fine form) as recognisable and, crucially, alive characters to work with, The Snyder Cut does an impressive job of reintroducing us to the characters and establishing their motivations in its grand designs. Affleck has always been a great Bruce Wayne and this continues here; his role as the de facto leader feels earned and concludes his Batman v Superman arc neatly. Gadot suffers from occasionally wooden dialogue delivery (her horrendous “Kal-El, no!” remains in this version, though there’s a horrible attempt at female empowerment written by Chris Terrio that out-shines it), but her Diana is generally a very warm character and her tender work with Ray Fisher’s Cyborg add to the film’s surprising amount of heart.
Of the “new” additions, Arthur “Aquaman” Curry (Momoa) feels more like a character in this edition rather than the “My man!” machine he was back in 2017. His connection (or lack thereof) to Atlantis is explored and ties directly into his solo film (the DCEU-best Aquaman), but his biggest improvement is his relationships with the rest of the team. Arthur and Diana have generations of history behind them, and their limited interactions add nicely to their relationship to pay off their eventual working together in the grand finale.
Barry “The Flash” Allen (Miller), meanwhile, is a curious one. It becomes clear very quickly that he was always intended to be the comic relief, and Miller’s brand of fast-talking, smart-but-dumb comedy may not work for everyone, but when much of the film is so self-serious, this version of Barry provides welcome levity. At the same time, it stands to reason that his comedic character was the foundation for so many of the comedic rewrites made back in 2017, so the jokes that remain here (“oh, they do just vanish, don’t they? That’s rude!”) serve as somewhat awkward references to the version-that-shall-not-be-named. That said, Ezra Miller is a talented actor, and Barry’s emotional storyline works because of his performance; an incredibly blunt line about making his own future at a critical plot moment would’ve fallen flat with a lesser performance.
The biggest winner from Zack Snyder’s Justice League, though, is Ray Fisher’s Victor “Cyborg” Stone. Prior to the film’s release this time, and indeed back when Snyder was making the film all those years ago, Cyborg was often referred to as the heart of the film; a completely true statement. Entire plot lines that were abandoned in 2017 are brought back here to add genuine depth to the film and correct major plot holes. Cyborg’s relationship with his father, Silas Stone (Morton, almost entirely left out of the 2017 version), is one of the better written elements and creates emotional moments out of the Justice League’s failures. It’s no wonder his troubling experience with the film in recent years and the tragic, on-going legal battle with Warner Bros. was so impactful on Fisher because, had his character been given this treatment originally, Fisher’s life would have changed forever as a brand new, A-list superhero.
Steppenwolf (Ciaran Hinds), too, is a huge victor in this updated version. In 2017, Steppenwolf was a laughingstock with horrible CGI and completely non-existent motivation for culling planet Earth. In 2021, his presence is threatening and, most crucially, his motivations are clear, making him one of the DCEU’s best villains to date, and a genuine rival to someone like Ultron from the MCU (Steppenwolf isn’t quite on Thanos’ level). His updated design makes him palatable to look at, and his power in his combat sequences (he has a brilliant scene in Atlantis in which he battles Arthur and Queen Mera) is clear for all to see as a genuine threat to the Justice League and, of course, the world.
Zack Snyder has die-hard fans many directors can only dream of, but there are plenty of fair criticisms about the films he creates. The same cannot be said, however, of his action sequences. From the days of Dawn of the Dead, Snyder has a keen eye for action and understands how to design brilliant action scenes, his latest is no different. An early battle on Themiscyra for the first mother box is breathtakingly good, with its well-held shots, a firm understanding of geography of the land and of the crucial MacGuffin, and impressive stunt work from the Amazonian warriors. There’s a visually startling war scene involving all-manner of superheroes and abilities to feast your eyes on that echoes the introductory battle from The Fellowship of the Ring. And, back in the present day, every Justice League action scene is brilliantly choreographed, shot, edited, and scored to satisfy those of us who just like people punching things.
The superhero action is where Zack Snyder’s Justice League truly shines. Snyder makes time for every hero to have their moment in the sun, whether it’s Diana launching Steppenwolf through a wall, Batman whizzing through a dilapidated city, Aquaman flying with parademons in tow, The Flash breaking the laws of space and time, or Cyborg doing his best Iron Man impression, there’s something for everyone to enjoy. There’s an unwavering commitment to making the coolest thing possible, which is delivered in spades. When Superman (Cavill) is finally unleashed in the film’s latter half (the weight of his loss is felt in Metropolis as much as it is in the film itself, given the amount of time it takes until his eventual return), his scenes are a far cry from the 2017 version with a brutal demonstration of absolute power from the man of steel.
Despite the vast amount of positives on show here – the leap in quality of The Snyder Cut compared to the theatrical cut is mind-boggling – the film has more than its fair share of issues. An early sequence sees Wonder Woman literally obliterate a terrorist, before turning to a schoolgirl who just witnessed murder and declaring that she can do anything she sets her mind to, proves to be a succinct crystallisation of the problem so many have with the so-called Snyderverse. With all its aspirations of being a beacon of hope for all that’s good in the world, Snyder’s penchant for murder in his universe does contrast awkwardly against the messages he wants to spread.
Snyder’s largely unheard of amount of control over this film regularly sees him fall into the pratfalls of his worst tendencies, from his over-reliance on slow-motion, truly bizarre needle drops, and entirely unsubtle imagery (Superman as Jesus takes up much of the second half). Zack Snyder’s Justice League is self-indulgent to a fault – no surprise considering the film’s official title contains the filmmaker’s own name) – and the combination of self-indulgence with how much the film takes itself seriously could be a fatal combination for many. The Snyder Cut genuinely could win over those who weren’t fans of his previous Superman films, but it’s unlikely going to make fans out of him as a filmmaker.
Such self-indulgence comes to a head in the film’s epilogue, a bizarrely clumsy finale to a film that was largely so impressive up to that point. The long-awaited Knightmare sequence, featuring a new version of Jared Leto’s Joker, is criminally underwhelming and smacks of a last-minute addition to the film for Snyder to show where the series could go if he were given the opportunity. Given how impressive the first six parts of the film are, this addendum hasn’t sat well in the wake of the film’s conclusion. The scene itself is fine in and of itself, a couple of questionable lines of dialogue aside, but its placement in the film raises more questions than answers and adds nothing to the overall Zack Snyder’s Justice League experience.
Zack Snyder’s Justice League is self-indulgent, exciting, flawed, and occasionally brilliant, all at the same time. Has it all been worth it? While the answer may not be an emphatic, resounding yes, it’s a miracle that Zack Snyder’s Justice League is as good as it is. It’s an astonishing upgrade on the previous version, a film that will surely rarely be seen again now that this ultimate version exists, and is sure to, at very least, satisfy Snyder’s most ardent fans.
Let’s just never let this happen ever again.