‘Zack Snyder’s Justice League’ Will Delight DC’s Toxic Fans
The four-hour superhero extravaganza, out March 18 on HBO Max, is a vast improvement over its jumbled predecessor, offering “classical gods-and-monsters majesty and tragedy.”
Zack Snyder’s Justice League is a film about superhero gods, so it’s fitting that its own production story is now the stuff of modern Hollywood legend.
That myth began back in May 2017, when in the midst of post-production on Justice League, Snyder—the architect of Warner Bros’ DC universe, and the director of Man of Steel and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice—stepped away to deal with the death of his stepdaughter, and Avengers helmer Joss Whedon was hired to complete the would-be blockbuster. The Frankensteinian final product grossed an underwhelming $658 million worldwide, and a social media campaign for the original “Snyder Cut” began, eventually gaining enough steam to make Snyder cop to its existence. Sensing an opportunity to mend fences with the filmmaker, satiate vocal die-hards, erase their partnership with Whedon (who’s been dogged by criticisms about his inappropriate on-set behavior), and produce a grand event for its fledgling HBO Max platform, Warner Bros. announced in May 2020 that it would spend an additional $70 million to complete the long-rumored epic.
Thus, Zack Snyder’s Justice League—whose plot concerns Superman rising from the grave—lived, died, and is now reborn.
There are myriad articles to be written about whether Snyder’s restored superhero endeavor (premiering March 18) is, in the larger scheme of things, a heartening tale of resurrection for a project undone by controversy and circumstance, or a worrisome saga about the power wielded by a small—and, at times, toxic—fanbase, which managed to compel a conglomerate to bow to its demands. However, there’s no denying that, on its artistic merits, Zack Snyder’s Justice League is a prototypical Snyder movie in every respect. A wantonly dour and doom-filled affair, it’s excessive, indulgent, and self-serious, striving for grandeur throughout the course of its gargantuan 242-minute runtime via endless slow-motion, CGI sound and fury, and operatic melodrama. Yet it’s those precise elements that also serve it well, infusing it with a scale—and sense of import—that make it everything the Snyder faithful hoped it would be, and a vast improvement over its 2017 theatrical iteration. “I have a second chance, Lo. I am not going to waste it,” Superman (Henry Cavill) tells Lois Lane (Amy Adams), and Snyder approaches his film likewise, holding nothing back in bringing his outsized do-over back from the dead.
Zack Snyder’s Justice League begins where Batman v. Superman ended, with Superman’s demise at the hands of Doomsday sending a literal shockwave around the globe. In the aftermath of that calamity, Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) and Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) attempt to recruit a trio of disparate heroes—wisecracking speedster Flash (Ezra Miller), gruff ocean king Aquaman (Jason Momoa), and mecha-teen Cyborg (Ray Fisher)—to protect the planet from a coming threat. That arrives in the form of Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds), the giant horned emissary of civilization-conquering Darkseid (Ray Porter), who covets a trio of magical Mother Boxes which, when synchronized, will transform Earth into another one of Darkseid’s wasteland playgrounds. Unity, it’s clear, is both the key to destroying and saving the world.
Narratively, the basic building blocks are the same as before. At a whopping four hours, though, Snyder has far more time to handle the multiple tasks necessitated by Justice League: introduce numerous new good and bad guys; establish their individual and interpersonal hang-ups, motivations, and frictions; revisit old friends (Diane Lane’s Martha Kent, Connie Nielsen’s Hippolyta, Jeremy Irons’ Alfred, Willem Dafoe’s Nuidis Vulko) and highlight some fresh ones (J.K. Simmons’ Commissioner Gordon); and stage a series of escalating battles with the fearsome Steppenwolf. Whedon never had a prayer doing all of that in 120 minutes, whereas Snyder’s version—framed in boxy 4:3, reportedly so it’ll look okay when it finally debuts on IMAX screens—ebbs, flows and breathes at a far more natural pace, with each of its many dictates handled with the attention and care they require.
All of which is to say that Zack Snyder’s Justice League is long—it’s split into six chapters plus an epilogue, each bestowed with an ominous title—but it feels like the proper length for an enormous undertaking such as this. It’s also, stylistically, 100 percent Snyder. Everything is grim-dark overcast, the gloom punctuated only by brief rays of heartening sunshine and the white light that reflects off the shiny chrome surfaces of Steppenwolf’s armor, Cyborg’s body, and Batman and Wonder Woman’s swanky Mercedes-Benzes. Even Superman trades in his red-and-blue suit for an all-black edition, further underscoring the weighty gravity of it all. There are a few interjections of humor (most of which were in the film’s theatrical incarnation), but the mood is habitually portentous, melancholy, and dire. It’s no shock when, in a flashback to an impressively mounted ancient battle against Darkseid, Zeus and Ares show up—Snyder is after classical gods-and-monsters majesty and tragedy.
Much of the material in Zack Snyder’s Justice League wasn’t featured in Whedon’s take and the sequences that were have been re-edited and refashioned to improved ends (case in point: Aquaman’s boozy walk down a stormy ocean pier, which is now set to Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds’ “There is a Kingdom”). It wisely keeps its predecessor’s best moment intact—that would be Aquaman’s mid-air “My man!”—and expands Cyborg’s history and its signature slam-bang clashes with more explosions, more gunfire, and more concussive energy-blast chaos, creating a full sense of its protagonists’ awesome power. Steppenwolf and Darkseid look suitably titanic and menacing, and Snyder fleshes out their relationship by positing the former as a disgraced acolyte eager to get back in the good graces of his unforgiving master—a goal he seeks to achieve by acquiring the Mother Boxes, whose status he relays to an imposing monolith that shapeshifts into the fiery figure of Darkseid’s other cohort, DeSaad (Peter Guinness).
The only thing more rampant in Zack Snyder’s Justice League than Steppenwolf’s insectoid parademons are daddy issues: Aquaman is estranged from his pops; Flash is trying to exonerate his wrongly imprisoned father (Billy Crudup); and Cyborg is still mad at his paterfamilias, scientist Silas Stone (Joe Morton), for not paying enough attention to him when he was human, and then for turning him into the Mother Box-energized Cyborg. Throw in Steppenwolf’s penitent rapport with surrogate-father Darkseid, as well as Batman and Superman’s own dead-dad issues, and Snyder’s film feels almost comically fixated on this dynamic. Wonder Woman is the sole main character not beset by such problems, although that doesn’t exempt her from brooding over impending apocalyptic cataclysms.
Zack Snyder’s Justice League tethers earnest notions about family, togetherness, trust, and sacrifice to all manner of “badass” pomp and circumstance, unapologetically trying to move and thrill with big, bold gestures. That will naturally grate on those with a low tolerance for Snyder’s bombastic cinema, typified by his trademark “speed-ramping,” i.e., slowing the action to a virtual freeze before racing forward again at a normal pace. Yet his is a consistent vision that aspires to generate awe. While that aim isn’t always achieved—there’s no overcoming the general juvenile nature of these proceedings, and the corny “adultness” of having Aquaman call Gotham a “shithole” and Batman drop an F-bomb—the film nonetheless has a cheesy larger-than-life charm.
In the past few years, Warner Bros. has moved on from the director’s plans for their DC Universe. Still, Zack Snyder’s Justice League lays the groundwork for future installments involving a full-on showdown with Darkseid and Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg), and the expansion of the Justice League to include, among others, the Martian Manhunter (Harry Lennix) and Atom (Zheng Kai, in a costume-less appearance). Even more tantalizing, in a prolonged epilogue, Batman has a premonition about the post-apocalyptic “Knightmare” landscape first depicted in Batman v Superman. There, he and his ragtag crew face off against an unlikely adversary, and turn out to have an even more surprising partner: the Joker (Jared Leto), here envisioned as a mischievous smeary-faced psychopath who references notorious comic-lore events and strikes an unholy alliance with the Caped Crusader.
Even in the face of pop culture Clown Prince of Crime overload, Leto’s fleeting turn is suitably creepy and tantalizing, and not only teases a solid path forward for the franchise but suggests that Snyder could possibly coax the sinister Joker performance out of the actor that David Ayer failed to elicit in Suicide Squad. Given that Warner Bros now has alternate designs for their iconic characters, Snyder’s ideas for a sequel will likely never come to pass. Then again, few believed Zack Snyder’s Justice League would ever see the light of day, so perhaps with enough HBO Max success, those dreams might yet become a reality.