Cast: Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Gal Gadot, Ray Fisher. Directed by Zack Snyder.
There is a special moment near the end of Zack Snyder’s mammoth four-hour superhero epic, one that speaks to the entire saga of bringing this behemoth to eyes; a dedication to the director’s daughter Autumn. There is no way to discuss the film without first discussing the saga of how it came to this.
After Snyder stepped down during the original production of Justice League in the wake of a tragedy, Warner Bros. drafted in Joss Whedon to essentially reshoot and re-write half the movie, and in turn, bring it in under two hours and with a lighter tone. The resulting film, now-dubbed Joss-tice League by some is a much-maligned mishmash of two directors with warring ideas forced into an unholy alliance.
No actor was happy, Snyder never saw it, and the fans wanted the original version. Four years on and with a little streaming platform boost, as well as enough online campaigning to make Harvey Milk look lazy, the now four-hour epic hits screens.
The basic premise remains the same: following the events of Batman v Superman, Superman is dead, Batman has had his faith in mankind restored and, along with Wonder Woman, decides to unite super-human beings together as forces from across the cosmos head for Earth in a bid to unearth the mythic Mother Boxes which could bring about unspeakable evil.
For all the issues with the corporate greed, the online petitions (and bullying), the vitriol, the accusations against Whedon making the film, and the fors and againsts, the film is what it is; the culmination of three films and a story about hope and humanity that Snyder himself wants to tell. There is no denying that he has a voice in cinema that is very much his own.
With Justice League, you get a full four hours of Zack Snyder-isms, which can be both a good thing and a bad thing. For all the controversy, Snyder is trying to tell a fairly conventional story. His heroes are all mighty, but most importantly the longer runtime does flesh them out more, especially Ray Fisher’s Cyborg, much maligned in the theatrical cut. Fisher acquits himself well with the task of holding up the emotional core of the film.
In fact, Snyder gets the best from all his cast. Unlike the relentless darkness of Batman v Superman, here we have a film that offers hope for all the characters – even if Snyder can’t help but inject a little world-weary worry into some of them. It’s surprising how much of the theatrical cut remains, and more importantly, how re-editing can change scenes and a film at large.
The film is filled with dazzling vistas and striking images, and despite Snyder and DP Fabian Wagner’s choice to shoot the film in a more IMAX friendly aspect ratio, which takes a while to get used to, the film has a crisp style. It’s not as washed out as previous Snyder films.
Moreover, the action comes thick and fast in a way that often punctuates the six “parts” of the film. A sequence detailing the alliance of Amazons, Atlanteans, mankind, the gods and even a Green Lantern bodes well for his forthcoming King Arthur film as it shows his spectacle for sword and sorcerers. Although some of the action can at times feel a little smash crash and overly loud, thanks to the six different heroes there’s enough variation to stave off fatigue.
It doesn’t quite feel like it’s four hours, though it does feel long. Considering the amount that happens, a lot could have been taken out, especially in the epilogue. The build-up to the return of Superman is suitably dramatic, and Cavill brims with the charm that has made him a definitive version of the role. It’s after his resurrection and confirmation of his duty to the world that the film hits it’s stride, though it has been a good two hours before that occurs.
With beefed up screentime, Ciaran Hinds’ Steppenwolf is better than his original cut counterpart but is still not as compelling as other villains in the DC extended universe (DCEU). Hints that he is downtrodden by his nephew the monstrous Darkseid are interesting, and far deeper than the idea that “he lived to destroy”, but despite all these references to a deeper origin and a failed coup, the runtime doesn’t offer him but to make him either interesting or sympathetic.
There is no denying the film is too long, and there is one too many slow-mo sequences set to an indie track that doesn’t fully support the film, but even so, there is a grace to the way Snyder uses his camera and the score by Tom “Junkie XL” Holkenberg uses the themes from previous films enough to engage the requisite emotional responses.
The film is also lore heavy, for better and for worse, characters appear that have significance for the wider universe but might not mean much to a casual viewer, and for all the “for the fans” of it, appealing to wide audiences is important. Darseid, DeSaad, and Granny Goodness are all invoked but without much explanation as to who they are or what they’re about, same for side characters especially that of Iris West (Kiersey Clemons). Arguably these small roles were / are to set up further adventures in the DCEU should directors wish to explore them – and they should – but it can still feel jarring when a five-minute sequence is dedicated to a woman who never appears again.
The Epilogue lets the film down with another trip into the nightmare dream world of a post-apocalyptic future – replete with Jared Leto cameo (less annoying than in Suicide Squad), but it feels like a downer after such a triumphant finale of a film. For all the talk of it being an “adult” and R rated movie, aside from a few F-bombs and a little blood splatter it’s not that intense a film, and nothing that people who managed to get through previous Snyder-DC films won’t be able to handle.
Even so, this is a triumph for the power of fans and artistic control. It proves that studios don’t always know what’s right, and to not always be concerned with focus groups. If the internet can will this into existence maybe there’s hope for individuality in superhero cinema yet. It’s not flawless, and saying it’s better than the 2017 version feels like damning with faint praise, but Snyder and his team have made an uneven but compelling superhero epic that offers more than enough spectacle, laughs, and moments of genuine emotion to satisfy even the naysayers.
Good for him.