Monday, March 22, 2021

Film Review: Zack Snyder's Justice League


Sexuality/Nudity Acceptable
Violence Acceptable
Vulgarity Mature
Anti-Catholic Philosophy Acceptable

This is a difficult movie to review because I don't think that there has ever been a movie like this.

For some context, Zack Snyder directed the hit movie Man of Steel and then went on to make the sequel the (unappreciated) masterpiece Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice.  However, even though the second movie made over $850 million, it was considered a box office disappointment.  The studio believed that part of the reason for the result was the darker tone that Snyder brought to his films.  However, by the time BvS was released, he was already deep into his Justice League, which the studio wanted to be their Avengers.  However, after shooting ended, Snyder experienced a family tragedy that caused him to walk away from the project.  Warner Bros. took this as an opportunity to course correct Snyder's vision.  They brought in Avengers director Joss Whedon who did extensive reshoots, causing the final product to be very uneven.  The result was a financial disappointment worse than BvS.  

Over the years, fans have been clamoring for the "Snyder Cut" of the movie, claiming that the studio had it but refused to release it.  After a long grass roots internet campaign, Warner decided to let Snyder finish his cut and release on HBO Max, hoping it would draw people to their service.  What results is a 4-hour film that has been chunked up into chapters so that you can watch it like a mini-series.

And I highly recommend watching it like a mini-series.  Looking it as one long movie is difficult because it's enormous length will make you focus on all that could still be trimmed.  Seeing it as a mini-series of self-contained chapters makes the story feel like it is going at a tighter pace.  Even with the 4-hour run time, the story is densely packed.  I remember we got to the first hour and I could have sworn 2 hours had gone by.  I don't mean that the story dragged.  On the contrary, I felt like a lot had happened in only the first hour.  But I think I only looked at it this way because I viewed it as a mini-series.

The same basic plot is present in the Snyder Cut as was in the theatrical: after the death of Superman (Henry Cavill) in BvS, Earth is now vulnerable to attack from the conquering Steppenwolf (Ciaran Hinds).  He has to find three ancient devices called "Mother Boxes" to use to destroy the world.  Atoning for his attack on Superman, Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) seeks to find heroes to protect  the world including Wonder Woman (Gal Godot), Aquaman (Jason Momoa), Cybort (Ray Fisher), and the Flash (Ezra Miller).  Together they must protect the mother boxes and save the world from Steppenwolf and his evil master Darkseid (Ray Porter).

For those who read my original review of the theatrical version of Justice League, I was not a hater of Joss Whedon's cut.  I mentioned that it had an uneven tone that it never quite reaches the heights of BvS.  But I think that a lot of the dumping on Whedon is very unfair.  He was charged to make massive tonal changes to a movie that was already wrapped in terms of filming.  The fact that Snyder and Whedon have drastically different styles is not Whedon's fault.  Overall, The Snyder Cut is an improvement, but that isn't to say that Whedon's contributions were all bad.  

Even though Snyder tends to be a highly stylized director, Justice League is the one movie of his that feels the most toned-down.  That isn't to say that his very unique visual style isn't present, but that it is not as immersive as in his other movies.  For fans of Snyder this is a disappointment, For non-fans, this may be a relief.  There still plenty of slow-motion shots set to rock ballads to satisfy most hardcore Snyder fans.  It is also strange in that it goes for a 4:3 aspect ratio.  At first I thought it had something to do with saving money on special effects, but apparently it is because it mirrors IMAX screens.  When seen on a widescreen TV, it is distracting at first, but then you forget about it.

There are many improvements to this cut, particularly in how the characters are presented.  The character who benefits the most is the Flash.  Snyder still uses him the way Whedon did, where is the novice of the group and throws out most of the quips like Spider-Man.  But there is a difference between your character being jokey and turning your character into a joke.  Unlike the theatrical version, this movie made me look at Miller seriously as a heroic figure.  In his introductory scene, he plays his Barry Allen as a geeky clown.  But when danger is present, Miller was able to kick into hero mode and it made me take notice.  I questioned the casting of Miller from the beginning and through the Whedon cut.  But in the Snyder cut, I could see what Snyder saw.  Miller is able to still be funny while playing his Flash with seriousness and sincerity.  There is a point where he says by the grave of Superman, "He was my hero."  It isn't too melodramatic, but you can see how he says it like an innocent kid talking about a fallen idol.  And while there are weird gags in there involving hot dogs, gone are the strange asides about brunch.

Another drastic improvement is with Steppenwolf as the villain.  As I wrote in my original review: "The biggest drawback of the film is its villain.  Steppenwolf is a character made of sub-par CGI and bland motives.  He is definitely no Loki."  In this cut, Steppenwolf has a much more inhuman design, but ironically he is much more understandable.  There is a principle called "the Uncanny Valley," where the closer something not human looks to human, the more we are attracted to it, but at a certain point as it gets closer to human but not quite, we have a deep sense of repulsion.  The theatrical Steppenwolf fell into the low end of the Uncanny Valley.  Snyder's Steppenwolf is alien enough to stay on the upper side of the Valley and be much more interesting to watch.  The way he looks at Darkseid, with such fear and awe and majesty, you immediately get his motivations and understand them.  His look is also more intense and frightening than in the theatrical cut.  I love how his metallic armor bristles dangerously in response to his mood.

Cyborg is also given a much more complete arc.  Particularly, his incredibly complicated relationship with his father is fleshed out to tremendous emotional effect.  Joe Morton does a fantastic job as Silas Stone, playing the role of a father that crossed the line in saving his son and living with his son's resentment for it.  He seems resigned to Victor's hatred of him with a quiet dignity that I really liked about Morton's performance.  He actually gives us one of the most emotional scenes in the movie and he does it with stoic grace.

Affleck's performance is much more consistent in this movie.  As I wrote of the theatrical cut, "His performance in Batman v. Superman is nuanced and powerful, always smoldering with barely-contained rage.  And there are many scenes where this can be seen in Justice League.  But then there are scenes where he comes off as relaxed and aloof like Tony Stark.  I would stake my paycheck that those latter scenes were filmed by Whedon.  Neither performance is bad, mind you.  But it feels a bit inconsistent."  Justice League shows a toned-down Batman, but that is part of his arc from the previous movie.  Superman taught him to step a little more into the light and let go of some of that rage.

On this thread, there is an thematic element that is added to this one that is absent from the Whedon cut: faith.

One of the reason for the difference in Bruce's change in personality between movies is how he is now more a person of faith.  He approached Superman with cynical suspicion in their first encounter.  Having learned that lesson, he now realizes that sometimes you have to have faith in people.  It reminds me of how the priest told Clark in Man of Steel that sometimes you have to begin with a leap of faith and then trust comes after.  This reminds me of the change we saw in Jack Shepherd in the show Lost, where cold logic is thawed to make room for faith.  It is not that the two things are incompatible, but that faith goes beyond what reason can see.  By putting his faith in others, Bruce helps them become more than they are alone.  While this is not about religious faith, it nevertheless shows faith's importance.  I also noted how in the opening Wonder Woman sequence the religious elements of the terrorists were toned down in Snyder's cut.  While I don't know Snyder's personal relationship to God, his use of Christian imagery in Man of Steel and BvS tells me that he at least understands the power of those symbols and respects them.

The four-hour run time allows the story to breath and lets it unfold more naturally.  There is a clear through-line from the death of Superman through to the end.  The explanation of how the Mother Boxes work is woven better into the narrative.  Smaller elements really help the movie along too.  In the theatrical version, the Amazons seal themselves in the building with Steppenwolf.  But this doesn't seem like a big deal as Steppenwolf simply breaks through the wall and pursues the Mother Box.  In the Snyder Cut, sealing the building also causes it to fall into the sea, thus making the action an heroic sacrifice on the part of those who stayed behind to give Hippolyta (Connie Nielson) a chance to escape.  Also Lois Lane's grief is explored a bit more in depth and how she is having trouble moving on after Clark's death.  She also has a more complete character arc in this film rather than her being simply an emotional control on Superman.

Something else I thought was very interesting was the lack of conflict within the League itself.  In Whedon's cut, the team almost come to blows over whether or not they should resurrect Superman and then later they almost tear themselves down after Steppenwolf gets the final Mother Box.  Snyder's cut has most of the League on the same page.  Some are reluctant, but they all tend to grudgingly agree.  This is a place where I would say that Whedon was correct to add a bit more conflict so that we could see how distinct the characters are.  But this seems to go against Snyder's idea stated above about having faith in people and giving them the benefit of the doubt.

That isn't to say that Snyder Cut couldn't have been trimmed.  Because it feels like Warner Bros. gave him carte blanche, Snyder left a lot more in than should be there.  There is a musical number when Aquaman heads to the sea that could have easily been cut.  Also there is an introduction of another hero that feels a bit out of place (more on this later).  Scenes that add to the feel of the movie are left in because they can be not because they needed to be.

The biggest problem with the movie is that it feels too forward-looking.  Don't get me wrong, most super hero films lay the groundwork for future adventures.  But all indications are that this is the last hurrah for Snyder's storyline.  Robert Pattinson has just finished filming his new Batman movie.  JJ Abrams at this time is apparently rebooting Superman.  The Snyder Cut leans heavily into the idea that this movie is not a complete story.  This is especially true in three areas:

First, Darkseid is a cool addition to the story but he is set up to be a future threat more than a current one.  They setup Steppenwolf as a formidable force that necessitates bringing back Superman, but they also set up how much Steppenwolf is dwarfed in power by Darkseid.  However, we never see this fully realized.  It is setup for a future movie.

Second, the epilogue between Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) and Deathstroke (Joe Maganiello) points to the now-cancelled Batfleck solo movie.  The idea of Deathstroke going head-to-head with Batman onscreen is almost too awesome to imagine.  But when I watched that scene, I kept thinking about how the movie was cancelled and it left me with disappointment.

Third, there is a "Knightmare" sequence in this movie similar to BvS.  In some post-apocalyptic future, Batman is leading a cadre of heroes (and villains) against an evil Superman, just like in the previous movie.  And while I really enjoyed the scene, it felt made Justice League feel like a stepping stone to a larger story we may never see.  The build up to this also includes a long-time member of the Justice League who makes his debut in this movie.  I would be more excited about it if this character were more integral to the main story of this movie and not a tease to something in the future.

There are also some other dangling issues regarding Lois Lane and Superman that never get fully resolved.  Because of this, the movie ends on an ellipses in a way that the theatrical version does not.  

Despite this, I thoroughly enjoyed Zack Snyder's Justice League.  I have been a fan of his style and it was nice to see him get to execute his vision.  It is not as good as BvS, but I wasn't expecting it to be.  It is too indulgent as a feature film, which is why it helps to see it as a mini-series.  In that context, I highly recommend the Snyder Cut.

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