ZACK SNYDER’S JUSTICE LEAGUE – an Alternative Lens review

Starring: Ben Affleck (The Town), Henry Cavill (The Witcher), Amy Adams (Arrival), Gal Gadot (Fast & Furious 6), Ray Fisher (True Detective), Jason Momoa (Conan the Barbarian), Ezra Miller (The Perks of Being a Wallflower), Willem Dafoe (Platoon), Jesse Eisenberg (The Social Network), Jeremy Irons (Die Hard with a Vengeance), Diane Lane (Streets of Fire), Connie Nielsen (Gladiator), J.K. Simmons (Spider-Man), Ciarán Hinds (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy)

Director: Zack Snyder (Watchmen)

Writer: Chris Terrio (Argo)

Runtime: 4 hours 2 minutes

Release Date: 18th March (US/HBO Max, UK/Sky Cinema)

Back in 2017, I was one of the defenders of the theatrical cut of Justice League, but let me be clear: my opinion has soured since then and you can file that review with about a dozen others I no longer stand by. I still don’t hate that version, but with every viewing the patchwork seams became more and more obvious. It’s not a Zack Snyder film, but it’s not a Joss Whedon film either; it’s a product constructed from disparate parts by a corporation salvaging a troubled production, thrown malformed into theatres hoping to eke out a profit. It didn’t work. Would I have liked to have seen Zack Snyder’s intended version back then? For the sake of curiosity, absolutely, but I doubted it would ever see the light of day. It would remain an unseen what-could-have-been, sat on a shelf next to Josh Trank’s original cut of Fantastic Four, Lord & Miller’s Solo, and the extended version of The Amazing Spider-Man 2 with Shailene Woodley as Mary Jane and Norman Osborn as a head in a jar. No seriously, that almost happened.

In spite of this, whether fuelled by hope, desperation, or old-fashioned toxic fan whinging, the demand for Snyder’s version to be finished persisted. Putting aside both its charitable contributions and its disconcerting connection to online harassment, #ReleaseTheSnyderCut seemed like a campaign doomed to fail for the simple reason that its goal seemed unreachable. This was a prospective project that would cost tens of millions to complete, all for a ridiculously-long version of a film that already lost the studio hundreds of millions, and the final result would make Warner Bros. look like idiots no matter how good or bad the final product turned out. However, whether fuelled by the fan demand or just needing original content to boost subscriptions for HBO Max, they went and did it anyway. Zack Snyder’s Justice League is now a real film you can watch, and let me get all of the important questions out of the way. Is it worthy of all the overblown hype and worth tolerating the obsessive, abusive tactics of some of its campaigners? No. Would it have been releasable as a tentpole theatrical blockbuster? Not without a hell of a marketing campaign and at least one interval. Is it better than the theatrical version? Absolutely. Did I like it? Well…that’s what the rest of the review is for.

Zack Snyder's Justice League (2021) - IMDb

Whilst Zack Snyder’s Justice League is twice as long as its 2017 counterpart and drastically different in many facets, at its core it tells essentially the same story. As much as people decried Whedon’s additions to the film, much of his work was to simplify and stitch together Snyder’s footage into something more “releasable”. That said, having now seen what it was supposed to be, it honestly makes the changes in the theatrical cut that much more baffling. Watching the film, it’s clear that Snyder took the criticisms of Batman v Superman to heart and did his best to satisfy them in his own way. Its story is fundamentally simpler, packing its gargantuan runtime with world-building and character development rather than over-complicated villain schemes or pretentious deconstructionism. It fundamentally lightens the tone without turning into an obvious attempt to ape Marvel, cutting much of the cloying and misplaced humour that permeated Whedon’s cut, resulting in a film that is consistent with Snyder’s prior entries but still has a blockbuster spirit and an uplifting outlook.

However, the most fundamental difference isn’t all of the gratuitous cameos, the increased operatic spectacle, or the plugging up of plot holes and inconsistencies. It’s the simple fact that this version has the core ingredient truly missing from the 2017 version: relatable characters with emotionally satisfying arcs. The film certainly takes its sweet time and probably could afford to kill a few darlings, especially an indulgence towards the end where Snyder gives in to his worst edgelord instincts, but on the whole it’s a satisfying blockbuster experience that hopefully gets the big screen presentation it is crying out for. It’s a true culmination of the story began in Man of Steel whilst opening itself up for plenty more, and its scope can only really be matched by Avengers: Infinity War and Endgame. Honestly, if this version had come out when it was supposed to, people would have accused Marvel of ripping them off.

Zack Snyder's Justice League': an unflinching update fans can be proud of
(from left to right) Ray Fisher as Victor Stone/Cyborg, Ezra Miller as Barry Allen/The Flash, Ben Affleck as Bruce Wayne/Batman, Henry Cavill as Clark Kent/Superman, Gal Gadot as Diana Prince/Wonder Woman, and Jason Momoa as Arthur Curry/Aquaman in ZACK SNYDER’S JUSTICE LEAGUE (2021, d. Zack Snyder)

With the increased runtime, that only gives the cast more opportunities to shine, and in some cases it fundamentally improves their characters. Ben Affleck still takes something of a backseat as Batman, but his performance remains strong and he gets plenty of good action beats and solid development. As usual, Gal Gadot is effervescent as Wonder Woman, with her character being improved less by what’s been added back in and more what’s been taken out (i.e. no more Flash lying on top of her or endless pining for Steve Trevor). Jason Momoa doesn’t get that much more screen time as Aquaman, but he now has a more cohesive arc that ties better into his solo film, whilst Ezra Miller’s Flash is given a lot more emotional heft whilst remaining the film’s key source of comic relief. Henry Cavill, now without a trace of his moustache-hiding CG upper lip, still doesn’t have much to do but the build-up to his return now has actual weight to it, by its conclusion delivering the sincere and hopeful Superman we’ve been dying for all along. However, no one benefits from this cut more than Ray Fisher’s Cyborg. Reduced to a mere plot device in the original, he now has a fleshed-out origin, a rapport with the rest of the team, and an actual story that transforms him from the most forgettable member of the Justice League into its emotional backbone. More than anyone, Fisher was done dirty by the theatrical cut, and here’s hoping his career gets the resurgence he deserves; not only because of his great performance here, but everything he’s done since to call out Hollywood toxicity.

There were so many characters in the theatrical version that got short shrift or removed entirely, and in some cases they were understandable. For instance, Willem Dafoe, Kiersey Clemons and Zheng Khai are restored as Nuidis Vulko, Iris West and Ryan Choi respectively, but their plot importance is mostly perfunctory; the film never even mentions that Clemons is playing West. However, for others their addition improves the film. Amy Adams’ Lois Lane gets her own subplot and development as she deals with her grief after Batman v Superman, though her primary purpose remains inextricably linked to Superman’s arc. A scene she shares with Diane Lane as Martha Kent is one of the more emotionally rich in the entire film, making its replacement by Whedon with an inferior version retroactively baffling. Much like his on-screen son, Joe Morton gets his due as Dr. Silas Stone and his strained relationship with Fisher is wonderfully bittersweet, whilst Ciarán Hinds’ Steppenwolf has been bolstered from one of the worst on-screen supervillains into…well, he’s still not that interesting, but he has more nuanced motivations and actually feels like a threat now. Though much hyped, Ray Porter’s role as Darkseid is mostly just sequel bait but he certainly embodies the part well, and Jared Leto’s cameo as The Joker is better than his performance in Suicide Squad but absolutely useless; it doesn’t even have the meme factor of him saying “we live in a society”.

Zack Snyder's Justice League: What the fans are saying
Ray Porter as Darkseid in ZACK SNYDER’S JUSTICE LEAGUE (2021, d. Zack Snyder)

Zack Snyder is a contentious filmmaker for completely understandable reasons, but much like fellow blockbuster punching bag Michael Bay, it would be wrong to call him an unimaginative hack. Even if he hasn’t always fully grasped the material he’s working with, he has a style all his own and has a distinctive eye for spectacle, and he delivers that in spades with Justice League. Whilst much of his action sequences were retained in the theatrical cut, they were cut to ribbons and ruined by a botched attempt to retroactively lighten the material. What were fairly generic set pieces in that version have been restored to full glory and are packed with standout moments, with the fight under Gotham Harbour and the final assault on Steppenwolf’s base being some of the best in DCEU history. The horrid oversaturated colour grade has been replaced with a cooler palette more in line with the previous films, though it does leave much of the film looking like they forgot to colour balance the cameras.

The structural editing of the film is also much improved, with the story now flowing at a more logical pace. Conversely though, the momentary editing now has the opposite problem to the theatrical, with countless takes held much longer than really needed. I understand Snyder probably felt like he needed to show everything, but certain scenes could have been trimmed ever-so-slightly. Easily the most transformation for the film is its new score by Junkie XL, which subtly but radically improves the tone of several key sequences; Danny Elfman’s prior score wasn’t terrible on its own, but it simply didn’t mesh with the visuals no matter what filter they put on it. Even the visual effects, whilst still compromised in certain ways, on the whole look better than the 2017 version, though some of the designs remain contentious; seriously, Steppenwolf now looks like a disco-themed Rob Liefeld character. The only aspect of the theatrical version I ended up missing were the choice of needle drops, with all of the rock music now replaced with sad ballads. Maybe it’s just me, but having seen Aquaman leap into the ocean to the thumping guitar of The White Stripes, it’s odd to see that sequence set to the gloomy tones of Nick Cave instead.

Cyborg Takes Center Stage in Zack Snyder's Justice League Teaser Trailer
Ray Fisher as Victor Stone/Cyborg in ZACK SNYDER’S JUSTICE LEAGUE (2021, d. Zack Snyder)

It baffles me to even say this, but it’s true: Zack Snyder’s Justice League is not only a better film than its 2017 version, it in hindsight makes the theatrical cut feel like a pointed insult. It’s a cinematic glow-up for the ages, transforming a box office bomb into a triumphant epic that dares to be extra. It pays off a trilogy of build-up whilst also setting up a promising and vibrant future for the DCEU, gives every character the time and respect they deserve, and proves that Snyder can listen to criticism whilst not compromising his vision. It’s perfectly understandable why some audiences may still not enjoy it, but it’s hard not to at least acknowledge how significant a moment this is in the current cinematic landscape. Whether this will affect the current plans for the DCEU or how studios approach director’s cuts in general, it’s too early to tell. Right now, all we have is a movie that I’m sure many of the fans who clamoured for it will love, and I hope this ultimately leads to positive change in the fandom. Well done, Zack. I hope this helped you find some peace.


Author: Jennifer Heaton

Aspiring screenwriter, film critic, pop culture fanatic and perpetual dreamer.

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