The ambitious-as-hell, occasionally lovely superhero epic comes with a whole lot of baggage.
Zack Snyder’s Justice League is a good movie. Its cast brings the famous DC superhero team to life through performances that range from reliably solid to very strong. Its action is clear, creative, and in a few places downright stupendous. Its thematic work is interesting, both on its own and in the greater context of its long and winding road to existence. There are multiple moments that qualify as full-on fantastic filmmaking, sequences that successfully connect western superheroes to the larger-than-life feeling of mystical Arthurian lore. To put it simply, I like it. I like it a bunch.
But Zack Snyder’s Justice League cannot just be talked about as a movie. The road to its existence needs to be discussed as well. Mr. Snyder directed the first two films in the DC Extended Universe, 2013’s Man of Steel and 2016’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Both made money, and both proved sharply divisive – enough so that Warner Brothers stepped in on the production of Justice League to ensure that Mr. Snyder delivered a product suited to their needs. During post-production, Mr. Snyder’s daughter Autumn died by suicide. Mr. Snyder and Deborah Snyder, his producing partner and wife, attempted to carry on with post-production for a time before realizing they needed to grieve and look after their family – a decision made easier by Warner Brothers’ increasingly heavy-handed control of the film.
Joss Whedon (The Avengers), who had been tapped by Warner Brothers for script assistance, was commissioned to complete and substantially re-shoot the film. Per allegations from actor Ray Fisher, who plays Cyborg/Victor Stone in Justice League, Mr. Whedon’s behavior to the cast and crew was abusive, cruel and unprofessional. Wonder Woman star Gal Gadot and Aquaman star Jason Momoa would back Mr. Fisher’s allegations. An investigation into the production was launched, which concluded in December of 2020. Mr. Fisher’s allegations were compounded earlier this year when actor Charisma Carpenter accused Mr. Whedon of repeated emotional abuse and the creation of toxic work environments on the sets of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel. Ms. Carpenter’s allegations were backed by numerous members of Buffy and Angel’s cast and crew.
Upon release, the 2017 theatrical edition of Justice League (which was composed primarily of footage directed by Mr. Whedon) was a critical and financial failure. Rumors began to circulate of a so-called “Snyder Cut” – a version of Justice League that existed prior to Mr. Snyder’s exit from the production and Mr. Whedon’s assuming directorial duties on the film. These rumors grew into an online campaign, one which became infamous for the persistently abusive, bullying behavior of a loud subset of its community. In 2020, Warner Brothers announced that Zack Snyder’s Justice League, a version of the film created from the workprint Mr. Snyder assembled prior to his departure from Justice League and newly shot footage, would be released. And now it has.
So, to sum up. Zack Snyder’s Justice League is a film completed by its original filmmaker years after he departed from its production due to a horrific personal loss. The cast and crew were allegedly treated appallingly by his replacement, as part of an alleged pattern of abusive behavior. The version of the film that was first released carried both bad history and creative disappointment for Mr. Snyder and the cast and crew. The completion and release of Zack Snyder’s Justice League is a moment of tremendous catharsis for them – as well as an opportunity to raise money for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
The history of Zack Snyder’s Justice League is thorny but essential to discussing it. All the pieces matter, as the saying goes. And now that that history has been laid out, the review proper can get underway.
The best moments of Zack Snyder’s Justice League are found in stillness.
Story-wise, Zack Snyder’s Justice League is pretty simple. Superman/Clark Kent (Henry Cavill, Enola Holmes) is dead, slain killing the monstrous bio-weapon Doomsday at the conclusion of Batman v Superman. With Earth’s greatest protector gone, the Mother Boxes – ancient alien machines of unspeakable power abandoned by Darkseid, the God of Evil, (Ray Porter, Justified) during his failed conquest of Earth – awaken. Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds, Miami Vice), a disgraced general of Darkseid’s who longs to redeem himself in his master’s eyes, arrives to reclaim the Boxes, activate them, and remake Earth into a Hell-World.
To combat Steppenwolf, Batman/Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) and Wonder Woman/Diana of Themyscria (Gadot) assemble a team of brave, bold superhumans. The Flash/Barry Allen (Miller), the Fastest Man Alive – an energetic, sweet-hearted, speedster running himself ragged to prove his father (Billy Crudup) innocent of his mother’s murder Aquaman/Arthur Curry (Momoa), the half-human/half-Atlantean son of Atlantis’ Queen – a cynical, lonely, surly and deeply good man. And Cyborg/Victor Stone (Fisher) – a brilliant young hacker and athlete saved from death by his father Silas (Joe Morton)’s desperate use of a Mother Box to repair his body, transforming him into a biomechanical god searching for himself amidst the change.
As Steppenwolf and his hive of vicious Parademons hunt the Mother Boxes, the nascent Justice League must navigate their own personal issues and the dynamics of their nascent alliance. There are dreadful risks. There are triumphs both intimate and grand. There’s noise and stillness. There’s all-caps COMIC BOOK MOMENTS and genuinely lovely little grace notes and the places where those intersect.
Despite Zack Snyder’s Justice League’s extreme length (four hours, split into six chapters and an epilogue), the picture moves well and uses the time to its advantage. Events that might otherwise be glossed over or rushed through get the time to breathe and weave themselves into the film’s whole. An early battle between the Amazonian Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) and Steppenwolf makes for an excellent action scene, a strong reminder of how Wonder Woman’s culture laid the groundwork for her to become the hero she is and a solid short on its own. Cyborg’s learning his new body’s rules gives Mr. Fisher the space for an extended, often dialogue-free solo – one he performs with elegance and skill while working in concert with extensive VFX. Mr. Fisher, it should be noted, is excellent throughout.
Steppenwolf’s palavers with his nefarious masters provide Hinds an opportunity to turn the wicked conqueror into an insecure, ultimately pathetic bully. In battle, he boasts cruelly and is baffled that anyone would oppose Darkseid’s inevitability. After all, Darkseid IS. In private though, the warlord longs for his master’s approval, to the point that he might as well hold up a giant sign saying “NOTICE ME SENPAI (and all the billions I’ve slaughtered in your name)” during his attempts to contact said senpai, the God of Evil. Steppenwolf’s not a top-tier superhero film villain, but thanks to Hinds and the design team he’s got some character and menace to him.
That menace is put to good use during the action scenes. Zack Snyder’s Justice League boasts a number of set pieces across its run. The weakest of them stumbles due to its rather blah choice of setting, but it has its moments. The best of them see Mr. Snyder take full advantage of his love for stylization and slow-motion to create moments with the scale and impact of a great two-page action spread – a mighty brawl between heroes and the armies of evil that moves across, up and down an abandoned Chernobyl-like city, complete with show-stopping moments of cool.
In its best moments, it achieves a distinct feel – somewhere between lovely and haunting and mythical.
But the best moments of Zack Snyder’s Justice League are found in stillness. Both Man of Steel and Batman v Superman featured striking sequences that combined superheroic iconography with mythological imagery and dream logic (Mr. Snyder has deployed these sequences elsewhere in his career as well, particularly in his adaptation of Dave Gibbons and Alan Moore’s Watchmen and Sucker Punch). Zack Snyder’s Justice League continues the trend and deploys it for both elation and terror. When Cyborg travels the data stream and bears witness to all the lives he can help and pictures the world’s economic markets as their iconic animal representations, it’s strange and quietly wonderful. When the League takes a desperate action that could lead to a potentially nightmarish future, it’s terrifying – particularly given the mood it invokes with regards to the presence of Darkseid – and a machine voice’s warning that “THE FUTURE HAS TAKEN ROOT IN THE PRESENT” only heightens the sequence’s impact. Another sequence late in the film features Mr. Leto’s Joker, and it speaks to Mr. Snyder’s strength with this type of filmmaking that Mr. Leto’s obnoxious hamming doesn’t manage to spoil the sequence.
Likewise, when Mr. Snyder uses the picture’s lengthy running time to take a moment and let the cast contemplate, the results are tremendously effective. When Wonder Woman investigates a long-sealed tomb and learns the history of Earth’s first battle with Darkseid, Ms. Gadot’s growing awareness of just who and what the Earth is up against is chilling and eerie. Likewise, when Superman re-enters the story, Mr. Cavill plays Clark Kent’s coming back to himself beautifully. Mr. Snyder gives him the space to work, to take in his surroundings and the presence of his beloved Lois Lane (Amy Adams), to marvel at life. It’s very, very fine filmmaking, craft that earns the emotions it stirs.
There are moments in Zack Snyder’s Justice League that do not work. The Atlantis sequences are stiff and ungainly compared to James Wan’s vibrant work with the world in Aquaman, and this extends to the performances – Amber Heard adopts a British accent that she would thankfully drop for Aquaman, and Willem Dafoe, despite a tremendous mane of Wildman hair, is mostly just kind of frenzied and shouty. Mr. Leto, as mentioned above, is dreadful as The Joker.
And yes, it’s a lot of movie. It’s a four-hour superhero epic with an idiosyncratic tone and mood and a huge amount of metatextual baggage. It will not work for everyone, and in some cases may be actively alienating – if not to the extent of Mr. Snyder’s earlier Batman v Superman, a lonely, paranoid, thoroughly bleak film that has its share of significant failings.
Zack Snyder’s Justice League is a sunnier, more consistent picture than its predecessor, a repair-the-world answer to Batman v Superman’s what-do-we-do-with-a-broken-world question. In its best moments, it achieves a distinct feel – somewhere between lovely and haunting and mythical.
Acknowledging the history that Zack Snyder’s Justice League is inexorably bound up with, I enjoyed it. I really, really enjoyed it. I hope that completing it and sharing it with the world brings Mr. Snyder, the cast and the crew brings them catharsis.
Zack Snyder’s Justice League IS. And begins streaming on HBO Max on March 18th.