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Review: Zack Snyder’s Justice League

March 21, 2021

By John Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

Zack Snyder’s Justice League is a film that can be fully enjoyed on its own as a piece of rousing superhero entertainment, but the experience grows even richer when you take into account the full history behind how it came to be released.

To briefly recap this history, Snyder was the original director behind the 2017 DC Extended Universe film Justice League. But the filmmaker had to exit the project before its completion due to a family tragedy, when his daughter Autumn Snyder, to whom this film is dedicated, died by suicide.

Warner Bros. brought on Joss Whedon, fresh off of his work on Marvel’s Avengers films, to finish the project. Whedon was hired to rewrite parts of the script and do reshoots in order to give the film a lighter, more jokey tone, and whittle the story down into a rushed two hour running time. At this point, I should probably note that I didn’t hate the theatrical cut of Justice League, but I can’t say that it was very good, either. It felt choppy and cut up, and Whedon’s humour often clashed with Snyder’s original darker tone. And I wasn’t alone in feeling that way.

It left fans so disappointed that a social media campaign was started to Release the Snyder Cut, with rumours swirling of a much longer version sitting on a hard drive somewhere that was scrapped for the retooled theatrical version. All it took was a global pandemic disrupting the production and release of other blockbuster, and the launch of the steaming service HBO Max in the United States, for Warner Bros. to finally relent and fork over the millions of dollars needed for Snyder to finish and upgrade the visual effects and do a few reshoots in order to complete his version of the film.

Now Zack Snyder’s Justice League, aka the fabled “Snyder Cut,” has finally been released (it’s now steaming on Crave in Canada), all four hours of it, to be precise. And I’m pleased to report that not only is it very good, it’s also superior to Whedon’s cobbled together theatrical cut in every way. The pacing and flow is way better, and the four hour running time really gives the story and characters room to breathe. Watching it feels like witnessing a team being brought together.

The basic narrative remains the same. The planet is faced by the ancient threat of Darkseid (Ray Porter) and Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds), who have returned to steal the three Mother Boxes needed to conquer the Earth. Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck, reminding us how good he is as Batman) is assembling a team to address these threats, including Amazonian princess Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), the half-Atlantean Aquaman (Jason Momoa), the cybernetic teen Cyborg (Ray Fisher), and the very hyperactive The Flash (Ezra Miller). Together, they also decide to revive the God-like Superman (Henry Cavill), who sacrificed himself to save the world and must be brought back from the dead.

While the story itself remains similar, everything about Zack Snyder’s Justice League feels fuller and more complete. Title cards have been added to divide the narrative into six chapters, plus a prologue and epilogue. Lois Lane (Amy Adams) is given a new subplot that makes her grief over Superman’s death feel more palpable. The battle involving the Amazonians on Themyscira has been extended to give it a higher stakes feel, and Wonder Woman’s introduction, where she thwarts a terrorist attack on a bank, is much more thrilling in its longer form.

The film does a good job of laying the groundwork for each of the individual character’s story arcs, which makes the final battle when they are all fighting alongside each other that much more satisfying. Cyborg in particular, who had much of his story arc unfairly cut from the theatrical version, feels much more fleshed out here, with Snyder restoring his full backstory and centring the relationship between him and his scientist father (Joe Morton) more as the heart of the film. The fact that the young Black hero had his storyline greatly reduced in the theatrical cut isn’t exactly a good look for Whedon or the studio.

Fisher has also been instrumental in raising awareness of Whedon’s alleged misconduct on set, and has held executives at Warner to account for enabling his inappropriate behaviour, opening the floodgates for others to come forward. A regrettably sexist moment of “humour” that Whedon shot involving The Flash falling onto Wonder Woman’s chest, which was reportedly done using a body double and without the full consent of the actors, has thankfully been excised from Snyder’s version.

This is the movie that should have been released in the first place, and the fact that Warner initially saw fit to scrap it in favour of a much hackier version is enough to make anyone question studio interference in the filmmaking process. Especially in light of new revelations about the once-beloved Whedon’s alleged misconduct, and the critical drubbings that Snyder has gotten in the past, the fact that Zack Snyder’s Justice League is finally here and being well received feels like justice being served.

It feels like a much clearer and more cohesive film than the theatrical version. Whedon’s awkward humour and brighter look has been removed, and Snyder’s darker tone and original desaturated look has been restored, with enough blood spurts and f-bombs added to give it an R rating. Steppenwolf has been upgraded to look more menacing, and the visual effects have been fixed up. Snyder also brought back Junkie XL, who was replaced by Danny Elfman for the theatrical cut, to complete his score for the film, and his contributions provide thrilling accompaniment to the action.

Snyder has also made the bold decision to present the film in the 4:3 aspect ratio that it was shot in, to closely resemble how it would have been presented on an IMAX screen. While this choice hasn’t worked for everybody, I actually quite liked it, and found the square aspect ratio, which gives a lot of height to the image, to feel quite unique. The filmmaker’s usual stylistic touches are on full display, with each hero getting at least one slow motion moment. If you aren’t a fan of Snyder’s hyper-stylized visuals, this film may not be enough sway you, but I was happy to just roll with it.

The release of Zack Snyder’s Justice League has also allowed me to go back and reevaluate the previous films in the so-called Snyderverse, which started with Man of Steel in 2013. I thought that film was just okay at the time, and wasn’t really ready for a darker take on Superman, which coloured my enjoyment of it. But I watched Man of Steel again in preparation for this film and, while I still think there are some pacing and narrative issues with it, I also think it’s better than I gave it credit for at the time.

I also went back and watched the three-hour Ultimate Edition of Snyder’s much maligned 2016 sequel Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. I had previously only seen the theatrical version, which I found to be overly dark and convoluted when I first saw it, and I have to say that I actually thoroughly enjoyed the Ultimate Edition. I don’t know, maybe time has revealed it to be a stronger film than many critics initially considered it to be, or maybe Snyder’s style has just grown on me over the years.

The epilogue of Zack Snyder’s Justice League does feel like it has several different endings, including a couple of scenes that seem intended to set up a sequel that may never happen. But I respect Snyder’s choice to simply put everything that he wanted into the film, given his unique opportunity to do so. This includes a new scene between Affleck’s Batman and Jared Leto’s Joker, that was shot specifically for this release. Regardless of how you feel about Leto’s portrayal of the Joker, this is by far his best scene as the character, and it is a genuinely unsettling moment.

Yes, Snyder’s take on these characters is more dark and sombre than we are accustomed to from other superhero movies, but I’m fine with that, especially after seeing Whedon’s botched job of bringing this film to the screen. The action sequences in Zack Snyder’s Justice League are stronger and more coherent, the character moments are better, and, despite being twice the length, the film is more involving. It’s filled with epic moments, and its very release is a huge win for directors everywhere regaining control of their films. I’m honestly just so happy that it exists.

Zack Snyder’s Justice League is now streaming exclusively on Crave in Canada.

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