There is a scene in Zack Snyder’s Justice League when one of the central superhero figures uses his superpowers for good. This may sound obvious, but it is notable that such use usually translates into beating up bad people, whether they be muggers, megalomaniacal crime bosses or genocidal aliens. This scene, however, involves helping someone in need and, in doing so, redistributing wealth. It is perhaps ironic that one of the other central superhero figures describes his power as “I’m rich,” but it serves to indicate Snyder’s singular vision in making this film his own.
And his own it most certainly is. The production history of “Justice League” is as torturous as many a comic book story arc. After the mixed response to “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” and the largely positive reception of “Wonder Woman,” Snyder was under pressure from Warner Bros. to deliver something that would rival the heights of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Then family tragedy struck and Snyder, along with producer Deborah Snyder, left the project. Joss Whedon was hired to polish the script and direct reshoots, and the finished theatrical cut was met with widespread derision as well as accusations of on-set abuse. A fan-led campaign #ReleaseTheSnyderCut succeeded in bringing Snyder back to reshoot and reedit much of the film, which might have had a theatrical release had it not been for the Covid-19 pandemic. Eventually, Warner Bros. released the Snyder Cut on HBO Max in the US as well as other services around the world, such as Sky and NowTV in the UK.
The streaming release may explain why Zack Snyder’s Justice League is so very Snyder. Free of cinema schedules and ticket sales, the film is a four-hour epic split into seven parts including an epilogue. This makes it comparable to a mini-series as much as a very long film, open to different types of viewing experience. However one chooses to watch it, how is that experience going to be? The answer will likely depend on the viewer’s engagement with Snyder as a filmmaker and their attachment to the source material. Snyder’s stylistic trademarks are all here, including bold color pallets, extensive use of slo-mo and speed-ramped fight scenes, as well as grand skylines and entrances.
The most prominent criticism of the previous entries in the DC Extended Universe (DCEU) is that it’s too grim and dark, especially in relation to Superman, who apparently should not be grim or dark. Similarly, Batman should not kill people (although he certainly has in previous iterations). The central complaint, therefore, is that certain fans have a particular expectation of what these characters are and must be. This is a strange insistence since comic book superheroes have been repeatedly rebooted and re-invented by writers and artists as well as filmmakers. This is part of their status as modern legends, as like Hercules, Achilles, King Arthur, Robin Hood and Thor (where have we seen him recently?), Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman and their ilk are endlessly adaptable for a range of different stories. Snyder’s versions of these characters can sit alongside other interpretations, for this reinterpretability is what makes the characters lasting and, indeed meaningful. A somber Superman and a murderous Batman work within the context of Snyder’s world-building, populated by people who are cynical, embittered and often damaged. Arguably, these are exactly the people who need superheroes to give them hope and inspiration, a recurring theme for the genre.
Zack Snyder’s Justice League takes these legendary heroes and gives them a worthily gargantuan treatment. No backstory is underdone, no weighty emotion is spared. The aforementioned scene involving helping the needy is one of many scenes that involve Cyborg/Victor Stone (Ray Fisher, “Justice League”), Flash/Barry Allen (Ezra Miller, “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald”), Aquaman/Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa, “Wolves”), Wonder Woman/Diana Prince (Gal Gadot, “Wonder Woman 1984”) and Batman/Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck, “Triple Frontier”) contemplating their powers, their place and their role. This does have the effect of making the film potentially slow and ponderous. But it also makes it thoughtful and introspective, spending time on character and motivation. The characters are fully inhabited, both by consistent and coherent writing and committed performances. Ray Fisher is the standout here, Victor given genuine trauma, guilt and anger which Fisher skillfully expresses through a physical performance that transcends the performance capture and digital makeup that constitutes Cyborg. Miller deserves plaudits as well for bringing some light relief to the moody proceedings, his Barry delivering youthful snark that comes across as naïve and somewhat endearing. Momoa is perhaps shortchanged because of Arthur’s more extensive backstory, but the underwater sequences are strikingly more stylish and imaginative than those in “Aquaman,” Snyder demonstrating his talent for creating (sorry) immersive worlds and expressing super abilities.
This is one of the great strengths of the film, again supported by the long running time. Many sequences place the experience of superpowers on screen, including the Flash’s hyper-speed movement, Aquaman’s movement within and manipulation of water, Cyborg’s internal digital landscapes and Wonder Woman and Superman’s impactful power. One of the few effective scenes in the theatrical cut that returns here is a clash between Superman and Wonder Woman where the seismic impact of their blows can be felt by the viewer, once again drawing us into their world. In the absence of super abilities, we go into Bruce Wayne’s dreams, leading to perhaps the weakest part of the film in a disappointing epilogue that largely undermines what came before. But prior to that, Snyder crafts an enveloping and richly textured world of tactile and often awe-inspiring power. This extends to the villains as well, as Steppenwolf (voiced by Ciarán Hinds, “First Man”) cuts a far more menacing figure than previously, while the inclusion of über big bad Darkseid (voiced by Ray Porter, “The Sandman” TV series) and another key figure offers a tantalizing glimpse of the wider DCEU, which sadly we may never get to see.
It is perhaps testament to Zack Snyder’s Justice League that despite its length, portentous po-facedness and possible pretension, it is a full-realized world of scale and power that can leave the viewer wanting more. The biggest problem of the theatrical cut was inconsistency in tone and mood, where Snyder’s portent sat uncomfortably alongside Whedon’s flippancy. There is no such issue here. It will not work for everyone: If you have a particular idea of how these heroes should be, this probably isn’t it so you won’t like it. If you don’t like Zack Snyder as a filmmaker, this is not going to convert you. But if you are open to various versions of archetypal characters and the experience of being within superpowers, this could well work for you. And if you liked “300,” “Watchmen,” “Sucker Punch,” and of course “Man of Steel” and “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice,” this version of “Justice League” might just be the ultimate Snyder film.