Saturday, March 20, 2021

Zack Snyder's Justice League (2021)

While I originally said good things – twice – about the theatrical cut of Justice League, those takes essentially amounted to “some Justice League is better than no Justice League.” As time went by, though, we could see more clearly the seams in that exquisite corpse, to say nothing of the fairly horrifying allegations plaguing an already troubled production. Cut to four years later: the #SnyderCut has been released (on HBO Max, of all places), and it may not surprise you to hear that I loved every minute of its four-hour runtime; I could happily have enjoyed another three hours of Zack Snyder’s Justice League.

Guilt-ridden over his role in the death of Superman (Henry Cavill), Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) scours the globe for superpowered individuals after learning from Lex Luthor that an evil force is headed for earth. That selfsame evil, the fearsome Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds), has come in search of the newly-awakened Mother Boxes, whose primordial slumber was disturbed when Superman died. Before it’s too late, Batman must convince Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), The Flash (Ezra Miller), Cyborg (Ray Fisher), and Aquaman (Jason Momoa) to fight beside him.


If Zack Snyder has a tank, I’m solidly in it. Back in 2017, I spent the better part of five months analyzing Batman v Superman, only confirming my suspicions that it’s one of my top three favorite comic book films of all time (the other two being, I think, The Dark Knight and Captain America: The Winter Soldier). So I freely admit that I’ve got a bit of a predisposition bias, but I’ll also admit that it feels good to finally see the movie I was promised four years ago. I vividly recall leaving the theater after seeing Justice League, thinking about all the scenes from the trailers that hadn’t made their way to the theatrical release. Little did I know that only half an hour of Snyder’s footage made its way into the theatrical cut – and with Snyder’s vision finally fulfilled, I don’t think I’ll ever need to go back to the 2017 edit.


For one, Zack Snyder’s Justice League feels so much deeper and richer, and not simply because we spend so much more time in it. Someday, perhaps, you’ll see a post (or twenty) about the differences between versions, and so I’ll not spend much time on it here. But here’s a case in point: you may recall the moment in the 2017 League when Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) launches a flaming arrow into an ancient temple in man’s world. In the theatrical cut, it’s presented as just one more thing Amazons know how to do, a way to get Wonder Woman interested in the plot, yet in ZSJL, there’s a whole ceremony to accompany it; the temple has intense significance for the Amazons; and that communication from Themyscira sets Diana Prince on a quest for knowledge. And all along, we feel Diana’s pain at leaving her homeland behind, something of which we saw not even a glimmer in the theatrical cut. Throughout ZSJL, Snyder and fellow writers Chris Terrio and Will Beall take great pains to deepen the world of the Justice League, giving the characters a full-fledged mythology to enter. Everything seems thought out, with a reason for being.


The greatest strength in ZSJL is its characters, especially (and perhaps surprisingly) The Flash and Cyborg – the former reduced in 2017 to a Spider-Man caricature, the latter all but erased from the film after Snyder left the project. Without a standalone film of their own just yet, both characters get to take center stage; where they felt compulsory inclusions in 2017, teases for films that never came to pass, here they feel like integral members of the team, with standout sequences that introduce them to audiences. The Flash, Barry Allen, gets a playful moment to demonstrate the full range of his powers during his meet-cute rescuing Iris West (Kiersey Clemons) from a runaway truck. Ray Fisher’s Cyborg, though, emerges as the heart of the film, with a full character arc that reminds one a great deal of Superman’s arc in Man of Steel. Put another way, after watching ZSJL, you can understand why Fisher more than the rest was embittered by the process of reshoots and reedits: this should be a star-making performance, not a footnote in a painfully brief filmography.


There are moments in ZSJL that you’ll recognize from the theatrical cut, shots that have space to breathe in this version. But I was truly struck by the moment when Barry Allen tells his father (Billy Crudup) he’s landed a job in a crime lab to help prove his innocence. In the theatrical cut, this felt almost obligatory, a tease for Barry’s future. Here it feels like the culmination of Barry’s arc, bouncing from dead-end gig to gig before he finds his destiny. Far from feeling compulsory, this moment actually got me choked up at Crudup’s evident joy seeing his son succeed, at Barry’s newfound confidence in his future. It’s this sort of character moment that makes ZSJL sing. Things happen in this film because they matter to the characters, and it’s the characters – not studio fiat – who drive the momentum of the plot. Nowhere is this more evident than in the character of Bruce Wayne, whose immense guilt and strategic forethinking refuel his vigilante mission into forming an army to prepare for war. Now that the reshoot footage has been excised, all that’s left of Affleck’s performance is lean, peak Batman, equally driven and haunted but finally, happily, leaning on the stalwart Alfred (Jeremy Irons), who becomes like a den mother to the newly-formed League.


Ultimately what Zack Snyder’s Justice League accomplishes is no less than encapsulating the entire potential of the superhero genre. These stories stick with us because they allow us to imagine ourselves as our best selves; they reassure us that hope is not lost, that we will always have one more chance to save ourselves from our own worst demons. Running underneath the surface of the film is the reminder that this sort of movie isn’t supposed to happen – studios don’t change their minds and admit they were wrong. Directors don’t get second chances when an industry reboots itself away from their vision. Ever since The Magnificent Ambersons, when studio meddling literally burned the footage Orson Welles shot to spite him, filmmakers who lose control of their movies don’t get them back, and audiences seldom get to see an unexpurgated vision, least of all one restored after being looted and reanimated. But Zack Snyder’s Justice League is proof that hope is never in vain; for those of us who beat the drum for four years, hashtagging to keep the fire going, ZSJLis a promise fulfilled, a warming moment of reciprocal gratitude. And it’s a story about second chances; while the heroes all have personal wrongs they need to right, even the villain is looking for redemption from his torturous past. 


But above all, it’s a fulfillment of the promise Jor-El made to his son back in Man of Steel, eight long years ago: “You will give the people an ideal to strive towards. They will race behind you, they will stumble, they will fall. But in time, they will join you in the sun. In time, you will help them accomplish wonders.” By the end, as the heroes watch the sun rise over the battlefield, I couldn’t help muttering, “They will join you in the sun.” Zack Snyder and the fanbase have accomplished wonders. It’s a miracle this movie even exists, and after a year of endless lockdowns and the triumph of pessimism, perhaps we all need a reminder that the dawn is coming – that each one of us has the potential to save the world. The only thing holding us back is ourselves. Our nature, all of us, is to fly. 

Zack Snyder’s Justice League is rated R for “violence and some language.” Directed by Zack Snyder. Written by Zack Snyder, Chris Terrio, and Will Beall. Starring Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Gal Gadot, Ray Fisher, Jason Momoa, Ezra Miller, Jeremy Irons, Amy Adams, and Ciarán Hinds.

Fear not, loyal readers – Monster March continues tomorrow.

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