A little over three hours into Zack Snyder’s mammoth vision of what a Justice League movie should look like (a vision that was famously canceled, but now reborn), the team finally announces, “we have a plan.” Again, it took three hours for the Justice League to come up with a plan, which, in the end, amounts to nothing much more than “Let’s shoot the thing.”
When writing about a Zack Snyder movie, it always comes with the baggage that, yes, once these words hit the public, a good number of his fans will take this as an opportunity to yell at me. So, I offer this preface here: I am about as close to a Zack Snyder agnostic as there is. I like Watchmen and Man of Steel quite a bit. I very much dislike Sucker Punch and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Justice League is putrid, but we know now that Snyder can’t really be blamed for how that movie turned out, as Snyder was phased out and eventually replaced by Joss Whedon. What resulted was a confusing, ill-structured mess of a motion picture. Like I just said, I didn’t like Batman v Superman, but at least it was one person’s vision of what a Batman versus Superman movie should look like. And I’d take that any day over whatever Justice League was supposed to be.
And that pretty much sums up what we get in Zack Snyder’s Justice League: one person’s vision of what a Justice League movie should look like. Whether that vision is for you or not, well that is between you and your god. (If you are a fan of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, I imagine you’ll be pretty happy with Zack Snyder’s Justice League.) And it’s a far superior film than the version that came out in theaters in 2017 – but it would be kind of surprising if it wasn’t. That’s a pretty low bar.
Yes, Zack Snyder’s Justice League is just over four hours long, divided into individual chapters in case a person doesn’t want to watch it all in one sitting. And most of that padded time is used to show us the backstories of each of the characters, which kind of reveals the biggest problem with both of these versions: in that it came out way too early in this DC Universe that was being built. In Whedon’s version we knew almost nothing about these characters. In Snyder’s version we know more, and it certainly helps the story, but now it’s a four hour movie about searching for magic, world-destroying boxes.
But, yes, the character development helps immensely. Too often in the previous version I was left wondering why a character would do something or say something in the context of the story. It made no sense. While watching Snyder’s version, I had a lot of, “ohhh, I see, that makes sense now,” moments. But by the time we get to the third hour, it’s still a razor thin plot about trying to find three Mother Boxes so the world doesn’t end. So my general feeling during most of this Zack Snyder’s Justice League, was, yes, it’s now a coherent movie and is a better experience. But, also, why does a movie with a plot that’s as simple as “searching for magic boxes” have to be this long?
Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) is trying to put together a team of heroes – The Flash (Ezra Miller), Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), Aquaman (Jason Mamoa), Cyborg (Ray Fisher) – to make up for the missing Superman (Henry Cavill) who died in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. (Bruce spends so much time assembling this team, and we see so many backstories, he doesn’t even wear his Batman costume until over two hours into this movie.) And this was my favorite aspect of Zack Snyder’s Justice League. Basically, we get a mini-movie for each character. By the time they all team up, we at least know a little bit about them. We learn Cyborg used to play football and his ability to hack computers now becomes a huge plot point. We get a whole scene of The Flash applying for a job and saving Iris West from a car accident. But, in the end, these setups become kind of frustrating because they just lead to an unmemorable CGI ending of a battle. (Again the “let’s shoot it” plan.)
This team is needed because an alien invader named Steppenwolf is looking for the three Mother Boxes and if he gets them, his boss, Darkseid (who wasn’t in the original film), will come to Earth and enslave all of its citizens. And, yes, Steppenwolf is among the characters who are fleshed out. Now he’s less “standard CGI villain” and more of a depressing dope who just wants to impress Darkseid. Steppenwolf has been discarded by Darkseid as a bumbling fool, but this is Steppenwolf’s big chance for redemption! In fact, we see Steppenwolf check in with Darkseid, or another henchman, DeSaad, in kind of a “Vader checking in with the Emperor in The Empire Strikes Back” kind of way, many, many times during this movie. Also, Steppenwolf looks much better. He literally looked like unfinished CGI in the Whedon version. Now he looks like “completed CGI.” This doesn’t change that Steppenwolf is still a pretty lousy villain. But now, at least, he has some motivations – and a couple of bosses giving him a hard time. Which is much better than the previous motivation that seemed nothing more than, “I’m mad.”
It seems likely now Joss Whedon’s main job was to “cut this movie down from four hours into two hours,” adding scenes here and there that pasted what was left together into something coherent. (Yeah, he failed at that.) Gone are things like the opening scene of Batman fighting Parademons and, later, the whole subplot about the Russian family. And, now, everything that’s left feels just more extended. It’s a pretty remarkable thing, because there were a lot of character motivations thrown on the cutting room floor that were just never bothered to be explained in any way, which resulted in a mess of a movie.
The legacy of Zack Snyder’s Justice League will most likely be that of an odd curiosity. And it will most likely wind up being the version of this movie that’s most accepted as the definitive version, kind of like how it’s pretty hard to track down the version of Blade Runner that has Harrison Ford’s narration. Personally, I could have lived my life peacefully without thinking about this movie ever again, but I don’t begrudge Snyder for wanting his version out there. Basically, “Hey, if you want to not like this movie, at least not like the one I wanted to make. Please judge me on my patented slow-motion shots set to sad music, not whatever that other movie had in it.” (And there is plenty of that.) And it is pretty remarkable he got a chance to do it. This really isn’t something that happens: a director who was replaced, coming back to reshape the movie into his once scorned vision. So that aspect I certainly find interesting.
Zack Snyder’s Justice League, inevitably, is not for me. It’s a vast improvement from the prior version – and, honestly, the fact there now has been more solo movies for these characters kind of retroactively helps this movie; like, we understand Aquaman’s deal now – but, in the end, it’s just a movie about trying to find magic boxes. It’s just a really long, more coherent version of that story. I certainly didn’t hate it like I hate the prior version – and, admittedly, I do like it more than Batman v Superman – but all the character motivation in the world still doesn’t help the foundation the whole thing is built on.
And I think Snyder himself might even know that, because there’s a 30-minute epilogue at the end of this movie that’s pretty interesting. Having some new, recently filmed footage in there, he at least knew he needed “something else.” Some weight. A scene giving us a glimpse into what the future of this story might have looked like, though it’s doubtful we’ll ever see it. It left me intrigued! But not enough to say I enjoyed watching all of the previous three and a half hours. Though, my mindset on this movie has changed from “a disaster” to “a competently made, interesting misfire.” And for people, like me, who aren’t totally on board with Snyder’s grand vision for these films, well maybe, in Snyder’s mind, that’s a win.
‘Zach Snyder’s Justice League’ begins streaming on March 18th. You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.