VOD film review: Zack Snyder’s Justice League
Ivan Radford | On 18, Mar 2021
Director: Zack Snyder
Cast: Ben Affleck, Gal Gadot, Jason Momoa, Ezra Miller, Ray Fisher, Ciarán Hinds
Watch Justice League online in the UK: Sky Cinema / NOW / Apple TV (iTunes) / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / Virgin Movies / Rakuten TV / Google Play / Sky Store / CHILI
Zack Snyder’s Justice League will be released on DVD and Blu-ray on 24th May, when it will also be available to rent online.
“A big round table with six seats,” orders Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) in Justice League, envisaging his plans for the team’s headquarters. “And room for more,” adds Diana Prince (Gal Gadot). It’s a sign of the kind of world-building ambition that was at the heart of Zack Snyder’s work bringing DC heroes to the big screen – work that was curtailed with 2018’s Justice League, a crossover featuring Batman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman (Jason Momoa), The Flash (Ezra Miller) and Cyborg (Ray Fisher) that Snyder departed after suffering a personal tragedy. Marvel veteran Joss Whedon was brought in to finish the job, assembling a hodge-podge, mish-mash of a blockbuster that felt simultaneously rushed, bloated and unfinished.
A gargantuan fan campaign later and Warner Bros, looking to boost its new US streaming service HBO Max, has forked out a whopping $70 million to make a recut, extended version of the film, restoring Snyder’s original version. While this mythic creation could have been a curious CGI folly, though, it’s not only a step up from the film’s first incarnation, but also a surprising success.
That round table in Snyder’s imagination is the kind of Arthurian flourish that has defined his epic take on superhero lore. Man of Steel paved the way for a modern take on Superman (Henry Cavill), which led to Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice – a clash of titans with its feet in Gotham City and its head in Greek legend. Snyder’s superheroes have always been God-like figures to fear as much as root for. His universe isn’t one of powerful beings enjoying a comfortable skirmish while trading one-liners: it’s one where authority and power is in constant motion and transition, a place where fallen idols are either being toppled or hopefully rebuilt. In his hands, Batman has an unusually lethal view of justice, not because it’s in line with his character, but because it isn’t – he exists in a place of corruption and compromise. Justice League in 2018 was a 12A affair. The Snyder cut is 15-rated and knows it.
Giving four hours of screentime to the man whose view of superheroes is more Watchmen than Avengers might sound like a bad idea – Superman being killed off at the end of Dawn of Justice was surely a sign that these weren’t the most cohesive foundations for a long-running franchise – but that extended scale plays right into his philosophy. Where reach failed ambition in Snyder’s previous DC outings, this overlong outing (divided into multiple chapters) actually gives the director room to reach his goal.
That’s essentially thanks to everyone involved getting just a bit more breathing room to flesh out their roles. The basic elements of the ensemble are the same: The Flash’s eager excitement, fanboying over the other heroes he meets, is a welcome antidote to the downbeat presence of Affleck’s Wayne, while his rich man swagger is neatly offset by the natural physique of Jason Momoa’s Aquaman, a rebel with a trident who may or may not be able to talk to fish. With Gal Gadot once more on typically winning form as Wonder Woman, the result is a balanced mix of larger-than-life characters.
But where Affleck’s Bruce mostly came across as glowering and one-note, this added runtime gives him a chance to bring some sorrow and purpose to his wealthy, weary figure. Aquaman’s introduction, meanwhile, makes more sense and Miller gets to bring nuance and depth to his awkward outsider, with Billy Crudup particularly getting a chance to shine as his father.
The biggest changes, though, are found in Cyborg, a half-human, half-robot who was played with commitment by Ray Fisher in the original, but was mostly used as a plot device to operate machinery. His father’s decision to use a magic alien box to save his life, turning him into a super-computer with a human face, is actually explored here, and Fisher’s new, expanded material lets him find nuance, regret, anger and compassion beneath that glowing red eye – sequences where we go inside his worldview are particularly effective, whether it’s explaining his detached perspective on stock markets or simply giving Fisher a chance to appear in full bodily form as he grapples with his unusual internal conflicts.
The same opportunity for self-improvement is given to the villain too. In the curtailed original cut, Steppenwolf (not the rock band) was a vengeful god who wanted to wipe out Earth by sticking together three magic boxes. Here, he not only gets a spikier look that’s less reminiscent of a PS2 game, he also gets a backstory, and Ciarán Hinds’ almost earnest vocals land with much more impact when we learn that he’s attempting to escape the control of Big Bad Darkseid (Ray Porter), and saw Superman’s death as a chance to deliver Earth as payment to his master.
With the structure tightened and the assembly given more logic, the repaired framework gives Snyder a sandbox in which to pull out all the stops. The tone feels more consistent, flowing from quips to melancholic reflections, much like Superman’s smooth transition from compassionless demi-God to all-American charmer. Fans of Snyder’s signature visuals won’t be disappointed, with slow-motion shots of awe-inspiring strength a common occurrence. But the director also knows when to speed things up, such as an early Wonder Woman sequence that plays into her reflexes and agility. And, by the time the all-conquering finale arrives, the climax plays with all the heft built up over the hours that came before – and the thrill of seeing that spectacle being pulled off (accompanied by Junkie XL’s newly composed, energetic score) makes this overstuffed ride worth it.
The result won’t win over new converts to Snyder’s take on Batman and friends (the Amazonian costume changes are still problematic), but this is the closest he’s come to actually realising it on screen. It’s loud, it’s big and it’s unabashedly bombastic. Whether the addition of Jared Leto’s Joker in a slightly muddled epilogue really works is a small chip in a monumental achievement that leans into its own towering reputation. Does the Snyder Cut’s success signify a game-changing ability of audiences to influence money-spinning Hollywood franchises? The legacy of Snakes on a Plane suggests not. But does it show how, thanks to fan pressure, a hands-off approach can give a creative the freedom to do something bold and different? Absolutely. After years of building up its own legendary status, it’s a relief that this myth has reached a satisfying pay-off.
Zack Snyder’s Justice League is available on Sky Cinema. Don’t have Sky? You can also stream it on NOW TV, as part of an £11.99 NOW Cinema Membership subscription.