This is good, bad, toxic, cathartic, and fascinating.
Zack Snyder has always been a bit of a controversial figure for me. His films aren’t great for the most part, with some of them even absolute trash (and one actually very good), but his aesthetic has always been hit or miss. His…*ahem*…personal statements are rather depressing, adding fuel to the fire of a very toxic fandom that has created a problematic situation for fan culture.
Justice League was released in 2017 to…well, let’s say negative reviews to be nice. It’s a bastardized version of what he wanted, using only about 10% of this guy’s footage and instead being punched up by certified monster Joss Whedon. Snyder stepped away when his adopted daughter committed suicide, a tragedy I truly identified with after wrestling with that urge on and off for quite some time myself. This was lamentable not only for Snyder, but for his fandom. I wasn’t part of the horde, having been middling on Man of Steel and absolutely irritated with Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. After the theatrical release of Justice League hit theatres, the unhappy fandom insisted that there had to be a better movie that was far more violent and would suit their needs as big, special boys. A grassroots campaign began, with people spending money on billboards and absolutely wrecking Twitter with the hashtag “#ReleaseTheSnyderCut.” They raised a ton of money for suicide awareness in honor of Snyder’s loss (a good thing) and began acting like gatekeeping, childish bullies while hiding behind that act of kindness (a bad thing). Due to the interest, WB began considering the release of the original director’s cut. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit they tossed him $70m, desperate for any content in a world where no films were being released. His fans rejoiced, a lot of us were unhappy at the negative precedent set by the toxicity of said fans, and even more people shrugged and said, “I don’t care.” When buzz about it’s sincerity, it’s positive and negative qualities, began hitting the internet I wondered if I wouldn’t break down and watch this stupid thing. I had said that I wouldn’t, but off in the background I’m sure as I cried, “I’ll never watch that shit,” a Ron Howard narration would follow with, “He would watch it.”
So…how’s the movie? Welp, that’s maybe the most complicated film I’ve ever had to answer this question about.
Justice League is a four hour behemoth that was released on HBO Max on March 18th, 2021. It chronicles the tale of Batman (Ben Affleck) attempting to put together a team of super-people in the wake of Superman’s (Henry Cavill) death. When the Mother Boxes (three cubes that can end the world and turn us all into demon slaves) begin being taken by absolute nothing of a character Steppenwolf (Ciaran Hinds), Batman and his team look to the possible resurrection of Superman to help stop the big, shiny dude and to prevent the arrival of his boss, Darkseid (Ray Porter). Together with Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), Aquaman (Jason Mamoa), Cyborg (Ray Fisher), and The Flash (Ezra Miller), the Batman struggles to keep his guilt from overwhelming his need to lead.
Look, right off the bat (pun intended) this thing is too long. When they announced that they were releasing a four hour movie I rolled my eyes and I stand by that. It’s so deeply frustrating because there’s a perfectly watchable two-and-a-half-hour movie that didn’t happen. Instead of Snyder taking the ball and merely running it to a touchdown the keeps running, right into the bathroom where he spikes it into the toilet, unzips, and takes a piss all over it. So much of this is incredible amounts of bloat and unnecessary exposition which, combined with the director’s love of slow-motion, have left this whole thing lost in the weeds. Hack off Wonder Woman’s introduction; we’ve got two movies with her at this point and we don’t need to see a ten minute fight in a bank heist by terrorists that want to…I guess return England to it’s chauvinistic, imperialist days?
The other thing we have to talk about is the Flash, the Barry Allen of it all. Ezra Miller had no idea what he wanted to do with this character, so he just made him Peter Parker (also known as Spider-Man). This character is frustrating and irritating, with nothing that really makes him relatable and endearing to ground us. He’s given a new introduction here, one that is perhaps the most Snydery thing the guy’s ever Snydered all over the place and it’s got so many of his good and bad qualities. Slow-motion, close-up sesame seed flying of a hamburger bun while Barry Allen rescues Iris West (Kiersey Clemons)? Get the hell out with this nonsense. There are impressive digital effects at parts of this scene, but overall it does absolutely nothing for the character and is ten minutes we could lose.
The things to praise are definitely centered around Cyborg, who is massively improved by the extended character work. This is the true triumph of the Snyder Cut, bringing life to this otherwise robotic (pun still intended) character that didn’t have much of a cybernetic leg to stand on. The extra footage definitely benefits the entire arc of the character, with a lot of time devoted to his journey from self-hating robot man to excellent hero. It’s stunning stuff and has built enough goodwill that I’d watch a Cyborg film.
There are so many things contributing to the narrative behind this film. Snyder has always seemed like an asshat, but his whole persona is still incredibly sincere. He’s made almost exclusively comic book adaptations, with no real original ideas of his own outside of his speed ramping aesthetics. Audiences have widely rejected the DC films he’s made, with only a small and hardcore group gunning for them due to the violence and supposed “adult” nature of them. When the Whedon Cut came out in 2017 we were only a year into the Trump presidency and audiences were absolutely not going to like this bleak, ugly, apocalyptic film that Snyder would have made. Now we’re desperate for content and extremely willing to take what we can get. Whedon has been outed as a straight-up monster while Snyder is merely a dipshit, which is helping his case. With all of the cast narratives and these aspects, of goddamned course we were set to embrace this goofy, strange thing.
And one of the strangest aspects is that Batman is decent again! Batfleck looked like a broken man after Batman v Superman: The Dawn of Justice (yes, I’m going to type that stupid title out every time it comes up). He played an angry, broken, hateful Batman that didn’t land with audiences. I have a friend that aggressively defends that performance and while I’ve come to see SOME merit in it I can’t get behind the fact that Zack Snyder just made Batman a serial killer. Justice League, however, sees Batfleck trying to be lighter and have more fun. It works like crazy and brings me right back in on his performance. They also give him a BatCrab (they call it the KnightCrawler), and that’s just awesome.
Sadly I’ve touched on the hyperviolent aspects of Snyder’s DC films, and I’ve now got to address his “adult” bullshit and the R rating. When Snyder took on Watchmen he claimed that he’d finally found his type of comic book, one with alcoholism and rape and violence and spite (those are apparently what adults want in their cinema). After that he decided to force his ideas into characters that didn’t fit his ideals, and the Snyderverse was born. Justice League is rated R and it’s for no fucking reason. Super-obviously CGI blood spatters and two or three uses of the word “fuck,” all to make it rated R so his fandom will feel validated and not like they enjoy something that kids could also enjoy. It’s highly obnoxious and serves no goddamned purpose.
The 4:3 aspect ratio (also known as “Academy Ratio”) is another bizarre choice. These films are supposed to be a spectacle, filling the entire screen with glorious effects and fully-realized worlds. HBO Max states that it is presented in this aspect ratio to fully realize Snyder’s original vision, but this isn’t accurate and it’s kind of irritating for a good reason. In an interview with the New York Times Snyder stated that he just really enjoyed Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow, a film about two sweet pioneer-era American boys that want to sell donuts and start a B&B. It’s an adorable sentiment from this kind of adorable lunkhead and I wish they’d not tried to bury this sweetness. Nonetheless, I hope that any possible theatrical release is not only shorter, but not presented in 4:3 aspect ratio.
Another bit of sweetness is the return of Junkie XL to score Zack Snyder’s film. Whedon’s cut was released with a score from Danny Elfman, which saw a lot of throwback music that was meant to tickle the heartstrings and press all of the nostalgia buttons. I don’t like that shit. I was out on nostalgia around the time [redacted] showed up in The Mandalorian‘s second season finale. Plus…Snyder is earnest and sincere, but he’s not nostalgic for this. He’s gnarly and misguided, and that’s what I want out of his music. 300 gave us Tyler Bates shredding on a guitar during each and every fight scene, and that’s what Junkie XL has now given us as a replacement score. Did I get all worked up when the BatCrab was climbing out of a pit with aggressive alto guitars roaring in the background? Yes, yes I did, and that’s a moment of perfect match between filmmaker and composer. Junkie XL is one that I’ve got a fraught feeling about as well, finding him overly aggro and yet strangely honest in his work. That’s…a perfect match to Zack Snyder. I mean that. These two, together, feel like a couple of goofy jocks in high school that also like hanging out with the less-popular kids.
We need to acknowledge that there’s a black and white edition of this film coming out, apparently subtitled “Justice is Gray.” There’s no need to release a gray version of this movie because that’s pretty much what Snyder did. I think this is an improvement on the original cut of the film, but the aesthetic of Zack Snyder is absolutely abysmal. He loves bleak, gray, ugly-ass visuals. DC is bright, hopeful, sincere, and totemic. Give me some color up in here! He even manages to ditch Superman’s blues and reds (which he’d already muted) and just place him in a black and silver costume for no reason. It’s depressing.
I really didn’t want to put you all through this but…we need to talk about the epilogue, titled the “Knightmare” sequence. This is the absolute worst thing in the film, ugly and bleak and containing new footage that Affleck and Leto clearly recorded on kitbashed greenscreens in their basements. Leto has given up on his “nasty club owner that pimps out his girlfriend and is somehow an actual threat to Batman” version of the Joker, ditching the stupid tattoos and characterization for a knockoff Heath Ledger impression that doesn’t work for me. Batman threatening to kill him when he doesn’t need him feels half-assed and uninteresting. The film ended on a pretty cathartic note, but this ending to a four hour film that should have been way shorter just felt like getting kicked in the balls when I’m already hungover and vomiting. I had a good time, but then there’s the fallout of that and then Snyder kicked me when I was down.
End of the day this isn’t really anything. It’s a fascinating cultural object, but it’s more a miniseries than a film and it’s only about 50/50 when you’re done with it. It truly isn’t even Snyder’s original cut, given that they tossed him $70m to produce an entirely new film. What we got, however, is the best and worst of a director that has some weird ideas on what being an adult is. I’m sort of glad I broke down and watched this, but I’m now afraid that “…give a mouse a cookie” will be a phrase that takes ugly, horrid hold in the coming years. Regardless, the release is here and I’m completely whelmed. I’m unlikely to ever watch this again, but the discussion surrounding it will be interesting to watch till I’m old and gray.
Speaking of gray, Zack Snyder’s Justice League is currently streaming on HBO Max, with the grayer version coming soon.