Friday, March 19, 2021

Review: "Zack Snyder's Justice League" is a miraculous, improbable landmark of superhero filmmaking

Zack Snyder’s Justice League,
as it appears this week on HBO Max, isn’t the movie Zack Snyder would have finished or released in 2017, even under ideal conditions in the absence of personal tragedy or woeful studio mismanagement. It wouldn’t have been 4 hours long, because the studio would never allow that and theaters would flat-out refuse to show it. It wouldn’t have been presented in a 4x3 open matte aspect ratio, save for the tiny handful of real IMAX theaters still exhibiting IMAX 70mm film. It would have had a different score, as Tom Holkenborg, originally commissioned to score the film by Snyder before being replaced with Danny Elfman for the Joss Whedon-directed theatrical cut, threwout his original 2017 compositions and started from scratch for Snyder’s reconstruction. It most definitely would not have been rated R, though the two or three f-bombs used to give it that ‘edgier’ rating don’t amount to much. And most importantly, it would have been made by a different person, at a different moment in time, with a different life experience. The Zack Snyder of 2021 is certainly not the Zack Snyder of 2017, as could be said of all of us, and it’s impossible to know which among the thousands of decisions that go into crafting a film, even after shooting has ended, would be different with the passage of time.

All of this is to say that I don’t think it was ever pre-ordained or written in the stars that a Zack Snyder-directed Justice League would be a great movie. It certainly didn’t seem likely after the raging dumpster fire that was Batman v. Superman, and it’s impossible to know if the conditions that helped tank that effort would have similarly doomed any version of Justice League released in 2017, no matter who oversaw the final project. Yet whatever weird alchemy led us to this point – an unprecedented blend of studio incompetence, personal tragedy, mountains of fan pressure (some positive, some toxic), a struggling streaming service desperate for attention, and finally a director coming back to old work after a few years on the bench – the Justice League that is now streaming on HBO Max is something special. Special in ways that are clearly evident in all the original, unused footage unearthed for this release, like the formidable quality of the cast and their surprisingly compelling interactions, completely buried or obscured in the theatrical version; and in ways that definitely wouldn’t have surfaced in 2017, like the durational aspect of the project, the stunning open matte presentation, or Holkenborg’s phenomenal score.

And perhaps something more intangible still, something hidden between the cuts and unquantifiable – a sense of true artistic hunger from all involved, a big studio superhero epic constructed, in this final form, almost entirely as a labor of love, without consideration for profit maximization, theatrical screening shifts, or satisfying studio notes. Zack Snyder’s Justice League is defiantly, aggressively singular. I suspect it will infuriate some, enthrall others, and leave many cold. For my part, I was from the beginning stunned, and still am as I type these words. This is by a mile the best film Snyder has ever made, a remarkable artistic evolution bringing what he’s always done well to the fore, excising much of what’s held him back, and demonstrating a marked capacity to grow. The notion of the ‘Snyder Cut’ has, for four years, struck me as impossibly silly. Now that I have seen it, I would be very sad indeed to imagine a superhero movie landscape without it. The entire genre seems so much more exciting by the possibilities this movie reveals.

Read more after the jump…

If you’ve followed my work this past decade, you know I’ve had a fraught relationship with Snyder (as an artist – as a person, he has always struck me as decidedly decent, and the behind-the-scenes Justice League saga has only solidified that impression). 300 and Watchmen are films I loved in the moment and fell out of love with as I grew older, impressed by many of the pieces but increasingly less with the sum of their parts. Sucker Punch drove me crazy, a case of what were probably good intentions gone terribly, horribly wrong, in what remains one of the worst films I’ve ever paid to see. His first Superman effort, Man of Steel, was one I vocally went gaga for – and like his earlier films, I’ve cooled on it over time, souring on certain aspects (the sheer dourness of tone, the excess of death and destruction, the thematic confusion of Kevin Costner’s Jonathan Kent), while maintaining firm respect for others (namely the sheer sense of scale and impact in its action that no other superhero movie has ever really attempted, let alone attained). And then Batman v. Superman was a real breaking point for me, one where Snyder’s worst traits and excesses were laid bare, in combination with an unworkable series of awful studio mandates that probably made it a doomed project from the outset. That film clarified for me some general criticisms I have with his work, like an affinity for fascistic imagery – notably in 300, Watchmen, and BvS – that, while likely a product of carelessness and ignorance more than political motivation, are problematic all the same. Combined with a frequently overactive online fanbase that increasingly came to reject criticism or dissent of any kind, I’d pretty well soured on the Zack Snyder experience by the time the Snyder Cut was finally announced, and I’ve been much more pessimistic about the project than I usually want to be when approaching media.

But art and artists can surprise you – and in every way, Zack Snyder’s Justice League is a pretty glorious surprise. The film makes one perk up and pay attention from the very beginning, its confidence and clarity of vision and purpose evident from the outset; and by the time “Part 1” ends, one can feel Snyder finally nailing something that always eluded him, a missing piece that’s left a lot of his work feeling less than the sum of its often impressive parts: Tone. Where Man of Steel and Batman v. Superman proved too dour, and Watchmen found itself unable to straddle the complex tonal demands of Alan Moore’s original work – playing what was at its core a pitch black satire far too earnestly and reverently – Justice League has a sense of itself that’s inviting, internally consistent, and captivating.

Snyder is working in a broad, mythical register here, a world where Gods and heroes and higher powers most certainly exist. It’s a common to the point of obnoxious refrain that ‘superheroes are the new Greek Gods,’ but Snyder is the only filmmaker who really seems to believe that. Myth-making is front of the film’s mind, and much of the film is devoted to building this larger-than-life, awe-inspiring atmosphere, always willing to linger on a composition for what it conveys about the iconography of these characters and their place in unfathomably large world, even – or especially – when those images aren’t strictly necessary for the plot. The mother boxes and Steppenwolf are, respectively, the key MacGuffins and central antagonist of this film, just as they were in the theatrical cut, but where all of that material fell utterly flat under Whedon’s direction, laughably limp and undercooked, they positively soar here. Where Whedon (and WB) refused to commit to the grand, almost hallucinogenic absurdity of such ideas, Snyder goes all in, and he has both the sheer ambition and visual chops to make these extra-dimensional threats feel like monsters and relics and pieces of a lost, mythical history out of an old book unearthed in a tomb, ancient and beyond our comprehension. The many restored characters and narrative lines give quite a bit of essential scaffolding to all this world building, too – the mere existence of Darkseid in this cut both enhances and clarifies the stakes of the entire conflict – but it’s Snyder’s command of this mythical tone that really allows it to work. I knew we were in good hands within the first 10 minutes, when we see a mother box for the first time, and Snyder actually gives it a little bit of character, a subtle but palpable sense of menace, a feeling like something is alive inside of this strange pulsating machine, fighting to get out. In its most basic form, this Justice League, like the theatrical Justice League, is a ‘glowing doodad rescue mission,’ just like the Avengers movies, and Suicide Squad, and countless other superhero films at this point – but it’s all in the execution. Here, it feels like those MacGuffins and the larger world building they’re connected to aren’t just mechanical pieces of narrative table setting, but big, enticing slices from a large, incomprehensibly vast world, the size and scale and possibilities of it consistently eye-popping.

And while this mythical posture undoubtedly drives Snyder in a much ‘darker’ direction – visually and tonally – than the colorful, comic Marvel formula (which Whedon’s Justice League so self-consciously tried to ape), it’s not too dour. That doesn’t just mean there’s room for a stray joke here and there, but an innate sense of humanity, of characters as people struggling with relatable anxieties, guilts, fears, and angers. It is, perhaps, the great surprise of the film, and the place where Snyder has most clearly improved as a storyteller: These characters feel human, complex and three-dimensional, bouncing off one another in compelling, amusing, and/or dramatic ways, all clearly differentiated from another, and none enslaved to a single overbearing tonal directive. We are a long, long ways from the monotonal, cold inhumanity of Batman v. Superman, and I was positively shocked by how much I came to love for these characters, individually and as a group, even by the film’s midway point, let alone its rousing conclusion.

Indeed, one of the great surprises of the Snyder cut is the realization that every single performance in this movie, large or small, got absolutely neutered in the Whedon version – sterilized through excision, reshoots, or just surrounding context (as is the case for J.K. Simmons’ Commissioner Gordon, whose every inch of footage here was also seen in theaters, but whose wry, world-weary affect feels so much more a part of this particular tapestry). Every character comes to life, and every performance reveals something truly special at the core, some reason why Snyder and company placed faith in this particular group of actors, not just as discrete units, but as an honest-to-god team.

Ray Fisher and Ezra Miller benefit the most as, respectively, Cyborg and The Flash; they are the heart of the film, evinced by their outsized role in the climax leading to absolutely knockout emotional culminations. Miller’s work isn’t entirely unrecognizable from Whedon’s version – he is still the fast-talking comedic relief of the team – but context matters, and Snyder’s cut is much more attentive to how Barry Allen’s fast mouth is his emotional shield, a mask for social anxiety and overcompensation for a lack of purpose and belonging, all of which makes him the character most excited to finally be a part of a team. His added scenes, where they are placed in the narrative, and the renewed strength of the characters he has to play off of – including a lovely turn by Billy Crudup as his wrongfully imprisoned father, whose best moment was left on the cutting room floor for theaters – all give Miller’s performance so much added weight and meaning.

As for Fisher’s Cyborg, it’s fair to say we just didn’t get to see this character in the Whedon version at all – the vast majority of his footage here went unused in theaters, and it turns out that material not only made Cyborg one of the most compellingly human members of the team, but also contained much of the relevant plot information that left the Whedon version feeling so confusing and threadbare. Fisher is truly great here, playing a young man whose life was stolen and transformed, and must now find another purpose and path. Watching him come to terms with his pain, grapple with anger towards his father – Joe Morton, in another great performance mostly omitted from Whedon’s version, and whose character offers another highly compelling arc in a film overflowing with them – and find his place within the team is one of the great joys of this version, and one suspects that had WB and Whedon done right by Fisher in the theatrical version, he’d be well on his way to becoming a major name.

But when I say everyone benefits from this new edit, I mean it – Ben Affleck, Gal Gadot, and Jason Momoa don’t see their role in the plot greatly reworked, but each reveals a depth and dimensionality to their work here that you would have never guessed existed in the Whedon version. I think this might be the best of Gadot’s appearances as Wonder Woman, her movie star confidence absolutely soaring during the elaborate action sequences, her quietly affecting humanity proving deeply moving in her interactions with the team. Momoa, woefully underutilized in Whedon’s cut, reveals so much more shading and detail in his performance here, so many lovely little moments and interactions and flourishes (he and Gadot have a quiet moment in a graveyard that is one of my favorites), that elevate him from an afterthought to an equal. And for Affleck, this is quite clearly work he poured his heart and soul into, portraying a Bruce Wayne who has been truly humbled and changed by his encounter with Superman, a broken man with a renewed lease on life, and an unshakable sense of faith in those around him. It’s a version of Batman I can safely I’ve never seen before, at least in live-action, and one of the most thoughtful presentations of the character on screen. I don’t know if Affleck is my favorite Batman, but he’s definitely become my favorite live-action Bruce Wayne, thanks in no small part to his interactions with Jeremy Irons’ Alfred, who positively shines here; his interactions with Affleck effectively and touchingly sell a lifelong relationship, while his moments with other members of the league prove surprising highlights (a moment where he fussily teaches Wonder Woman how to make tea is one of many I can’t imagine would have ever made it to theaters, but have room to breathe in the 4-hour edit – and the film is better for them).

Even Steppenwolf works as a character in this version, with the great Ciran Hinds having room to play an actual character now, with goals and anxieties that go beyond “get the three glowing doo-dads,” and a completely revamped visual design that looks like it was ripped straight from a 1980s hair metal album cover; his look would also be at home in one of the new DOOM games, and I definitely dig it. Henry Cavill, finally, gets his most joyous appearance as Superman to date, the majority of his footage here previously unseen (you can tell from the absence of a CGI upper lip – he looks human now!), and much of it wonderful. His material here feels like the actual sequel to Man of Steel I wanted back in 2013, watching the character fully come into command of his powers, which Snyder is again remarkably adept at visualizing. The character is certainly kept at an arms’ length, but the moments he has count. Superman’s brief ‘dark’ turn upon resurrection – neutered into an utterly bland set-piece in theaters – works like gangbusters here, effectively pitting all these different powers against the Man of Steel, only for each to be shot down in turn. The small, evil grin Cavill shoots Miller when The Flash tries to outrun him got an audible “Fuck” out of me while watching; it’s every bit as intimidating a surprise as it’s meant to be, and evidence of Snyder and Cavill having fun with the character’s powers and potential. And my God, that black suit is perhaps the best Superman costume we’ve yet had in a live-action film.

The most singular aspect of Snyder’s film, in more ways than one, is its length. Few American films, in any form, reach the 4 hour mark. And no superhero film I can think of could truly be described as an exercise in duration, but that’s precisely what Justice League aspires too. It is not unusually long because of an overabundance or overcomplexity of plot, but because it is built to be slow. Built to construct moments, let them linger, and ask us to inhabit them. Matt Zoller Seitz calls it “the Satantango of superhero flicks,” referencing the 7-hour Hungarian arthouse epic from 1994, and if that’s a comic exaggeration, it’s also not that far off in the grand scheme of things. In how Snyder’s Justice League is paced and constructed, it has much more in common with an experiment in duration like Satantango – or, at least, the audacious ambition of silent-film epics of old, like Abel Gance’s 5-hour Napoleon – than it does any given Marvel or DC superhero film, where plot comes at you fast, scenes are short, and cuts – within scenes and from scene to scene – are frequent. Snyder’s Justice League positively luxuriates in building big, elaborate sequences – some intimate, some epic, some a combination of the two, many of them so strong and purposeful and beautifully constructed that they could work as standalone short films. And the movie does not move on from these moments until they have had time to breathe, fully and completely, to linger and express and ask you to inhabit that space or emotion or aesthetic construction.

Some are thrilling and larger than life, like an early battle between Steppenwolf’s forces and the armies of Themyscira, an extended set-piece bursting not only with endless visual invention, but a haunting sense of dark, foreboding beauty. Some are quiet and intimate, like Wonder Woman’s investigation of a fire called forth from her homeland, and a journey inside an ancient crypt. Some are elaborate, time-bending journeys inside a character’s psyche, like Cyborg’s origin story, which in its complex interweaving of memory and interiority recalls the creation of Dr. Manhattan in Watchmen, probably the best individual scene Snyder had directed up until this point. And some are a mixture of all of the above, like the introduction of The Flash, where Barry steps in to save a young woman from a car crash; Snyder, like Barry’s shoes the moment he taps into the speed force, is absolutely on fire here, weaving visual comedy, larger-than-life awe, and sweet, tender emotion all in one. I would say it is the film’s masterstroke, except it still faces competition from so many other standout sequences – and I have not even mentioned the sheer, thrilling genius of the film’s action set-piece construction in the second half, which put the vast majority of superhero media to shame.

The result is a movie that is, again, slow – gloriously, wonderfully, beautifully slow. Never have I felt so eager to use that word in praise, though I often think it is a positive quality. Justice League slows down where most superhero movies speed up, and in the in-between moments, the visual largesse, the quiet character beats, it not only finds a wellspring of genuine humanity that frequently eludes this genre, but also creates a true sense of wonder and awe the likes of which superhero films have rarely seen. Most comic-book films never truly succeed in instilling a sense of wonder in the viewer, even though the potential is always there. Richard Donner did it in 1978’s Superman. Patty Jenkins pulled it off in the first Wonder Woman – particularly the infamous ‘No Man’s Land’ scene – and at isolated points within its sequel. Sam Raimi definitely got it with Spider-Man’s web slinging, and Ryan Coogler made sure to let the audience feel awe when entering Wakanda in Black Panther. But with the exception of Donner’s film, none of these movies are truly suffused with wonder; they don’t slow down and take the time to instill in us a state of astonishment. For Justice League, that sensation is always front of mind. It revels in the images and ideas on display. It find these heroes and their world wondrous, and it asks us to wonder, mouths agape, alongside it. Plot mechanics matter to the film, but they are secondary, tertiary even, to the more intangible themes of heroism, purpose, and communion the film is engaged in, and which it expresses best through pure sound and picture. Pictures that, thanks to Fabian Wagner’s stupendous cinematography, are consistently jaw-dropping – and even more enveloping and hypnotic due to the open matte 4x3 framing, which results in looser compositions with greater verticality and empty space; perfect, in short, for the slow, studied pace at which the film moves. No other superhero movie moves or looks remotely like this one.

And when not focusing on grand visual gestures of wonder and astonishment, the film can also be surprisingly tender and small. There is a firm through-line of grief and loss via scenes with Amy Adams’ Lois Lane, alone and displaced after the death of Superman. The moments are long, lingering, and quiet. None are narratively essential, and they could easily be cut; to get this version to a theatrically releasable length, they almost certainly would be. But they’re here, and they feel appropriately aching, another character reaching out for an absent connection in a film full of people looking for community. While watching, I wondered if these would have been easy cuts for Snyder before the family tragedy that ultimately took him away from the film; four years later, with his daughter’s passing having clearly colored every inch of this artistic experience (the film is dedicated to her, and the credits play under Allison Crowe’s cover of “Hallelujah,” apparently Autumn Snyder’s favorite song), these scenes feel as essential to this film as any other piece. In a moving conversation between Lois and Martha, Clark’s mom (a scene slightly undercut by an unnecessary ‘twist’), the theme of picking oneself up from grief and working through it by contributing to the world makes Lois feel like she might be the character Snyder feels closest to in the entire project. The scenes on the Kent family farm between Clark, Lois, and Martha are some of the only moments shared between the two cuts, and in the Whedon version, they felt as limp and lifeless as everything else. Here, as a moment expressing the beauty of second chances and centrality of loved ones to the purpose and meaning of our lives, they hit home very hard.

Plot is, as I said, not the primary or even secondary consideration of Snyder’s film, and in its most skeletal form, it’s the same story you saw in theaters (Steppenwolf wants three mother boxes, and Batman wants to make a team to stop him). The core difference, though, is that in the Snyder cut that story makes sense. Not just on the level of plot mechanics – which, to be clear, it does, to a frequently amusing degree for those who saw the Whedon version (like seeing where in the hell Cyborg got the third mother box, a detail bafflingly omitted in the Whedon cut) – but more importantly, on an emotional and experiential one. Battles have stakes; the world-building has texture; events feel motivated, and choices contextualized. Take the resurrection of Superman, which is built upon the same mechanics in both versions. In theaters, though, it felt odd and undermotivated, an out-of-left-field whim the characters follow for no particular reason, other than it’s time for the third act to start. Here, it is the moment where one feels the strings pulled tight, the culmination of putting all these characters and their combined knowledge together, the point at which they start operating as a team with purpose.

It’s entirely possible none of this – not the characters, not the visuals, certainly not the pacing – would work, or at least work anywhere near as well, without the incredible work done by Tom Holkenborg (formally Junkie XL) on the film’s stunning musical score. It is the spine that holds the entire movie upright, a rousing series of compositions with a phenomenally singular sense of voice and style, as far from the anonymous, dull, interchangeable music inhabiting most superhero films as it is possible to get. The new theme for Wonder Woman – a wailing woman’s choir, like a musical battle cry sounded from long in the past, now channeled by Gadot’s Diana in the present – is a particular highlight, and the way Holkenborg combines it with extended, re-configured versions of the old Wonder Woman theme – a simple but memorable guitar lick introduced in Batman v. Superman, but which has never been meaningfully extended upon in subsequent iterations – is so stirring that it should be a permanent fixture of Gadot’s rendition moving forward. And Holkenborg even uses the Hans Zimmer themes from Man of Steel to greater effect than Zimmer himself ever did, reusing, rethinking, and reconfiguring them with a clarity of intent and degree of insight that feels John Williams-esque. Superman’s third-act return to the battlefield nearly had me on my feet, and while Snyder’s outstanding action choreography definitely wowed me, it was Holkenborg’s music that truly bowled me over. This is a magnificent score.

In the end, Snyder’s Justice League isn’t just long, but a film that snowballs pretty damn powerfully, with a spectacular final act that brings these characters together as an effective and dynamic team, doing truly wondrous things, achieving their internal and external goals individually and together in an almost impossibly satisfying ending…

…that the film bowls right past to continue on with several ‘teaser’ scenes that, if held for after or midway through the credits, might be a fun bonus treat for fans. As presented now – a solid 15-minute block of teasers almost entirely unrelated to the preceding 220 minutes, with no break between this film’s clear ending and this ‘bonus’ material – it’s a jarring come-down from the extremely high highs of the film’s climax. By all rights, this material doesn’t belong in the main body of the film – in no small part because this footage isn’t really a part of that body (this material was newly filmed in late 2020, and looks appropriately haphazard, the final scene in particular suffering from some very bad compositing work), but moreover because it has everything to do with future installments that probably won’t ever come to pass, and nothing to do with the film we just watched. I don’t hate these scenes. Much as I hate Suicide Squad and Jared Leto’s appalling work in that film, I don’t even hate the idea of giving him a second chance to turn his Joker into an actual character (which, for the most part, I think they pull off). It’s just that I question the wisdom of adding teases onto a film was already in and of itself gloriously complete, for sequels that will probably never be made. Throw these moments after the credits and I would happily tolerate them. Included in the main body of the movie, they are the film’s most glaring shortcoming.

But the ultimate mark of how well this film works is the series of shots that ends Part 6: the Justice League, assembled, posed, studied in one long tracking shot, and then another closer in on their faces. A similar moment is given in Whedon’s version, and there it means nothing; we do not know these people well-enough as individuals, and have absolutely no understanding or affinity for them as a team. In Snyder’s vision, we do – I care about these six characters as intensely as I did the six leads of Whedon’s original Avengers, and in some cases much more so; especially impressive when, for the most part, all that character work is done in this single 4-hour feature, and not multiple standalone installments. The journey for these heroes to get to that shot has felt appropriately epic, fraught, and emotional, with so many points along the way satisfying, rousing, and electric. The long journey to that point – long in on-screen hours, longer still in the final creation of this almost-lost film – meant something, and in that meaning, earns this visual victory lap. In the end, it’s probably for the best we didn’t get this Justice League in 2017 – because it wouldn’t have been *this* Justice League, this long, slow, beautiful, deeply felt artistic expression. The road was long and winding, but I am glad this is where it ends. In its grand, sprawling, ambitious, imperfect totality, this is, simply put, one of the very best superhero films ever made. 

Follow Jonathan Lack on Twitter @JonathanLack.

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