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By the time this review appears in print on Thursday, March 18, the web should offer many breakdowns of every single difference between Zack Snyder’s Justice League and the 2017 Justice League, which is credited to Snyder but was largely helmed and written by Joss Whedon. So let’s focus on how the two films are alike: Each, at the time of its release, could reasonably be called the most needlessly solemn, chore-like and joyless feature ever made about superheroes.
The new version is an improvement in some concrete ways. Its plot and tone are more coherent, with occasional puzzling exceptions. Its visual effects are substantially improved, though still sometimes fakey, and in general the photography looks better — though viewers may resent the frame’s nearly square aspect ratio, which was designed with Imax, not widescreen TVs, in mind.
Release date: Mar 18, 2021
But the movie’s soul, such as it is, remains unimproved, and at 242 minutes, very few of them offering much pleasure, it’s nearly unendurable as a single-sitting experience. If it were watched in parts — title cards identify six chapters and an epilogue, and some rumors suggested it would be released as a series — those segments would fail to deliver the shapely balance of energies and pacing that one expects these days from even a merely competent TV show. This expanded version may be exactly the product desired by the legion of Snyder fans who cried to the heavens for its release. But nonmembers of that cult will find it just as unenjoyable as the original.
For those who don’t know: Snyder was in postproduction on the troubled 2017 film, which was to expand on his two brooding Superman and Batman pics and solidify a Marvel-style “cinematic universe” of DC Comics characters, when family tragedy led him to hand the reins to Whedon. Famous at the time for wrangling a surfeit of heroes into two highly entertaining Avengers films, Whedon did extensive reshoots, trying to nudge things toward his lighter, bantery comfort zone. In the end, adding honey to battery acid pleased no one.
Most of us shrugged, wished we’d spent Thanksgiving doing something less soul-killing, and got on with our lives. Perhaps we were relieved to know we’d never see this ill-matched cast of actors together again. But the Snyderheads, convinced that a magnificent “Snyder Cut” was being denied them, made noise.
The sometimes aggressive nature of the noise they made, and how others responded to it, is relevant because it makes a couple of moments in the film seem like they just might demonstrate some wry self-awareness. When the horned monster called Steppenwolf brings his minions to the site of a Russian nuclear disaster, for instance, he gazes around at his new home and crows, “It’s toxic. That’s good!” On the other hand, this dude also just boasted he was about to begin “the Great Darkness,” which would suggest he hasn’t seen the two glowering films preceding this one, or any of the strenuously gloomy, turgid pictures that define Snyder’s macho aesthetic.
Stripped of nearly all of what might’ve been called jokes in the 2017 film, Justice League largely maintains a testosterocious monotony from its first chapter, in which Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) travels to an Icelandic fishing village to ask Aquaman (Jason Momoa) to join him in fighting an unspecified intergalactic menace. “A strong man is stronger alone,” Waterbro grunts, stripping off his shirt and descending into the sea. At this, a group of Icelandic women perform a quiet song of farewell — an early example of the kind of cinematic gold the Snyder Cut rescues from Whedon’s cutting-room floor.
While the specifics have changed, the film’s overall idea is the usual end-of-everything rigmarole: Steppenwolf, working for a far-away supervillain called Darkseid, is hunting for three boxes that, once joined, will doom all Earth’s inhabitants. Banding together after the death of Superman (Henry Cavill), our heroes must keep those boxes hidden, or, failing that, do something amazing.
With Snyder focused on posing his action figures, engaging performances are not a priority here — something you notice immediately when Billy Crudup arrives onscreen and reminds you what acting looks like. In his two brief scenes, Crudup plays the father of the film’s other bright spot, the Flash (Ezra Miller). Young and excitable, Flash serves the Peter Parker function here: Unlike his grim, duty-bound elders, he thinks saving the world is fun. The screenplay doesn’t give him enough good lines, and his kid-brother energy wears thin. But it’s easy to imagine how other filmmakers might, as Patty Jenkins did in the first Wonder Woman, capture what makes this hero tick in a film worth watching.
As for the other newcomer, moviegoers who complain about how angsty the modern Batman is will not want to meet Cyborg (Ray Fisher), whose daddy issues make his orphaned, abandoned and exiled teammates look happy-go-lucky by comparison. Snyder invests a fair bit of time visualizing what this living supercomputer can do, but assertions of his near-omnipotence are at odds with what we actually see when he tries to make things happen.
From those Icelandic singers to a big set piece where Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) foils terrorists by herself in London, the film is stuffed with big and small things that do nothing to move it forward, or to offer light relief from a never-ending river of CG action sequences. (As Batman’s long-suffering butler, Jeremy Irons comes closest to serving that function.) Its dialogue overflows with redundancies, clinkers and head-scratchers like “Show her the darkness before the daylight of history.” And really, anybody who thinks a temple full of spears-drawn Amazons needs to announce “We have no fear!” in unison needs to go back to screenwriting school. (However many cooks were in the kitchen, the film assigns sole screenwriting credit/blame to Chris Terrio.)
Some of the battles here might play well if repurposed in other comic book movies. But they’re just numbing in this film, which feels as long as that secret director’s cut of Infinity War that shows every one of Doctor Strange’s 14 million strategies to beat Thanos. And then, after the Man of Steel comes back to life and our heroes get their twilight glory pose, Snyder tacks on an exasperating epilogue — offering a window into alternate realities, with even deadlier conflicts between the iconic characters who’re supposed to be super-friends. No thanks, guys. This was more than enough.
Production companies: Atlas Entertainment, Stone Quarry, DC Films
Distributor: HBO Max
Cast: Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Gal Gadot, Jason Momoa, Ray Fisher, Ezra Miller, Joe Morton, Jeremy Irons, Amy Adams, Connie Nielsen, Diane Lane, J.K. Simmons
Director: Zack Snyder
Screenwriter: Chris Terrio
Producers: Deborah Snyder, Charles Roven
Executive producers: Ben Affleck, Wesley Coller, Curt Kanemoto, Christopher Nolan, Jim Rowe, Chris Terrio, Emma Thomas
Director of photography: Fabian Wagner
Production designer: Patrick Tatopoulos
Costume designer: Michael Wilkinson
Editors: David Brenner, Dody Dorn
Composer: Junkie XL
Casting directors: Kristy Carlson, Lora Kennedy, Kate Ringsell
Rated R, 242 minutes
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