Zack Snyder’s Justice League (2021)
Director: Zack Snyder
Screenwriters: Chris Terrio, Zack Snyder, Will Beall
Starring: Henry Cavill, Ben Affleck, Gal Gadot, Ray Fisher, Ezra Miller, Jason Momoa, Ciarán Hinds, Amy Adams, Amber Heard, Connie Nielsen, Robin Wright, Diane Lane, J.K. Simmons, Jeremy Irons, Jared Leto
In 2017, Warner Bros. suffered something of a catastrophic tentpole failure. Justice League, a would-be superhero contender to the Avengers’ throne atop the box office, was an amalgamation of two opposing creative directions put together under the intense glare of studio executives we have since learned pushed the film’s release ahead despite significant challenges in order to pursue personal bonuses they’d accrue from the film’s box office takings; it was a disaster. A significant tonal disparity between original director Zack Snyder’s more dark and serious vision – which was fundamental to Justice League’s direct predecessors Man of Steel and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice – and the levity of incoming screenplay doctor turned replacement director Joss Whedon (The Avengers), was just the tip of the iceberg. Poor CG was compared to that of a Playstation 3 video game, the score from replacement composer Danny Elfman universally panned, the glowing colour palette of reds and oranges unfaithful to expectations and the original creative vision for the film. Justice League 2017 was “one of the worst mainstream superhero movies of all time“, and it cost $300million to make; reportedly costing double that when taking into account marketing costs and bonuses, thus only just breaking even despite earning $657.9million at the worldwide box office.
A critical and financial failure, the original Justice League was underwhelming for audiences too, and the subject of much criticism from fans, the most vocal of whom dubbed it “The Josstice League” after its replacement screenwriter-director. To these fans who’d helped the franchise’s two direct predecessors earn $1.54billion at the box office, had come to understand the deeply tragic circumstances surrounding original director Zack Snyder’s exit from the project, and were wary of bullying allegations made against replacement director Joss Whedon by both Whedon’s ex-wife Kai Cole and Justice League star Ray Fisher, something had to be done. As soon as rumours leaked of an apparent “Snyder Cut”, #ReleasetheSnyderCut went viral, mobs of impassioned fans tweeted and wrote letters to Warner Bros, hired billboards in Times Square, and mobilised into a collective that couldn’t be ignored. As soon as stars Gal Gadot, Ben Affleck and Henry Cavill began to show support, it seemed the wheels were already in motion for a remake of sorts; a rewinding of time that would see Snyder pick back up that which he had to leave, directing the film that he had always intended to direct. The result is 2021’s Zack Snyder’s Justice League, and it may just be the best film you could expect from such a mess of a situation.
The subject of a trifecta of outside influences – a vocal and impassioned fanbase clamouring for a vision closer to what it had expected originally, a director looking to fulfil his own vision for the project amidst massive uncertainty over the future of the franchise he started, and a studio driven by the desire to make more money through subscriptions to their streaming service HBO Max – and restricted creatively by the tones and presentations of the famous characters imposed by their own standalone movies, Justice League seemed on paper to be more a juggling act than a form of creative expression or tool for ultimate escapism. Yet, every frame of its four hour runtime looks and feels like a Zack Snyder film, and the combination of patience, logic, intense action and genuine fun do make this film a tool for worthwhile escape from all the nonsense and tragedy of our real lives.
Costing as much as $70million to re-shoot, re-animate and by all purposes remake, Zack Snyder’s Justice League is not simply a director’s cut, it’s a new movie. Justice League 2021 is a film that may share some scenes from the 2017 Justice League, but is told in an entirely new way, with much more logic and entirely new reasons to care.
Clocking in at four hours and two minutes, it should perhaps be expected that character arcs are fleshed out, that moments of action are explained and developed, and this is precisely the case here. Whereas Justice League 2017 jumped from story beat to story beat with no rhyme or reason, Justice League 2021 does its best to explain everything; there isn’t a single moment of action that takes place without some logical decision by those involved being presented beforehand. Importantly, this doesn’t come across as patronising or reductive in most cases either, and instead serves to develop the characterisations of its heroes and bring meaning to its conflict. If Zack Snyder’s Justice League is lacking in anything, it is significant mortal threat to the Justice League members themselves, but when supporting characters are this honourably presented, and there is reason to anticipate and then digest the excitement of each of the action sequences, questions of mortal threat remain far from your focus.
Perhaps Zack Snyder’s Justice League’s biggest strength is in its characterisation. The 2017 Justice League film was missing a lot, but perhaps its biggest faux pas as a superhero film was being unable to exemplify the strengths and weaknesses of the superheroes at its heart, seemingly forgetting about their powers as bland fist fights and mechanical battles took precedent. That couldn’t be further removed from how well developed and presented each of the characters are here. Batman, whose brooding and righteously angry persona was replaced by an out-of-touch old man gimmick aimed at providing comic relief in the 2017 film, is smarter, more determined, and a certifiable leader to his group in the 2021 film. Wonder Woman and Aquaman are each fleshed out in terms of characterisation too, with the duo not only feeling like real people, but also having their own unique skillsets highlighted in battle. Superman, whose name isn’t even uttered until around one hour and forty five minutes in, is the crux of the world’s hope, his presence central to the film’s idea that humanity needs an all-good hero right now. But it’s Barry “The Flash” Allen, and particularly Victor “Cyborg” Stone, who benefit from the elongated runtime and shift in perspective.
The Flash, whose standalone is set to debut in 2022, has something of a coming-of-age arc in Zack Snyder’s Justice League, offering quips and moments of levity here and there but ultimately being defined by the heroics that come from the bravery beneath the anxiety. Unlike in the 2017 version where Barry Allen is very much a silly minor character to help with comic relief, the 2021 version presents him as just as pivotal to the team, and as much of a hero as anyone else. Cyborg, whose presence in Joss Whedon’s version of Justice League is barely featured and is used primarily as a narrative convenience, is transformed in Zack Snyder’s Justice League into perhaps the most pivotal member of the whole team, undergoing a transformative and emotive character arc whilst fulfilling his promise as an unmissable warrior in battle. With Cyborg actor Ray Fisher’s allegations against Joss Whedon fresh in the mind, it seems abhorrent that their doomed professional relationship altered the course of history, and that without Snyder’s reintegration we may never have had such a unique and powerful representation of the famous comic book character.
It is interesting that Snyder, a director famed for his appealing action sequences and hired to spearhead a superhero franchise because of his history directing action-heavy movies like of 300, excels mostly in his patience for building characters in Justice League 2021. His creative choices to bring The Flash and Cyborg to the fore are most noticeable certainly, but the director also chooses to totally abandon the exploitative framing of Wonder Woman that plagued so much of Joss Whedon’s version – the scene in which the Amazon Warrior meets Cyborg for the first time no longer begins with a camera pan from her feet to her hips, nor is she the subject of relationship jokes from Alfred. Wrestling with the almost comical CGI of some of the 2017 version, Snyder also abandons a particularly egregious shot of Aquaman accelerating away from Bruce Wayne in an early water-side sequence, and has overseen a complete CG-remodel of central villain Steppenwolf – a character still doomed to a shoddy look, albeit one that no longer evokes comparisons to video games.
Visually, Snyder excels at converting his usually highly stylistic and comic book inspired palette into something more grounded and cinematic. Presented in a boxy 1.33:1 aspect ratio (complete with black bars on either side of the frame as opposed to at the top and bottom), and filmed with a celluloid-like grain that highlights the imperfections on his cast’s skin as well as the interactions of light and shadow, Snyder’s version of Justice League is a notable upgrade on the previous release and an almighty improvement on most of the superhero sub-genre’s output from the past decade or more. The director’s biggest gift, however, is in the rhythm of his filmmaking.
Making an early career out of directing music videos and commercials, Snyder has long worked with the ideas of pace and rhythm in his visual creations, but in Justice League it seems more evident than ever that Snyder is a rhythmic filmmaker first and foremost; the pace of each story beat, each movement within each shot, and each cut, being nothing short of superbly orchestrated. Justice League is very long, yes, but it maintains an undercurrent of momentum that significantly benefits the picture. Whilst critics of Snyder’s perceived self-indulgence will perhaps never be won over by this filmmaking trait – it does leave space for extra cuts here and there to trim the extortionate runtime – it is clear that Snyder is imparting a level of skill in this regard that Whedon couldn’t touch and most filmmakers are rarely given the runtime to experiment with.
A major component of Snyder’s rhythmic filmmaking is his partnership with the writers of his film’s soundtracks, and in Justice League 2021 he has reunited with Batman v Superman co-composer Junkie XL to set a tone and rhythm that is infinitely better and undeniably more suited to the Justice League than Danny Elfman’s score was for the 2017 version. The work of Junkie XL here not only underpins tension, escalates violence and offers emotive musical cues, but it does what every good superhero movie score should do: gives each of its heroes unique musical accompaniments in their most heroic moments. This latter point seems like a simple solution, but it’s one not adhered to by much of the MCU and was certainly not present in Joss Whedon’s version of Justice League; in any case it is rarely so vital to tentpole filmmaking as it is here.
There is no doubt that Zack Snyder’s Justice League will prove to be just as divisive as a lot of the director’s other films, and that critics of the context around the film getting made will never be convinced of the movie’s better machinations, but what Zack Snyder has managed to assemble from the brink of abyss is really quite remarkable. Justice League 2021 may be too long for some to sit and watch in one go – it is handily compartmentalised for those wanting to view it episodically – and it may not abide by the quick and snappy Marvel formula that has come to be the archetype of the genre, but Zack Snyder’s vision of the Justice League is an absolute improvement on Joss Whedon’s work in 2017, and is the best of Snyder’s DCEU trilogy (Man of Steel and Batman v Superman).
This was a film made per the demands of fans and the injustice of what came to pass the first time around, and as such it is filled with a lot of fan service, notable character cameos and some rewrites that have appropriately found justice for some members of the Justice League, so while it isn’t the “hit right out of the box” that some superhero films are, and whilst some may never enjoy some of the director’s recognisable filmmaking traits, there is a lot to enjoy about Zack Snyder’s Justice League for fans of Snyder’s earlier work and especially fans of the DCEU. For everyone else, Justice League 2021 itches a blockbuster-sized itch that we seem to have been missing for much of the past year.