Zack Snyder’s Justice League (2021)
★★★★ / ★★★★
“Zack Snyder’s Justice League” marks the first time when I truly felt that the DC Extended Universe has the potential to challenge and possibly surpass the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Although I enjoyed Joss Whedon’s 2007 version despite its glaring shortcomings, it is without question that this “Justice League” is a more realized and cohesive film—not because it boasts a running time of four hours but because of what is incorporated, explored, and ironed out within the given time span. There is a reason for its daunting length.
Consider the Barry Allen (Ezra Miller) and Victor Stone (Ray Fisher) characters whose superhero counterparts are The Flash and Cyborg, respectively. These two have not had their own standalone movies and so it is crucial that those unfamiliar with them be hooked in learning about who they are in an incredibly busy story that revolves around an apocalypse and the resurrection of Clark Kent / Superman (Henry Cavill) who perished in Snyder’s “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.” Although the Allen and Stone storylines are not in any way profound, patience and genuine humanity can be felt in the way they are told. And so we grow to care for them outside of their abilities: Allen for his youthful effervescence, drive, and sense of humor; Stone for his isolation, anger, and shame—tasty appetizers for when they (finally) get their turn in the spotlight.
The central villain’s motivation is presented with much needed clarity here. In the 2007 cut, one of my complaints is that he is dull and so the visual effects that pervade the final stretch turned the picture into autopilot—a snooze. Here, Steppenwolf (voiced by Ciarán Hinds) still must collect powerful, highly advanced machines called Mother Boxes. There are three of them and when synchronized they have the terrifying power to destroy worlds.
The crucial difference is that Steppenwolf in this version wants to return to his world after he earns the approval of the ominous Darkseid (voiced by Ray Porter). An antagonist wanting to destroy a planet is a Tuesday and so it is correct to give the character, an extraterrestrial, an additional quality that is much more grounded in humanity. (How’s that for irony?) And because Steppenwolf’s core motivation has changed, I felt elated (after a big sigh of relief) when Snyder proves to have the insight to alter the final act completely. To have left it as it was would have been a disaster, nonsensical, not to mention lazy and inappropriate. It shows that he has a specific vision of the story he wishes to tell.
Outside of characters, the flow in storytelling is noticeably smoother. Most apparent is Snyder’s cut being divided into chapters and each one offers a dominant theme. Once a theme is tackled, it is then provided layers in succeeding chapters. Thus, over time, connective tissues among events, character arcs, and Easter eggs—within this film, those that came before, and what is yet to come—grow strong; I found the juggling of numerous plates to be elegant, entertaining, and occasionally impressive. At one point I thought, “Why can’t all DCEU movies be like this?”
There is improvement in the way dialogue is handled resulting in rhythm changes. Forced humor is dialed down from nine to about a two. A misplaced joke can derail an action sequence—a handful of examples can be found in Whedon’s film. In addition, some of the more awkward pauses and knowing glances have been eliminated. For instance, when characters engage, particularly between Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) and Batman (Ben Affleck), there is constant bubbling urgency in putting together a team who can defend earth from invading forces. In this film, there is a clear and correct leader: Bruce Wayne—not Wonder Man, not Batman, the flawed but well-meaning person behind the mask.
But there are fresh additions, too. Note an early scene following a brief and cold interaction between Batman and Aquaman (Jason Momoa), how an Icelandic folk song is incorporated which serves to underscore the latter’s relationship with the locals he protects. Could it have been left on the cutting room floor and the movie would have been the same? Possibly, yes. But since it is included, it works as an extra detail that might explain why Aquaman is reluctant to join the Justice League at first—that by deciding to join a fight, it is an act of putting those whom he cares about in the line of fire, too. (Not to mention the song is quite beautiful.)
If this “Justice League” is a sign of what’s yet to come from DCEU, brace for impact.