Zack Snyder’s Justice League (2021)
I think the first thing we have to acknowledge is that the version of Zack Snyder’s Justice League currently doing the rounds is not the version we would have — perhaps — gotten in cinemas if Zack Snyder had been able to complete the project back in 2016/2017. It’s over four hours long, for one thing. It’s in the squared-off IMAX aspect ratio for another, despite no longer being intended for any IMAX exhibition. Rest assured, any version of the hypothetical original film screening in a non-IMAX venue would have been widescreen. There are a number of other technical, aesthetic, and formal choices that would probably not have arisen, all of them largely, if not irrelevant, then at least unimportant. The simple fact is that Snyder’s daughter, Autumn, died by suicide during the original production, and that has irrevocably changed the film and the filmmaker. You know the old bit about how a man can never step into the same river twice because it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man? It holds true here. The movie Snyder might have made remains an unknowable hypothetical; the movie he did make is about grief.
The broad strokes of the plot are the same. Following Superman’s (Henry Cavill) death in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016), Bruce Wayne/Batman (Ben Affleck) sets about recruiting a team that can deal with threats too large for one hero, gathering to his cause Diana Prince/Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), Victor Stone /Cyborg (Ray Fisher), Arthur Curry /Aquaman (Jason Momoa) and Barry Allen/The Flash (Ezra Miller). He’s just in time, too; Superman’s death scream has wakened three alien “Mother Boxes” on Earth, and the warlord Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds) is heading our way, army of Parademons in tow, to retrieve them, conquering Earth almost as an afterthought. And so, we proceed to the flighty-punchy.
As a whole, Zack Snyder’s Justice League is a fuller, more rewarding experience than the theatrical cut supervised by Joss Whedon. Everyone gets an arc and room to breathe, most notably Cyborg — Ray Fisher was absolutely justified in being pissed off at how much his role had been reduced, seeing as here he’s one of the most prominent characters in the film, getting an entire subplot about reconciling with his scientist father Silas (Joe Morton). Indeed, the whole DC Expanded Universe gets a look in, as not only our heroes but pretty much their entire supporting cast show up: Alfred Pennyworth (Jeremy Irons), Commissioner Gordon (J.K. Simmons), Lois Lane (Amy Adams), Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg), The Joker (Jared Leto), Mera (Amber Heard), Vulko (Willem Dafoe), Ma Kent (Diane Lane) and on and on. Add in the proper big-screen introduction of Darkseid (Ray Porter) and Jack Kirby’s whole weird, wild Fourth World/New Gods material, and you’re certainly getting a lot of bang for your buck. Maybe it doesn’t quite meet the standard of Avengers: Endgame’s “On your left” portal scene, but Snyder’s universe feels vast and concrete; we could have had a lot of stories here.
But going down that rabbit hole is a mug’s game; too many fans tend to approach it with the strangest sense of entitlement regarding what we might — to many minds should — have gotten, instead of the actual work at hand. Similarly, I’m not too interested in constructing a scorecard to track the differences between the two versions, which might be academically interesting but doesn’t actually grapple with what the film means. What work is it doing? What’s its function? Why did this guy make this film?
What do we watch these things for, anyway?
There’s a lot of ink already spilled on the contrast between Marvel and DC, which essentially boils down to the notion — not actually supported to my mind, but let’s run that one down at some other time — that Marvel does “grounded” stories and characters, while DC does “mythic” stories. That’s, well, wrong, but it’s wrong in a useful way if we want to frame Justice League as a kind of modern riff on the Classical pantheon — literally a myth. And what are myths but stories we tell about the world to help us make sense of it? Where does lightning come from? Why does it snow in Winter? You know these types of stories. But there are better, more useful myths that tell us how to be human. We need these stories because it’s hard to be a good person, and we need models for courage, honesty, compassion, and integrity. We need fictional stories about fundamental truths because some things are just difficult to encompass. I don’t know how you find the bravery to face down if we’re going to take a specific in-text example, an alien horde, but maybe I can tell you a story about it. And I don’t know how you pull yourself together after the death of a loved one, but maybe I can tell you a story about it.
Which is precisely, unarguably, what Zack Snyder’s Justice League is about. Everyone in the damn film has lost someone, or is alienated from their people, or cut off from what or who they love. There’s a Wagnerian brooding tone to the film, which attempts to tell its story at an operatic scale because these emotions, this despair, is too overwhelmingly huge to be contained by something human-sized. Snyder’s grief is palpable, and at times actively difficult to look at; it permeates every frame of the film. Which, if it were just that for four goddamn hours, would make Justice League pretty much unwatchable.
But Snyder also understands that despair is the flipside of hope, and so our requiem becomes a triumph. Good does win out over evil; the villains are vanquished, and so too is death itself. Resurrection imagery repeats throughout the film, whether it’s in Cyborg being rebuilt out of machinery, Aquaman striding into the ocean in a scene of primal baptism, or the Christian symbolism of Superman’s rebirth. In this world of gods and monsters, nobody stays dead if you love them hard enough.
And so, I can forgive the film when it falters. Its flaws are inextricable from its successes. Four hours long? Fine. Weird aspect ratio? Cool. The odd on-the-nose needle drop? Whatever? Patchy CGI in places? No biggie. This is an act of art-as-catharsis, and it not only makes sense that Snyder’s fingerprints are all over the frame, it’s also vital. This is a work of true auteurship; literally, no one else but Zack Snyder could have made this, and I’m sure he wishes it were otherwise. It seems petty to even slap a star rating on the review, as the notion of the film being “good” or “bad” strikes me as almost irrelevant. This is a personal vision wrought from the toughest material imaginable, and it deserves our respect.
4 / 5 – Recommended
Reviewed by Travis Johnson