Considering how the DC Extended Universe has unfolded over the past eight years, it’s enough to wish that Superman would zip around the Earth to turn the clocks back and give Warner Bros a mulligan on the franchise.
Beginning with the equally contemplative and cacophonous Man of Steel in 2013, the film’s director Zack Snyder became the de facto architect of a franchise that was already playing severe catch-up to the Disney-backed Marvel Cinematic Universe. The film’s sequel, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, was intended to be a precursor to a trilogy based on the Justice League, DC’s analog to Marvel’s Avengers.
Responding to that film’s poor reception, the executives at WB rushed out a solo iteration of Justice League just a year later, sandwiched in between standalone entries for Wonder Woman and Aquaman.
To say that 2017’s Justice League, intended to be the culminating film for the DCEU, had a troubled production would be an understatement. Snyder and his screenwriter Chris Terrio went through many different story ideas that had to be shifted at the last minute to match continuity with the preceding Suicide Squad, which also underwent profound changes in post-production. More studio meddling occurred after Snyder stepped down during post-production due to the tragic passing of his daughter, causing Joss Whedon (ironically, the director of Marvel’s The Avengers) to be called in as an uncredited co-director. The theatrical cut of the movie, derogatorily dubbed by die-hard comic fans as Josstice League, was derided by critics and fans alike, causing WB to pivot wildly again to spin-offs like and Birds of Prey.
Now we have Zack Snyder’s Justice League, a rare director’s cut that is over twice the length of its theatrical companion. WB’s mandate that Justice League’s runtime be no longer than two hours produced a myriad of plot holes and left hours of critical story moments on the cutting room floor.
At a staggering 242 minutes, the “Snyder Cut” is obviously outside the realm of reasonable cinema but represents a fullness of vision that is admirable on its own unprecedented terms.
The general storyline follows the trajectory of the original: the death of Superman (Henry Cavill) awakens both a trio of ancient artifacts known as the Mother Boxes and the warmongering alien Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds). Batman (Ben Affleck) and Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) recruit Cyborg (Ray Fisher), Aquaman (Jason Momoa), and The Flash (Ezra Miller) to stop him.
When Justice League was released, I considered it the nadir of woefully misguided DCEU and opined that it “literally feels like it was patched together by a focus group that was held up at gunpoint.” Against all odds, Zack Snyder’s Justice League emerges as the strongest realization of these DC’s characters and the franchise’s finest film.
Paradoxically, much of its success is addition by subtraction. Gone are the pathetic attempts at quippy humor, like Superman describing the experience of resurrection as “itchy” and The Flash riffing on the concept of brunch. The aggressive color grading that made the Russian-set third act appear as if the air was made of Cheeto dust has been undone. Cavill’s mustache, which had to be removed with CGI during extensive reshoots for the original, is more convincingly absent this time around.
Most importantly, the movie actually has time for trivial things like character motivation and story development. Divided into six chapters with a cameo-heavy epilogue, it’s structured more like a comic book series than a traditional superhero epic.
Cyborg, who was little more than a curious afterthought in the 2017 version, has a complete and satisfying arc that renders his character both essential and compelling. The Flash’s humor, which came across as strained and desperate in the predecessor, somehow fits in much better and tempers the self-seriousness for which Snyder has been known to indulge.
Sporting film history’s largest Most Improved Award on its oversized chest, Zack Snyder’s Justice League is an unwieldy yet undeniably powerful instance of creative control overcoming corporate contamination.
Also new to streaming this weekend
Premiering on Netflix is Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal, a documentary covering the 2019 bribery scandal that snuck the kids of rich and famous families into top U.S. universities.
Available to rent digitally is Happily, a comedic thriller starring Joel McHale and Kerry Bishé about a married couple who go on a tense couples’ trip with friends who may not actually be friends at all.
Also new to video on demand is Last Call, a comedy starring Jeremy Piven and Taryn Manning about a man who returns to his Philadelphia suburban neighborhood when he inherits his family’s pub following his mother’s death.