Dir: Zack Snyder. Starring: Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Gal Gadot, Ray Fisher, Jason Momoa, Ezra Miller, Willem Dafoe. 15 cert, 242 mins
The woeful story of Justice League should have been a chance for Hollywood to take stock. DC’s first big superhero team-up was to be helmed by Zack Snyder – but in the aftershock of a personal tragedy, he was given little room to process by a studio who’d lost faith in his vision. Reports of the atmosphere on set leave the impression of an artist on the brink of emotional exhaustion, soon replaced with a filmmaker who rewrote and reshot much of his work. Joss Whedon completed the film, but left behind a string of allegations of abusive behaviour. All that pain, in service of a film that was eviscerated by critics and so underperformed at the box office that Warner Bros pressed pause on its DC Extended Universe.
And there was no moment of reckoning. No one really had to have the tough conversation about how studios operate and the ways creative voices get mashed between the wheels. Instead, there was a fervent fan-led crusade based on a vague sense of cultural ownership, laced both with genuine enthusiasm and an impulse for online harassment. Warner Bros, in turn, would drop $70m on something colloquially known as “The Snyder Cut”, a half-hearted apology to the filmmaker that shirks all sense of responsibility – both for what happened during the production and what this new cut would eventually become.
At its core, it’s an exhausting four-hour behemoth that doesn’t particularly serve anyone outside of the minority that demanded its existence. For those without a pre-built emotional investment, Zack Snyder's Justice League has all the joys of watching meat being pulverised. It’s an ungainly mass of blood, frowns, and grunts. True, this undiluted Snyder is better than what was released in cinemas, which had the feel of a film directed by committee, puerile jokes and narrative inconsistencies included. But his voice has been allowed to lapse into a kind of creative megalomania. Despite multiple editors, it seems at no point did anyone ask: “Why have you taken an already overstuffed plot and added multiple nods to a future sequel no one has shown any interest in making?” That is, unless it’s all part of the plan, meaning the internet can look forward to another four years of voracious online campaigning.
Many of the film’s problems are exactly the problems you’d expect from a four-hour extended cut of a comic book film. The bare bones of the theatrical release are still there – Earth is threatened by the arrival of Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds), an interplanetary horned meanie who intends to track down and harness the powers of three mysterious Mother Boxes, whose combined powers can hold an entire populace in their thrall. He can only be stopped by a united front of heroes: Batman (Ben Affleck), Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), Cyborg (Ray Fisher), Aquaman (Jason Momoa), and The Flash (Ezra Miller). Synder introduces Steppenwolf’s boss, a Thanos-like figure for the DCEU known as Darkseid (Ray Porter). His head looks like a thumb and his practical contributions to the script are minimal – most of the time, it’s one of his cronies, DeSaad (Peter Guinness), who drops by to check how things are going, like a bored regional manager.
The other, more substantial alterations address the previous flimsiness of The Flash and Cyborg’s backstories, the latter of which Fisher highlighted as part of his allegations of racism on Whedon’s part. Snyder’s additions here mark some of the strongest points of the film – Miller’s Barry Allen is less grating, just socially awkward. And Cyborg’s relationship with his father (Joe Morton’s Silas Stone) is touching, though condensing an entire solo film’s worth of personal growth into a handful of scenes inevitably shortchanges the character. Beyond that, Justice League has received a tonal overhaul in line with Snyder’s trademark cinematic language, meaning plenty of slo-mo soundtracked to rock ballads. The colour, of course, has been sucked out of every scene.
There’s a thematic shift, too, so that Snyder can continue his somewhat dubious thesis on superheroes as modern-day gods – all Christ and Osiris figures, mighty and terrible in equal measure. These characters demand our awe as much as they do our admiration. When they receive the call to arms to “take your place among the brave ones”, it feels driven less by some innate sense of “good”, but an almost Spartan-like pursuit of destiny and glory. And so we watch Wonder Woman – who Patty Jenkins dedicated two solo films to lifting up as a beacon of kindness – brutally and unnecessarily kill a man in front of a crowd of school children, only to turn around and tell a little girl: “You can be anything you want to be.”
It’s a warped image of female empowerment in a film that never quite does right by its women – the Amazons’ skirts, since their first appearance in Wonder Woman, have crept up and their midriffs are now suddenly exposed. Barry Allen’s love interest, Iris West (Kiersey Clemons), only appears in one scene, there to be ogled at in a moment of deadly peril. Snyder has always seen the world through symbols, and his female characters often mean more by what they represent than who they are. But for a film that’s four hours long, you’d hope for a little more humanity.
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