It’s been four years since Justice League released in theaters, receiving a resounding “eh, I guess?” from both audiences and critics. In the years since, it has joined its predecessors in becoming a punching bag on the internet, but unlike with Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice and Man of Steel, no one was going to bat for Justice League. It was a forgettable superhero movie in a time when we’ve had more than enough of those, and it didn’t even have the benefit of being enjoyably bad enough to receive an ironic fan base. Had it not been for the behind-the-scenes drama, Justice League would have been forgotten entirely. The following events, however, were somewhat unprecedented, with a movement to ‘Release the Snyder Cut’ being spawned (and succeeding) in response to the corporate tampering with what many hoped to be a game-changing blockbuster.
It feels difficult to discuss Justice League without any context to director Zack Snyder’s previous DC entries. Everyone has a horse in this proverbial race, and I’m no different. Initially not being a huge fan of Man of Steel and Batman v. Superman, I decided to revisit them with an open mind and found something surprising: they’re really neat movies. This is actually an opinion that many have noticeably picked up on, particularly with Man of Steel. While there are a lot of unsavory details in Snyder’s films, something that can be appreciated is that none of them were ever the easy choices.
When given the first ever on-screen meeting of the DC Trinity, Snyder decided not to play it safe, and it made for films that, if nothing else, have people talking about them (be that positively or not) years later. So, needless to say, I had a mix of feelings when starting Zack Snyder’s Justice League. The prospect of seeing his signature elements return along with the curiosity of just how different it would be was very exciting, but more than anything, I was nervous about the potential chaos that could ensue if this new version did something completely out of left field.
In that regard, there’s something about Zack Snyder’s Justice League that feels almost nostalgic, further amplified by the very first scene of the film. Opening on a direct return to the final battle of Batman v. Superman, Snyder’s cut quickly establishes how expansive its exploration of the DC Universe was going to be, jumping from Metropolis to Atlantis to Themyscira in a montage detailing the worldwide reaction to Superman’s death. It sets the playing field for how directly tied it is to his previous films, featuring a full return to what has been dubbed the ‘Snyderverse’. From there it jumps right into the plot, and despite its length, clocking in at more than four hours long, Justice League manages to keep an engaging pace, at least up until the first confrontation between our heroes and Steppenwolf, where the film enters a bit of a lull that lasts until the start of the final battle. These moments are still interesting, but the runtime is felt a lot more in them.
While many of the leading roles remain generally unchanged from the theatrical cut, Ray Fisher’s Victor Stone shines as the standout of the movie. Only somewhat offset by a design that can become distracting at times, Cyborg is the emotional core of the team, and Fisher captures the character perfectly. Between discovering his powers, making his way in the world while seeing himself as a monster, and coming to terms with his new appearance and the loss that proceeded it, Cyborg’s journey in the movie is undoubtedly the most far-reaching. His relationship to the League itself is also explored more, particularly developing his dynamic with the Flash, which had been barely touched in the theatrical cut (and would have led to Cyborg co-starring in Andy Muschietti’s The Flash).
Despite that addition, Ezra Miller’s Barry Allen remains shockingly unchanged for the most part. While Miller does a fairly good job with what little emotional moments they’re given, they’re still largely playing a comic relief character, something some may not expect from a Snyder movie. Although something that has been noticeably changed is the effect that Barry’s speed has on the world around him. Snyder clearly wanted to do something interesting with the Speed Force in his take, making for one of the most distinct portrayals of super speed in a superhero movie yet. Barry’s relationship with his father is referenced more as well, and is clearly a large driving point in his actions.
Another massive change from the theatrical cut, boasting an imposing presence but entirely uninteresting motivation and little-to-no actual characterization is a reimagined Steppenwolf, the main villain. While an attempt to give Steppenwolf a deeper background and larger goal is admirable, the reasoning itself falls flat and isn’t given nearly enough time to actually make the role anything more than a challenge for our heroes. At the very least, Steppenwolf does make for some impressive action scenes, and his armor turns out looking a lot more visually interesting than it may have initially seemed.
Behind Steppenwolf’s actions, there’s DC’s heavy hitter, Darkseid. Besides Smallville, Darkseid hasn’t made any appearances in live-action, so a movie-budget interpretation has long been awaited. Whereas he’s been promoted in marketing (more on that later), receiving a character poster and even his own teaser, Darkseid’s appearance feels like little more than a glimpse of a future villain, a fact that may prove disappointing for many fans of the iconic foe. We do see short moments of him in action, yet his relevance to the plot is mainly that of a motivator for Steppenwolf’s invasion.
Apart from the aforementioned names, the rest of the cast are left mostly untouched from the 2017 version. Ben Affleck is charming as a Batman seeking redemption following his actions in Batman v Superman, working with Gal Gadot’s Diana Prince in order to assemble the Justice League. Gadot plays the same Wonder Woman that she always has, acting as the team’s link to the forgotten history of Darkseid’s invasion. Cavill’s Superman is brighter upon his return, yet still intimidating. And, despite a hint at something more, Jason Momoa’s Aquaman is mostly here to get off (admittedly fun) one-liners.
One unexpected but disappointing element of Zack Snyder’s Justice League is just how much it’s shown its hand in the lead-up to the release. Even dismissing the fact that it’s a re-release, the marketing has showed off Darkseid, the Joker, Mera, Batman’s new vehicle, Superman’s black suit in action, and even the death of a prominent character that hadn’t happened in the theatrical cut. Anyone who followed the marketing campaign at all would be surprised by at most four scenes, though a recent TV spot revealed one of those too. While marketing does tend to play fast-and-loose with spoilers when it comes to blockbusters (some more guilty than others), it’s generally made with the assumption that the reveals are made because the final release has more in store, but that unfortunately isn’t the case here.
Unlike its predecessors, Justice League has seemingly little interest in being anything more than a comic-book movie. Though Snyder’s previous DC movies have often been teased for their attempts to point to serious topics like politics and religion, Justice League is mostly devoid of that, instead going in a surprising but rather refreshing direction: focusing on being an entertaining watch. This isn’t to say that this is a “stupid” film or even that it doesn’t take itself seriously, on the contrary, it presents fantastical concepts in an incredibly sincere way that feels absent in contemporary entries of the genre. It’s just that Justice League instead decides to fill its non-action moments with character, developing motivation and relationships.
That said, when the action does roll around, it’s incredibly impressive, and shows off just how striking superhero visuals can be. Particularly notable is Wonder Woman’s introduction scene, where her choreography positions her as a force of nature to be reckoned with. Diana actually takes the lead when it comes to action in this movie, generally acting as the direct challenge to Steppenwolf while the rest of the team deals with saving civilians and fighting Parademons. Snyder has said that he aimed for his movies to feel like mythology, and that absolutely comes across here. So much is done to portray these figures as larger than life and, for lack of a better word, as gods.
Though despite its worldbuilding and use of a vast range of characters, Justice League seems pretty intent on existing as its own property. Amber Heard’s Mera, a co-star of Aquaman, does appear, but with a British accent now, one that she doesn’t have in the 2018 movie. In the same vein, Jared Leto’s Joker returns from being the laughing stock of Suicide Squad in an almost entirely revamped role, with a new look, a deeper explored dynamic with Batman, and even a new laugh. While The Flash hasn’t yet released any footage, there’s not much reason to believe that it will be using Snyder’s portrayal of the Speed Force. Snyder seems intent on Justice League taking place in its own line of events, independent from what came before and what is yet to come. To what end? It remains to be seen, and much speculation has been had about whether Justice League is a conclusion or a beginning.
Ultimately, Justice League feels like a more accessible entry in the Snyderverse than those that came before it while still seamlessly continuing the world that Snyder had been building. It’s a fun, visually impressive ride with an interest in developing its world and characters that should be appealing to both fans and general audiences alike.