It’s no understatement to say that Zack Snyder’s Justice League is a completely different film than Justice League (2017). Fans should remember that it’s quite literally over three hours of new footage, and in that, it is uncompromisingly Zack Snyder’s. Something which occasionally weighs the film down, often uplifts it and ultimately isn’t enough to overcome the film’s inherent nature. In its entirety that film is a fun and epic first team-up sandwiched between attempts to fix Snyder’s previous questionable creative decisions and set up for what were meant to be his future questionable creative decisions.
The uncompromising nature of his vision is apparent across so many scenes. Snyder’s knack for visual flair and glandeur construct moments which in any other director’s hands would be no more effective, such as the League’s first encounter with Steppenwolf as a team. Conversely Snyder brings his same use of over-dramatic lighting, and slow motion to a generic football game and it looks ridiculous. No scene is untouched by his craftsmanship, and while occasionally that means the film strives for style disconnected from any storytelling goals, it also means it feels as if the film is made for a specific audience whereas Whedon’s cut never did.
Consequently though it feels as if that audience is rather small. Even those that would profess themselves as Snyder fans, would probably confess that their ideal Justice League movie isn’t one where the League grave robs Superman and tries to bring him back to life. It’s here that viewers will have to confront the fact that the premise for this film isn’t good. Bonding over a resurrection is morbid and macabre, which are things characters like the Flash, Cyborg, Aquaman and Wonder Woman shouldn’t be. One might suggest, as has been suggested rather consistently with Snyder’s work, that this premise might ought to be more hopeful.
Thankfully the character work struggles rather consistently against the tone of the premise. Whether it’s the fun relationship being developed between Alfred and Wonder Woman, or the heartfelt character arc being established for The Flash, the work is being put in to inject life into this film.
Writers Zack Snyder, Chris Terrio and Will Beall struggle with equal successes and failures in the craft of scripting the film, but foremost are able to do the all important job of making these characters worth seeing again. It’s often true that the film is well-paced, so much so that it doesn’t nearly feel its length, and that the interplay of full character arcs gives the film a natural momentum. Then the film consistently fails to bolster those arcs with meaningful and human dialogue. It’s so often one step forward, and one step that’s a detriment to the films likable and fleshed out characters.
The relationships established here are the script’s foremost successes, as moments of bonding abound and viewers become endeared to the dynamic which bonds this team. For example, when Aquaman consults The Flash about which hat he should wear there’s the tangible warmth of a brotherly discourse, which makes them fun for viewers to be around. It also allows the film to drift into this space which refutes the dour, hopelessness of Snyder’s previous two films, while avoiding the quippy dialogue of the MCU by simply having most of the characters be genuinely likable.
In this respect, The Flash is the absolute standout on the team. He brings a lot of heart to the film, and provides viewers a lense through which they can enter this world of gods and monsters. While this is most certainly a performance by Ezra Miller which will draw comparisons to Tom Holland’s Spider-Man, it’s also one which thoroughly satisfies an emotional compelling arc and stands out among other larger-than-life characters and performances. Fans will find themselves the most excited to return to Barry Allen’s story when they’ve finished Zack Snyder’s Justice League, which is rather convenient considering their upcoming schedule.
Miller also delivers so much of what he’s given with an adept comedic timing that elevates his performance, and a veracity of truth which makes The Flash the strongest character in the film.
Standing only a pace behind in regards to portrayal, development and likability in portrayal is Batman. Fans will find themselves awoken from the sleepily portrayed, poorly written caped crusader of Justice League (2017), to an evolution of Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice’s murder Batman, which has evolved into a classical interpretation of the character. All of the wit and charm of Ben Affleck’s portrayal returns as Batman ironically takes up the mantle of hope in the film. Choosing to take things on faith, in an apt development for his character following the events of the previous film, Batman reminds viewers to seek the good in men, while genuinely believing in his team’s ability to come together and save the world.
Snyder and Co’s writing problems don’t flair their head dramatically outside of a couple characters, namely: Cyborg and Superman. It’s rather fitting though as Cyborg embodies the very thing that seems to make Snyder’s work so frustrating for so many people, in that his character arc is full of interesting ideas and loads of potential, but is marred by the actual execution.
Cyborg starts the film as one of its most interesting with a hopeful scene discovering his powers, and a clear direction for his development. It’s in this, however, that we see one of the film’s greatest flaws. It often plays lip service to development, and often offers payoffs to setups that aren’t there. For Cyborg this exists as a clear line of development which addresses his character’s grievances, and emotional concerns, but which never is actualized in a change in character portrayal. It’s as simple as, if his emotional burden is feeling unloved by his father and thinking he’s a monster, then when he learns his father loves him and that he’s actually a superhero he should gain some levity and stop being so rude all the time.
This isn’t the only place the film can’t line up its payoffs with its setups. The big galvanizing line in the trailer, “He’s never faced us united,” isn’t preceded by the team coming to a better understanding of each other, and getting on the same page. It’s instead preceded by the team arguing about resurrecting Superman and actually being rather divided.
Then with Superman, Snyder proves that his one great flaw as a creator is still his misunderstanding of the Man of Tomorrow. None of the hope in this film is derived from Superman, as all Snyder seems to know how to do is portray him as an allegory for Christ or fetishize his powers, and the destruction they can render. It isn’t that any of these certain moments are logistically wrong, but there’s simply a problem when the most hopeful character in the world spends as much time trying to outright murder Batman as he does helping Wonder Woman behead the film’s villain. This is such a shame too as his arrival bogs down what was a dynamic and fun team dynamic.
It’s important to note that neither of these criticisms are a reflection on their performers. Ray Fisher is clearly giving it his all, and in the few moments where he’s allowed to make a swing he does get viewers there. Henry Cavill is given less to work with, however, and is allowed to show very little range, despite being charming when he gets the chance.
The character across the whole film who benefits the most from Zack Snyder’s vision is unequivocally Steppenwolf. He’s brought to life by compelling CGI, a new design and an emotional performance by Ciaran Hinds. Gone is the generic foot-soldier with mommy-issues, replaced by an honor bound monster, cast out from his post as Darkseid’s lieutenant. Hinds is clearly sinking his teeth much more firmly into this interpretation of the character, and brings a nuance to him which is ineffably compelling.
Bolstered by this new narrative, and a full-throated reinvention as a powerhouse warrior, Steppenwolf strides through the film as a challenging burden for our heroes to overcome. He’s consistently one slip-up away from completely overtaking them, which allows them to become genuinely heroic when their villain is finally slain. One would probably argue that he’s more threatening in this film than Darkseid himself.
That, however, might actually be a bit of a problem. The once great orator Darkseid, succumbs to communicating in generic threatening mumbles for most of the film, making poor use of Ray Porter appropriately menacing voice. This is a shame too as the slow, and deliberate teasing before his arrival is done almost flawlessly. Viewers will find themselves leaning forward in expectation of his arrival, only for him to never set more than one foot through the door, leaving a less than full impression.
This whole portion of the film really is hard to consider. It must be remembered that this exists as a fulfillment of Snyder’s vision, but it does seem a bit odd to deliver a tease which one knows will never be fulfilled. It’s here though where viewers might be thankful that there’s no follow up because Snyder’s trademark lack of awareness about his own ideas rears its head. Even when the introduction of the New Gods, Darkseid and Apokolips are genuinely epic, it is inherently tied to the Knightmare world which is incredibly tonally disparate from the rest of the film, as well as simply what most audiences want.
It looks cool though. Darkseid’s design is rather spot on. A lot of the designs are actually and that’s one of the successes of the film. Steppenwolf’s new design is intimidating and otherworldly, which couples menacingly with the Parademons design.
While it was a known quantity beforehand, it should also be noted that almost all of the superhero costumes look effectively awesome. Batman and Wonder Woman carry over from Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, and the Aquaman and Flash suits are effective interpretations of their characters into Snyders world of grand, epic storytelling.
Cyborg is the one that visually doesn’t work though. Often his look is visually confusing, while sometimes the small part of his face which is the only part of Ray Fisher viewers can see seems to pop out separate from the body which gives an odd impression of a floating head. It’s not a design which could be considered cool, or which should reappear in another film.
Most of the CGI in the film is good though. It’s not often that it suffers, and in many cases with Steppenwolf and Darkseid, it’s downright beautiful. It’s also put to work very effectively in creative ways displaying the Justice League’s powers. The foremost of which is how the Flash’s superspeed is depicted. What could’ve just been either a copy of X-Men: Days of Future Past’s Quicksilver, or Avengers: Age of Ultron’s Quicksilver is able to find its own unique visual identity in doing a little bit of both, while also bringing something new to the table. It’s this new depiction, which sees lightning strobe and freeze frames of where Flash has been appearing all around which is exciting and gives The Flash’s speed a fresh aura.
While this film struggles under the weight of its premise, it’s often its likable characters which are able to escape out from under it. Ezra Miller’s Flash, Ben Affleck’s Batman and Ciaran Hinds’ Steppenwolf elevate a film which is a clear improvement over the theatrical release, however, it’s never quite enough to make it a truly great film. Much of this can be laid at the feet of Zack Snyder’s fundamental misunderstanding of Superman, which would have him punch someone into the ground while they try to get up a comical amount of times, without once trying to speak to them. Following this film The Flash, Aquaman, Wonder Woman, Batman and maybe even Cyborg should be followed up on, but this Superman should be left here. He’s tainted by misrepresentation and it’s time for his story to end.
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