Saturday, 2 October 2021

Zack Snyder's Justice League (2021) - Movie Review

So… yeah, it’s been pretty quiet around here lately. A lot of shit has happened over the past few months (in addition to the longer parade of shit that has happened over the last two years), and between everything happening in the real world and the drastic changes taking place within the film world… I gotta be honest, it’s not a particularly fun time to be writing about movies. I’ve been wrestling with quarantine brain for a while now, struggling to delve back into this profession that I have devoted so many years of my life to pursuing. Every time I thought I had bounced back, the malaise would resurface and I’d be stuck back in the same pit of inactivity.

But no more, I say. It is long past time for things to get back to normal (or whatever qualifies as “normal” around here), and to get things back into gear, I’ve decided to return with a rather unusual feature. I don’t usually make the time to review director’s cuts around here, but this is a once-in-a-lifetime example of such things.

I could go into the catalogue of production drama surrounding this thing, from the tragic circumstances that led to Zack Snyder initially leaving the production, to Joss Whedon’s near-total reworking, to the eventual unearthing of the shit Whedon has pulled over the course of his career (up to and including what he did when he was brought in for Justice League), to the fan-led campaign to restore what Snyder originally envisioned for what would be the first big-screen live-action union of DC’s premier superhero team. That’s just the surface, and quite frankly, the drama could make for its own article (as it has basically everywhere else in the blogosphere over the last few years).

But instead, I’m going to focus on the film as it now stands, both as its own product and as a mulligan on what has become one of the most disappointing superhero features I’ve ever sat through. This might well be the most comprehensive review I ever write on here, but when dealing with a production this storied, it deserves nothing less no matter what my ultimate judgment of it turns out to be. I’m going to break down, brick by brick, what improvements it’s made, what improvements it hasn’t made, and how it stands as the latest epic for blockbuster superhero fare.

First things first, are the characters any better than they were last time? I mean, sure, Wonder Woman and Cyborg still managed to shine despite the clustercrap around them, but what about the others? Well, in no uncertain terms, everyone has been upgraded here, even the ones who already did well. Gal Gadot still rocks as Wondie, and seeing her smile when things go right within the story is surprisingly infectious, maintaining her utmost and pure vision of humanity as worth preserving.

Ray Fisher as Cyborg maintains the welcome balance of pathos, personality, and humour that made him stand out originally, but he’s been turned more emphatically into this techno-Frankenstein creature that has to wrestle with being made a monster, which itself leads to a pretty awesome resolution. As someone who grew up with certain disabilites, and who was assumed to be defective for a lot of my formative years, I found the ending of that arc to be highly satisfying.

Batfleck has thankfully shifted away from the Frank Miller recollection he started out as (although I’m still not crazy about him using guns), shown as someone who wants to follow the example of the man who gave him hope (Superman) and become better as a result.

Jason Momoa as Aquaman definitely leans on his solo movie for most of his characterisation, but he still works as the drunken sailor who would be king, even managing to deliver a recontextualised Shakespeare quote and make it ring true. There’s also shades of the wounded idealist hiding under the skin of a cynic in his mannerisms and connection with the other Leaguers, which makes for a nice addition to his character.

Then there’s Ezra Miller as The Flash, who did not impress me first time around and thankfully comes across a lot better here. The script has been better balanced between jokes and drama, meaning that Barry can actually stand out as the main jokester of the group (and his humour does well in grounding some of the gloomier moments), and the way his backstory is detailed gives him his own drive to do good that stands out from the others.

Even Superman gets his fair due here as, over the course of his suiting-up moment (which admittedly borrows a fair bit from the finale to Richard Donner’s first outing with the big blue boy scout), the importance of both his alien and human lineages in creating his stance on right and wrong comes through clearer than it ever did in Man Of Steel or Dawn Of Justice. It even managed to salvage a bit of how badly Jonathan Kent got butchered in the former film.

But easily the biggest change-up, and ultimately the most gratifying, is that made to Steppenwolf. That’s not to say he’s been made into anything great in the larger scheme of super-villains on the big screen, but with the way his relationship with the alien despot Darkseid is established, his motives make much more sense as the actions of someone who wants to redeem himself. It’s almost like a disgraced son trying to make it up to his father (even if Steppenwolf is actually meant to be Darkseid’s uncle… although it’s not as if a family tree being that gnarled would be out of the ordinary when dealing with Gods).

Now, there’s an easy argument to be made that all of this improvement thus far is a forgone conclusion: When you double the length of the original film, of course there’s going to be more time to flesh out the characters. Except that observation implies that the two are permanently linked, that more screen time always equals more character time. I’ve covered enough longer films to know that some people can get more across in one hour than others can in their entire careers. So, irrespective of the bigger foundation to build from, this is still a success worth pointing out.

But that’s considering the heroes as separated from each other: What about them as a team? Well, let’s look at the initial reason why the Justice League exists as a concept (beyond the name-brand value of already-famous heroes together in the same work, that is). The League primarily exists to take on threats that require the heroes to work together to beat, either in the form of their individual nemeses banding together as the Injustice League, or a singular threat so large that no one hero can take it on. When talking strictly about Steppenwolf, the latter basically applies… but now that he’s been bolstered by the other forces of Apokolips, namely Darkseid and his torturer-in-chief Desaad, it makes for the kind of cosmic threat that the League would normally face. It fits in with the JLA version of the team, who were basically the Greek Pantheon of the DC Universe that took on armies of fallen angels, fairy tale villains made flesh, and the New Gods, who are as all-powerful as the name implies.

And as a team, not only does the League work very well together (between the delightful quipping and the cool mixing of their respective power sets), but no one ends up overshadowing anyone else. It never gives the impression that there’s a hierarchical structure to the League, either for them or for the audience, meaning that there’s no singular leader who takes the spotlight. Everyone is considered equal, and that is emphasised by how every single member not only gets their moments of real development, but an outright necessity to be in this story in the first place. If any one member was not here, the whole thing wouldn’t work, either as narrative or as in-universe save-the-world plan, and even for how long the film is, it doesn’t feel like any moment is wasted because it all attributes to something.

However, there’s another reason why this team-up matters, and it links back to another issue I took with the original film: What this new version calls the ‘Age Of Heroes’; the battle between the forces of Earth and Apokolips thousands of years earlier. With that as historical precedent in-universe (which is one of the better methods of world-building when it comes to stories like this), the Justice League is depicted as a union of people, of ideals, that normally don’t get anywhere near each other in an amicable capacity. They are the embodiment of the idea that, no matter how strong we are individually, we become even stronger when work together. And through both examples, it becomes less about unions between people and becomes a union between entire civilisations, maybe even entire worlds, which certainly helps solidify why this film holds onto hope and faith as strongly as it does.

Actually, speaking of hope and faith, that’s probably the biggest thing that this gets right that Zack Snyder’s previous DC work has been lacking: It’s not nearly as defeatist or cripplingly self-serious as MoS or Dawn Of Justice. It has its serious moments, most definitely, but it doesn’t feel like it’s desperately grasping for such emotions or sabotaging them with ineffective goofiness (I swear, Granny's Peach Tea only gets weirder with age). Whether it wants to make the audience laugh, tense up, or feel inspired, it has a very high hit-to-miss ratio that honestly ranks up there with the first Wonder Woman movie for how perfectly it taps into the DC ideal of heroes as something to aspire to.

Now, that’s not to say that this film doesn’t still have its issues. The action scenes, while fitting with the sense of scale, still have a very video-game-cutscene sheen to them which bites into the engagement somewhat. It has its definite moments, like the horseback game of keepaway between the Amazons and Steppenwolf, and Wonder Woman stopping a bank heist was pretty damn good, but it plays a bit too fast-and-loose with the rendering to be as effective as it could have been. But even then, Junkie XL’s soundtrack work always keeps things good and watchable, from the distorted guitars to the imported-from-Fury-Road drumming.

I freely admit that I was sceptical about this feature, even when it was still in the rumour stage of development. Nothing I had seen of Zack Snyder’s mainline DC features had me pining for his true vision to be realised. But that’s not to say I wanted this to go badly, far bloody from it. Snyder’s version of Watchmen is the reason why I started reading superhero comics in the first place, and as someone who absolutely loves the Justice League on the printed page, I want there to be a recommendable version of them out there in the cinematic world. And to be perfectly honest, that’s exactly what we get here. Even considering my pickiness with longer run times, this four-hour behemoth of a feature kept me consistently engaged, and felt true to what I love so much about superhero fiction.

But there’s a bigger question in the wake of this film: What happens next? And I don’t mean in terms of the DCEU and the possibility of going ahead with Snyder’s further plans for the League; I mean in terms of how this film ultimately came to be, and what it could mean for cinema going forward. There’s a very real possibility that this could overshadow anything else Warner Bros. has in the pipelines regarding DC characters, with fans only wanting the vision of the one man they’ve fought so hard to get back into the hot seat. As much as I don’t want to throw fans under the bus (I mean, I’m basically a fanboy for anything superhero-related in film), there’s something to be said about the precedent this sets for the fandom to dictate the art, something that has already caused more than a few problems in the comic book scene all this spawned from.

However, in the spirit of this film’s core message of hope, I have a different idea. I may have been weary of what I perceived as Snyder’s warped view of my favourite superhero universe, but I’m still happy that he was able to see it fulfilled because that actually happening is a distinct rarity. There are so many filmmakers out there who don’t have a quarter of the clout Snyder has accumulated, and who would kill for a second chance to fully realise their own stories. Or hell, even a first chance to do so.

If the man who thought that Batman should deliver branded death sentences to criminals, and that Lex Luthor should act more like the Riddler and the Joker's love child than the actual Lex Luthor, can be given an opportunity to get things right, then he shouldn’t be the only one. Maybe someone else out there, who maybe was interfered with by the studios and wasn’t allowed to deliver the film they wanted to make, could be given the chance to create their vision. And who knows? Maybe it’ll turn out to be the redemption they needed, as that’s exactly what this film has become for Zack Snyder and his Justice League.

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