Monday, March 22, 2021

Movie Review: Zack Snyder's Justice League

Well, color me surprised, in bleak, muted, desaturated tones.  Zack Snyder somehow managed to snatch an epic four-hour win from the jaws of studio-bungled disaster.  Where Joss Whedon's ill-conceived retooling was stuffed with embarrassing humor, oversaturated colors, cheap-looking costumes, and Henry Cavill's infamous fake upper lip, Zack's mostly original vision is finally here in all its overindulgent glory, a film boasting a surprising amount of heart and goodwill, where we're actually invested in the characters and thus the over-the-top battle scenes feel earned.

Before I get into the details, let me just say that I do not consider myself a Zack Snyder fan.  I liked and respected 300, I loved Watchmen, but I absolutely despised Man of Steel and found Batman v Superman just a clusterfuck of obtuse unpleasantness.  So I'm a control in this experiment.  I'm a skeptic with no dog in this race.  I thought the DCEU was a terrible idea from the start, and the execution entirely backwards; how can you rush to a team-up movie without first establishing the characters you're teaming up?  Why does everything need a shared universe just because it worked for Marvel?  So yeah, I went into this with no emotional investment whatsoever.  
I had recently viewed the Whedon cut and thought it was an absolute train wreck; a perfect visual metaphor for why studio meddling is generally an abomination.  90% of the time a director being allowed to realize his or her vision will be superior to a mealy-mouthed mish-mash of sloppy ideas that came out of a board room meeting (unless it's George Lucas in which case his brain IS the board room meeting).  As much as I loathed MOS, at least it felt like a director making what he thought was the best film he could make.  Whedon's Justice League lacked the courage of its convictions and was the film equivalent of Homer Simpson's attempts at carpentry.  Its two-hours felt like four, its characters were barely present, its villain looked like something from a Power Rangers episode.  The theatrical Justice League was for me the worst film in the series.

Zack Snyder's version on the other hand somehow managed to explore enough backstory for the newly introduced characters that I was actually able to identify with and root for them in a way I hadn't experienced once in either his previous DCEU films or the Whedon cut.  It still feels incongruous to me that the world would mourn the loss of THIS Superman as established in MOS and BvS, but ZSJL made me finally like this version of the character.  Ben Affleck's Bruce Wayne/Batman carries an oppressive sense of guilt and regret at Superman's demise but does so in a very human way rather than just being brooding.  Ezra Miller's turn as The Flash in this version brings him to life as a good-hearted young man just trying to find his way and connect with his imprisoned father (The father-son theme plays into most of the characters in fact).  Jason Momoa as Aquaman is a reluctant hero forced to reckon with his past after years of turning to the bottle.  And most of all Ray Fisher shines as Cyborg, miraculously transformed from a big fat nothing character in Whedon's film to a fully-fleshed out sympathetic figure in Snyder's - a former athlete harboring an overwhelming son's resentment for the absentee father scientist who turned him into the monstrosity he is today.  Victor Stone lost his mother and most of his own body in a terrible car accident, and his father Silas implanted cybernetic prosthetics to save his life.  Disgusted by what he's become, Vic is now a recluse who blames his emotionally distant father for the car wreck - had he not missed his son's football game perhaps the accident never would've occurred.  Cyborg's character arc is maybe the most emotionally poignant ever featured in a Snyder film, serving as the human center of this movie.  

While ZSJL admirably takes its time exploring the heroic characters, the central plot still involves a cosmic supervillain collecting powerful ancient artifacts to allow him to take over the world (Hmm, that seems familiar...).  In this version though, the Steppenwolf character a) has a clear motivation for doing so, and b) actually looks quite menacing now, with armored striations that seem to take on a life of their own.  Steppenwolf hopes to collect the three mother boxes (still a dumb name) and take over Earth to impress Darkseid (who looks pretty badass) and thus get back in his good graces.  Wonder Woman's people alert her to danger after Steppenwolf steals the box they had been guarding, and she reaches out to Bruce Wayne to begin assembling their team.  So while the main plot is still trite and long since played out, it's handled with so much more care and style in this version; when the big CG-fest action sequences arrive they feel merited instead of obligatory.  This film includes numerous fun action sequences (there's that word, "fun" - something MOS and BvS sorely lacked) including a much-improved cut of Wonder Woman thwarting a London bombing, The Flash showing off his powers to save a woman from a car accident (lots of really bad drivers in this film), a Lord of the Rings-esque flashback depicting Darkseid's previous attempt to steal the mother boxes (Peter Jackson's influence is felt pretty heavily in general actually), and a pretty great moment in the climax involving The Flash's ability to reverse time.  

This film's four-hour runtime somehow flies by; it's pretty baffling that ZSJL felt considerably shorter than either BvS cut or the 140-minute Man of Steel.  Just goes to show that a superhero movie pulls you in so much more when you actually care about the superheroes.  I wonder where this Zack Snyder was in 2012 when he was shooting Kal-El's origin...  

Zack Snyder's Justice League is the shockingly enjoyable culmination of a half-decade of mostly bad decisions, a very good payoff to a very bad setup.  Elements of this film really should've served as the basis for a few individual origin films; there's a key reason Marvel's approach to the shared universe worked so well, and it's because we were introduced to each character separately before they were all shoved together.  But ZSJL makes up for lost time about as well as it can, assembling a team of relatable heroes, each with clear motivations for joining the team and stepping up to save the world.  It also provides its pedestrian villain with a compelling look and a personal reason for wanting to destroy it.  Through the first six of seven chapters, this movie had me pretty immersed.  Its biggest failure lies in the epilogue, a muddled base-covering frenzy with far too many "endings" designed to set up a future film.  I get why Snyder included them all - they're meant to pay off clues he inserted into BvS, such as the weird Flash appearance on Bruce's computer screen and Bruce's apocalyptic dream sequence - but in this context they just don't work.  If this is to be the last DCEU film (and it probably should be), then leave the cliffhangers out and simply end the movie at the logical point - the stirring, heroic montage.

Aside from the jumbled finale, some scattered nitpicks and Snyder's general disinterest in subtlety (plus the 4:3 aspect ratio that makes no sense given that this edit is now meant for home screens), this Justice League cut is worlds better than not only its theatrical counterpart but both of Snyder's previous series installments.  If you weren't planning on giving it a day in court, you should.  I'd say Wonder Woman is still the best DCEU film, but this one ranks second.

I give the film *** out of ****.

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