There has never been a film quite like Zack Snyder’s Justice League. Simultaneously new offering and dusted-off artifact, the film comes inextricably intertwined with either a recently minted nostalgia (2017!) or still fresh disdain (Grimdark!). Depending on one’s perspective, it’s a film either ensconced or entangled in multiple meta-narrative threads: directorial tragedy and misbehavior, pandemical obstacles and opportunities. Folks, when it comes to complicating context, this one’s got it all!
And yet, the end result is still a movie, and as such soars, stands, stumbles or faceplants on the strength of its more traditional narrative and visual storytelling elements (as well as how effectively it translates its source material). And while Zack Snyder’s Justice League may fill some narrative holes of the original—with an extra two hours runtime, how could it not?—it remains a showcase for an approach that not only fails to capture the joy and sheer thrill of its source material, but which represents a storytelling finesse that can most charitably be pegged somewhere between “clumsy” and “hampered.”
Our new old story picks up with a souped-up presentation of Superman’s death at the hands of Doomsday. After a super-wail heard round the world—we’ll just ignore the eardrum-shattering effect that would have—the Amazonian-guarded infinity sto-, I mean Mother Box, is activated. From there, we switch to Ben Affleck’s “the Batman” attempting to find Jason Momoa’s “the Aquaman” (definite articles are big in this universe), Lois Lane (Amy Adams) having the feels, and Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman defeating some bad guys (culminating with what feels like a signature Snyderverse hero move—the unnecessary endangerment of bystanders) before the arrival of the, oh, Medium Bad? and an extended CGI fest.
After 2018’s Avengers: Infinity War, it’s difficult to watch the introduction of Steppenwolf (voiced by Ciarán Hinds) without comparing it to the arrival of those other harbingers of a cosmic, death-embracing villain, Thanos’ Black Order, especially Ebony Maw. By comparison, the redesigned Steppenwolf is … less than impressive. For all the CGI-assisted mayhem that seems to be his core power set, Steppenwolf doesn’t get a moment in the entire film as fun or flexing as when Ebony Maw casually flicks his ally Cull Obsidian aside when the huge villain is blasted toward him. (Nor, I expect, is he missed as much—see what one can do with four minutes of screen time?)
After much mangling of Amazons, it’s time to slowly introduce “the Cyborg” (Ray Fisher) while continuing to work the molasses of the Aquaman, Wonder Woman and Batman storylines. Ezra Miller’s Flash arrives on the scene, as well, and there are not one but two cameos by another integral member of the Justice League which are less bombshells than confusing snap-n-pops. Eventually, it ends.
Are there new scenes that flesh out Cyborg and Aquaman? Sure. But with the former, trying to shoehorn in the origin of a character as prominent as Cyborg has become over the years is itself as rushed and ill-advised as so many other decisions made in the DCEU. With the latter, we didn’t really need more backstory for why Aquaman has “Atlantean issues” after the 2018 film. (Another artifact of this “film out of time.”)
As much as some fans clamored for the Snyder cut, it’s hard not to suspect giving a talented tableau-setter like Snyder more time did the director no favors beyond his ego and bank account. Like a smile held for a camera that soon looks forced and pained, the longer this story is sustained, the more awkward it becomes. The memorable highlights from the original—the Flash realizing that Superman sees him even in super speed and Aquaman’s lighthearted “My man!” when caught by Cyborg—are still here, but Snyder’s signature slo-mo dramatization wears quickly. There are also just limits to what an edit can do, even when new footage is created, especially the strange “de-grafting” of one director’s graft that is occurring here. (Again, there has never been a film quite like this one.) But ultimately, Zack Snyder’s Justice League feels like just another name for a Special Edition Blu-ray that contains all the scenes. (The use of interstitial cards is exactly the type of artificial organizing gloss an editor adds when they know a story is unwieldy and needs help.)
For all the legitimate criticisms one can lob at the MCU, it is a world of wonder, if one that sometimes touches on darker themes. By contrast, the Snyderian DCEU remains an unrelentingly dark place (in lighting and tone) where the viewer often is just left wondering what is happening and why. Wonder Woman, Aquaman, Shazam and Birds of Prey all took steps away from this, and this strange echo/return just reminds us why leaving Zack Snyder’s palette behind is a good thing for the core DC universe. After all, a generous reading of the Snyderverse would be that it has been an iteration of DC’s Elseworlds imprint, which “take place in entirely self-contained continuities whose only connection to the canon DC continuity are the presence of familiar DC characters.” In that world, Pa Kent convinces his adopted son to lay low for a few decades (and to let him die by tornado). In that world, Superman murders Zod (and likely countless bystanders) and Batman? He’s been a-killing for years. And the Joker in that world? Ugh. Perhaps all of the Snyderverse was just a twisted continuity. Let’s make that DCEU canon.
Michael Burgin is neither grim nor dark.