"Director's cuts" are not a new concept...as far back as Charlie Chaplin's "The Gold Rush," filmmakers and auteurs have tinkered and fiddled with previously released versions of films, trying to perfect their original visions, right wrongs of the past, or undo the meddling of those pesky movie studios who apparently are only in business to feverishly attempt to suppress creator's masterpieces.
In case you're not on Twitter, "Zack Snyder's Justice League" (coming Thursday, March 18th exclusively to HBO Max) is not your average "director's cut" of a film, and actually has quite the story behind it. It's not a vanity project. It is in fact, a labor of love and an example of unfinished business being made whole.
But let's not bury the lead, for those reading this in wild anticipation: This is a vastly improved film compared to the 2017 version. The new film - at over 4 hours!!! - is somehow a more focused and centered film than it's 2-hour-long predecessor. In other words, "Zack Snyder's Justice League" will be a direct smash hit with its target audience...but to the rest of the world, it will present itself as a mountain perhaps too steep to climb or worse, an effort in futility.
Some context and backstory for this review is a must...
...In the past decade, as Marvel (Disney) put the world box office in a choke-hold, dominating not just ticket sales but their mastery of their newly-acquired intellectual properties, DC (owned by Warner Bros.) looked to gain a foothold in the universally popular superhero film genre. Comic book geeks know the long history/rivalry between Marvel and DC Comics, as both Goliaths slugged it out over the past 50 years for ultimate comic book supremacy. But Marvel clearly was the leader when it came to recent popularity and its shared "Marvel Cinematic Universe" was a wet-dream to the long-time fans of their characters.
Instead of slowly rolling out their characters with a well-thought-out plan like Marvel did, DC tried the opposite approach for their big-screen shared universe. With 2016's "Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice," they attempted to create a straight-sequel to the 2013 Superman film, "Man of Steel," both films having been directed by the stylistic impresario, Zack Snyder, who previously had helmed the visually impressive "300" and who also somewhat failed to deliver on another iconic DC property, "Watchmen" in 2009 ("Watchmen" would be given a much better treatment with the 2019 HBO series from Damon Lindelof).
"Batman v Superman" was received with disastrous, underwhelming results (it holds just a 28% Rotten score with critics, and a 63% audience score on RottenTomatoes.com). But while the film itself was a failure, it's attempt to "shoehorn-in" a bunch of characters like Wonder Woman, Aquaman and The Flash was also thought of as a major bungle...in other words, they tried to simply create a "DC Extended Universe" (DCEU) by popping their characters in the microwave instead of cooking them on a low heat, and letting them simmer with audiences in the way that Marvel did with theirs.
Since "Batman v Superman," the DCEU has had some grand successes - namely 2017's "Wonder Woman" - some modest ones - 2018's "Aquaman" comes to mind - and some more poorly received films (here's looking at you, "Suicide Squad" and "Wonder Woman 1984"). But sandwiched in the middle was 2017's "Justice League," basically the DC version of Marvel's The Avengers superhero team, a film that had been rumored and anticipated for decades but had never materialized. And coming off of the massive success of the first "Wonder Woman" film, the DCEU was finally in a position to launch their characters into the movie stratosphere, competing with Marvel and equipped with the same vigor and determination that they showed for nearly a century in the comic book industry, that kept them as the reigning King of the comic book hill.
With this delicate, precious property, they turned to Zack Snyder once again, and that's when the unthinkable happened. During post-production on "Justice League," Zack Snyder's 20-year-old daughter committed suicide. The tragedy forced Snyder away from the project, and it was finished by Joss Whedon, a man that the studios definitely felt like they could trust to deliver "Justice League" given that he directed "Marvel's The Avengers" and "Avengers: Age of Ultron." Whedon pulled from the Marvel well, and shaped "Justice League" to be a bit more box-office friendly...more bright colors were used, more comedy and one-liners were included, and perhaps most importantly of all, he crafted a theater-friendly 2-hour version.
Whedon ultimately went uncredited for his work, leaving Zack Snyder's name on what ultimately became an absolute abomination...the 300-million-dollar film did gross almost 658 million, but that's a far cry from a movie like "Avengers: Infinity War" (over 2 billion), "Avengers: End Game" (nearly 2.8 billion) or even "Avengers: Age of Ultron" (1.4 billion). "Justice League" holds a 40% RottenTomatoes score, and a dismal 71% audience score (for comparison, the recent "Tom & Jerry" film has an 83% audience score).
That's when the internet did it's thing. With "Justice League" dropping the baton that was passed to it from "Wonder Woman," online fans started clamoring for a new version of "Justice League," one that could be fully realized by the film's original director, and without studio interference. The rest, they say, is history.
The green-light was given for Zack Snyder to make his intended version, as was a budget of 70 million to re-shape the film to his liking. As a form of catharsis from the deep devastation Snyder had suffered, Snyder poured himself into what is now out in the world (or will be on 3/18), his version of the film, a film appropriately titled, "Zack Snyder's Justice League."
Now on to the film itself. Yes, this is a re-imagining of the 2017 film, but it's almost as if the similarities stop there. This feels ENTIRELY like a different movie, not a special "cut" of the original film. At 4 hours and 2 minutes, Snyder's film is deeper, darker and less convoluted on the whole...narratively speaking, it's light-years of improvement over the cluttered mess that was the 2017 "Justice League" despite being twice as long.
Characters like Cyborg (Ray Fisher), Aquaman (Jason Mamoa) and The Flash (Ezra Miller) are more fully realized and fleshed-out, and the story even goes in startling new directions. The film's baddie, Steppenwolf (Ciaran Hinds), is completely re-imagined, with a new look, new armor and new menace. A fun experiment would be to put the old "Justice League" on your phone (available to stream on HBO Max as well) while watching this new version on your big-screen...you will notice differences both subtle and drastic throughout the entirety of the movie.
Snyder has clearly made a vastly improved movie, but sadly its all folly. Snyder has severed all ties with the DCEU following this movie (or maybe it's the other way around), and much of what comes after this film linearly (films like "Aquaman" for example) renders the Justice League and the events of this film futile. Ben Affleck will not be Batman moving forward, and Henry Cavill's future as Superman is also in question. So for all the glory of seeing this movie reworked into something better, it won't end up having much lasting purpose or meaning in the DCEU other than giving the first JL movie a much-needed face-lift.
Taking "Zack Snyder's Justice League" of its own accord, the script is still a bit weak when compared to any of The Avengers movies...Snyder, for example, cannot possibly cut around or tweak the fact that his film still is just about yet another intergalactic villain (yawn) trying to conquer Earth, for no real apparent reason other than that's what most intergalactic villains are motivated to do. Or that his version of Superman - now appearing in his third film - is still too dark and brooding to really honor what makes that character appealing (embrace the cheesy positivity and wholesomeness! Leave the bleakness to Batman!). Or that Jared Leto's Joker and Jesse Eisenberg's Lex Luthor are both the worst screen versions of these two characters, respectively.
Kudos though to Zack Snyder, who took this film and these beloved characters from the ashes to be re-born anew (much like Superman) in this clearly superior new film. It sort of exists in a vacuum, but for those that were greatly anticipating seeing his full vision come to life, they'll be happy to discover that Snyder too, has done something super.
"Zack Snyder's Justice League" - Grade: B
2017's "Justice League" - Grade: C- (read original review)
Genre: Action, Adventure, Fantasy.
Run Time: 4 hours and 2 minutes.
Starring: Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Gal Gadot, Amy Adams, Jason Momoa, Diane Lane, Ezra Miller, J.K. Simmons, Connie Nielsen, Ciaran Hinds, Ray Fisher, Joe Manganiello, Willem Dafoe, Jared Leto, Amber Heard.
Directed by Zack Snyder ("Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice," "Man of Steel," "Watchmen," "300," "Dawn of the Dead").
"Zack Snyder's Justice League" is available on HBO Max on Thursday, March 18th, 2021.
Review: Wonder Woman
Review: Wonder Woman 1984
Review: Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice
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