Breaking Down Zack Snyder’s Justice League

Zack Snyder’s Justice League is now available to stream on HBO Max.

*Spoilers for Zack Snyder’s Justice League follow just because it’s impossible to talk about this without spoiling it.*

By Palmer Rubin

Snyder cut good.

I know, I’m just as surprised as you possibly are if you’re not one of his mega-fans or vindicated if you are. Is it great? Eh. Is it a genuinely fun and engaging film which justifies most of its four hour runtime? More or less! I’m surprised to be writing this because I’ve almost entirely written off most of the DCEU as being Thoroughly Not For Me. I’ve softened on it a bit, even as I’ve grimaced at the things about it that it’s been viciously mocked for over its strange and bizarre lifecycle. It so badly wanted to be Marvel that it had no interest in developing any of its characters past it wanting to be “superheroes for grown-ups,” but on the flip side, it feels less built by algorithms. Every flaw that makes me cringe are also flaws designed by human beings and not by committee. So I’ve always been torn on how I feel about it, especially as most of it was spearheaded by a filmmaker I have had so many issues with over the years.

But no, Snyder cut good. I only deigned to watch it after some people whose opinions I trust told me it would be worth it. Some hate Snyder’s work way more than I do (my overall opinion is “too macho, too grimdark, too objectivist,” do with it what you will), some are diehard fans who will stop at nothing to defend his honor. The Snyder fandom is such an odd one because they will both have pockets that will send death threats to anyone who dares criticize him in their presence and also raise money for suicide awareness after the death of his daughter in 2017, which would in turn directly inspire this new take on the material after Joss Whedon mangled it past recognition.

Especially considering how Whedon was outed as an abuser right before the film’s release, it was nothing if not perfect timing. And so, those trusted people convinced me, and I watched it in one sitting, and it’s the best thing Snyder has ever done. I’d love him to do more like it.

Ostensibly, despite coming out over half a year earlier, Justice League in either iteration has a lot in common with its more successful Marvel cousin, Infinity War. Both concern the universe-ending giant monsters with MacGuffins of destruction (and, as comic fans will note, Thanos was directly inspired by this film’s Darkseid). Only half of the team here has gotten a proper introduction as opposed to almost every character in the Marvel iteration. And yet, and I’ll be damned if I ever expected to write this, there’s a clarity here that that one lacks. A lot of it is due to the fact that Snyder has finally learned the restraint he’s refused to employ for most of his career. For the first time, he is thoroughly invested in the emotional lives of his characters, even if those emotional lives are incredibly simplistic. The Irishman this ain’t, by default, there’s not the slightest bit of complexity to be found here. I do not say that as an insult. The advantage is you’re not forced to constantly remember years and years of pointless lore and Wikipedia entries in order to know what the hell is going on.

Here’s a take that might actually be hot: this is an atrocious sequel to Batman V. Superman and yet it works far better as a standalone film, without the previous film’s constant excesses holding it down. I entered this film with a somewhat unique perspective: I had never seen the flaming dumpster fire that was Whedon’s attempt at the material. I had completely written it off the more the infighting made the news, as Ray Fisher’s career was imploded from within in retaliation for trying to call him and Geoff Johns out for their abuses. I had about five minutes of feeling like Whedon could possibly make the film good with all the residual goodwill he still had.

Ironically, what is the best about this film is also the worst thing about the film: Cyborg. Ray Fisher is an absolute revelation in this part, playing superhero by way of Cronenbergian body horror the way Josh Trank always intended with his ambitious but flawed Fantastic Four reboot. His material, almost entirely taken out of the Whedon cut by way of petty comebacks, is restored here. It also reflects something that Snyder figures out ahead of his Marvel rivals: our heroes actually feel things outside the realm of what both he and Marvel have previously offered up. Snyder heroes previously only had two modes: angry and horny. Kevin Feige heroes have even less: awkward quips and goofs even in the midst of world-destroying alien invasions that both companies use to excess. The Justice League, despite being filmed in the same godlike stature we’re used to from Snyder, actually feel pain, sustain injuries, display genuine fear for their lives, as well as exhilaration when something goes right.

But I still really wish Cyborg was the main character, even if the slower pace actually works to the film’s benefit, giving a better look at the interior lives of these people, even if it only works in certain cases. Whereas Cyborg and Flash’s material largely works all the way through, the beats involving every other character are both thoroughly unnecessary and work against the film’s momentum. It also has the side effect of contradicting much of its own canon: Aquaman meets Mera and Vulko (his future wife and former mentor) here earlier in canon than he did in his own solo film, Wonder Woman 1984 is not even implied to have happened at all since Steve Trevor never came back to life. As much as both of these comics juggernauts like to pretend they have a pre-planned narrative, the Snyder cut proves this to never be the case. The entire subplot of bringing Superman back to life is clearly meant as a corrective to how badly the previous film bungled that particular arc, and he ends up serving as a literal deus ex machina once he finally returns and briefly has one more heel turn for good measure. Even if it is easily the best of the two versions that currently exist, there are still far more improvements to be made, and I’d love to see fan-cuts further empathizing Cyborg’s arc, since he is very much the rookie of the group, deeply intimidated by the invitation to join them, grappling with his tragic backstory. There’s enough scenes of Cyborg and Flash joking around with each other that I think that focus would’ve made a better film. What’s best about them is that they capture the same vibe as early renditions of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: their disguises are so comically inept that it brings to mind Raphael’s fedora and trench coat barely hiding his green face and shell. Snyder brings superheroes for the first time in a minute that feel earnestly silly even as they spout the same overblown catchphrases you expect.

I also found myself liking Steppenwolf, this film’s big bad, far more than I ever did Thanos. The bull-horned cheese grater of an alien menace looks like the promotional image for a graphics card but he is also very much a pathetic loser behind all that strength. He is quite literally obsessed with Darkseid, only destroys worlds for his approval, quite literally locked into the gig economy for supervillains. Darkseid seeks the Anti-Life Equation, a weapon of great power that would forcibly turn all sentient life into a hivemind, unable to think or feel for itself. It’s fascinating that Darkseid and Steppenwolf see indiscriminate murder as a means to an end rather than Thanos’ entire point of being. They’re not sadistic characters the way he is, they simply see any expression of individuality as a literal sin. It’s Snyder softening his objectivist leanings to be a more collectivist model, righting the wrongs of the previous films. His villains now have motivation, their base is far away from populated areas so his heroes can destroy it all without fear of collateral damage. Snyder quite literally has his cake and eats it too: he gets his beloved ultra-violence whilst none of the ethical quandaries of the previous films present themselves.

But suffice it to say that for the first time in a Snyder film, the characters actually seem to like each other. The others spend most of the runtime constantly checking up on Cyborg given how anguished he becomes over the course of the film and his increasing importance to the plot. There’s a couple really adorable scenes of Wonder Woman and Alfred joking around with each other, and even Ben Affleck’s Batman, my least favorite part of the previous film, is now rendered as a haggard old man instead of the screaming steroid demon he previously was. It’s still unfortunate that Snyder has to frame every shot of Superman like he’s literally Jesus (if you thought Man of Steel laid it on thick, hoo boy) and that his Batman is his ideal John Galt-style hero who simply buys his way out of every problem. Are there not numerous vanity shots of Mercedes sports cars and Sony radios in the midst of otherwise fraught emotional moments? You bet, Snyder never stopped bringing his commercial aesthetic even after he stopped working on them.

That is not to say that this film is without flaws, even if now it’s more nitpicking than entire plotlines not working. Any callback to the other films immediately falls flat, for one. It’s also worth noting that the entire half hour of additional footage shot specifically for this cut is thoroughly as atrocious as expected, and is thankfully separated from the rest of the film with a title card. You’ve got all the hits: the Joker cracking wise about giving Batman a handjob, the forced inclusion of fan-favorite characters in a naked attempt to imitate Marvel post-credit scenes. All of it plays like those cringey fan-films that were all over YouTube in the mid-aughts and stink of First Draft Syndrome. Your best bet is to turn it off the minute the word “Epilogue” pops up on the screen and you’ll be a lot happier for it. It’s funny that the previous 3 or so hours shows Snyder at his most restrained and empathetic and this epilogue shows him doubling down on his worst instincts.

But overall, I think what elevates this to the best work of Snyder’s career is its willingness to engage in the kayfabe of superheroics that very few others seem willing to do. This is the most expensive wrestling match ever filmed, and I mean that as a compliment. The comparison that came to mind, of all things, was the canceled-before-its-time Netflix show called GLOW, itself more than willing to embrace silliness and camp great effect. The scene the film reminds me of, the way Snyder’s quirks finally click into place, is a wrestling match the titular GLOW wrestlers attend for research purposes. One of them, a Dolly Parton ripoff called Liberty Belle, hates wrestling but took the part for money. The other, Machu Picchu, comes from a family of wrestlers and is eager to make a name for herself. Liberty Belle dismisses the entire thing, their wrought motivations (“you stole my job! you screwed my wife!”, and so on), the exaggeration, the silliness. They spend the whole match analyzing it, and right as one of them wins, Liberty Belle has the revelation that will make her a star: “it’s a soap opera! I can do a soap opera!”

Zack Snyder’s Justice League is pure soap opera cheese. I mean that as a compliment. The motivations are the same, just as devoid of complexity. I don’t think I’ll ever like any of his other films, but damned if this one didn’t win me over for finally being unashamed of its own inherent ridiculousness. I think in between his previous film and this, Snyder did some serious self-reflection on why the reaction was so polarized, and really decided to put in the effort. Add in his family tragedy, and that creates a redemption narrative for the guy I would’ve never expected: a Snyder who feels, and a Snyder who is finally becoming the filmmaker his fans knew he could be all along. I really hope he continues to bring this energy to what he does next. It is evidently clear that the rifts in the fandoms must be healed, that we must all band together to demand more. The Joss Whedons and the Geoff Johnses should not be in charge. Nobody should be in charge, optimally, but especially not people with their newly unearthed reputations. I would hardly hold this up to Into The Spider-Verse, still my gold standard for a superhero property made by one of the Big Two this past decade. But both feel like personal works that aren’t decided by committee. Even for everything that bothers me about it, it’s a work so nakedly personal that I can only hope the Big Two let go of some of their grip. And if not, then superhero movies deserve to die, because otherwise Martin Scorsese will be proven right about them. Hell, this is a film edited with a 4:3 ratio because Snyder saw Kelly Reichardt’s masterful First Cow (highly, highly, highly recommend that masterpiece, I even reviewed it!) and was inspired by it. Even if the film clearly wasn’t shot for the format (characters are often bisected in the corners of frames), it’s still one of those touches that feels as personal as corporate IP is allowed to get.

This is a deeply flawed film, and I disliked a lot about it, by a filmmaker whose previous works I’ve almost collectively disliked. That being said, it is definitively a film. It is cinema. Possibly the last time a superhero movie will ever be considered cinema. I think the moment I decided is a really corny and sentimental moment I never expected from someone as previously cynical and nihilistic as Snyder was. It’s a moment when Cyborg is confronted with every trauma he’s ever encountered in a dream sequence while he tries to save the world. The rest of the Justice League are quite literally giving their lives so he has time to accomplish his vaguely metaphysical goal. The alien beings he’s trying to communicate with take the form of his parents and then himself before the injuries that turned him into a self-loathing mechanical man. They taunt him and call him broken and say if he gives in, that they will restore a timeline where he was never injured and both of his parents are still alive. It is the first time Snyder invokes Christ, here being the temptation of Satan during his forty days in the desert, that actually seems to mean something. Cyborg says, “I’m not broken,” and gives up the chance of this perfect life to fully embrace the new self that he is. That single moment is on par with The Matrix where Neo turns to face Agent Smith on the subway and declares his chosen name the real one. I wish the rest of the movie had these kinds of moments, but it’s a damn good one in the last place I expected.

Good on ya, Zack. You did it. You’re free.

New Movies This Week: 'Zack Snyder's Justice League,' 'City of Lies' -  Variety