#2 in my ranking of the DCEU franchise.
#8 in my ranking of theatrically released Batman films.
#6 in my ranking of the theatrically released Superman films.
Well, that’s an improvement. The original release of Justice League in 2017 was a conflict of visions, mostly made by Zack Snyder but completed with heavy reshoots by Joss Whedon. It was also cut down from what would have been, best case scenario, almost three hours at the time to a svelte two hours flat. Considering the amount of storytelling that needed to happen in that shortened timeframe, it was no surprise to me that it felt rushed and incomplete. Well, several years pass, the “Snyder Cut” becomes a pop culture myth, and the COVID shutdown of theaters leads HBO Max in a desperate search for content, so they enlist Zack Snyder to make his original vision a reality. How does it stack up?
One of the main problems of the original cut was that there wasn’t enough time to develop the three new main characters in any significant way before they got thrown into the plot. This movie fixes that, but there’s a catch.
You see, ensemble pieces are hard. They’re even harder when you have to introduce several of your main characters from scratch. The thing about a story is that stories tend to work best when all of the pieces work together to create one cohesive whole. When you introduce three new characters, along with a large plot about the end of the world, these three characters need to be fleshed out right there, but they’re all dealing with different things. Cyborg is dealing with his fractured relationship with his father and the fact that he’s part machine from an alien box that was buried under the ground for thousands of years. Flash is an incredibly awkward young man who runs super fast, can’t make personal connections, and wants to pay for his college education to help his father beat the false charges that he’s in prison for. Aquaman wants nothing to do with his Atlantean people because of something to do with his mother’s mistreatment, even though he should be their king. This is all stuff that would have been fleshed out more naturally in stand alone movies that introduced these characters to audiences. However, as one quarter of the movie’s first half, they all end up clashing. Add in the fact that Snyder was able to make his film four hours long because of the streaming platform release so that he included pretty much everything he had shot of these stories, and you get a first half that functions but drags. The individual pieces feel overlong, never bad, but also like we’re cutting between four different movies instead of four different parts of a single story.
The plot is that same as the original release, of course. An alien named Steppenwolf has come to Earth looking for three Mother Boxes that were lost on Earth millennia ago that, when united, will destroy the planet through fire. However, Steppenwolf is much improved here. In an effort to create a streamlined character, the theatrical cut reduced him to obsessing over “Mother”, and it felt off at best. Here he’s trying to get back in the good graces of the ultimate bad guy of the DCEU, Darkseid, communicating back to the planet Apocalypse about his progress, hoping to get an audience with his master, and only beginning to gain the right attention when he discovers that Earth carries Anti-Life (unclear what that is, honestly, I think it’s an equation) that Darkseid left on the planet millennia ago when his invasion was knocked back by the combined forces of Earth’s Age of Heroes.
So, Steppenwolf has to get the three Mother Boxes first. The first is held at Themyscira and that action scene where Steppenwolf steals it from them is decent. The Amazons keeps getting owned in this franchise, but here they at least put up a good fight. The second is in Atlantis, and this comes off like a leaden balloon. There’s too much to establish in Atlantis at once with Aquaman, Mera, and Nuidis talking high and mighty about the history of a place we barely know exists followed swiftly by another quick attack that’s harder to see and includes a last second arrival of Aquaman that feels off. Well, at least Aquaman doesn’t prevent Steppenwolf from getting the Box, so it’s less annoying than it could be.
At this point, I was honestly feeling kind of a bit bored. We were just shy of two hours in, and I was getting four separate movies in one, and none of them were great though they were all functional. Then the pieces finally began to come together with the team actually forming. First was Flash, who happily joined because he needs friends. Then is Aquaman who joins because of his failure in Atlantis. Then is Cyborg who joins after his father is kidnapped by Steppenwolf’s parademons. Together, they bear down on Steppenwolf’s location outside of Gotham where he was looking for the final Mother Box. This is where it suddenly feels like we’re in a single movie, and despite my inability to fully appreciate the first two hours because of its inelegant construction, the character work in the first two hours begins to pay dividends here.
Action scenes have more emotional punch as the team learns to work together against a mighty foe. We get demonstrations of their individual power, but none of them are strong enough individually to take on Steppenwolf and even as a team they’re too fractured. The fight scenes have Snyder’s visual panache with each hero getting their moment to shine, even if they don’t fully succeed. Beaten back, they consider their only potential alternative to fighting such a powerful being: raising Superman from the dead with the power of the Mother Box they have.
Superman arises, and he’s disorientated, surrounded by people he doesn’t know, and he sees the man who had been trying to kill him, Batman, just before his death at the hands of Doomsday. Only saved by Lois Lane, who was nearby to say goodbye to Superman one more time before trying to move on with her life from her sorrow, the team watches Superman fly away right before Steppenwolf shows up and takes the final Mother Box from them, knowing where it was because they turned it on to revive Superman.
From this point, all the pieces are set for the finale. Steppenwolf has the three Mother Boxes and begins the Unity that will end the world. Cyborg has watched his father die marking the Box to be tracked, so his motivation is complete. The heroes have doubts because of their failures against Steppenwolf and their inability to bring Superman to their cause, but they have no other choice but to fight. Superman, though, is wonderful here. He doesn’t have some grand moment of realization. Instead we just watch him slowly remember with the help of Lois and his mother Martha his final days and come to the realization of how much the League risked to get him alive. He has to help, it’s just who he is.
The pieces all come together in a large scale fight in and around an abandoned nuclear reactor in Russia (not Chernobyl, though) where everyone has to use their powers and abilities to their utmost to fight off the army and leader trying to destroy the world. It’s a hugely satisfying bout of superhero antics that caps with a look at the bigger threat to come as Darkseid ends up watching the final moments through a portal in preparation for his victory, coming face to face with the heroes who would defy him if this adventure were to continue.
There’s no way Warner Brothers was ever going to release this movie at 4 hours in theaters. There might have been a possibility of a three hour release if they had bent some more, but for whatever reason they wanted no more than a two hour and twenty minute version of this film. For all of my problems about the jagged nature of this movie’s first half, that first half becomes necessary in order to create the emotional investment for the final two hours. This is a marked improvement over the original, though it’s far from perfect. There’s extra stuff added in here and there that I have trouble understanding at all, like why is Secretary of Defense Swanwick, who was in both Man of Steel and Batman V Superman, suddenly Martian Manhunter? I have no idea, and he contributes nothing. The film feels both self-contained and part of a larger whole at the same time, though, and that’s a hard trick to pull off.