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Justice is (re)served – ‘Zack Snyder’s Justice League’

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Justice for the Justice League!

Specifically, for director Zack Snyder’s vision of the team – a vision that was undeniably disrupted by the circumstances surrounding 2017’s “Justice League.” When personal issues led to Snyder’s walking away from the project during post-production, replacement director Joss Whedon wound up putting his own very distinct stamp on the proceedings … for better or worse.

Mostly worse, as it turns out.

But now, in what is a first in the vast and varied world of big-budget superhero cinema, we’ve been given a chance to experience something far closer to Snyder’s original intent – a do-over. Thanks in no small part to massive internet outcry from fans, the powers that be at HBO gave the keys back to Snyder (as well as a hefty budget, around $70 million) to turn the film back toward his original intent, retrofitting and reshooting and ultimately restoring Snyder’s vision.

The end result is “Zack Snyder’s Justice League,” a four-hour extravaganza that far outshines the film that came before it. It’s better. A lot better. Now, if you want to argue that it’s bloated and unnecessary, I won’t fight you. Think a dangerous precedent has been sent regarding the power potential of dedicated fandoms, no matter how potentially toxic? Could be. None of that changes the fact that this new film, as overwrought and overproduced as it may be, is a significant improvement.

It’s got many of the usual issues that dog Snyder’s work – the washed-out color palette, the ubiquitous slo-mo, the jittery, hard-to-follow battle scenes – but even those concerns are lesser here than they’ve been in previous films. And the storytelling gains – particularly when it comes to certain character arcs – more than offset all of that.

For me, it boils down to this. I basically shrugged my shoulders at “Justice League” in 2017. I genuinely enjoyed “Zack Snyder’s Justice League” … and I really wasn’t sure that I would.

Superman (Henry Cavill, “Enola Holmes”) is dead, but the world still needs heroes. Particularly because danger is coming – the alien warrior Steppenwolf (Ciaran Hinds, “The Man in the Hat”) and his legions of Parademons are coming to Earth with conquest on their minds. Specifically, Steppenwolf – operating in an effort to restore himself in the eyes of his immensely powerful master Darkseid (Ray Porter, TV’s “The Sandman”) – seeks three sentient computers known as Mother Boxes; when they are brought together, they form a device called the Unity possessed of enough power to destroy a planet.

In an effort to combat the looming threat, Batman (Ben Affleck, “The Way Back”) is trying to assemble a team of superpowered individuals to protect Earth in the coming fight. He’s already got Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot, “Wonder Woman 1984”) on board, but he’s got his eye on a few more: the half-Atlantean Aquaman (Jason Momoa, TV’s “See”), the quippy speedster Flash (Ezra Miller, TV’s “The Stand”) and the half-man/half-robot Cyborg (Ray Fisher, TV’s “True Detective”).

As it turns out, it was Superman’s death that set all of this in motion; the traumatic energy of his death “woke” the Mother Boxes, leading Steppenwolf to return in an effort to collect the Boxes and avenge his long-ago defeat at the hands of an Earth alliance of man, Amazon and Atlantean.

But even as Batman struggles to put his team together, the clock is ticking, with Steppenwolf and his thousands-strong horde zeroing in on their quarry. It soon becomes clear that even the incredible gifts of this newly-formed team may not be enough to prevent the coming apocalypse – Earth is also revealed to be the prophesied home of another immensely powerful weapon, a weapon that has long been a gleam in the eye of the world-conquering Darkseid. This nascent Justice League is going to need some help, but getting that help means undoing the impossible.

Obviously, I can’t be expected to do justice (see what I did there?) to four hours worth of plot machinations. And there are some engaging subplots – Lois Lane (Amy Adams, “Hillbilly Elegy”) is present at the margins of the story throughout, while the newly-restored arc for Cyborg is the emotional center of the film. The inclusion of Darkseid allows more depth of character for Steppenwolf, who was a sadly generic big bad in the original film.

And on and on and on.

I’ll freely admit that I went into “Zack Snyder’s Justice League” with low expectations. I had been lukewarm on the film the first time around, and while I understood how we wound up with this new version, I wasn’t sure just how much better it could actually get. Quite a bit, as it turns out – I am more than happy to admit that I was wrong.

It seems double-edged to refer to a four-hour film as epic, but the truth is that that is my big takeaway from the Snyder Cut – it’s epic. Epic in a way that the first film, despite being a story of superpowered beings striving to save the world, simple never managed to be. And look, cutting 30 minutes from this movie would have been a snap, but while the film does seem to be a bit bloated, it isn’t gratuitous in its length like I feared it would be.

One of the biggest issues with the original cut was the attempt to cram so many new characters, so much introductory and expository information, into two hours. With twice as much time, these characters are allowed to breathe, and in the case of Cyborg, to become the story anchor that they were initially intended to be.

Yes, the lighting and color choices don’t always click. Yes, there’s too much slow motion. And yes, the big battles – particularly the finale – are a touch jittery and muddy. You can’t be surprised – Snyder’s gonna Snyder, after all. But there’s also much more interpersonal interaction. More connection between characters. More narrative development. More room for the human element to push beyond the realm of CGI. We’re given reason to care about these characters and their feelings about one another, something largely lost in the previous iteration (ironically so, really, considering Joss Whedon is celebrated for his supposed ability to focus on such things). At the very least, there’s a consistency to this film that was sorely lacking in the last.

I’m torn with regard to Ben Affleck’s Batman; while I don’t know that he really nailed the character, I would have liked to see him get another run or two at it to see if it would click. It’s like he got 90% of the way there, but just couldn’t get over the finish line. It seems as though Gadot’s limitations as an actor are slowly growing more apparent, but only in other arenas – she’s a strong fit as Wonder Woman and ideally suited for this kind of film. She’s an action star waiting to happen. Superman is always going to be a tricky role to play, but Cavill seems to be finding a sweet spot. Miller isn’t quite as goofy as before – and that’s a good thing. Dialing back the wackiness allows for a bit more of the character’s genuine fear and self-doubt to creep through. Momoa’s bro-ed out Aquaman remains a coarse charmer; his energy renders the often-mocked character far more interesting than he might otherwise have been. And as mentioned previously, Fisher – who was largely sidelined in the first version of the film – gets one hell of an arc, one driven as much by personal loss and pain as by alien machinations. It’s a wonderful performance.

The voice-forward performances – Hinds and Porter foremost among them – are good. Adams is her usual excellent self; even in a superhero movie, she’s putting her best foot forward. And yes, there’s more. Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luthor. J.K. Simmons as Commissioner Gordon. Willem Defoe and Amber Heard as Atlanteans Vulko and Mera, respectively. Diane Lane as Superman’s mom and Connie Nielsen as Wonder Woman’s. And of course, the redoubtable Jeremy Irons as Alfred Pennyworth, bringing his earned actorly gravitas to the role of Batman’s butler, having a blast all the while.

(And yes – Jared Leto’s Joker shows up eventually. Don’t worry about it.)

“Zack Snyder’s Justice League” is a rare opportunity for a filmmaker to take back a vision that had been altered without him. It remains an imperfect movie, but its issues have been greatly reduced in impact – some through the film’s expansion, others through retraction – and the end result is an entertaining one.

The Snyder Cut has been released, and – much to my surprise – I’m glad.

[4 out of 5]

Last modified on Monday, 22 March 2021 11:32

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