The day I sat down to watch Zack Snyder’s Justice League, the death of Jim Steinman, songwriter for Meat Loaf, among many others, had just been announced. And it occurred to me about halfway through watching that this epic is a case of same/same: a big, loud, glorious, ever-crescendoing Bat Out of Hell of a movie.
Snyder himself pops up before the action gets going, to say a big thank you to the fans who hash-tagged his version of the movie into existence with a #ReleaseTheSnyderCut campaign. They were disappointed with the original 2017 version, which, having fought a guerrilla campaign against the Warner Bros suits, Snyder finally abandoned after his daughter died. Joss Whedon was brought in to complete, rewriting, reshooting and only using about 10 per cent of Snyder’s original material.
The fact that Whedon’s version didn’t do well at the box office also called the entire DC Cinematic Universe project into question, so perhaps the studio’s intentions in greenlighting the new cut weren’t entirely charitable and fan-facing. Maybe, just maybe, Snyder could pull the movie out of the fire, fix its problems and, with not too much in the way of reshooting and extra expense ($70 million), save the movie, the franchise and the day.
That’s a superhero story all on its own. But what of Snyder’s actual finished product? In bare bones it’s the same film. Superman is dead and Steppenwolf is keen to get his hands on the three boxes which, when reunited, will bring to fruition an invasion of Earth abandoned millennia before. Apocalypse.
In all other respects it’s a completely different film. At four hours long, as compared to Whedon’s two-hour cut, it’s also a case of more is more. More everything, in particular of Steppenwolf and his peregrinations into different realms in pursuit of the boxes, plus his dealings with the even more ominous Darkseid (who is to Steppenwolf what the Emperor is to Darth Vader – technically a superior, dramatically unimportant).
The original cut was chaotic and unsatisfying. Here, there’s a chance for everyone to breathe, for their characters to gain a bit more heft, in particular Cyborg, who has his entire origin story restored – he’d been almost entirely deleted from the 2017 movie.
Whedon’s quippy, pop-culture-heavy references have been expunged. However, that funny interchange between Flash and Batman – Flash asks Batman, “What are your super powers again?” and Batman replies, “I’m rich.” – remains. I thought that was one of Whedon’s. Apologies to writer Chris Terrio. In general, though, the tone is dark, stern. Black leather, splayed legs. Smoke machines. 1980s rock.
Terrio and Snyder clearly equate backstory with daddy issues. Everyone has them in this version. Most obviously Cyborg (dad’s an unfeeling scientist) and Flash (dad’s in jail for murdering his mother), but also Batman (dad famously dead, Alfred is surrogate), Aquaman (abandoned by despised dad), Superman (haunted by his) and so on. As for Wonder Woman, it’s not clear that she even has a father, what with Amazons being all women.
The one thing both versions share is perfect casting: Henry Cavill as godlike and noble Superman, Ben Affleck as sour and workmanlike Batman, Gal Gadot as resourceful and Amazonian Wonder Woman, Ray Fisher as techy and mighty Cyborg, Jason Momoa as cool and impulsive Aquaman and Ezra Miller as lithe and irreverent Flash.
The four hours do not fly by – it’s half a working day, after all – but they don’t drag either. At one hour in we have the shape of the plot, by two the gang has finally been assembled, and at three we start heading into the final countdown and the big fight finish towards which all epic movies build.
Through what could very easily have been a slog, Snyder’s command of pacing is what’s really impressive. He brings the rhythm up and then takes it down again. Action, a pause for breath, more action, another pause. The action is not always a fight, though it often is. Flash, for instance, is introduced in a brilliant sequence involving him saving a pretty young woman from certain death.
The soundtrack shifts too, starting out all breathy, lyrical songs and ending up with the massive Wagnerian score of JunkieXL’s massed orchestras as the superheroes take on Steppenwolf in a special effects showdown that somehow keeps all the characters in play. Even here Snyder pauses – mid-bombast – as if to give us a bulletin from the real world. While battle rages between our heroes and Steppenwolf, Darkseid and his Parademons, Snyder switches the action to a cornfield, where Lois Lane (Amy Adams) and Martha Kent (Diane Lane) are swapping emotional confidences about Clark/Superman. Corny, literally.
If you want a big message, Wonder Woman gives us one about “Men, Atlanteans and Amazons” working together – diversity, inclusivity and, in the shape of Cyborg, black lives mattery.
One carry-over from the original film is that some of the CG is a bit shonky. It barely matters. It feels like complaining about the font used in a letter informing you that you’ve won the lottery.
Audaciously, there’s even an epilogue, containing an entirely unnecessary dream sequence, which feels like Snyder having a bit of a joke with his audience – I could go on doing this all night, sort of thing. While setting up a sequel – more audacity – he even introduces, right at the last gasp, a new character, the Martian Manhunter.
And if that isn’t enough for you, apparently there’s also a black and white version on the way, with a different ending. Nerds, assemble!
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© Steve Morrissey 2021