Justice League is a flawed, overlong masterpiece

(Zack Snyder’s Justice League started last Friday on Rotten Tomatoes)

Four years ago, when publisher Barbara Roche took over Reel Chicago, she pulled me aside and asked, “Colin, if you could write any kind of column you want, what would it be?” I knew at that time Reel Chicago was focused on local advertising and production communities and we were just beginning to stick our toe into Los Angeles.

So, I thought the question required a thoughtful answer. Whatever I covered in my own column should somehow be related to what we were already reporting on at the time.

So, I naturally chose superheroes. Barb didn’t really know how to respond. A little flummoxed, she finally said, “Okay.”

Since then, Reel 360 has covered more than its fair share of superheroes in film, TV, streaming and advertising. Why? Because superhero films are BIG. Look at Marvel’s 23 films. We can all agree, that for the most part, Marvel Studios’ success is unprecedented.

The same can’t be said for Warner Bros and their DC films. For every Dark Knight there is a Steel. This was a time when we could all agree that the great films were great and the bad films stunk up the place like an open sewer. Looking at you Catwoman.

The History According to Snyder

Things were pretty smooth sailing until the most divisive director that we have ever seen, Zachary Edward Snyder, came along and directed Watchmen in 2009. Coming off of 2006’s box office hit 300, Snyder (who cut his teeth in the commercial world) was hired by Warner Bros and DC to bring the complex graphic novel by the British creative team of writer Alan Moore, artist Dave Gibbons and colorist John Higgins to life.

While I personally enjoyed Watchmen and felt the extended version was sheer brilliance, many in the audience didn’t agree. Neither did the critics. Watchmen was far from a hit, grossing $185.3 million. But there were enough recruits in the Snyder Army to propel the film to become a cult classic and even spawn the huge HBO series last year.

With the exception of 2011’s Sucker Punch which was universally loathed, Snyder’s films, with their trademark slow motion and oiled bodies, have been overwhelmingly divisive. You either love or hate ’em.

There’s no in between. One has to wonder why Warner Bros. gave him the directing reins to 2013’s Man of Steel.

But the studio did and thus the DC Extended Universe was born. And unlike many, I bought into it with Henry Cavill as Kal-El in Man of Steel. To this day, I will say MOS is one of the best superhero films ever made and still the best of the DCEU films. But the film was divisive. It wasn’t what audiences and critics expected of Superman.

The color was grim. Superman broke Zod’s neck. Where the hell is Otis?

Yeah. So, the film didn’t do as well as expected. The film landed at 59% on Rotten Tomatoes and grossed $668 million globally. Not bad, but not the hit that was desired. To be fair, Captain America: The First Avenger grossed $370 million in 2011.

Instead of Man of Steel 2 (which audiences are still pining for) we got 2016’s World’s Finest pairing of Batman and Superman. But they weren’t superfriends. Oh no. Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice saw Batman (Ben Affleck the best to date) go full throttle after Superman after witnessing the destruction of Metropolis and being manipulated by Lex Luthor (Jessie Eisenberg).

The film is also notable for introducing Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman. The film again was panned by critics (28% on Rotten Tomatoes) and proved to be divisive among fan boys and fan girls. Snyder Army defended the director’s vision while haters, well hated.

For me, I didn’t like the emo portrayal of Superman. He was brooding most of the time and feeling sorry for himself. If you listen to the actual dialogue, Henry Cavill doesn’t speak that much. He spends most of his time listening to others, lecturing him on why he should or shouldn’t be earth’s protector.

The film did feature a slam dunk of a fight between Batman and Superman. And then Supes died at the hands of a poorly designed (and unnecessary) Doomsday.

My opinion did change when I saw extended version of the film where Clark actually acts like a reporter and speaks.

That version has a runtime of 3 hours and 3 minutes and should be the only version of the film watched.

Which brings us to Justice League. We have covered the history of the ill-fated film over and over in 360. But to recap one last time, Zack Snyder was filming the superhero team up in 2016 and in early 2017, his daughter, Autumn, tragically committed suicide.

Distraught as any parent would be, Snyder left Justice League and Warner Bros. brought in Joss Whedon, at first to rewrite, and then direct. There was no reason not be hopeful as Whedon had successfully launched two Avengers’ films for Marvel.

But as we know, from Henry Cavill’s “mustache-gate” to a bountiful amount of upskirt shots of Gal Gadot, the film was a disaster. And WB finally shut down the “Snyderverse.”


Upon hearing rumors that Snyder possessed his original edit of the film, the Snyder Army took to the streets and social media. Using #releasethesnydercut, the group demanded WB release the original version of Justice League. This went on for four years.

Most believed it was a pipe dream, orchestrated by fan boys and girls living in their parents’ basements. But as we all know, their dream became reality.

Justice League premiered last Friday on HBO Max. Four hours of it.

How is it?

Let’s not toy around with you anymore. Zack Snyder’s Justice League is the film we all wanted and what we needed as well. What it has that has been lacking in other Snyder films (except MOS) is heart. This is a labor of love for the fans. You can feel it from the opening scene watching Superman’s death affect the world.

While it is bigger, better and bolder than what we saw in 2017, it is not without its flaws and indulgences.

The film is a creation grafted from Snyder’s original workprint, additional scenes and new visual effects, which look great in some cases and resemble video game cut scenes in others.

But it’s a bold achievement – a foreign film, art house approach to superheroes and I love it. The film will not win over Snyder haters, but this film about being broken and alone should gather some new admirers. It also renders Joss Whedon’s 2017 film completely and utterly useless. It’s an old, torn tire left on the side of the freeway.

The Story

The story is essentially the same, which makes it difficult to explain the difference between this film and 2017’s to those not following along. Snyder follows the same basic beats.

Villain Steppenwolf, who is now much more fearsome in design and actually has a motive making him more interesting, has come to earth to seize and unify three Mother Boxes – sentient, autonomous computers that can do anything from destroy worlds to resurrect the dead.

What we learn about Steppenwolf here is that he has been banished by Darkseid to overthrow worlds. He cannot return to Apokolips (home) until has taken 100,000 worlds.

Divided into six chapters, the film also takes the time to explore the origins and backstories of Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa). He’s now no more of a “dude bro” like in the 2017 version. Here, he’s more of a strong and silent type. Vulko (Willem Dafoe), who did not appear in the 2017 film, and Mera (Amber Heard) fill in some backstory.

I absolutely hated Ezra Miller’s Barry Allen/Flash in the 2017 film. Here, not so much. With the power of reediting comes a hero who is now funny and innocent. Barry is alone, like the others, and trying to find his way.

His pivotal scene during the climatic battle gives Barry’s presence the gravitas it sorely lacked in the other film.

Zack Snyder has said Ray Fisher’s Cyborg is the heart of Justice League. He is not wrong. Victor Stone, a talented athlete and hacker is at the center of the League coming together as a team, raising Superman from the dead and finally defeating Steppenwolf.

While his design has been criticized as too CGI, or too tin foil, it actually works here when we see Victor in action.

Gal Gadot’s Princess Diana benefits the most from the four-hours. Where Patty Jenkins essentially made Wonder Woman less fierce and more of a Disney Princess in Wonder Woman 1984, Snyder turns up the heat on the Amazonian warrior.

Though the Wonder Woman scene fighting terrorists remains irrelevant to the overall plot, it is bolder and more daring than 2017. And quite frankly the shot of Wonder Woman disposing of the bomb is simply pretty. It’s also better than any set piece in Wonder Woman 1984.

She is stronger here and accepts her co-leadership role with Batfleck willingly. The scene with Bruce berating Diana for mourning Steve is thankfully gone.

Then we have the dark lord himself, Darkseid. He shows up with his trademark Omega beams and threatening persona. He is not Thanos. One thing I would have liked to see is Darkseid bulkier in his design and also Snyder eschews Darkseid’s familiar imposing stance of his arms behind his back.

But what we do see of Darkseid are going to leave fans wanting more.

And then there is Superman. One thing Whedon did get right about Superman was his personality. His persona was one of hope. He is not mopey Clark from BvS. That said, there is very little screen time for Clark and the black suit doesn’t really make sense, but what is there is very Superman and should make critics happy.

And Ben Affleck is the best Batman that has ever hit the big screen. He is imposing when he wears the cowl and cape. And Affleck is the perfect Bruce. His banter and relationship with Jeremy Irons Alfred is spot on. This is one duo fans deserve to see more of.

What Doesn’t Work?

As I said there is a lot of Snyder’s signature slow motion moves and jarring speed changes with the film. While it’s dramatic in some cases, we don’t need to see Lois Lane (Amy Adams) buying coffee in slow motion.

And while I was excited to see Harry Lennix, Jr. as Martian Manhunter. His scenes simply don’t work. In one, we see Martha (Dianne Lane) having a heart-to-heart with Lois. It turns out it was really J’onn J’onzz. The reveal diminishes the power of the scene that preceded it.

When he shows up on Bruce’s patio at the end of the film to warn him of an impending war, it kind of makes J’onn seem like a douche. If I were Bruce, I would immediately ask, “Where were you just now?”

Finally, the film has multiple endings that feel tacked on, especially the Knightmare sequence. While it’s really cool and a movie I would love to see (which we won’t let’s be honest) it just doesn’t feel like a part of the same film.

Snyder has always viewed the DC heroes as our modern day gods. And they are. But he has crafted a film that shows us gods with chinks in their armor. And after a quarantine of being alone for a year, shows us that being alone sucks and we’re better and stronger together.

Rating: Four Ball Point Pens out of Five. So says The Geek.

The Geek is a working screenwriter, director and screenwriting instructor.