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MOVIES: Zack Snyder's Justice League - Review

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Note: there are minor spoilers in this review but nothing that wasn't featured either in the 2017 cut or in the trailers.

Zack Snyder’s Justice League has been in the works for a while – it almost doesn’t feel real that it’s actually here. After the Frankenstein’s monster-type abomination of the 2017 Joss Whedon cut, Warner Brothers finally caved and gave the director of Man of Steel and Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (full confession: I rewatched both recently and *did not* like them, including the Ultimate Cut) the $70m required to finish the project. And what a project ZSJL turned out to be, a four-hour long assembly cut that feels far more cohesive and deeply personal, for both Snyder and the hardcore fans who want nothing else other than to #RestoretheSnyderverse, quality of the Snyder films be damned (safe to say, I’m not one of them). I did like his first film, Dawn of the Dead – but ever since then it’s been a mixed bag for me, 300 was fun, Sucker Punch was not, and Legend of the Guardians was dull and uninspiring for an ambitiously animated children’s film with a distinct visual flair. Watchmen too, fundamentally disappointed me and doesn’t hold a candle to the HBO miniseries.

Reviews have given it 5 stars, labelling it as the best thing to happen to the current state of DC comics, but broadly speaking, although there are moments to enjoy about it, I didn’t love it, it felt to me like a chore to watch and lacked the sense of enjoyable fun factor that films like Birds of Prey, Shazam! & Aquaman had, showing you could balance a darker tone whilst still maintaining that rewatchablity factor. Snyder has never gone for “fun” – and it shows, adopting an epic and grander approach than even Batman v. Superman, this is the DC Comics in full-scale Lord of the Rings mode, drawing inspiration from Peter Jackson’s epic rather than imitating Whedon’s Avengers, a lightning-in-a-bottle moment that should never be replicated especially in a universe so tonally different, what were Warner Brothers thinking?

From the start it’s clear that ZSJL is the better film, even if it may not be any good in turn. There’s a better sense of scale, a better sense of purpose and a better sense of structure right down to the characters themselves, it's far more cohesive this time around, even if cohesively boring isn't exactly high praise. This time it’s a slow burn it allows for a character centric approach: Ray Fisher can feel rightly robbed and rightly insulted by the sheer amount of content that Whedon cut – proving hiring a director that had been burnt out after Age of Ultron to recreate past glories with such a tonally different project was never going to work: gone are the offensively bad sexist jokes, the lazy Whedon quirks and snappy dialogue, and gone is the edited-out moustache abomination that opened the 2017 cut. A true relief, indeed.

Instead, ZSJL offers us a more subdued take on the characters that feels entirely personal for them as much as it does Snyder, for a four hour comic book movie the action is carefully chosen and precise, not much happens in the first hour or two other than much-needed character build-up, and when the action happens it feels built around who the Justice League are rather than happening for the sake of it: Cyborg gets the best material in the whole film with a defining character arc that easily makes him the most important person there, as does Aquaman, but Ezra Miller’s Flash comes out of it the worst, feeling annoying and insufferable like Miller did a Woody Allen marathon before walking on set. It's safe to say Miller isn’t given the best of content, and neither is Kiersey Clemons – her Iris West doesn’t even get the chance to say her name and is quickly forgotten about seconds later. The Flash’s content is by far the weakest of the movie, and I’m generally not a fan of Miller’s take on the character.

Although the dialogue is better, it is still broadly exposition-filled as there’s virtually no subtlety or nuance here at all, wholly wooden. There’s a fantastic 5-minute flashback that goes full Lord of the Rings as it shows a battle between the armies of men, Atlantis and the Amazons united against Darkseid, even featuring Zeus and a Green Lantern, which looks and feels properly epic, but is overlayed by a five-minute long Wonder Woman-narrated exposition that comes far too late into the movie. It doesn’t help that Gal Gadot is entirely unconvincing in the role, but I did like her friendship with Alfred that is developed over the course of the movie: and speaking of Alfred, Jeremy Irons gets the best source of dialogue across the whole film, he’s terrific here – and comes out of this film arguably the best apart from Ray Fisher. But then, I’ve always been a fan of his Alfred even if I wasn’t as keen on Batman v. Superman, the dynamic between Irons and Ben Affleck is brilliant – and preferable to the Michael Caine/Christian Bale Alfred/Batman dynamic of the Christopher Nolan movies, even if I'd take Bale overall anyday over Affleck, who whilst was excellent in Batman v. Superman, especially in the first half, drops the ball here.

The score by Junkie XL feels bombastic and fraught with a sense of purpose that Danny Elfman’s nostalgic approach to the 2017 film lacked, yet I didn’t quite find is as unique as Hans Zimmer’s Man of Steel and Batman v. Superman scores, there’s something special about Zimmer’s Superman theme. His Flight track when Clark first takes flight for the first time is an iconic moment in a mediocre movie, capturing the joy and sense of wonder that the movie didn’t nearly do enough off. Beyond this there are quite a few needle drops and music moments in this film, some that I like and others I don’t, there’s a scene where Aquaman walks out onto the docks in slow-motion set to Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ There is a Kingdom, and although I’m a fan of a Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds-fuelled soundtrack, the lyrics are not especially subtle when used in this context. Furthermore, every scene here goes on for about several minutes longer than it should have: do we really need the children singing farewell to Aquaman as he goes out into the ocean? Gone are Sigrid and The White Stripes in favour of an even more sombre and harrowing tone, and a cover of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah, a Snyder favourite, plays over the end credits.

I do like Rose Betts' Song to the Siren too, it leans into the grand mythology that ZSJL is very much built around - these are gods, not everyday heroes. As much of Man of Steel and Batman v. Superman were deconstructions of the superhero mythology, ZSJL almost feels like a reconstruction - it's Snyder's most typical superhero film yet, even if nothing here is a typical superhero film. Whilst very much not a subtle choice, There is a Kingdom feels almost completely appropiate - as appropiate as Distant Sky was, to give a sense of mourning to the loss of Superman - his absence clearly felt here unlike in the 2017 film, his runtime is dramatically reduced. "They told us gods would outlive us, but they lied", resonates.

Cave gives a sense of sadness and melancholy to his voice that few other artists can match, and that echoes across to Aquaman with There is a Kingdom that instantly captures the grand scale of things that Snyder is going for, it's very clear that the director has origins in music videos, something that was evident right back from the usage of Johnny Cash's The Man Comes Around in Dawn of the Dead. This man knows his music.

Do we really need ultra-stylised slow motion in literally every other scene? It makes the whole film feel ten times longer when watching everything reduced to this speed, and it was long enough already. There are few incidents where it works, such as The Flash using his powers in the final act in one of the rare good moments for the character in this movie, but it’s something that most of the film suffers from rather than gains. I also feel like the antagonist of the piece, Steppenwolf, whilst afforded more depth than the original 2017 film, still doesn’t come across as a threat, but I appreciate the build-up to Superman’s return and how it’s handled, the black-suit is fantastic and Henry Cavill relishes in playing the character: although I’m no fan of Man of Steel, I’d love to see more of his take on Superman as it’s, much like Geralt in The Witcher, a role that he feels born to play. Ben Affleck on the other hand feels like a let-down in comparison - not helped by other cast members being as good as they are, and despite his role of the Iron Man equivalent in putting the team together, feels like a nonpresence in the movie, completely wooden from start to finish. “Faith, Alfred, Faith” is a good line – but that’s the best that Batman gets.

ZSJL could have cut a good hour, maybe even an hour and half: the epilogue is completely unnecessary at half an hour long and by far the weakest part of the film. The return of the Joker played by Jared Leto (who, as he does in every role, try much too hard) doesn’t have any weight and the Knightmare sequence almost makes most of the film prior to it largely pointless, without going into too much spoilers beyond what was shown in the trailers it’s safe to say that I’m not a fan of it at all. Certain cameos don’t work and feel like padding more than anything, but fans will love them - even if at the same time, it's unlikely we'll ever get more.

And speaking of the fans, this movie feels broadly “for the fans” in a way that reinforces that they are very much the people responsible for getting it across the line and won’t win many converts. In addition to this, I might add, as, whilst it’s great to see them passionate about something and I’m happy that a film like this is out there free from studio interference which is a mess that should have been avoided in the first place, they’re not doing the director or the project itself any favours when certain groups of them (important to add: this doesn’t include every Snyder fan) have been so toxic that any negative response beyond universal adoration is met with extreme bullying and embarrassingly childish behaviour – you’re actively hurting the movie that you love rather than helping it and you don't deserve it by doing so. It’s fine: people have different opinions to you, I've even seen people attacked for liking the film even though they've had issues with it. Accept it, move on. Where I draw the line is attacking people for having a different taste to you. Just enjoy it on your own way.

For good or for ill, broadly speaking, the plot is still relatively safe and simple – and I didn’t care for it at all. The mother box quest is something that didn’t really grab me, neither did the anti-life equation. I generally didn’t care for it or felt emotionally engaged in the characters to feel like it was anything but boring, which, considering the superheroes themselves are my favourite characters and the Justice League is my favourite superhero team, shouldn’t be happening – they’re the easiest of easy sells for me.

Zack Snyder's Justice League is available to stream on HBO Max now in the USA and on NowTV/Sky Movies in the UK.

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