This review contains spoilers.
The age of heroes has finally (re)returned in Zack Snyder’s Justice League, the directorial cut of 2017’s superhero tentpole film Justice League, which was impacted by the sudden passing of Snyder’s daughter and the film’s subsequent change of director. Here, Snyder gets to fully realize his vision for the DC Extended Universe, which he began in 2013’s Man of Steel, then continued in 2016’s Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice.
What Snyder’s vision amounts to is essentially an assembly cut with a two-hour first act, but it’s what Snyder does with the entire four-hour runtime that makes this film a resounding triumph. Snyder embraces the extra runtime he’s given and allows us to ruminate within the lives of the five members of the League and the larger world around them.
The introductions here linger on the headspaces and secluded worlds the characters seem to find themselves trapped in. Batman can’t seem to escape his guilt and honor Superman’s legacy, just as he can’t seem to bring to life his new aircraft, which would allow him to “fly” and bring the team together; Cyborg has the infinite internet at his fingertips, but he refuses to leave the darkness of his apartment; Aquaman is the rightful King of the Oceans but he seems to prefer being engulfed in and tormented by stormy waters; and the Flash, who can destroy glass with a touch of fingertips, is framed just as trapped within glass as his father who was imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit.
The first two hours intercut these moments, wherein these various heroes have minor conversations about not living up to their potential, with the grand scale action of the alien threat that’s hurtling towards them. This adds a lot of weight and foreboding to even the smallest of character interactions, without sacrificing what makes these characters human. You feel the Flash’s fear when he finally encounters the alien threat, just as you feel the excitement and pride when Aquaman finally steps up and joins the battle. The character investment here leads to truly visceral moments that wouldn’t have been accomplished by treating the characters as chess pieces to be assembled at various action sequences.
Not to say the film’s not without its drawbacks; the film does feel repetitive at times, with characters being introduced multiple times and similar scenes coming after one another. You begin to feel it when there’s one too many scenes of Steppenwolf reporting to his masters an update of his conquest. Similarly irking is Superman’s resurrection, as superheroes resurrecting the very character they spent the entire film grieving over has never felt human in any way, shape, or form (plus, Avengers: Endgame and WandaVision have made this trope even more trite). It does a better job than the theatrical cut of the film, however, as now there are actual consequences to the team’s decision to resurrect Superman, be it within the film or something foreshadowed to come at a later film.
The most frustrating part has to be the scenes that just exist to set up movies that will never happen
That being said, the most frustrating part of the film has to be the scenes that just exist to set up movies that will never happen. There’s nothing important about the Martian Manhunter, the Lois pregnancy subplot that happens off-screen, nor the “Knightmare” tag at the end of the film yet they’re included anyway as the most vulgar sequel bait to have existed in recent franchise filmmaking. It’s frustrating not having definitive answers or follow-ups to these sequences, but upon more thoughtful reexamination, I believe Snyder leaves behind the answer in the final moments of the film’s climax.
At the end of the film’s final battle, when the united Justice League have defeated Steppenwolf and have thrown his decapitated head through a portal towards Darkseid (the larger enemy a la Thanos), the League stare the pissed-off alien down while radiating nothing but pride and confidence that Earth has its heroes and will be ready.
This scene is the Justice League explicitly bringing to life the new Age of Heroes. The Lord of the Rings-esque myth retelling sequence depicts the united heroes of Earth working together to defeat Darkseid, but leaving the job unfinished for the new Age of Heroes. The Justice League do the same at the end of the film, and also leave the job unfinished for the heroes down the line, as they have faith the heroes will reunite once again for this very reason (as Wonder Woman says, “but room for more”).
What’s clear in Zack Snyder’s filmography (from 300 to Sucker Punch) is that he loves mythmaking, especially when the most broken down characters become larger than life. With Justice League, Snyder creates an ongoing mythology (of the DC Universe) to be told and never ended, like a battle cry that echoes through time and space. Snyder recognizes the power these myths and stories have, especially when the most normal and beaten down of characters get a chance to enter the fold (“I was one of them, dad— the best of the best,” the Flash says as he runs to save the world in the last microsecond).
It’s also further difficult to separate an examination of the film from the personal tragedy that Snyder himself faced while in post-production. Snyder himself doesn’t seem to shy away from it. Aside from the direct displays of the Suicide Prevention contact number and the “For Autumn” tag at the end of the film, Snyder’s Justice League is a film that’s defining atmosphere is loss. Whether it be through Lois & Martha trying to accept a world without Clark in it, Batman feeling the guilt over not living up to the fallen Superman, or even Cyborg, Aquaman, and Flash just being lost because of broken relationships with parents that they’ll never be able to fix; every time the film touches base, it’s on characters grieving and trying to find a way through their pain. Cyborg’s personal journey, in particular, is perhaps the most moving storyline Snyder has delivered on screen yet.
Ever since the theatrical release of Justice League in 2017, fans have loudly speculated what exactly Zack’s Snyder Justice League could be. Now that it’s released, it’s possible we still may not know exactly what it is. It’s a celebration of myth, a rumination on loss, a conclusion to a Superman trilogy, but also the middle chapter in a five-film saga. With a four-hour run time, it’s all that and more. It’s a superhero film, and a pretty damn good one at that.
Zack Snyder’s Justice League is now streaming on HBO Go.