Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for Zack Snyder’s Justice League. Minor spoilers are also present for other DC films and comic books.
Generally speaking, I’m not someone who cares too much about comic books or their associated films. Sometimes comic book/superhero films make for decent popcorn flicks – such as The Avengers and a few other Marvel titles. And the Dark Knight trilogy of Batman films were decent. But as someone who didn’t grow up reading comics, that’s about the highest praise I can heap upon their cinematic adaptations. That’s what I mean when I say I’m coming at Zack Snyder’s Justice League from the perspective of a non-fan.
I can’t actually remember if I’ve seen the original version of Justice League; superhero films tend to be somewhat forgettable, and judging by reviews and fan reaction, Justice League wasn’t one of the best. I’ve definitely seen other films in the DC canon, though, including Suicide Squad, Man of Steel, and about half of Batman vs. Superman (before I got bored and switched it off). In short, I’m not comparing the so-called “Snyder cut” to the original version of Justice League – because it was so forgettable that I’ve quite literally forgotten if I’ve even watched it.
Before we get into the meat of my review, I need to hold up my hands and admit to being utterly wrong about something. I never believed for a moment that DC fans would succeed in getting this version of the film released. The hashtag #releasethesnydercut trended online in the aftermath of Justice League’s lukewarm reception a few years ago, and I just dismissed it. These things often die down once the initial controversy over a film has had time to abate, and just like Disney and Lucasfilm were never going to edit or remake The Last Jedi, I felt certain that DC and Warner Bros. would simply ride out the criticism and move on with the rest of their planned releases. I was wrong, having underestimated the strength of feeling and persistence on the part of DC fans, and the fact that Zack Snyder’s Justice League exists at all is testament to their refusal to quit. In the age of social media – where stories and controversies often last a mere 24 hours before vanishing without a trace – that’s impressive.
It’s also indicative, in my opinion, of companies taking fan feedback more seriously than at almost any point in the past. In addition to Zack Snyder’s Justice League I’d point to Star Trek: Strange New Worlds – the so-called “Captain Pike series” – that was commissioned purely because of the overwhelming fan response to Anson Mount and Ethan Peck’s portrayals of Pike and Spock in Star Trek: Discovery. More than ever, big entertainment companies are listening to feedback, and that can only be a net positive for fans of any franchise or series.
Onward, then, to Zack Snyder’s Justice League. This film was supposed to be DC’s answer to The Avengers, and any team-up story has to walk a line between relying on what previous entries in the franchise set up and charting a path casual viewers can follow. In that sense, Zack Snyder’s Justice League didn’t do an especially good job. There were a lot of story elements that built directly on top of past DC films, and for a casual viewer or non-fan coming to the film without all of that background knowledge, some events were hard to follow. When I reviewed the Marvel miniseries The Falcon and the Winter Soldier recently, I pointed out that, although returning fans would certainly get a lot more out of the series than I did due to references and callbacks to past films and shows, that wasn’t overwhelming and the production stood on its own two feet. Zack Snyder’s Justice League doesn’t – it feels like a direct sequel.
Avengers Endgame briefly became the highest-grossing film of all time. It did so on the back of casual viewers, not Marvel superfans who show up for every film and series. And because the Marvel producers recognised that, they did what they could to ensure the film didn’t rely excessively on past iterations of the MCU. Maybe the original version of Justice League balanced things better, but Snyder’s cut of the film relies very heavily on other DC titles, and as a result parts of it are nigh-on inaccessible to the casual viewer or non-fan.
The film was very dark – and I mean in terms of lighting, not thematically. If you remember some of the criticisms fans levelled at parts of Game of Thrones Season 8 for poor lighting in some sequences, well Zack Snyder’s Justice League has the same problem almost throughout, as if Mr Snyder forgot to turn on the stage lighting – or deliberately ran the entire film through a crappy Snapchat filter. On a particularly fancy OLED television the darkness may be fine; it was occasionally irritating on my cheap and cheerful LED set. While we’re talking about visuals, it was odd to me to see a modern film shot entirely in the outdated 4:3 screen format. HBO claims that it was a creative choice… but it feels like it was done for no other reason than to give the film a gimmick and talking point.
Such things add nothing to cinema for me; I’d rather see a well-written, well-executed film in a standard widescreen format with proper lighting and colour temperature. These things are gimmicky in the extreme, and while that may be all well and good for arthouse films or Oscar-bait, in what is essentially an action film about superheroes from comic books made for children, these attempts at cinematographic “artistry” fall flat on their face. They’re indicative of a film taking itself far too seriously. Not only that, but the bland colour palette drowned in brown and grey tones; splashes of colour were desperately needed to liven things up.
Until just a few weeks before it was released, the plan had been to broadcast the film as a four-part miniseries; having seen it I think it could certainly have worked in that format. At over four hours (including the credits), Zack Snyder’s Justice League is a long film. That’s sometimes true of directors’ cuts, which is what this version of the film is, but it certainly makes it better-suited to streaming than to the cinema.
Speaking of streaming, the film is only available on HBO Max in the United States, and is accessible on a patchwork of other streaming and/or pay-per-view services in the rest of the world. This messy approach is caused, of course, by the fact that HBO Max is a US-only service at present. In short, where you live will determine how and even whether you can access Zack Snyder’s Justice League, which is never the best way to go about releasing a film, let alone one that was the subject of international fan attention. Sometimes companies need to be reminded of a simple fact: there’s a world (and an audience) outside of the United States!
Everything about Zack Snyder’s Justice League feels like it’s deliberately made to stand in direct contrast to The Avengers and other Marvel titles. Marvel films have tended to embrace much of the light-hearted campiness that comes with the territory for a comic book adaptation, and though doing so can lead to some odd tonal moments where brightly-dressed superheroes find themselves in warzones or other semi-realistic scenarios, the sense of humour and lighter tone can work. DC films in general – and Zack Snyder’s Justice League in particular – seems to hate everything fun and light-hearted about comic books.
What I mean by that is that here we have a film that is going out of its way to be as gritty and dark as possible, to leave behind any of the joy and humour one might expect in a medium originally intended for kids and teenagers. I said earlier that the film takes itself far too seriously, and this is a case in point. These are cape-wearing superheroes of children’s fiction, yet Zack Snyder’s Justice League treats them as though they were hardened characters straight out of a gritty drama about a real-world war. In that sense, I would argue it’s a film that doesn’t know what it’s supposed to be; a film defining itself in opposition to two other projects – the original version of Justice League and Marvel films like The Avengers – but without knowing what its own identity is. What is there to fill the void?
Because of how desperately seriously Zack Snyder’s Justice League tries to take itself, it became unintentionally hilarious at points, and I found myself chuckling at some of the lines and even character moments – the actors played the material they were given so deadpan and straight, and because of that, some moments that were meant to be important, tense, or dramatic ended up just being laughably funny.
Some of the names used for the heroes and villains just aren’t on the same level even as Marvel. “Thanos” has a somewhat poetic or classical quality to it; “Darkseid,” in contrast, does not. The fact that Darkseid is visually similar to Thanos, and his aim – to capture magical macguffins and conquer Earth – is not too far removed from Thanos’ ambitions either, makes the main villain of the piece feel like a knock-off. Maybe that’s unfair – the original version of Justice League was released before Avengers Infinity War brought Thanos to the fore. But even so, watching it after seeing the best Marvel has to offer leaves me with the distinct impression that DC has a long way to go to catch up.
All in all, I found the plot to be rather pedestrian. There’s an ancient supervillain who’s able to return thanks to the Mother Boxes – another silly name for a macguffin – and he’s dead set on conquering Earth. One superhero isn’t enough, so Batman tries to get them to team up. Despite initial resistance from some of them – which was flat and one-dimensional at best – the heroes eventually get together to hatch a plan: bring Superman back to life as he’s the only one who can stop the bad guys.
Bringing someone back from the dead only to discover they aren’t the same as before they died is a trope as old as the written word. We see it in everything from ancient legends of necromancy and witchcraft all the way through to modern works like Stephen King’s Pet Sematary. So the Superman storyline wasn’t anything different or innovative, and the fact that Superman quickly returns to his old self after an encounter with his true love is a rather Disney-esque take on what could’ve been a theme that played out in a much darker way.
With Superman being so much more powerful than the other superheroes, Zack Snyder’s Justice League has a challenge to make their inclusion in the story after his resurrection feel worthwhile, and the film fails to rise to meet it. There’s simply no escaping the fact that the resurrected Superman didn’t need the others – he was perfectly capable of stopping Steppenwolf and the other villains on his own. The other heroes got moments, of course, as the film neared its climax, but the way Zack Snyder’s Justice League chose to present its own story and its own characters made it patently obvious that all but Superman were surplus to requirements.
Speaking of characters, I didn’t feel like any of the heroes or villains really saw any significant character development, despite the film’s four-hour runtime offering plenty of time for satisfying arcs to play out. Cyborg/Victor is the character who came closest, and was clearly wrestling with his feelings toward and about his father for much of his time on screen. But the others – Batman, Flash, Aquaman, Wonder Woman, and even Superman once he got over his initial shock at returning to life – were basically the same at the end of the film as they had been at the beginning. We know that these are heroic characters, people who will shoulder the responsibility of saving the world and put the needs of others before themselves. But in a film where several of them felt like spare parts already, having five almost-identical character types doesn’t make for the most interesting setup.
The main storyline involving Steppenwolf and Darkseid seemed to be built on very shaky ground. In short, Zack Snyder’s Justice League asks us to believe not only that powerful aliens capable of travelling the stars were beaten 5,000 years in the past by the combined forces of Earth – including humanity, barely out of the stone age – but that they then somehow forgot the location of Earth, despite their obvious abundance of technology. If the villains in the film were the descendants of those who fought and lost millennia ago, I could kind of understand that they might not be aware of where these Mother Boxes were, but they’re supposed to be the same people – yet they didn’t even know what planet to go to.
The film tries to explain that the boxes only awakened after Superman’s death as there was no longer a force powerful enough to prevent the attack on Earth. But there are two problems with this premise: firstly, Superman is what? 35 years old or thereabouts? The boxes had millennia before Superman ever arrived on Earth when they could have awoken. And secondly, Darkseid, Steppenwolf, and the others should have always known that they were on Earth, even if they didn’t know the precise location of each box.
The Mother Boxes are, as mentioned, little more than magical macguffins to allow the story to flow and to give teeth to the villains. But the logical inconsistencies in their story makes it difficult to accept them as the foundation for the film’s narrative. How did Darkseid and Steppenwolf “lose” the location of Earth when they’d literally been here before? The film doesn’t explain or acknowledge this, yet it feels like a pretty major omission.
Compared to a lot of villains out there, both in comic book/superhero fiction and beyond, Darkseid’s objective is incredibly basic. He seems to want to conquer and kill for no other reason than “because.” He’s an evil-for-the-sake-of-it kind of villain, and those kinds of characters just don’t stand up to villains with more complexity and nuance. If I were being rude I might say that asking for complexity and nuance from a superhero film is too much, but there are many decent examples of villains in the genre whose motivations are understandable and hold up to scrutiny. Even if the overall objective is the same – conquering Earth – some villains just have a better reason for doing so than Darkseid. The film tries to throw in a revenge plot, saying that Darkseid’s earlier defeat is spurring him on, but that doesn’t answer the most basic of questions: why does he do what he does?
It was a profoundly odd choice for this version of the film to end with a long epilogue sequence that clearly set up a sequel – a sequel that we’ve known for four years isn’t going to happen. DC has completely reworked its film output, partly due to the perceived failings of the original version of Justice League, and several of the actors who took on the roles are done. Batman is being rebooted without Ben Affleck, Superman without Henry Cavill, and as far as I know there are no plans for Ray Fisher to reprise his role as Cyborg. Wonder Woman 1984 received mixed reviews, and while there are plans for a film involving this version of the Flash, as well as for a sequel to Aquaman, it seems all but certain that this version of the Justice League is finished.
Under such circumstances, I question the decision to end the film in this manner. It’s clearly teasing a sequel, but at the time Zack Snyder’s Justice League was being edited and compiled, Snyder and everyone involved knew that no sequel would be forthcoming. It feels almost mean-spirited to end on this note; it leaves the whole story feeling unfinished. And unfinished it is, as Darkseid wasn’t defeated and his planned invasion is coming – but it seems unlikely we’ll ever see that on screen.
There were some great special effects and CGI moments in Zack Snyder’s Justice League, but there were also some awful visual misses. Cyborg is firmly in the uncomfortable uncanny valley, with half a human face and half a CGI face on a CGI body, and the two halves don’t mesh well at too many points. There were dozens of moments where the use of green screens was patently obvious; just off the top of my head I’d pick out several close-up shots of Barry/Flash running at high speed, and the queen of the Amazons on horseback as some of the worst examples of this. Although Justice League had a huge budget, perhaps some of these visual misses are due to the fact that this director’s cut had less money to work with? That’s a guess on my part but could explain some of the issues.
Zack Snyder’s Justice League is a film that tried very hard. At various points it wanted to be The Avengers, The Dark Knight, and even The Lord of the Rings. Though it clearly took inspiration from better films, the way it put them together and brought them to screen makes it a substantially weaker film than any of them; a popcorn action flick with delusions of grandeur. If this is what fans wanted, I’m genuinely happy for them, and the fact that I’m not really a comic book/superhero fan was perhaps always going to colour my impressions of Zack Snyder’s Justice League. Even with that caveat, however, I have to say I’ve seen far better comic book films.
So that was Zack Snyder’s Justice League. It’s probably the worst film I’ve seen so far this year. I don’t think I need to say anything more than that.
Zack Snyder’s Justice League is available to stream now on HBO Max in the United States, on Sky or Amazon in the UK (via pay-per-view), and via a patchwork of other streaming services internationally. Zack Snyder’s Justice League is the copyright of Warner Bros. Pictures and DC Films. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.