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'Zack Snyder's Justice League' review: Shallow grandeur

The expansive Snyder cut of 'Justice League' has more personality than the 2017 film, even though there's little depth to the bombast

(from left) Jason Momoa, Gal Gadot and Ray Fisher in 'Zack Snyder's Justice League' (AP)

Zack Snyder’s Justice League is four hours long and divided into six "chapters". While “The Age of Heroes” and “Something Darker” capture something of the director’s approach, the full Snyder effect can be found in the song titles for Tom Holkenborg’s soundtrack. "No Paradise, No Fall", "The Center Will Not Hold, Twenty Centuries of Stony Sleep", "World Ending Fire", "That Terrible Strength" and “Urgrund” all point to a cinema that’s violent, mythic and cataclysmic. These qualities are contained in the music as well—Wagnerian strings, electronic groans, Middle Eastern wails whenever the Amazons are on screen, and the pounding drums Holkenborg used in his Fury Road score.

The journey of Justice League to the small screen has also been protracted, contentious and, for a while, seemingly based in myth. In 2017, Snyder had completed a fraught production, with studio confidence in him low after the stupefying Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016). Tragically, while he was in post-production, his daughter died by suicide, and he left the project. Joss Whedon, director of the first two Avengers films, was hired to complete it. Largely reshot by Whedon, the 2017 theatrical version was close to unwatchable, but after Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad (2016), everyone just shrugged at another noisy, chaotic DC film. Everyone, that is, except a growing group of fans who insisted there was a “Snyder cut” that the studio had under lock and key.

One of the last nods in the end credits is to “All the fans that made this film possible”. It’s well-deserved, even if the Snyder supporters were, on their best day, insufferable. Yet, their persistent campaigning, which ranged from buying ad space to trending #ReleaseTheSnyderCut on Twitter, meant that when the filmmaker confirmed, in 2019, that such a cut did exist, the pressure was suddenly on the studio. Incredibly, in 2020, Warner, the same studio that lost faith in Snyder, gave him the green light to assemble what he’d originally shot. The film is now streaming on HBO Max—testament to the lengths studios will go to appease fan bases, especially toxic ones.

Superman’s death in Batman v Superman released a power surge from three “mother boxes”, hidden in the underwater kingdom of Atlantis, on Themyscira by the Amazons, and, rather anti-climatically, by a scientist in a cupboard in a Metropolis apartment. Batman (Ben Affleck) and Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) set out to find the remaining members of a team to combat Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds), the scowly metallic being who’s assembling the boxes so his master, Darkseid, can become ruler of the universe or something. Steppenwolf’s excursions, and the recruitment of Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa), Barry Allen (Ezra Miller) and Victor Stone (Ray Fisher)—Aquaman, The Flash and Cyborg—proceed at a pace that's at once leisurely and terribly busy. Snyder goes from crescendo to crescendo, shooting everything from intergalactic battles to Arthur walking off a pier with the same crazy bombast.

The film was shot in the squarish 4:3 format, apparently so it would play better in IMAX. Personally, I can’t complain about watching Justice League at home, where I can control the volume, and where the darkness of the colour palette doesn’t seem quite so dark. Still, after years of competent but bland Marvel films, there is a certain primal thrill in Snyder’s dark, violent action scenes, like the “golden age of heroes” battle where the Atlanteans, the Guardians and the Amazons fight alongside Zeus and Ares (looking remarkably like Snyder’s heroes from 300) to defeat Darkseid—shorter than the other setpieces, but colossally, nakedly grand. Even the momentary visions are wild: as a voiceover discusses monetary systems, a giant bull and bear clash.

What Justice League lacks is the kind of narrative intelligence that can turn its roiling surface and scale into something meaningful (beyond comic mythology). Compared to the falling van in Inception, a visual tying up various plot lines, the mother box descending in slo-mo is just another neat effect in a film saturated with them. Chris Terrio’s screenplay has all the comic book mumbo-jumbo one has come to expect from superhero films (“The anti-life equation, the key to controlling all life and all will throughout the multiverse…”), but can’t offer anything smarter than “Fuck the world” or “Let’s go find this son of a bitch” when it’s time for a one-liner.

Justice League ends with a confusing epilogue: seeds of films unmade, involving at least one character who’s been recast; bait, perhaps, to fans who’ll demand that Snyder be entrusted with future DC projects. If Justice League is his last, though, it’s not a bad resting place. The tragedy that befell Snyder has endowed his film with a resonance that it might not have otherwise possessed. Mortality and grief are major themes: Bruce’s dead parents are a constant in any Batman film, but here there’s also Victor and Arthur’s late mothers, Martha Kent’s dead superhero son, and Barry’s incarcerated father. Victor is reassembled as a robot after a horrific accident; Superman too is brought back from the dead. In a lovely scene, Barry uses his super-speed to save Iris (Kiersey Clemons), who’s about to die in a car accident. Most directors would have played this as action comedy. But here it’s sweet, almost gentle. There’s something quite touching about Snyder, through Barry, being able to save this one girl, on a film where he lost so much.

'Zack Snyder's Justice League' can be streamed on www.bookmyshow.com.

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