Justice League and Zack Snyder's Justice League
A review by Mark S. Reinhart
What a confusing legacy the Justice League film, and DC Extended Universe film series in general, turned out leaving for all of us. Most of us know the story behind the film's troubled history, but just in case some of you who are reading this don't know, here's a quick recap. Director Zack Snyder originally took on Justice League as a follow-up to his 2016 film Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, and the plan was that he would be making two films, Justice League Part 1 and Justice League Part 2. This plan fell apart in the wake of Batman v Superman's poor critical and box office performance, and Snyder's decision to leave the project in May 2017 in order to deal with a family tragedy.
Enter Joss Whedon – the writer/director of the hugely successful Marvel Films movies The Avengers (2012) and Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) had been brought in by Snyder to rewrite a number of Justice League scenes. And now that Snyder was leaving the project completely, Whedon was called on to be even MORE involved in the making of the film. He wrote brand-new scenes, and directed a large number of elaborate and expensive reshoots.
It would be entirely inaccurate to state that Whedon simply finished up the Justice League film that Snyder had begun. The truth is that Whedon largely reshaped the movie at the request of DC and Warner Bros., because they had ended up being so unhappy with Snyder's vision of DC's most iconic characters. As evidenced by the overall dark tone of Batman v Superman, Snyder saw these characters through a decidedly pessimistic, bleak lens, and it seemed very likely he would frame them in much the same manner in Justice League. Simply put, audiences did not take to the downbeat way in which Batman and Superman were portrayed in Batman v Superman - so Warner Bros. did not want Justice League to keep the characters on that same gloomy path.
Consequently, the final version of Justice League ended up being a concoction of two directors' interpretations of DC's most iconic characters. The film's credits did not reflect this fact – Snyder was given sole credit for directing the film, and Whedon was credited for writing its screenplay along with Chris Terrio.
After all of the difficult work that was put into the film, Justice League was finally released in November 2017. The movie was an epic tale that told the story of Batman and Wonder Woman bringing the Justice League together in the wake of Superman's death in order to save the planet from being destroyed by an alien being known as Steppenwolf. The League is successful in defeating Steppenwolf, and they are even able to use his awesome alien technology to bring Superman back to life.
Warner Bros.' attempt to lighten Justice League through Whedon's work turned out to be a dismal failure. Once the film premiered, it ended up being even MORE unpopular and commercially disappointing than Batman v Superman. Predictably, this led to endless talk amongst the media and the general public about what had gone wrong with the film and the DCEU series, and just how Warner Bros. could fix it.
It turned out that there never was a fix for the DCEU series. Warner Bros. simply decided that their future DC superhero films would be standalone projects that were not connected to Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Justice League. But Justice League did receive a "fix" that pleased quite a few people, especially fans of Zack Snyder, who had long been clamoring for a release of the director's version of the film.
In March 2021, Warner Bros. released the film on the streaming service HBO Max as a 4-hour director's cut entitled Zack Snyder's Justice League. This version of the film featured not only unreleased footage filmed by Snyder when the film was first being made, but also new footage filmed by Snyder and the original cast in October 2020. Zack Snyder's Justice League fared far better with critics than the original theatrical release of Justice League. Most reviewers felt that Snyder's original vision of the film was far superior to the Snyder/Whedon mashup found in the film's 2017 theatrical release.
As a lifelong Batman fan, I do not really agree with this line of thinking. So I will now offer up my own opinion of Justice League, both the theatrical release and the Snyder director's cut, to you. Keep in mind the fact that I have no stake in the film at all other than my intense interest in the Batman character. And as a very devoted Batman fan, I like both versions of the film – but I definitely like the theatrical release better than the Snyder cut.
You might be wondering how I can hold this opinion that is so contrary to how most people feel about Justice League at this particular point in time. There are a number of reasons why I personally favor the theatrical release over the Snyder cut.
First and foremost among these reasons is that Justice League places Batman and Superman at the front and center of the film, while Zack Snyder's Justice League does not. When Zack Snyder's Justice League was finally released, I was very surprised by the fact that Snyder's version of the film was actually very similar to the film's theatrical release in terms of characters, plot, pacing, and overall tone. In both films, all of the members of the Justice League end up being united with one another, and they are victorious in their battle against Steppenwolf.
Of course, given that the theatrical version was 120 minutes long, and the Snyder version was 242 minutes long, there were substantial differences between the two – over two hours worth of differences, actually! But the majority of those differences were scenes that simply expanded upon the plot found in the original film.
And those expansions barely featured Batman and Superman at all – in fact, in Batman's case, he does not even show up in costume in Zack Snyder's Justice League until the movie is halfway through its running time. The film is divided into 6 separate parts, and Batman finally appears at the beginning of Part 4. To make matters worse, Snyder cut all of the new scenes Whedon filmed when he took over the project, and many of those scenes featured Batman – so there is even LESS Batman in the 242-minute Zack Snyder's Justice League than there is in the 120-minute Justice League!
In fairness to Zack Snyder's Justice League, I must point out the fact that the film features a LOT more footage involving Wonder Woman, Aquaman, Cyborg, and Flash. Those characters are fleshed out infinitely better in Snyder's version, and I greatly enjoyed this aspect of the film. And as I mentioned above, the plot and tone of Zack Snyder's Justice League is very similar to the plot and tone of Justice League.
So it could be argued that Snyder was moving away from the darkness and pessimism of Batman v Superman all on his own when he was directing Justice League, and he never really needed Warner Bros. or Whedon to be steering him toward shaping the film into a lighter, more optimistic work. Still, even giving Snyder credit where credit is due here, I must say that a much longer Justice League film with much less Batman is not going to work for this particular Batman fan!
A second reason I prefer Justice League over Zack Snyder's Justice League is that Justice League does a wonderful job capturing the overall feel of the "classic" DC Universe as the general public, young and old, continues to recognize it. I'm sure that all of you readers who grew up following these characters through the 1970s and 80s know what I mean when I use the word "classic" here. So many elements of Justice League, including its action scenes, dialogue, and costuming, harken back to the time of "100 Page Giant comics," the Super Friends animated TV series, and Mego Super Hero figures.
I guess that retro, slightly sentimental feel just didn't play as well with many modern moviegoers – but it sure played well with me. And given the fact that the "classic" takes on these characters have remained such a vital part of pop culture for so many years, and will undoubtedly continue to do so for many years to come, I believe that Justice League could very well find larger and more appreciative audiences as the decades go by.
A third reason I prefer Justice League over Zack Snyder's Justice League is that Justice League is funny at just the right times. This is one aspect of the film that really surprised me. For example, Ezra Miller's facial expressions when Flash sees the Batcave for the first time, and when he realizes that a hostile, brought-back-to-life Superman will have no problems keeping up with his own super speed, are genuine laugh-out-loud moments.
The movie even pokes fun at Batman v Superman's very dramatic, confrontational scene when Batman asks Superman, "do you bleed?" After Superman is brought back to life, he asks the same question of Batman and then throws him violently to the ground. Batman responds by muttering to himself, "something's bleeding, all right." That kind of gallows humor remark by Batman would not have been at all out of place in an episode of Batman: The Animated Series. (I'll compare Justice League to Batman: The Animated Series some more in just a bit!)
And there is one moment of levity in Justice League that I personally just cannot get out of my head. The League is back in the Batcave after being manhandled by the hostile Superman, and a frustrated Aquaman throws a large piece of equipment into a bank of computers. Batman responds by telling him "don't do that" in a very understated but annoyed tone. Most of you readers will probably not know this, but the "don't do that" line was a catchphrase of The Monkees TV series! And it was always delivered in the exact same manner that Affleck delivered it in Justice League! Did Justice League really borrow a page from The Monkees? As a lifelong fan of both Batman and The Monkees, I won't rest until I find an answer to this question!
A fourth reason I prefer Justice League over Zack Snyder's Justice League is that Justice League really honors its classic comic book roots is through the film's costuming. All of its heroes appear in costumes that look very much like their comic counterparts. So often superhero films choose to alter their characters' costumes to such a degree that they barely even resemble the comic images that they originally came from. Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, Flash and Cyborg do not have this problem at all in Justice League - they have their iconic comic appearances brought wonderfully to live-action glory in the movie. And we really get to enjoy these costumes on the screen, because all of the heroes are given extended scenes that show them in action.
The reason that Justice League gets this particular nod over Zack Snyder's Justice League is that Justice League features Superman's return to life with the character wearing his classic red and blue costume. In Zack Snyder's Justice League, Superman returns in his modern-era black and silver costume. I know many comic fans love the look of that costume, but I personally loved seeing all of the DC heroes looking very much like their golden and bronze age comic selves in Justice League.
Since my focus is largely on the Batman character in this review of Justice League and Zack Snyder's Justice League, I'll close out with a discussion of Ben Affleck's portrayal of Batman/Bruce Wayne. When Batman v Superman was first released, I loved both Affleck's physical appearance and his acting in the role. In fact, I was amused when fans originally complained about Affleck being cast as Batman/Bruce Wayne in the film – how could these fans have possibly been unhappy with the idea of a handsome, 6’ 4” tall, Oscar-winning dramatic actor playing the role?
As I made very clear in my review of Batman v Superman, I was hugely disappointed by Snyder's take on Batman in that film – even Affleck's fine work in the movie could not change that fact. So I very much looked forward to seeing Ben Affleck as Batman in future Warner Bros. films – and it was my fond wish that those films that would not be marred by Snyder's downbeat interpretation of the character.
With Justice League, my wish came true. Affleck was given the chance to play Batman in a film that synched up with most every aspect of the character's long and rich history. I feel that Justice League's portrayal of Batman is very similar to the way the character is portrayed in the classic animated TV series Batman: The Animated Series and Justice League – like those TV productions, the Justice League film does a wonderful job of capturing the Batman character in both the light and the darkness.
There are so many Batman moments in Justice League that remind me of the animated Batman voiced by Kevin Conroy in Batman: The Animated Series and Justice League. Like that animated Batman, Affleck is dark and brooding, while at the same time richly realistic and human. I loved Affleck's quiet, dialogue-driven scenes with Jeremy Irons' Alfred and Gal Gadot's Wonder Woman – those scenes gave Affleck's interpretation of the character a depth that I felt compared very favorably with Michael Keaton's and Christian Bale's classic live-action versions of the character.
As I also made clear in my Batman v Superman review, I am not particularly thrilled with the idea of Batman sharing the big screen with DC's sci-fi/fantasy oriented characters in the first place. Batman is first and foremost a character that is much more solidly based in reality than most comic book characters, so I would prefer to see him in his own cinematic universe that stays closely tied to the real world. But my feelings on this subject do not keep me from very much enjoying seeing Batman in Justice League – after all, the character has regularly appeared with the team since its inception in 1960, so it is altogether fitting to have him take his place alongside the League in this film.
And Affleck's performance comes across almost every bit as strong in Zack Snyder's Justice League as it does in Justice League. In Snyder's cut, we lose some of the great Whedon Batman scenes found in the theatrical version, like the one where the hero encounters one of Steppenwolf's zombie-like foot soldiers on the rooftops of Gotham. But hey, in Zack Snyder's Justice League we get the gritty, newly-filmed epilogue scene featuring Affleck's Batman and Jared Leto's Joker in a nightmarish future timeline – so I guess that is not too bad of a trade-off!
My final thoughts on Justice League and Zack Snyder's Justice League are that as a Batman fan, I'm glad to have them exist as a part of the character's wonderful history. And that is NOT something I can really say about Batman v Superman! Of course, both versions of Justice League will now forever stand as an odd little detour in the character's cinematic history with the March 2022 release of Matt Reeves' astounding film The Batman starring Robert Pattinson in the title role. It's time for me to get to work on a review for that film!