source: HBO Max

It was doomed, if you ask me. All the production studios sans Disney were panicking in the years leading up to Justice League, frantically trying to catch up to the novel movie universe model that was raking in huge cash for the house of mouse and putting them in position to bulldoze their competition. Any property that could be made into a multi-character movie series that could rival the fearsome MCU was swiftly cobbled together and announced, often with big stars and an ambitious time frame for getting to the juicy (and lucrative) team ups. They looked right but were actually the antithesis of the slowly built, carefully managed MCU, and one by one these misunderstandings led to their demise.

Warner Bros.’ DCEU was the most similar of these offerings and was often considered the most promising rival. It was about another band of superheroes, ones even more familiar to mainstream audiences than the MCU was working with, who could also fight truly epic battles to save humanity. Warner Bros. decided this would allow them to speed up the universe building, put the whole thing in the hands of director Zack Snyder to keep tone consistent, and in the span of two years release four movies with its heavy hitter Justice League as the capper. 

The miscalculations here were numerous. While audiences knew the group’s headliners Superman and Batman, Wonder Woman was more of a vague pop culture entity and many didn’t know The Flash or Cyborg at all. Instead of introducing the less popular characters in the buildup to Justice League, the preceding movies almost exclusively dealt with the characters we already knew, giving them heavy backstories that Justice League had to address while saddling it with the introduction of the dude who runs fast and the half-metal guy.

I spend all this time on the production backstory because it explains why hardly anyone could’ve pulled the thing off. The dour, self-serious take on superheroes the series established didn’t allow Justice League to bounce off characters and plot points, and without that graceful brevity, there’s simply too much it has to get through. I never even bothered with 2017’s two hour take on the story because of the series’ already diminishing returns and the film’s atrocious reception, but the four hour revisit from director Zack Snyder (who had to exit during post production due to the death of one of his children, leading to a substantial retooling), was such a curiosity in an industry that hates to admit mistakes that I had to tune in.

I can’t imagine a coherent two hour take on this story given the holes still present in this four hour version, and based on that alone I believe the general consensus that this is an improvement on the botched original release. Zack Snyder’s Justice League almost works, it’s tantalizingly close, which given everything is a feat in and of itself. Yes, four hours is a long film, but unlike so many other Snyder movies (of whom I’m generally not a fan), there’s not a glut of extraneous material here. There’s probably only half an hour I would cut (specifically a Superman tangent that adds nothing and several of the Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King style multiple endings). But for the most part, Snyder is spending his time on character, particularly the affecting story of Cyborg and the various parent/parental figure injuries that motivates most of the action, and a little more focus on this element is all that’s needed to make Snyder’s Justice League into a worthwhile film.

But Snyder is an auteur, for better or worse, and one of his trademarks is emotional shallowness. A lot of emotional shallowness, delivered with enough force to knock you out about three times over but without the nuance to make it memorable. The parental issues here are a perfect example. He’s identified a theme, tied all of his major characters to it, but the repetition of rejection or loss becomes numbing, the differences in circumstance not leading to any meaningful variation in reaction. Everyone here is just sort of sad, the naive optimism of The Flash providing the only relief (and he is, unfortunately, the least developed of the main characters). Once the film gets to its wrap up, it correctly identifies how to provide an emotional button to this idea but can’t pull it off, the music swelling and the montage building to words that are borderline nonsensical, a string of platitudes without anchoring to what came before. 

Yes, this is partially due to pre-production decisions, the setup of the franchise simply giving Justice League way more than it could shoulder, but it’s also a trademark of Snyder films to miss the essence of his themes and spin off into illogical dramatics.

Pairing with these strong but bizarre plot points are Snyder’s equally strong but bizarre visuals, which I actually have a certain affinity for. Their striking framing and heavily stylized movement consistently provide moments that are thrilling, moving, and (sometimes inadvertently) hilarious. An early Wonder Woman fight doesn’t have the fun that Patty Jenkins brings to the character’s solo films but still gets across her powers, ability, and cheeky weariness of men. Contrast that with the underwater battles of Aquaman, whose self-seriousness combined with the completely inexplicable nature of his powers provides solid evidence for those arguing that Snyder’s style qualifies as camp (as this was his original introduction, it should’ve better explained what he brings to the table besides an inappropriately named trident).

A side note: potentially my favorite moment in the whole movie is when a lady lovingly clings to Aquaman’s abandoned sweater as she and a chorus of women mournfully sing about him leaving, which is pure camp, but I’m not sure Snyder realizes that.

All of this makes for a movie that is fascinating in its first half, which is basically a feature-length setup full of promising starts and weird asides, but peters out as the plot kicks in and real structure must be applied. It thrives on Snyder’s idiosyncrasies , and while I can’t in good conscience call it a success, it’s just about the best such an ill-conceived mess could’ve ever become.

Release: currently available on HBO Max

Director: Zack Snyder

Writers: screenplay by Chris Terrio, story by Zack Snyder, Chris Terrio, and Will Beall

Cast: Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Gal Gadot, Ray Fisher, Jason Momoa, and Ezra Miller

Author: Emily Wheeler

Member of the Indiana Film Journalists Association. Rotten Tomatoes certified critic. Movie omnivore.

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