Although the DC Extended Universes’ successes have not reached the dizzying heights of the Marvel Cinematic Universe in terms of both critical reaction and box office reception, I don’t think anyone could deny it has been an interesting experiment to see unfold. What started with Man of Steel, a lukewarm film received modestly on all fronts, was followed with Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, a film I can still remember the hype of.
As you may recall, Batman v. Superman was released around the same time as Captain America: Civil War, billed as an affair pitting Captain America against Iron Man. Although their similarities were compelling, the films themselves were very different. Civil War tackled newfound dark elements brought to Marvel, including the consequences of their reckless, unregulated decisions, whereas Batman took aim at Superman for his destruction of Metropolis and disregard for everyone’s safety. Both films had a lot of hype around them, but, in the end, Captain America: Civil War received critical acclaim and a massive box-office turnout, whereas Dawn of Justice received a maligned reaction and was, at best, a profitable disappointment for Warner Bros.
Personally, I enjoyed both of them. And, in-anticipation of this film’s release, I re-watched the Extended Edition and remain complimentary of it. Certainly, there’re aspects I think could have been approached differently. For instance, the storyline with Lois Lane felt like a storyline better suited for a Man of Steel 2 type film than a film already has bloated, and, in spite Snyder’s ambition, I believe, maybe, at the time, it was overkill to try and introduce as many loose threads as he did. The benefit of watching Batman v. Superman and its successor back-to-back has a lot of benefit, but I can remember being left scratching my head by the inclusion of The Flash’s cameo when it first happened. The film had a lot to it, and a lot of it, I think, they did well, but I also think maybe they could have dialed back some of their impulses for a tauter experience overall.
Since then, the DC Extended Universe has been mixed thereafter, with Suicide Squad righting the ship on a financial level, but offering a paltry film overall, but its indirect sequel Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey was an unfortune misfire on a financial front (it did improve critically, however). Wonder Woman had breakout success with Patty Jenkins’ film, receiving a fantastic box office return comparative to its budget, but offering a middling sequel. Aquaman made an enormous, ahem, splash, becoming DC’s most financially successful film, not adjusted for inflation. In some ways, Warner Bros. has backtracked and distances itself from its established foundation. Shazam! offered a more comedic approach, whereas Joker was out-of-world altogether, becoming a gargantuan success by itself.
All of this, in the end, brings us to the Justice League film, although not the team-up all these films culminate with, it is, arguably, the most significant and interesting film of them all. Originally directed by Zack Snyder, the 2017 film suffered hardships and a notoriously difficult production. You will find a wealth of information, dependent on how deep you want to travel down the rabbit hole, but, what it comes down to is this – director Joss Whedon was brought in to make changes to the film, and that, along with studio interference, resulted in a film that was very different than Snyder’s original reaction. This, in part, is why the Justice League film was a box office misfire, costing more than Batman v. Superman, and yet, grossing a significantly smaller amount (although, I do think the writing was on the wall that the DC Extended Universe was struggling in its current form).
This started a movement, which, once more, you will find a wealth of information on. You’ll find information about a toxic fandom and you will find information about a sincere and passionate fanbase who merely wanted the director’s vision to be realized, but, what it comes down to is this – HBO Max fronted 70 million dollars to produce a special, extensive director’s cut of the film. What was once a franken-film version of Zack Snyder’s film, meshed with Joss Whedon’s own vision, in a condensed, two-hour feature, (I did not review this film, but, to be frank, I did not care for it), became a four-hour film, wholly of Zack Snyder’s creation.
Comprising itself of Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Gal Gadot, Ray Fisher, Jason Mamoa, and Ezra Miller, the Justice League assemble in an attempt to save the world from the looming threat of Darkseid, Steppenwolf, and their army of Parademons.
A lot of me wanted to write about all the different changes that were made with this film in-comparison to the original cut of the film. However, if we are upright and honest about it, I could not remember a single frame of that film. This is not a jab at the film, per se. What I do remember was the general sentiment that it was a lackluster, confusing mishmash of ideologies and tonal inconsistency.
This film, on the other hand, rest assured, is a lot better than that film. How much better it is, I think, will take some reflection and analysis, but, what I would takeaway overall is – the film is on-par with Batman v. Superman: The Dawn of Justice and feels like a faithful sequel to that film.
Justice League does not necessarily improve upon what was established, but, instead, for the most part, carries on with a lot of the same reoccurring criticisms anyone might have of it. Likewise to its predecessor, the film has a lot to say, and with HBO Max offering Snyder free rein, he is offered a lot more time to say it in.
I don’t mind a long film, personally. In fact, I welcome it. Something I think benefits Justice League a lot as well is its position as a streaming film, whereas, had I watched the film in a theater, I would no doubt be criticizing its length on the basis that sitting in a theater for such an extended period can sometimes be miserable. In its current form, however, watching it in the comfort of my own home, I approached in the same way I approached binging any other miniseries.
The cinematography is grimy and desolate, and, at its worst, can feel overbearing or overproduced, but, at its best, can feel thematic and inspired. Unlike many others, as much as I like the Marvel Cinematic Universe, what I would never want is for the DC films to start emulating them in any form, other than basic infrastructure and production models. Something Zack Snyder did with Batman v Superman, and again with Justice League, is he allows the cinematography and camerawork to have a life of its own in the film. Whereas, Marvel, on the other hand, aside from recent upticks with Infinity War and Endgame, often treats their camerawork simply as a point-and-record for what’s happening on the screen. I like how Snyder implements a tonal aesthetic throughout.
The characters are solidly implemented; I have always appreciated Ben Affleck’s portrayal as Batman, benefited by my personal favorite costume design, but I always found myself more behind Cyborg than I had remembered. I know it was a point of controversy how much had reportedly been spliced out from the original film, and I am happy Cyborg was able to have a full, fleshed out character arc in this film. The portrayal was dryer than what I had previously associated with the Cyborg character (based mostly on the Teen Titans animated series) and I didn’t know how I would feel about it, but, by the end, I feel like it won me over with the eventual payoff.
Wonder Woman was rightfully portrayed as a “badass” character, which I appreciated. I remember seeing a small clip from the original film with The Flash and Wonder Woman in a somewhat sexual encounter portrayed for laughs, and likewise, I assumed it was Joss Whedon’s decision. This is not to say Snyder is not occasionally “male gaze-y”, but, as I think the scenes with Aquaman will attest, there is a general consistence not skewed by gender.
Some of the small additions that were made, including a new Knightmare scene, I thoroughly enjoyed. I had no expectation I would become excited by this film. I knew from the get go that most of what would be featured would be dangling carrots never to be seized, but, dammit all, if I didn’t find myself excited by that scene and what it could have meant.
The antagonist is, I will admit, a weak point of the film, but I think they fill the film up with enough hype and development around the circumstance that it is something I was willing to overlook. Stepphenwolf feels comparable to a generic boss in a videogame, with a character design I found myself repeatedly thinking outright, “I don’t like this design”.
A lot of it is because his outfit is busy and there is not a lot of emphasis on his facial mannerisms. The character feels very much like a CGI paste job and less like an antagonist I can get behind. During a scene later on in the film, the character removes his armor and I actually wish they would have went with that appearance for the entirety of the film.
All in all, on a personal level, I enjoyed Justice League a lot more than I thought I would. Although I no doubt anticipated I would enjoy it more than the original film, I secretly, deep down, only thought it would be an uptick from what we had already seen prior. After all, I kept telling myself it was the same film with new content. But, really, I enjoyed it a lot more than that. Growing up, I always loved the Justice League animated series’, and honestly, I think I had more of an emotional attachment to Batman and the DC characters than I ever did with Marvel. As an adult, that has mostly changed, especially with the sheer bulk of Marvel features we receive nowadays, but, the point is, I had an instance with this film I never expected – I felt like I really had that Avengers team-up moment for Justice League. I had a moment where I really felt like, that’s Batman, that’s Wonder Woman, that’s Superman, that’s Flash, etc., and it felt, honest and genuinely, special.
I don’t think the Justice League film is a great film, per se. This has Zack Snyder written all over it, and as much as I like that, I do think you find a certain tradeoff with that. By allowing the director to express his best impulses, you allow him to express his worst ones, and I think the film is chock full of them. The film is bloated, at times frivolous, and filled with threads that will keep it from being able to stand on its own feet like, say, The Dark Knight. The film is also moody, atmospheric, and fun, with thoughtful character arcs and developments of its characters, allowing each one an opportunity to shine and prosper.
Obviously, I know there is little chance we will see a sequel to Justice League, or anything like that, but I really do think that the approach of miniseries’ is one that Snyder would flourish with, as he clearly as a penchant for longform storytelling and that would allow him a medium better suited for that.
I would highly recommend the Snyder Cut, it improves significantly over the original, and although it asks more questions than the original, providing about the same amount of answers and payoff, that is not enough a reason to let it go unseen if you’re a superhero fan.