4-Color to 35-Millimeter: The Great Superhero Movie Rewatch

Slow Music, Slow Motion, Slow Movie—Zack Snyder’s Justice League

Starting in August 2017, Keith R.A. DeCandido took a weekly look at every live-action movie based on a superhero comic in the weekly “4-Color to 35-Millimeter: The Great Superhero Movie Rewatch.” He caught up to real time, as it were, in January 2020, but is revisiting the feature every six months or so to look back at the new releases in the previous half-year. Last week, we looked at Wonder Woman 1984, and this week is Zack Snyder’s Justice League.

The lengthy and expensive rewrites and reshoots of Justice League done by Joss Whedon after Zack Snyder departed the project following the tragic suicide of his daughter Autumn did not result in a successful film, from an artistic or commercial standpoint. There was a vocal contingent of the fan base who wanted to see Snyder’s original cut of the film. The newly-purchased-by-AT&T Warner Bros. was going to launch a shiny new streaming service, HBO Max, that was going to need content. The ability to provide that content was kneecapped by the spring 2020 pandemic lockdown.

These factors combined to bring Zack Snyder’s Justice League into being.

Another factor that aided in the decision to take Snyder’s original cut for the movie and turn it into a release-able film was the complaint made by Ray Fisher about how he was treated by Whedon on set, which led to a later revelation that Gal Gadot had been equally mistreated (and soon thereafter to more revelations about awful behavior by Whedon going back to his days on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel). Gadot resolved her issues privately to her own satisfaction, but went public when Fisher went public with his, as his issues were not resolved to his satisfaction.

The pandemic was also a major factor, as Warner had a mess of post-production folks with literally nothing better to do. And once things opened up a bit more in the late summer and early fall of 2020, Snyder was able to film some new material, though the vast majority of the four-hour ZSJL is material already filmed for what Snyder intended to be the original cut.

As with the theatrical release, ZSJL features Ben Affleck as Batman, Henry Cavill as Superman, Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman, Jason Momoa as Aquaman, Ray Fisher as Cyborg, and Ezra Miller as the Flash, as well as Amy Adams as Lois Lane, Diane Lane as Martha Kent, Jeremy Irons as Alfred Pennyworth, J.K. Simmons as Commissioner Gordon, Amber Heard as Mera, Connie Nielsen as Hippolyta, Ciarán Hinds as Steppenwolf, Joe Morton as Silas Stone, Robin Wright as Antiope, David Thewlis as Ares, Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luthor, Billy Crudup as Henry Allen, and Joe Manganiello as Deathstroke. Also appearing are Harry Lennix as Calvin Swanwick (last seen in Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice), revealed in this version to be the Martian Manhunter in disguise, Willem Dafoe as Vulko (last seen in Aquaman), Ryan Zheng as Ryan Choi, Jared Leto as the Joker (last seen in Suicide Squad, and sorta kinda in Birds of Prey), Kiersey Clemons as Iris West, Ray Porter as Darkseid, and Peter Guinness as DeSaad. In addition, archived recordings from Man of Steel of Kevin Costner as Jonathan Kent and Russell Crowe as Jor-El are used.

This apparently closes the door on Snyder’s vision of the DC Extended Universe, as there are no plans for a sequel to either version of Justice League, the next Batman movie will have a totally different dark knight detective, and nobody knows what’s happening with Superman in movie form. There are Wonder Woman, Aquaman, and Flash movies in various stages of production, at least. Then again, it was stated emphatically by Warner once that the Snyder Cut would never be released, so who the hell knows?

 

“If you can’t bring down the charging bull, then don’t wave the red cape at it”

Zack Snyder’s Justice League
Written by Zack Snyder & Chris Terrio and Will Beall
Directed by Zack Snyder
Produced by Charles Roven, Deborah Snyder
Original release date: March 18, 2021

Screenshot: DC Entertainment

We open with the death of Superman at the hands of Doomsday, while Batman and Wonder Woman watch. At the same time, we see the three Mother Boxes, all activating. One is in the Stone apartment, where the Cyborg-ized Victor Stone is brooding. One is in Atlantis. One is on Themyscira.

Bruce Wayne travels on horseback over mountains to get to a village in Iceland where he’s heard stories of an “Aquaman” who helps the village by bringing them fish to eat in winter time. Arthur Curry pretends not to know what he’s talking about, but when Wayne makes it clear that he knows who he is, Curry throws him into a wall and says no to his request to join the team of superheroes he’s forming.

A boom tube forms in the stronghold in Themyscira that holds the Mother Box. Steppenwolf and his parademons come through it and massacre many Amazons, taking the Mother Box with him. Hippolyta shoots an arrow to the world of men to warn them, though she knows that, thousands of years later, the only one who will know what it means is her daughter Diana.

Wonder Woman foils a terrorist attack in London, saving the lives of a bunch of schoolchildren, but apparently murdering the terrorist leader in cold blood. She then hears a news story about the flaming arrow that hit a temple of Artemis in Greece, where the fire won’t go out.

Steppenwolf contacts DeSaad, Darkseid’s lieutenant, and says he will find the Mother Boxes and bring about the Unity, and then maybe he can come home to Apokalips. DeSaad doesn’t get his hopes up, but encourages him to continue trying to find the Mother Boxes.

Diana arrives in Greece and takes the arrow, and then finds an underground cavern that tells the story of an ancient battle: Darkseid came to Earth to find the Anti-Life Equation, which would give him dominion over all life. Humans, Atlanteans, Amazons, Greek gods, and a Green Lantern all teamed up to fight back. Darkseid was wounded and retreated, leaving the Mother Boxes behind. One each was kept with the Atlanteans, the Amazons, and the humans, the former two leaving them in strongholds that remained guarded, the latter burying theirs in what is now Italy.

Martha Kent visits Lois Lane, who has not been working, and who goes every day to visit the shrine to Superman, bringing coffee to the cops who guard it. Martha has lost the farm to foreclosure, but she insists she’s okay with it. She urges Lane to go back to work, as that’s what her son would have wanted. When she leaves, though, she is revealed to be the Martian Manhunter in disguise, who has also been posing as Secretary of Defense Swanwick.

Barry Allen visits his father in jail—he was imprisoned for killing his wife, though Allen doesn’t believe his father did it—and then applies for a job as a dog walker. A truck runs down a hot dog cart and almost runs over a woman driving a car, but Allen is able to save her using his super-speed, moving so fast that the woman he’s applying for the job from doesn’t even realize he left the room (though she’s confused as to how the window broke).

Diana goes to Wayne and tells him that the threat is coming. He goes to recruit Allen, who joins up eagerly, while Diana goes after Stone, who tells her to pound sand.

After that, there’s an attack on STAR Labs by parademons, where Silas Stone works on alien technology. Several people are kidnapped, including Silas, and the one witness provides a sketch to police of the parademons. Steppenwolf is frustrated, as the people at STAR have the scent of the Mother Boxes, but they couldn’t find the thing itself.

Commissioner James Gordon hits the Bat-Signal to inform Batman of sightings of weird creatures, including the one at STAR. Batman brings Wonder Woman and the Flash with him, and Cyborg shows up as well, informing them that his father was one of the ones kidnapped. The Mother Box they’re looking for was buried with Cyborg’s mother.

We learn that Victor Stone was an honors student and the captain of the football team. He also helps other students, even if it means breaking the rules. His mother has to defend his actions to the principal. Driving home from a game that his father missed because he was working late at the lab, a truck hits them, killing his mother and leaving Stone badly injured and near death. Desperate, Silas uses the Mother Box—which was dug up by the Axis Powers during World War II, captured by the Allies, and left in a warehouse in D.C. for years until after Superman’s arrival, at which point Silas dug it out to see if it might hold the key to doping out the Kryptonian technology—to keep his son alive, replacing the destroyed parts of his organic body with Mother Box tech.

In Atlantis, parademons come for the Mother Box and take it, despite Aquaman’s efforts to stop them. Both Vulko and Mera have urged Aquaman to claim his birthright as king of Atlantis, but he has refused. However, he does accept Mera’s charge to go after the parademons and stop them from getting the other Mother Boxes.

The team traces the kidnapped scientists to the tunnels under Striker’s Island Prison. Batman, Wonder Woman, Cyborg, and the Flash go there to fight Steppenwolf and the parademons. They rescue the scientists and drive Steppenwolf off, but the parademons shatter the wall, which brings the ocean in—however, Aquaman arrives in time to save them, then he informs them that the bad guys have the Atlantean Mother Box.

They return to Wayne Manor. Wonder Woman and Cyborg explain that the Mother Boxes are able to rearrange matter in any way: if you burn a house down, it’s all the same matter, the wood and metal just turn to smoke and dust. But the Mother Boxes can turn the smoke and dust back into a house.

Wayne realizes that this means they can use the Mother Box they have to resurrect Superman. Aquaman objects vociferously, and Diana points out that if they do this, Steppenwolf will sense the activated Mother Box and come for it, but they all (except for Aquaman) agree that it’s worth the risk to have Superman back.

They exhume the body from Kent’s grave, then bring it to STAR Labs (with Cyborg hacking into the system to create an emergency that requires evacuation). Silas thinks the evac is a false alarm until he sees that his son is part of the group breaking in, and then he helps sell the evac.

Flash runs at the speed of light to generate the energy to light up the Mother Box, and they succeed in resurrecting Superman. But he doesn’t entirely know who he is, and he fights them all, beating the crap out of them. He only stops when he sees Lane, and then flies off with her.

Steppenwolf then shows up. Silas has secreted the Mother Box in STAR Labs and hides in a sealed compartment with it, seemingly trying to destroy it. Instead, it vaporizes him, and the parademons take it. However, Cyborg figures out that Silas irradiated the Mother Box so they could trace it. They detect it in an abandoned nuclear power plant in a ghost town that isn’t actually Chernobyl but may as well be. They head off there to try to stop Steppenwolf. Wayne insists to Alfred that Superman will show up eventually to help.

Steppenwolf has not only found all the Mother Boxes, he has also determined that Earth has the Anti-Life Equation. Apparently, Darkseid didn’t remember which world it was that drove him off and had the ALE, and Steppenwolf reveals to DeSaad, and then directly to Darkseid, that the Equation has been rediscovered.

Cyborg plans to get inside the Mother Boxes and split them apart, with help from a power jolt from Flash. The others fight the parademons and Steppenwolf.

Superman flies Lane to Smallville and finally starts to remember who he is. He is reunited with his mother, and then he flies off to Wayne Manor to find out why he was resurrected. He arrives to find Alfred, who had not expected him to arrive, and he tells Kent where to go.

Flash is running around in circles very fast to build up enough power to get Cyborg the jolt he needs, but he needs to hack into the Mother Boxes first. Flash is shot by a parademon, which forces him to stop running. Cyborg is about to be killed by Steppenwolf, but that’s when Superman shows up and destroys Steppenwolf’s axe. Flash heals up from his wound, but then the Mother Box explodes, killing everyone. But Flash runs fast enough to go back in time to before the Mother Box explodes, giving Cyborg the jolt he needs, and he separates the Mother Boxes.

A boom tube opens to Apokalips. Darkseid and DeSaad watch as Steppenwolf is defeated (Wonder Woman delivers the killing blow, beheading him). The boom tube then closes, and Darkseid announces that he will have to invade Earth the old fashioned way and to prepare the armada.

Wayne purchases an old mansion that he plans to convert to a headquarters for the never-actually-called-that Justice League. He also buys the bank that foreclosed on the Kent farm and restores it to Martha. Aquaman tells Vulko and Mera that he’s going to visit his father in his own movie. Allen visits his father in jail and says he got a job working at a crime lab. Cyborg listens to the message his father left for him, where he says he was proud of him. And we find out that Lex Luthor has escaped from prison, and from his yacht, he recruits Slade Wilson to his own little Injustice League.

Wayne has a dream of an apocalyptic future where Darkseid has invaded Earth and turned Superman because Batman let Lane die. Superman has apparently killed Aquaman, and Batman leads a rebellion that includes Flash, Mera, Wilson, and the Joker. When Wayne wakes up, he’s confronted by the Martian Manhunter, who offers himself as an ally in the coming fight against Darkseid’s invasion.

 

“Not impressed”

Screenshot: DC Entertainment

First off, there is absolutely no reason, none, why this movie had to be four hours. Every scene took about twice as long as it needed to, several scenes were utterly pointless and/or repetitive, and the movie is chock-full of unnecessary slow-motion scenes, usually accompanied by some dirge-y rock song or other. Mind you, there are also necessary slow-motion scenes, those being when the Flash is moving very fast, so the rest of the world is in slo-mo to show his perceptions. But the effect of that is severely diluted because half the fucking movie has been in slo-mo up to the point that Barry Allen first shows up.

That first scene where Allen applies for a job and then rescues a woman from being hit by a truck (the credits identify her as Iris West, but there’s nothing in the movie to indicate that it’s her, especially given that she doesn’t get any dialogue or personality) also sets up one of the movie’s more troubling aspects, which is male characters spending time ogling women when they should be in the middle of a fight. Allen does it with the woman in the car (for a very long time, too, though it’s only a microsecond in real time), and Aquaman does it later with Mera when he should be fighting parademons. As with the slo-mo, this dilutes this tendency for when it’s really needed, which is Superman seeing Lane. It should be a powerful romantic moment, but it’s instead yet another dude macking on a woman in the middle of a superhero fight.

A lot of this movie is a good reminder of why it needed reshoots. The Whedon reshoots had their own problems (including a big one that we’ll get to), but that version managed to do several important things right that this endless slog of a movie botched.

For starters, Aquaman is a much more enjoyable character in the theatrical version, with the joy and lust for life that we also saw in his eponymous film the following year. In ZSJL, Arthur Curry is a dour cynic who complains about everything and only occasionally shows the glee that characterized him in his other appearances.

The bits with the Russian family that Flash and Superman rescue in the theatrical release has been called out as a stupid addition, and I couldn’t possibly disagree more for two reasons. One, as I felt at the time in 2017 (and again when I rewatched it for this site in 2019), was that it showed our heroes actually saving people, a vanishingly rare occurrence in a Zack Snyder superhero movie. Two, as I learned watching this version, it gives Flash something to do during the climactic fight scene besides endlessly run around in circles waiting for Cyborg to tell him to touch him and charge him up.

Whedon also did some wonderful things with Ben Affleck as an older Batman. Some of my favorite bits in the theatrical release were Affleck’s Wayne struggling against the one foe he can’t defeat: the aging process. (“You can’t do this forever.” “I can barely do it now.”) That was a fascinating new take on Batman, and I was massively disappointed to find none of it in Snyder’s version, as that’s by far the most interesting aspect of this version of Batman.

As was true in his other two movies starring the character, Snyder continues to totally not get Superman. He never even wears his trademark blue-and-red suit in the main part of the movie. While it’s true that he was a bit overused in the theatrical release, it’s to make up for the fact that—for all that the team risked everything to resurrect him because they needed him—he’s also barely a factor in the climactic fight, providing, at best, one important moment (saving Cyborg from Steppenwolf’s axe). And then there’s the flash-forward—but I’ll get to that in a bit.

The biggest change Whedon made that was for the better, though, was the treatment of Diana of Themyscira. Wonder Woman is barely even a factor in this movie beyond providing exposition. The reshoots made her the Justice League’s field general, but she’s hardly even in most of the fight scenes in ZSJL, with Batman acting more like the field leader. Also Whedon reedited the fight against the terrorists so that Diana wasn’t a murderer, as she’s seen to be killing the terrorist leader. This is awful on several levels. For starters, it makes Diana out to be horribly bloodthirsty. On top of that, it makes everyone who was watching just as bloodthirsty, as the schoolkids’ response to Diana murdering a man in front of them is to giggle and smile and say they want to be like her. And finally, even if you ignore that Diana and all the people in the bank are sociopaths, it’s spectacularly stupid from a tactical perspective: this is a terrorist who was about to commit suicide and multiple murders for his cause of bringing Europe back to the Middle Ages—the absolute last thing you should do is kill him, because you’ve just given his cause a martyr.

Then again, this movie is simply chock-full of bloodshed and nasty, vicious violence. This proclivity of Snyder’s worked in 300 (which was about a brutal war fought with nasty edged weapons) and Watchmen (which was a deconstruction of superheroes), and even in parts of Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (since this version of Batman was pretty unhinged), but it’s just tiresome here when we’re supposed to be seeing a new age of heroes. It doesn’t help that he includes every nanosecond of every fight scene, so that each one seems to take several dozen ice ages, with lots more slo-mo thrown in just to make it take even longer.

The worst part of this movie is the awful, self-indulgent ending, setting up movies that we will probably never see—and I gotta say that if we do get these movies by some miracle, I do not want to watch them. Wayne dreams of a future where Darkseid has taken over the Earth and suborned Superman to his side. We’re supposed to believe that Superman would stop being a hero—going so far as to kill Aquaman—because Lane died and Batman didn’t save her. That’s, well, ridiculous and a typically Snyder-esque misreading of the world’s greatest hero who has performed very few heroic acts in any of Snyder’s movies. He can destroy a city, he can snap Zod’s neck, he can stand with his thumb up his ass while the Capitol is blown up, he can beat up the rest of the Justice League, and he can apparently be brainwashed by Darkseid. But he can’t hardly ever be seen to actually be a fucking hero. And yet, as with the theatrical version, we’re supposed to believe that Superman’s death in BvS:DoJ was enough to get the Mother Boxes excited, because the world lost a hero. Sure.

And then we have the final bit, where Snyder asks us to believe that Swanwick has been the Martian Manhunter all along, and I’m sorry, but that cuts off the air supply to my disbelief. Snyder has insisted that that was his intention all along with Swanwick, and I call bullshit. I don’t buy that he has been staying behind the scenes and not getting involved in Zod’s invasion or Doomsday’s attack. That’s not the Martian Manhunter I’ve been reading about most of my life—that’s not a hero.

Screenshot: DC Entertainment

Okay, having spent eleven paragraphs trashing this bloated mess of a movie, let me at least say what I unreservedly loved about it, and it was a major cause of why Whedon has (justifiably) been vilified: Victor Stone is the absolute heart and soul of this movie. We actually see his mother, and she’s a person (a damn cool one, in fact), not just an unseen figure who was fridged. And Stone’s journey through the film, and his relationship with his father, is much stronger and more powerful here than it was in the theatrical release, in which Cyborg was barely a character. Whedon’s history with characters of color is not great, and we have it writ large here, as he completely trashed the Black guy’s story arc for no compellingly good reason. (Leaving it in would have made the theatrical version so much better…)

The performances are all excellent. J.K. Simmons gets great additional stuff as Gordon (I’m really sorry we won’t see more of his commissioner), Joe Morton is as well served as Ray Fisher by the greater role for the Stone family, and Jeremy Irons remains a superlative Alfred. (My favorite line in the movie is when Wayne introduces the team to Alfred, joking, “I work for him.”)

And the villain is way more effective. I don’t much care one way or the other about the character design, which is different in this version than it was in the theatrical cut, but I like the fact that Steppenwolf isn’t just a bland lieutenant to the more interesting background big bad, but instead is established as a disgraced former lieutenant of Darkseid’s who is desperately trying to get back in his good graces. And we actually see Darkseid in this film, very menacingly voiced by Ray Porter. (I’m less impressed with Peter Guinness’s DeSaad, who should be much more of a toady.)

I find myself reminded of when, after Robert A. Heinlein’s death, an expanded version of his novel Stranger in a Strange Land was published, billed has having “10,000 words restored!” I read it, and found it to be about 10,000 words too long. Edits are often there for a reason, and while Warner may have over-corrected with Whedon’s version, the original Snyder version as seen here is bloated, overblown, horribly paced, and a slog to get through. It’s about two hours too long. And the stuff he added (the flash-forward, adding the Martian Manhunter) is all just awful.

 

That’s all we’ve got for this six-month period, but we will more than make up for it at the end of this year, as the reopening of theatres means that we will get several delayed 2020 films, as well as a few that were always intended for 2021. The current plan is to spend the month of December 2021 looking back at Black Widow, Eternals, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, The Suicide Squad, and Venom: Let There Be Carnage.

Keith R.A. DeCandido has, with his wife Wrenn Simms, formed the very-small-press publisher Whysper Wude. Their first project is the anthology The Four ???? of the Apocalypse, which features alternate takes on the apocalyptic equestrians of yore. Among the authors are David Gerrold, Jonathan Maberry, Peter David, Jody Lynn Nye, David Mack, Dayton Ward & Kevin Dilmore, Michael Jan Friedman, Adam-Troy Castro, Laura Anne Gilman, Gail Z. Martin, and tons more. Read all about the four cats of the apocalypse! The four lawyers! The four opera singers! The four rock stars! The four cheerleaders! And more! The anthology is being crowdfunded on Kickstarter, and has tons of nifty bonuses and extras—check it out!

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