Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (September 1, 2021)
Zack Snyder directed the first two entries in the “DC Extended Universe” (DCEU): 2013’s Man of Steel and 2016’s Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. Patty Jenkins led summer 2017’s Wonder Woman but Snyder returned for late 2017’s Justice League, the DCEU’s hero-mingling answer to Marvel’s mega-successful Avengers franchise.
This didn’t work as planned. After the death of his daughter, Snyder left Justice League during post-production and the studio brought in Joss Whedon – not coincidentally the writer/director of the first two Avengers films – to wrap up the project.
However, Whedon didn’t simply finish off Snyder’s pre-existing work. Instead, Whedon wrote and directed substantial reshoots and made large alterations to the pre-existing footage.
The end product didn’t resonate with critics or audiences. While Justice League managed $657 million worldwide, when one considers that the lowest-grossing Avengers flick took in $1.4 billion, the movie’s receipts disappointed.
This left an obvious question: would Justice League have done better critically and commercially if Snyder finished the movie without Whedon’s substantial involvement? We’ll never know what Snyder’s version would’ve done at the box office, but via Zack Snyder’s Justice League, we can see how he wanted the film to work.
Whatever changes Whedon executed, both movies come with the same narrative. As the world copes with the death of Superman (Henry Cavill), Batman (Ben Affleck) learns of a new threat. A malevolent ancient being named Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds) returns and intends to execute a plan that will result in the destruction of the Earth.
Batman realizes that he can’t handle this challenge on his own, so without Superman to assist, he hunts down additional talent. Batman recruits Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), Cyborg (Ray Fisher), the Flash (Ezra Miller) and Aquaman (Jason Momoa) to form a new alliance in an attempt to foil Steppenwolf’s plans.
A couple paragraphs back, I indicated that this edition of League would give us an idea how the film would’ve played if Snyder finished it in 2017. That doesn’t seem wholly true, as this 2021 cut gets a lot more room to play.
Whedon’s 2017 film spanned a tidy 120 minutes, a surprisingly brief run time given that Man of Steel went 143 minutes and the theatrical Dawn of Justice lasted 151 minutes. (Snyder also created a home video version of Dawn that spanned 182 minutes.)
As I note in my review of the 2017 Justice, I expected it to go a minimum of 150 minutes, so the tighter Whedon cut came as a surprise – and a fairly pleasant one. I thought the 2017 movie’s brisk pace helped make it more engaging.
Yes, I exist as one of the few who actually liked the 2017 Justice. While it didn’t quality as a superhero classic, I thought it offered a fun experience and a nice break from the dreary solemnity of Snyder’s Man of Steel and Dawn of Justice.
Unsurprisingly, the 2021 version goes back to the darker and more serious vibe of Snyder’s two earlier movies and largely eschews the lighter tone of Whedon’s flick. Not that Snyder’s comes utterly devoid of humor, but it still feels more of a piece with his prior movies.
And maybe that makes sense. Even if one doesn’t care for Snyder’s take, at least his Justice League feels like part of a piece with Man of Steel and Dawn of Justice, whereas Whedon’s Justice League seems like an anomaly.
As such, if I ever choose to do a triple feature of Man of Steel, Dawn of Justice and Justice League, it’d probably make sense to go with Snyder’s take on the last one. In an absolute sense, though, Whedon’s version still works better for me.
Don’t take this as an indication that I dislike Snyder’s Justice League, for I don’t. As noted, it fits the prior Batman/Superman flicks better than Whedon’s does, and it creates a moderately engaging adventure.
But man, it just feels long. Of course, it is long, as it runs a whole hour more than even the extended cut of Dawn of Justice. Snyder’s Justice League pushes the boundaries of what we view as “feature film” length.
Actually, that makes me unsure how Snyder’s Justice League would’ve existed if he’d remained on the project in 2017. The studio might’ve allowed him to butt up against the three-hour mark for theatrical exhibition, but there’s no way Warner would’ve put a four-hour film into multiplexes.
Apparently Snyder intended to do Justice League as parts one and two, but these were supposed to exist as separate stories. As such, I don’t get the impression that Snyder prepped this Justice League as one narrative that would’ve been split into two films ala the final pair of Avengers flicks.
Does the four-hour Justice League represent the movie Snyder really wanted to make in 2017 but that he would’ve been forced to edit to multiplex-favorable length? Perhaps, but the likely fact remains that a 2017 Snyder version would’ve substantially differed from this one.
And I suspect those differences would’ve been for the better, as the length of this Justice League really acts as an impediment. Too much of the film just feels unnecessary, as we get extended and redundant scenes that can occasionally feel like filler.
It also takes the main narrative an awfully long time to really get going. While we get the needed exposition, we don’t require all the spoonfed plot material we get, so the story can slow to a crawl and make the viewer impatient to get on with it.
On the positive side, Snyder’s League does manage to flesh out the characters and situations a bit better. We may not need twice as much time as Whedon used to tell the tale, but some of the added running time allows the flick to feel richer and better realized.
However, Snyder’s Justice League can’t find enough to do with the expanded running time to merit its length. This takes me back to my curiosity related to how the film would’ve worked if Snyder was able to finish it four years ago.
As I noted, a theatrical Snyder cut wouldn’t have run four hours, so the 150-180 minute edition I expect we would’ve received sounds like a good compromise between the pared-to-the-bone narrative of Whedon’s and the too expanded presentation on display here.
Maybe someday Snyder will give Zack Snyder’s Justice League As It Would’ve Played Theatrically In 2017 a go. Until then, his four-hour film will offer an intriguing view of his vision but not one that really succeeds.