A review of
Zack Snyder’s Justice League
Directed by Zack Snyder
Story by Zack Snyder, Chris Terrio, Will Beall
Screenplay by Chris Terrio
Warner Bros. · DC Films, 2021
Distributed by HBO Max 2021
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**Editor’s Note: This article contains spoilers for
Zack Snyder’s Justice League.**
Imagine, for just a moment, a world without Iron Man (2008), the film that gave birth to the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Actually, let’s go back a step further and imagine a world without Christopher Nolan’s radical reinvention of the superhero genre with Batman Begins (2005). Without either, it would be fair to say that the current pop culture zeitgeist would look extremely different. And I think it would also be fair to say that widespread response to Zack Snyder’s utterly fascinating take on the genre would be received very — very — differently by critics and audiences alike. Now, it’s somewhat obvious that the inaugural film in Snyder’s trilogy, Man of Steel (2013), would also never have happened were it not for the resurgence of the superhero genre in the public conscience; after all, Nolan himself was producer on that film and even received a “story by” credit. But the point stands: if the world had a different frame of reference for what superhero movies are, or could be, then Snyder’s vision for the “DC Extended Universe” (DCEU) would actually come across as even more unconventional than it already is, if not downright profound.
It’s Not a Competition. If there is one criticism that I hear most frequently leveled at Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy (2005–2012), it is, by and large, that the films were too “grim” in tone, or “dark” in subject matter. This is hardly the same complaint to be leveled at Disney’s approach to Marvel’s material, which has managed to strike a unique and winning balance between tongue-in-cheek humor and propulsive storytelling. To some degree, this stylistic yin-and-yang back-and-forth is inevitable, baked into the warp-and-woof of pop culture entertainment. After all, some of the worst-received entries in both the MCU and the DCEU are films in which one begins to look a lot like the other. Two of the grimmest entries in the MCU, The Incredible Hulk (2008) and Thor: The Dark World (2013), and two of the zaniest, quirkiest entries of the DCEU, Suicide Squad (2016) and Justice League (2017), are hardly critical darlings, if Rotten Tomatoes is to be trusted.
In other words, each series fills a distinct void in the popular imagination, mirroring and reflecting one another. From a business standpoint, sure, there is some degree of competition. And on Reddit forums, fans lose their collective minds over which is “better,” when the truth is those arguments tend to be wildly reductionist and miss the fundamental point that what the MCU is doing, and what the DCEU is doing — well, what it used to be doing, under Snyder’s creative vision — are different. And, so, at the risk of coming across as a pretentious mother shooting dagger-eyes at quarreling, competitive siblings, here I come to untangle the mess and say, “Boys, boys! It’s not a competition.”
But don’t just take it from me. Consider what Zack Snyder himself said in a New York Times interview: “Marvel is doing something else. They’re doing, at the highest level, this popular action-comedy with a heart. And they have that nailed. An effort to duplicate that is insanity because they’re so good at it. What DC had was mythology at an epic level, and we were going to take them on this amazing journey. Frankly, I was the only one saying that.”1 In Snyder’s case, his take on the Justice League and what Disney does with the Avengers makes all the difference in the world. Which makes the story of Zack Snyder’s Justice League (2021), the long-awaited culmination of Snyder’s original vision for DC’s heroes, all the more interesting.
In the Beginning. The Zack Snyder era of DC film adaptations began with Man of Steel. Written by David S. Goyer, the scribe behind films like the Blade trilogy (1998–2004) and Nolan’s Batman films, the 2013 reboot of the Superman film series was a ground-up modernizing and reimagining of arguably the most iconic superhero. Man of Steel also gave the world its first look at Snyder’s approach to the genre, which was, for better or worse, “divisive.” That is to say, it received lukewarm critical reception. Which has pretty much been the general consensus on Snyder’s approach to the material as a whole. Some liked it, some didn’t. It doesn’t have that apparently all-important “certified fresh” rating from Rotten Tomatoes — though I can faintly remember a time when the “RT” score wasn’t the final say in what made a “good” film — but I digress. Actually, I don’t. Rant incoming.
Look, widespread agreement on what constitutes “good” is not a good indicator of what is actually good — especially when it comes to cinema. Because what people in a particular moment might find to be in poor taste or divisive can be rediscovered by another generation, who might find significant merit in what was formerly dismissed. This actually happens all the time, with plenty of movies now considered masterpieces. It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)? You know, that untouchable Christmas classic, “certified” fresh with a 94 percent on Rotten Tomatoes? Bosley Crowther of The New York Times deemed its “sentimentality” to be “an illusory concept of life” and suggested its moralistic philosophizing “doesn’t fill the hungry patch.”2 This review is indicative of quite a few of those early ones, many of which would suggest the film amounted to a shoulder shrug and a “meh.” Or, how about Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), the movie now considered to be the film that started the wildly popular “slasher” genre? Or Scott’s Blade Runner (1982), a film well-known for being disliked by critics upon release but one that, in hindsight, is looked at as one of the most important and influential science fiction films of all time?3 Just because there is not widespread agreement on a film does not mean that film is somehow “objectively” bad. Give it twenty or thirty years, and I’m willing to bet people will look back on Snyder’s Superman (Henry Cavill) very differently.
Man of Steel gives us a Superman for whom being super means struggling as a man. It plays a bit like a deconstruction of the character. And it strikes me as very odd that people recoiled from that, because deconstructionism is the name of the game these days. Which goes to show you that audiences are, actually, a pretty fickle bunch. It’s like that old adage, “Never meet your heroes.” Because you realize they have feet of clay. Man of Steel gives us Superman with feet of clay, while doubling down on all the messianic connotations that accompany the character. And Snyder isn’t subtle about it. It’s very self-serious and mature, not a lot of cracking wise. People were none too thrilled. But it’s provocative. And it’s intentionally provocative. That’s why it isn’t subtle. “Am I a provocateur?” Snyder asks, in that same New York Times interview. “A little bit….I would rather [expletive] you up in a movie than make it nice and pretty for everybody.”4
Let me be very clear — I’m not defending the man. I’m not even saying that his approach is actually good. I have mixed feelings about certain elements, but I really like others. All I’m suggesting is that there’s a method to the madness. It’s thought out, and Snyder, love him or hate him, is not an idiot. He just looks at the material differently — and the way he looks at it is actually pretty fascinating.
Dueling Visions. In essence, Snyder’s approach to the DC material is to skin the heroes as modern mythological figures. And he does so by using blatantly obvious parallels. Superman? That’s Jesus. He literally dies sacrificially, he literally resurrects. Batman? That’s Hades. He’s grim and glum and sulks around in an underworld called Gotham. In the horrendously titled Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016), Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) is shown to be a pill-pushing womanizer. He’s unafraid to get his knuckles bloody, and if some thug just happens to be standing too close to a grenade when it goes off, well, that’s just too bad. Again, it’s a deconstruction of the character within a mythological context. Divisive approach? Big time. Does it have something to say? You better believe it.
Because Zack Snyder’s Justice League pays off on all that deconstructionism. It actually takes all the little broken pieces of classic characters and rearranges them to build them anew. There is absolutely zero coincidence that the finale of the film features the heroes, finally assembled, with a resurrected Superman at the fore, standing in the light of dawn in one of those long, very pretentious shots that moves in slow-motion and frames them all as titans. It’s the visual equivalent of “Avengers assemble!” except for the fact that somebody would drop dead in Snyder’s film before they would even dream of screaming something that goofy. The image tells the story. And that, actually, is indicative of someone who knows what they’re doing behind a camera.
There is no more evident a display of the differences between Snyder’s vision and the popular conscience than in the variances between Joss Whedon’s attempt at the same material in 2017’s Justice League. After a family tragedy forced Snyder to step away from the film, Whedon — the guy behind Disney’s takes on Marvel’s Avengers — was brought aboard to finish the film. That story has been well-documented, so I’m not going to explain all the details here.5 Suffice to say that the end product was a very different kind of film than the one Snyder was working on. Someone at Warner Bros. actually thought it was a good idea to try and marry the vision of the crowd-pleaser with the vision of the provocateur. And, shew buddy, it was not pretty.
I generally consider myself a forgiving filmgoer. When I go to watch a movie, I don’t have to see the next Gone with the Wind (1939), or even the next Die Hard (1988). I can handle what many people call “plot-holes” or twists that I always hear someone incorrectly call a “retcon” (that stands for “retroactive continuity,” by the way — which means a direct contradiction of an established fact, not something that you didn’t see coming). And I can handle those things because anyone who has really sat down and tried to write a screenplay understands that coincidences are hard to avoid, and stories are very hard to tell well. However, if there is one thing that irks me to no end, it is a film that does not have tonal consistency. For me, tone is everything. The be-all and end-all of quality filmmaking. Give me a director who can maintain an atmosphere, a feeling, or a particular nuance for an hour-and-a-half or two hours, and I’ll watch almost anything that director puts out. Well, the first attempt at Justice League might just be the most tonally inconsistent film I’ve ever seen. And that is, for my money, the direct result of two clashing ideas about what superhero stories represent. You can’t, actually, have your cake and eat it too. Either these are fun, pulpy, crowd-pleasers, or they are serious, sweeping dramas on the scale of epic poetry. Try to blend the two things together, and you get certifiable trash — just read Homer’s Iliad, and then turn around and try to watch Troy (2004).
Modern Mythology. After that 2017 flop, and an extended online campaign from fans that even garnered the support of the movie’s stars, Warner Bros. finally greenlit the Snyder cut of Justice League. I really can’t overstate how downright bizarre that is, but it does show you the power of social media. Just twenty years ago, nobody was able to petition for a better version of Armageddon (1998), no matter how badly it was deserved. Nevertheless, with Justice League, it happened.
Now, with Snyder back in the driver’s seat, through reshoots and some nifty editing work, the movie was finally brought back under a singular creative vision, and its whopping four-hour runtime restored. And, well, I liked it. Does it drastically change the story? Not really. That’s not the question to ask. If you’ve seen 2017’s Justice League, you’ve more or less seen Zack Snyder’s Justice League. Here’s the real question: do you want to see a better version of that movie? If so, then Zack Snyder’s Justice League is the thing to watch.
Because what you get is the culmination of Snyder’s vision. You get the reconstruction after the deconstruction. It turns out that the two (and-three-fourths) movies leading up to that final sequence, wherein the Justice League finally comes together after Superman’s resurrection, is actually an origin story. And it’s actually pretty biblical. It’s a story that begins with Kal-El’s birth on Krypton and his coming to earth. It climaxes with his sacrificial death and culminates in his resurrection. And we meet all of these other mythological figures along the way. It’s a story of gods and monsters. It’s wildly pretentious, sure. And there are explosions and terrible dialogue aplenty.
But the thing I find most interesting is how Snyder positions Superman and his messianic parallels at the center. Until Superman returns, the Justice League is not a league at all. “There’s no us without him,” Bruce says, at one point. Indeed, none of those other mythological figures make sense without the one mythological figure toward which they all point.
That, at least, was the great conviction of C. S. Lewis. “The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact,” he famously wrote.6 And all those other pagan mythologies, the stories that inform so much of our popular culture nowadays, just like they did way back when, actually suggest by virtue of the stories being told, that there is a story like them that happened, a myth that actually became fact in history. A people-pleasing notion? Absolutely not.
But it’s certainly provocative. And, sometimes, we need to be provoked.
Cole Burgett is a seminary student, a graduate of Moody Bible Institute, and an author for the website Christ and Pop Culture.
- Zack Snyder, quoted in Dave Itzkoff, “Zack Snyder’s Rough and Tumble Ride with Justice League,” New York Times, nytimes.com, March 14, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/03/14/movies/zack-snyders-rough-and-tumble-ride-with-justice-league.html.
- Bosley Crowther, “‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ (1946) Review” New York Times, December 23, 1946, nytimes.com, uploaded December 14, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/03/14/movies/zack-snyders-rough-and-tumble-ride-with-justice-league.html.
- “How Blade Runner Went from Reviled to Revered,” Yahoo! Movies UK, uk.movies.yahoo.com, October 5, 2017, https://uk.movies.yahoo.com/blade-runners-road-redemption-critical-tide-turned-ridley-scotts-favour-124221323.html.
- Snyder, quoted in Itzkoff, “Rough and Tumble.”
- For a thorough look at the behind-the-scenes shenanigans that unfolded during the 2017 run at Justice League, check out Ben Fritz, “The Quest to Save Justice League,” Wall Street Journal, wsj.com, November 6, 2017, https://www.wsj.com/articles/offbeat-super-heroes-take-on-batman-wonder-woman-1509997635.
- See C. S. Lewis, “Myth Became Fact,” in God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1970), 66.