Zack Snyder’s Justice League (that’s the complete title) differs significantly from the 2017 film Justice League, a project Snyder began that was mutilated when Warner Brothers assigned Joss Whedon to rework it. Through the confluence of venal corporate interference, a rare instance of public outcry about the movie business (the online demand #ReleaseTheSnyderCut), and the opportunity to jump-start the new streaming service HBO Max, Snyder got carte blanche to complete his vision, to make things right.
Snyder takes the idea of Batman (Ben Affleck) and Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) uniting with three more superheroes, Aquaman (Jason Momoa), Flash (Ezra Miller), and Cyborg (Victor Stone), following Superman’s death at the end of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016), as a metaphor for spiritual endeavor. In Snyder’s mythic distillation of moral combat, this league of superheroes fights an evil threat from another dimension, the horned villain Steppenwolf and his even more rough-hewn master Darkside (they promise, “Down with the modern world. Back to the Dark Ages”).
ZSJL shows the superheroes’ dynamic, physicalized anxieties that, in the grand scheme, are sometimes confusedly political but go back to primordial conditions and foundational myths. The opening scenes linking different eras and characters in parallel situations and life instances are fantastically designed and with the most emotionally intense facial portraits since Joseph von Sternberg. This is a modern epic about worry and longing.
The passion behind #ReleaseTheSnyderCut was inspired by Snyder’s fans (a minority in today’s dumb-downed film culture), who favor his aesthetically rich D.C. comic-book storytelling over the juvenile mechanisms of Marvel’s Avengers films. Snyder’s characters don’t wink at the audience but call on personal recognition. These Superheroes — like gods on earth — personify human exertion. They represent myths for an age of disbelief, and their idealized traits derive from more than teenage wish fulfillment. At the close of Aquaman’s introduction, an Icelandic woman inhales the scent of his discarded sweater (like the wife illicitly recalling the aroma of a soldier’s jacket in The Searchers). This throwback to film history can also be scarily sensual, especially for an eroto-phobic age in which mainstream media pursue the dissolution of sexual differences. (Flash’s brief meet-cute with a girl in a sportscar extends into a slo-mo existential romance, to “Song of the Siren” — a divertimento out of Snyder’s underrated Sucker Punch.)
Our social reality has become so absurd — political gaslighting has reversed right and wrong, demeaned truth and faith — that Snyder’s reliance on the verities, summoning social unity through myth, goes against the grain. And yet, ZSJL demonstrates the most irrefutable, assuredly flamboyant filmmaking in years. ZSJL gives comic-book myth a classical look that formulaic Marvel movies and Peter Jackson’s unfocussed Lord of the Rings series lacked. Snyder pushes typically flimsy video-game extravagance toward Homer and Malory’s romantic depth. Each of ZSJL’s battle scenes move ingeniously with stunning details: a zigzag bolt of lightning; a cut-off hand still glowing with life force; Cyborg’s intuitive vision of a Russian bear charging a Wall Street bull; plus Flash and Wonder Woman converging at sword point, a moment so rousing that not even Whedon could resist it, now an oldie but goodie.
It was obvious that Whedon didn’t care about Justice League’s themes any more than Ridley Scott cared about the issues of his visually astonishing Legend (1982). But Snyder brings such conviction to his craft that he gives substance to unusual comic-book lore, as in his masterpieces Watchmen and Man of Steel. His grand vision here drops a few narrative strands: Batman’s troubled conscience and Superman’s resurrection and reunion with Lois Lane (Amy Adams) get neglected in exchange for closer examination of Aquaman’s origin and Cyborg’s agon. (There’s more to say about the latter.) Unlike most Hollywood filmmakers, Snyder has a lot to say — especially about retrieving our moral compass. He answers a faithless age with a film about faith. “For once, I’m operating on faith not reason,” Affleck’s soulful Bruce Wayne reminds the team, and his last scene is a test. The essential point of Snyder rebounding from a career catastrophe and making it right is demonstrated in the personal dilemma of each superhero. ZSJL’s restored vision reminds us of pop art’s value.