Zack Snyder's Justice League (2021)
Zack Snyder's Justice League (2021)

Zack Snyder’s Justice League (2021) Review: A Painful and Boring Journey

Zack Snyder's Justice League (2021)
Zack Snyder’s Justice League (2021)

What is Zack Snyder’s Justice League?

Zack Snyder’s Justice League (2021), often referred to as the “Snyder Cut”, is a director’s restored, original version of the 2017 Justice League (2017) film. The original film was started by Zack Snyder in 2016. You may know Zack Snyder from his work on 300 (2007), Watchmen (2009) and Sucker Punch (2011). He started his work in the DC universe by directing Man of Steel (2013) and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) before work began on Justice League.

The film had a troubled production during seven months of filming with pressure from executives at Warner Bros, who were alarmed at Batman vs Superman’s negative reception. Numerous rewrites during production plagued the cast, and there was a desire to make a more linear and simple film for many involved in the production, something that seemed to clash with the world Snyder was building.

Unfortunately, in May 2017, Snyder had to step down as director during post-production to deal with the unfortunate death of his daughter Autumn. After these tragic events, Warner hired Joss Whedon to take the reigns. Whedon, of course, is most famous for his work on Avengers (2012) and Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015). The film then went under extensive re-shoots, costing an extra $25 million that was much bigger than usual re-shoots with many rewrites from Whedon.

Zack Snyder's Justice League (
Zack Snyder’s Justice League (2021)

Fabian Wagner, the cinematographer who worked on the original film, reckons only 10% of the original footage was used – but verifying what footage was used where is very difficult to do. Warner Bros further mandated that the film had to be under two hours and there could be no further delays. There were corporate policies at play higher up at Warner Bros regarding the money spent, the executive bonuses and the upcoming merger with AT&T that all contributed to forcing the film out the door at that time.

What was the original Justice League?

Justice League was the 2017 superhero film based on the titular superhero team originally from DC Comics. It was the fifth instalment in the DC Extended Universe (DCEU) and followed directly on from the Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice film.

The story mainly follows Bruce Wayne, aka Batman, fueled by his restored faith in humanity and inspired by Superman’s selfless act in the previous film, Bruce enlists the help of his newfound ally Diana Prince, aka Wonder Woman, to face an even more significant threat than ever before. Together, Batman and Wonder Woman work quickly to recruit a team to stand against Steppenwolf and his legions of Parademons, who had tried to take over the Earth thousands of years ago and are now back to try again.

Despite the formation of an unprecedented league of heroes that includes Batman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, Cyborg and the Flash, it may be too late to save the planet from an assault of catastrophic proportions.

Critics pretty universally panned the film upon its release, although some fans defended it. Most of the criticism surrounded the confusing plot and an inconsistent tone, which was likely because of the two directors’ competing visions being present in the movie. The overall feeling was that the film was messy.

Zack Snyder's Justice League (
Zack Snyder’s Justice League (2021)

What’s the story of Zack Snyder’s Justice League?

Zack Snyder’s Justice League’s plot is similar to the original film, but with double the running time, it greatly expands upon the original story.

There are also some caveats to how the story is perceived. The film is non-canon, a stipulation from Warner Bros. for how it would be released. The film is pretty substantially different from the theatrical version released in 2017, and it also has some significant teases for future movies that are unlikely to happen. Some aspects of the story conflict with their films in the DCEU, like Aquaman, The Flash and Wonder Woman’s separate threads.

Ben Affleck as Batman/Bruce Wayne in Zack Snyder's Justice League (
Ben Affleck as Batman/Bruce Wayne in Zack Snyder’s Justice League (2021)

Ben Affleck is bowing out as Batman, so none of that thread is likely to continue, and the upcoming sequels, Aquaman 2 (2022) and Wonder Woman 3 (TBC), are unlikely to contain anything related to this. With this in mind, sometimes the film can be a little confusing at parts, as it is hard to place the movie in your head in the context of the wider DC universe.

There will now be some spoilers ahead, so look away now if you want to avoid them.

Zack Snyder’s Justice League opens up with an extreme close-up on the kryptonite-tipped spear that pierced the Man of Steel’s heart at the end of Batman v Superman, setting up the fact that this film follows on from that film immediately. We then see 2-3 minutes of Amazonians retrieving arrows from an ancient box and Hippolyta gazing meaningfully at it and offering a prayer to the gods. We are already around 4 minutes in, and nothing we’ve seen is needed to be shown on screen at all – something I will expand on a little later.

We start with the story of Steppenwolf and his legions of Parademons, who had attempted to take over the Earth thousands of years ago in an effort to combine the energies of three “Mother Boxes” – here’s our MacGuffin. Infinity stones, anyone?! Steppenwolf was defeated by a unified alliance including the Olympian Gods, Amazons, Atlanteans, humanity, and extraterrestrial beings. This whole opening section had me thinking I was watching Lord of the Rings with its sweeping battle sequences and ancient-world tones.

After Steppenwolf’s army was repelled, the Mother Boxes were separated and hidden in different locations, of course.

The epic battle at the beginning between Steppenwolf and the forces of Earth - Zack Snyder's Justice League (2021)
The epic battle at the beginning between Steppenwolf and the forces of Earth – Zack Snyder’s Justice League (2021)

In the present, humanity is still in mourning two years after Superman’s death. These events triggered the Mother Boxes’ reactivation, and Steppenwolf has now returned to Earth.

Steppenwolf aims to regain favour with his master Darkseid by gathering the boxes to form “The Unity”, which will destroy Earth’s ecology and terraform it in the image of Steppenwolf’s homeworld.

Over the next period of the film, Steppenwolf easily captures the boxes from the Amazonians in Themyscira and the box from the Atlanteans at an outpost underwater. Whilst this is ongoing, Batman has been trying to recruit members to his Justice League and unite the forces once again to combat Steppenwolf. Aquaman at first turns down the advances of Batman, but The Flash is very excited to be part of the team and joins Bruce and Wonder Woman.

Zack Snyder on the set of  Zack Snyder's Justice League (2021)
Zack Snyder on the set of Zack Snyder’s Justice League (2021)

The other box, shielded by humanity, was being held at S.T.A.R. labs under Silas Stone’s supervision, the father and creator of Victor Stone, aka Cyborg. Steppenwolf begins to kidnap scientists from the lab to interrogate to discover the whereabouts of the box. The box, however, has been left in the care of Cyborg. The team unites to go and rescue the kidnapped scientists and confront Steppenwolf. Cyborg, of course, wants to save his father, whom he loves despite the apparent problems in their relationship.

After rescuing the scientists and getting into a big fight with Steppenwolf, the underground facility is almost flooded. Our heroes are only saved when Aquaman turns up to repel the water, buying the team time to escape. Our team is now almost complete.

Back at Batman’s lab, Cyborg brings the box with him and explains to the group about his origins – how he almost died and was rebuilt by his father using the Mother Box – a device that can reconfigure the makeup of atoms. The box has turned him into the robotic man you see now, who can interact with any electronic device to gather information, fix and control them.

Cyborg in Zack Snyder's Justice League (2021)
Cyborg in Zack Snyder’s Justice League (2021)

The eureka moment arrives – they can use the box to bring back Superman. Steppenwolf didn’t invade until after the son of Krypton was dead, so they surmise that he must be frightened of him. And they miss Superman dearly and want him back. Also, he’s pretty good in a fight!

The team proceed to exhume the body of Superman and take it back to his Kryptonian spaceship, lowering the body into the amniotic fluid and plugging in the mother box. It needs a hell of a lot of energy, however, and this is where the Flash comes in, running up at great speed to provide the spark needed to bring it to life.

Superman is brought back to life, ripping a hole in the top of the ship. However, his memories are missing, and he proceeds to attack the group, getting into a violent tussle with them outside and causing damage to local police and military. Batman realises what will trigger Superman’s memories and brings out Lois Lane. This calms him down and he flies off with Lois to go to Smallville, to the farm, where he starts to remember his past and reconnects with his mother.

Superman on Kent farm in Zack Snyder's Justice League (2021)
Superman on Kent farm in Zack Snyder’s Justice League (2021)

Whilst this was going on, Cyborg’s father had taken the box back to the lab, but Steppenwolf had followed him. In an act of sacrifice, he heated the box with a super laser in the lab, causing his own death. Steppenwolf retrieves the box and escapes.

Once the team realises what he has done, they figure out that if they look for the hottest thing on the planet, this will lead them to Steppenwolf.

While waiting for Superman to come to his senses, the other five heroes discover that the boxes and Steppenwolf are in an abandoned village in Russia. They hatch a plan to attack the base with the rest of the team fighting Steppenwolf and his Parademons whilst Cyborg attempts to break apart the three boxes, before Darkseid makes his way through a portal and completes his quest for the Anti-Life Equation This would end all life as we know it.

Steppenwolf in Zack Snyder's Justice League (2021)
Steppenwolf in Zack Snyder’s Justice League (2021)

They manage to break through, and Cyborg is awaiting The Flash to run close to the speed of light and touch him to provide the power needed to separate the boxes – however, the Flash gets hit and interrupted, and Cyborg fails to break the boxes apart in time. The portal starts to open, and the plan is failing. Then, Superman arrives and beats the holy hell out of Steppenwolf. The Flash realises it’s up to him, to run faster than the speed of light, to go faster than time, so he ends up travelling backwards, reaching Cyborg in time. He manages this; the boxes are broken, the portal closes, and Steppenwolf is decapitated.

However, in Apokolips, Darkseid assures DeSaad that they will invade Earth, even if it’s through more traditional methods and asks the troops to be prepared.

Darkseid in Zack Snyder's Justice League (2021)
Darkseid in Zack Snyder’s Justice League (2021)

After the battle, Batman sets up a base at the former Wayne Manor for the Justice League, and all the team go their separate ways, concluding their own personal stories, accepting who they are and their individual responsibilities.

In a final epilogue, Lex Luthor has escaped from Arkham Asylum and is visited on a Yacht by Deathstroke, to whom he reveals that Bruce Wayne is Batman, setting up a plan to be hatched against the Caped Crusader. Meanwhile, Batman has a nightmare involving Cyborg, The Flash, Mera, Deathstroke, The Joker and an evil Superman in a post-apocalyptic world. After he awakes from this nightmare, he is visited by the Martian Manhunter, who offers to help, and says he will be in touch to prepare for Darkseid’s next plans.

Martian Manhunter in Zack Snyder's Justice League (2021)
Martian Manhunter in Zack Snyder’s Justice League (2021)

What are the positives in Zack Snyder’s Justice League?

There are positives to take from Zack Snyder’s Justice League. Just the fact that it has been released is a big deal – a studio listening to sustained pressure from the #ReleaseTheSnyderCut movement online and giving fans their wish is a big deal. With sustained pressure from the director, actors, critics, and fans, the film that was originally intended to be made has finally been seen, which is a huge positive.

It also removes that footnote that some films have, and the 2017 film had round its neck, that it is not the original vision. It’s also nice that Zack Snyder finally got his chance to finish what he started and realise his vision. I’m a big proponent of seeing the director’s vision of the film. Movies like Blade Runner (1982) and Once Upon a Time in America (1984) come to mind as two favourite examples. It backpedals on studio interference and delivers the intended vision.

Zack Snyder - Director of Zack Snyder's Justice League (2021)
Zack Snyder – Director of Zack Snyder’s Justice League (2021)

The biggest positive for the Zack Snyder’s Justice League is that the film is now consistent and thematically approachable. It doesn’t feel like two films slapped together, it doesn’t change tack, it’s not messy like the original cut. It finally feels like the initially intended film, and the tone very much delivers throughout.

There are also some more interesting characters, especially The Flash, the best character in the film for me. He comes across as being funnier and more likeable.

The Flash in Zack Snyder's Justice League (2021)
The Flash in Zack Snyder’s Justice League (2021)

As you would expect from these films, the action is fun and exciting and delivers spectacle. It would be silly to ignore the one department that films like this deliver. The frantic and racey action is coupled with grit and violence than is not seen in the Marvel franchise. There is some glee in seeing flying aliens being swatted to the ground by big action heroes and the bad guy having his head ripped off was a shocking surprise.

What’s with the Aspect Ratio in Zack Snyder’s Justice League?

One of the biggest talking points about Zack Snyder’s Justice League has been the Aspect Ratio. The film, which debuted on HBO Max, came with a notice that preceded the film.

The notice that greets you before watching Zack Snyder's Justice League (2021) on HBO Max
The notice that greets you before watching Zack Snyder’s Justice League (2021) on HBO Max

“This film is presented in a 4:3 format to preserve the integrity of Zack Snyder’s creative vision.”

That’s right. Zack Snyder’s Justice League is presented in 4:3 and not 16:9, or a variation upon, with black bars presented down the screen’s left and right. This makes it the first major superhero movie to be presented in the “Academy Ratio“.

The choice for this is down to Zack Snyder and his vision. Much like Christopher Nolan, Zack Snyder is a massive proponent of the IMAX format. True IMAX cameras record to 65mm film, which produces a 1:43:1 ratio, which is closer to square than rectangular, but not to the extent of 4:3 seen here. Traditional aspect ratios these days are 2:39:1, and most filmmakers try to match the footage to that, although you may have noticed in some films how frames change sometimes, and if you go to an IMAX cinema, you notice the screen is taller.

An Aspect Ratio comparison between the two film - Zack Snyder's Justice League (2021)
An Aspect Ratio comparison between the two film – Zack Snyder’s Justice League (2021)

Snyder decided, however, that he would shoot some footage on IMAX and the rest on 35mm with a 1:33:1 aspect ratio, and then uniformly square the footage to the 4:3 square we are presented with. He fell in love with the framing and images produced in the square, utilising as much of the shot as possible.

This, however, provides even less screen coverage than the old academy ratio of 1:37:1 of such classic cinema as Citizen Kane (1941) and Casablanca (1943). It has been pointed out the film better fits the screen of devices such as iPads. It isn’t the first time modern films have played with ratio. The Artist (2011) utilised 1:33:1 to evoke old Hollywood cinema. The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) used 1:37:1, 1:85:1 and 2:39:1 to evoke different time periods.

An example of different aspect ratio's from The Grand Budapest Hotel (2011)  - Zack Snyder's Justice League (2021)
An example of different aspect ratio’s from The Grand Budapest Hotel (2011) – Zack Snyder’s Justice League (2021)

However, for a big-budget superhero blockbuster, like Zack Snyder’s Justice League, it does seem a very strange choice in this writer’s opinion. It is off-putting, although once you get into the film, these kind of things just fade away and you simply accept them. But when evoking the big sweeping vistas of this kind of material, to not fill the screen feels strange. It seems much less cinematic and not very modern.

How much was spent on this cut?

Zack Snyder’s Justice League cost a hell of a lot of money. It is complicated to break down, but let’s try.

The original Justice League was a $275 million original budget – a mammoth amount on par with recent Star Wars movies. This was in the same year as Thor: Ragnarok (2017) which cost around $180 million USD for comparison.

After the change of directors to Joss Whedon, and the extensive reshoots required, this added an extra $25 million to the budget.

Zack Snyder's Justice League (2021) has cost bucket loads
Zack Snyder’s Justice League (2021) has cost bucket loads

For Zack Snyder’s Justice League, even more reshoots were required, as well as the post-production work. The original amount given for this was $40 million, but this eventually rose to $70 million. Even crazier, Snyder himself didn’t take a fee on this version of the film for his work. All in all, this brings the total cost of the project to $370 million. To put that figure in perspective, the most expensive film ever made was Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011) that cost $410 million.

$657 million was returned with the original film at the box office, making its money back and some more. It will be interesting with this release as it has become the flagship film on the HBO Max streaming service. Its return on investment is unknown, and Warner is unlikely to release any specific figures on this, at least for a long time.

What are the negatives in Zack Snyder’s Justice League?

There are quite a few negatives to Zack Snyder’s Justice League that really hurt the film, in this writer’s opinion. Ultimately, the length and pacing turn this film into a bore-fest.

I have seen commentary and reviews suggesting that the length is great as it allows the film to really bring us a deep backstory to all of our heroes and establish the world. I couldn’t disagree more. Although there is a great need to develop these characters and the universe, this film takes way too long to do it. The pacing is way off, and there is no need for a movie like this to be four hours long.

Mark Kermode’s feelings about having to watch “The Snyder Cut” are conveyed in this tweet.

It takes us two hours to get to the beginning of the film’s real story, wasting 2 hours just establishing the world and the characters in a protracted prologue style. You could easily condense the movie to 40 minutes or so.

We waste valuable screen time, for example, with slow-motion music video montages to show off a character, which is a total waste of time. I know that Snyder love’s the slow-motion ramping, which he used to great effect in films like 300 (2006) and Watchmen (2009), but in these films, it made sense, it is utilised in the heat of battle to amplify the effect of the action. In Justice League, it just comes across as overly indulgent.

According to some studies, 10% of Zack Snyder's Justice League (2021) is in slow motion
According to some studies, 10% of Zack Snyder’s Justice League (2021) is in slow motion

Indulgent is the word I think best describes Zack Snyder’s Justice League. Although there are the positives to be found from the story of a director having renewed control and bringing his vision back to life, there are the negatives of having no-one to step in and stop him from going too far. This film shows that he needs someone to say no, kill your darlings. It’s not the first time in cinema we’ve seen this. George Lucas, with the Star Wars prequels, comes to mind and it certainly won’t be the last time it happens. But having someone step in and trim the superfluous content in the film is badly needed here.

Other issues lie in the casting for me. Other issues lie in the casting for me. For example, I am really not a fan of Ben Affleck as Batman, and neither do I buy Jeremy Irons as Alfred Pennyworth, however big a fan of the actor I am. I also have never liked Henry Cavill as Superman. But I understand that is to my taste, and other fans really enjoy these casting choices.

Steppenwolf, the villain of Zack Snyder’s Justice League, falls down for me because he is too generic – just another CGI villain with no personality. I realise for fans of the comic that it may mean something, but to me, he’s just another world-conquering genocidal alien determined to smite the universe. He has no charisma and no excitement. Very disappointing.

Some shocking CGI in such an expensive movie - Zack Snyder's Justice League (2021)
Some shocking CGI in such an expensive movie – Zack Snyder’s Justice League (2021)

As far as I’m concerned, the excitement of the Batman films, and indeed Superman and other films of this genre, were the charismatic villains. Bad guys that are just as clever as the good guys, with witty lines and crazy plans but with a human edge. We’re talking the Joker, the Riddler, Lex Luthor et al. Steppenwolf, in Zack Snyder’s Justice League, is just nowhere near as exciting as any of those guys.

Talking of bad CGI, this film is littered with it, quite frankly. Considering the cost and time put into this film, some of the CGI shots honestly look like something from an early 2000s video game cutscene. Although there are some very nice looking CGI scenes, there were many moments during the film that made me audibly wince at how bad it looked. We’re talking The Rock/Scorpion King in The Mummy Returns (2001) level of lousy CGI.

The Joker in the "dream scene" in Zack Snyder's Justice League (2021)
The Joker in the “dream scene” in Zack Snyder’s Justice League (2021)

The most particular point of contention for me is the last half an hour of Zack Snyder’s Justice League. The epilogue is again, over-indulgent, and you could just remove it. The whole “dream sequence” is ridiculous and Jared Leto‘s appearance as the Joker feels forced into the movie. We see Jesse Eisenberg‘s appearance as Lex Luthor. From what we understand at this moment in time, with Zack Snyder’s Justice League being non-canon, these threads are going nowhere, so why bother in the first place? As it currently stands, we know that this is not the future of the DCEU, for good or for bad.

What is the DC Extended Universe (DCEU)?

The DC Extended Universe is a film based franchise and shared universe centred on characters that appear in American comic books by DC Comics.

For many years DC Comics properties have been brought to the screen, including early Batman and Superman films. Since 2002, DC has been hoping to put together a collection of movies that shared a universe, but it never quite happened. After the success of the Dark Knight trilogy by Christopher Nolan, they held back on the idea.

The Dark Knight Trilogy put a pause on the DCEU - Zack Snyder's Justice League (2021)
The Dark Knight Trilogy put a pause on the DCEU – Zack Snyder’s Justice League (2021)

After Marvel’s Cinematic Universe’s success in 2011, however, they looked into launching their own, which would be the DC Extended Universe. This started with Zack Snyder and was initially centred around five films – Man of Steel (2013), Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016), Suicide Squad (2016), Wonder Woman (2017) and Justice League (2017) – the original film. This later got expanded with Aquaman (2018), Shazam! (2019), Birds of Prey (2020) and Wonder Woman 1984 (2020).

However, after some initially very poor reactions to Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016), Suicide Squad (2016) and Justice League (2017), DC seemed to backtrack on the idea and downplayed the shared nature of the universe, wanting to allow greater autonomy for the individual filmmakers.

The DCEU has become quite complicated - Zack Snyder's Justice League (2021)
The DCEU has become quite complicated – Zack Snyder’s Justice League (2021)

It also has caused confusion because Joker (2019) and The Batman (2022) are not part of the DCEU as a shared universe – or so we thought. More recently, the studio has clarified that the DC Multiverse will be adapting various realities with multiple incarnations of the same character being developed and released – the so-called multiverse idea.

With The Suicide Squad (2021), The Flash (2022), Aquaman 2 (2022), Shazam! Fury of the Gods (2023) and Black Adam (TBC) on the cards for release, as well as The Batman (2022) and a renewed effort from fans in support of the Snyder version of the universe – #ReleaseTheSnyderVerse – who knows what is next for the DCEU or The Justice League as a team.

And that’s it for this review on Zack Snyder’s Justice League (2021)

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David Roberts
Dave is a digital content creator, web and software developer and keen filmmaker. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram @drobertsdigital.