An epic exploration of grief: Zack Snyder’s Justice League reviewed

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Zack Snyder’s Justice League has been a long time coming for the DC Extended Universe, as it finally gives its eponymous protagonists the epic film that they so rightfully deserve. The Snyder cut breaks tradition from Joss Whedon’s previous ensemble superhero films Avengers Assemble and the Whedon cut of Justice League, abandoning almost all of the comedic elements adopted in these films. Justice League is not only visually darker than its predecessors, adopting a sepia, shadowy tone, but it tells a much more sombre story of grief, bravery, and love. Amidst the incredibly realistic visual effects that render the viewer genuinely fearful of the immense threat to Earth, Justice League never forgets its central characters, who are all incredibly relatable to the audience in some way or another; the homesick daughter, the lonely geek, the grieving wife, and the guilt-ridden friend.

The astonishing scale of the film provides a strong foundation for its narrative, making it feel more like a biblical epic than a superhero movie. Not only is the Snyder cut a whopping four hours long, but it is divided into six ‘parts’, each pursuing their own narrative and furthering the overall arc of the plot. With this seemingly limitless timeframe, all the characters feel completely fleshed out, even those who die in the first part. The inclusion of such three-dimensional characters emphasises the hopelessness of the situation; our heroes are fighting a battle which even they cannot win alone. Everyone in the film must unite to conquer Steppenwolf’s forces, and the strong characterisation renders every sacrifice heartbreaking for the audience. Often ensemble productions can feel gimmicky, as though characters are brought together to satisfy an obsessed fan base, who finally get to see their much-loved characters interacting with each other.

Justice League not only unites iconic characters such as Wonder Woman and Aquaman, but it also constructs their respective worlds, helping us to understand them better, and it furthers their character journeys established in previous films. For some protagonists, such as Cyborg, the Snyder cut manages to introduce an entirely new character to the franchise (aside from a cameo appearance in Batman vs. Superman) and provide him with a powerful narrative which is explored throughout the film. It somehow manages to achieve all of this whilst juggling a ridiculous number of fight sequences and plot strands. Of course, not all directors have the luxury of such a lengthy running time. But, whilst it is excessively long, the Snyder cut could have easily been broken into two big ‘parts’ and released as separate films, both with a more reasonable running time.

Also, the film’s 15 rating allows it to feel far more dramatic than previous superhero films. Portraying more violent, graphic scenes made the film feel more mature, emphasising that it is a dark and deadly story in which heart-wrenching sacrifices have to be made. The opening scene is equally bleak, re-filming the death of Henry Cavill’s Superman at the end of Batman vs. Superman to provide a more sombre, adult tone than the 12A-rated 2016 film.

Amy Adams is the film’s unsung star in her raw performance as Lois Lane. Whilst Superman is half-human, many adaptations have focused purely on the godly aspects of his life, often including lacklustre and unbelievable relationships with his mother and love interest Lois as a second thought. But witnessing Superman’s death from Lois’ eyes, going inside her home and daily life, allows us to forget that Clark is a half-alien God—if the audience didn’t know his full identity, he would simply be another resident of Metropolis. Lois’ grief contrasts sharply with the antics of the Justice League. Whilst they are busy rallying around trying to save the world, she is attempting to rebuild her own world and coming to terms with her loss. This deep exploration of grief becomes all the more poignant when the film is dedicated to Autumn, Zack Snyder’s daughter who died by suicide in March 2017, resulting in both Zack and his wife Deborah pulling out of the Justice League project and handing the reins over to Joss Whedon. The film is a beautiful tribute to his daughter, with her favourite song, Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’, featuring on the soundtrack. This adds another layer of emotion to Lois’ grief as the Snyder family had recently experienced similar pain to that of her character, and perhaps explains why it is explored with such empathy and authenticity.

Grief is a huge part of the film, as Diana grieves for her far-away homeland, and Cyborg grieves for the loss of the person that he once was. All of the characters have lost something or someone, and the film sees them finding solace and comfort in friendship. The ensemble cast works well together, with Ezra Miller’s Flash providing some comedic relief to balance out the film’s dark nature, highlighting one of the many failures of Whedon’s cut of the film, which utilised too much humour and thus detracted from the serious subject matter. There are, of course, some failures to the film—often the landscape shots are excessively long whilst adding little to the plot—but the Snyder cut highlights the shortcomings of Whedon’s original cut.

However, the ending feels bittersweet. Whilst the interaction between Jared Leto’s Joker and Ben Affleck’s Batman is cathartic, and impressively explores their complicated relationship in a mere few pages of dialogue, it is equally heartbreaking, as the two proposed sequels to Justice League have long been cancelled, given the dismal performance of Whedon’s cut of the film. Thus, in the closing scenes, Snyder enchants the viewer with the thrilling possibilities of future films in this universe, whilst leaving them disappointed that they will never be able to see the narratives pursued further. Thus, the film ends as it begins, with grief and loss. Except for this time, that loss is firmly grounded in our world and not the fictional world of the DC universe.

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