Movie Review ~ Zack Snyder’s Justice League

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: Determined to ensure Superman’s ultimate sacrifice was not in vain, Bruce Wayne aligns forces with Diana Prince with plans to recruit a team of metahumans to protect the world from an approaching threat of catastrophic proportions.

Stars: Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Gal Gadot, Jason Momoa, Ezra Miller, Ray Fisher, Amy Adams, Jeremy Irons, Connie Nielsen, Diane Lane, J.K. Simmons, Ciarán Hinds, Amber Heard, Joe Morton, Ray Porter, Jesse Eisenberg

Director: Zack Snyder

Rated: R

Running Length: 242 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review:  Has there ever been a more bizarre and divisive situation of nerdom than the one surrounding the twisted tale of Zack Snyder’s Justice League?  By his own request, the director was replaced during the final weeks of production on the 2017 release (including editing and reshoots) so he could deal with the emotional recovery of the death of his daughter.  It was the right choice for Snyder but it left the film in the hands of Joss Whedon, the Marvel marvel who couldn’t find the same tone Snyder was going for and leaned into a more studio and populous theater friendly piece that didn’t serve the darker storyline that was imagined.  Not unexpectedly, though the film was ultimately credited to Snyder it bore little resemblance to his original vision and was hampered by many of Whedon’s trademarks, down to cringy bits of humor that didn’t work and a stupefying amount of bad special effects.

With Warner Brothers and the DC Universe riding high off the phenomenal success of Wonder Woman released earlier that year, the dismal failure (and tepid reception) of Justice League put a nail in the coffin for Henry Cavill’s Superman and encouraged Ben Affleck to exit a solo Batman project that was in the works.  It also derailed a planned film for The Flash and bumped the Wonder Woman sequel out, not to mention leading to some troubling accusations from co-star Ray Fisher on how the studio treated him after voicing concerns about unprofessionalism on set.  All in all…a big mess.  While a subsequent Aquaman film performed well and looked encouraging for Jason Momoa’s future as a box office star, Wonder Woman 1984s bow in late 2020 was met with true vitriol (all very unfair in my eyes) so the shaky ground remained.

While all of this was going on, though, a strange groundswell was starting that began almost as a joke but started to catch on before turning into a full-blown movement by comic book and franchise fans.  This was of course the birth of the # phenomenon and it was hard to avoid the #ReleaseTheSnyderCut pandemonium that took over Twitter.  Everyone knew that Snyder had expressed some displeasure that his vision wasn’t seen through to the end and that so much of what he shot wasn’t included or scenes he had wanted to shoot weren’t shot at all.  What people were clamoring for was to see Warner Brothers to hand the movie back to Snyder and let him re-edit the movie into the “Snyder Cut”… which is not exactly unheard of.  They’ve done it before with 1980’s Superman II, replacing director Richard Donner before filming was over but releasing his (not as good) version decades later.  Director’s cuts are fairly standard for releases now but there was something about this particular movie that kept both sides tight-lipped, with Warner Brothers even claiming at one point that there would definitely be no Zack Snyder’s Justice League.

Here we are, though, and HBOMax is releasing a four-hour cut of Snyder’s reassembled film that aligns with his original plan.  Running a full two hours longer than the 2017 release, Snyder used material that Whedon chose not to go with and also shot quite a lot (a lot!) of new footage – so much so that this feels almost like a remake of the film everyone thumbs down-ed four years ago.  We all know that longer doesn’t equal better but in the case of Zack Snyder’s Justice League, it most certainly does.  My original review of Justice League pointed out that the film’s introductions to the new characters felt rushed and not a lot of the movie felt cohesive due to the streamlined runtime.  With four hours to work with, Snyder is able to give each character their due and then some, providing more than enough character building to have the head spinning finale actually mean something this time around.

By and large, the story is mostly the same.  After burying Superman at the end of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Batman/Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck, Live by Night) begins to assemble a team of other individuals with superpowers while Wonder Woman/Diana Prince (Gal Gadot, Ralph Breaks the Internet) returns to her civilian life with the occasional crime fighting break now and again.  Batman has a sense that a darkness is coming and the need for a team of united strength is important and it’s only after Wonder Woman gets a desperate sign from her homeland with the key to a hidden message that she joins him in the recruitment process.  Together, they seek out Aquaman (Momoa, The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part) who has remained a mystery man in the waters off Iceland, The Flash (Ezra Miller, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them) a kind-hearted social outcast that can run faster than the speed of light, and Cyborg (Fisher) a former high school football player saved from death by his scientist father (Joe Morton, Godzilla: King of the Monsters) now struggling to adjust to his altered appearance and overwhelming technological access.

Their combined powers will be needed to defeat Steppenwolf (voiced by Ciarán Hinds, Closed Circuit) a ghastly beast that has arrived on earth searching for three boxes that, when united, will call forth a dangerous entity that will destroy Earth.  As he travels around the globe gathering the pieces of the puzzle from clans that have an impact on Wonder Woman and Aquaman, the group realizes that the box possesses multiple powers.  (Yes, you’re correct in thinking this is all hokey pokey stuff and it’s just as absurd as it was the first time around…but with more time to add in context and backstory, it goes down just a little easier.) In addition to vanquishing all life, the “unity” can also restore it and bring the dead back to existence.  A fairly good tool to have when you’re down one superhero and know where he’s buried…

Like I said before, everything about Zack Snyder’s Justice League, is just…more.  There’s more story, more action, more blood (when people get thrown against walls, their heads tend to explode quite messily), and more gritty language than what you’ve come to expect.  It isn’t anything gratuitous and only adds to the all-encompassing feeling that Snyder has returned to the film.  I couldn’t shake off the feeling while watching it that it was the kind of event entertainment that back in the day networks would have shown once a year and the entire family would watch as a group.  Could the film have been trimmed down a bit – absolutely – but I was fairly enraptured with it all from the moment it started until it ended.  It may run 240ish minutes but it definitely doesn’t feel that long.

Not to say there weren’t some clunkier moments along the way.  At times, when the action dips you start to try to pick out which scenes were new and which ones were previously shot and it’s fairly obvious by tracking Affleck’s face which switched between expertly chiseled and comfortably fuller throughout.  Several scenes were clearly filmed on a soundstage that doesn’t match the rich detail of the other production design so one moment you’re with Diana as she’s traveling through a cave, Indiana Jones-style, and the next you’re watching a random actress silently acting out an overly cliché scene that’s there to show Cyborg’s softer side.  There’s more than a handful of effects which come off like a video game or Saturday morning animation than the polished inspired moments they could be.

Speaking of the effects and visuals, aside from the occasional sketchy etching a great effort has clearly been made to right some terrible wrongs seen in the original, namely the horrible job done on Cavill’s (Enola Holmes) face to digitally remove a mustache he had while filming reshoots.  Either those scenes were jettisoned completely, or the hundreds of digital techs credited at the end had their work cut out for them because by and large the movie looks sharp and excellent.  A number of action sequences have been restored and they haven’t been carelessly re-inserted – they’ve all been smoothly incorporated into the rest of the movie.  An early sequence of Wonder Woman stopping a bank robbery/bombing has been elongated and made it far more intense, visceral, and displays more of Wonder Woman’s abilities.  I went back and watched the same scene from the original and its so watered down and brief that it barely registers as a bout of action for the heroine.  Now it’s suspenseful and doesn’t feel like it minimizes the superhero or the plot.

Divided into six parts and an epilogue (which has about three or four endings within and several whopper surprises), Zack Snyder’s Justice League, is big big BIG and doesn’t quit until it’s good and ready to.  Its release renders the previous version totally obsolete in my book and this will be the only Justice League that I’ll recognize for future rewatches because it appears to tell a full story with a better overall picture of where these characters are headed.  Or were headed.  Last time I checked Cavill and Affleck were out and a new Batman movie is due out soon with Robert Pattinson in what looks to be the darkest take on the Caped Crusader yet.  Who knows what will come of this group for future outings but we do know that another Aquaman is swimming into production and due in 2022, the same year as The Flash movie which is rumored to have Affleck in it as well.  Despite those off-the-mark reviews for the recent sequel, a third Wonder Woman film has thankfully been greenlit.  Perhaps we’ll get a Cavill appearance in one of those films…or maybe Snyder will benefit from another Twitter grassroots campaign and a Justice League II will come to pass.  No matter what, Snyder’s vision is finally out there and whether you were a strong supporter of this cut being released or think the studio caving to fan demand is the most terrible thing ever (um, why?) this a film that demands some attention and a little admiration as well.  It’s goes for the brass ring with bold gusto.

Films in the DC Extended Universe

Man of Steel (2013)

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)

Suicide Squad (2016)

Wonder Woman (2017)

Justice League (2017)

Aquaman (2018)

Shazam! (2019)

Birds of Prey (2020)

Wonder Woman 1984 (2020)

Zack Snyder’s Justice League (2021)

Future films

The Suicide Squad (2021)

The Flash (2022)

Aquaman 2 (2022)

Shazam! Fury of the Gods (2023)

31 Days to Scare ~ The Witches

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The Facts:

Synopsis: In 1967 an orphaned boy and his grandmother find themselves in an unexpected battle against a coven of glamorous witches.

Stars: Anne Hathaway, Octavia Spencer, Jahzir Bruno, Stanley Tucci, Chris Rock, Kristin Chenoweth, Josette Simon, Codie-Lei Eastick, Charles Edwards, Morgana Robinson

Director: Robert Zemeckis

Rated: PG

Running Length: 106 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: Oh, but do I love the 1990 adaptation of Roald Dahl’s 1983 fantasy book The Witches.  How much do I love it?  At our local discount movie theater I managed to see it a whopping ten times when it played for several weeks on account of its good business in the later months of 1990.  Though it failed to catch major fire at the main box office, it’s gone on to become one of those movies you can mention to kids who grew up in that generation and they’ll light up recalling their memories of their first or forty-first time seeing it.  The practical effects by Jim Henson (it was the last film the creative puppeteer/designer personally oversaw), the wickedly wonderful performance from Anjelica Huston as the Grand High Witch, and a lovely overall production shaped by director Nicolas Roeg made The Witches a nicely askew family film.  A rare treat in those tricky times.

Full disclosure, I was fairly incredulous when I heard the news director Robert Zemeckis was undertaking a remake of The Witches for Warner Brothers and it’s not just because I was feeling a little protective of a childhood favorite.  Zemeckis had a decidedly spotty track record over the past decade with Welcome to Marwen (awful), Allied (good but forgotten), The Walk (more technical than personable), and Flight (compelling but also not entirely memorable) unable to create the same excitement as the Oscar-winning director’s phenomenal run in the ‘80s and ‘90s.  With Academy Award-winners Anne Hathaway (The Hustle) and Octavia Spencer (Ma) joining the cast and word of the script being a collaboration between Guillermo del Toro (The Shape of Water) and Kenya Barris (Girls Trip)…my initial reaction began to soften.

Around the same time, I heard del Toro and Barris had shifted the setting from England to the South in the 1960’s and suddenly…I was totally sold on it.  It was a brilliant idea to make this change and taking the opportunity to utilize the time period of the ‘60s and oceanside location was a great way to update Dahl’s original upper crust seaside resort. It also helped provide an easy solution to the lack of diversity in the previous version – now the film has the look and feel of Alabama in the waning days of 1967 when a young boy from Chicago (Jahzir Bruno) loses his parents and comes to live with his grandmother (Spencer) in the fictional southern city of Demopolis.  Other than these geographic changes and a few adjustments along the way, little more had to be done to get The Witches on its broomstick and off on some high flying fun.

When a snowy car crash claims his parents, a big city youngster is taken in by his small town grandmother.  At first, the boy lacks any will to do much of anything, despite his grandmother’s best efforts to break him out of his funk.  Eventually, a pet mouse encourages him out of his shell…just in time for a local witch to make her presence known.  Alerting his grandmother to the strange woman with a raspy voice, gloved hands, and odd lines on the side of her mouth, she tells him the truth about witches inlcuding how to spot one, and how they despise children more than anything.  Dabbling in a bit of magic herself, the grandmother senses danger is close and whisks the boy away to a luxe resort presided over by a stuffy hotel manager (Stanley Tucci, Beauty & the Beast) where they’ll be safe…if it wasn’t for the convention of witches that have arrived on the very same day.  Now, they’ll have to outsmart the Grand High Witch (Hathaway) who has devised a sinister plot to rid the world of all children with a mere drop of a special potion.

Sticking closer to Dahl’s original story (ending and all) than the 1990 film, Zemeckis has returned to the kind of full-out fantasy storytelling he was so good at in the Back to the Future series and the dynamic blending of special effects with live-action performances he pioneered in 1992’s Death Becomes Her.  The production design throughout is pristine, as are the colorful costumes (and wigs) worn by the witches and especially Hathaway’s killer garb.  I appreciated the focus first on character building before getting to the witch-y business and Zemeckis takes his time getting to the convention, by that time we’ve grown attached to the boy and his grandmother so we are completely invested in their surviving this battle royale with demon do-baddies.  Though it eventually gives way to a series of sequences dependent on believable effects, the film isn’t entirely beholden to its computer generated imagery as has been the case for a number of Zemeckis films.

In my original review of Roeg’s The Witches, I mentioned how I thought that film was too scary for young children, but this outdoes that one by a mile.  These witches have large mouths that open like wolves, noses that expand, and appendages that give the special effects folks space to let their imaginations run wild.  All of the CGI looks stellar and is convincing in the context of the world Zemeckis has established, but it does ratchet up the intensity as the ferocious faces and claws almost appear to push out into the screen…and if you know Zemeckis you know he loves a close-up of his work.  This is absolutely, positively, not for young children.  For adults, however, it’s tremendous fun that also has moments of riotous humor sprinkled throughout.

Like Huston before her, Hathaway is practically drooling with delight throughout the film and you get the impression she may have offered to pay the producers back some of her salary because she had such a good time.  She’s sets the tone for the rest of the witches who factor in less than the original, so much so that they are almost a non-entity – I would have liked to have a few of them step out more and had their own development but by and large it’s a one-witch-show with Hathaway dominating their scenes.  She’s paralleled nicely by Spencer as the warm-hearted but tough-love dispensing heroine who has already dealt with a witch before once and lived to tell the tale and doesn’t intend to let her grandson fall victim on her watch.  The children, Bruno and Codie-Lei Eastick (Holmes & Watson), do most of their work in voice-over and still manage to create commendable characters from just their voices.  Speaking of voices, Chris Rock (What To Expect When You’re Expecting) narrates the story with a gruff sparkle that kicks things off with a jolt of energy.

It must be the destiny of The Witches to fall flat at the ending and while this follows the book’s finale closer than before the ending that’s included here feels rather perfunctory and tacked on.  It’s almost as if del Toro, Barris, and Zemeckis weren’t quite ready to end things so they just stopped filming one day and never came back.  The rest of the film is so satisfyingly entertaining that these final moments are a strange deflation after so much puffing up.  Originally intended for release in theaters until the pandemic derailed the plans, it’s a real shame The Witches isn’t getting a debut on the big screen because it would have looked fantastic projected on a large scale to enjoy the world the creators have brought to life.  Available to stream on HBOMax in time for Halloween is a good substitute, though, and this is by far one of the best offerings I’ve seen so far this season to consider for your October 31st selection.  A truly wonderful remake.