Sunday, March 21, 2021

'Justice League' 2021 - "There's No Us Without Him." [MAJOR SPOILERS]

Directed by ZACK SYNDER



I had very low expectations for the highly anticipated Synder cut of the 2017 'Justice League.' I'm not one who thinks "director's cuts" will magically make a better movie. If it wasn't a good movie to begin with, I don't know how much a director's cut can do? I was especially doubtful of a new Zack Synder cut. I kinda enjoyed his previous superhero films 'Man of Steel' and 'Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice,' but I wasn't impressed. Synder is hit or miss for me. His bloviated style of spectacle over substance isn't something I usually enjoy, but this time he combined both style and substance. 

When it was announced that Synder was stepping down from the film I hoped Joss Whedon would bring a fresh look and style to the DC Extended Universe (DCEU). Please note I don't want to diminish Synder's reasons for stepping away from the film in 2017. He suffered a terrible loss. As a fellow human being and a parent, I empathized. 

But despite Synder's flaws, his films were rich with world-building. When his original film was recut, all of his flaws were still present, but none of his charm. Whedon replaced all of Synder's appeal with his own signature cutesy style and cheeky banter. Sadly, Whedon left most of the character development on the cutting room floor. The combination of Synder's flaws and Whedon's humor WAS A DISASTER. The 2021 version of the film corrects this mistake. 

Synder's cut still has flaws, but when placed in context IT FINALLY MAKES SENSE. Whedon tried to create 'Avengers: Age of Ultron' lite, which in itself was a bad movie. From what I read this was done at the behest of the studio. It's fair to say that Warner Bros. Studios is the absolute worst. They've repeatedly tried to destroy their 'Wonder Woman' franchise, they reboot Batman every few years, and they cut Synder's films to pieces

Instead of the formidable villain Darkseid, Whedon reorganized the film to make Steppenwolf the main bad. THIS MADE NO SENSE. Removing this extra layer of villainry was a huge mistake. Without Darkseid, Steppenwolf was just another villain with no character development beyond "hey let's conquer earth."  

In the Synder Cut, Steppenwolf is a means to an end to what Darkseid has in store for earth and its inhabitants. Whedon also made the mistake of showing too much of the film's villain, giving him flirtatious banter with the Amazons, and quips with the Justice League. It was a typical Whedon plot point (most of his films and tv shows include tongue-in-cheek villains), but it didn't work in a Zack Synder film. 

Zack Synder's Director's Cut of Justice League 2021

Make no mistake, Synder's version is epic. From the first scene, we know this is a very different film. The opening scene is completely different. In the Whedon cut, our first scene is a colorful cellphone video of Superman after a rescue, followed by a musical montage of what the world is like without Superman (roll credits). Whatever flaws Synder has, he takes the world-building in his films seriously. He wants his audience to believe in the magic of superheroes. The man doesn't have a nuanced bone in his body, which is why this movie works

In the theatrical version, Superman's death is mentioned in passing. In Synder's Cut, the first scene is Superman's death at the hand of Doomsday from 'Dawn of Justice' and his death reverberates throughout the planet, affecting every corner of the earth, and wakes the mother boxes. In the theatrical version, the mother stones were living machines that Steppenwolf wanted to possess to terraform earth into his own home planet. A pretty weak plot point. In the Synder Cut, the mother stones are change machines, capable of bringing about life itself. The indestructible mother boxes are in the care of three core groups-- the Amazons, the Atlanteans, and the humans.

I AM THRILLED to report that the scene of Batman baiting a burglar so he can attract a parademon...because they are attracted by fear, HAS BEEN REMOVED. Like the theatrical version, parademons are flying minions of Steppenwolf, but their ability to smell fear was a Whedon creation. Synder only shows the parademons when necessary. Their original intent of aiding Steppenwolf is all that remains. 

Gal Gadot in 'Justice League' | Atlas Entertainment, DC Entertainment, et al | 2021

Similar to the first film, we are introduced to various characters (some of whom we've seen before), such as the illustrious Diana Prince/Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) and the indomitable Arthur Curry/Aquaman (Jason Momoa). At first glance, their introductory scenes appear to be similar, but they're not. The editing, the musical score, cinematography, storyline, and overall feel of the film are dramatically different. 

In the theatrical version, Bruce Wayne/Batman (Ben Affleck) is searching for the three mystery boxes and trying to put together a team of heroes. We don't know how he learned about the boxes or why he's looking for them. In the Synder Cut, Batman is exclusively trying to bring a league of heroes together because of a warning from Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg). Bruce doesn't know what's coming, but he knows earth needs to be prepared, especially after the death of Superman. 

Similar to the theatrical version, Bruce journeys to Iceland to convince Aquaman to join his team, but there's more detail to Bruce's journey--more breathtaking shots of the magnificent Icelandic landscape and his interactions with Aquaman and the townspeople make more sense. MAKES MORE SENSE will be a common theme in this review. There is a LOT OF CONTEXT added to the Synder Cut that helps propel the storyline and develop the characters. And there is never enough of a shirtless Jason Momoa. This is a fact.
Jason Momoa in 'Justice League' | Atlas Entertainment, DC Entertainment, et al | 2021
Aquaman [to Batman]

Whedon's world was sentimental, cheeky, and colorful. Without Superman, Synder's world is darker and colder. The colors are muted and the skies are cloudy. I did a scene-by-scene comparison for a few scenes (not all). After I did a bunch of screen captures, HBO Max disabled my screen capture ability (THANKS HBO MAX! I AM REVIEWING THE FILM, NOT COPYING IT!

Whedon's cut was HEAVILY edited, which makes the Synder Cut almost unrecognizable in comparison. Even the fight scenes were whittled down significantly. Whedon focused on short bursts of energy. Whereas Synder's fight scenes feel like a marathon. Even with near-identical scenes, the difference between these directors is night and day. 

I don't necessarily think either of them is a bad director (although Whedon appears to be insufferable and badly behaved on set). Both directors have distinct strengths and weaknesses. The problem is that the theatrical version combined their weaknesses, but none of their strengths. With one cohesive vision for the film, Synder's Cut is an immediate improvement. Synder's version also explains the importance of Superman and what his death meant for the planet. Superman wasn't just a hero who did photo ops. He was the protector of the planet and his death caused a cataclysmic chain reaction. 
Gal Gadot in 'Justice League' | Atlas Entertainment, DC Entertainment, et al | 2021

When comparing the scenes side by side, it's easy to overlook some of the differences. Wonder Woman has the same opening scene, fighting off terrorists who have taken hostages in a government building. The scene is very similar to the Whedon Cut, but Synder's Cut is grittier and dirtier. The Synder Cut's "R" rating lets Diana do more damage. There's no gore, but she's much more aggressive and she doesn't take any prisoners. She leaves bloodstains on the walls after she throws people. At the same time, Wonder Woman has more heart. We get a glimpse of Wonder Woman's virtuous character of helping people because it's the right thing to do.

Speaking of Wonder Woman, her rip-rocking theme song is back and it's more glorious than ever. Written by Junkie XL and Hans Zimmer for 'Dawn of Justice,' Junkie XL returns to score the Synder Cut and adds some acoustical tribal music to Wonder Woman's theme. The musical score isn't as obvious as Danny Elfman's score in the Whedon Cut. Admittedly I enjoyed Elfman's score, but it's probably a smart move not to play each individual superhero's theme song every time they do something cool.  In that regard, the score is more fluid. After all, the heroes of this story are coming together for a reason. It makes sense for the musical score to follow suit.

'Justice League' | Atlas Entertainment, DC Entertainment, et al | 2021

In Themyscira the Amazons are attacked by Steppenwolf for their mother box. Synder's Cut includes additional battle scenes and dialogue between the Amazons as they await their fate. There's also a substantive difference on Themyscira. In Whedon's Cut, the Amazons know exactly who Steppenwolf is (because they fought him before). In Synder's Cut, the Amazons are caught off guard by an unknown foe, which makes their defense against him all the more heroic. 

In Synder's Cut the fighting on Themyscira is vicious. This Steppenwolf doesn't banter with the Amazons or toy with them. There's no sexual tension between him and the Queen. He doesn't tell her, "She will love him." Steppenwolf isn't there to flirt. He's there to destroy them. Now that I think about it, maybe Whedon is a bit pervy

Connie Nielsen in 'Justice League' | Atlas Entertainment, DC Entertainment, et al | 2021
Queen Hippolyta 

When Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) orders the cage sealed with her sisters inside (in an effort to kill Steppenwolf), it actually does kill her sisters. Steppenwolf doesn't immediately escape with a stroke of his ax like in the Whedon Cut. Upon being sealed in the building, Steppenwolf and the Amazons inside sink into the sea. It makes Steppenwolf's survival even more upsetting for the Amazons. Nielson is a fine actor, but the missing scenes give her performance more meaning. 

After Steppenwolf's decimation of the Amazons, Queen Hippolyta sends Diana a message with the arrow of Artemis burning the pantheon, which lets Diana know there's an invasion afoot. Unlike the original film, Diana goes full Indiana Jones to investigate her mother's warning. In this version, she finds an underground tunnel that leads her to warnings of Darkseid. It's only after Diana has made her own discovery that she pays Batman a visit and tells him what she's found. 

Gal Gadot in 'Justice League' | Atlas Entertainment, DC Entertainment, et al | 2021

Diana tells Bruce about the mythology of a previous invasion. It's similar to the theatrical version but revolves around Darkseid (not Steppenwolf). When Darkseid invaded earth he discovered the "anti-life" equation that would allow him to control every being across the multiverse (all at once). In Whedon's Cut, Steppenwolf returns to earth because he went crazy after he was defeated. Now that's some really lazy storytelling! I'm surprised a writer was hired to write that and Whedon actually filmed it. In the Synder Cut, Darkseid suffers defeat and retreats when he is badly wounded. In the haste of his retreat, he is unable to find earth again. He's conquered so many worlds he didn't know which one to return to. 

After Steppenwolf defeats the Amazons he retreats to a nuclear waste site in Russia. In the theatrical version Steppenwolf and his minions magically appear in an abandoned town in Russia. There's no rhyme or reason why they chose this location. In Synder's Cut, the audience understands why Steppenwolf chose this place and how he fortifies it. These little details may not seem important, but they are. Of course, the biggest change is Steppenwolf's motivations. Steppenwolf comes to earth because the mother boxes called to him after Superman's death. Steppenwolf is in exile and will do anything to get back into Darkseid's good graces. Steppenwolf has conquered thousands of worlds, but he still owes Darkseid a debt of 50,000 more. Earth is but a stepping stone. 

'Justice League' | Atlas Entertainment, DC Entertainment, et al | 2021
Steppenwolf [to Parademons]

As Steppenwolf continues his rampage, the team coalesces around Batman. The increased run time gives all of the characters more screentime. In fact, it's hard not to develop characters with a 4-hour run time. Perhaps this has been Synder's problem. Maybe he needs 4 hours to effectively tell a story?  

There's more detail on Aquaman's descent to Atlantis and how the Atlanteans fear the stronghold of Atlantis has been compromised. It's here that Vulko (Willem Dafoe) gives Arthur his mother's trident and armor. Wonder Woman and Aquaman share a sweet scene about their similarities. Aquaman tells the Flash/Barry Allen (Ezra Miller) which disguise looks the "least awful" when they break into the military base with Superman's body. Barry expresses surprise when Aquaman shares a genuine moment of concern for Cyborg. Aquaman reminds him that of course he cares. He's there after all

Batfleck is tougher and more determined in this version. In the Synder Cut, Batman has special arm gauntlets that dissipate energy, giving him better defenses, which will come in very HANDY when he comes face to face with Superman. Even Batman's fight scenes are better edited and not as sloppy. Batman was already a developed character in the theatrical version, but the four hour film manages to squeeze even more character development out of him. Batman is determined to save the planet (not for himself), but because he made a promise to Superman. 

Ray Fisher in 'Justice League' | Atlas Entertainment, DC Entertainment, et al | 2021
There's a seriousness in the film that didn't exist before. Synder correctly removes all of the campy scenes when the Justice League fights with Steppenwolf. The scene with the Flash awkwardly falling on top of Diana doesn't happen here, which is a relief. It was dumb. Again, likely another pervy moment from Whedon. Thankfully much of Barry's Whedonesque banter has been removed. Miller still brings lots of humor to the Flash, but he's not as idiosyncratic. He's funny, but not fearful or nervous. He doesn't hesitate to save those in need of help. We also see the Flash's super healing abilities, which is an integral part of his story. 

The biggest beneficiary of Synder's Cut is Victor Stone/Cyborg (Ray Fisher). Fisher had most of his screentime edited out of the theatrical version. Batman may be the brains of the film, but Cyborg is its heart. We see Cyborg's origin story, his strained relationship with his father, and how he selflessly helps a struggling single mom who gets evicted from her apartment. It's a touching moment that adds to the tin man's humanity.

We learn about the scientist who used one of the mother boxes to reanimate him--Cyborg's father, Silas Stone (Joe Morton). One of the best subplots in the film is the emotional relationship between Cyborg and his father until its tragic conclusion. Silas was an absent father. He was more in love with his scientific discoveries than his own family. Silas finally connects with Victor, but it's too late. Victor is near death and badly disfigured after a horrific car accident. When Silas turns Victor into Cyborg against his wishes, Victor doesn't forgive him for it...again until it's too late. It's unfortunate that the Silas and Victor relationship was removed in its entirety from the theatrical cut. 

Ben Affleck in 'Justice League' | Atlas Entertainment, DC Entertainment, et al | 2021

Flash [to the Justice League]

When the team hits a stumbling block, they are united in their thinking. THEY NEED SUPERMAN. In Whedon's Cut, there's a huge disagreement between Batman and Wonder Woman about resurrecting Superman. Wonder Woman is so against it she pushes Batman in a fit of anger. In Synder's Cut, Wonder Woman and Batman are united. The only dissenting voice is Aquaman. The entire group believes Superman is the key to their success and they all agree to bring him back. Batman doesn't fight with Wonder Woman to "assuage his guilt." The tension isn't between the characters but is in the heaviness of the action itself. They all know the world needs Superman, but CAN THEY RISK DOING IT without handing Steppenwolf another mother box?

Synder's Cut gives us an extended version of Superman's resurrection on the dilapidated Kryptonian ship. It's here that Cyborg has a premonition of Batman's "Knightmare" from 'Dawn of Justice.' In this nightmarish world, Darkseid has invaded earth and Wonder Woman and Aquaman have been killed. We see Queen Hippolyta's tear-stained face as she burns her daughter's remains on an Amazonian funeral pyre. Superman weeps over Lois Lane's (Amy Adams) incinerated body. It's in his grief that he becomes a tool of Darkseid. Batman was supposed to protect Lois but failed. Darkseid was able to manipulate Superman with the anti-life equation. As the countdown continues, Cyborg tries to stop Superman's resurrection, but it's too late. 

Henry Cavill in 'Justice League' | Atlas Entertainment, DC Entertainment, et al | 2021

The next scene is very similar to the original when a confused Superman fights his fellow members of the Justice League. It's one of the best scenes from the original film. It continues to be an excellent scene. It's probably the first time I really saw SUPERMAN in Henry Cavill. Synder adds a few extra fight sequences that highlight Cyborg, Aquaman, and the Flash. In this version, Lois Lane (Amy Adams) isn't brought to Superman's resurrection by Alfred (Jeremy Irons). She is brought there (as is the whole city) by the incredible beam of light that exudes from his renewal. 

In the Synder Cut, Superman does what one could expect. He uses his heat vision to attack people, including Cyborg and Batman. Remember when I mentioned those handy arm gauntlets that Alfred made for Batman. Well, they come in handy when deflecting lasers from Superman's eyes. Just before Superman roasts Batman completely Lois appears. This scene is identical to the original film. The scene at the farm is a bit longer, but otherwise unchanged. 

There are a slew of loose ends tied up in a big red bow in the Synder Cut. We actually get to see the League strategize, as Diana discusses battle plans on how to fight Steppenwolf. Despite Superman's reluctance to help them, the League (especially Batman) has faith that Superman will eventually join their cause. Batman leaves Alfred with directions on where to find them. Before Steppenwolf can retrieve the last mother box, Victor's father sacrifices himself by marking the last mother box so the League will be able to find it. In the Whedon Cut, Wonder Woman encourages Cyborg to "feel his way" to the boxes. Again, more lazy writing in the first film. 

Ezra Miller in 'Justice League' | Atlas Entertainment, DC Entertainment, et al | 2021

Cyborg [to Flash]

Flash [to Cyborg]

It was the ending that truly doomed the first film. This time when the League locates Steppenwolf there are no townspeople to save. We don't need to see desperate people hiding out to feel the peril of the situation. In the Whedon Cut, Alfred reminds Batman that he has a team and doesn't have to be a lone wolf. Batman in turn encourages Diana to "believe in herself" and become the leader they need! Garbage writing. Absolute garbage. In the Synder Cut, there's no need for pretentious pep talks. Alfred doesn't have to remind Batman that he has a team...he already knows he does. Diana is thousands of years old. She doesn't need to be told "she can do it," because she already knows she can. 

As the League makes a frontal assault against Steppenwolf, Batman destroys Steppenwolf's defenses.  The fight scenes are extravagant (which Synder is known for), but they are tightly edited and they work well here. There's also no ridiculous red tint glowing in the sky. It's still spectacle, but it takes itself seriously. The action scenes have none of the Whedonesque cheesiness and for that WE THANK YOU

'Justice League' | Atlas Entertainment, DC Entertainment, et al | 2021

In the original film, the League barely needed Superman. Aquaman and Wonder Woman battered Steppenwolf to a draw and Cyborg was able to retrieve the mother boxes. In this version, Superman is an essential part of their plan. And can we talk about that suit? That fantastic black suit on Superman is truly a show stopper. Superman is at the eye of the storm for a reason, so is the Flash. In the Synder Cut, the Flash does more than just "run fast and push things." In this film, the Flash's speed is the lynchpin of their plan and when he fails it's his speed that saves them. 

The film ends on a cliffhanger because the threat isn't over. Darkseid may not be able to conquer earth just yet, but he plans to take the long way and won't be giving up on the discovery of the anti-life. And what kind of reviewer would I be if I didn't mention the BEST SCENE IN THE FILM? In a final dream sequence of Batman's "Knightmare" we get a fantastic scene between Batman and the Clown Prince of Crime, the Joker (Jared Leto). The scene is subtle but powerful. As the remaining members of the League flee for their lives from a dark Superman in a fallen world, Batman and Joker form an uneasy truce. 

Jared Leto in 'Justice League' | Atlas Entertainment, DC Entertainment, et al | 2021

Joker [to Batman]

Lastly, Synder keeps the final post-credit scene with Lex Luthor and Deathstroke (Joe Manganiello).  However, he tweaks the scene a bit. When Lex meets with Deathstroke, he gets right down to business and tells Deathstroke that Batman is Bruce Wayne. Full stop. End of line. This is a big improvement from creating a "league of their own." 

Synder's version is superior to the original cut in nearly every way. I've always thought that Synder's lack of nuance was a major weakness (and it normally is), but not this time. In a time of Covid, this is the superhero film we need. It's Zack Synder's best film to date and will likely be the film he will most be remembered for. I don't say that lightly. I have never considered myself to be a Synder fan. Maybe I'm a little emotional after being locked in my house for the past year, but I have to give Synder credit for giving me something to love again.



  1. Good to hear from you!
    I wasn't sure what to expect, because Snyder is hit or miss for me as well. He tends to be a little too dark. But his version of the movie is just epic and adds so much to the story.

  2. Hi Alex! I'm so happy to hear from you! Yes. I feel the same about Synder. I really wasn't expecting much, but I was pleasantly surprised. This version added so much context to the story! I hope you're doing well and staying safe.


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