Superman is dead. Still. Again.
So it was in 2017’s Justice League, and so it is in Director Zack Snyder’s newish, four-hour take. The Man of Steel died at the end of Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, mourned by the world over by humans and heroes alike. And Bruce Wayne, aka. Batman, especially feels Supes’ absence.
It’s not like the two got along particularly well in their short relationship. But Bruce, whose only superpower, he acknowledges, is being rich, knows the world could use a guy like Superman protecting its planetary borders. He knows full well now just what a dangerous place the galaxy can be. And while Batman’s just fine sending grounded archvillains like Joker and Penguin to Arkham Asylum for the umpteenth time, he’s a little out of his depth when it comes to the über-powered destroyers of worlds that lurk in the stars. Right now, the Earth feels, to Batman, particularly vulnerable.
The Dark Knight’s more on point than he knows.
Superman’s body has barely turned cold before a giant-sized baddie and his legion of insect demons attacks Themyscira, home island of Wonder Woman. The Amazons have protected a mysterious box there for millennia—one in a set of three. And the bad guy, Steppenwolf, wants it and the other two in the worst way. Those mysterious boxes (Mother Boxes, they’re called) hold the key to conquering ever so many worlds, and Steppenwolf needs ’em. See, he’s trying to get back into the good graces of his master, Darkseid, and he needs to conquer, oh, 50,000 more planets to do it. And now that Superman’s no more, Earth is particularly vulnerable.
The Amazons—despite getting an A for effort—barely make Steppenwolf break a sweat in retrieving the first box. The second, held by the sea-dwelling Atlanteans, won’t pose much more of a problem. As for the third box, held by more traditional humankind … well, finding it is going to be trick. Once it’s found, humanity won’t pose much of a threat, Steppenwolf figures.
But Batman, once he learns of Steppenwolf’s scheme, won’t give up Earth without a fight. Superman may be gone, but some intimidating defenders remain: Wonder Woman he knows already—and she knows what’s at stake. He’s heard rumors of a super-fast guy down in Central City. An ocean-dweller named Aquaman has made some waves as of late. And what about that pouty, mostly robot kid hiding out in Gotham? Maybe he could bring some cybernetic skills to the party, too. Steppenwolf hopes to surprise humanity with a little dose of total subjugation. But Batman … well, he may have a few surprises of his own.
We’ve got a lot of movie to cover, so let’s not belabor the obvious: Saving the world is a good thing, and these heroes do some heroic things to save it.
But many also are dealing with their own personal struggles, too. Take Barry Allen, aka The Flash. He’s been working a steady stream of dead-end jobs to earn cash for college. Why? He wants to get a degree in criminal justice and, eventually, to free his wrongly incarcerated dad. The elder Allen wants Barry to forget about him and lead his own life, but Barry perseveres.
And then there’s Victor Stone, aka Cyborg. His father poured all his considerable knowledge (and a little bit of that mysterious Mother Box) into his son to save his life. (He was grievously injured in the same car crash that killed his mother.) But Victor harbors some resentment—feeling a bit more like Frankenstein’s monster than a beloved son. If this new Justice League features a hero’s journey, it’s really Cyborg’s journey, from bitter teen to sacrificial hero.
Other people sacrifice a great deal in the course of the film, including their lives.
This gets a little complicated.
Both Steppenwolf and Darkseid are considered “new gods” in DC’s comic-book canon. Steppenwolf’s army is populated by creepy winged things dubbed parademons, and one character suggests that fighting them is like “fighting the devil and his army.” (Batman retorts, rather confusingly, “I don’t care how many demons he’s fought and how many hells. He’s never fought us.”)
Earlier movies also positioned Wonder Woman as a kinda-sorta goddess, and Steppenwolf notes when he first fights her that she has the blood of the “old gods” in her veins. Wonder Woman also visits an old ruin called the Shrine of the Amazon.
In a flashback, we’re told that those old gods (characters from Greek mythology, mostly, including Zeus and Ares) were part of an alliance against Darkseid’s earlier attempted invasion—joining men, Atlanteans, Amazons and cosmic do-gooders in the successful defense of terra firma. Wonder Woman’s mother seems to talk/pray to an ancient arrow once wielded by Artemis, one of those old/Greek gods.
The mysterious Mother Boxes are products of an advanced technology that appears to less-technologically advanced people to operate like magic. Indeed, the boxes were controlled back in the day by three “witches,” whom we briefly see a time or two.
Not sure if this requires a spoiler warning or not, given the original movie is four years old, but be warned: Superman is literally resurrected (this time by one of the boxes). And in a closing scene, Lex Luthor says he is celebrating “God’s return out of the ground and back into the sky.”
In a dream sequence, a hero is laid to rest in some sort of religious funerary ceremony. The Flash appears to practice yoga, but also refers to himself as a “Jewish boy”. We learn that the parademons were once regular denizens of their various worlds but were twisted and “possessed” as a result of Darkseid’s invasions.
Several songs used in the soundtrack include Christian and religious imagery.
Two male superheroes occasionally cavort shirtless, and Wonder Woman’s garb is a bit revealing. Another character eyes a pregnancy test. A couple kisses. Flash asks Victor/Cyborg whether Wonder Woman might ever go for a younger guy. “She’s 5,000 years old, Barry,” Victor says. “Every guy’s a younger guy.”
This latest iteration of Justice League migrated from a PG-13 to an R-rating, and this category is one of the reasons why. Though lots of violence is almost a requirement for a superhero movie, rarely does one come with this level of spatter.
We’re not talking about Deadpool or Logan quantities of gore, but still more than you might expect. Most casualties are inhuman, but not all. One human bad guy is thrown into a wall and clearly dies, his corpse resting in a pool of his own blood. Another human gets thwacked into a wall of rock, leaving a massive splurch of blood. (Zack Snyder apparently has a thing for throwing people into things.)
Other humans are gunned down. Tons of Amazons fall to Steppenwolf and his masses, some being physically thrown to the ground by Steppenwolf, along with their horses. Some people/things are skewered or impaled by various implements. Someone is beheaded and his head crushed. A parademon has his head grotesquely shot off. Someone has nearly all the fluids in his body—including blood—magically sucked out of him. Flash trips or falls down sometimes at outrageous speeds, leading to some bad injuries (to him). Apparent vaporizations sometimes happen, too, some of which reveal layers of skin, bones and organs. A bevy of Amazons are essentially entombed alive.
A woman almost dies in a cataclysmic car crash. Heat-ray eyes are utilized to violent effect. Heroes and villains get thrown about like aggressively unloved teddy bears. People are tortured. About half of Justice League’s four-hour runtime involves fighting: hits and kicks and throws and zaps and laser blasts and lassos and bat-thingies. People nearly drown or die after falling from some biggish heights. People mourn over corpses/skeletons. We hear about how people suffered before they died. Threats are issued.
We hear that Darkseid has turned “100,000 worlds to dust,” which probably involved a couple of casualties.
Zack Snyder’s Justice League pushes language into R-rated territory, too—something that could’ve easily been avoided. The fact that the film contains just four f-words suggests that Snyder might’ve included them specifically to get his R-rating. We also hear three s-words along with two uses of the word “a–,” one “h—” and one misuse of God’s name.
Aquaman is a hard-drinking superhero. After saving a man from a watery death, he drops the guy off at a bar, orders a whiskey, takes the bottle and says that the rescued fellow will pay the bill. We see him drinking elsewhere, too—sometimes from a flask that he carries around.
Both Bruce Wayne and his butler, Alfred, drink (presumably) fine liquor on occasion. Lex Luthor and another famous DC villain, Deadshot, drink to a future partnership.
We learn that Victor, before becoming Cyborg, hacked into his school’s grade database to change the grades of a classmate. (Victor’s mother argues to the principal that it was a good thing.)
As part of Victor’s transformation into Cyborg, Victor’s father, Sidney, gives his son virtual control over every computerized thing in the world (which, as we all know, is quite a lot of power to give to an embittered teen). He uses this power to first spy on a harried single mom (the movie suggests this creepy peeping is, in context, a positive) and rewards her hard work and poverty by putting $100,000 in her bank account—lying that it’s part of a secret bank contest and, we can only assume, stealing it from the bank itself.
Superman definitely doesn’t act like himself after returning to life.
Alternate universes are nothing new to DC. And honestly, you could call this whole movie something of an artifact from an alternate universe, too.
Let’s retrace our steps a bit. Several years ago, DC (an entity that encompasses such well-known superheroes as Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and the like) saw the mountains of money that rival Marvel was making through its Avengers-related heroes in its Marvel Cinematic Universe. DC wanted in on that action, so it jump-started its own extended universe and turned its keys over to Zack Snyder, who’d made his name with the stylish, rather vapid actioner 300.
Snyder’s first two movies, Man of Steel and Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, were received with a bit of a chill by both critics (the movies have a 56% and 23% “freshness” rating on Rotten Tomatoes, respectively) and DC fans (who didn’t like to see Superman killing people or Batman firing guns—both highly non-canonical to their comic-book counterparts). No matter: Snyder forged ahead with Justice League until the tragic death of his daughter. The movie was done filming by then, but Snyder stepped aside, and Avengers director Joss Whedon took over.
Whedon overhauled the entire movie. He snagged $25 million in reshoots (bringing the film’s budget to a staggering $300 million) CGI’ed out a mustache being sported by Superman’s Henry Cavill (who needed the ’stache for his work on Mission: Impossible – Fallout) gave the film a lighter, funnier tone than Snyder had envisioned and cut the flick down to a two-hour runtime (mandated by Warner Bros.) The results? You can check out my review here.
It wasn’t long before Snyder’s fans (and some DC fans, too) began wondering about a fabled “Snyder cut,” or what Justice League would’ve looked like without Whedon’s input. Now, nearly four years and an estimated $70 million in new filming/CGI costs later, we have our answer.
Zack Snyder’s Justice League is longer, that’s for sure—literally twice as long as its predecessor. And honestly, it feels it. While some of the added length improved the movie (as we’ll get to below) this still felt like it had about 80 minutes of excess.
It’s also more cohesive and character driven. In Whedon’s version with its studio-mandated two-hour runtime, we lost a lot of backstory from both The Flash and Cyborg. Here, both—particularly Cyborg—become real, multidimensional characters, and that’s a welcome change. And obviously, the added runtime allowed for more connective plot tissue, too, which makes this version feel less like just a string of action sequences.
But it also is less fit for family viewing, as its R rating (and this review) should illustrate. It’s bloodier. More profane. Its quasi-spirituality can be perplexing. And then there’s this: It’s just a darker movie.
In my opinion, the best superhero movies are entertaining, even inspiring thrill rides, ones that can even point obliquely to the heroes that can lurk within us all. Even Logan, an R-rated superhero movie that had much worse content issues than this film, got that part right and, in my mind, partly mitigated its excesses.
Zack Snyder’s Justice League contains some great superhero moments and even some slivers of inspiration. But man, you have to slog through some really depressing moments to find them. And if that wasn’t enough, the film ends with an über-dark teaser that would appear to subvert and upend much of what draws us to superheroes—and these superheroes in particular—in the first place.
Warner Bros. is allegedly going to treat Zack Snyder’s Justice League as a non-canonical movie, which works for me. What this movie adds doesn’t make up for what it lacks.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.