Thoughts on ‘Zack Snyder’s Justice League’

A league united…and redeemed?

DC core heroes are brought together to face cosmic evil in Zack Snyder’s ‘Justice League’ (image credit: Warner Bros. Pictures).

After much anticipation and feverish expectations, Zack Snyder’s Justice League – affectionately known in fan circles as the ‘Snyder Cut’ – arrived this Thursday courtesy of a long fought, passionate fan campaign and a costly endeavour by Warner Bros. Pictures and the burgeoning streaming platform HBO Max (the film available to U.K. viewers via Sky Cinema/Now TV as part of its international roll-out).  $70 million dollars and some hard but dedicated work later, Zack Snyder’s original vision for Justice League has been ceremoniously brought forth into the light and the differences are significant and often astonishing.

Zack Snyder’s Justice League is a spectacular effort that provides an almost completely different viewing experience from that of the more compromised theatrical version which saw Marvel Studios veteran Joss Whedon (director of The Avengers and Avengers: Age of Ultron) brought in to replace a grieving Zack Snyder, following the tragic suicide of his daughter Autumn (to whom this version of Justice League is lovingly dedicated), to oversee post production and studio mandated rewrites/reshoots.  It can be argued (though few would) that there is still entertainment value in the flawed but fun theatrical version of Justice League (read the review from 2017 here), as it’s perhaps more easily digestible and no doubt more palatable to the general viewer unaware or less troubled by the commercially-driven ills that befell the final product.  For those more inclined to commit to a four-hour running time then there is much to offer in Zack Snyder’s film.

Less of an extended cut (in the vein of Snyder’s superior ‘Ultimate Edition’ of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice) of Justice League and more of a total reworking of it, Zack Snyder’s Justice League is a longer, deeper and in many ways more satisfying, often more mighty effort.  It’s not for the timid or for audiences attuned, or accustomed to, and with a preference for the brighter, tirelessly upbeat popcorn blockbuster fare of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (as phenomenal as they often are, of course) as this is unmistakably a Zack Snyder film.  Visually grand, operatic, mythological and of serious mind and intention, it’s an unconventional superhero epic that demands more from the viewer with a tone that’s more adult (beyond an uptick in bloody violence and peppering of bad language) and delves more deeply into it’s characters, providing expanded back stories and greater depth for the likes of newcomers Cyborg (Ray Fisher, whose role is greatly enhanced), The Flash (Ezra Miller) and Aquaman (Jason Mamoa) joining the already established Batman (Ben Affleck), Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) and the resurrected Superman (Henry Cavill – thanks to digital tooling, here dons a version of the iconic black rebirth suit from the 1990s Death/Return of Superman comics).  The film takes an existing villain, Steppenwolf (voiced by Ciarin Hinds) and adds more dimension – as well as tweaking his physical appearance with stronger CGI – as well as reinstating the overlord of proceedings, the formidable power-hungry cosmic conqueror Darkseid (Ray Porter), who was excised from the theatrical cut.  There are a few small character moments from the theatrical version that are sorely missed, such as Batman’s encouragement and reassurance to an overwhelmed and inexperienced Flash during the tunnel battle, but on the whole there is a lot more to chew on (and less goofiness) in Snyder’s cut.  Another major change of note is the music score with Tom Holkenborg’s (who, as Junkie XL, collaborated with Hans Zimmer on Snyder’s Batman v Superman) music replacing Danny Elfman’s score and proves stylistically more suited to Snyder’s film.

Admittedly, Zack Snyder’s Justice League is only likely to appeal to hardcore fans of not only the director and his vision for these core DC characters but also is more of benefit to readers invested in the rich mythology of DC comics history, well-versed in classics such as Jack Kirby’s Fourth World and Mark Waid and Alex Ross’s Kingdom Come (to cite a couple of celebrated works). The film treats the titanic DC heroes seriously, recognising the fundamental differences between the DC and Marvel universes.  Marvel succeeds greatly by putting the human in superhuman and whilst there is some element of that within the DC pantheon, the DC Universe is largely concerned with mythological fantasy.  Is this all to say that Zack Snyder’s Justice League is perfect?  No, it’s a little slow in it’s set-up and perhaps a tighter three-hour cut would be more refined, leading more quickly into the pacier urgency of the second half.  Is it the greatest superhero film of all time?  Again, no, but in many ways it is ground-breaking in delivering something different from the maligned rough-edged romp of the theatrical version.  Sadly, Zack Snyder’s Justice League leaves us hanging with the narrative doors wide-open for the envisioned sequels that are no longer on the table with the theatrical edition remaining part of the official DC Films canon, but ignoring it’s epilogue the story is fairly complete, if only to now occupy its own abandoned corner of the multiverse.  Whilst Zack Snyder’s Justice League is left as a sort of DC Elseworlds one-shot live-action graphic novel and a promising glimmer of what might or could have been, just as the icons of DC Comics endure, the DC Extended Universe goes on.

Image(s) used herein are utilised for illustrative purposes only and remain the property of the copyright owner(s).

Film Review: ‘Shazam!’

The Worlds of DC greets its newest hero…

Spoiler-free review

Shazam

Zachary Levi enters the Worlds of DC in ‘Shazam!’ from Warner Bros. Pictures and New Line Cinema (c. Warner Bros. Pictures/New Line Cinema).

Starring: Zachary Levi, Mark Strong, Asher Angel, Jack Dylan Grazer, Djimon Hounsou, Grace Fulton, Ian Chen, Jovan Armand, Faithe Herman, Cooper Andrews, Marta Milans

Directed by: David F. Sandberg / written by: Henry Gayden (story by Henry Gayden & Darren Lemke, Shazam created by Bill Parker & C.C. Beck) / 132 minutes

What’s it about?

Foster child Billy Batson, granted god-like powers by a mysterious wizard finds he must grow-up sooner than expected when he finds himself faced against the threat of an ancient evil…

In review

Warner Bros. Pictures and New Line Cinema’s Shazam! Is the latest offering from the ‘Worlds of DC’ cinematic universe, a sweet, fun and funny superhero romp that wears its childlike innocence and sense of adventure with pride. It doesn’t reinvent the wheel or stand amongst the very best of the genre but Shazam! is non-the-less a good time and a crowd-pleaser with a spirit that harkens back to the Christopher Reeve Superman films.

Based on one of DC’s lesser known – but oldest – characters (who at one point was selling more comics than Superman and originally known as Captain Marvel until legal issues got in the way), Shazam! sees troubled fourteen year old foster child Billy Batson (Asher Angel), struggling to adjust to life with his new adoptive family, encounter a mysterious wizard (Djimon Hounsou) who believes Billy to be pure of heart and selects his as a successor to his incredible powers – by merely saying the word “Shazam” (which on the face of it seems silly but is actually an acronym of Greek gods Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles and Mercury), Billy’s body transforms into that of a muscle-bound adult (Zachary Levi) endowed with an almost limitless range of powers and becomes the only hope of preventing evil demons, known as the Seven Deadly Sins, from being unleashed upon the world by the crazed Dr, Sivana (Mark Strong – formerly Sinestro in Warner’s ill-fated Green Lantern) who plans to seize the power of Shazam for himself.

Shazam! doesn’t hide from the fact that it’s essentially a superhero version of Tom Hanks classic Big (with a hint of Spielbergian magic) and much like Spider-Man: Homecoming did with the coming-of-age films of John Hughes, it simply goes along with it. Although the opening act may be a little sluggish it serves to give viewers a proper introduction to the characters and draw you into Billy Batson’s story – a significant part of which is his friendship with his foster brother and superhero fanboy Freddy, superbly played by It’s Jack Dylan Grazer and it’s the chemistry between the cast and their respective characters (which also includes an undeniably cute turn from the talented Faithe Herman as young ‘sister’ Darla) that really makes things click. Angel and Grazer are obvious standouts but it’s when Zachary Levi enters the frame that Shazam! hits its stride. The former Chuck star is absolutely the perfect choice to play the empowered version of Billy and he exudes the right combination of youthful excitement, awkwardness and physicality the role demands, handling all the action, heart and humour (an integral and well executed element of the film) with equal skill and with a believability and vulnerability that sells the idea of a boy in a man’s body. As Sivana (whose father is played by John Glover – Smallville’s Lionel Luthor), Mark Strong provides a decent amount of menace and danger – pitched with an appropriate touch of corniness. Sivana is by no means one of the all-time “great” villains but Strong does well with the character, for which we do get a bit of a backstory that helps define his motivations.

Shazam! is not as action orientated as other comic book blockbusters but it still has a fair measure, mostly reserved for its hero-forging middle section where Billy/Shazam must quickly master his abilities in a deadly face-off with Sivana and the climactic finale as he grapples with the creepy CGI-horde of the Seven Deadly Sins and director David F. Sandberg (Annabelle: Creation) has a firm grip on it all. These moments are certainly exciting but in the end it’s the family-focused, character driven aspects of Shazam! that make it all-the-more appealing and whilst it may make some fans hungry for a return of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman it expands the DC film universe as it continues to find itself on firmer footing.

The bottom line: a solidly entertaining comic book flick with a great leading cast, Shazam! successfully balances emotion, laughs and superhero punch-ups to engage the masses.

Shazam! is in cinemas now.

Image(s) used herein are utilised for illustrative purposes only and remain the property of the copyright owner(s).

Film Review: ‘Aquaman’

Warner Bros.’ Worlds of DC heads for the seven seas…

Aquaman 2

King of the sea: Jason Momoa leads the action in ‘Aquaman’ (image credit Warner Bros. Pictures, used for illustrative purposes only).

Spoiler-free review

Starring:  Jason Momoa, Amber Heard, Willem Dafoe, Patrick Wilson, Nicole Kidman, Dolph Lundgren, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Temuera Morrison

Directed by:  James Wan / written by:  David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick & Will Beall (story by Geoff Johns, James Wan & Will Beall, Aquaman created by Mort Weisinger & Paul Norris) / 143 minutes

What’s it about?

As the kingdom of Atlantis prepares for war, Arthur Curry – aka ‘Aquaman’ – finds he must fulfil his destiny and take the throne in order to unite the underwater world and prevent a deadly conflict…

In review

Aquaman, the latest of Warner Bros. Pictures’ slate of superhero films under the ‘Worlds of DC’ banner (which was previously and unofficially referred to as the ‘DC Extended Universe’, or DCEU) is a fun, albeit partly derivative, comic book blockbuster that’s highly entertaining if inferior to previous Warner/DC outings Man of Steel and Wonder Woman.  It’s fair to say that some of the narrative beats are predictable and unoriginal and comparisons to Marvel Studios’ Thor: Ragnarok and Black Panther are easily drawn but with that in mind, Aquaman holds its own and doesn’t pretend to be anything other than it is – a swashbuckling and visually jaw-dropping popcorn action adventure.

Picking up where he left off in Justice League (and with backstory that’s interspersed throughout in a series of flashbacks), Jason Momoa is the likeable lead infusing Arthur Curry/Aquaman with roguish charm and swagger, offset by just the right touch of vulnerability that provides the character with an essential element of relatability.  It sounds cliché, but it’s a significant part of what draws audiences (and readers) to these colourful heroes in the first place and through the efforts of Mamoa and the film’s screenwriters it’s hard to believe that Aquaman could ever have been one of DC’s most ridiculed characters.  Opposing Mamoa is Watchmen’s Patrick Wilson as Arthur’s half-brother Orm – aka ‘Ocean Master’ – whose militant rule of Atlantis and a desire for conquest threatens war with the surface.  Wilson is great and is a formidable presence, providing Aquaman with an effective villain.  Another standout is the reliably excellent Willem Dafoe as Arthur’s childhood mentor, Vulko and Nicole Kidman adds further star power in the role of Queen Atlanna.  Amber Heard is fine as Mera (whose father, King Nereus is played by action legend Dolph Lundgren) but is no Gal Gadot and unfortunately Yahya Abdul-Mateen II similarly underwhelms as Black Manta – it’s not entirely the actor’s fault given he’s handed some cheesy lines that undercut the threat value.

Whilst there are familiar tropes – the reluctant hero searching for purpose and fulfilment has been seen countless times – and there’s a shameless riff on Indiana Jones as Arthur and Mera search for a powerful Atlantean artefact, the writers of Aquaman deliver an enjoyable and fairly pacey tale that despite some droll dialogue is enhanced greatly by astonishing visuals.  Director James Wan (Furious 7) and his team take the fantasy of the lost city of Atlantis and really run with it, depicting vast and rich uaquatic realms teeming with a variety of life that’s wonderfully bizarre and inventive – the sight of an army of soldiers riding sharks and battling gigantic crab-like creatures is both odd yet strangely believable.  Wan executes it all rather well and injects the epic scale action of Aquaman with energy and skill, although the use of slow-motion in superhero action scenes is becoming a little tiresome.

In terms of the film’s tone it’s fairly light and family friendly with dashes of humour (that’s thankfully not too goofy or forced), continuing Warner Bros.’ plan of course-correction from Zack Snyder’s darker, more introspective and existential vision.  In some ways that’s a shame as there are some merits to the latter but from a crowd-pleasing perspective (and in pursuit of Marvel-level popularity and healthy box office returns) it’s understandable.  It’s also completely accessible to new or casual viewers – whilst Aquaman is certainly part of the overall main DC cinematic universe, bar a single reference to the events of Justice League it favours a standalone approach and that’s totally fine and allows Wan’s film to be what it needs to be and provide firmer foundations for the Worlds of DC going forward.

The bottom line:  A fun popcorn adventure, Aquaman doesn’t break new ground but is an enjoyable and visually exciting comic book romp.

Aquaman is in cinemas across the U.K. now and opens in the U.S. and worldwide from 21st December.

Film Review: ‘Justice League’

It’s all in or bust as DC’s league of heroes unite in Warner Bros’ Pictures latest comic book blockbuster… 

Spoiler-free review

Justice League

DC’s premier super team unite in the Warner Bros’ Pictures release ‘Justice League’.

Starring:  Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Gal Gadot, Ezra Miller, Jason Mamoa, Ray Fisher, Ciarin Hinds, Amy Adams, Jeremy Irons, Diane Lane, J.K. Simmons

Directed by: Zack Snyder / Written by: Chris Terrio and Joss Whedon / 121 minutes

What’s it about?

In the wake of Superman’s death, Bruce Wayne enlists the help of Wonder Woman to assemble a team of powered individuals in order to protect the Earth from a looming cosmic threat…

In review

It’s no secret that Warner Bros’ DC Comics film universe has had it tough so far.  2013’s Man of Steel was fairly well reviewed but divided audiences, its sequel 2016’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice was even more divisive and Suicide Squad…again, more so.  The tide seemed to turn with the critical and financial smash of Wonder Woman this summer, meaning the pressure was well and truly on for Warner Bros/DC with team-up event Justice League, a popcorn superhero action flick that is enjoyable and entertaining even if it doesn’t quite hit the mark.  Directed by Zack Snyder, who helmed Man of Steel and Batman v Superman, Justice League is held together by its central heroes, with likeable performances from their respective actors and great chemistry that makes it worth a look.

There are flaws to Justice League that prevent it from being as great as it could’ve been.  Firstly, the film’s narrative is a little messy and disjointed (a criticism that Batman v Superman was able to remedy with its superior extended cut), becoming more problematic as it rushes through various plot points that could have warranted more focus – it seems clear that the studios’ insistence on a relatively slim running time has resulted in a good chunk of material being excised.  Another weak link is Steppenwolf, an adequate but generic CGI villain (voiced and performance-captured by Ciaran Hinds) who, albeit, provides a reasonable enough threat, pales in comparison to some of the stronger comic book film villains.  He’s by no means terrible, just not all that interesting or memorable.  There’s also some disappointingly shoddy VFX work that can on occasion be distracting, especially in the film’s busy and action packed final act.

However, it’s with its main characters that Justice League is elevated.  Ben Affleck and Gal Gadot make strong returns as Bruce Wayne/Batman and Diana Prince/Wonder Woman respectively, both providing solid leadership to the rest of the team.  After fleeting glimpses in BvS, we’re fully introduced to Ezra Miller’s Barry Allen/the Flash, Jason Mamoa’s Arthur Curry/Aquaman and Ray Fisher’s Victor Stone/Cyborg.  All three are great, with Miller’s nerdy, excitable and hilarious take on the Flash a particular highlight.  Mamoa is a pleasing surprise with a fun, swashbuckling twist to the iconic heir to the throne of Atlantis and Fisher brings fitting strokes of tortured humanity to the brooding Cyborg.  As for the return of the Man of Steel himself it’s a triumphant one, the rebirth of Clark Kent/Superman forming an integral part of the story and Henry Cavill slips back into the cape and boots with ease, his selfless, heroic sacrifice in BvS and a second chance at life leading to a Superman with a renewed purpose and a more hopeful perspective.

The tone of Justice League is certainly lighter and more accessible than Batman v Superman, with a fair amount of humour sprinkled throughout and it’s generally well-placed and doesn’t undermine the film’s more dramatic moments.  It’s well known that due to personal tragedy, Zack Snyder handed over post-production duties to Avengers Assemble and Avengers: Age of Ultron writer/director Joss Whedon, with Whedon (who shares screenwriting credits with Chris Terrio) scripting some additional material and handling reshoots.  This could’ve easily been to the film’s detriment but gladly, the end result actually feels quite consistent.  Visually, Justice League is most definitely a Zack Snyder film, it’s themes of heroism enhanced by Joss Whedon’s knack for snappy character dialogue.  The screenplay may lack the deeper, more introspective themes and idiosyncratic touches of BvS but it gets the job done.

Although Justice League isn’t perfect its positive aspects make it enjoyable and fun in all the right places, particularly for fans of these iconic characters.  It isn’t on the same level as Marvel’s Avengers but it sets the DC film universe on the right path for the many further cinematic adventures ahead.

The bottom line:  Flawed but ultimately enjoyable, Justice League assembles some of DC’s finest heroes and establishes the road ahead for future outings.

Justice League is in cinemas now.

Comic Review: ‘Justice League of America’ #1

Written and pencilled by:  Bryan Hitch

What’s it about?

Receiving a mysterious invitation from a group known as the Infinity Corporation, Superman is soon united with the rest of the Justice League to face the dangerously overpowered Parasite…and the arrival of an alien armada…

In review

This week saw the launch of DC Comics’ much hyped (and equally anticipated) new Justice League title, Justice League of America from comics uber legend Bryan Hitch.  Best known for his collaboration, as artist, with writer Mark Millar on The Ultimates – the celebrated and influential reimagining of Marvel’s Avengers – Hitch now brings his talents as both penciller (aided by inks from Andrew Currie, Daniel Henriques and Wade von Grawbadger) and writer to the DC Comics Universe.

Reportedly years in the planning and not to be confused with DC’s short-lived New 52 Justice League spin-off of the same title, Bryan Hitch’s Justice League of America kicks off with a an extra-sized premiere issue that strikes an effective balance between character, story and epic action.  Titles from a single writer/artist have often been middling at best (Tony Daniel’s creatively flawed run on Detective Comics springs to mind, as does David Finch’s now defunct Batman: The Dark Knight) yet overall, Hitch has managed to deliver a solid first issue.

Whilst this issue largely focuses on Superman and the shocking discoveries he makes at the mysterious Infinity Corporation it’s not long before the Man of Steel is united with Batman, Green Lantern, Flash, Wonder Woman and Cyborg to face the threat of an overpowered and oversized version of Parasite.  That just leaves Aquaman, who has his own separate sub-story focusing on tensions between the mainland and Atlantis that will no doubt have some bearing on what’s to come in subsequent issues.

Hitch is an effective storyteller, as a writer he adeptly builds the foundations of the story and its unfolding mystery and for the most part accurately captures the voices of the central DC Comics heroes as well as delivering the epic widescreen visuals and action that will both delight and excite readers.  It’s an unenviable and herculean task but, the odd character niggle (there are brief moments where Batman seems a little too maniacal) and artistic ‘glitch’ (the odd weakness in Hitch’s figure work/character facials), Hitch generally pulls it off.  It doesn’t quite hit the heights of Throne of Atlantis but it’s more than commendable and far above your average superhero comic.

The undisputed talents of Bryan Hitch aside, what’s great about Justice League of America is its accessibility.  Whilst running concurrently with Geoff Johns’ main Justice League book, Hitch’s title isn’t too entrenched in the continuity of the ongoing events of the wider DC Universe making it easy for new readers (or those who are somewhat behind with DC’s ‘New 52’, like myself) to get on board and enjoy these characters and a decently entertaining, action packed superhero yarn – here’s hoping Hitch can maintain the quality and, perhaps even surpass it, in issues to come.

The bottom line:  Bryan Hitch’s Justice League of America is off to a promising start with an exciting and epic premiere issue that’s sure to entice readers enough to come back for more.

Justice League of America #1 is published by DC Comics and is available in print and digital formats now.

Cover art by Bryan Hitch for DC Comics' 'Justice League of America' #1.

Cover art by Bryan Hitch for DC Comics’ ‘Justice League of America’ #1.

‘Man of Steel’ Sequel Delayed Until 2016

Whaaaaat?!  I hear you all cry (well…I certainly did), in hindsight it was inevitable but now a reality – Warner Brothers have announced that the release of their as yet untitled Man of Steel sequel (which I still refuse to call Batman vs. Superman) has been pushed back by almost a year to May 2016.

It’s a smart move, with the inclusion of Batman and Wonder Woman it was already a massive undertaking and given the continuous raft of rumours (that seem to be emerging almost on a daily basis) surrounding possible casting and additional DC Universe characters being incorporated in some capacity (Green Lantern and, now, Aquaman), could this end up being an even more ambitious project than DC/Warner Brothers had initially intended?

Following the success of Marvel Studios, particularly the overwhelming response (both commercially and critically) to Avengers Assemble, DC/Warner Brothers have naturally become restless in their efforts to cultivate their own cinematic universe and more development/production time will surely allow them to fully realise this goal (and not to mention 2015 is already overcrowded with high profile releases).

All that’s certain at this point is that Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Diane Lane and Laurence Fishburne will return and will be joined by Ben Affleck as Bruce Wayne/Batman and Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman in a film we’re assured that will be very much a Man of Steel sequel that will undoubtedly build further towards Justice League.  Zack Snyder will direct from a screenplay by David S. Goyer.

But let’s not get carried away with all those rumours, they are exactly just that.  The prospect of throwing more DCU characters into the mix is both tantalising and disconcerting – it could very easily fail as much as it could work, so let’s have faith and wait to see…

What are your thoughts on the Man of Steel sequel?  Leave a comment below!