Review: ‘Zack Snyder’s Justice League,’ starring Ben Affleck, Gal Gadot, Ray Fisher, Ezra Miller, Jason Momoa and Henry Cavill

March 15, 2021

by Carla Hay

Ray Fisher, Ezra Miller, Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Gal Gadot and Jason Momoa in “Zack Snyder’s Justice League” (Photo courtesy of HBO Max/Warner Bros. Pictures)

“Zack Snyder’s Justice League”

Directed by Zack Snyder

Culture Representation: Set in several fictional DC Comics places such as Gotham, Metropolis, Central City and Atlantis, “Zack Snyder’s Justice League” has a predominantly white cast of characters (with some African Americans and Asians), ranging from superheroes to regular citizens to villains.

Culture Clash: An all-star group of superheroes called Justice League gather to do battle against evil entities that want to take over the universe.

Culture Audience: “Zack Snyder’s Justice League” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of epic superhero movies that have a dark and brooding tone.

Steppenwolf (voiced by Ciarán Hinds) in “Zack Snyder’s Justice League” (Photo courtesy of HBO Max/Warner Bros. Pictures)

“Zack Snyder’s Justice League” is a four-hour superhero movie that can be summed up in four words: “definitely worth the wait.” Also unofficially known as “The Snyder Cut,” this extravaganza is the director’s cut of 2017’s “Justice League,” an all-star superhero movie that was panned by many fans and critics. Even though Snyder was the only director credited for “Justice League,” it’s a fairly well-known fact that after Snyder couldn’t complete the film because his 20-year-old daughter Autumn committed suicide, writer/director Joss Whedon stepped in to finish the movie. Whedon made some big changes from Snyder’s original vision of “Justice League.” (There’s a dedication to Autumn that says “For Autumn” at the end of “Zack Snyder’s Justice League.”) The “Justice League” that was released in 2017 had a lot of wisecracking jokes, and the violence and language were toned down to a more family-friendly version of the movie.

Since the release of “Justice League” in 2017, fans of DC Comics movies demanded that Warner Bros. Pictures “release The Snyder Cut” of the film. And due to popular demand, Snyder was able to make the “Justice League” movie he originally intended to make. “Zack Snyder’s Justice League” is part of HBO Max’s lineup of original content.

As promised, “Zack Snyder’s Justice League” is a darker and more violent version of the 2017 “Justice League” movie, but it also has a lot more emotional depth and gives room for more character development and intriguing possibilities within the DC Extended Universe (DCEU). “Zack Snyder’s Justice League” was written by Chris Terrio, with Snyder, Terrio and Will Beall credited for the story concept. Terrio and Whedon were credited screenwriters for “Justice League.”

Does “Zack Snyder’s Justice League” live up to the hype? Mostly yes. The scenes with the main characters are of higher quality and are more riveting than in the original “Justice League.” The action scenes are more realistic. The overall pacing and tone of the story are also marked improvements from the 2017 version of “Justice League.” However, the reason for the cameo appearance of The Joker (played by Jared Leto) in the movie’s epilogue isn’t what it first appears to be, so some fans might be disappointed. And the appearance of Ryan Choi/Atom (played by Ryan Zheng) is very brief (less than two minutes), and he doesn’t talk in the movie.

Many people watching “Zack Snyder’s Justice League” have already seen “Justice League,” so there’s no need to rehash the plot of “Justice League.” This review will consist primarily of the content in “Zack Snyder’s Justice League” that was not in “Justice League.” For those who have not seen “Justice League,” the basic summary is that an all-star group of superheroes have assembled to battle an evil villain that wants to take over the universe by gathering three mystical Mother Boxes, which are living machines that have enough energy to cause widespread destruction.

The superheroes are Batman/Bruce Wayne (played by Ben Affleck), Superman/Clark Kent (played by Henry Cavill), Wonder Woman/Diana Prince (played by Gal Gadot), Cyborg/Victor Stone (played by Ray Fisher), The Flash/Barry Allen (played by Ezra Miller) and Aquaman/Arthur Curry (played by Jason Momoa)—all seen together in a live-action movie for the first time in “Justice League.” The villain is Steppenwolf (voiced by Ciarán Hinds), but “Zack Snyder’s Justice League” features the first movie appearances of two arch villains that have more power and authority than Steppenwolf: DeSaad (voiced by Peter Guinness) and the supreme villain Darkseid (voiced by Ray Porter).

“Zack Snyder’s Justice League” is divided into chapters with these titles:

  • Part 1 – “Don’t Count On It, Batman”
  • Part 2 – “Age of Heroes”
  • Part 3 – “Beloved Mother, Beloved Son”
  • Part 4 – “Change Machine”
  • Part 5 – “All the King’s Horses”
  • Part 6 – “Something Darker”
  • Epilogue

In “Zack Snyder’s Justice League,” Steppenwolf is more of a sniveling lackey than he was in “Justice League,” because there are multiple scenes of him acting subservient to DeSaad. Steppenwolf is still aggressive against his foes, while DeSaad is sinister and imperious, and Darkseid is fearsome and unforgiving. In a new scene between DeSaad and Steppenwolf, DeSaad scolds Steppenwolf for betraying the Great One and Steppenwolf’s own family. Steppenwolf replies with regret, “I saw my mistake!”

When Bruce goes to Iceland to recruit Arthur, their confrontation is a little more violent and Bruce flashes a wad of cash to entice Arthur to join Justice League. This scene is extended to show some Icelandic women singing on the seashore after Arthur declines Bruce’s offer, Arthur takes off his sweater, and swims away. One of the women picks up Arthur’s sweater and smells it, not in a salacious way, but as a way to give her comfort.

Back in Metropolis, there’s previously unseen footage of Daily Planet newspaper reporter Lois Lane (played by Amy Adams) getting coffee for a local cop. It becomes clear that this was a routine for her, since she’s seen doing this again in the scene where she finds out that Superman has come back to life. It gives some depth to Lois trying to have a normal routine after the death of her fiancé Clark Kent/Superman. It’s mentioned in the movie that Lois took a leave of absence from the Daily Planet after Clark died.

And there’s an extended scene of Wonder Woman fighting off terrorists in a government building. “Zack Snyder’s Justice League” has less shots of Wonder Woman fighting in slow motion and more shots of her speeded up while she’s fighting. And in the terrorist scene, “Zack Snyder’s Justice League” puts more more emphasis on Wonder Woman saving a group of visiting schoolkids (who are about 10 or 11 years old) and their teachers, who are taken hostage during this fight.

After Wonder Woman defeats the terrorists, she says to a frightened girl: “Are you okay, princess?” The girl replies, “Can I be you someday?” Wonder Woman answers, “You can be anything you want to be.”

Victor Stone/Cyborg gets the most backstory in “Zack Snyder’s Justice League.” Viewers will see the car accident that led to his scientist father Silas Stone (played by Joe Morton) deciding to save Victor’s life by using the Mother Box on Earth to turn Victor into Cyborg. The love/hate relationship that Victor has with his father is given more emotional gravitas in “Zack Snyder’s Justice League.” Viewers see in the movie that even before the car accident, there was tension between Silas and Victor because of Silas’ workaholic ways. There are also never-before-seen scenes with Victor’s mother Dr. Elinore Stone (played by Karen Bryson), who died in the car crash.

And speaking of car crashes, there’s an added scene of Barry Allen /The Flash applying for a job as a dog walker at a pet store called Central Bark. Before he walks into the store, he locks eyes with passerby Iris West (played by Kiersey Clemons), in the way that people do when they have mutual attraction to each other. Iris gets into her car to drive off, but a truck driver (who was distracted by reaching for a hamburger he dropped on the floor of the vehicle) slams into Iris’ car, and Barry rescues her.

During this rescue, Barry grabs a hot dog wiener from a food vendor cart that was smashed in the accident and gets back to the pet store in time to feed the wiener to the dogs. Barry then quips to the store manager, “Do I start on Monday?” It’s an example of the touches of humor that the movie has, to show it isn’t completely dark and gloomy. By the way, this car accident/rescue scene is the only appearance of Iris in the movie.

“Justice League” got a lot of criticism for the movie’s corny dialogue that many viewers thought cheapened what should have been a more serious tone to the movie. And even the parts of “Justice League” that were supposed to be comedic were slammed by fans and critics for not being very funny. “Zack Snyder’s Justice League” removes a few of the most cringeworthy lines that “Justice League” had.

For example, in the “Justice League” scene where Barry/The Flash and Victor/Cyborg are digging up Superman’s grave, Barry makes an awkward attempt to bond with Victor by extending his hand in a fist bump toward Victor, but Victor doesn’t return the gesture. Barry then makes a remark that the timing might be off and the fist bump might be too racially charged for the moment. These lines are completely cut from “Zack Snyder’s Justice League,” but the movie still has The Flash/Cyborg fist bump after the group showdown battle with Steppenwolf.

The gravedigging scene in “Zack Snyder’s Justice League” is changed to Barry saying to Victor: “Wonder Woman: Do you think she’d go for a younger guy?” Victor replies, “She’s 5,000 years old, Barry. Every guy is a younger guy.”

Another removal from “Justice League” are some words that Lois utters when she and a resurrected Superman are reunited, and he takes her to a corn field on the Kent family farm. In the original “Justice League” Lois tells him, “You smell good.” And he replies, “Did I not before?” In “Zack Snyder’s Justice League,” Lois’ line is changed to “You spoke.” And Superman gives the same reply, “Did I not before?”

But make no mistake: Even though “Zack Snyder’s Justice League” has some dialogue that’s intended to be funny, the movie definitely has a heavier and edgier tone than “Justice League.” Aquaman still does some joyous whooping and hollering during the fight scenes with Steppenwolf, but it’s toned down in “Zack Snyder’s Justice League” so he doesn’t sound so much like a happy guy at a frat party. And these superheroes say occasional curse words that wouldn’t make the cut in a movie that’s intended for people all ages.

Even the music that plays during the end credits reflects this more somber and more reflective tone. In “Justice League,” the music playing over the end credits was Gary Clark Jr.’s bluesy-rock, upbeat version of The Beatles’ “Come Together.” In “Zack Snyder’s Justice League,” the music that plays over the end credits is Allison Crowe’s raw and soulful version of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” which is a song that’s often played at funerals in tribute to someone.

In “Zack Snyder’s Justice League,” there’s a lot more screen time devoted to showing the aftermath of death and how the loved ones left behind are grieving, including extended scenes of how Superman’s adoptive mother Martha Kent (played by Diane Lane) and Lois are dealing with Clark/Superman’s death. Arthur/Aquaman keeps going back to the deep ocean to spend time with the preserved body of his father. Victor visits the gravesite of his mother. And then later, Victor goes to the gravesites of his mother and his father, who was killed when a STAR Labs building exploded. Wonder Woman and Aquaman discuss a past war between the Amazons and the Atlanteans and how there are still lingering repercussions of that destruction.

“Zack Snyder’s Justice League” also delivers more details on what happened in the STAR Labs building during the part of the movie where Superman was resurrected and Steppenwolf stole the Mother Box that was hidden by humans on Earth. This new scene gives more context and shows that Steppenwolf did not get the Mother Box so easily. Victor made a decision that cost him his life, while certain members of Justice League were inside the building soon after the Mother Box was taken.

There are also extended scenes with Mera (played by Amber Heard), Nuidis Vulko (played by Willem Dafoe), Alfred Pennyworth (played by Jeremy Irons) and Deathstroke (played by Joe Manganiello). And the epic battle with Steppenwolf toward the end is truly a spectacle to behold. Viewers will see DeSaad’s and Darkseid’s reactions to this fight. The movie’s epilogue includes a conversation between Bruce and Martian Manhunter that strongly indicates that fans should look for Martian Manhunter to play a major role in another DCEU movie. Simply put: “Zack Snyder’s Justice League” is mostly a triumph and can easily be considered one the the best DCEU movies of all time.

HBO Max will premiere “Zack Snyder’s Justice League” on March 18, 2021.

Review: ‘The Way Back’ (2020), starring Ben Affleck

March 6, 2020

by Carla Hay

Ben Affleck (pictured in front, at far right) in “The Way Back” (Photo by Richard Foreman)

“The Way Back” (2020)

Directed by Gavin O’Connor

Culture Representation: Taking place in the beach city of San Pedro, California, the drama “The Way Back” has a racially diverse (white, Latino, African American) cast of characters representing the middle class.

Culture Clash: An alcoholic man, who was a star basketball player in high school, returns to his alma mater as a basketball coach while battling his addiction.

Culture Audience: “The Way Back” will appeal mostly to people who want to see stories about addiction or basketball (and there might be some curiosity over how the story compares to star Ben Affleck’s real-life personal problems), but the movie doesn’t show anything that hasn’t been done before in TV movies of the week.

Janina Gavankar and Ben Affleck in “The Way Back” (Photo by Richard Foreman)

Not to be confused with director Peter Weir’s Soviet gulag-escape drama “The Way Back” (which was released in 2010), the 2020 release of “The Way Back” (directed by Gavin O’Connor) is a drama about an entirely different struggle: alcoholism and coping with the death of a child. Ben Affleck plays Jack Cunningham, a lonely middle-aged guy who’s living a dead-end, self-destructive existence in San Pedro, California. In the beginning of the story, he has a job as a day laborer in construction. When he’s not on the job, he gets drunk at local bars before he heads home, where he lives by himself. Jack is obviously in a lot of emotional pain, but the story unfolds in layers over why he’s in turmoil and why he’s become an alcoholic.

On one of the many days that he’s woken up with a hangover, Jack unexpectedly gets a call to meet with Father Edward Devine (played by John Aylward), the head of Bishop Hayes High School, a Catholic school that is Jack’s alma mater. Father Edward asks Jack if he would like to be the head coach of the school’s basketball team. He’s up front in telling Jack that the team loses almost all of its games, but they could really use guidance from Jack, who was a star basketball player at the school from 1993 to 1995. It’s also the last period of time when the Bishop Hayes basketball team made it to the national finals.

Jack’s immediate reaction is to say no, but Father Edwards pleads with Jack to think it over and call him the next day with his decision. Before he makes that call, Jack spends some time rehearsing the words he’ll say to decline the offer. The next thing you know, Jack is being introduced to the team as the new head coach.

The assistant coach is Dan Espinosa (played by Al Madrigal), an algebra teacher at the school. Dan graduated from Bishop Hayes High School a few years after Jack did. When Dan was a basket player in high school, he idolized Jack. Dan wasn’t a very good player back then (he mostly stayed on the bench), so he knows his limitations and is excited about working with Jack.

“The Way Back” has two very different trailers. The first trailer, which is the more accurate one, shows how much of a screw-up alcoholic Jack is and how he happens to coach a basketball team. The second trailer takes more of a “feel good” sports angle by playing up the basketball aspects of the movie. There are some thrilling basketball scenes in the film, but the movie is really about Jack’s turbulent journey as an alcoholic.

During the course of the movie, viewers find out that Jack has been separated from his wife Angela (whom he calls “Ange”) for more than a year. Jack has been an alcoholic for several years, but his marriage reached a breaking point after the 2017 death of their only child, an 8-year-old son named Michael. (How he died is revealed in the movie, and it’s an emotional trigger when something similar happens to someone on Angela’s side of the family.)

Jack’s main emotional support system comes from his younger sister Beth (played by Michaela Watkins) and her family, which consists of her husband and pre-teen son and daughter. Jack’s mother has recently moved in with Beth and her family. Over a Thanksgiving dinner that turns argumentative, long-simmering resentments come to the surface. Jack is somewhat jealous that Beth is doing better in life than he is, and it adds to his feelings of self-loathing. Beth shows concern over Jack’s obvious drinking problem, but he thinks she’s overreacting and being a nag. He’s also annoyed because Angela has recently called Beth, not Jack, to check up on Jack to see how he’s doing.

Eventually, Angela (played by Janina Gavankar) meets with Jack in person to tell him news that he wasn’t expecting to hear: She has a new man in her life (his name is Nick), and her separation from Jack is probably going to lead to divorce. Jack is upset, but he channels his frustrations into his new job as a basketball coach.

As the team’s new coach, Jack is abrasive and prone to cursing a lot. He gets reprimanded multiple times for his foul-mouthed, short-tempered behavior by the team’s chaplin, Father Mark Whelan (played by Jeremy Radin), who’s there for spiritual guidance and to make sure that the team and the coaches follow the school’s moral code of conduct.

There are many expected scenes in the movie of Jack doing the “shouting coach” thing. There are also some basketball scenes using borderline hokey freeze-frames and slow-motion shots that give this film a “TV movie of the week” tone. It’s during the quieter moments, when Jack is alone and facing his demons, that the movie has more emotional resonance.

Under Jack’s leadership, the team predictably starts to win games (as seen in the movie’s trailers), but this isn’t a basketball movie drama like “Hoosiers,” “Blue Chips” or “Glory Road” (all featuring “tough love” coaches), where the biggest thing at stake is a basketball championship. In “The Way Back,” the biggest thing at stake is Jack’s physical and emotional health. As such, the basketball players’ individual personalities aren’t given as much screen time as you might think they would get.

There are some standout players on the team. Brandon Durrett (played by Brandon Wilson), a withdrawn loner, is the most talented player and Jack’s favorite. As the team starts to win more games, Brandon comes out of his shell and gains confidence. He starts to think that he might have a shot at a college scholarship and possibly the big leagues of the National Basketball Association.

However, Brandon’s father Russ (played by T.K. Carter) never goes to see his son play and isn’t very supportive of Brandon’s basketball dreams. When Jack goes to visit Russ at his shrimp fishery job to encourage him to support Brandon, Russ brushes Jack off and tells Jack that basketball is a long-shot, short-lived career that will only disappoint Brandon. He wants to see his son succeed in a job where he won’t be considered “washed-up” by the time he’s in his 40s.

Other players on the team whose personalities are distinct are Marcus Parrish (played by Melvin Gregg), the team’s cocky showoff; sharpshooter Kenny Dawes (played by Will Ropp), who’s a ladies’ man; Chubbs Hendricks (played by Charles Lott Jr.), an overweight guy who’s predictably the team jokester; Sam Garcia (played by Fernando Luis Vega), the guy most likely to give pep talks to the other players; and Bobby Freeze (played by Ben Irving), who’s a solid team player.

In doing publicity for “The Way Back,” Affleck has given candid interviews about the parallels between him and the Jack Cunningham character. Over the past several years, Affleck has been open about his addiction issues (alcoholism and gambling), which were among the reasons for his messy divorce from actress Jennifer Garner, the mother of their three kids. During filming of “The Way Back,” Affleck publicly had a relapse in his alcoholism. And “The Way Back” director O’Connor says that Affleck had a breakdown during a scene in the movie where Jack meets with Angela and confronts his issues. The scene got so emotionally raw, says O’Connor, that he had to cut most of it out of the film.

Although that scene between Jack and Angela is emotional, it’s a lot more muted than what it could be. It didn’t have to be melodramatic, but it’s not a moment where people in the audience will gasp or get so emotionally moved that they’ll start crying—a reaction that happened a lot in the big confrontation scene between the estranged spouses in the 2019 film “Marriage Story,” writer/director Noah Baumbach’s award-winning divorce drama.

Affleck does a very good job in the role, but the movie’s weakest link is that it’s a predictable script (written by Brad Ingelsby) that handles the subject matter in a way that’s been done so many times before in movies and TV shows. That predictability is one of the reasons why it might be difficult to convince people to pay full price to see this movie in a theater. People might be more inclined to wait until “The Way Back” can be seen on a small screen. However, “The Way Back” isn’t a bad way to spend a couple of hours watching a serviceable drama. It’s just not the most essential film about basketball coaches or alcoholism.

Warner Bros. Pictures released “The Way Back” in U.S. cinemas on March 6, 2020.

UPDATE: Because of the widespread coronavirus-related closures of movie theaters worldwide, Warner Bros. Home Entertainment has moved up the digital and VOD release of “The Way Back” to March 24, 2020.