Zack Snyder’s Justice League

4K ULTRA HD BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Warner;
Action;
$28.98 DVD, $35.99 Blu-ray, $44.95 UHD BD;
Rated ‘R’ for violence and some language.

Stars Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Gal Gadot, Ezra Miller, Jason Momoa, Ray Fisher, Jeremy Irons, Amy Adams, J.K. Simmons, Amber Heard, Connie Nielsen, Diane Lane, Harry Lennix, Billy Crudup, Willem Dafoe, Joe Morton, Kiersey Clemons, Jared Leto, Jesse Eisenberg, Joe Manganiello, Peter Guinness, Ray Porter, Ciaran Hinds.

The 2017 theatrical version of Justice League foisted upon audiences was undoubtedly a compromised film, the result of a now infamous clash between creative vision and studio sensibilities.

Warner Bros., having been lapped in the superhero shared universe race several times over by rival Marvel, was looking to catch up quickly with its own DC Comics-based franchise. But the studio lost faith in director Zack Snyder, whose efforts in building the universe from the ground up — 2013’s Man of Steel and 2016’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice — were met with mixed reaction at best. The studio brought in Avengers director Joss Whedon to help “guide” Snyder in completing the third installment of his trilogy, Justice League, which would see Batman and Wonder Woman recruit additional superheroes to help fight an alien invasion.

Snyder, wary of the studio’s attempts to rein him in, ultimately left the film following the death of his daughter — to whom the new longer cut is dedicated.

Whedon, under a mandate to deliver a taut, two-hour action film, re-wrote Chris Terrio’s screenplay and oversaw extensive reshoots that it is clear now were intended to bridge story points between the action scenes that Snyder had shot. Whedon, known for infusing his projects with witty banter and offbeat humor, also added levity to Justice League to the point where it was much lighter in tone compared with the world established in Snyder’s earlier films. Whedon’s version ultimately did the job of telling the story it needed to, but didn’t satisfy many viewers who had bigger expectations based on what had come before.

And thus, the “Release the Snyder Cut” movement was born, fueled by rumors that the studio was sitting on a longer version of the film turned in by Snyder before he left. While Snyder had created a rough cut of the film before most of the visual effects were completed, the so-called “Snyder Cut” of Justice League was hardly in a state to be seen by the public, and thus its release was little more than a pipe dream without a studio willing to dedicate the resources to finish an alternate cut of a film it had already wrote off.

Then came the deep pockets of HBO Max, the new streaming service from Warner’s parent company, which had not only the deep pockets to finish the Snyder Cut, but also the desire to cash in on the hype surrounding it. The cost to complete Snyder’s version was reportedly north of $70 million (the 2017 theatrical release earned $657.9 million globally against a budget that ballooned to $300 million).

The obvious parallel here is with the Richard Donner cut of Superman II, but the Snyder Cut make that project seem like a lark.

Snyder’s four-hour director’s cut of Justice League plays like a completely different film, treating the story like the epic the theatrical version showed little interest in being.

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Now, admittedly, it’s unlikely that this version of the film, absent studio meddling, would have seen the inside of theaters back in the day either. For starters, a four-hour superhero movie based on Snyder’s take on the characters would have been a big ask of the audience, and he surely would have trimmed it to something in the range of two-and-a-half to three hours, just like he did with BvS (with the longer, better cut available on home video). Certainly, there are several scenes in Snyder’s Justice League that will give it a reputation for indulgence but could easily be cut for a theatrical release, but play better in a streaming format where binging serialized TV shows for six, seven, eight hours at a time (with breaks here and there) is commonplace.

Indeed, the original plan for Snyder’s Justice League was to present it as several episodes, like a TV show, but vagaries in Hollywood contract law supposedly led to the decision to deliver it as a single movie, albeit segmented into six succinctly labeled chapters and an epilogue.

Regardless, the film flows just fine even at four hours, and there is no confusion about what is happening or why the characters are motivated to do what they do. Snyder’s vision is to present the superheroes of today as the modern extension of the legends of old, drawing a direct line between classic mythology and their comic book counterparts.

The big beneficiary of all this is Ray Fisher’s Cyborg, who is given a fully fleshed out backstory that is barely touched upon in the theatrical cut, as well as a full character arc as he learns to accept and understand his powers.

Of course, if Warner had been patient enough to follow Marvel’s formula, Cyborg likely would have gotten his own origin movie before this, negating the need to devote so much screen time to it here. But that’s neither here nor there at this point.

The Snyder Cut is revelatory when compared with the Whedon Cut, which replaced a number of scenes with reshot versions that were similar but not as good, probably to add more of that Whedonesque humor. Fantastic scenes of endearing character interactions that would have added depth and meaning were removed entirely. Instead, Whedon added scenes showing a family imperiled by Steppenwolf’s plan who had to be saved by the League in the final battle. There’s no distracting family in the Snyder Cut, which instead takes the opportunity to foreshadow storylines that were intended for future sequels.

Another change Snyder made was reverting to the musical score by Tom Holkenborg, who continues the musical style established in Snyder’s previous entries. Whedon had replaced it with a more conventional but still serviceable score by Danny Elfman, who reused a number of more iconic themes for the characters from earlier franchises that played on audience nostalgia for the characters as a way to shortcut any development of them as specific to the Snyderverse.

Also, since he’s using his original footage and ignoring the reshoots, Snyder didn’t have to use digital effects to remove the mustache Henry Cavill couldn’t shave off while filming Mission: Impossible — Fallout, famously leading to his awkward-looking mouth in the 2017 version.

Another advantage Snyder’s cut has is that we’ve gotten to explore the DC universe a bit more since 2017, most notably with the 2018 Aquaman movie that really fleshed out Jason Momoa’s character and backstory, and gels nicely with his development here.

Snyder also took the opportunity to fix his presentation of the films’ villains. The CGI for the primary antagonist, Steppenwolf, has been reworked to be much more menacing and looks a lot better. Snyder also gives the audience a chance to see Darkseid, the legendary DC comics warlord who serves as Steppenwolf’s master and was reduced to just one mention of his name in Whedon’s cut.

Steppenwolf’s plan, as in the theatrical cut, is to collect the three “Mother Boxes” on Earth that when united will allow him to re-create Darkseid’s homeworld of Apokolips on Earth. The Mother Boxes were left behind when Darkseid’s first invasion of Earth was repelled thousands of years earlier, and thought lost until Superman’s death at the end of BvS caused them to reactivate, drawing Steppenwolf to them.

We also get an expansion of the nightmare future hinted at in BvS, in which Batman leads a rebellion against a Superman who has become a tyrant ruling over the wasteland Earth has become as a result of Darkseid’s invasion. This particularly impacts the scene of Superman’s resurrection, which plays very differently now that we have the expanded context behind it. Rather than Superman’s revival serving as another plot device in the battle against Steppenwolf, here it is re-framed as a complex ethical question about whether bringing Superman back to life in order to win the battle of today will ultimately lead to the very dystopia his resurrection is meant to prevent — and whether Batman’s desire to atone for his guilt over Superman’s death in BvS is blinding him to this potential outcome.

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Snyder presents his version in the 4:3 format most viewers will associate with the standard square ratio of classic non-widescreen TVs. That means vertical black bars to the right and left of the movie. While this might look odd to viewers accustomed to widescreen, Snyder’s framing actually presents more of the image as originally filmed. The square frame was chosen with Imax exhibitions in mind, since true Imax screens are higher than a typical theater. A standard “widescreen” print of the film is then made by cropping from the top and bottom of the picture. By eschewing this process, Snyder is instead offering us everything in the frame he shot.

Time will tell if we get any follow-ups to plot points developed in Snyder’s Cut that otherwise fell by the wayside in Warner’s DC universe. But even if we don’t the complete Snyder Cut on its own is a triumph of a filmmaker’s singular vision, and the story surrounding it a fascinating glimpse into the process of the Hollywood machine and the often-conflicting instincts of those in charge of it.

The 4K Ultra HD and Blu-ray Disc versions offer the film spread over two discs. The first disc of both the 4K and regular Blu-ray versions contains the set’s lone extra: a 24-minute featurette of Snyder reflecting on his experience making his trilogy of superhero movies, and the fan effort to bring it to fruition with his vision of Justice League.

Also, the discs do not include a code for a digital copy of the film, so the digital version remains exclusive to HBO Max. The disc does include an insert with an ad touting HBO Max and the black-and-white version of the movie, Zack Snyder’s Justice League: Justice Is Gray.

Originally published as a streaming review March 18, 2021.

Netflix to Resume Production on ‘The Witcher’ Aug. 17

Netflix June 22 disclosed it would resume production on popular original series, “The Witcher,” in the U.K. on Aug. 17. The show, like myriad others globally, had been on shutdown due to the coronavirus pandemic. Indeed, one of series’ actors, Kristofer Hivju, tested positive for COVID-19. Henry Cavill (Superman), who headlines the fantasy drama, did not test positive.

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“I’m dusting off my lute and quill, I have some news, some mead to spill: After all the months we’ve been apart, it’s time for production to restart. The Witcher and his bard — who’s flawless, will reunite on set 17 August,” Netflix posted on the show’s Twitter feed.

The second season of the series films at Arborfield Studios outside London.

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Mission: Impossible — Fallout

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Street Date 12/4/18;
Paramount;
Action;
Box Office $220.16 million;
$29.99 DVD, $39.99 Blu-ray, $37.99 UHD BD;
Rated ‘PG-13’ for violence and intense sequences of action, and for brief strong language.
Stars Tom Cruise, Simon Pegg, Ving Rhames, Rebecca Ferguson, Henry Cavill, Sean Harris, Vanessa Kirby, Angela Bassett, Michelle Monaghan, Wes Bentley, Alec Baldwin. 

The latest entry in the “Mission: Impossible” franchise brings together elements from all the movies to craft a top-notch, high-energy action adventure that could go down as a benchmark in the genre.

Central to the film’s success is star Tom Cruise, who took on many of the most dangerous stunt sequences himself. This emphasis on practical stunts lends a verisimilitude other contemporary action movies would be hard-pressed to match, as they so often resort to frenetic editing to mask underwhelming stuntwork or visual effects.

What’s even more remarkable about this is that Cruise is now 56 years old. By comparison, Roger Moore was 58 by the time he walked away from James Bond, when critics were saying he seemed way too old for the part. Even more astonishing, as has been pointed out online, perpetual old guy Wilford Brimley was five years younger in the quintessential senior citizen movie Cocoon than Cruise was in this movie. And yet Cruise shows no signs of slowing down (though a broken ankle during one of his stunts does raise the question of how far is too far).

In Mission: Impossible — Fallout, the sixth film in the franchise based on the classic TV series, Cruise personally executes a lengthy skydiving sequence, pilots a helicopter through a narrow mountain pass and races a motorcycle without a helmet through the streets of Paris. Not to mention his signature running scenes that have become a staple of the franchise. All this comes, of course, after he learned to hold his breath for five minutes for the previous movie.

In Fallout, Cruise’s Ethan Hunt has to track down stolen plutonium that got into the hands of terrorists because his personal attachment to members of his team led him to save them instead, compromising the safety of the world (and highlighting a big reason why James Bond usually works alone).

Hunt’s IMF squad is then saddled with a CIA observer (Henry Cavill) as they attempt to recover the plutonium again, which now involves a group that wants to free Solomon Lane (Sean Harris), the bad guy from the previous film who ran a covert network of rogue secret agents looking to undermine world governments.

Another subplot deals with Ethan’s relationship with Julia (Michelle Monaghan) from Mission: Impossible III, and how they had to part ways so he could continue to save the world without putting her at risk. (Cleaning up this storyline was one of Cruise’s main goals for the film, he says in the supplements).

What’s clear from the bonus materials is that, aside from the flexibility Cruise doing his own stunts being a huge advantage for the film’s editors, director Christopher McQuarrie and the writers were still making up the story as they were filming (which isn’t unlike Ethan’s methodology for completing the mission).

McQuarrie is the first person to direct a second “Mission: Impossible” movie, and even though this film is very much a direct sequel to his Rogue Nation, he insisted on bringing in a new production team to give the film a different style than his previous work, and the results speak for themselves. McQuarrie’s action is kinetic and thrilling while maintaining a clear sense of space and geography so the audience can easily track where the characters are and what is going on.

A number of the action sequences were shot using Imax cameras, and the Blu-ray aspect ratio adjusts to fill the full screen during these scenes.

The Blu-ray comes loaded with bonus materials, including three audio commentaries — a rarity in a day and age when most new home videos are reluctant to include even one.

McQuarrie is involved in two of the commentaries — sharing one with Cruise and another with editor Eddie Hamilton. The McQuarrie/Cruise pairing, amusingly dubbed “Tom Cruise University” at one point, is more an exercise in self-praise and an affirmation of how much fun they were having crafting the film. The track with Hamilton gets more into the filmmaking process in general.

The third commentary involves composer Lorne Balfe, who discusses his creative process and how he went about incorporating the iconic “Mission: Impossible” theme. Fittingly, there’s a score-only audio option to show off the terrific music.

The disc also includes an introduction of sorts in the form of a PSA-type video with Cruise and McQuarrie discussing motion-smooting settings on new TVs and telling viewers they should turn it off to avoid the movie looking like glossy videotape.

All the featurettes and behind-the-scenes material are on a bonus disc, with the main piece being “Behind the Fallout,” a grouping of seven featurettes that run a total of 53 minutes.

Balfe returns in a five-minute featurette to discuss mixing the music for the foot chase sequence. There’s also a three-minute featurette called “The Ultimate Mission” in which Cruise offers his own reflections on the franchise.

The bonus disc also includes the theatrical trailer and storyboards for several sequences, plus a four-minute montage of deleted scenes, offered with or without the director’s commentary.

The deleted scenes are alluded to frequently in the commentaries, but the montage is mostly just the visuals of the scenes set to music, with minimal sound effects and no dialogue. McQuarrie says he usually prefers not to show deleted scenes but decided to present them in a musical montage as a compromise because he really wanted audiences to see the hard work that went into them.

While a couple work fine without sound, it probably would have been more effective to just present the scenes as a disc typically would, rather than make a music video out of them.

Justice League

BLU-RAY REVIEW: 

Street 3/13/18;
Warner;
Action;
Box Office $229.01 million;
$28.98 DVD, $35.99 Blu-ray, $44.95 3D BD, $44.95 UHD BD;
Rated ‘PG-13’ for sequences of sci-fi violence and action.
Stars Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Gal Gadot, Ezra Miller, Jason Momoa, Ray Fisher, Jeremy Irons, Amy Adams, J.K. Simmons, Amber Heard, Connie Nielsen, Diane Lane, Billy Crudup, Ciaran Hinds.

As a movie, Justice League is a perfectly fine, entertaining superhero adventure, in which Batman (Ben Affleck) and Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) recruit a handful of superheroes to fight an alien invasion. Except, you just can’t shake the feeling that it could have been so much more.

This was supposed to be the DC Comics version of Marvel Studios’ The Avengers, with the greatest superheroes of all time finally coming together on the big screen. But with Marvel’s cinematic universe having such a head start (Black Panther is the 18th MCU film, while Justice League is just the fifth for DC), the DC films creative team took a few creative shortcuts to try to jump-start its mega franchise, mostly by foregoing introductory films for many of the characters and relying on the audience to have built-in knowledge of and nostalgia for who the characters are supposed to be.

In that regard, Justice League is primarily a sequel to 2016’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, which introduced Wonder Woman in advance of her own solo film, as well as most of the concepts meant to pay off in Justice League. But when audiences balked at BvS being too long and confusing, the studio allegedly mandated trimming Justice League to a manageable two hours, leaving little room for complex plot dynamics or character development.

So, where the Marvel films have become an intriguing network of interconnected stories and characters that invite and enable audience investment, the DC films have mostly been disposable popcorn entertainment, about as distinct a representation of the characters as any of the direct-to-video animated DC Universe movies, or the multitude of DC-based shows on the CW, which managed to pull off their own mega-crossover shortly after Justice League came out that many fans considered a much better example of how to present a satisfying superhero team-up.

The film itself was vastly overshadowed by rumors of production issues, as director Zack Snyder left the project following a family tragedy, and Avengers director Joss Whedon stepped in to guide re-shoots and post-production. That led to some fans trying to dissect the film to determine who directed what, with most guessing incorrectly. Then, irony of ironies, once the film came out, the fan base that decried Snyder’s vision as having muddled both Man of Steel and BvS suddenly demanded a mythical “Snyder Cut” of Justice League, as if he were suddenly their favorite filmmaker (a dichotomy somewhat echoed by the “Star Wars” fans who hated the unfamiliarity of The Last Jedi after criticizing The Force Awakens for being too familiar).

The Blu-ray offers no hint of whatever behind-the-scenes discord influenced what finally ended up on screen. For what it’s worth, Whedon is never mentioned in the bonus materials, and there’s plenty of footage of Snyder on set and praise from the cast for his direction.

Anyway, the film is fun, flashy and filled with action, though the abundance of CGI makes most of it look like it came from a video game. (I won’t even get into the controversy about Henry Cavill’s moustache grown for Mission: Impossible — Fallout having to be digitally removed because Paramount wouldn’t let him shave it for the JL reshoots.) And there are plenty of moments that comic book fans should enjoy, particularly when it comes to the homages to the classic versions of the characters.

Another highlight is the musical score from Danny Elfman, who mostly abandons the sound from the previous films in favor of something more akin to his traditional filmmusic sensibilities. In this case, that means straight-up re-using his own Batman theme from 1989 and John Williams’ classic Superman theme. Whether it serves the franchise will be open to debate, but it’s certainly helps fuel the nostalgia the film needs for the audience to embrace its version of the characters. (Though for some perspective, there were 21 years between the 1960s Batman show and the 1989 Tim Burton movie where Elfman debuted his theme, and then 25 years between Batman Returns and the theme’s return in Justice League; it’s no surprise some fans might have found it a bit jarring).

On top of all that, Justice League also serves as a decent set-up for the upcoming Aquaman (Jason Momoa) and Flash (Ezra Miller) movies, and with a little tweaking to the DC formula a team-up sequel with the same characters and some new additions wouldn’t be unwelcome.

With rumors the film was heavily edited from its original intentions, there has been a lot of speculation about what deleted scenes were out there. Notably, the Justice League home video versions do not include an extended cut of the film, as happened with previous DC entries BvS and Suicide Squad. Instead, the Blu-ray includes just two short deleted scenes, running a total of two minutes, tying into the “Return of Superman” subplot.

The rest of the extras consist of about an hour of behind-the-scenes material, segmented into shorter featurettes. Most interesting for fans of the lore will be the “Road to Justice” featurette that traces some of the history of the characters.