After four years, a prolonged internet social media campaign and allegations of severe studio mishandling, director Zack Snyder’s cut of “Justice League” has finally been unveiled — and yes, it’s an improvement on the version that came out in 2017.
The theatrical cut of “Justice League” was a cobbled-together movie that Snyder was unable to finish due to the suicide of his daughter Autumn. Already belabored with significant pressure from Warner Bros. — who badly wanted a superhero team-up crowdpleaser to rival Marvel’s “Avengers” movies and were aghast at the poor critical reception to Snyder’s previous effort, 2016’s “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice” — the director eventually left the project. Spiraling into disaster control mode, Warner Bros. brought “Avengers” director Joss Whedon on board to finish the film.
Whedon’s version featured a mix of old scenes and newly shot footage filled with zingy one-liners that seemed taken from the Marvel movies and out of place in the comparatively dour DC Comics cinematic universe. Punctuated by an antiquated soundtrack by Danny Elfman, Whedon’s “Justice League” defied Warner Bros.’ hopes, leaving most reviewers — including those at HuffPost — calling it middling at best.
In the years since, rumors that Whedon underutilized Snyder’s footage and undermined the director’s original intent sparked a #ReleaseTheSnyderCut fan campaign that, while admirable in its desire to see artistic integrity restored, also veered into the realm of dangerous fandom toxicity. Allegations that Whedon engaged in abusive behavior on set and greatly minimized the role of actor Ray Fisher, who plays the man-turned-machine Cyborg, amplified this call.
Finally, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, theaters were ground to a halt long enough for Warner Bros to shrug, say “Well, why not,” and allow Snyder to finish what he started for an HBO Max debut.
And now we have “Zack Snyder’s Justice League,” a weighty behemoth of a movie — with a runtime of a whopping 4 hours and 2 minutes — that shouldn’t exist but was nevertheless willed into existence.
Thanks to its gargantuan length, the story beats are more coherent than they were in the theatrical release. The focus is still on Batman (Ben Affleck) and Wonder Woman (Gal Godot) assembling a team that includes the likes of The Flash (Ezra Miller), Cyborg (Ray Fisher), Aquaman (Jason Momoa) and a resurrected Superman (Henry Cavill), but there are several additional scenes to flesh out the motivations of villain Steppenwolf, who’s after MacGuffins called Mother Boxes and wants to reshape the world to please his otherworldly master, Darkseid.
Steppenwolf and Darkseid are both complex comic characters created by legendary artist and writer Jack Kirby, but you wouldn’t know that from the theatrical version, which was completely devoid of Darkseid and made Steppenwolf seem like a villain designed by the dullest committee on Earth. In Snyder’s new cut, Steppenwolf not only sports a shinier, more animalistic design that my girlfriend described as “doo doo wrapped in tin foil,” but he’s portrayed as an intergalactic middle manager begging for the approval of his boss. In other words, he’s still relatively dull, but at least it’s a relatable sort of dull.
The other character with significantly increased screen time is Cyborg, who seemed to get about five minutes of characterization in the theatrical cut, yet here is presented as a cornerstone of the Justice League as he comes to terms with his ability to manipulate the world’s technology and data intelligence systems. (Ray Fisher, who has reportedly been sidelined for future DC Comics films, was right to complain about how his runtime in the theatrical release was severely decreased.)
The Flash also gets extended scenes which paint him nicely as the team’s exceedingly powerful yet down-to-earth goofball, while Aquaman, Wonder Woman and Batman receive more subdued bits here and there — including a pretentious back-and-forth between Ben Affleck and Jared Leto, who plays a Joker who no longer has the word “DAMAGED” tattooed to the top of his head, as in 2016’s “Suicide Squad,” but still manages to be one of the least subtle characters I’ve seen on film in recent memory.
And that’s the thing about Zack Snyder — he’s never been one for subtlety. This is, after all, the man who repeatedly hit audiences with the allegory that “Superman = Jesus” in his first DC Comics outing, “Man of Steel,” as well as in “Batman v. Superman,” a movie that hinged its pivotal plot hook on both Batman and Superman’s mothers having the same name.
Snyder’s cut of “Justice League,” from its runtime to an indulgent 4:3 aspect ratio, is fantastically unsubtle. The intro lingers far too long on Superman’s death from the previous film, the epilogue is pure fan service hinting at Snyder’s uninhibited plans for “Justice League” sequels that may or may not ever become reality, there are still too many wooden dialogue metaphors and instances of Snyder’s trademark slow motion, and if you’re watching it with closed captions, the words “Ancient Lamentation Music” appear on-screen every time Wonder Woman does something, to the point that it’s now a meme. Zack Snyder sure loves his grandiosity and pompousness, and he always expects audiences to take him 100% seriously.
Yet for some reason — possibly due to the fact that it’s easier to consume four hours of superhero pompousness on HBO Max than it would be in a theater — it’s possible to accept and even appreciate the overwhelming bluster of this film. Perhaps that’s also because amidst its excess, Snyder’s cut features a feeling of hope appropriate for a superhero team-up movie, which is surprising considering that this is from the same filmmaker who presented a pessimistic Superman in “Man of Steel” and has always been more fascinated with deconstructing comic book characters as gritty, flawed individuals.
With that in mind, it’s worth celebrating that a director received the rare opportunity to accomplish his original vision. While Snyder may never get the chance to film sequels, his cut of “Justice League” — the result of fan outcry, movie studio shenanigans and a worldwide pandemic — is probably his most potent work in a long time. Even if it does frequently drown in its own delusions of grandeur.