Long before we see Superman rise from the grave, the resurrection metaphors practically already exist in Zack Snyder’s Justice League. When referring to “Zack Snyder’s Justice League,” I, of course, don’t mean the director-disowned mess that was released under his name coming on four years ago, but instead the new director-approved epic that’s still sort of a mess. Clocking in at a whopping four hours long, this maximalist undertaking is a bid for cinematic redemption in an industry that rarely grants second chances. Or second comings, if you base it off the near-messianic passion and anticipation for such “Snyder Cut.”
Such personal ambition isn’t so common in Hollywood’s superhero-industrial complex: Take a look at the Marvel Cinematic Universe, a smooth-running assembly line in which every last joke, twist and explosion feel pre-chewed for easy digestion. Its DC Comics rivals, on the other hand, have varied in tones and quality: Snyder’s entries, in particular (Man of Steel and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice), are quite the opposite from the Marvel model; being light on wit and heavy on a more interesting visual aesthetic and a general gloominess. The disappointing critical and commercial reception to Batman v Superman was enough to make Warner Bros. think twice about keeping Snyder as the chief architect of the franchise. So during the 2017 production of Justice League, the studio turned the film over to Joss Whedon, a practiced crowd-pleaser who had already delivered two successful Avengers movies; Snyder, who had been hit hard by personal tragedy, stepped away from the picture.
When the heavily reshot, two-hour Justice League was released later that year — with Snyder billed as director and Whedon receiving a writing credit alongside original screenwriter Chris Terrio — Snyder loyalists rejected it and others weren’t much more enthused. In the time that followed, #ReleaseTheSnyderCut emerged as the ultimate fan rallying cry. In hindsight, it all looks like the epitome of Hollywood mismanagement — a doomed clash of blockbuster auteurism, studio meddling and an impassioned, at times abusive fan base that has long hailed Snyder as some kind of cinematic visionary. And there’s some truth to that last statement: Snyder is undoubtedly a pulp enthusiast, a meticulous stylist and a skilled orchestrator of violence. Yet that doesn’t fully save this epic.
When looking back at both versions, they each represent utterly antithetical approaches to a project. And when forced to choose between the two, the Snyder cut is very much the one I prefer when compared to the pop-cultural trash heap that Whedon delivered. Now unfolding over six chapters and double the runtime, Snyder’s Justice League does find some fleeting pleasures and unlikely sources of fascination. Most of the broad plot points and personalities remain the same, but the immediate differences in tone, duration and rhythm are felt. (And visuals, too: Every shot, gleamingly photographed by Fabian Wagner, is framed not in widescreen but in the boxy 4:3 aspect ratio.)
We begin with Superman’s (Henry Cavill) death, as the world mourns in unison with Clark Kent’s dying scream. That scream travels the globe, setting off troubling reverberations within the three Mother Boxes — ancient, indestructible holders of power tucked away in scattered hiding places. As various crooning female voices flood the score, the camera whooshes through the Themysciran temples of the Amazons, valiant sisters of the righteous Diana Prince/Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot). It travels to Iceland and descends into the underwater enclaves of Atlantis, from which the trident-wielding Arthur Curry/Aquaman (Jason Momoa) has partially descended. It lingers with unusual intensity on a wandering Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck), bent on forming a powerful team of fighters to fill the void left by Superman’s demise and combat the various supervillains ready to take advantage of it. Though it doesn’t exactly make Batman the DC Comics equivalent of Nick Fury, this film still nonetheless intriguingly casts him as more ringmaster than main attraction. Affleck doesn’t have Christian Bale’s loftiness, but he’s good at playing golden boys past their prime and it’s amusing to watch this world-weary Bruce Wayne cede the spotlight to his more innately gifted comrades. Each of whom prove worthy of the attention: Gadot has her moments as Wonder Woman; Momoa’s ocean-washed mane is a blockbuster treasure; Ezra Miller as Barry Allen/the Flash is a lightning-limbed goofball; and Ray Fisher as Victor Stone/Cyborg, a brooding man-and-machine mashup who carries a tragic backstory.
Such a backstory is unpacked at a much greater length here, and with some successes. It’s nice to peer deeper into Cyborg’s metallic soul and also to spend a little more time with the Flash — and given his gift for slowing the clock, a little goes a long way. One strong sequence finds Barry rescuing a beautiful stranger (Kiersey Clemons) from a car crash: A split-second crawls by and a potential tragedy is reverse-engineered into a meet-cute. You may want to see what’s in store for Barry and his damsel in vehicle distress, and also what might come of those occasional, tentative sparks between Bruce and Diana. But even a four-hour Justice League has little time for romance. What it does have time for can feel less vital: earnest exposition, corny lines of dialogue and comic asides that are actually sweeter than Whedon’s more glib one-liners. The movie has much more time for Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds), the latest intergalactic destroyer of worlds to make the mistake of invading Earth. Though the weak-limbed character is enlivened by Hinds’ performance, you still are dragged through his bland family tree quite often, especially his barely seen power-mad nephew Darkseid (Ray Porter).
“We have families!” an endangered bystander shouts, to which Steppenwolf snarls, “Then you have weakness” — a revealing line in a movie structured around multiple layers of ancestral guilt and parent-child conflict. Both Cyborg and the Flash have daddy issues to sort out. Wonder Woman and Aquaman have tricky relationships with their mythic ancestors. Batman’s parents… well, you know. Amongst all the intergenerational angst, Martha Kent (Diane Lane) still shines as a symbol of heroic motherhood: When she and a resurgent Superman share an overdue hug, we’re reminded of the power of adoptive families and cross-species alliances. In a way, the Justice League itself, a crew whose represented factions haven’t always gotten along, is meant to be a reiteration of the principle. It’s a fine idea on paper, put to test by the charismatic participants and a filmmaker who’s clearly trying to do them, well, justice. He wants you to love these characters, individually and in tandem, as intensely as he does (plus a slew of briefly seen supporting players, among them Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor, Willem Dafoe’s Vulko and J.K. Simmons’ Commissioner Gordon). But as this Justice League may be a more fulfilled, more stylish film than its butchered predecessor, I’m still rather reluctant to call it a richer or much deeper one. Snyder wants to find some of the biblical-awe within the genre, and he at times taps into it. But his film doesn’t feel like a vital resurrection of the tortured, originally released version; it’s more of a ponderous guided tour through a museum’s worth of familiar superhero-movie tropes and conventions. Its enhanced runtime may bring some cohesive peaks, but Zack Snyder’s Justice League still has plenty of valleys as a maximalist epic of broad strokes and bloated narrative distractions.
Zack Snyder’s Justice League is available to stream on HBO Max