'Zack Snyder's Justice League' Gets Close to Realizing a Director's Grand Vision
It's not perfect, but it's an undeniable improvement and a fascinating cultural object.
The time has come. In a feat as improbable as a bunch of metahumans learning to put their egos and baggage aside and work together as a team, director Zack Snyder has completed his version of Justice League, the superhero team-up movie from Warner Brothers and DC that he exited in 2017, was finished by a different director, and was so bad it prompted an army of fans to buy up billboards and airplanes clamoring for the "original" version. The fabled "Snyder Cut" is real, after reshoots, restored cut scenes, and added material that flesh out the story into a four-hour version for HBO Max, presented in six chapters, that, honestly, really isn't bad. Where the chopped, screwed, and Frankensteined theatrical cut of the movie was an embarrassment, Zack Snyder's Justice League is an undeniable improvement that doubles as a fascinating cultural object.
The plot of Justice League is basically the same as its predecessor, until the very end remixes a few things and adds a few more: After the death of Superman (Henry Cavill), the hidden world-destroying Mother Boxes awaken one by one and Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds) arrives on Earth, prompting Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) and Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) to gather together all of Earth's metahumans to protect their planet. We're introduced to Aquaman (Jason Momoa), a half-human Atlantean uninterested in the undersea throne who has become a folk hero to sailors; Cyborg (Ray Fisher), once a promising high school football player and now a half-machine superbeing thanks to his scientist father; and the Flash (Ezra Miller), a motormouthed teen with the power of superspeed whose dad has been wrongly imprisoned for a crime he didn't commit.
The new version really is four hours long, and while that length may seem oppressive, oddly enough you don't really feel it (I did split it up into two two-hour parts, and the chapter titles provide natural breaks). There's always something going on that's varying degrees of interesting, whether it's an enormous, physics-defying battle scene or an intimate backstory-revealing interaction between two characters. The pacing, when you're not watching Amazons on horses playing hot potato with a Mother Box or superheroes fighting off winged Parademons, is almost leisurely, giving each character a lot of space to explore their various environments—and because of this, many of the roles that were cut from the theatrical version, including Willem Dafoe's Atlantean Vulko and Kiersey Clemons' Iris West, have been restored.
There is still a bits-and-pieces feel to this movie, a problem that I partially blame on the original fraught production of the movie that took place five years ago, frustrated by constant rewrites and plagued by Warner Bros. anxiety about Batman v. Superman's negative reception, and partially on the nature of this version, glued together as it is from various versions of itself. Many of the heroes' motivation feels forced, or like something you should just take as a given. Conversations are chopped up by other scenes in that disorienting way that makes you wonder how long this chat is actually taking. You're still left wishing for the movie—or series of movies—that could have been.
That said, the sheer length of this project works in its favor. Steppenwolf has more of a purpose, transformed from godlike being of destruction (boring) to former golden boy desperate to prove his worth to his master. Darkseid, this universe's Thanos-esque big bad, actually appears in this, instead of being merely namechecked, as does his enforcer DeSaad, and Steppenwolf's rattan easy chair-themed new look actually does look cooler, shooting out vicious spikes whenever he goes into battle mode.
There are moments of levity that belie Warner Bros.' worry that the movie wouldn't be funny enough for audiences who were more used to the playful attitude of the Avengers: Aquaman, the Flash, and Cyborg make a fun trio trading friendly jabs, and there's a sense that the latter two, closer in age than the other heroes, form a bond. There are huge action sequences in this that rival anything that has appeared in a superhero movie thus far in sheer scale—Snyder does really well with the kind of digital chaos that looks like brown soup in other films. There is also a completely new score by Tom Holkenborg (Danny Elfman did the one for the original cut) that electrifies a lot of the action in the same way that Holkenborg and Hans Zimmer's Wonder Woman theme did for the otherwise dreary Batman v. Superman. There's plenty to like!
Snyder is clearly a director who loves the appeal of Big Ideas (and there are scenes in this movie that hint at an even more complex version), but there is still some difficulty here in balancing those big ideas with the characters themselves, giving them enough airtime to believably make decisions that fit into the narrative. Working with hugely popular and universally well-known characters like this is both a boon and a burden: Are the superheroes doing this because they want to, or because they're superheroes in a superhero movie? You want Superman to come back because he's Superman, but do you want this Superman, with these versions of these characters? What assurance have they given us that they're worth it?
Even if you're not won over by Wonder Woman's newfound duty to her fellow man or Batman's gruff proclamations of justice, the Snyder Cut is hugely interesting to watch even as a comparison to the movie that came before: Now we're finally able to pick out, for the most part, which are the Snyder bits and which are the Joss Whedon bits. It was funny for me to watch this and realize that all of the pieces of the theatrical version of Justice League that I liked were Snyder's. Large swathes of it feel much more cohesive. Many of the characters have even been somewhat improved: Cyborg has an entire arc that we never saw in the theatrical version (after seeing this, I understand more why Ray Fisher is so upset), and the Flash is actually kind of fun, now that most of his forced spectrum-y dialogue has been removed.
And then, of course, there's the added real-world context to all of this—his daughter's 2017 suicide, and his subsequent suicide prevention charity efforts—that makes it difficult for me to be mean to Snyder or to this movie at all, given what we all know about his family. I, on a personal level, am happy for Zack Snyder, the person, that he got the chance to reclaim something that had been taken from him, and to do it for the reason he did. It's impossible not to read a little further into certain parts, to see things a certain way that may not even have been intended to be seen in that way, given this. There's an added gravitas, an emotional core to this movie that may not have been there otherwise. The film ends with a father giving a speech to the son he brought back to life, a few scenes after another moment when another character gets a "be a hero" speech from his dual fathers after his own resurrection. Again, I have no way of knowing how much of this was in the movie's original draft before production had even begun, and how much of it was put in more recently, and it's probably irresponsible to read too far in. But what happened in between is simply not something that can be ignored. Snyder dedicated this movie to his late daughter Autumn, and a cover of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah," her favorite song, plays over the credits. The fact that it exists at all feels like a gift.