It wouldn’t be hyperbolic to say we might never see a movie like Zack Snyder’s Justice League again. Sure, Director’s Cuts are hardly a new phenomenon, but we’re talking about a four-hour version of a blockbuster that was already completed to the tune of $300 million, only for it to be released into theaters with a thud, failing to even turn a profit never mind impress audiences or critics.
From the ashes of Joss Whedon’s studio-mandated take on the project, a relentless fan campaign eventually yielded results after Warner Bros. realized that they could market Snyder’s original vision to the masses and draw in a huge influx of subscribers for HBO Max for good measure. The filmmaker wasn’t paid a cent for his efforts, and was handed the complete creative freedom neither he nor Whedon were afforded the first time around, and as a result Justice League is unmistakably Snyder’s singular vision.
Whether that’s a good or a bad thing largely depends on your appreciation for his previous DCEU efforts, because if you’re not sold on HBO Max’s Justice League going in, then it might not be for you. Is it vastly superior to the theatrical edition? Absolutely. Does it deliver everything the fanbase wanted to see and more? Definitely. Does it stand on its own merits as a highly accomplished piece of superhero cinema? Certainly. Is it the masterpiece many people were expecting? Far from it.
Snyder is the first person to admit that he’s never seen the first cut of Justice League, and he never has any intention of changing that, so in the interest of fairness, this review won’t be making a huge number of direct comparisons to Whedon’s film. However, viewers familiar with the disastrous theatrical release might be surprised at just how many scenes the two competing cuts share, especially when up to 75% of the movie was reportedly reshot from scratch.
Justice League might be a comic book actioner, but Snyder is aiming far higher than the genre typically does, leaning towards the mythical if not downright operatic. It’s an ambitious approach, one that regularly pays off in spades, but at its worst it can be self-indulgent bordering on the tedious. There’s an absolute mountain of exposition to barrel through that might leave the uninitiated scratching their heads, and while it’s admirable to position DC’s all-star team as the focus of a fantasy epic that’s much more reminiscent of The Lord of the Rings than it is The Avengers, Snyder’s reach regularly tends to run away from his grasp.
That’s not to say that Justice League is a bad movie, because it’s head and shoulders above the previously released cut, and it’s comfortably one of the DCEU’s finest efforts yet. By doubling the running time, the plot and character beats get much more time to breathe, with Ray Fisher’s Cyborg the main beneficiary. Victor Stone is definitely the conscience of the team, if not its beating heart, and a surprising increase in screen time for Joe Morton as his father Silas leads to some quietly powerful emotional moments.
Ben Affleck’s Batman, meanwhile, is more hopeful and optimistic than we’ve ever seen him, but the weakest aspect of the dynamic between the Justice League themselves is the relentless and increasingly grating insistence to have everything Ezra Miller’s Barry Allen say be a witty one-liner or random aside. It’s also a shame to see Jason Momoa’s Aquaman reined in, with Arthur Curry a largely reactive force driven by story points rather than the gruffly charismatic and easygoing charmer he was in his own solo outing.
Elsewhere, big bad Darkseid is more of a cipher that exists on the fringes of the story, meaning that Steppenwolf remains a painfully weak antagonist. He may have gotten a shiny new redesign, but he’s still a laughably ineffective presence, and the deepening of his backstory reduces him to a lowly employee frequently holding conference calls with his middle management in the hopes the boss will give him his old job back, which doesn’t make him much of a viable threat to the titular band of heroes.
There’s a whole lot to love about Zack Snyder’s Justice League, though, with the director’s visuals typically eye-popping and often downright stunning, while the action sequences fizz with the sort of propulsion and excitement that we’ve come to demand from movies of this size and scale. That being said, it’s still basically an assembly cut with finished visual effects, and it sometimes feels as though Snyder is trying to cram every single frame that he shot onto the screen just for the sake of it.
Even something as simple as an arrow being fired to light a torch is stretched out for much longer than it needs to be, while the Flash’s rescue of Iris West ends up dragging. The entirety of Martian Manhunter’s involvement contributes nothing in the grand scheme of things, either, other than delivering unadulterated fan service, which can also be said of the much-vaunted Knightmare scene involving Jared Leto’s Joker and Joe Manganiello’s Deathstroke, the second of three additional stingers that exist to tease movies that aren’t going to happen, even though it’s hugely entertaining when viewed through the prism of Justice League. On that note, since when did Amber Heard’s Mera have a terrible British accent?
It’s admittedly great to see Henry Cavill back as Superman, who switches costumes to the black suit without any sort of explanation other than ‘because it’s cool,’ and it is, but there’s still a startling lack of chemistry between his Clark Kent and Amy Adams’ Lois Lane. Their scenes together hurt the flow of the pic right when its gearing up for the blisteringly action-packed finale, albeit one that gets tied up a little too quickly and neatly despite the three and a half hours of preamble it takes to get to that moment.
Zack Snyder’s Justice League is excessive and overlong to the point that trimming anywhere up to an hour would have elevated it significantly, but it’s still a triumph of circumstance, style and execution. It’s a mega budget oxymoron; the scope, scale and spectacle is undeniably awe-inspiring and demands your attention from the first to last minute, hewing much closer to folk tales and legends of gods and monsters rather than the standard superhero template, but at the end of the day, it’s still comic book characters stopping bad guys from finding magic boxes that end the world, which isn’t a story that should take four hours to tell.
That being said, it remains essential and required viewing, completely vindicating and justifying the #ReleaseTheSnyderCut movement in the best possible fashion by delivering exactly what everyone was expecting, for better or worse.