Well, for better or worse, Zack Snyder’s Justice League is here. It’s been a hell of a journey: after one average and one outright bad entry into the superhero canon in 2013 and 2016, Zack Snyder found himself in an uphill battle to produce a four-hour cut in the hopes of rivaling Marvel’s 23-film journey. The studio eventually fired him, a decision Snyder did not fight due to the death of his young daughter, and was replaced by Joss Whedon, who belittled and harassed the actors on the way to a 120-minute flop. However, the story didn’t end there: a group of fans who at best can be described as passionate and at worst described as toxic became obsessed with a conspiracy theory where Snyder had finished the film, had a secret black-and-white copy, and that the studio didn’t want to release it for…reasons? Anyway, when HBO Max launched to mixed results, WB decided to cave and gave Snyder $70 million to finish his dream and placate the whiny fanbros, marking the first time a group of “fans” successfully shouted a film into existence. So here we are: at the release of the infamous four-hour “Snyder Cut.” Is it any good? Well, I’m not sure about that, but at least it’s complete.
In the immediate aftermath of Superman’s (Henry Cavill) death, three cubes known as the Motherboxes awaken around Earth. Their presence summons an ancient warrior known as Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds), an exiled lieutenant in the army of Darkseid (Ray Porter), an intergalactic warlord. Steppenwolf arrives to our planet with the quest of reuniting the three Motherboxes to create the Unity and wipe out all life in existence. Feeling guilty for his role in Superman’s demise, the vigilante Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) sets out on a quest to unite the planet’s mightiest heroes to hold off Steppenwolf’s Parademon forces, including Amazonian princess Diana (Gal Gadot), Atlantean prince Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa), cocky super-fast college student Barry Allen (Ezra Miller), and former football player-turned-robot Victor Stone (Ray Fisher). Together, this group may be able to hold off the forces of darkness and evil, and save the world from mass destruction.
If Zack Snyder’s Justice League serves any purpose whatsoever, it is to properly provide a complete version of Snyder’s ultimate vision for his opus. And in a lot of ways, the final product is, indeed, better than Whedon’s abomination from 2017. While this includes minor improvements, like Tom Holkenborg’s score (which, while lacking original composer Danny Elfman’s whimsy, is superior overall) and the elimination of the horrific CGI Superman face, most of the overhaul comes in the form of fleshed-out sequences presented in a clearer, smarter glory. Sequences like Aquaman’s introduction benefit from extended length, while the battle sequences on the Themyscira and Striker’s Island boast are far greater, thanks to a clearer, more grandiose vision (although I have some thoughts on the Amazonians suddenly supporting bikinis as opposed to their traditional armor). Gone are the days where The Flash nebbishly fails his way through battle while Wonder Woman exists solely as a sexpot – now we see the heroes in their full glory, executing well-crafted battles with the size and scale of Peter Jackson.
The climax, meanwhile, is completely rewritten in a way that feels earned, as opposed to tacked onto the last 20 minutes – it’s a better-shot, more visually interesting ending overall (although I do miss Aquaman’s ridiculous “Yahoos”). And I can’t say enough about The Flash’s new introduction, which is one of the coolest moments in a superhero film I’ve seen in a long time. Not only is The Flash’s dialogue better than Whedon’s Whedonisms, but as we watch him leap into action in slow-mo to rush into action to save Iris West (Kiersey Clemons) from an over-the-top slovenly truck driver, the scene captures the pure joy and beauty of the 1978 Superman. With more context and a better-cast performer, this could and would be the moment that launched a phenomenon.
Snyder’s vision also works better thanks to its ability to create arcs for its characters – arcs that were truncated, or even completely removed, from Whedon’s Cut. Each character is given a story of growth and self-discovery, and yes, while they admittedly all could be boiled down to “Daddy Issues,” they still do make for more interesting characters than the “We fight, we make up, we win” format of even the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies I ultimately prefer. Unlike the muddled vision of 2016’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, the vision Snyder and Affleck create here for Bruce Wayne’s Batman is far more coherent and interesting. Here we have a man who feels immense guilt over a sense of xenophobic paranoia that, when coupled with a severe depression and decades-long career in vigilantism, leaves him on a borderline suicidal quest for redemption. Meanwhile, Victor Stone’s Frankenstein-esque journey to self-acceptance with his straddling of the line between life and death offers up some interesting themes not seen in superhero movies not involving The Hulk or Hellboy. Even Steppenwolf’s arc is improved upon: whereas Whedon viewed the character as a CGi dork with mommy issues, this Steppenwolf is a zealous lieutenant who failed his general and is desperately seeking redemption.
I think a lot of the effort put into these arcs ties into Snyder’s hilariously simplistic worldviews. Snyder has always been a rather black-and-white filmmaker, where ideas are Inherently Good and Inherently Bad, with little overlap. While a lot of this can result in hilariously dumb storytelling – and don’t worry, we’ll get to that – it can often be very touching. He very clearly loves his characters, and wants them to be presented as lovingly as possible, whether this is a fleshed-out Wonder Woman (far from the shrew of Whedon’s version), a Superman full coming into his own in the Fortress of Solitude while listening to his fathers (Russell Crowe and Kevin Costner), or a Victor Stone who is a genius football prodigy who hacks mainframes to change homeless friends’ grades and helps random Latina women on the street think they won $100,000 in a “bank sweepstakes contest.” It all adds up to a touching, if naïve, story about fighting together, not apart, and accepting unity over division. I appreciate Snyder’s efforts for the grandiose, and in many ways, this does make for a coherent, complete vision – one with a perfect intermission right at the end of Chapter 3.
However, just because the film is more complete, that doesn’t necessarily make it better. Warner Brothers and Zack Snyder have insisted that all of Whedon’s influence has been cut out of the final production here. However, when taking the entire film into account, it becomes surprisingly clear just how much work Whedon actually did in bringing this production to life. Surprisingly, one of the original film’s biggest sticking points was the obnoxiousness of the “humor.” As Whedon’s brand has always been self-aware jokester, the brunt of the blame for these jokes has been laid at his feet. However, as many of the worst jokes still remain in this cut, and several of the funniest (or closest to funniest) moments no longer appear, it seems that the bad attempts at humor within Justice League may have been pinned on the wrong person. Actually, some of the worst sequences in the film – a lazily shot fight sequence involving Wonder Woman early on, the lamest jokes, and beyond, all appear to have been Snyder’s fault all along.
What’s worse, some of my favorite moments from the theatrical cut have now ended up on the cutting room floor. The incredible reveal of Batman in a window as he hunts a Parademon, the opening montage showing the world falling apart in the wake of Superman’s death, and Danny Elfman’s incorporation of the classic Batman and Superman themes are nowhere to be found. Meanwhile, my favorite sequence – a slow-mo shot of Arthur Curry walking into the ocean drinking a bottle of whisky as The White Stripes’ “Icky Thump” plays, does remain, but in an attempt to align with Snyder’s gnü metal aesthetic, the song has been replaced with Nick Cave’s more on-the-nose “There Is A Kingdom.” Cave is a phenomenal artist, but I can promise you that this is the only instance where The White Stripes fit better than Nick Cave.
Indeed, it seems that there are some key improvements in Whedon’s cut that Snyder could have taken to heart. For example, pacing: Snyder has never understood the art of pacing, and it shows in ways more nuanced than just “one film is two hours, the other is four hours.” Take a look at the nearly ten-minute opening sequence, which is pretty much just an extended look at Superman’s death scream. The sequence, at best, makes its point after 30 seconds; in reality, it’s mostly unnecessarily. The sequence is also insane because of the further questions it raises – if the entire film begins in the aftermath of this death scream, does this mean this is just a few days after Batman v Superman? And if so, when the hell does Suicide Squad take place? The pacing issues run throughout the entire film, thanks to Snyder’s unchecked ego. There’s no less than five Motherbox visions that add nothing to the overall story.
And in the most egregious example of Snyder’s love of style over substance, there’s an entire Icelandic hymn performed to celebrate Aquaman. None of this fits into the film as a whole. I’m sure Snyder believes this to be his Heaven’s Gate roller blading moment. But unlike that iconic cinematic moment, this scene offers no commentary on the human experience or life in general – at least not beyond a surface level interpretation. Other Snyderisms include overdoing the villains in the film (odd here when Steppenwolf is essentially just Marvel’s Ronan The Accuser, and Darkseid is just Thanos), an insistence that more CGI is good CGI (while an appearance by Zeus works in Whedon’s cut due to his brief appearance, extended emphasis on the overly-hot CGI abomination’s face prove just how shoddy the effects work is), and overly dark characters. In one of the film’s worst decisions, the drunken surfer bro Aquaman perfected by Whedon and Wan is reduced to Snyder’s usual depressed, cynical assh*le. Snyder is so close to being a good director – 300 isn’t unwatchable, and there’s some intelligence in Watchmen. But if he continues to embrace his worst impulses without check or evolution, he will never reach the greatness he strives for.
And then there are things that just never were going to work, no matter if Whedon or Snyder directed. For example, the aspect ratio. Snyder has made it abundantly clear that this film must be presented in Academy 4:3, which creates a truncated sort of square. Now, while this works in picturesque films like The Grand Budapest Hotel and First Cow, it makes absolutely no sense in a superhero film, especially not one supposing to be an epic. Not only does it condense and ruin some of the action sequences because of the condensed framing, but it works against the epic narrative. If this film is so adamantly supposed to be an epic, why not use the grander 2:20:1 ratio, or IMAX 1:43:1? It’s a decision I actively cannot figure out. Meanwhile, the best thing I can say about Snyder’s Justice League effects is that there are less of them, as money was not wasted recreating Cavill’s face or redoing already-shot CGI sequences. That said, the effects work is still terrible, to the point that the aforementioned Wonder Woman scene elicits laughs over cheers (it’s the first time that the epic Wonder Woman theme is unable to carry the sequence). The lighting design is ridiculously dark, while the sound design seems to consist solely of “boing fwips” – a hilariously awful touch.
As for the writing, I’m fairly confident there was no saving this script, no matter who was writing it. The best thing that can be said about Chris Terrio’s screenplay is that it’s a different kind of bad from Whedon’s. Between Batman v Superman, Justice League, and Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, I’m beginning to think that Chris Terrio’s Oscar-winning script for Argo was some sort of William Shakespeare/Earl of Oxford Black List front situation. The screenplay exists of weighty, faux-edgy lines – ironically, despite his off-screen harassment and abuse of actor Ray Fisher, Whedon never made Cyborg a whiny misanthrope who unironically says things like “F*ck the world.” Snyder continues to overutilize slow-mo, to the point I’m convinced this film is actually only 12 minutes long, and the rest is just really slowed down. Sequences are stolen from better films, but with worse writing – watch the first Darkseid battle and tell me that’s not the first scene from Lord of the Rings. Characters hack into computers and declare “I’m in!” after a few seconds, an iconic comic book character shows up just because Snyder read a fan theory on Reddit, and there’s a continued obsession with “evil Superman” as if The Boys hasn’t shut that book forever with Homelander. “Hallelujah” makes an appearance in the closing credits, a song so overused it should never be used in a film again. Oh, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that during a dream metaphor for the world economy, there’s a giant CGI bear and bull fighting in front of the Stock Market. There’s a lot going on in this film, and I’m not sure David Lean himself could have saved it.
In terms of the acting, I guess Snyder got better performances out of these actors than Whedon? Henry Cavill finally starts to feel like Superman…sort of. He doesn’t have a lot to do, and he’s now edgy because he’s been to Hell and back (literally), but he’s at least comfortable in the role. Meanwhile, I’ve always kind of liked Ben Affleck as Batman, and I though he continued to fit the role here, bringing an underlying depression to the Dark Knight that I found fascinating. Gal Gadot is…not terrible as Wonder Woman, but it’s clear she saves her best work for Patty Jenkins (who at least never made her shout things like “Kal-El, NO!”). Ray Fisher does, I believe, earn redemption in this cut, giving a solid performance as Cyborg – and it could have been great if he were in a good director’s hands. Even Ezra Miller is greatly improved as The Flash – sure, his worst lines are still here, but there’s a little more emotion in his moments (which Miller has always been good at). At least he gets more to do than play Whedon’s rewriting of Buffy’s Xander. Sadly, the only actor to be let down in the Snyder Cut is Jason Momoa – Snyder has removed any fun in our beloved surfer bro, and left him a cynical tool.
None of the other characters on display here are entirely worth mentioning. Joe Morton probably gets the most to do as Cyborg’s father, and I do rather enjoy his arc and monologues. Jeremy Irons continues to be fantastic as Alfred – maybe Snyder should quit his directing career and become a casting director, his choices are always inspired. J.K. Simmons and Diane Lane have solid sequences as Commissioner Gordon and Martha Kent, respectively. Connie Nielsen, Amber Heard, and Willem Dafoe have cameos from previous (or future, I guess) DCEU movies, and honestly only show up for five minutes and then disappear. I guess that’s better than Amy Adams’ fate – Adams shows up every 30 minutes for a 1-minute shot where she looks morosely out a window, or occasionally looks longingly at a pregnancy test that’s never explained. And I’d praise Hinds and Porter as the villains of the piece, but I’m not really sure they were ever on set – it’s all CGI and the occasional menacing line.
Which brings us to one performance that I feel I need to address: Jared Leto as The Joker. Now, despite the hype around the one-off scene from the trailers, the sequence amounts to little more than an end credits sequence. What’s frustrating about the scene is that it’s actually decent in execution. Snyder has directed Leto away from the Juggalo parody of Suicide Squad and towards an actually menacing, interesting villain worthy of the actor and part. I actually would go as far as to say I enjoyed Leto’s performance/sparring with Affleck. But…the scene only works if it means anything about the film we are currently watching. And it doesn’t. It has nothing to say about this film, and nothing to say about any future films in the DCEU. Which makes it completely pointless, and therefore ingratiating. What a shame.
Zack Snyder’s Justice League is a better film than its predecessor, but only barely. It improves upon the former abomination by crafting a film that makes sense, occasionally looks great, and I suppose tries stuff I haven’t seen in a superhero film before. But it’s still shoddily made, haphazardly written, and makes baffling decisions that undercut its artistry at every step. I bear no ill will towards Snyder as an individual. He seems like a stand up guy who makes perpetually average films. But if we’re going to deal with four years of obnoxious whining, $70 million needlessly spent during a pandemic, and glaring precedents being set, then the final product needs to be worth it. And no cut of Justice League – not Snyder’s, not Whedon’s, and not some lazy, money-grabbing studio – was ever going to be worth it.
Zack Snyder’s Justice League is now streaming exclusively on HBO Max