Director: Zack Snyder
Starring: Ben Affleck, Gal Gadot, Ray Fisher, Jason Mamoa, Ezra Miller, Henry Cavill, Ciaran Hinds, Amy Adams, Jeremy Irons, Diane Lane
Before you can appropriately assess the merits of Zack Snyder’s Justice League, you must first address the false premise under which the film has been marketed. When Warner Brothers’ 2017 superhero team-up Justice League fell flat with audiences and reviewers alike, it didn’t take long for online defenders of the franchise to apportion blame to director Joss Whedon. Zack Snyder, who had been central to Warners’ DC universe having directed Man of Steel and Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice, was forced to leave the project in post-production due to a family tragedy and was replaced by Whedon. It was reported that under Whedon’s supervision, Justice League underwent a substantial change in tone and while Snyder retained the director’s credit, some have suggested that as much as 70% of the theatrical cut was either shot or re-shot by Whedon. Rumours began to circulate online that Warner Brothers possessed a near complete and vastly superior ‘Snyder Cut’ of the film, and calls to release it began to echo around certain pockets of social media. In May 2020, Warner Brothers announced that they were putting $70 million towards the restoration of Snyder’s original vision for the film, with the cut to be released on their streaming service, HBO Max.
Putting aside the troubling precedent it sets for the relationship between a studio and an entitled, often toxic, fanbase, with a gargantuan runtime of 242 minutes the notion that this new cut represents the restoration of the originally intended version of the film is absurd. A Hollywood studio has not released a big-budget blockbuster with a runtime of over four hours since Cleopatra in 1963 for the simple reason that it is bad economics. An excessively long runtime reduces the number of screenings that can fit into a day without giving you the capacity to raise ticket prices, resulting in a reduced earning potential. Rather than a restored artefact from an alternate history, Zack Snyder’s Justice League is a curio, an oddity brought into existence by an opportunistic studio taking advantage of an online ‘movement’ to drive subscribers towards its streaming service. If understood as such, it is something of interest.
We again see Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) and Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) working to bring together a team of meta-humans to defend an Earth left vulnerable by the death of Superman (Henry Cavill). They have to hurry, as the monstrous Steppenwolf (voiced by Ciaran Hinds) shows up with an army of parademons intent on capturing the three ‘mother boxes’ that, if brought together, have the power to destroy planets. While the plot is fundamentally the same, the additional 122 minutes the Snyder Cut takes to work through its beats makes for a different audience experience. Broken into six chapters, this extended cut is a significantly more coherent film than the theatrical release. One of the burdens Justice League buckled under was that bringing together this team of heroes involved rushed introductions of a number of characters with whom the audience had no previous relationship. This cut devotes more time to establishing Cyborg (Ray Fisher), Flash (Ezra Miller) and Aquaman (Jason Mamoa), with Cyborg, in particular, going from near absence to possessing arguably the film’s best character arc. Similarly, the villain Steppenwolf is reimagined. No longer the big bad, he is positioned as a lackey for the greater threat, Darkseid (Ray Porter), working to gain his master’s approval.
The greater narrative coherence of the film is combined with a greater consistency of vision. From the opening shots that take us back to the death of Superman at the end of Batman vs Superman, it is apparent that Snyder is seeking to reframe the tone of the film. With a muted, grey colour palate that feels almost monochrome and a noticeable reduction in quips and gags, this version of the film feels more of a piece with Man of Steel and Batman vs Superman. Snyder sees these heroes as gods walking amongst us, and his cut gives us plenty of moments of almost religious awe, often backed by on-the-nose songs referencing gods and kings. Of course, greater unity of vision is not in and of itself a positive. That depends entirely on your feelings about Snyder as a visual stylist and storyteller. The whole reason that Warner Brothers had instructed Joss Whedon to lighten the tone of Justice League was due to the negative audience and critical response to the darkness and nihilism of Snyder’s Batman vs Superman. It does, however, give context to the work.
While this increased runtime is partly a result of valuable additions that bring coherence and clarity to the existing narrative, it is also very much indicative of an incredible lack of restraint. This flabby cut features an overabundance of slow-motion shots and numerous moments that could have been easily excised without impacting the narrative at all – including one bafflingly long scene of village women singing to the sea after the departure of Aquaman. It feels like an intentional exercise in stretching, as though part of the promise that it is trying to fulfil to its fanbase is its extreme length. Nowhere is this more evident than in its infuriatingly drawn out epilogue. After sticking the landing with a vastly improved climactic battle, the final half hour of the film plays like a series of drawn out post-credit stings, sewing the seeds for a sequel that is clearly not part of Warner Brothers’ plan going forward (though who knows what the emboldened Snyder bros can bully them into doing next), and making the oft joked about ending of Return of the King feel ruthlessly efficient.
Those expecting Zack Snyder’s Justice League to be a fundamentally different film to the theatrical cut will be disappointed. This is a director’s cut, not a do over. With a greater unity of vision, Snyder’s cut is undoubtedly an improvement on Whedon’s, but clearing that low hurdle is hardly cause for celebration. In its determination to go epic it creates as many issues as it resolves, and while a four-hour superhero movie makes for an interesting oddity, it feels like the ideal version lies somewhere between these two extremes.