The “Zack Snyder cut” isn’t the holy grail of superhero cinema, but it’s at least a singular vision and a distinct improvement on the studio-bungled original.
In case you hadn’t heard, director Zack Snyder struggled mightily against Warner Bros to get his vision for the DC Comics extravaganza Justice League to the big screen, a battle culminating in his departure from the project (due mostly, however, to the tragic death of his daughter during production), and his replacement by now-disgraced Avengers director Joss Whedon, who proceeded to reshoot significant portions of the movie. What landed in theaters in the fall of 2018 was largely lamented by all, but especially by a devoted cult of Snyder’s fans, who over the course of the following years waged an impressive and ultimately successful campaign to have the studio release “the Snyder Cut.” And so it is that Zack Snyder’s Justice League comes to stream on HBO Max starting this week.
What’s different? Narratively, not so much. Both versions chronicle Ben Affleck’s grizzled, dad-bod Batman and his attempts to gather a group of superheroes to combat a looming invasion by an alien menace, both good guy and bad guy spurred into action by the recent demise of Superman (see Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice for details). He scoops up Aquaman (Jason Momoa), Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), the Flash (Ezra Miller, awful), and Cyborg (Ray Fisher), and eventually the Man of Steel himself (Henry Cavill), and together they take on ridiculous CGI bad guy Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds) and his army of goofy-looking insect dudes called the Parademons.
Materially and formally, though, there’s quite a bit that’s different here. 2018’s Justice League ran about 118 minutes, including credits. Zack Snyder’s runs a whopping 242. That’s four hours, y’all. Surprisingly, though, it’s worth the investment. Normally the shoe-leather of getting the band together in these superhero crossover flicks is the most laborious, generic part, but here Snyder’s been allowed as much time as he wants to flesh out his modern gods. Fisher’s Cyborg benefits the most: his storyline was barely present in the theatrical version, but in the Snyder cut, this young man, whose body was reconstituted by alien tech, is almost the stealth protagonist, and his struggle to reconcile his anger towards his scientist pops for making him a robot freak with his awe-inspiring, newfound powers and purpose is the perfect microcosm for a group of folks who must always reckon with their ability to do whatever they want versus their desire to just be normal.
Snyder’s generous with big swings like this. This absurd epic is fully committed to big, sappy emotions and weird grandiose gestures, like when the gang decides to bring Superman back to life, but just ends up resurrecting him as a very grumpy alien having a destructive temper tantrum; yet, a mere glimpse of his ladyfriend Lois Lane (Amy Adams) soothes his savage beastery. There’s just so much movie here. Flashbacks bleed into more flashbacks, characters duck in and out of tiny mini-episodes (like Flash rescuing a pretty girl from a car wreck or Wonder Woman stopping a bank robbery), and even the villain has a subplot wherein he just wants his boss to give him some positive feedback for once. It might all be grandly naïve, but dammit it’s sincere.
Formally, though, things are something of a mixed bag. Whedon’s cut was riddled with his junky televisual sensibilities, so it’s a downright pleasure to have Snyder’s massive, speed-ramped tableaux wallpapering almost every scene. At one point, a slow-motion shot slows down even more, and it’s hard not to get a little giddy about flexes like that. But the digital effects that coat this entire endeavor — possibly due to a rush job to complete Snyder’s footage —are mostly shoddy, and the nearly hour-long climax is mostly the same as before, only now it’s an even longer muddy, digital smear. And even though it’s a kind of novelty that Snyder was able to do everything he wanted to here, the pace is bumpy at best, as if this was more of an assembly cut with every ounce of shooting crammed in. It’s hard not to imagine that there’s a compromise, say, a 3-hour cut that would really sing.
Ultimately, that this even exists is almost reason enough to give it a whirl. Are we sick of comic-book IP dominating the mainstream movie landscape? Yes. Is this still, in a way, misbegotten trash? Another yes. But at its core, this is at least the thing that this weirdo, go-for-broke movie bro poured his heart out trying to make, a stark and welcome antithesis to the useless commercial for more movies that a clueless, floundering corporation felt obligated to dump. Zack Snyder’s Justice League might be unwieldy and stupid, but it’s a vision.
You can stream Zack Snyder’s Justice League on HBO Max beginning on March 18.