Before we get started, please read the piece I wrote last year in response to the official announcement for Zack Snyder’s Justice League. As much as I did my best to watch the film with an open mind ready to judge it on its own merits, we need to unpack the context surrounding it.
To call Zack Snyder’s Justice League a “director’s cut” of the Justice League film theatrically released in 2017 isn’t entirely accurate, although it certainly represents director Zack Snyder‘s preferred version of the film, the one he was trying to make before unthinkable tragedy forced him to walk away from production, and before Warner Brothers brought in Joss Whedon to complete the film. While Snyder remained the credited director, Whedon performed extensive (and expensive) reshoots and rewrites.
The resulting film was a critical failure and commercial disappointment, but Snyder fans were insistent that a superior director’s cut, dubbed “The Snyder Cut,” existed and could be released if only Warner Brothers gave in. They spent years passionately campaigning to #ReleaseTheSnyderCut, which included widespread harassment from a toxic contingent of the fanbase. Now, seemingly against all odds, that cut is available to stream on HBO Max (You can subscribe to HBO Max at this link. Note this is an affiliate link and The Beat may receive a small commission if you subscribe.)
The thing is, whereas most director’s cuts represent a version of a film that already existed in some fashion before being significantly altered for wide-release (often a result of excessive studio meddling), Zack Snyder’s Justice League is somewhere between a director’s cut and a new film entirely. An estimated $70 million was spent on reshoots and updates like visual effects, editing, and a brand new score by Junkie XL, who was replaced by Danny Elfman for the theatrical cut.
With a budget large enough that it could have funded several low-budget features, or a single mid-budget genre film (for comparison’s sake, 2016’s Deadpool had a budget of $58 million, and 2019’s John Wick Chapter 3 had a $75 million budget), Zack Snyder’s Justice League is hardly a simple “restoration” of a film that already existed. And with a 4-hour runtime, it’s twice as long as the 2017 theatrical cut.
Despite its intimidating length, Zack Snyder’s Justice League will mostly be familiar to those who saw the theatrical cut. For both better and worse, there’s just a whole lot more.
We start on a slow-motion (more on that later) recreation of the climax of Zack Snyder’s previous DC film, Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, as Superman (Henry Cavill) dies fighting the world-threatening monster Doomsday alongside Batman (Ben Affleck) and Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot). The self-serious moment sets the somber tone of the rest of the film, and re-establishes a familiar trend for Snyder’s: heavily posed, often slow-motion shots that try to recall the iconography and portentousness of great comic book splash pages, but pretentious in execution and often laughably silly.
In the days, weeks, or months (the timeline is never entirely clear) following the death of Earth’s great immigrant hero, Batman/Bruce Wayne, with the help his trusty butler Alfred (Jeremy Irons), embarks on a globe-trotting mission to find other heroes so they could team up against the world’s next threat.
“I spent a lot of time trying to divide us,” Bruce acknowledges, referring to the events of the previous film that saw him trying to kill Superman. While it’s nice to see superheroes acting more like, well, heroes in a Zack Snyder film based on DC Comics, that line is a strange reminder of Batman V Superman‘s repugnant morality. In comparison, perhaps the best thing I could say about ZSJL‘s political and ethical philosophies is that it doesn’t have much to say at all, although make no mistake, these are still darker versions of the DC Comics heroes than their quintessential depictions.
The effort to “unite” the Earth’s heroes brings us to reclusive seafaring adventurer Aquaman/Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa), college-aged comic relief speedster The Flash/Barry Allen (Ezra Miller), and deceptively misanthropic teenage genius Cyborg/Victor Stone (Ray Fisher).
One of the nice things about ZSJL‘s protracted length is that the bare-bones characterizations of the theatrical cut are replaced by fuller origin stories. Perhaps most notably, especially given Ray Fisher’s claims of abuse from Joss Whedon (among others) during the theatrical cut reshoots, Cyborg gets to be an actual character here rather than a caricature. Like many of the Justice League players, he turns in a far better performance than the theatrical cut gave him the space to give, and I hope he’s given more opportunities to show off his talents now that he’s risked his career to speak out against mistreatment from industry higher-ups.
In some other cases, baffling choices made for the theatrical cut are replaced by similarly misguided ones. The 2017 film inexplicably characterized The Flash as a coward, and while he’s not hyper-macho like Batman or Aquaman, he’s blessedly given more nuanced motivations. Unfortunately, now he’s kind of a creep, and the allegations against Ezra Miller in real life only make things more uncomfortable.
In an explosive scene that was cut from the theatrical version, Barry saves Iris West (Kiersey Clemons) from what would’ve been a deadly car accident. While it all takes place within mere seconds in-universe, the whole sequence is in slow-motion to emphasize Barry’s incredible speed as he effortlessly pulls Iris away from the crash. But before he gets her to safety, he takes a moment to stare at her admiringly, and affectionately moves her hair away from her face. It was clearly meant to be a tender moment, but not only is it creepy – this is Barry’s first time meeting Iris, so they’re not an item yet – it doesn’t make much sense in context.
It’s hard to imagine Zack Snyder’s Justice League will hold much appeal to anyone other than diehard fans, but bear with me for a moment. I know that Kiersey Clemons was cast as Iris West and cut from the original release, because I’m enough of a nerd to know that Iris West is Barry Allen’s longtime love interest in The Flash comics, and I read that Clemons’ role was reinstated before I watched the film. But Clemons is not seen or discussed before that one scene, and her character isn’t seen or discussed again throughout the rest of the film. She doesn’t even have dialogue. In the eyes of the casual viewer, there is no reason to believe she is anything more than a beautiful stranger, and the choice to linger on her is exceedingly weird.
That scene is a great microcosm of several of ZSJL‘s problems, not the least of which being that it makes little sense, or holds much appeal, for anyone but Zack Snyder’s diehard fanbase. And as happy as Snyder and his fans may be to have a warts-and-all version of the film that includes every single scene the filmmaker hoped to have, there’s no good reason to have kept the scene in the film other than the fact that it surely was expensive and time-consuming to shoot, it really should have been cut. It’s out-of-place, uncomfortably bizarre, and serves little narrative purpose.
Plus, we need to talk about the slo-mo. It’s something of a signature for Zack Snyder, and as much as he’s been mocked for it, it’s not like he hasn’t used it to his advantage. For all of 300‘s problems, part of the reason why its action scenes work so well is Snyder’s use of slow motion to mimic Frank Miller‘s mastery of pacing a comic book action sequence. And there are definitely cool slo-mo moments throughout ZSJL.
But the precarious thing about slo-mo, at least in the way Snyder uses it, is that it literally slows things down. In a movie that’s already four hours long, there are too many long, complicated slow motion shots that are too tedious to be exciting. Even at their most impressively framed, it’s hard not to check your watch and wonder when Snyder will move on to the next thing.
When a friend and I paused a dinner break midway through the digital press “premier” of ZSJL, I spontaneously said “this is too much movie.” And as the film continued for the length of what could’ve been a different movie entirely, I was reminded of a line Roger Ebert wrote in a review of a very different film, the horror anthology V/H/S: “There’s too much of a muchness.”
Make no mistake, Zack Snyder’s Justice League is better than the 2017 Justice League, even if it’s hard to recommend to anyone outside hardcore superhero film fandom. The performances, aesthetics, characters, and action sequences are all improvements upon what we saw in theaters four years ago. But that doesn’t make it good.
Zack Snyder’s Justice League, simply put, is too much. It’s too long, and as a fan of long films like Lawrence of Arabia and Peter Jackson’s King Kong I can assure you that length itself is not the problem. It’s too loud, too busy, too dark, too pretentious, too messy, and worst of all, too boring.
The four-hour Zack Snyder’s Justice League premieres on HBO Max on March 18th.