‘Zack Snyder’s Justice League’ Explodes Into a Bigger, Better Mess of an Adventure

For years studios have found ways to remarket a movie and please restless directors at the same time with the hyped art of the “director’s cut.” This usually means a movie gets rereleased with deleted footage put back in and a longer running time. But then you get those special cases like “Zack Snyder’s Justice League.” This is not just a case of adding new material. What we have here is practically a whole new mammoth of a film. Comic book movie fans know the backstory all too well. In 2017 the original “Justice League” was meant to be DC’s first grand team buffet to rival Marvel’s “The Avengers.” At the helm was Zack Snyder, the visual stylist who set the look and tone for the DC Universe. But a combination of personal tragedy and nervous studio executives resulted in Snyder leaving the project during post-production. “Avengers” director Joss Whedon was then brought in to complete the film, including some re-shoots. The result was a clunky popcorn movie with bad jokes and nearly incomprehensible plot. Enough of a fan outcry demanding Snyder’s own cut led Warner Bros. and HBO Max to figure they can boost exposure by letting the director complete his version. And so here we are.

Moodier, grander but no less cluttered, this is Snyder certainly reaching his highest peak in the DC Universe. If Whedon seeks to merely entertain with color and energy, Snyder is after operatic textures. The core of the narrative remains the same, only this time it opens bookending 2016’s “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.” The new opening recaps Doomsday killing Superman (Henry Cavill), and the Man of Steel’s death cries reverberate around the world, awakening the “Mother Boxes,” which are still sought after by alien warlord Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds). In Gotham City a brooding Bruce Wayne aka Batman (Ben Affleck) wishes he could find a way to make up for leading Superman to his death, his plan still being to form a team of heroes. He finds Aquaman (Jason Momoa), who’s still too cocky and skeptical about the whole idea. When Steppenwolf rampages through the Amazon island of Themyscira, Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) warns Bruce of what’s coming. They recruit the super-fast Barry Allen aka The Flash (Ezra Miller), and the half-machine Cyborg (Ray Fisher), who holds a particular connection to the coming alien invasion. Steppenwolf speeds up his attacks, since he hopes to fully impress galactic conqueror Darkseid (Ray Porter). 

While this may all ring like the storyline of the original movie, it’s a vastly different enterprise in Snyder’s version. Clocking in at 4 hours, it’s an epic in every sense of the word. While it would have looked magnificent on an IMAX screen in a pre-pandemic world, mercifully the entire opus is being streamed on HBO Max. From here on forward keep in mind that if you don’t care for superheroes or comic books, then this is definitely not the movie for you. But if you love this genre or are artistically adventurous, then it’s a wildly creative experiment to indulge in, whether in parts or one posterior-numbing sitting. It goes miles beyond other “director’s cuts,” including noteworthy ones like Ridley Scott’s “Kingdom of Heaven” or Oliver Stone’s four editions of “Alexander.” The fresh tone owes a lot to how in many ways Snyder is finishing his movie for the first time. All the Whedon footage has been tossed out, including those hollow attempts to add Marvel-style humor. No more Aquaman making dorky confessions while sitting on Wonder Woman’s lasso, and Flash is less of an insecure neurotic. Also tossed out is the silly opening from the original, where Batman nabs a crook as if he were still in the ‘60s TV show, and the needless Russian family that somehow happens to live where Steppenwolf has his climactic standoff with the Justice League.

Now what we experience is a fiercer movie completely immersed in Snyder’s aesthetic. What first changes is the tone. Scenes are now longer and fuller, like Wonder Woman’s first appearance when stopping a group of apocalyptic terrorists, the Black Clad (who deserve a whole movie of their own). There’s a better set-up in how Bruce Wayne seeks heroes like Aquaman, more out of a sense of guilt than just some random franchise necessity. Snyder is entranced by the mythic nature of comics and it’s all over this film, like new footage of Icelandic villagers singing a folk hymn as Aquaman returns to the sea. We now get the full backstory of Cyborg, with a clearer and more tragic idea of how his father saved his life by bonding his body with alien technology. Where in the original he was mostly relegated to moping around an apartment before joining the League, here he has a whole series of flashbacks and real time moments developing his character, including a thrilling sequence where he flies for the first time into the night sky. Barry Allen also gets a much better introduction with a new scene where he saves Iris West (Kiersey Clemons) from a car crash. It’s a moment of pure visual fun as Allen makes time stand still and takes his time to admire Iris, who comics fans know will play a bigger role later in Flash’s world. Danny Elfman’s bouncier score has been replaced by a charged shredder by Junkie XL, who throws in electric guitars and gives Wonder Woman a Greek chorus every time she leaps and decapitates someone. 

For editing students “Zack Snyder’s Justice League” can function like a four-hour course in how certain editing choices can change the nature of a movie. Once again there’s the music. In the Whedon cut Aquaman’s first appearance has a grungy feel with Momoa downing a bottle of whiskey to the sounds of The White Stripes’ “Icky Thump,” but in Snyder’s re-edit it is replaced with “There Is a Kingdom” by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. Now amid the massive, crashing waves Momoa looks like a melancholic Poseidon. Like Michael Bay, Snyder is above all a director of images, lensing like a real comic book geek with an artist’s eye. Even his worst exercises in testosterone mayhem, like “300” and “Sucker Punch,” had some sense of grandeur, bringing the actual aesthetic of graphic novel panels to life. Yet Snyder’s “Justice League” is his best narrative effort since “Watchmen,” even if the immense cascade of CGI and action overtake the coherence of the story.  Steppenwolf’s crusade to get the Mother Boxes makes more sense, especially since Snyder lends more time to Darkseid, a tyrant who sends commands from another world full of distant towers of flame and smoke. There’s little doubt he was a character plucked from the comics to offer DC’s answer to Marvel’s own galactic dictator, Thanos. Steppenwolf’s winged alien servants are also better used as a menacing swarm.

Alas, what remains the main fault in “Zack Snyder’s Justice League” is what has plagued much of Warner’s DC films from the beginning. Desperate to catch up to Marvel’s long-formulating franchises, which really kicked off in 2008 with “Iron Man,” the DC movies have rushed what the other studio took several movies to introduce and establish. While Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight Trilogy” set the darker tone, Snyder truly established the style with his 2013 “Man of Steel.” But since then bloated efforts like “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” have crammed storylines and characters, throwing them in with little exposition. So while a few characters get more of a backstory in this new cut, in terms of narrative it’s still crammed to the brim, like eyeballs struggling to focus on one particular element. Aquaman works better because now we’ve all seen his solo movie as well as Wonder Woman’s. In many ways this is a film tailor-made for the devoted. When the much anticipated cameo by The Joker (Jared Leto) occurs, looking more menacing than in the ill-fated “Suicide Squad,” the dialogue makes endless references to events you would need to be a diehard Batman reader to recognize, because none of it has taken place in any of the movies as of yet.

The last hour is such a gigantic spectacle of special effects and combat that it’s hard to imagine any other superhero movie topping it this year. Snyder is reportedly done with the DC Universe and is moving on, with a zombie thriller arriving on Netflix in May. As an exit, his “Justice League” feels like a work of feverish fanboy passion. It is dedicated to his daughter Autumn, who took her life during the making of the first version. One feels Snyder’s heart and soul in this project. Even if the script remains a mess, it is an impressive collage of popcorn cinema vision and spectacle. So many action movies deliver the same tired notes that there’s something refreshing in the boldness of something this massive, celebrating why people who love comic books appreciate the art form so much. It’s a treat for those who care about this genre and have the stamina. 

Zack Snyder’s Justice League” begins streaming March 18 on HBO Max.