Directed by Zack Snyder
Written by Chris Terrio, Will Beall, and Zack Snyder
Let's start this way: the most interesting thing about Zack Snyder's Justice League is probably not that it's an improvement over the Justice League credited to Zack Snyder in 2017, but in fact mostly directed by Joss Whedon (or, more truthfully still, cobbled together out of contentious reshoots by Joss Whedon at the insistence of various Warner Bros. executives). To get it out of the way, of course it's an improvement on the 2017 film. But good grief, even being worse would be some kind of improvement. The Justice League that was released to theaters was so devoid of anything besides the compromising-yet-somehow-miscalibrated calculations of a committee, that even if Zack Snyder's Justice League had proved itself an impenetrable fiasco on the level of, say, Zack Snyder's Sucker Punch,* simply standing tall as a reckless failure would make it more honorable than the previous version, which could only ever manage a cringing, defensive crouch. By my lights, though, what's genuinely fascinating about it is how we even got to such an unprecedented place.
One should never say "unprecedented," I guess. Certainly, this goes a long way beyond "director's cut," but things at least moderately akin to it have been made in the past. The readiest comparison is probably Superman II's Richard Donner cut (or, even readier, the manner in which Simon Kinberg was inexplicably allowed two separate opportunities to adapt the X-Men's Dark Phoenix Saga and whiffed both), but the closest analogue that I can think of is the 1992 edition of The Abyss, which bears a number of similarities to Justice League's transformation into Zack Snyder's Justice League (which I shall do Snyder the respect of simply calling "Justice League" from here on in). Like Justice League, The Abyss had a similarly-positioned director, who'd overseen a movie that he'd had trouble getting made during a time of personal emotional turmoil, and what he made wasn't especially well-liked or commercially successful; nevertheless, in the aftermath of its failure, he was given the money to finish his vision anyway, and, once armed with that freedom, he was able to fix it.
But even these cases can be readily distinguished: James Cameron was given a special edition of The Abyss mostly as a reward for Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Meanwhile, since 2017, Zack Snyder has done nothing to be rewarded for, and, indeed very little active filmmaking at all—in fairness, this was due to a very understandable lack of trying, given that the thing that ended his fight for the Justice League he wanted was the suicide of his and co-producer Deborah Snyder's daughter, Autumn. But while Cameron was back on top of the world when he fixed The Abyss, Snyder had spent a decade being maybe the single most divisive filmmaker of the 21st century. There are many more legitimately hated people in Hollywood, but Snyder's work may have spawned a larger cottage industry of despisers than anyone short of George Lucas—I mean, there's undoubtedly been more film writing and YouTubing about just that one single line in Batman v Superman than there has been about, say, Stanley Donen's whole fucking career. It was with BvS, you'll recall, that the Internet determined that the DCEU was dying, and diagnosed Snyder as its disease. This is how you get a mountain of blind nonsense about how bravely Wonder Woman resisted the house style Snyder had established for his shared universe, despite much of it being practically cloned from Man of Steel and BvS (and of course when Patty Jenkins actually did do her own thing with Diana, you hated it).
Nonetheless, the dude has always had his partisans, with thousands of dead-ender Snyder fans eagerly hoping they'd #releasethesnydercut, which struck me at the time as an exercise in futility since, obviously, what they were asking for was never going to actually happen. But then it did, thanks to a bizarre and unlikely-to-be-repeated series of events akin to us waking up on Earth-3 without realizing it, heroes becoming villains and vice versa. I don't know if there's ever been a more complete reversal in the reputations of two filmmakers than Snyder and Whedon over the last year, and if I'd been asked to guess back in 2017 which director would bear the brunt of allegations of abuse and harassment and general shittiness, it probably would've been the one whose only movie that doesn't come off like it was made by a fascist pervert is the kid's movie about warrior owls. (I still mean this in a complimentary way.) But I've digressed, because the whole affair is mesmerizing—a movie about Justice League could easily be a better movie than either movie with the name Justice League—but the point is, this is an uncommon event, even if it arose from the commonest clay possible, that is, the industrialized superhero cinema of the 2010s. A movie was made; it sucked and it lost money; but they said IP never dies, and they ponied up $70 million for a do-over. I don't even know if this is a good thing or not (let alone whether it could be replicated outside of the once-in-a-lifetime confluence of events of 2020), but it's surely something.
As for the actual film, Justice League, as it exists now on HBOMax, it's better. More than that, it's a whole hell of lot more personal, and it aggressively demonstrates this to you in every way feasible. It is, in fact, more than just a do-over, because even with an unrealistically permissive studio letting Snyder do whatever, it is impossible to imagine a theatrical blockbuster release ever looking like the film that got streamed. It loudly announces just what an authentic expression of its director's vision it is in every frame. Literally: it's presented in pillarboxed Academy ratio, because Snyder got a taste for that while shooting IMAX and wanted something even taller in stature, the better to have his titans tower over the theatergoing audience for a movie that would never have been screened in theaters. I mean never: it's also four hours and two minutes long, because that's another Snyder thing, being unbelievably long, and this is presumptively the longest movie I've ever seen. It's also R-rated, for violence and because they say "fuck" one too many times. A cover of "Hallelujah" plays over the end credits not just because he likes it, but because you didn't. Finally, those four hours are organized as a series of chapters—plus a prologue and an epilogue—and other than the epilogue (which is its own stamp of ego, in a much more damaging way), these represent terrifically arbitrary stops and starts, plausibly placed here just to make the thing seem "serious" (Watchmen didn't even have chapters), though my biggest gripe with them is that they have tremendously unmemorable titles.
As for the tale these four hours and eight chapters contain, Justice League is the story of how Batman (Ben Affleck) and Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) recruited the Flash (Ezra Miller), Aquaman (Jason Mamoa), and Cyborg (Ray Fisher) in a desperate bid to stop the New God Steppenwolf (Ciaran Hinds) from finding the Mother Boxes hidden away millennia ago on Earth, and delivering this prize to his even mightier master, Darkseid (Ray Porter). Pushed to their limits by Steppenwolf's power, this band of defenders resort to the most extreme of measures, using the last Mother Box in their possession to resurrect Earth's most powerful hero, Superman (Henry Cavill), at which point beating the tar out of an alien god is still as disappointingly easy as it was last time, but at least this time it's wrinkled up with a neat-looking complication and a cool showcase for the speed-and-time wizardry of the Flash, whom you suspect could be Snyder's favorite Justice Leaguer.
Spoilers, sure, but I don't think this was made for anybody besides people who know how it will end (or indeed, more-or-less know how it ended already), and you will recognize that this is still exactly the same story as the two hour-long Justice League 2017, the only difference significant enough to note in a synopsis being the abiding background evil of Darkseid, which is a very minimal difference because nobody in 2017 was unaware of this. It still matters very little, and this is where Justice League reveals that for all the differences in craft (and those are big differences), it still has every foundational weakness that the Whedon-directed and Whedon-rewritten screenplay bore out, providing me the grim satisfaction of being proven right when I said in 2017 that Snyder and his film's original screenwriter Chris Terrio were subverted from jump street by executives insisting that they retreat from the religious awe that animated the previous DCEU films and just make a fun Marvel movie instead. Thus do we now arrive at Snyder's magnum opus, the epic that fails to heave. You get the feeling that all the auteurist impositions of form that Snyder flashily throws in our face amount to little more than a protest, and ultimately not a very potent one, against a film that could never be completely unfucked. Something tells me that, no, Matt Zoller Seitz, this is not what Martin Scorsese wanted.
But let's stick with what works before circling back around to what doesn't. It's almost too obvious to say, but the first thing is that Justice League is now actually comprehensible; it's as straightforward as it ever was, but what all that extra length means (and the fact that these shots weren't collected under a punishing deadline by a jobber who barely cared) is that the film breathes. It breathes a lot, and for the vast majority of its 242 minutes, that length isn't even too keenly felt: what Snyder and Terrio are doing with this is basically acknowledging that Justice League was going to have a damned hard time being The Avengers when The Avengers got to rest atop five full features introducing its characters as solo entities instead of half the ensemble cast showing up for the first time and expecting us to give a crap, and even Avengers didn't really do that flawlessly, which is why Hawkeye is nobody's favorite MCU character. (Whedon's Justice League could even almost get away with it anyway, because there kind of isn't much of a need to "introduce" the Flash and Aquaman, and if there is anything that asks to be pruned from the first three and a half hours of this Justice League, I think we could live without yet another iteration of Barry Allen's obsession with getting his dad (Billy Crudup) out of prison for murdering his mom, an obsession that occupies something like eight seasons' worth of the first two seasons of the CW show, and which, in this 242 minute film, somehow isn't quite adequately explained as a crime that Barry's dad actually did not commit.)
The biggest beneficiary of the extension is Victor "Cyborg" Stone, who's elevated from acceptably, blandly grave in Whedon's version to a legitimately interesting set of powers and circumstances, though Fisher and his Frankensteinian father (Joe Morton) still come off a little underdetailed and underserved, even amidst the new sprawl. But as a storytelling vehicle, this is an improvement in every single way, scenes no longer crammed into tiny boxes (and shots no longer confined to backgroundless close-ups, for that matter), and performances no longer unjustifiably sullen and hostile. Even the theatrical cut's best-in-show, Miller's Flash, while retaining his privileged position, is more joyful (and more enjoyable), his comic relief more organic and his scene partners more enthusiastic. Altogether, it's vastly more fun than the "Fun!" version was. There is a scene early on that can be directly compared to the theatrical version—the scene is in both—where Wonder Woman takes on some terrorists. It feels complete now, and imbued with Snyder's customary grandeur in ways it wasn't before. It was probably the best scene in the theatrical cut. It's like the fifth or sixth best scene here. The other most obvious beneficiary of the runtime is Superman: besides Snyder not unfairly asking Cavill to resurrect himself as Christopher Reeve, the lapse of a full feature's length before Superman returns allows his absence to be somewhat felt, and his second coming to feel like the completion of a quest rather than a perfunctory obligation. Justice League still doesn't have a single idea what to do with Lois Lane (Amy Adams) besides have her stew in grief, but at least now she can. The action, meanwhile, has the Snyder touch, which should be self-explanatorily a good thing (Steppenwolf's assault on Themyscira and the scourging of the Amazons is an undeniable high point, and the only problem is maybe it comes too early); meanwhile, with its cast of tortured, abandoned children, this Justice League has access to some identifiable emotion, and any at all means it's leaps and bounds ahead of its predecessor cut, even if the most affecting thing about it is the intertitle reading "for Autumn" at the end.
So while you get used to that Academy square easily, it's really a defensible choice aesthetically, with Snyder's eye for framing heroic iconography maybe not as keen as ever, but even competing with the plagiarized images of 300 and Watchmen and the endogenous genius of BvS is no small feat. When overly-enthusiastic fans (and critics) compare Snyder to a silent filmmaker, that's easy to make fun of, but they have a point (though he likes downbeat pop song montages too much for it to be the whole story). The cinematography itself, released from the cage of "Fun!" color correction, returns to the metallic shiny-grimness that Snyder has worked well in all these years, and the serpentine movement through space and time accomplished by Snyder's mobile camera and speed-ramp fetish are back in full force. Perhaps this is the hallmark of a great action director: by making his action scenes longer, he makes them feel shorter. As far as villainy goes, Steppenwolf is still not a character, but even he gets some soupçon of personality, just by being slightly redesigned with the face of a sad-looking dog. Not that one should go overboard: every scene regarding Apokolips still looks like a video game cutscene.
Which seems fair enough: all this is in service of something uncomplicated and, not to put too fine a point on it, unworthy of Snyder's abilities—and unworthy from the start. It is, I think pretty much unambiguously, Snyder's very worst comic book film. (Only not his worst period because of Sucker Punch.) It concludes what Snyder initially conceived of as a trilogy on the subject of the Superman. Unfortunately, now I know how so many other people felt about Return of the Jedi. Here's the thing: Man of Steel and BvS were about things, above all imagining what it would feel like, if Superman was real. Man of Steel's about how that comes off like cosmic horror. BvS is about how the strongest and smartest men on Earth are exposed as resentful monkeys before a god, and how one overcame that to put his faith in the thing he feared the most. Man of Steel and BvS, it's worth mentioning, are loose adaptations of some of the most important comic books ever made, drawing on The Dark Knight Returns and The Death of Superman and John Byrne's seminal post-Crisis Superman stories—plus, and not very secretly, not even a DC Comic at all, but one of Alan Moore's British masterpieces, Miracleman.
Justice League, on the other hand—even Zack Snyder's Justice League—is an adaptation of Justice League vol. 4 #1-6, an arc that I'm sure Geoff Johns gave a name to, but I doubt anybody remembers what that was. Thus does this Justice League remain what it was always about, a fetch quest to find some glowing pin-art cubes before the big bad space man destroys the world. It doesn't even try to draw on the modern trend of Darkseid as a representation of something much more profound, as a literalization of depression and despair, of anti-life in a psychological sense. Only in a scene deep into this film's fourth hour does it tantalizingly even gesture in that direction, and even this scene assumes we've decided to invest in Cyborg more than we probably have. But this film, this version of Justice League, at least manages to be about itself, and God knows, that's more than the last Justice League managed. Sure, it fucks that up in the denouement, with a half hour of the most superfluous superhero movie crap you'll ever see, representing the most unbridled of Snyder's indulgences, teasing the Snyderverse that never was and abusing the hell out of your time—the only good thing about it is that it allows Jared Leto's Joker to do anything for the first time, and that is a thin fucking reed; the worst thing about it is "some have called me the Martian Manhunter (Harry Lennix)," paying off on a subplot that Snyder was insane to have included in the first place. Heretofore, Justice League's only pursued mediocrity, but pursued it very well. Unfortunately, that last half hour earns it a score low enough that I can't be thrilled about it.
*The director's cut of which I have, maybe ironically, never seen. But the only salvation for Sucker Punch would be to add another fifteen pointless framing narratives and really make endless worlds-within-worlds its thing, or else remove them and the forty-five minutes of footage associated with them, and just exist nakedly as the only thing it wanted to be, and what it was at least moderately good at being—that is, Fantasia, but made out of let's-plays of the anime-inflected video games that exist solely in Zack Snyder's sexual id. I sound sarcastic, but I'm serious: as a movie, it's flaming garbage, but as an art installation expressing a man's relationship to the moving image, well, fuck, it beats 24 Frames.