I can’t believe I’m writing this, but Zack Snyder’s Justice League justifies its own existence. Actually, I’ll go even further than that: I truly enjoyed the Snyder Cut, despite thoroughly disliking the 2017 theatrical cut. The new version is overly long for a theatrical film, but in an era when Marvel is turning out hour-after-hour of content as TV shows, this HBO Max feature finally makes some sense of what Zack Snyder was getting at in his otherwise largely incoherent DC movies. As an exercise in unadulterated auteur theory, it’s pretty good and thoroughly interesting, warts and all.
Before I go any further, I want to make it clear that I am not a Zack Snyder apologist. I don’t particularly like most of his films, and think his stories are frequently overly dour and self-serious. His movies tend to embody the brand of toxic masculinity prevalent in blockbusters in the 2000s. Furthermore, I find his iterations of DC heroes to be totally lacking in nuance. Snyder’s Superman? Brooding. Batman? Brooding (ok, that one’s a given). Wonder Woman, Cyborg, Aquaman? All brooding. His DCEU films have suffered diminishing returns. Man of Steel was fine, if disappointing as a Superman movie. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice was frankly an over-stuffed disaster. And the theatrical cut of Justice League was paper-thin in plot, tone, and substance.
And yet, despite all of that, I have to admit that I appreciated, dare I say really liked, Zack Snyder’s Justice League. You would think that transforming a mediocre 2-hour movie into a saga that’s longer than Lawrence of Arabia would feel interminable. Instead, the movie finally feels like it has life.
I’ve already spoken to several of Snyder’s weaknesses as a filmmaker: his fetishization of masculinity, the thinness of his characters, the prioritization of style over substance. The new cut doesn’t change any of that; all of the Snyder-isms are still there. What was missing from the theatrical cut of Justice League, however, was one of Snyder’s biggest strengths: his ability to make a story feel epic. Snyder is perhaps best known for his abundant use of slow-motion, capturing singular moments in time and drawing them out. He has now adapted five graphic novels by my count, and the slow-motion is precisely what makes those films feel like you’re reading the artful panels in a comic.
Snyder sees superheroes as modern-day Greek gods, the protectors elevated above mortals. Honestly it’s a pretty good take. Marvel Comics tend to portray their superheroes cursed with power – Spider-man’s powers burden him with responsibility, the X-Men are mutants seen as “freaks” by the world, the Hulk hates being a Jekyll/Hyde monster. Meanwhile DC heroes frequently are portrayed as godlike – their powers depicted as gifts that they use benevolently – Superman is a godlike being who comes from the stars, Wonder Woman is a literal Amazonian goddess, Aquaman is the king of Atlantis.
To properly depict gods, you need to make them feel important, larger than life. You need exactly that grandeur that Snyder is capable of creating. And if you have six such gods in a single story, how can you make a single film feel that large? Well, Marvel accomplished bringing its heroes together in a satisfying way by giving each of them their own movies, introducing their full backstories ahead of time. Each character felt important on his/her own, and then combining them was additive. The DCEU chose to instead rush straight to its team-up movie, meaning Justice League is tasked with introducing three brand new protagonists, an entire underwater civilization, not to mention an entire hostile alien world. It’s impossible to do all of that in a satisfying way and still turn over a theater audience in under 2 hours, and so, Justice League (theatrical) offers a small buffet of ideas and was a frivolous disappointment.
With 4 hours at his disposal however, Snyder is somehow able to (mostly) pull it off. Each new character and world is given its proper time to breathe. Each hero is given his/her own “Greek god” moment where time slows down, making them feel larger than life. The stakes feel high and the story important as we dive into each character’s backstory, setting the table for a full two hours before the first major confrontation happens.
To give an example, The Flash is introduced in the Snyder Cut in a 5-minute action sequence in which he saves a woman from an over-the-top car accident frozen in time. To call the scene overly dramatic is to be generous; it’s incredibly operatic and somewhat laughable in its sincerity. And yet, in the context of this 4-hour epic about gods, the scene totally fits as an introduction to a previously anonymous character. Contrast this with the theatrical cut, where we instead meet The Flash in a 2-minute scene as he’s meeting with his father in prison. There, his introduction is as a jokester as he plays a prank on the man behind him in line. It’s incongruous with the broader tone of the film, and doesn’t come close to the grandeur that Snyder is attempting.
Similar choices are made with the other characters, the most egregious being the truncation of Cyborg’s story. Cyborg and his relationship with his father is set up to be the emotional core of The Snyder Cut. He’s the character that gets the most backstory and the clearest arc, and the climax of the film is built around him coming to terms with who he is. In the theatrical cut, we get only slight references to Cyborg’s backstory, and without that emotional core, the entire ending means nothing. It just becomes good guys punching bad guys, and they eventually win because of course they do.
It’s important to note that Zack Snyder’s Justice League only works because the 4-hour cut was released to HBO Max, not to theaters. At home, I can pause the movie to grab some popcorn or hit the head. I can talk about what’s working and what isn’t with my partner. I can watch it on two separate days or in TV-show-like installments. In short, I can take a break from the movie’s self-seriousness and just enjoy it for what it is. And that brings me to my final point.
I have no idea how The Snyder Cut is able to exist. By all accounts, almost all of the raw footage was shot in 2016/2017, not reshoots for the new version. That means that Zack Snyder shot enough footage for a four hour tent-pole film. Think about that. WB was never going to allow this theatrical movie to be 4 hours long. They would maybe consider a runtime of two and a half hours tops. So what’s left is the exact problem that plagued Batman v Superman: too much plot and content to stuff into even a very lengthy movie. I don’t envy the people tasked with rewriting and cutting this film down to a manageable length – it’s an impossible ask. Frankly I’m amazed that the theatrical version is as coherent as it is, even if what’s sacrificed is any sense of weightiness.
In short, against all odds, I’m glad that the Snyder Cut is able to exist, even if the circumstances that brought it about are far from ideal. WB is able to recuperate some of its losses from the original release, and we get a fairly satisfying conclusion to the twisty road that is the DCEU. Could that additional $70 million spent on finishing this version’s VFX have been better served funding one or several original films? Probably. But after a year devoid of big dumb blockbusters to strike out with audiences, it’s refreshing to see one totally reworked to take an enormous swing and mostly hit the mark.