After the death of Zack Snyder’s 20-year-old daughter in 2017, the director backed away from his work on the superhero team film “Justice League.” Joss Whedon was tapped to complete the project, which included drastically cutting down the film’s length. The result was a widely panned and incoherent mess. (More, Ray Fisher, who plays Cyborg in “Justice League” as well as actors from other Whedon projects have come forward to accuse the director of abusive and unprofessional behavior on set.)
I really wish “Zack Snyder’s Justice League” was a masterpiece, or at least a decent movie. But it isn’t.
Thursday’s much-anticipated director’s cut of “Justice League,” then, streaming on HBO Max, is both a triumph over personal trauma, and a rebuke to a culture of professional impunity. Fans are excited; cast members have said they’re thrilled, as well.
Given this compelling backstory, I really wish “Zack Snyder’s Justice League” was a masterpiece, or at least a decent movie. But it isn’t. The director’s cut is an endless, joyless 240-minutes of tedium. The problems that plagued the theatrical version of the film — too many characters, an unfocused plot, a deeply uninteresting antagonist — are compounded rather than ameliorated at twice the length.
As with most of Snyder’s DC Extended Universe films, though, his version of “Justice League” is at least bad in some interesting ways. The theatrical cut was just another piece of indifferently assembled corporate product. But the new four-hour version gives fans their most undiluted view of Snyder’s vision — a vision which rather haplessly conflates heroism with shock and awe, and goodness with superpowers.
The broad outlines of the plot remain the same. Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds), an unfortunately-named, extradimensional antagonist with silly-looking horns, comes to earth to gather three mystic machines, known as Mother Boxes. Once assembled, these boxes will allow him to (you guessed it) conquer the world. Batman (Ben Affleck) gathers together a team of meta-humans to stop him, resurrecting the fallen Superman (Henry Cavill) along the way.
To that already convoluted narrative, the four-hour cut adds a lot of backstory. Steppenwolf is not the chief villain, it turns out. He is merely the catspaw of another ranting extradimensional CGI atrocity known as Darkseid (Ray Porter). Snyder also gives Ray Fisher’s Cyborg a lot more screen time. His character arc is fairly default; Cyborg has mixed feelings about his father and his powers and has to reconcile with both. But given Fisher’s allegations of abuse, and the typical sidelining of Black characters in superhero team movies, his expanded role is still welcome.
The Snyder cut’s main difference from its shorter sibling is not found in the plot, though, but in its tone. Snyder’s version excises most of the quips that Whedon put in the theatrical release (though Ezra Miller as the Flash remains an irrepressible ad libber no matter who’s directing.) In place of humor, Snyder substitutes desaturated color and an aura of somber bombast. The pounding, ponderous soundtrack tries to turn every scene, no matter how unlikely, into a sweeping emotional catharsis. Flash saving someone while applying for a job in a pet store; Aquaman (Jason Momoa) telling Bruce Wayne to sod off; the world ending — it’s all scored to inspire hands over hearts and a picturesque tear in every eye.
Snyder has been accused of not respecting the DC superheroes enough. But the HBO Max “Justice League” makes it clear his problem is not insufficient veneration. It’s the opposite. Snyder worships superheroes. The claim that superheroes are myths is a cliché at this point, but Snyder embraces it with credulous, literalist enthusiasm. In one flashback sequence, he shows superheroes fighting side by side with Greek gods.
With such a reverent, ossified approach to the genre, it’s no wonder that Snyder’s best moments don’t tend to be action sequences, but frozen tableaux: Wonder Woman standing somewhat improbably on a giant statue of justice; Aquaman standing in the sea with his pecs out. Snyder makes copious use of John-Woo-style slow-motion. But where Woo projects a flamboyant brutality, Snyder is all about impressiveness and weight. His superheroes are more statues than humans. Like the hyperrealist superhero artist Alex Ross, Snyder conflates immobility with impressiveness.
Snyder wants a superhero film with the epic sweep of something like “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy.
Snyder wants a superhero film with the epic sweep of something like “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy. But the Snyder cut’s compulsive references to obscure comic book characters can’t substitute for Tolkien’s worldbuilding, and Snyder makes little effort to duplicate LOTR’s careful orchestration of tension and release.
More to the point, “Justice League” is not about weak Hobbits overcoming the corrupting strength of Sauron. On the contrary, the ethics of “Justice League” are mostly an aesthetic of sturm und drang and physical beauty. Good guys/gals win and look like Gal Gadot and Jason Momoa. Bad guys are ugly CGI monsters and get thumped. The theatrical release added civilians for heroes to save in the third act to ground all that flexing in some kind of recognizable altruistic impulse. But Snyder doesn’t bother with that. The spectacle is the main thing. The most powerful are the most good are the most victorious. By the end you sort of agree with the evil Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) that these godlike costumed goobers are just too smug to be born.
People who are not Luthor like to watch superheroes fight and win, obviously. But Snyder’s unusually naked fetishization of superpower, to the exclusion of sensible plotlines or drama or humor hasn’t been as popular as the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s less overbearing approach. People are ambivalent about worshipping the strong; they want their empowerment fantasies with a sliver of deniability. The Snyder cut, for better or (mostly) worse, provides none.
Noah Berlatsky is a freelance writer and critic in Chicago.