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Conjured into existence by fans (and HBO Max's need for content), this reworked version of the 2017 superhero team-up is... a lot
ZACK SNYDER’S JUSTICE LEAGUE (Zack Snyder). 242 minutes. Available to stream Thursday (March 18) on Crave. Rating: NN
Despite what his extremely vocal champions would have you believe, Zack Snyder’s Justice League is not a restoration. The “Snyder cut” of DC’s 2017 superhero team-up epic existed solely as an assembly of unfinished footage and sketched-out effects sequences when the filmmaker left the production following a family tragedy.
The fans didn’t believe that, of course, turning a casual comment from Snyder that he’d saved his version of the movie on his laptop into an elaborate mythology: never mind the stories about screenwriter Joss Whedon stepping in as an uncredited director to finish principal photography, never mind the mechanics of post-production, never mind the fact that the four-hour movie Snyder said he’d made was a practical impossibility as a theatrical release.
The Snyder Cut spawned a Snyder Cult, clogging Twitter feeds with invective against anyone who didn’t fully appreciate the masterful vision in their collective imagination. And last year, when AT&T launched HBO Max and needed high-visibility content, the company spent tens of millions of dollars to let Snyder finish his movie.
So now, finally, we have Zack Snyder’s Justice League, exactly twice as long and at least five times more self-important than the version released into theatres three and a half years ago.
What do you want to know?
Zack Snyder’s Justice League is the movie Snyder imagines he would have made, given unlimited resources and time. It folds in characters from other DC movies, introduces a master mythology that would have played out in two sequels, and ends with the worst cover of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah I have ever heard, and I have heard people sing this song at weddings.
It has a running time of four hours and two minutes, although you don’t have to watch it all in one sitting: the movie is structured as six “chapters” of varying lengths, and a half-hour epilogue. (There’s no formal intermission, though that’s ultimately irrelevant; like Man Of Steel and Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice, Snyder pitches every scene in the movie at exactly the same level of dramatic agitation, meaning you can pause it pretty much whenever you want without breaking the tension.)
The action scenes are bloodier; when Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman flings a henchman into a wall in the Old Bailey in the first act, his body leaves a bloody streak as it slides down the marble surface. There are three instances of the word “fuck” – and yes, one of them comes from Ben Affleck’s Batman – and the role of Cyborg is indeed substantially expanded in this version, making Ray Fisher’s character the heart of the film.
The plot is exactly the same as it was in the 2017 version, with Bruce Wayne and Diana working to assemble a team of metahumans to battle an extra-dimensional invasion led by the monstrous Steppenwolf (still a CG creation voiced by Ciaran Hinds, now with spikier armour and improved physical consistency). Bruce reaches out to Aquaman (Jason Momoa) and The Flash (Ezra Miller), with mixed results, while Diana approaches Cyborg, a high-school football phenom whose scientist father Silas (Joe Morton) saved his life by infusing him with the energy of an all-powerful Mother Box – one of three artifacts Steppenwolf needs to turn the Earth into a raging hellscape for his master, the alien warlord Darkseid.
It sounds more complicated than it is, mostly because this version of the film includes at least half an hour of new scenes where various characters explain the plot to each other, and we have the time to think about how Whedon understood that those scenes were not necessary in the first place.
Sure, this version makes Steppenwolf’s motivations more coherent, but I’m not sure learning he’s a middle manager trying to get his boss to take him seriously after screwing up a big project makes him more complex or formidable in the way Snyder insists it does. The shiny porcupine man wants to destroy the world, and our heroes want to stop him.
Whedon got that across in a couple of lines of dialogue, which are now gone – as are the majority of the laugh lines the screenwriter seeded into the movie, the really clever resolution to the second-act resurrection of Superman and the entire subplot about a Russian family trapped in Steppenwolf’s operational radius for The Flash to eventually save. (Whedon himself has been disappeared from the credits; the script is now credited solely to Chris Terrio.)
So what does work?
Cyborg works; even when he’s cloaked under digitally-generated metal, Fisher really sells Victor Stone’s evolution from angry teen to confident hero over the course of the Snyder cut. In a recent Vanity Fair interview, the actor said all but one of his scenes were completely reshot for Whedon’s version, which explains why his performance feels so radically different but would also imply Whedon reshot at least a third of the film.
I’m not entirely sure I believe that, since a lot of the 2017 version is in here, the footage reformatted to the boxier aspect ratio of an IMAX screen. (Snyder says he always wanted the movie to be presented this way; I’m not sure I believe that, either.) But even if we take them at their word, that means a great deal of time, money and talent was burned on the re-creation of about 45 minutes of movie without noticeably improving any of it… to say nothing of the other three hours or so of “new” material. It doesn’t make sense, but as a project birthed of pure spite I don’t suppose it has to.
Too long; didn’t read: Zack Snyder’s Justice League is basically critic-proof, since it’s pitched directly at super-fans who will receive it as the lost masterwork they always knew it to be. They’ve invested four years of their lives in reinforcing the myth of the Snyder Cut as the One Ring that will restore their hero to his rightful place in the pantheon; it’s not like they can admit this isn’t much of an improvement on the other version. Like a doomsday cult that keeps recalibrating the date of the apocalypse when it fails to arrive as predicted, they’ll now switch to attacking anyone who doesn’t agree Warner should let Snyder to make his sequels.
I don’t think Snyder should make his sequels. In the first place, I’m pretty sure Affleck isn’t interested – he seems even more checked out in this cut than he did in the original – and I expect Henry Cavill is in no hurry to return as Superman, given the way Snyder’s revisions once again strip away the humanity the actor keeps trying to put into the character.
But as with all of Zack Snyder’s DC movies, what I want doesn’t matter. The fans want what they want, and he gives it to them. Hallelujah. Hallelujah.
Note: This review has been updated to clarify which version of Justice League necessitated the reshooting of Ray Fisher’s scenes. And again to clarify the new version’s expanded aspect ratio.
NOW critics Norman Wilner and Radheyan Simonpillai discuss their differing takes on Zack Snyder’s Justice League on the latest episode of the NOW What podcast, available on Apple Podcasts or Spotify or playable directly below:
NOW What is a twice-weekly podcast that explores the ways Torontonians are coping with life in the time of coronavirus. New episodes are available Tuesdays and Fridays.