REVIEW: “Zack Snyder’s Justice League” (The Snyder Cut)

Three and a half years after the release of the maligned theatrical cut of Justice League, Zack Snyder’s original cut of the film is almost here. It’s been a long time coming but thanks to the support of many fans and the desperation of a streaming service in need of new content, the world can finally see Snyder’s full take on the Justice League. The biggest question on everyone’s minds is whether this new cut is better than the theatrical cut. The answer is both simple and complicated. In many, if not most, ways, Zack Snyder’s Justice League is miles better than the theatrical cut. However, even with all the extra content and context, this new cut provides, several of the theatrical cut’s problems remain. And they’re joined by some new problems exclusive to this version. It’s not a bad movie or anything—it often borders on being a good one. But it’s a too-long film that suffers from bad pacing, a lack of focus, and characters that still feel more like archetypes than three-dimensional people. Long story short, it’ll please those who adore Snyder’s movies, annoy those who hate them, and leave the rest of us in a middle ground of partial pleasure and partial displeasure. (3.5 out of 5 wands.) 

NOTE: This review will generally be spoiler free. There may be references to plot points that are shared between both cuts of the film, but most of the newer stuff will be hinted at instead of spoiled.

Zack Snyder’s Justice League
(written by Zack Snyder and Chris Terrio; directed by Zack Snyder)
Batman (Ben Affleck) and Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) enlist a team capable of protecting the world from the impending threat of Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds) and his Parademon army, who are scouring the universe for three hidden Mother Boxes that would enable Steppenwolf to transcend worlds, lay waste to all enemies, and restore his good standing with his master, Darkseid (Ray Porter). Though most of Batman and Wonder Woman’s initial efforts are met with resistance, they ultimately recruit Aquaman (Jason Momoa), Cyborg (Ray Fisher), and The Flash (Ezra Miller). But in order to help preserve the future of mankind, first they must each overcome their own demons.

After Steppenwolf secures two of the boxes buried deep within Themyscira and Atlantis, the superheroes are forced to take advantage of Cyborg’s unique connection to the one remaining. Harnessing the box’s capabilities to resurrect a final team member (Henry Cavill), they inadvertently provide Steppenwolf with an opportunity to obtain it – setting him up for imminent domination. With DeSaad and Darkseid waiting in the wings and posing catastrophic threats of their own, can this unique band of heroes dismantle the Mother Boxes before Steppenwolf’s synchronization is complete?

I haven’t seen the theatrical cut of Justice League since I first watched and reviewed it in November 2017. So, I can’t tell you exactly what it is and isn’t similar between the two cuts. However, what I can say is that this is fundamentally the same story as the theatrical cut. To be fair, it was unrealistic to think the film would have a wildly different plot. Yes, Joss Whedon reportedly rewrote and reshot a lot of the theatrical cut, but there was never any real likelihood he’d changed the underlying narrative much. So, the hope was always that restoring Snyder’s original vision would add some much-needed context and backstory to the plot. And that’s exactly what’s happened. So, rather than discuss the plot in any great detail, it makes more sense to discuss how Snyder’s new cut differs from the theatrical cut. Zack Snyder’s Justice League makes a lot more sense than the theatrical cut did. Many of the logical questions left unanswered there get answered here. Much like the Ultimate Edition of Batman v Superman, these extra scenes bring the plot into a much sharper focus. Like in that film, and unlike in the theatrical cut, the scenes all logically progress, one after the other. There is a narrative cohesion here that was completely missing in the theatrical cut, and it makes the story a lot easier to follow—even if there’s more going on and a lot more world-building here than in the theatrical cut. The movie feels quintessentially Justice League-esque and it remains a delight seeing these characters I grew up loving come to life on the screen in a story that feels so comics-like.

Unfortunately, the added context doesn’t fix all of the theatrical cut’s problems. Side characters like Mera (Amber Heard), Commissioner Gordon (J.K. Simmons), and others have little-to-nothing to do and take up time that could’ve been used continuing to expand the arcs for the main characters and other important characters like Lois Lane (Amy Adams) and Martha Kent (Diane Lane). Sure, most of them have more screen time here than they did in the theatrical cut, but more screen time doesn’t always equal greater satisfaction. Additionally, many of the characters advertised as having roles aren’t really in this in any meaningful way—Kiersey Clemons’ Iris shares a single scene with Barry and barely makes an impression; Jared Leto’s Joker is in a scene towards the end of the film, and he’s simultaneously better and worse than he was in Suicide Squad; Joe Manganiello’s Deathstroke appears in a couple of scenes at the end of the film that exist solely to set up a sequel that will likely never happen; even Darkseid, DeSaad (Peter Guinness), and the rest of Darkseid’s crew only have a couple of scenes that end up having the same impact as Thanos’s early appearances in the MCU. Snyder banks on the audience being familiar enough with the DC Comics characters to know why Darkseid should be feared instead of actually convincing audiences of the threat he poses. If you’re watching Zack Snyder’s Justice League specifically for one of these characters, you should lower your expectations. 

Our main characters are also a bit of a mixed bag. When they’re interacting with each other, it’s a lot of fun and they feel so close to the comics that it’s immensely pleasing for a fan of those stories. But on their own, some shine brighter than others. Some of them are developed into three-dimensional(ish) characters while others are left more thinly-sketched, assuming the audience will fill in the gaps. Batman and Wonder Woman get a little more development when compared to the theatrical cut, but they still feel a bit archetypal. Affleck and Gadot give excellent performances (with Affleck’s Bruce Wayne still ranking among the best live action depictions of that side of the character), and they both have plenty of chances to make their characters shine, but neither of them has much of a character arc in this film. Yes, Batman kind of grows from being a loner to a team-guy, but it’s often so far in the background that it’s hard to track. And yes, they both do things that advance the plot, and Wonder Woman gets to show off some detective skills of her own, but I don’t feel like I really learned anything new about these characters here. Superman (Henry Cavill), similarly, doesn’t get much to do here. His arc is almost entirely unchanged from the theatrical cut. It takes 60ish percent of the film for him to be brought back to life, and then after a single conversation with Lois, he’s back to normal. With all the extra time this movie had to work with, it’s a shame that they didn’t spend any of it making Superman’s return more satisfying. 

Aquaman fares a bit better, though. His introduction is a little lengthier, and you can see how Snyder was initially trying to set up the events of 2018’s Aquaman. It’s a shame the theatrical cut got rid of some of this as it ends up making Aquaman a bit better, but it’s nice to have it reinstated here. Similarly, this cut expands Steppenwolf’s backstory quite a bit. He’s less of a generic alien baddie here than he was in the theatrical cut. Here, he has a clearly defined motivation for his actions. His relationship to Darkseid is better explained and there’s even a little tension added to their connection. However, the film still doesn’t make him much of a threat. Hinds is given more time to establish Steppenwolf’s personality, but he never feels like a threat the Justice League can’t beat and the film spends so much time away from him that it’s easy to forget he’s the threat at all.

Barry Allen and Victor Stone benefit the most from the added scenes, with both of them getting a lot of much-needed development. I’m still not entirely sold on Ezra Miller’s performance, but Barry Allen is a lot less cringey here than he was in the theatrical cut. To be clear, he still makes a lot of jokes—and not all of them are funny—but they feel more in line with the kind of jokester the Flash normally is. We get a little bit more about Barry’s relationship with his father, but it mostly acts as setup for a future Flash film than it does as any meaningful arc for this film. Victor Stone, on the other hand, goes from barely making an impression in the theatrical cut to being one of the centerpieces of the Snyder Cut. Much of the film revolves around his arc of self-acceptance, learning to find the humanity beneath what he views as monstrous. There are a lot more scenes between Victor and his father, Silas (Joe Morton), that strengthen our understanding of both of them. Here, Silas isn’t just an absent father figure, but a layered and nuanced individual who genuinely seems to care for his son. There’s a whole story going on there, and Snyder explores it with a lot of care. If there’s one reason to watch this cut of Justice League, it’s for Cyborg’s expanded plotline.

Zack Snyder’s Justice League is a long movie. Frankly, it’s probably too long. There’s a fine line between giving your plot the room to breathe and gradually build itself up and dragging the plot out so much that there’s no tension and everything feels like a slow meander to the climax. Zack Snyder’s Justice League hews closer to the latter. There are a lot of benefits to this long of a runtime, but watching the film in one four-hour-long sitting is extremely overwhelming. It’s hard to keep track of what’s happening and everything is so drawn out, with various narratives expanded and explored in more depth, that the film is deprived of some of its tension. Things just keep happening and the buildup is so gradual that you can’t quite grasp the scale of the stakes Honestly, if Snyder and his team were so wedded to keeping this as a film, they easily could’ve whittled it down by at least a half an hour by cutting down on some of the more indulgent moments, not using slow motion as much, and generally tightening up the film to focus on the most important plotlines instead of the needlessly wide swathe it tried to cover. A slightly shorter film would’ve been a lot easier to sit through.

That being said, I think Zack Snyder’s Justice League would’ve worked perfectly as a six(ish) episode miniseries. Based on Snyder’s decision to split the story into six chapters and an epilogue, it feels like the movie was intended to be released as an episodic series. The film’s pacing bears more in common with premium cable TV shows (like HBO’s Watchmen) than it does with most movies. It’s less overwhelming when a show takes its time setting everything up; you expect most shows to do that. The film’s first two hours being so slow wouldn’t matter as much in the context of a multi-episode series. Plus, splitting it into episodes could have allowed for even more time to explore some of the character beats I felt were missing. In an episodic series, Superman’s return could have been explored with all the depth it deserved, Batman and Wonder Woman could’ve gotten stronger arcs, even Barry and Iris could’ve gotten more screen time together than a single scene. I know there were contractual issues that resulted in Snyder and HBO Max not releasing this as a miniseries the way they’d initially suggested they might, but I can’t help feeling this story, as told, would be better served in that format as opposed to a single, four-hour film. 

Still, I liked this movie more than I didn’t. Yes, there are problems, but I think Zack Snyder’s Justice League is thoroughly enjoyable despite all of that. I don’t watch most of Snyder’s films in search of the most amazing plotlines. I watch them because he makes deeply atmospheric movies with breathtaking visuals and electric action sequences. And that’s exactly what his cut of Justice League is. If the Ultimate Edition of Batman v Superman felt operatic in an overly dramatic way, then Zack Snyder’s Justice League ratchets that up to an eleven. And, to be clear, I love that about the movie. Superheroes are inherently overdramatic, especially when they’ve got godlike powers like Superman or Wonder Woman. Yes, it’s fun to humanize them, as Snyder does with Cyborg, but it’s even more fun to lean into the over-the-top aspects of them and have a lot of fun.

Visually, the film is a treat. This cut of the film doesn’t feel anywhere near as muddy as the theatrical cut did; I wouldn’t say it’s a colorful film or anything, but it doesn’t feel dull, gray, and muted. It’s dark, but the blacks feel deep and the colors brightly pop. The CGI is pretty solid. There’s a lot of it, and it’s not always great, but it’s a marked improvement over the theatrical cut. Some of the mostly-CGI characters don’t quite feel real—some of the shots of Cyborg look as though his face isn’t actually attached to his body and I generally don’t think the overly-shiny designs of Cyborg and Steppenwolf look particularly realistic—but it’s never too distracting. And then there are the action sequences. Snyder’s always directed some pretty breathtaking action sequences, and he delivers some of all-time greatest here. Yes, there’s still plenty of the slow-motion stuff he’s known for utilizing, but these scenes do a great job of displaying the Justice League’s powers. You can feel the brutality in some of these fights, you can see how each hero adapts their powers to a given situation. And, best of all, you can follow what’s going on in the fights—even when it’s a bunch of CGI creatures fighting other CGI characters. That’s a pretty impressive feat.

Overall, Zack Snyder’s Justice League is kind of a mixed bag for me. In many ways, it’s an improvement over the theatrical cut. The story is more coherently told, with a plot that progresses in a logical, linear manner. The overall look of the film is nicer, with a more cohesive style and lots of excellent action sequences. Tom Holkenborg’s score fits nicely with the tone Snyder’s created and expands upon some of the themes he and Hans Zimmer had introduced in previous DCEU films. And, best of all, Cyborg’s character arc is greatly expanded, digging deep into what makes him tick and following him through his journey from “monster” to hero. Cyborg’s arc, alone, is worth watching the movie. Unfortunately, the film is not without its flaws. It’s got subpar pacing and feels much too long, some of the other character arcs aren’t explored as fully as one would like, and Steppenwolf still doesn’t feel all that threatening. Still, this movie feels like a quintessential Justice League story. It’s exactly the kind of arc you might find in a comic. It’s a marked improvement over the theatrical cut and, even with its problems, it’s worth a watch for anyone with an interest in the DC characters. Snyder’s fans will love it, Snyder’s detractors will dislike it, and everyone in between will take what they like and leave what they don’t. In all honesty, if Snyder and WarnerMedia wanted to continue this story as an ongoing HBO Max show, I’d gladly watch it. There’s still a lot of potential in Snyder’s world and I’d be happy to see it continue in some way.

3.5 out of 5 wands.

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