It’s not unusual these days for a superhero movie to be a major cultural event, but Zack Snyder’s Justice League is different.
For the uninitiated: Zack Snyder was the director at the creative center of the DC Extended Universe designed to rival Marvel’s growing success, but his second DCEU movie, 2016’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, didn’t get the reception studios were hoping for. They started to push against his vision for Justice League, and Snyder, who suffered a personal tragedy during production, decided to leave the project rather than expend the energy required to push back.
When the 2017 version extensively retooled by Joss Whedon bombed both critically and commercially, fans spent years campaigning for the release of the Snyder Cut, which industry experts considered a pipe dream at best. Warner Bros. greenlighted that pipe dream last year, and on Thursday, it premiered exclusively on HBO Max.
The story beats of this Justice League are similar to the previous version, though significantly expanded. Following Superman’s (Henry Cavill) death in BvS, Bruce Wayne / Batman (Ben Affleck) is determined to form a team of heroes that can fight off whatever threat emerges in his absence. As he and Diana Prince / Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) struggle to recruit Aaron Curry / Aquaman (Jason Momoa), Barry Allen / The Flash (Ezra Miller), and Victor Stone / Cyborg (Ray Fisher), that threat arrives in the form of Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds), a military officer from another universe who destroys and enslaves planets on behalf of his master, Darkseid (Ray Porter). When Diana learns more about Earth’s past encounter with Darkseid, the heroes realize their only hope is to reform old alliances – and find a way to resurrect the Son of Krypton.
For dedicated Snyder-ites, Zack Snyder’s Justice League is everything they have hoped for. Four hours of slow-motion, religious themes, and broody visuals, with a high frequency of stylized, superpowered action – his creative signature is undeniable here. It’s also a significant improvement over the 2017 cut, providing space to crucial character development that makes the story coherent, the villain compelling, and the action involving (a low bar to clear, maybe, but a welcome one). There’s something about his mythologized approach, framing the conflict as between gods and heroes, that works thematically in a way his two previous DCEU films didn’t; perhaps invoking Ancient Greece does more to communicate this than the running Superman-as-Jesus metaphor.
While it’s nice to know that Snyder’s unchained vision yields a functional film, Zack Snyder’s Justice League is far from a masterpiece. It remains a rushed attempt at a Justice League movie that needs to introduce three of its main characters, too much for even this lengthy runtime. The dark weightiness of it is still a lot, to the point that all the slo-mo feels like the movie struggling to carry itself. The script is uneven and the CGI, while much improved, is still spotty, resulting in moments that don’t land the way they hope to. The lengthy epilogue provides a glimpse at what Snyder would have done with the rest of the DCEU, and it looks to have been an even weightier mixed bag, which I don’t feel unhappy to have missed out on. That said, I am glad Snyder got the chance to realize (and fix) this movie – he closes this chapter of his career on a solid, enjoyable note.