3.5 out of 5 stars

Underwhelming everyone four years ago, Justice League (2017) was never going to be the crowning achievement for such a shambolic bedrock of DC Extended Universe (DCEU) movies, following Man of Steel (2013), Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016), Suicide Squad (2016), and Wonder Woman (2017). Zack Snyder (Watchmen) was the creative mastermind for Warner Bros. and DC Films, who desperately wanted to compete with Disney’s Marvel Studios, but all parties lacked the patience to introduce these characters naturally.

It’s understandable in some respects because the three pillars of the Justice League (Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman) have been household names for decades already, but we’ve since had Aquaman (2018), Shazam! (2019), Birds of Prey (2020), and Wonder Woman 1984 (2020), so now is the time they should be uniting these characters to fight a common enemy.

Step forward, Zack Snyder… again! Originally parting ways with Justice League after a family tragedy, Snyder’s absence gave a nervous studio the chance to retool his unfinished vision. Burned by the critical mauling Batman v Superman received, but pleased by the affection shown towards the more equable Wonder Woman, Warner Bros. brought in Joss Whedon (The Avengers) to lighten Justice League’s tone and find a more appealing middle-ground. The result was an awkward hybrid that neither director are happy to have on their CVs. Setting aside Whedon’s on-set behaviour that’s recently come to light, which seem to have ended his career and now casts a pall over his acclaimed TV work, Justice League ended up being a forgettable jumble.

Only now, Snyder’s been given the chance to restore his original vision, thanks to the WB capitalising on the #ReleaseTheSnyderCut fan campaign in order to drive subscribers to HBO Max. Handing Snyder a cool $70M to complete the VFX and rescore his unused cut, Zack Snyder’s Justice League now arrives as an improbable way to cap this crazy behind-the-scenes saga.

The fact Warner Bros. apparently have no intention to continue making DCEU movies that adhere to this film’s continuity is, frankly, another level of needless confusion DC Films just can’t seem to shake off. But in terms of unprecedented cultural moments, this cut of Justice League is definitely something to be amazed exists. That fans can influence studios into remaking the stuff they didn’t like, and gladly pay again to see a big-budget do-over, has become a fascinating and unnerving reality.

But what’s this movie actually like? Zack Snyder’s Justice League broadly follows the same beats as the 2017 version, in terms of basic plot and motivations. Only it’s now four hours long and separated into six ‘chapters’ (remnants of an idea to release it as a weekly miniseries), which means every character has more room to breathe. Victor Stone/Cyborg (Ray Fisher) was particularly overlooked in Whedon’s version, but is now given the majority of screen time to explain his backstory and dynamic with his scientist father. There’s less comedy, but it’s far grander in scope and scale, adding spectacle and narrative cohesion. And Superman (Henry Cavill) doesn’t have a distracting blur around his upper lip to hide an infamous moustache he sported during the reshoots.

Would this version of Justice League have been as well-received four years ago? We’ll never know. It’s a superior movie in every way, for sure, but Snyder’s 2017 version wouldn’t have been four hours long and would perhaps have suffered from similar issues the theatrical cut did in having to truncate things. We also know Arthur Curry/Aquaman (Jason Momoa) a lot better now, following his own solo movie, and have seen more of Diana Prince/Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) since then, so there’s a deeper attachment to those characters and performances years later. But I’m sure even a curtailed version of Snyder’s vision would’ve been preferable to Whedon’s rushed retooling.

Fans will embrace this version as the definitive Justice League, but it’s unclear if it’s canon within the DCEU. For that reason, it seems a folly that Snyder backloads this film with more teases of the apocalyptic future glimpsed in Batman v Superman… not knowing for sure if the studio want to continue this storyline. Warner Bros.’s new plan seems to be letting these comic-book characters exist in whatever form seems a financially good idea at the time. Everyone hated Suicide Squad? Oh, just make The Suicide Squad (2021) with a mostly new cast. Most fans didn’t like Jared Leto’s gangsta take on the Joker? Greenlight an award-winning solo Joker (2019) prequel with Joaquin Phoenix in the clown make-up.

Zack Snyder’s Justice League is more interesting for how it came to be, than what it actually is. Truth is, it’s surprisingly similar to the previous version, only extended in every conceivable way. There are clear improvements in terms of visual design (supervillain Steppenwolf now looks threatening in his spiky armour), a singular creative vision of whatever kind is appreciated, the new soundtrack by Tom Holkenborg helps unify Justice League to Snyder’s previous DCEU films, and most of the characters have a clearer personal journey. This is particularly true of Cyborg struggling with his new abilities and retreating into himself, but we also Aquaman’s refusal to accept his royal birthright (a storyline since ended in his own film), and Barry Allen/The Flash (Ezra Miller) wanting to get his life on-track to make his father proud. Only Wonder Woman gets little progression, perhaps because she was fresh off her own origin movie at the time.

The action sequences are either longer and more creative versions of what we’ve seen before, or entirely new. A lot of the Snyder Cut’s benefits come from having the runtime of two movies to tell a story you could fit on the back of an envelope, of course, but fans won’t be starved of VFX. The pacing is kept strong throughout, so kudos to editors David Brenner and Dody Dorn, as far superior blockbuster epics have more noticeable lulls. It helps, psychologically, that its 242-minutes are divided into digestible chapters, and the only misstep is an ‘Epilogue’ containing too many false endings and setting up what are probably now dead-ends. But one can hardly blame Snyder for throwing everything he had on the cutting room floor into this thing, as it’s essentially the biggest piece of fan-service that’s ever existed.

I had fun watching Zack Snyder’s Justice League. It’s like seeing the same movie done better, with an overindulgence that gave it a strange weight. But my old complaints about the DCEU and Snyder’s filmmaking sensibilities remain, as it’s laughably pretentious and dumb at times. This stern Superman is all wrong and an injustice to Henry Cavill, and its world isn’t as engrossing as the one Marvel have carefully built. Snyder’s approach is to make everything as enormous as possible, with extensive use of slow-motion, which means there’s little sense of rise and fall. I don’t think Snyder’s interested in these characters as anything other than god-like figures, as even saying the names ‘Clark Kent’ and ‘Bruce Wayne’ feels alien in the context of the DCEU. Justice League has no interest in small character moments, as the few it has are palmed off to Amy Adams or Diane Lane as two grieving women.

Overall, The Snyder Cut was real. It exists. You can watch it. I don’t think many people will ever watch the theatrical cut again, either, as this is a fuller and more flavoursome take on the same thing. I’m surprised it was this entertaining and cohesive, with so much new footage, but Zack Snyder’s Justice League is ultimately more fascinating for how it got made than what is. There aren’t too many aborted director’s cuts that only saw the light of day thanks to a long-running fan campaign and the content needs of a streaming startup.

Forget super-powers, this is a testament to people power.

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USA | 2021 | 242 MINUTES | 1.37:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH

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Cast & Crew

director: Zack Snyder.
writer: Chris Terrio (story by Chris Terrio, Zack Snyder & Will Beall; based on characters created by DC Comics).
starring: Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Gal Gadot, Ray Fisher, Jason Momoa, Ezra Miller, Willem Dafoe, Jesse Eisenberg, Jeremy Irons, Diane Lane, Connie Nielsen, J.K Simmons & Jared Leto.