‘Zack Snyder’s Justice League’ review: Twice as long, more punishing — and yes, better
Like the Kraken in “Clash of the Titans,” “Zack Snyder’s Justice League” has been released. It was released Thursday on HBO Max, all four hours and two minutes of it.
I’d love to say it isn’t half-bad, but I can’t, because it is. It’s roughly 50% bad.
The other 50% is better than that, even with a running time that threatens to never stop not stopping. Director Snyder has managed to will into existence an improvement, and a crushingly solemn, occasionally moving expansion, on the 2017 “Justice League,” which had nowhere to go but up.
Score one for the rabid #ReleaseTheSnyderCut folks: They essentially bullied Warner Brothers into putting up $70 million for Snyder to return to his unused footage, reshoot a bit (Jared Leto as Joker pops up, ineffectually, for the coda), rearrange the storylines and reedit the whole schmegegge as “Zack Snyder’s Justice League.”
The earlier, two-hour “Justice League” was rewritten and directed, uncredited, by Joss Whedon, after a sudden death in the family took Snyder and his wife, executive producer Deborah Snyder, out of the project. This new version feels like a sincere, half-mad experiment, made by director processing long-form grief. No longer does it play like a franchise movie made entirely by machine learning.
We begin in mourning and we stay there. Earth has lost its way after the death of Superman, an event depicted in Snyder’s 2016 “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.” Weighed down by guilt and Ben Affleck’s stubble, Bruce Wayne/Batman has a job to do. The villain du jour is Steppenwolf (voice by Ciaran Hinds, character design inspired by DC Comics, contemporary resonance thanks to Jacob Chansley, the man who stormed the U.S. Capitol in horns). If Steppenwolf manages to secure all three glowing “memory boxes,” the DC world’s answer to Marvel’s Infinity Stones or a cosmic amplifier that goes to 11, then he and his ilk acquire complete control over the universe. It’s basically a fight to see who gets to use the universal remote.
What to do? Batman must venture out of his protective emotional shell and find some pals, with the help of manservant Alfred (Jeremy Irons, whose superpower is the precise calibration of his … exquisitely timed … pauses). He must assemble a Justice League to vanquish the fiendish winged alien invaders reporting directly to Steppenwolf, who reports directly to Darkseid, clearly an alum of the same military boarding school attended by Thanos of “Avengers: Endgame.” Like his earthbound adversaries, Steppenwolf struggles with insecurity and a longing to prove himself, while periodically uttering such pearls as “I will bathe in your fear” and my favorite: “So begins the end,” spoken an hour and 11 minutes before the end.
Bruce’s boutique collection includes Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), Aquaman (Jason Momoa), The Flash (Ezra Miller) and Cyborg (Ray Fisher), all of whom now receive a full complement of backstories and a fair share of semi-coherent battle scenes. “Zack Synder’s Justice League,” working from a screenplay (and lots of it) by Chris Terrio, still clunks from generic mayhem to generic mayhem, on land, under water, on the magical isle of Themyscira and inside a radioactive Soviet-era power plant. But now, at least, the pacing feels intentional. Now and then, Snyder’s camera finds a useful strategy. Early on there’s a rather neat series of gliding transitions: from Icelandic maiden, singing Aquaman’s praises; to Diane Lane’s Martha Kent, driving away from her foreclosed Kansas farm; to Affleck’s Bruce Wayne hopping off a helicopter.
Henry Cavill’s Superman remains as he was in the 2017 “Justice League”: a performance defined by hunky shirtlessness, delivered by an actor who is luckier than he is talented. Bodies count for a lot in superheroics, of course, though it’s worth mentioning Gadot’s Wonder Woman and how she’s subjected to casually rampant objectification throughout, in the hands and the gaze of a male director who prefers to shoot action from a low angle. Things were handled a little differently in director Patty Jenkins’ “Wonder Woman.”
This movie doesn’t really care about story, which explains why “Zack Snyder’s Justice League” is a four-hour story about a guy looking for a box. Much of the action, even when it doesn’t involve The Flash, unfolds in wildly overindulged super-slow motion. The film is driven by what are intended to be trance-like states of wonder and awe. Yet the tonal swings, in both versions of “Justice League,” undercut the seriousness. When Miller’s Flash delivers the laugh line “So! We finally have a plan!” sometime around the 25th hour, it sounds a little desperate.
Would I feel differently about the Snyder cut if it had been released as a six- or seven-part limited series on HBO Max — “WandaVision” style? Maybe. As is, the film’s un-panoramic 4:3 aspect ratio framing suits both the IMAX theatrical experience and just about any home screen. And since Snyder’s way with prolonged visual mayhem is not his strong suit, the boxy framing does focus our attention on the characters we’re supposed to care about and, intermittently, do.
With the early, sprightly, sadistic exceptions of his “Dawn of the Dead” remake and the Spartan recruiting poster “300,” I’ve found it distressingly easy to write off Snyder’s worst, especially “Sucker Punch” and “Dawn of Justice.” The Snyder cut of “Justice League” is a more intriguing effort, though “effort” is the word, all right. Anyone who’s been waiting for this “Justice League” do-over for literal years knew, roughly, what they’d be getting: an endurance test, of which die-hard DC fans will love every last eternal minute.
‘ZACK SNYDER’S JUSTICE LEAGUE’
2 stars (out of 4)
MPAA rating: R (for violence and some language)
Running time: 4 hours, 2 minutes
Where to watch: Now streaming on HBO Max