There recently went viral a clip from some adult cartoon wherein one character mouthed the oft-mentioned Martin Scorsese opinion that superhero films were ruining cinema, only to be rebutted with the argument that they were equivalent to modern myths. Removing form from this ever-recurring argument, if something truly separates Zack Snyder—who has dedicated most of his filmography to comic adaptations—from the average Marvel journeymen, it would be a genuine belief in superheroes as something greater than just post-9/11 escape. Judging by the amount of pain they go through, they’re subjects for a modern Passion Play.
This, paired with his stylistic tics, often risks mockery, and a decade-plus of activity would show they frequently receive it. But as a gift to those who’ve stuck with him through changing trends in the genre, the director’s vision gets its freest reign in this four-hour director’s cut, boldly titled Zack Snyder’s Justice League and thus asserting authorship under what’s become not so much a genre of cinema as it as an entire mode of production, corporately controlled and split over hundreds of FX artisans in post. And while still bearing a few unfortunate marks of industrial cinema (like almost all of The Flash’s painfully lame jokes from the studio-bungled theatrical cut being kept intact), this title is earned.
With the length of a biblical epic and chapter breaks of a Lars von Trier drama, this reconstructed cut wears portent on its sleeve. Case in point being the demise of Superman, rendered as another one of Snyder’s striking opening credits sequences as his death cry reverberates through the entire galaxy, awakening its various superbeings and thus acting like a spiritual call to arms. So, yes: your mileage will vary depending on your ability to swallow the climactic battle from Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice—where Superman dies at the hands of a CG monstrosity resembling Koopa Troopa from Super Mario Brothers: The Movie—being depicted as a transcendent moment of Christ-like sacrifice.
It’s easy to imagine the film he was demanded to bring in by the suits, i.e. something “hopeful”—that old, vague corporate lingo used to cover up when a blockbuster is actually just happy being a piece of shit. When relishing in one tableaux of apocalyptic nightmares after the other in his Justice League, it’s no stretch to say Snyder’s comfort doesn’t lie in the poptimist calling. After all, a universe without Superman is a hopeless one, and the breathing room afforded by the very extended runtime helps give a sense of its characters (the Old Gods, as they’re often called by the film’s villain) adrift in a reality on the brink of collapse.
Cosmic pessimism is not entirely new to this world—just look at a famous panel from the 1986 DC event series Crisis on Infinite Earths where Barry Allen/The Flash gruesomely dies in a race against time to see where Snyder’s inspiration likely lies, beyond artists such as Alan Moore and Frank Miller. And certainly what separates a belief in the moral and philosophical seriousness of his juvenile worlds from the Christopher Nolan mode is the heightened, graphic-art universe in which it still takes place. At its best this plays like Snyder’s much-maligned and misunderstood Sucker Punch, exuberantly cutting between different worlds and planes of reality, a battle in outer space and a college football game operating on the same level of bombast. This may be a lot to take in and, yes, Zack Snyder’s Justice League will likely go down in history as the film with the highest amount of speed-ramping ever, but when do comic book movies ever actually go for broke on style anymore?
Similarity-wise, major plot beats from the 2017 theatrical cut are largely intact. Moved by Superman’s sacrifice, Bruce Wayne/Batman (Ben Affleck, unfortunately still looking a little bored and depressed) works alongside Diana Prince/Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) to recruit members to combat the forces of darkness descending upon Earth from other planets and dimensions. The apocalyptic threat here being a MacGuffin (the Mother Boxes) that need to be retrieved by villainous Steppenwolf (and his alien bosses DeSaad and Darkseid) in order for them to wield galactic destruction. After a while it’s hard not to wonder if there’s some kind of direct correlation between the movie making so much time for boxes while being presented in a square aspect ratio.
Perhaps four hours is a bit much (and gives the sense more of a workprint with completed effects than an actual director’s cut), but this film does breathe more, feeling like less of a fool’s errand that it wasn’t preceded by Flash, Aquaman, and Cyborg solo films. The tides are also turned in spending far more time with the quest for the boxes and the large CG-rendered villain Steppenwolf, which seemed universally agreed upon as a dud in the theatrical cut. Afforded more motivation and the chance to partake in some R-rated carnage, Snyder’s incarnation of the villain is far less lame than the generic video game final boss we saw in 2017. Meanwhile, the “league” member who gains most is Cyborg (Ray Fisher), undeniably the least-recognizable character to general audiences. All his scenes provide a register not so much morose as it is emo, to the point of him straight-faced uttering “fuck the world” when first meeting Wonder Woman.
It wouldn’t be Snyder’s poetry without the distinctive needle drops, be they good (Jason Moma’s Aquaman strutting into the ocean to Nick Cave instead of “Icky Thump”) or bad (Ezra Miller’s Flash’s having his introductory action sequence scored to an unfortunate cover of “Song to the Siren”). These two cues might encapsulate the director’s cinema: one that can swing from ravishing music-video cool to boldly ill-advised. For better or worse, this is the work of a human being, or rather a film that, despite being part of a massive and oppressive mainstream Hollywood machine, still seems to bear personal vision. I hope we’re allowed at least a few more of these—even in a landscape where the standard will be not Zack Snyder’s Justice League but Bob Iger’s Scrooge McDuck Jumps Into a Pool of Money.
Zack Snyder’s Justice League arrives on HBO Max on Thursday, March 18.