‘Zack Snyder’s Justice League’ Review: Ancient Lamentation Music

The theatrical, canonical version of 2017’s Justice League opens with a cutesy cell phone video of Henry Cavill’s Superman, who is plastered with a frightening CGI approximation of Henry Cavill’s mouth in an attempt to obscure Henry Cavill’s mustache. It’s a long story; on break from filming Mission: Impossible – Fallout but contractually forbidden from losing the facial hair, Cavill worked on some of the many reshoots headed up Joss Whedon, who retooled the film following the departure of original director Zack Snyder. I can render no opinion of this scene that’s divorced from whatever has happened to Superman’s face, but you can mostly tell what it’s going for as this wistful day-in-the-life snapshot to contrast with our knowledge that this character died in the previous film. (He gets better; he’s on the poster.)

By extreme contrast, the fabled “Snyder cut” of Justice League, released on HBO Max as Zack Snyder’s Justice League, begins by recapping Superman’s demise. The opening credits play over a sequence that follows the very sound waves of his death rattle as they echo across the planet. Say what we may about Snyder, he could never be accused of uncertainty in who he is and what he likes. He wants everything big and loud, bombastic and mythic; the new four-hour edit of the same movie is all of those things at once, to its expected detriment and also to its surprising benefit.

That the #Snydercut is better than the Frankensteined theatrical release should not be much of a shock. It features more fulfilling characterization, more coherent action, and a more fleshed-out story, and it had damn well better feature all those things given that it’s twice as long. The truly surprising thing, I think, is how it arrives in a climate champing at the bit to enshrine it as a triumph for what it supposedly represents, the momentary victory of an individual artist over a stifling corporate framework.

Zack Snyder's Justice League

You Want It Darker

Any interest in the contortions of corporate art is a long-term haggling process. Those of us with this specific, frequently masochistic interest have been successfully talked down from demanding an artist’s quality vision to settling for any vision whatsoever. As everything grows bigger and more anonymous in an attempt to appeal to everyone at once, we feel undeniable relief in seeing the evidence of human hands, the basic assertion of a point of view. Anything will do as long as we can discern a signature, and the washed-out, slo-mo signature of Zack Snyder is made to be seen from space. He knows how to stage distinctive action, he excels at conveying superhuman grandeur through moody lighting and majestic framing, and he is really into Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds at the moment.

The story remains largely unchanged. Batman (Ben Affleck) wants to put a team together following the death of Superman because he has a bad feeling. Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) is game and The Flash (Ezra Miller) is easily convinced, but Aquaman (Jason Momoa) and Cyborg (Ray Fisher) take some doing. Alfred the Butler (Jeremy Irons) is usually on the other end of Batman’s headset but he doesn’t count. Batman’s bad feeling turns out to be an alien conqueror called Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds), the latest gravelly villain who is searching for trinkets to end the world.

As someone ostensibly more invested in characterization and empathy, Joss Whedon was brought in to streamline the film and lighten the grimmer tendencies that keep getting Snyder into trouble (that Whedon allegedly created a toxic work environment whereas Snyder is by all accounts a lovely, enthusiastic guy is just one of many ironies at play here). Whedon’s big addition to the climax, for example, is a goofy Russian family to be rescued from Steppenwolf’s hell-zone and then some flowers for everyone to watch bloom once that hell-zone is no more. But beyond some more jokes, some edits that muddy the action, and some brighter colors that do the effects absolutely no favors, Whedon’s most sweeping changes are mostly in service of cramming the film into two hours. Given the apparent magnitude of this task, he received a co-writer credit on the theatrical release that is conspicuously absent for Snyder’s cut (Snyder maintains that he has not seen the other version because he was warned away in horror, and little to none of Whedon’s extremely conspicuous reshoots appear to be in this version).

Zack Snyder's Justice League

As it turns out, Snyder’s version already had a genuine sense of warmth, empathy, and even levity, and it all lands much more effectively when given the space to breathe. For the most part, the #Snydercut is buoyed by its length rather than drowned in it; though the messy exposition and plot trajectory isn’t as propulsive, we spend a refreshing amount of time watching people simply interact. Alfred fidgets uncomfortably when Wonder Woman makes tea without his input, Flash juggles jobs to fund the education that will hopefully get his dad out of jail. The characters recognize in each other a shared sense of grief and placelessness, supplying human moments that are otherwise all too rare against the typical machinery of effects-driven spectacle.

Cyborg benefits the most, his rather flat storyline now an expression of pained, reluctant existence channeled into resentment for the father (Joe Morton) who made him that way. His power, an interconnection with and mastery of all technology, comes across more clearly and convincingly, visualized in gaudy “mind palace” segments where the financial market is represented by a giant metal bull fighting a giant metal bear. Beyond that fight is a chamber full of social security numbers, surveillance footage, and stacks of cash that vary in height to represent an individual’s financial means. Once inside, Cyborg stops to watch a single mother who works at a diner and struggles to make rent, holding out his hands to will her paltry net worth into a fat stack. It is an extremely silly, extremely Zack Snyder conception of Cyborg’s abilities, but there’s an affecting humanity to it all the same.

Even nobody’s favorite villain, Steppenwolf, has an intelligible motivation, hoping to get back into the good graces of his boss, Darkseid (Ray Porter). Steppenwolf now has more scenes, some of which involve reporting back to his supervisor with the guilty frequency of someone who missed a deadline. His design here is more monstrous and busy than the theatrical cut’s simpler guy-in-armor design (his horned helmet now hilariously corresponds to his head shape), but you feel his desperation and regret rather than regard him as a placeholder, even though Snyder’s version more overtly places him as a stopgap before the big franchise bad guy. The whole film now feels more like a real movie rather than a morass of ill-advised studio notes, ADR quips, and editing based around the knowledge that a longer film means fewer theatrical showings per day.

Zack Snyder's Justice League

Who Justices the Justice League?

Of course, it’s always easier to enjoy a work in hindsight, when that work is no more. We can freely entertain ideas of where it might have gone and how it might have been received. Snyder’s grim vision for an ongoing superhero franchise is now more palatable as a thing that could have kept happening rather than something that still is; someone pulling the plug on your project does wonders for its image.

Zack Snyder became the underdog, or at least as much of an underdog as a wealthy white guy who is very much still working can ever plausibly be (his upcoming Netflix movie is already a franchise, with a prequel and a cartoon waiting in the wings). And even more than we love an underdog, we love to love the underdog. The narrative around the #Snydercut positions the director as a man against the corporate machine that cast him out, and while that isn’t necessarily untrue, he is hardly out of step with the directors who have historically been in similar positions.

After all, the director’s cut tends to be an indulgence afforded to white male directors, who are most readily trusted with the keys to the big-budget kingdom. They’re given a leeway that may eventually be wrestled into a new edit for a later release, sometimes as a new home media version to replace one we already own. When things go wrong, they’re the ones who can lobby as the wronged artist without much fear of being labeled difficult or volatile, because we readily accept being difficult as the price of white guy genius.

Conversely, when the marginalized tell their stories (when they can tell their stories in such a lopsided industry), they have to be careful. Speaking from an underrepresented community means becoming disproportionately and unfairly representative of that community. Perceived failures on your part pass onto your people at large in a way that is never true for the milky spectrum of canonized creators; no executive blames box office failure on the idea that a movie was too white, too straight, too male.

Precedent for the Snyder cut is sparse at best; maybe those dueling Exorcist prequels or the decades-later completion of Richard Donner’s Superman II come close. Zack Snyder’s Justice League is a perfect storm of bizarre variables that include a nascent streaming service desperate for a must-see exclusive. With a 70-million-dollar budget, something this extensive is pretty much historic, the logical conclusion of the seemingly infinite leeway that the industry will give the white men whose work we shower with the most attention. It is, in so many ways, a culmination of privilege.

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Zack Snyder's Justice League

Skeleton Tree

And yet, for as aware of that context as I am, I still find myself won over. Sure, the movie is ungodly long, but it doesn’t feel as long as it sounds like it might be; the small, seemingly extraneous moments actually do wonders for the pacing. The whole project is an undeniably fascinating artifact, a readymade lesson on the seismic differences of editing and color correction. I find myself wondering what it would be like for Snyder to keep doing this, what the world would be where this came out largely as is and things proceeded as “planned.”

But, then, Zack Snyder’s Justice League is also firmly the work of a guy who is pretty sure they’re not going to let him do this anymore. To call it indulgent and overlong seems pointless because it is meant to be that way, to leave every card on the table. Even in some theoretical extended edition, this is certainly not what the film would have looked like — I’m glad a lot of it was left in, but there’s so much here that would get the axe. The overstuffed epilogue in particular is truly dire stuff, featuring among other things a Batman/Joker confrontation that plays like a squabble between those kids in a friend group who don’t like each other but are afraid to throw the first punch. There is assuredly a better film in here that loses 20 minutes, at least.

The DC approach to superhero film franchising is incredibly reactive, so eager to please that the films seem unsure of themselves. Suicide Squad was famously edited into mush following the reception of its trailer and the more dour DC films, and even the supposed restoration of Zack Snyder’s artistic vision is an attempt to please people whio are extremely online. The explosive climax to Man of Steel was widely criticized for its flagrant disregard for humanity, which the following film took to heart by trying to more clearly reframe the devastation as a horror. In the process, it sought to address one of Snyder’s prevailing issues as a director: while he certainly seems to recognize the toll of violence and destruction, he often can’t help but shoot and stage them in a way that emphasizes how he thinks they’re awesome, too.

Zack Snyder’s Justice League is the director’s least discordant film in that regard, clearly workshopped to go down smoother than its predecessors. The actions of its protagonists are unequivocally good, never asking us to revel in the majestic obliteration of human life. In some ways, that makes it the least challenging and the least interesting; so much of the ambivalence is gone. But it is also the most watchable one, the most empathetic and human as well as the most straightforwardly entertaining, providing yet another vicious irony that this was the film to prompt DC’s universe to call it quits on Zack Snyder.

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Steven Nguyen Scaife

Steven Nguyen Scaife has written about pop culture for Slant Magazine, Polygon, Buzzfeed, Rock Paper Shotgun, and more.

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