If you're a beloved male auteur, you're often allowed the freedom to be indulgent. Martin Scorsese got the chance to make the most expensive mob epic ever over the course of three and a half hours with The Irishman, the Russo Brothers crafted a three-hour time travel spectacular with Avengers: Endgame, Christopher Nolan baffled the world with Tenet and Quentin Tarantino was provided the opportunity to trudge at a leisurely place through 1960s LA in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Some of those films are amazing... and some of them were made by Quentin Tarantino.
Filmmaker indulgence is an interesting talking point now, in the wake of the release of Zack Snyder's Justice League, aka “The Snyder Cut”, via HBO Max in the USA and Sky Cinema in Britain. The movie is a very different take on the hotly anticipated team-up of DC's mightiest heroes to the one that was released back in 2017. That project was guided over the finishing line – and an extensive run of reshoots – by Joss Whedon, after Zack Snyder stepped down in the wake of his daughter Autumn's death. This new film is dedicated to her in a sweet touch.
Willed into existence by fans in the wake of a campaign with a mixed reputation – thousands of dollars for suicide prevention charities on one hand and allegations of toxic harassment of critics on the other – this is a movie which, for all of its flaws, is evidently the result of a director's heart, soul and unfettered creative vision
The bones of the story are, of course, the same as in 2017. Prickly bad dude Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds) has come to Earth in order to collect the three powerful Mother Boxes – definitely not Infinity Stones – which, when united, will allow him to reshape the planet to please his tyrannical master Darkseid (Ray Porter) – definitely not Thanos. To combat his devilish plot, Batman (Ben Affleck) and Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) attempt to unite other powerful meta-humans to join their fight, including Aquaman (Jason Momoa), Flash (Ezra Miller) and Cyborg (Ray Fisher). Naturally, the important question arises as well: can they do this without the recently deceased Superman (Henry Cavill)?
It's not a controversial take to say that the 2017 version of Justice League was heavily compromised. Whedon's reshoots prioritised his trademark one-liners and cutting down the running time, with the result being a film that was as muddled and incoherent as it was broadly entertaining. Snyder's version is considerably longer – four hours split into six chapters and an epilogue with, reportedly, 150 minutes of footage not used in the Whedon cut – and as a result has a level of cohesion and narrative sense that wasn't present last time around. The movie is deliberately but enjoyably paced, allowing us to spend plenty of time with the characters.
The most obvious beneficiary of this is Ray Fisher's Cyborg, who is restored to the central role he was quite clearly intended to play when Snyder and screenwriter Chris Terrio first put this together. Fisher's performance here is nuanced and emotional, where he felt stilted and charisma-free in the previous version. The added backstory beefs up Cyborg to the extent that he feels like a vital cog in the super-team, rather than a B-list hanger-on to a team of household superhero names. The same positivity can't be found, sadly, with Cavill – still marooned with a nonsensical character arc for Superman, which no amount of crowd-pleasing black costuming can fix.
On the spectacle front, things are something of a mixed bag too. A flashback to Darkseid's original assault on humanity centuries earlier is an operatic delight, featuring natives of Atlantis, Amazons of Themyscira, Old Gods and men fighting side by side against alien foes. A clash between the Amazons and Steppenwolf's army of winged Parademons is also thrilling and intense, but the constant string of mostly similar set pieces eventually proves tiring as the movie becomes less mythical and more like a generic superhero epic. By the time the final act carnage begins to unfold in earnest, it's tough to care too much – particularly as so many of the characters are still sorely lacking in depth. Too often, Snyder leans on Junkie XL's comedically enormous score and a soundtrack of poorly-chosen, trite ballads to create the emotional impact. It's a void they can't fill.
Thankfully for fans – and film critics who feel duty-bound to watch – many of the additional scenes are genuine improvements to the story, making more sense of Steppenwolf as he transforms into a slightly more viable villain and providing several glimpses of the true Big Bad pulling the strings. Some inclusions, though, are head-scratchers. It's nice to see Kiersey Clemons, but her appearance alongside Miller's Flash adds nothing. Comic book fans will know she's future love interest Iris West, but the film never bothers to tee that up. Instead she's just a damsel in distress who the hero creepily caresses as he saves her from a car accident. In one of several examples of ungainly repetition, her appearance comes just a few minutes before another car crash as part of Cyborg's expository flashback.
Those repetitions and digressions are plentiful. Make no mistake, this film is a gussied-up assembly edit. Almost every comic book movie ever made has a three or four hour original cut, which is then pruned, shaped and massaged into what ultimately makes it to the big screen. While the two hours mandated for Whedon's cut may have seen the story scythed into nothingness, there's an unruly bloat to Snyder's Justice League which means it runs out of steam hours before the climax. As with so many issues treated as straight-forward binaries thanks to the discourse machine of social media, the best solution lies somewhere in between a compromised edit and a mammoth spew of everything.
This movie exists in this form because of its fans, and so it's understandable that its first priority is to please them. Ultimately, though, it strains too far in that direction and, by the end, risks losing everybody else as a result. This is made clear in a new epilogue – the only footage freshly shot by Snyder last year – which brings in the likes of Jared Leto and Joe Manganiello as a perfunctory setup for a sequel which will, presumably, never be made. Notably, Snyder flexes the R-rated muscles a little more in these scenes, as if pitching for the opportunity to make a more adult follow-up to this work, which would've been PG-13 like the original were it not for a couple of errant F-bombs and the occasional CGI blood spray.
So, as the dust settles and the bum numbness of a four-hour sitting ebbs away, we're left with the obvious question. Was it all worth it? Well, Zack Snyder's Justice League is a better movie than its predecessor, but only marginally so. For DC fans, it's a must-see, and Snyder's acolytes will rightly celebrate the chance for their hero to chisel his desired vision from the wreckage of Whedon's maligned cut.
But for the rest of us? It's just another indulgence.