“Zack Snyder‘s Justice League” runs four hours and two minutes. That’s 242 minutes. That’s longer than “Avatar,” “Avengers: Endgame,” “The Irishman,” “Dances with Wolves,” “Malcolm X,” “Lawrence of Arabia,” or any of the “Godfather” movies. If it were released to theaters, it would tie Kenneth Branagh’s 1996 adaptation of “Hamlet” for being the longest American studio release in history.
And reader, if it ever does get released to theaters, I’ll go see it again, just as long as it’s in IMAX and there’s an intermission.
Some other time, perhaps, we can talk more about the road that led to this moment, along with its implications for the major studio relationships to the more entitled or belligerent elements in fandom. My own feelings are summed up in the Clickhole headline, “The worst person you know just made a great point.” Bottom line: I don’t see how it’s possible to put this version of the project next to the 2017 version and not recognize that it’s superior in every way.
This four-hour cut is the kind of brazen auteurist vision that Martin Scorsese was calling for when he complained (rightly) that most modern superhero movies don’t resemble cinema as he’s always understood and valued it.
The backstory: “Justice League” was meant to be the third in a series of Zack Snyder superhero films after “Man of Steel” and “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice,” but Snyder and his chief collaborator and wife, executive producer Deborah Snyder, stepped down during postproduction to grieve for their daughter, who had died unexpectedly. The releasing studio, Warner Bros., was already pressuring the Snyders to add humor, following the relative box-office disappointment of the figuratively and literally funereal “Batman v. Superman,” which ended with Superman’s death. Joss Whedon (writer/director of the first two “Avengers” films) was brought in to take the project over the finish line, contain the running time to two hours, and make sure things were kept light. Whedon ended up rewriting and reshooting most of the movie, Whedon-izing it with deadpan quips and shooting new action scenes that, while competent, lacked the turbocharged delirium Snyder is known for. According to some behind-the-scenes accounts, less than 20% of what ended up in the final release was directed by Snyder.
The recut—it feels more correct to call it a “restoration”—contains zero Whedon footage. It’s broken into seven chapters with titles, each of which has a serene self-contained quality, reminiscent of issues of a monthly comic (as well as old-fashioned episodic television; the Snyder Cut is as much of a medium-blurring, “Is it TV or is it a movie?” project as “WandaVision,” “Small Axe,” and season three of “Twin Peaks”). Only a sliver of what’s onscreen is wholly new, notably a forward-looking “teaser” conversation between Batman and the Joker; but Snyder generated so much material originally—much of it shelved by Warner Bros. without being properly finished by visual effects artists—that the totality still feels like a new work.
There’s no point getting deep into the weeds of a scene-by-scene comparison because the Snyder cult will surely cover it in 9/11 Commission detail, and because there’s no longer any compelling reason to watch the Whedon cut (which I liked more than most viewers) beyond mere curiosity. The first version was a Frankenstein-patchwork “rescue mission” meant to fulfill studio notes—one of which, “more humor,” seems redundant in retrospect. This cut has plenty of funny bits, ranging from the dry reactive glances and self-lacerating remarks of Ben Affleck’s Bruce Wayne/Batman; to the workplace anxiety of chief villain Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds), who is basically a razor-armored middle manager on probation with his nephew/boss, Darkseid (Ray Porter); to the Jeff Goldblum/Bill Murray-style, character-as-sportscaster commentary of Barry Allen/Flash (Ezra Miller); to the visual wit of Snyder’s direction, particularly in scenes where the Flash perceives time being slowed-down and we get to watch as he rearranges the universe item by item, like a fussy chef re-plating every meal at a banquet just before the staff wheels it out to the guests.
The vast majority of these blockbusters are not intended not as freestanding works of expression. They’re meant to function as cogs in a content-producing machine that largely avoids painful or unanswerable questions, feeding disposable imagery and situations to viewers who expect to be rewarded for their brand loyalty and familiarity with lore by being given more and more and more of the thing they already know they like. The Snyder Cut, in comparison, gets closer to what Scorsese envisioned than nearly anything else the genre has produced. It’s a corporate product that feels as if it sprung from a fever dream, like “Superman Returns,” Ang Lee’s “Hulk,” and such uncategorizably kooky/daring non-superhero comics adaptations as “Popeye,” “A History of Violence,” “Road to Perdition,” and “American Splendor.” Or, for that matter, non-comic book films maudit like “One from the Heart,” “Speed Racer,” “The Hudsucker Proxy,” and “Playtime.”
The Whedon cut favored Bruce Wayne/Batman and Diana Prince/Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) and marginalized Clark Kent/Superman (Henry Cavill), Arthur Curry/Aquaman (Jason Momoa), Barry Allen/The Flash, and Victor Stone/Cyborg (Ray Fisher). This cut is an ensemble picture that does as good a job as MCU’s “Avengers” films of depicting a band of heroes as strong-willed, fully-rounded individuals who had lives and issues before the main action started and must learn to work to together (in service of battling Steppenwolf and Darkseid and resurrecting Superman/Clark Kent).
The most remarkable restoration, character-wise, is the Cyborg storyline. It mirrors (without duplication) all the other stories of characters dealing with mixed feelings about their parents and upbringing: see also Bruce Wayne’s relationship to his butler/surrogate parent Alfred (Jeremy Irons) as well as the memory of his murdered father and mother; Clark Kent’s relationship to his sainted mom, Martha (Diane Lane), and the departed Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner) and Jor-El (Russell Crowe); Wonder Woman’s feelings about leaving her family, her island, and its culture (and their feelings about her departure); Aquaman’s resentment at being a bi-species hybrid, torn between two worlds and feeling abandoned by both; and Barry’s tortured relationship with his incarcerated criminal dad (Billy Crudup). Fisher’s performance is the best in a film filled with strong acting. Cyborg’s resentment of his scientist father (Joe Morton, aka Skynet’s daddy in “Terminator 2”) is built out with empathy and care, and paid off in a genuinely moving climax that offers redemption without canceling ill will. Also noticeably improved: Affleck’s greying, world-weary Batman, who channels the burned-out, Clint Eastwoodian Dark Knight from Frank Miller’s 1980s comics; and the relationship between Clark Kent and Lois Lane (Amy Adams) which delves more deeply into grief than any DCEU film, strikes idealistic romantic notes reminiscent of the Christopher Reeve era, and even gets into the “Monkey’s Paw” aspect of bringing a dead superhero back to life.
Yeah, there’s a plot: basically the same as in the first “Justice League,” and for that matter, the “Avengers” movies: a superhuman, megalomaniacal bad guy wants access to a source of time-and-space dominating superpowers, and can only get it by cobbling together scattered elements (six infinity stones in the MCU series, three magic boxes in this movie). But plot might be the tenth most important thing on this movie’s mind, if that. This is the definitive cut of the tale, not just in terms of canonical events and actions (“Aquaman” director James Wan and “Wonder Woman” series director Patty Jenkins are both on record as saying that they consulted with Snyder on continuity) but aesthetic purity. Some scenes have been moved and/or reshaped, others have been restructured or added, and everything has been lengthened. But what registers most strongly is the film’s sense of space and place, which might make one wonder if many of the (justified) complaints about Snyder’s other superhero pictures stem from the commercial imperatives of this budget level and his own sensibility being at odds with each other.
Let’s take a moment and talk about the look of the movie, because it’s key to what makes the project feel unified. “Zack Snyder’s Justice League” is shot in the squarish, roughly 4×3 “academy” ratio, rather than the narrow-and-wide format preferred by most epics. Snyder chose it because the IMAX frame happens to be that shape, and then he decided to frame non-IMAX shots that way for consistency’s sake. The result has the subtle psychological effect of making this new-ish work feel mysteriously “old.” This perception is amplified by Fabian Wagner’s cinematography, which emphasizes the vertical over the horizontal, leaves lots of negative space around the actors’ faces and bodies, and isn’t afraid to put gauzy filters over closeups and create smeary or halo-like lighting effects that make things feel dreamy or metaphorical rather than “real.”
When Junkie XL’s score is blasting and the members of the Justice League are doing heroic things and not blabbing amongst themselves, suddenly we’re watching the superhero version of a symphonically grand, late-period silent epic in the vein of “Intolerance,” “Sunrise,” or “Metropolis”—just scene after scene of impeccably composed panoramas, like those mammoth oil paintings that depict tiny figures in the foreground dwarfed by mountains and sky. Except in this case, it’s sometimes the heroes and villains who are dwarfed by landscapes and/or the cosmos, and other times mortals look up in awe at superheroes looming overhead (often silhouetted against sunlight, clouds, fire, or atmospheric haze).
Uncharacteristically for Snyder, the camera doesn’t move unless it needs to, and the scene doesn’t cut away until it has wrung out the last drop of whatever vibe it was cultivating. Throughout, the direction seems not merely unhurried, but meditative, to the point of pokiness. This the “Satantango” of superhero flicks: an arthouse tailbone-killer. The point is not to shovel plot information at the viewer. The point is to create a fantastic world where metaphors are real, and to give you time to roam around in it and savor all the details. Scenes often start before long before screenwriting manuals tell you they should (with characters approaching and/or entering regions, cities, or facilities) and continue way past the point when significant exposition has been communicated. This is a feature, not a bug. And it results in a good number of the scenes and sequences that make the film feel special, even as they eliminate any possibility that “Zack Snyder’s Justice League” will tell a propulsive, coherent, orderly tale.
One such moment is a lovely and ominous interlude in a battle between the Amazon infantry (led by Wonder Woman’s mother, Queen Hippolyta [Connie Nielsen]), and Steppenwolf and his army of winged, armored insect men (deployed by Snyder as if they were steampunk cousins of the Wicked Witch’s flying monkeys). A group of characters pause to take a long, anxious look at the water in a sea cove where a temple has collapsed and fallen, presumably crushing and drowning the enemies within. The camera fixates on the waves, watching and listening while they churn. It’s hypnotic.
Another memorable bit is more self-consciously art-for-art’s sake: Aquaman, having concluded important business in a seaside pub, walks a long pier jutting into the sea, unfazed by immense waves clashing ahead of him. The waves are powerful enough to knock over an apatosaur, but Aquaman just strolls into them, vanishing in saltwater mist. The scene is filmed in slow motion with no dialogue or sound effects and backed with a pop song cranked to 11. Christopher Nolan made a lot of noise about modeling “The Dark Knight” on Michael Mann’s “Heat,” but this is one of many moments in this film that are more Mann-like in the way that they suspend time. That Aquaman seaside power-walk is also reminiscent of the moment in “The Royal Tenenbaums” when the lovestruck Richie watches Margot walk off a bus. Except here it’s not about one character’s love for another, but the director’s love for Aquaman and the actor who plays him. `
The movie’s directorial highlight might be the sequence where Barry tries to get a job at a pet store and pauses to save a woman he’s smitten with from an oncoming truck, driven by a man who’s not paying attention to the road because he’s busy trying to pick up a sandwich he dropped. The scene feels like a self-contained short film about The Flash. It would feel that way even if it didn’t seem to promise a love story that the film is not interested in developing. The buildup to the wreck is masterful, with Spielberg-quality visuals (each time the scene cuts back to the driver going after that sandwich, it’s funnier and more appalling), and Flash’s subsequent rearrangement of reality to produce the desired outcome. Miller’s facial expressions are as perfect as the director’s choices. By any objective measure, this is a scene that could be cut for time. But in a restructured, remade movie that seems to exist entirely to showcase Snyder’s decadent and voluptuous idea of what superhero mythmaking should be, that would be like looking at a male peacock and concluding that the problem was too much plumage.
“Zack Snyder’s Justice League” is so fragmented that it could’ve been titled “32 Short Films about the Justice League.” It often makes momentous promises or sets up seemingly important relationships which it promptly forgets. It’s so bombastic that it makes “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice” seem modest. It will mainly please the people who clamored for it. Even fans of the genre might consider it a bit much. It owes as much to rock concerts, video games, and multimedia installations as it does to commercial narrative filmmaking. It’s maddening. It’s monumental. It’s art.
Available on HBO Max on Thursday, March 18.