Joss Whedon tried. Zack Snyder succeeded.
Following the events of Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, the death of the Man of Steel awakens the Mother Boxes, three sentient machines capable of destroying worlds when brought together. When a would-be conqueror was defeated by the combined might of the heroes of Earth in ancient times, the boxes were left behind, sleeping and separated from one another. Fearing that Earth is now in danger, Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) scours the planet for new warriors — Aquaman (Jason Momoa), The Flash (Ezra Miller), and Cyborg (Ray Fisher) — to join him and Diana (Gal Godot) to protect a world without a Superman (Henry Cavill). Unfortunately, a being known as Steppenwolf (voice of Ciarán Hinds) has already begun collecting the boxes as penance for betraying his master: the once-vanquished conqueror called Darkseid (voice of Ray Porter).
Let’s call this Justice League, take two. For those not in the know, a family tragedy forced director Zack Snyder off of his pet project following his aforementioned Superman films. Warner Bros. seized the opportunity and hired Joss Whedon to edit down the reportedly four-hour rough cut and “fun it up” after the surprise success of the lighter-fared Wonder Woman. The resulting 2017 release of Justice League was a mixed bag, watchable yet hollow, looking like a shallow attempt to duplicate Disney/Marvel’s hard-won MCU franchise success without paying its dues. Rumors began shortly thereafter of the existence of a “Snyder cut,” the writer/director/producer’s superior vision and something a rabid fandom desperately wanted for themselves. After three years and a global pandemic, Warner Bros. agreed to completing the effects to air the Snyder cut as an HBOMax exclusive, with Snyder himself reportedly taking no additional pay to keep creative control of his final four-hour cut. Now unleashed upon the world, is the intended cut all it was hoped to be?
Surprise, surprise. While containing enough story and hard stops to easily break the new film up into its own mini-series, Zack Snyder’s Justice League fills in enough blanks to prove the theatrical version wasn’t merely edited down but destroyed in its intent, that it’s always darkest before the dawn. While the story unfolds in generally the same way, the devil is in the details, especially with Victor Stone/Cyborg’s fully restored story becoming the chewy center of the film after initially being left on the cutting room floor. It still needs a good editor and significantly fewer scenes in slow-motion, but Snyder’s vision does restore the most important thing Whedon cut out of Justice League: its heart.
Not all of the new effects or edits work. All-CGI villain Steppenwolf via animation looks stiff running rather than using motion-capture, never mind a character design akin to a Thanos also-ran. Many of the tonal shifts and transitions, especially in the epilogue, are jarring or non-existent, making viewers wonder what they missed or if there was a bad cut somewhere. And… so many… slow motion… scenes that… go on… forever… and ever, which has the unfortunate effect of undermining its uniqueness and effectiveness when it really needs to be utilized. While the first three hours are a bit of a trudge, the last hour indeed pays off with battle scenes that make sense, are far easier to follow than the slapdash theatrical version, and most importantly make viewers actually wonder if the heroes can win before they do. In the end, most fans will remember that last detail, and all else may be forgiven.
While films such as Aliens and Terminator 2 were slightly improved by longer cuts, movies like Cowboys and Aliens and Blade Runner that felt hamstrung by their theatrical cuts later shine when restored for special editions. Filmgoers may never forgive the indulgence of the muddled Sucker Punch, but Zack Snyder was clearly correct regarding his own vision for Justice League — needlessly overlong yet all the better for it. But make no mistake: the pause button is this streaming film’s best friend.
Zack Snyder’s Justice League is indeed rated R for violence, some language, and getting #marthanmanhunter trending.
Three skull recommendation out of four