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Justice League Snyder Cut Review: Four Hours of Hollow Spectacle Is Better Than the Theatrical Cut

It's unapologetically Zack Snyder

Keith Phipps

For a long time, Zack Snyder's original cut of Justice League, the 2017 film that gathered together a handful of DC Comics' most famous superheroes to form a world-saving team, was more a legend than a movie. Snyder had begun as the film's director and the version that arrived in theaters still had his name, even though it had been heavily reworked by Joss Whedon, creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and an experienced wrangler of superteams thanks his work on the Avengers movies for Marvel. The Frankensteined-together Whedon/Snyder hybrid earned tepid reviews and floundered at theaters. But almost from the moment Justice League died, a passionate, vocal (and sometimes obnoxious) movement sought to revive it, calling for the release of the "Snyder Cut" that would return Justice League to the director's original vision.

That it wasn't clear if a Snyder Cut existed in any form didn't seem to matter. In fact, Snyder later revealed, it existed only in a rough, unfinished version on the director's laptop. Yet, in an unlikely development, last year Warner Bros. announced the film now known as Zack Snyder's Justice League would premiere on HBO Max in the spring of 2021 as a four-hour event and that the studio had given Snyder a chance to finish the film his way via a healthy budget for new scenes and special effects. Legend no more, the epic-length Zack Snyder's Justice League is now a reality. But can the real thing ever match up to the film admirers hoped for — or that detractors feared?

Snyder shot to fame via his pumped-up remake of George Romero's Dawn of the Dead and his adaptation of Frank Miller's 300. He's been a divisive director from the start, a creator with an unfailingly bold visual sense and sometimes questionable taste. Apart from rewriting the ending, Snyder's adaptation of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' landmark graphic novel Watchmen stayed true to the source material. But the savagery of its fight scenes suggested the potential for badassery engaged him more than the material's themes. When Snyder helped kick off a new wave of films featuring DC's characters, one designed to create a shared universe to rival Marvel's MCU, the divisiveness only intensified. His 2013 film Man of Steelrevived Superman as a moody, tortured god-among-men and featured a climax in which the hero seemed barely engaged by the innocent bystanders dying around him. 2016's Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice went darker still, in look and tone, turning Batman into a sadist and turning off a lot of viewers in the process. Following a pattern, Justice League ought to have been Synder's bleakest vision yet.

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The first surprising thing about Zack Snyder's Justice League: It's a much lighter film than its predecessors. That's speaking relatively, of course, but this version finds even more room for Jeremy Irons' wry turn as Bruce Wayne's butler/battle strategist Alfred Pennyworth and Ezra Miller's quippy, manic (if frequently irritating) turn as the Flash. Gone are both the casual slaughter of civilians and Batman's clenched-teeth, edgleord pronouncements. (There's no "Do you bleed?" equivalent, in other words.) Present instead are more moments that allow Jason Momoa to have fun as Aquaman rather than just playing him as a hulking tough guy. Even the dream sequence glimpse of a post-apocalyptic future, a reprise from Batman v Superman, features some attempts at humor. 

It's a welcome change that helps counterbalance the expected grandiosity. Snyder's willingness to go big — with action but also with images that sometimes look like poster designs — is his greatest strength, but it can become wearisome at the length of a standard feature film, to say nothing of one that runs four hours. That said, anyone hitting "play" on Zack Snyder's Justice League knows that already. This is very much a Zack Snyder film, one filled with his directorial signatures: so much slow motion, so many sad songs, so many tight abs. Aquaman can't just walk into the sea, he has to stride with great deliberation as waves crash around him accompanied by a Nick Cave ballad. Zack Snyder's Justice League is likely to delight Snyder's devotees and unlikely to convert skeptics. But it's undeniably a more cohesive, and better film than the theatrical cut, one that plays like the work of a creator with vision rather than a corporate compromise.

Henry Cavill, Jason Mamoa, Gal Gadot, Ezra Miller, Ben Affleck, and Ray Fisher, Zack Snyder's Justice League

Henry Cavill, Jason Mamoa, Gal Gadot, Ezra Miller, Ben Affleck, and Ray Fisher, Zack Snyder's Justice League

HBO Max

Its flaws are obvious: It's sludgily paced, filled with unearned portentousness, and never plays like a story that needs four hours to unfold even without an extended epilogue setting up a sequel we'll almost certainly never see. (Watching it in one sitting is inadvisable.) But it's also frequently a blast seeing Snyder cutting loose on the biggest scale imaginable. Batman doesn't just show up for a meeting. He's revealed posing on top of a gargoyle while rain crashes behind him. Superman gets bathed in an aura of sunbeams. Cyborg doesn't just talk about his powers, the film takes a trip into a virtual landscape inside his mind in which his ability to manipulate the financial market gets represented by a fight between a bull and a bear. It's Snyder without restraints, filled with juvenile but undeniably satisfying moments.

The plot, however, differs little from the theatrical cut. In the wake of Superman's (Henry Cavill) death in Batman v Superman, the world mourns its fallen hero as Batman (Ben Affleck, a decent-enough Batman but a very good Wayne) and Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) scramble to assemble heroes to fight a looming threat from the far reaches of space. Their recruits — some reluctant, other eager — include the Flash, Cyborg (Ray Fisher), and Aquaman, and later, a resurrected Superman. As in the theatrical cut, Superman returns as a hostile, memory-wiped zombie only to recover a few seasons later for reasons never explained. Even as it fleshes out the stories of characters like Flash and Cyborg, Zack Snyder's Justice League offers no more logic than the previous version. But it also dares viewers to care too much in the face of all that spectacle. It's overkill, but overkill is kind of the point.

Would the Snyder version have performed better with moviegoers and critics in 2017? It's hard to say. What would have reached the screens in 2017, had Snyder been able to see the project through, certainly wouldn't have had a four-hour running time or been greeted with as much curiosity and good will. (The #ReleaseTheSnyderCut faction has become so vocal it's almost overwritten memories of how widely disliked Batman v Superman and, to a lesser extent, Man of Steel were at the time.) But in 2021, it looks like a fascinating glimpse at the big, audacious, silly but striking Justice League we might have gotten — and now, somewhat remarkably, have.

TV Guide rating: 3/5

Zack Snyder's Justice League premieres Thursday, Mar. 18 on HBO Max.