Parsing the cultural event of “Zack Snyder’s Justice League,” otherwise known as the Snyder Cut, may require a PhD in the legitimization of fan culture over the past 25 years. Yet even consideration of its quality requires a fair degree of context.
On one level, the four hours and six parts (plus one interminable 30-minute epilogue) in this bizarre refashioning of old material is marred by sleepy performances, cheesy subplots, and inane world-building that makes the Marvel Cinematic Universe look like Shakespeare. Yet the overall arc of this “Justice League” coheres throughout, providing occasional dashes of intrigue and inspired visual conceits, and sometimes it’s even fun. Re-centering the drama around ostracized actor Ray Fisher as Cyborg, and drawing out some of the ostentatious fight sequences to their breaking point, “Zack Snyder’s Justice League” displays genuine effort to make this impossible gamble click.
All of that stands in mighty contrast to the crap-tastic version finished by Joss Whedon in 2017, when Snyder left the project due to his teen daughter’s suicide and a desire to spend more time with his family. Watching “Zack Snyder’s Justice League” devoid of any background would likely make for a serious endurance test, even when the action delivers. But watching it in the light of the botched, confounding mishmash of the Whedon version works very much in Snyder’s favor.
And so does, as alarming as it may sound, the fanbase that pressed to #ReleasetheSnyderCut and somehow got its wish. Notwithstanding the dubious elevation of Snyder to auteur stature by legions of supporters who likely never read (or argued with) Andrew Sarris’ “Notes on American Cinema,” the filmmaker maintains a unique approach to blockbuster storytelling, with gothic moodiness punctuated by masculine rage and electrified by rampant CGI. (Women are not his strong suit.) The Snyder touch is there in everything from “300” to “Watchmen” and “Sucker Punch,” to varying degrees of success, but “Zack Snyder’s Justice League” unleashes it on the largest scale to date.
The tragic backstory of Snyder’s experience on the project doesn’t exactly permeate the storytelling, but by crafting a blunt, sprawling meditation on the process of salvaging a broken world, some measure of pathos sneaks in. Released exclusively on HBO Max, it literally turns Snyder into a household name, and undeniably represents the singular vision of a filmmaker whose maximalist approach may repel as many people as it delights, but certainly delivers a genuine cinema of attraction for those who demanded it in the first place.
Still, there’s another way of putting that: The drawn-out nature of this relatively simple heroes-save-the-world plot often just amounts to a gratuitous exercise in style. Once again, Batman (Ben Affleck, still trapped in grizzly catatonic mode) and Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot, whose ass-kicking is a routine highlight) round up the likes of Aquaman (Jason Momoa), The Flash (Ezra Miller), and Cyborg (Ray Fisher). Together, they finally resurrect Superman (Henry Cavill) following his demise at the end of Snyder’s (unquestionably terrible and humorless) “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice,” just in time to confront a rather silly, fuming threat to existence as we know it.
The inter-dimensional world-killing beast known as Steppenwolf (Ciaran Hinds) still wreaks havoc across earth in his quest to obtain the three elusive “mother boxes” that will allow overlord Darkseid (glimpsed here for the first time) to turn all humanity into his zombie-like slaves. That’s the gist of the stakes at hand, as Snyder drags out the bloated running time with gratuitous tribute reels to virtually every member of the team — operatic slo-mo moments set to pop music that revel in their awesomeness like some sort of Comic Con tone poem.
And yes, there is genuine thrill to a few of these: a shirtless Momoa chugging booze as the water crests above his head; Nick Cave belting out “they told us our gods would outlive us” as a grief-stricken Lois Lane (Amy Adams) wanders through somber Metropolis; Miller’s giddy Flash zipping around to save the victim of a car crash (Iris West in a fleeting cameo) while stuffing her lost hotdog in his shirt pocket. Moments like these help Snyder escape the grim, self-serious stupidity of “Batman v Superman” in favor of overindulgence tangents designed to please in small doses.
There’s no question that the MCU does this kind of exuberant myth-making better, in service of storytelling that doesn’t demand such exhausting detail. But this variation has one distinctive new addition. The strongest narrative arc of “Zack Snyder’s Justice League” belongs to a character basically invisible in the previous version: Fisher’s Cyborg, a former college footballer resurrected as a machine by his scientist father (Joe Morton). It’s hard to tell if Fisher, a relative newcomer, gives much of a substantial performance since his half is face is buried by metal and the script calls for such a subdued, icy performance more robot than man. But the character’s hyper-intelligent, digitally-spruced mind makes him the most intriguing addition to this motley crew — and his daddy issues are far more convincing than the usual “brooding Batman” routine. This may not be the best iteration of Cyborg possible, but it outlines some potential.
Potential, in fact, crops up throughout “Zack Snyder’s Justice League.” Cinematographer Fabian Wagner’s greyish tones that, in the new 1.33:1 aspect ratio, maintain an eerie, expressionistic quality on par with the apocalyptic tone. Steppenwolf and Superman both have more striking, shadowy outfits as the movie more clearly embraces the idea of a dark world on the verge of erupting into a scorched-earth battlefield. When the superheroes finally join forces, coming together for a dynamic showdown against Steppenwolf that unites each power in holy union, the rapid-fire energy of each moment results in just enough payoff to make … well, some of the journey worthwhile. If only it stopped there.
Instead, Snyder careens into the most gratuitous overload of false endings since “The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King,” with a string of post-credits sequences stuffed into an epilogue that just won’t quit. At least three main villains and one hero have been exhumed from the cutting room floor for various half-formed reasons, some more amusing than others. As these fragments trickle on, it’s finally clear that “Zack Snyder’s Justice League” has been exclusively engineered to satisfy the people who demanded its existence as a rallying cry. The movie doesn’t just belong to them; they practically made it.
“Zack Snyder’s Justice League” is a product designed to celebrate its very existence. When the Justice Leaguers conclude that one of the mother boxes can resurrect the Man of Steel, it comes from the realization that the technology “turns smoke back into a house.” That’s essentially what Snyder has done here. This particular refurbished house may not be everyone’s favorite place to dwell, but the whole concept of the Snyder Cut is built for an era defined by customization: Enter at your own risk, or don’t bother.
“Zack Snyder’s Justice League” is available to stream on HBO Max starting March 18, 2021.