Two seemingly contradictory things are true of Zack Snyder’s director’s cut of Justice League:

1. It is vastly superior to the theatrical cut that was finished by Joss Whedon after Snyder left the film in the middle of production.

2. It was probably unreleasable in this form, and it makes total sense that Warner Bros hired Joss Whedon to rework (and especially shorten) it.

Snyder’s fabled cut of this material — officially released on HBO Max as Zack Snyder’s Justice League, but dubbed “The Snyder Cut” by fans who have dedicated their lives to securing its release for the last three and a half years — is darker and grander than the original. More importantly, it actually makes narrative sense from scene to scene, and it doesn’t feel like a Netflix movie stuck at 1.5x playback speed. But it’s also four hours long, a punishing runtime that drags on across six chapters and an epilogue. No wonder Warner Bros. fought Snyder over this version. Would you stake $300 million on a Justice League that’s 63 minutes longer than The Godfather with bloody violence and adult language?

To Snyder’s fans, that reckless disregard for the project’s commercial prospects stands as proof of their favorite director’s bonafides as a true artist making deeply personal choices in a genre that’s typically as fearful of risks as Superman is of Kryptonite. If nothing else, Zack Snyder’s Justice League does restore the distinctive edge that made the project so important to Snyder, strengthening its themes about trauma and mourning. For example, instead of opening with a cloying scene where Superman (Henry Cavill) explains the meaning of his chest symbol to a group of kids, Zack Snyder’s Justice League begins with the final moments of Batman v Superman, when the Man of Steel sacrificed his life to defeat Doomsday.

Snyder lingers of Cavill’s anguished face as he cries out in slow-motion agony. Then the camera follows the sound waves emanating from his mouth as they spread across the globe, from Cyborg’s apartment in Gotham City to Wonder Woman’s island home of Themyscira. Tracking Superman’s literal death rattle across the globe serves a narrative purpose in the script — which is credited solely to Chris Terrio — because, as we soon learn, Superman’s death activates three “Mother Boxes” of power and clears the way for a massive alien invasion of a now-unprotected Earth. It also speaks to Snyder’s ideas about grief, and the way a person’s sudden death affects the lives of everyone in the person’s orbit. (The film also now ends with a dedication to Snyder’s late daughter, Autumn, whose death prompted him to quit the project in the first place.)

Warner Bros.
Warner Bros.

By the time Superman’s screams have traversed the globe and the opening credits are over, 10 minutes have already passed, establishing a glacial pacing the rest of Zack Snyder’s Justice League will continue right up until its closing credits. Besides a brief appearance on a computer screen, the Flash (Ezra Miller) doesn’t show up until Part 3, about an hour and ten minutes into the film. In the time it takes Superman to return from the dead, you could watch all of Richard Donner’s Superman and still have about 12 minutes left over. This Justice League is unwieldy in the extreme; it was announced by HBO Max as a miniseries spread across four parts, and that probably would have been the smarter way to release it. It’s certainly the smarter way to watch it.

And here’s another fascinating contradiction at the heart of Zack Snyder’s Justice League: For all Snyder’s changes, this new cut isn’t that different than the old one, at least narratively speaking. Yes, it‘s longer. But besides two new epilogues, the basic structure is identical. Batman (Ben Affleck) regrets his role in Superman’s death and heeds a warning from Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) that an attack on Earth is imminent, so he assembles a group of heroes to stop it. Besides the Flash, they include Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), who’s been in hiding for the last 100 years (except for that time in 1984 when she spoke to the entire world through theirs televisions, and then everyone apparently forgot about it), Aquaman (Jason Momoa), who’s turned his back on his birthright as the King of the Seven Seas, and Cyborg (Ray Fisher), whose scientist father used a Mother Box to fuse him with alien robotics. Meanwhile, an attack is coming, from an alien warlord named Steppenwolf (Ciaran Hinds) and his hordes of Parademons.

If you’re expecting to see a vastly reworked story, get that out of your mind right now. Instead, the primary difference between the two Justice Leagues is that all of these characters have been given more time to flesh out their backstories and relationships. In Whedon’s Justice League, for example, we’re told almost nothing about Cyborg’s origin, or why he has such a fraught relationship with his father Silas (Joe Morton). Snyder shows why Silas turned Victor Stone into Cyborg, and the real reason Victor holds his dad in such contempt. Even Steppenwolf gets a clearer, almost tragic motivation. He’s not just a mean monster who likes to slice people with his energy axe; he’s an outcast from his planet who’s desperate to prove his worth to the even-more-evil Darkseid (Ray Porter) so that he can return home.

Zack Snyder’s Justice League

These are not isolated instances. Everything is longer in the Snyder Cut, up to and including Willem Dafoe’s hair. There are many other smaller, cosmetic changes. Superman now wears a black costume instead of his traditional blue and red one, a choice that serves no purpose in the story but does provide a nice symbol of Snyder’s overall aesthetic: Less colorful, more serious. The Whedonesque jokes are mostly gone. The iridescent purples that dominated the design of Steppenwolf’s fortresses in the ruins of a Russian nuclear reactor have vanished, replaced by muted blues and browns. (The one random family that had chosen to live in an irradiated wasteland and appeared in a series of pointless scenes throughout Whedon’s cut until they’re finally rescued by the Justice League have been completely removed as well.)

There’s also just a lot more destruction this time, as there always is in Zack Snyder’s DC superhero movies. Wonder Woman doesn’t just bang her bracelets together to stop a bad guy from shooting some hostages; now when she stops him, Snyder cuts to the street below, where an enormous explosion blows out a whole floor of the building, raining debris on the police officers stationed outside. In Snyder’s superhero universe, actions always have unforeseen consequences.

That philosophy applies to the Snyder Cut itself. Fans demanded to see Snyder’s vision for Justice League and now they got it — all of it. For long stretches, Zack Snyder’s Justice League feels more like a rough assembly than a director’s cut. It appears to include every single shred of footage Snyder shot, no matter how superfluous to the story. It will absolutely delight the hardest of hardcore Snyder heads. I’m not sure how more casual viewers will react to a longer and bleaker version of the same movie they already saw and dislike.

That’s not to say Zack Snyder’s Justice League is worse than the theatrical cut. It is clearly an improvement. But it feels like a three hour cut could have been legitimately great. Anyone up to #ReleaseTheSlightlyShorterSnyderCut next?

RATING: 6/10

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