Zack Snyder’s Justice League review: A bloated cut of a mediocre film

Jason Momoa (Aquaman / Arthur Curry), Gal Gadot (Diana Prince / Wonder Woman), Ray Fisher (Cyborg / Victor Stone) in Zack Snyder's Justice League. Photograph by Courtesy of HBO Max
Jason Momoa (Aquaman / Arthur Curry), Gal Gadot (Diana Prince / Wonder Woman), Ray Fisher (Cyborg / Victor Stone) in Zack Snyder's Justice League. Photograph by Courtesy of HBO Max /

Even before it landed in theaters in 2017, Justice League was a film with a troubled history: Rumors of on-set tension plagued the production and, after a tragic loss in director Zack Snyder’s family prompted him to step away from the project, Warner Brothers brought in Avengers helmer and pop culture mainstay Joss Whedon to finish the movie. Whedon did so, and Justice League opened to middling reviews – but the altogether unremarkable film spawned an ardent base of loyal fans who urged WB to #ReleaseTheSnyderCut: A version of the film entirely directed by Zack Snyder.

The hope for fans was that this mythical “Snyder Cut” would be the true spectacular version of the film – and not something marred by a sudden change in directors halfway through. Though the campaign started out as not much more than a social media firestorm, the persistence of fans got the Snyder Cut greenlit – complete with pricy reshoots and a debut on HBO Max.

Now, nearly four years and 70 million dollars later, Zack Snyder’s Justice League is finally here and it’s exactly what you’d expect a project like this to be – a longer, messier version of a film that wasn’t exactly a gem to begin with. Though Snyder’s incarnation does inject the story with a little more heart and some much-needed character development for Cyborg, the changes aren’t nearly compelling enough to justify making audiences sit through four hours of Synder-isms.

Just like the 2017 release, Zack Snyder’s Justice League follows Bruce Wayne/Batman (Ben Affleck) and Diana Prince/Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) in the wake of Superman’s death in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. The duo rushes to assemble a team of heroes including Arthur Curry/Aquaman (Jason Momoa), Victor Stone/Cyborg (Ray Fisher), and Barry Allen/The Flash (Ezra Miller),  as the villainous Steppenwolf edges closer and closer to uniting three mother boxes that, when combined, spell Doomsday for Earth and the human race. In every meaningful way, Zack Snyder’s Justice League is fundamentally the same film the was release in 2017 – despite fans’ ardent claims that this cut would be a new film entirely.

First things first: Yes, Zack Snyder’s Justice League is long. Four hours and change long, divided into half a dozen “parts” and topped up with a 30-minute epilogue as an answer to the post-credit scenes that are now almost expected in superhero flicks, thanks to their prevalence in the MCU.

To keep an audiences’ attention for four hours is a hefty order for even the greatest filmmakers turning in their best work – and Zack Snyder’s Justice League is neither of those things – though Snyder certainly has his merits as a filmmaker, Justice League doesn’t come close to being his best film.

Funnily enough, once we’d gotten past the admittedly sizable hurdle of watching a four-hour film, we found ourselves impressed by how remarkably well-paced it was: though the film certainly drags on at times, that’s because of how long it is, not how the time is budgeted within that length. It’s an ironically well-paced film, if only it wasn’t encased in such a bloated shell. This could be due to the fact that virtually no major pieces are restructured chronologically – Zack Snyder’s Justice League follows the same beats as the original – it’s just that each scene is twice as long, and a handful of new elements are thrown into the mix without disrupting the original’s structure.

If you’re going into Zack Snyder’s Justice League hoping for an entirely different film than the original, you’ll be disappointed. The major differences between this new iteration and the original come in the form of tone and mood: The 2021 Justice League is very much tonally in line with the rest of Snyder’s body of work, filled to the brim of the director’s penchant for dramatic visuals, religious allegory, and clunky dialogue.

Though in the past we’ve appreciated Snyder’s stylistic quirks in films like Sucker Punch or Watchmen, when combined with the four-hour runtime, his heavy-handedness and tendency to overdramatize quickly became grating, especially in dialogue-heavy scenes, most of which are oddly paced and even more awkwardly edited. To Snyder’s credit, however, his signature style does fare much better when it comes to the action set pieces which, though marred by inconsistent and shoddy CGI, are an improvement over the original – especially those sequences featuring the Amazons.

Where the action saw improvement, though, the film’s overall dialogue and comedy chops took an especially significant hit. Comedy has never been Snyder’s strong suit, and Justice League is no exception. Snyder films have never exactly been laugh riots, but sitting through a four-hour movie with virtually no levity is a big ask, especially if it’s meant to be a superhero blockbuster and not a hard-boiled drama. (Try as Snyder might to make superheroes in capes with magic lassos and tridents look gritty and hardcore.) As despicable as he is, Whedon’s cut of the film juggled tone much better, striking a balance that Snyder can’t replicate.

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That being said, one of the film’s strongest suits is how it weaves much more empathy and character-based moments in amongst the constant exposition and action – in the original cut, nobody got a proper arcs and audiences were expected to already have relationships formed to these characters, despite the fact that they weren’t really earned. Here, although Batman and Aquaman still don’t get much time to shine, the sense of heart and ethos is very much present, especially when dealing with Ray Fisher’s Cyborg.

The character undoubtedly the most underserved in the original Justice League, Cyborg gets nearly an entire act dedicated to his backstory, development, and relationship with his father – taking him from someone who could’ve been cut from the 2017 version entirely to a key piece that keeps the emotional resonance moving. Zack Snyder’s Justice League also gives us a few more fun Alfred moments and a genuinely tear-jerking scene in the last act when Barry visits his father in prison.

The cast, though, is more of the same – Affleck is still unremarkable at best and verging off-character at worst, Cavill is still… there, Gadot is still clunky (with the exception of a remarkably charming scene with Alfred – who knew all it would take to wring some charisma out of her was to set her opposite Jeremy Irons?) and Momoa is still suitable. Unfortunately, though, the lack of Whedon’s eye for comedic timing makes Ezra Miller’s Flash even less charismatic or endearing than he was in the original – and Mera is bizarrely British in this incarnation – a strange change considering the accent isn’t present in Aquaman. Ray Fisher, though, is the undeniable MVP, football pun not intended.

When it comes to aesthetics, Snyder’s taste level remains questionable – it’s a dark, snowy, rain-filled film with some truly shoddy, uncanny-valley CGI at times, which is rivaled only in distractibility by the truly unhinged score and soundtrack, both of which have seemingly no thru line and vary wildly from scene-to-scene. Despite the welcome additions of some more character moments, Snyder still can’t figure out how to properly juggle tone in a superhero flick, and the film suffers for it.

Though it does gain some heartfelt moments, it’s almost painfully unfunny, which makes it difficult to justify sitting through – the moments of redemption aren’t frequent nor potent enough to balance out the fact that this is a four hour cut of a film that wasn’t that great to begin with. Though it will likely please the ardent fanbase who demanded the film’s release, Zack Snyder’s Justice League’s staggering runtime makes it a chore-like slog of a viewing experience, with an infrequent glimmer of redemption once every hour or so.

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