Let me save you some time: The Snyder Cut is better.
Zack Snyder’s Justice League is an upgrade over the 2017 original. The story of DC Comics’ trinity — Superman (Henry Cavill), Batman (Ben Affleck), and Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) — banding together is more coherent. Flash (Ezra Miller) and Cyborg (Ray Fisher) get more interiority and function less like action figures. The hammerhead villain, Steppenwolf, has more to do and a slightly meatier backstory. Snyder also includes a glorious cameo of a future Leaguer. And there’s certainly more myth-building and thrill — think Snyder slow-motion set pieces flanked by his love for zippy CGI.
Given that this director’s cut cost a reported $70 million to finish up after years of fan clamor and rumors that it would brightly outshine the 2017 theatrical release, perhaps its “betterness” should be the default assumption. But it’s also worth taking into account that the 2017 movie, which Snyder stepped away from and Joss Whedon took over to finish, bruised its knees on the rock bottom of superhero storytelling.
Lumbering, confusing, and filled to the brim with the quippy, quasi-sardonic dialogue known as “Buffy Speak,” the film smashed the most legendary superhero trio in history into what felt like a designer impostor Avengers story. Heroes who struggle to get along have to figure out how to unite and save the world. Thankfully, by the end, they do. But the heart of the movie’s problem is its failure to acknowledge what makes heroes like Wonder Woman, Superman, and Batman so captivating. A hint: It is not cheerful sarcasm.
The pertinent question, then, is whether the improvements of Zack Snyder’s Justice League, some slighter than others, are worth the four hours of runtime and the tens of millions of dollars Warner Bros. spent reviving it.
Pre-established Justice League and Snyder fans, especially those who have waited four years for this version, will love it. I also think the circumstances we’re in — one year into a pandemic, waiting for vaccines, wanting things to look forward to — will work in the movie’s favor. It’s easy to forgive some of its sins when many of us would be just as likely to spend the same four hours mindlessly scrolling on our phones or watching something worse.
And again, what Snyder built is a much better movie, so much that I wanted to go back to my review of the original cut and dock it a few more points.
But improving on something as horrendous as the original Justice League isn’t difficult. The truly challenging, perhaps impossible, task would be making Justice League something remarkable. That would’ve been awesome to see. But that isn’t the Snyder Cut.
The Snyder Cut’s biggest improvement is its storytelling
I do not like to think about what an awful time I had watching the first Justice League. The movie was riding the momentum of Patty Jenkins’s Wonder Woman when it hit theaters, and it flopped right out of the gate. The spirit of the heroes was missing, as was the buoyancy and spirit that we all saw in Jenkins’s work. Whatever it lacked in joy and charisma, it replaced with endless, nonsensical exposition about the end of the world at the hands of some guy named Steppenwolf and his army of fear-sniffing parademons.
Snyder’s second chance dedicates the majority of its extra time to clarifying this story.
He treats Superman’s death in Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice as a world-changing event. There’s a good three or four minutes devoted to watching the visualized soundwaves of Superman’s dying screams reverberate around the world and across the universe. Snyder could never be accused of being abstract. Superman’s death means that Earth’s most powerful defender is no longer in commission.
This wakes up three Mother Boxes, a set of world-ending devices that, when united, are capable of immense power. The boxes apparently function as a reverse alarm system, becoming active when Earth is at its most vulnerable.
The Snyder Cut adds another layer of mythos to the original story by introducing Darkseid, an intergalactic threat who’s calling all the shots. He and his army controlled the Mother Boxes once before but were defeated when the world’s forces — Amazon, Atlantean, Old Gods, Humans, and a Green Lantern — worked together. Not unlike the rings in Lord of the Rings, upon Darkseid’s loss, the boxes were divided between three factions: the Themysciran Amazons, the undersea Atlanteans, and human men.
So Darkseid, menacing with jagged skin that looks like the side of a mountain, has called in Steppenwolf — who sports a metallic makeover this time around — to conquer worlds for him. Steppenwolf is on a mission to find the boxes.
Snyder’s biggest improvement is showing the film’s heroes, in particular Flash and Cyborg, get on board for this inevitable war. Several of the new scenes are devoted to these two characters, establishing them with better backstories than they were previously afforded. Both of their stories involve unsettled relationships with their fathers, and those relationships end up being pivotal to their recruitment. Ray Fisher, even decked out in a distracting pile of CGI, breaks through and gives Cyborg a mix of rage and vulnerability in depicting his strained relationship with his dad, who turned him into the man-machine to save his life.
The Snyder Cut also indirectly benefits from Wonder Woman and Aquaman’s (Jason Momoa) standalone movies that have come out since Whedon’s original Justice League debuted. Those movies did a lot of work laying the foundation of their respective lead characters, and they no longer feel as stagnant as they did in Whedon’s original (which preceded Aquaman and this year’s Wonder Woman 1984). There are enough notes and beats hit — including a slim backstory detailing an Amazon and Atlantean rivalry — that the chemistry between Momoa and Gadot is something a future movie should take advantage of.
That said, the Snyder Cut is far from perfect. The more coherent storyline comes with the four-hour running time. Fisher’s performance is often stymied by a script that sputters more often than it crackles, as are the performances of his fellow heroes. Ben Affleck’s Batman didn’t really make me feel any different than the original version did, and Henry Cavill, who looks like Superman in every single way, still feels like squandered potential.
But will any of this matter to fans who’ve waited for so long to see the Snyder Cut? Or to any superhero fan who’s stuck at home with time to kill? Or to anyone that already has an HBO Max subscription? Probably not.
Zack Snyder is fascinated by the amount of violence superheroes are capable of
The most compelling aspect about the Snyder Cut, whether you’re an intense fan or not, is the way it invites you to catch the differences between the two movies. Snyder’s distinct visual style — shots as slow as molasses, speedy CGI characters hurtling across the screen, rotating zooms and pans — make this game fun. So does the director’s love for a moody shot set to an ominous chorus of women’s voices moan-chanting indistinct syllables (see: the Oracle scene in 300).
One thing the Snyder Cut makes very clear is that Snyder is infatuated with the violence superheroes are capable of. Sometimes that works, like when he highlights the Amazons’ willingness to sacrifice their bodies to protect Themyscira and their queen from Steppenwolf, or when he demonstrates just how barbaric Superman can be by having the Man of Steel smash various Justice Leaguers’ faces in.
But it also makes for odd, sometimes poor storytelling choices.
Batman as master detective and strategist is an afterthought, with Snyder favoring the hero’s ability to shoot alien guns (Batman spends a lot of the Snyder Cut pathetically pew-pewing bad guys while everyone else is super-speeding, flying, soaring through the sky, and taking down parademons left and right). Snyder’s version of Wonder Woman’s bank rescue from the 2017 movie makes it absolutely clear she kills a man in front of children with her gauntlet boom, and later, we see her joyously decapitating a bad guy.
Flash, who isn’t much of a fighter in this flick, is left running around in a circle during the final battle — possibly a sign of Snyder’s lack of imagination when it comes to a character who isn’t built around shooting stuff and breaking people’s bones.
Snyder’s love for super-strength brutality may also explain why I’ve always found his interpretations of Batman and Superman to be lacking. Both heroes have wildly different worldviews and ideas about isolation, humanity, and family. They both lost their parents too young. Both also have secret identities, but use them in different ways and need them for different reasons. They also have very different motivations for being heroes.
I wanted to see just a scrap of these ideas in the Snyder Cut, but was left starving.
Snyder doesn’t really explore their dueling mindsets or their relationship with one another. And while he can get away with a brooding Batman, his take on Superman, whose story is all about lost family and aching loneliness, feels especially hollow — especially in scenes Superman shares with the alleged love of his life and only tether to humanity, Lois Lane (Amy Adams).
The overall effect often makes the Snyder Cut feel like an action video game where the goal is to tally up the number of knockouts each character can land. The film isn’t without its pleasures; it’s fun to see Aquaman and Wonder Woman beat people up and smirk afterward. I didn’t realize that watching Superman blow on stuff and freeze it with this super breath was something that would bring me immense happiness. And I’ve sunk an afternoon or more into video games in the past.
But it would’ve been nice to see Snyder knock this out of the park and supplement his eye for visuals and his unique style with a story that had a bit more soul, especially with his very rare $70 million second chance.
Zack Snyder’s Justice League premieres on HBO Max on March 18, 2021