Zack Snyder’s Justice League, who appeared on HBO Max on Thursday, wastes no time distinguishing himself from that other Justice League, the one released in theaters in 2017. Where the earlier track opened in happier times with Superman (Henry Cavill), some children with cameras enchant with his bright CG enhancement smile, the new one begins with a scream of anxiety that is so painful and powerful that it resounds throughout the cosmos.
The message it sends us is clear: it’s not that ‘lighter’ going on Justice League Warner Bros. tried to deliver once by Joss Whedon. It’s Snyder’s darker, grimmer vision, through and through.
To be sure, ZSJL is not a completely different film. It’s still recognizable as another version of the same basic story: Batman (Ben Affleck) and Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) recruit Cyborg (Ray Fisher), Aquaman (Jason Momoa) and the Flash (Ezra Miller) in their battle against Steppenwolf’s (Ciarán Hinds) The MacGuffin plot for world domination. Much of the footage from the previous track is reused here, sometimes with minor adjustments and sometimes with more dramatic ones. Even many of the vague Whedonish sages made it intact; the awkward sense of humor of the Flash was a rare element that could easily have left both filmmakers behind.
But Snyder’s late tinkering leads to a film that represents a huge improvement over the previous version at almost every level. It still will not be for everyone. ZSJL sending away from the sunnier, more beautiful, seemingly more relatable tone that the theatrical version tried to inflict, and rather committing itself to the more humble mood established by Snyder in his earlier DC efforts, Man of steel and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. If you hated it unconditionally, it’s hard to imagine ZSJL to bring you back to the whole endeavor.
However, those who are open to Snyder’s approach to the DC universe will find much more of this than they did four years ago. The filmmaker’s skill for striking footage shows in the action pieces, which this time play sharper and cleaner (if it’s a little too dependent on his distinctive slow-mo). His more moody sensitivity makes for a heavier film, but also one whose grandiose emotions feel more deserving. The fact that sadness, anger and loneliness are seldom far out of reach for our heroes only makes it so much more poignant when they finally move on to healing – as opposed to the theatrical version, which seemed desperate to avoid a strong feeling at all.
With Zack Snyder’s Justice League, it finally becomes possible to see Justice League for the great epic it was meant to be.
There may in fact be too much to like here. At four o’clock, ZSJL runs literally twice as long as the play did, and Snyder uses the two extra hours to squeeze in so much more plot and exposition and Easter eggs that it still feels like we’re missing a few pieces. It’s enough of a challenge to keep up with half a dozen main characters; throws in enhanced roles for supporting players like Silas Stone (Joe Morton) plus brand new players like Iris West (Kiersey Clemons), and it can be dizzying from moment to moment to remember what happened an hour or two or three ago. And not all new things feel completely necessary. With all the hype surrounding the addition of Jared Leto’s Joker, for example, the only purpose his cameo seems to serve is to bother a sequel we’ll probably never see.
After all, these four hours feel much better spent than the two who needed them for the play. With space to breathe, the characters and their relationships feel more complex, and the motivations that make them better explored. Fisher’s Cyborg is arguably the biggest beneficiary of this extended screen time, and is basically promoted from plot to main character. But characters like Wonder Woman also get a boost from the film’s willingness to spend some time in her main space, even if we do not learn much more about her. (On the other hand, the extra scenes that Steppenwolf explains underline only that he’s still a dud.)
It’s hard to consider now ZSJL completely outside the long shadows that its predecessors cast – not just the theater Justice League and all the drama and controversy surrounding it, but also Man of steel and Batman v Superman and all the arguments that surrounded it. Trying to guess if a “Snyder track” would have played better in 2017 than the Snyder-Whedon mashup turns out to be a difficult point, because even in an alternate timeline where Snyder could stay on as director, ZSJL is not the exact film he would have shown; in no universe would Warner Bros. put on a four-hour show in theaters. If nothing else, ZSJL serves as a curious experiment – a real-time demonstration of how a big difference can make even seemingly small changes, such as the pace of a conversation scene.
But I’ll go a little further than that. With ZSJL, it finally becomes possible to see Justice League for the great epic it was meant to be. Despite all its imperfections and excessive affections, it is also a film that aims to imagine whole worlds and become entangled in the turmoil of lives in them. It is purposeful and perspective and seeks meaning in our universe by seeking wonder in its own. It starts from the depths of the darkness in which we saw BvS, and try to move slowly but surely to the light. In short, it’s a movie that gives enough to swing big, even if it means missing it sometimes. These beloved heroes deserve nothing less.
Zack Snyder’s Justice League premiere Thursday at HBO max.