Party like it’s 2017. The Justice League is back. And this time, they’re gonna get it right. A film that came out less than four years ago has returned from death, with a message: This is not your slightly-younger-self’s Justice League. This is a four-hour movie packed with slow-motion super-hero punches — for adults! The funny thing is, despite the runtime of Zack Snyder’s Justice League, (now on HBO Max) the goal of this newly restored version mostly works. Even if you still hate it, you’ll probably say to yourself “well, I see what he was going for there.” It doesn’t mean it’s a great film, but it’s certainly better than the 2017 version.
Arguably, it’s more memorable and interesting than some of the more forgettable Marvel entries. Films like Age of Ultron, the various Ant-Mans, some of the Thors, and most of the post-2011 X-Mens. Saying Zack Snyder’s Justice League is better than some middle-of-the-road or off-brand Marvel films might seem like a backhanded compliment, but it’s really not. The DC movies have always been in competition with Marvel in the eyes of the moviegoing public, but now that we’ve had a year of not going to a movie theater, it’s easier to assess the “real” Justice League honestly.
In this age of constant pop culture reassessment, the repression of the Snyder Cut has proven that, yes, sometimes art and commerce fail hard, even if the subject matter is commercial to the core. Mild spoilers for Zack Snyder’s Justice League head.
Partially thanks to handy chapter divisions, the Snyder Cut isn’t as terrible, self-indulgent, or boring as you might think. In fact, sometimes it feels old-fashion in a way that Marvel films can’t. The obsession with back-talky bro-humor that began in Joss Whedon’s Avengers was arguably perfected by the Russo Brothers in Civil War and the subsequent Avengers epics Infinity War and Endgame. There’s less of that in the Snyder Cut, which gives the film a slightly less contemporary feeling. It makes it closer to a mythological Greek God retelling than a straight comic book adaptation.
In fact, in a newly expanded flashback, several Greek Gods make very literal extended cameos. When, during the final battle between the League and Darkseid’s minion, Steppenwolf, Wonder Woman careens through the air, and beheads the demon, the scene looks like something out of Lord of the Rings or the Clash of the Titans. It’s thrilling and epic in the strictest definition of the word. In the 2017 Joss Whedon version, this big battle ended with Wonder Woman breaking the bad guy’s ax, and then some zombie bats turning on their master. The difference is simple: Either this movie was going to be hardcore or it was going to be a joke.
If you’ve dipped a toe into internet chatter about Justice League since its initial 2017 release you’re probably aware of one dominant narrative: The movie sucked, but it wasn’t the fault of Snyder. He stepped away from the production following a family tragedy, and former fanboy favorite Joss Whedon filled in to complete the film. The story goes that this process ruined the movie, and made it into the unwatchable (but brief) mess that hit theaters in 2017. Now, with the backing of countless fans (and several actors like Gal Gadot, Jason Mamoa, and Ben Affleck) Zack Snyder was able to convince HBO Max to let him “release the Snyder Cut,” which yes, does feel a little like releasing the Kraken of ancient myth. It’s a monster. It’s unstoppable. It’s a little bit out-dated. It feels too big, and you’ll probably not want to watch it again.
And yet, compare this to the worst Avengers movie, Age of Ultron. Thanks to WandaVision’s reliance on it for an origin story, a lot of us rewatched Age of Ultron not that long ago. Guess what? It sucks. Not only does it suck, it sucks in an uninteresting, uninspired way. If you compared it to the 2017 Justice League, Age of Ultron would be better, but only marginally. If you compare Age of Ultron to Zack Snyder’s Justice League, the Snyder Cut wins through sheer audacity alone.
One of the biggest problems with trying to create a superhero movie for adults (the Snyder Cut is rated R, mostly for violence) is to try and reconcile the childish reasons why adults like superheroes in the first place. The successful Marvel formula is to assume the films can get dark, but not so dark that a parent can’t watch the film with a child. So far, the only thing made truly for grown-ups in the MCU is WandaVision, and that’s mostly because a 10-year-old doesn’t give a shit about Dick Van Dyke references. Zack Snyder’s Justice League is the opposite, it’s the kind of movie that a 10-year-old might think they want to watch because some of the action looks gnarly. But the pace and themes and goals of the movie are less about good triumphing over evil and more about these people getting through their day. And, unlike WandaVision we actually understand the motivations of all the characters at all times.
The Marvel versus DC comparison might seem unfair. But because there’s now a pervasive and pejorative lens thrown over anything that’s not Marvel and not on Disney+; it feels like the only way to big-up the Snyder Cut to the skeptics is to compare it to the beloved Marvel franchise. Like WandaVision, the Snyder Cut toys with the idea of what happens when an all-powerful hero is overcome with grief. Unlike WandaVision, the Snyder Cut doesn’t let a superhero off the hook just because they are sad and threw a super-tantrum.
In fact, the entire epilogue of this movie is about consequences. And even if we’ll never see a sequel that addresses those consequences, the movie doesn’t pull any narrative punches. Because this movie is so damn earnest and serious, it doesn’t pull any literal punches, either. Whether that makes it better or worse than the milquetoast 2017 cut, or the aspirational Disney-fied morality of Marvel, is irrelevant. For now, Zack Snyder’s Justice League is a different kind of superhero movie. And maybe that’s enough.
Zack Snyder’s Justice League is streaming now on HBO Max.