It’s a terrible shame that “Zack Snyder’s Justice League” is so good. It shouldn’t be good. It shouldn’t even have happened. For those blissfully unaware, the new re-edited version of 2017’s “Justice League,” a film begun by director Zack Snyder and, after he was forced to leave the production due to a family tragedy, finished by Joss Whedon, arrive on HBO Max this week at the end of a long and unpleasant path. Fans of the previous films in the DC universe were not pleased with “Justice League” and became convinced that a better cut, helmed entirely by Snyder, existed somewhere in Warner Bros. fault. It didn’t. But they made such a stir online – by hounding studio executives and harassing journalists – that Warner Bros. and HBO gave Snyder money to shoot new scenes and create the #SnyderCut that never existed.
As a critic who has reservations about the hegemony of comic book movies – and as a human being who does not want to reward the behavior of a rabid internet mob – I would have liked nothing more than for “Zack Snyder’s Justice League” to be just as incoherent and unpleasant as the first one.
Unfortunately, it’s good. It’s actually very good. If maximalism is your thing, you might even call it a masterpiece. It’s four hours of digital overkill, with Snyder stuffing as many ones and zeroes into every shot as the frame will allow – he often shifts into slo-mo during fight scenes just so he can show off how the detail – and as much plot into one story as our minds can handle. Conventionally speaking, this is the tale of how Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) recruited Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), Aquaman (Jason Momoa), Cyborg (Ray Fisher), and the Flash (Ezra Miller) to fight a hammer-headed alien villain named Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds), who is trying to collect three magical cubes from various corners of the world that, when joined together, allow bigger, badder villain to come to Earth and eviscerate all life. Oh, and Superman (Henry Cavill) is back, too.
It’s a tale as old as time, or at least as old as 2008 when the Marvel Cinematic Universe launched on an almost identical premise, but Snyder avoids the straight line from Point A to Point Z(zzzzz) by filling out the runtime with a series of delightful little mini-stories within the larger arc. For no apparent reason, we get to see The Flash applying for a job at a dog grooming shop, meeting a cute girl, and saving her from a fatal car wreck. We learn more than we ever expected about Cyborg’s background, the accident that nearly killed him, and his father’s heroic efforts to save his life. There’s even a very short arc about a waitress who gets evicted from her apartment and is put back on the road to prosperity by the grace of one of our benevolent superheroes. We never learn her name, but she gets her own little story. None of it is necessary – whatever that means – but each subplot is enacted with care, creativity, and thoughtfulness. Eventually, the film starts to feel more like a riveting short story collection than the overstuffed novel it first presents itself as.
In a film so reliant on big, CGI-laden set pieces, these character beats are a gift, a welcome reprieve from the admittedly impressive scale of it all Miller and Fisher get to do the most actual acting, and as such, their arcs are the most meaningful. Momoa and Gadot are relegated to quip duty – as well as “having good bodies” duty – and they handle their modest tasks with something that passes for quiet professionalism. Affleck as the Batman remains the most frustrating element. He seems to have decided to be the quiet, stoic presence at the film’s center, letting his fancy Bruce Wayne suits – including his fanciest one, the Batsuit – do much of the acting for him. It’s a shame, really, as this Batman, who is a little older and much wearier than previous iterations, offered an opportunity for introspective work from the 48-year-old Affleck, whose relationship foibles are grist for the internet mill these days. But despite some good graying of the temples, Affleck doesn’t even attempt to tap into his inner angst.
Instead, what we get is four hours of digitally-drawn action sequences – seriously, this almost qualifies as an animated feature – that dazzle the eyes but fail to linger behind them, and a board-game mentality that asks the viewer to roll the dice and keep moving forward at all times. In a film this long, there will be stuff that doesn’t work. Snyder has a strange habit of introducing a plot point whose meaning escapes us and then filling in the gaps with exposition later; I’m sure it all adds up on paper, but it robs the film of narrative momentum, accessing the puzzle-solving part of your brain in a film that ultimately works better if you shut that particular organ off.
At its best, “Zack Snyder’s Justice League” is operating on another level, in which momentum is only as good as your next world-bending explosion. It’s a more-is-more approach, and it mostly works. After four hours, you’ll find yourself bludgeoned into submission, like a weak-willed villain who just got your head knocked in by six of the biggest and best-looking superheroes you’re ever lucky enough to meet.
“Zack Snyder’s Justice League” will be available to stream on HBO Max starting Thursday, March 18.