'Zack Snyder's Justice League' Messy Superhero Epic Out Now on Digital
DC's team-up with Batman and chums finally swings into digital stores after a fan campaign to release the Snyder Cut.
Richard TrenholmFormer Movie and TV Senior Editor
Richard Trenholm was CNET's film and TV editor, covering the big screen, small screen and streaming. A member of the Film Critic's Circle, he's covered technology and culture from London's tech scene to Europe's refugee camps to the Sundance film festival.
When DC's Justice League came out in theaters, it was quite different from what the original director intended. Zack Snyder's Justice League, aka the Snyder Cut, makes up for that, expanding the flick to four hours of Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman and the Justice League fighting the good fight. The Snyder Cut was released on HBO Max in 2021, and now you can finally buy your own digital version of the four-hour movie.
Did I mention it's four hours long?
This extended director's cut is Snyder's reedited version of 2017's Justice League, which was credited to Joss Whedon after Snyder stepped down midway through production due to a personal tragedy. Three years later Snyder dusted off the original footage, shot some new stuff and then compiled it into a four-hour cut. Officially titled Zack Snyder's Justice League, this epic version was initially exclusive to HBO's streaming service alongside other Warner Bros. blockbusters and DC Comics spinoffs. But you don't need to subscribe to HBO Max as you can also buy it on Blu-ray disc or as a digital purchase too.
Like the theatrical version, Snyder's Justice League sees Batman recruiting superpowered chums Wonder Woman, Aquaman and the Flash to seek out their fallen superfriend Superman and thwart an alien invader. Superpowers and soul-searching ensue.
The biggest strength of this and all DC movies is the casting of the heroes. Gal Gadot's smoldering Wonder Woman, Henry Cavill's square-jawed Superman and Ben Affleck's world-weary Batman all fill the comic book costumes perfectly. Alongside them, Jason Momoa, Ray Fisher and Ezra Miller give standout performances, breathing life into lesser-known characters. It's entertaining to spend time with this league of heroes punching, posing and bouncing off each other.
So yeah, this film comes with a lot of baggage, but life's too short to get into all that here. I'm not going to comb through the differences between the two versions either. Instead, I'm going to take a look at whether the Snyder Cut stands alone as a coherent storytelling experience.
It's no spoiler to say the new cut begins with a recap of an earlier film, 2016's Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Which means you don't just have to cast your mind back to the Wonder Woman and Aquaman movies that've come since; you have to think back five years to an even earlier film in the series. Look, I forgive you for not remembering the specifics of what's happening or why Lex Luthor is hanging in some kind of CGI paddling pool. In fact, I'll save you some trouble and tell you up front that Lex Luthor isn't mentioned again in the main plot of this film, so including him in the intro is just unnecessary and confusing.
Ten seconds in and I already have that annoying feeling, all too common in today's continuity obsessed blockbusters, that I have to stop the film and check Wikipedia to figure out if I'm missing something.
That murky prologue tells you very clearly, right from the jump, who this film is for. Are you intimately acquainted with the details of Zack Snyder's films? Welcome aboard. Are you the other 99% of the moviegoing public, who kinda liked the Wonder Woman movies and just wants some superhero escapism while sitting at home with only streaming services for company? Screw you! Go watch Batman Forever, you poser!
The Snyder Cut isn't meant to be fun. It's full of serious people saying serious stuff. Admittedly, the theatrical cut's stream of self-aware quips skirted dangerously close to ridiculing fans for taking this stuff even a little bit seriously, but there has to be some middle ground between Whedon's goofiness and Snyder's leaden approach. When the Snyder Cut takes a stab at humor, it plays like someone who heard a joke once but didn't really understand why everyone was laughing. In this version, Ezra Miller's performance as the Flash is still a quirky highlight, but his dialogue often feels forced and weird rather than nerdy and endearing.
You can tell this is serious stuff from the ponderous textural touches, like Nordic villagers singing ominous songs, or stark black title cards, or flashbacks and dream sequences and multiple voiceovers from multiple dead dads. And sooo muuchhh slooo-moooo. Get into your feelings with a full minute of Lois Lane drinking coffee in slow motion in the rain while Nick Cave plays, or get into your feelings again during a full minute of Aquaman drinking whiskey in slow motion in the rain while, er, more Nick Cave plays.
All this adds to the inflated run time. I, for one, am happy to spend time fighting crime with each and every one of the caped crusaders. But the film is also bloated with countless fripperies any responsible editor would trim without a moment's hesitation. We probably didn't need Commissioner Gordon in a subplot about Batman being a suspected kidnapper that's then completely forgotten, or a recurring theme about poverty and eviction that connects to absolutely nothing (especially incongruous when one of the heroes is literal billionaire Bruce Wayne). And we really didn't need a scene that's just Alfred showing Wonder Woman how to make tea.
Yet, despite its length, the Snyder Cut presents nothing meaningful or significantly new. For an example of how a reedited version can deepen a story, look at Blade Runner. The fabled Director's Cut added fascinating nuance and ambiguity to the question of whether the hero was human, genuinely adding an extra dimension to the film even if you'd seen it before.
But the four-hour Snyder Cut of Justice League feels like essentially the same movie as the two-hour theatrical version, just longer. At times it feels less like a story and more like a free-roaming video game where you wander about the DC universe interacting with nonplayable characters.
And don't even get me started on the tacked-on mini-movies designed to set up sequels that will never come. These throw a bunch of fan-pleasing DC characters at the wall and look cool but are, frankly, incoherent nonsense.
On the plus side, a couple of plot strands are broadened through the film, with varying degrees of success. The expanded story leans heavily on Fisher's Cyborg, which is good because he has an intriguingly conflicted relationship with his superpowers that make him hands-down the most interesting character on the team.
We also learn that villain Steppenwolf is an underling to a cosmic conqueror named Darkseid. In theory, this could add some fun nuance: The Marvel movies have shown how villains can be developed as personalities with relatable conflicts mirroring the dilemmas faced by the good guys. But in practice, it just means Justice League's existing over-CG-ed gray beast guy now reports to a different CG gray beast guy who in turn reports into yet another CG gray beast guy.
And I'll save you some Googling here: You're not mishearing the dialogue, it's just that one of those gray CG baddies is called "DeSaad" and the other is called "Darkseid." Ridiculously similar names like that are the kind of clutter you take out of a movie, not deliberately add back in.
By the way, are you impressed we made it this far before mentioning the M-word? Like it or not, Marvel sets the bar for superhero blockbusters, and DC has been playing catch-up for a decade. Justice League tried to do in one film what the Avengers series unfolded over several years, and it just isn't the same. But Snyder, Warner Bros. and DC also do themselves no favors by telling a story that's so similar to the goings-on in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
The bickering heroes collecting magical alien artifacts is basically the same as Infinity War and Endgame, and Darkseid is essentially Thanos without the character development. Hell, Snyder even throws in a moment that seems to lift the Hulk's signature line ("I'm always angry") from the first Avengers film -- written and directed by one Joss Whedon, ironically.
So at least after all the fuss and online battles, we can finally compare Snyder's and Whedon's versions. And we can officially confirm that no matter how great it seemed in fandom's fevered imagination, the Snyder Cut is every bit as much of a mess as the theatrical edit. Which version you prefer is entirely up to you -- I'm not going to make a judgment on whether the two-hour or four-hour version is better.
But I will say this: At least one is over sooner.
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