The intrigue behind Zack Snyder’s Justice League‘s languid gestation far outstrips anything that plays onscreen during its gargantuan four-hour runtime. For those who don’t know, I’ll give you the Reader’s Digest version: Snyder, the co-writer and director of Justice League‘s original cut, was forced to step away from the production, due to the sudden death of his daughter. As a result, Warner Bros. hired Joss Whedon–a vastly different filmmaker–to complete the film. Whedon stripped Snyder’s vehicle down to the chassis, and rebuilt it with vibrant colors and jokey dialogue. The film that eventually arrived in theaters resembled the patchwork car in Johnny Cash’s “One Piece at a Time:” A lumpy, misshapen mess, and a compromise of both director’s visions.
Fans were, understandably, disappointed. They suspected a better film was buried beneath the rubble, and clamored for it to be unearthed and restored. #ReleaseTheSnyderCut trended in a massive way. Never mind that Snyder’s Man of Steel and Batman v Superman were immense let-downs that managed to be drab and migraine-inducing at the same time. This was Snyder’s baby, they said. He had every right to rescue it from the wreckage and bring it into the world as he saw fit.
And, unfortunately, they’re not wrong. Snyder has come this far, and endured personal tragedy along the way. He deserves the chance to see this thing through, dreary and wearying though it may be. To their credit, Warner Bros. gave Snyder an enormous heap of cash and what appears to be considerable leeway to do exactly that. The resulting film doesn’t so much reimagine the original as it spreads the same unsatisfying aspects over twice the runtime. There are few moments that feel like the improvement everyone craved, but there are many more overlong scenes that spoon-feed us gobs of exposition, while still others don’t impart nearly enough. This is, somehow, a gluttonous feast that still leaves us starving.
From this point, I’m going to assume you’ve seen the DCEU films that have lead us to here. Otherwise, you’re treading on the trail of spoilers. The plot of this film is essentially a riff on the Whedon/Snyder Justice League: We begin sometime after the death of Superman in Batman v Superman. Steppenwolf (voice of Ciarán Hinds), an extinction-level supervillain, descends on Earth to capture the Mother Boxes, three cosmic MacGuffins. If that sounds like a stupid name for a powerful artifact, then you and I are in total agreement. The Mother Boxes look like enchanted, shimmering versions of something someone could use to store fine China. In fact, if Steppenwolf had pried one of these suckers open and pulled out some fancy plateware, I would’ve added a full star to this review.
Anyway. Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck), still guilt-ridden from the last flick, must quickly assemble a league of extraordinary people to meet the challenge of Steppenwolf and his army of tinfoil-looking Parademons. Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) is already on board, so ol’ Brucey must globetrot to round out the Superfriends. He first travels to Iceland to meet the man-legend known as Aquaman (Jason Momoa). Unfortunately, Khal Drogo of the High Seas is not exactly friendly to Bruce’s bat-wave. Barry Allen (Ezra Miller) is a different story. A lonely, geeky young man, the Flash is ready to rock right away. He needs to make friends. Finally, Wonder Woman seeks out Victor Stone/Cyborg (Ray Fisher), a star athlete who was fatally injured in a car crash, only to be resurrected as a cybernetic humanoid by his scientist father (Joe Morton).
It is during this set-up that Snyder’s presence is most strongly felt: This torrent of exposition takes place over the runtime of a regular-sized movie. We get waves of ponderous narration, long-winded speeches, and flashbacks on flashbacks. But wait–there’s more! Surprise cameos! Fan-service plot threads! All for the low, low price of four hours of your precious time.
The good news is that this will give anyone who wanted to hand Snyder the keys to the kingdom exactly what they wanted. The bad news is that it supplies someone like me with a lot more to not care about. Seriously, I have no interest in a new scene in which Barry Allen lands a job as a dog walker. (We also see him save his future love interest and a flying wienie in one swoop.) Victor Stone’s subplot does add dramatic heft and poignancy, but it still feels undercooked. Fisher and Morton have such a strong dynamic, it made me wish for Cyborg to have a standalone film.
And maybe that’s the real problem with the recent DC films: None of their dramatic payoffs feel earned. Marvel had the patience to supply their key characters with story arcs for the long haul. Tony Stark, Steve Rogers, and Thor all had hopes and regrets that were built over several movies. By the time Infinity War rolled around, we knew what they wanted and who they had loved. Their resolutions meant something. Barry Allen and Victor Stone need more substance in a lesser movie. With this Justice League, we get less from more.
We also must endure Snyder’s signature color palate, in which vibrant blues, reds, and golds get swished with soot-brown dishwater. This is yet another dour, gloomy-looking movie to behold. Even the sunny scenes feel diffused with rain clouds. As with Man of Steel and Batman v Superman, Snyder takes the brightest and best superheroes in the comic book universe and puts them in a movie that might as well have been directed by Eeyore.
With all that said, this Justice League works in fits and starts. The entire League is well-cast, and every actor brings conviction. They have better chemistry here, even though Whedon was tasked with adding warmth and fun to the franchise. And with just one director, the film feels more coherent. (It’s not great, or even good, but it is uniform.) Still, any strength Justice League manages to generate gets betrayed by that 242 minute runtime. It’s an act of hubris to make a movie that long. If you’re gonna do it, it’d better be Lawrence of Arabia, or the director’s cut of Godfather II. Alas, this film is neither of those. If nothing else, Zack Snyder’s Justice League is probably the best thing that could’ve been reaped from the original material. And yes, that’s an insult and a compliment, bundled into one sentence.
242 min. R. HBOMax.