With “Zack Snyder’s Justice League” — a.k.a. the long-rumored, long-awaited, and just plain long “Snyder Cut” — the director finally joins the ranks of blockbuster auteurs to which he’s aspired his entire career. He’s not up to the level of Christopher Nolan, James Cameron, or Peter Jackson, let alone Saint Steven (Spielberg) himself, but on the evidence of this retooled and greatly expanded version of the 2017 superhero summit meeting, he’s a good patch past Michael Bay. More to the point and as the title now implies, this is that rare big-screen behemoth that feels personal, in both its emotions and sometimes daft excesses.
The irony is that this new “Justice League” won’t be playing on the big screen — only on streaming platform HBO Max. The backstory, if you’re not familiar with it: Snyder, the director of “300” and the DC run-up projects “Man of Steel” (2013) and “Batman v Superman” (2016), abandoned the all-star “Justice League” (2017) mid-shoot when his daughter died. Joss Whedon (“The Avengers”) was drafted to finish the film, which involved extensive rewrites and reshoots; the finished product was pasted by the critics and found little favor with fans. But the latter stuck by Snyder as he agitated for a return to the project to make things right, Warner Bros. (which is owned by AT&T and an affiliate of HBO Max) eventually agreed, and here at last is the Snyder Cut, all four hours and two minutes of it. (Whedon’s version was 118 minutes.)
So, yes, it’s twice the movie — but also a better one. The storyline is essentially the same, except that it now makes sense: With Superman (Henry Cavill) having died at the end of “Batman v Superman,” Bruce Wayne, a.k.a. Batman (Ben Affleck), has to cobble together a supergroup to combat the alien Steppenwolf, a horned evil dude who’s made of some kind of chrome razor wire and has the voice of that fine Irish actor Ciarán Hinds. Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) signs up quickly, as does hyperactive teen smart-aleck the Flash (Ezra Miller) — he’s this universe’s version of Spider-Man — but brawny Aquaman (Jason Momoa) and bitter Cyborg (Ray Fisher) both have too many daddy issues (with Willem Dafoe and Joe Morton, respectively) to enlist that easily.
Off on the sidelines are Ma Kent (Diane Lane), Lois Lane (Amy Adams), trusty Alfred Pennyworth (Jeremy Irons), Commissioner Gordon (J.K. Simmons), and have you seen a more respectable gang of thespians unleashed on twaddle outside the “X-Men” franchise? Everyone’s worried that Steppenwolf will collect the three Mother Boxes — they’re like the Infinity Stones in the “Avengers” movies, but different — and redevelop Planet Earth into a wasteland, and just to up the ante, Snyder introduces two additional villains in Steppenwolf’s boss DeSaad (voiced by Peter Guinness) and his boss Darkseid (Ray Porter). They issue comic book boilerplate in guttural voices and in general are about as silly as their names, but where Steppenwolf was a sub-par FX misfire in the first “Justice League,” Snyder has poured money into state-of-the-art computer graphics, with the result that the character finally has presence, heft — threat.
Other things that work: longer, more developed backstories for Cyborg, Aquaman, and The Flash. The first is especially welcome, as the extra scenes put flesh on Cyborg’s emotional bones, if not his metallic body, and the sequences with Morton are genuinely touching. Cyborg was just some guy in the Whedon version; now he’s the movie’s soul. Similarly, the leaden jokiness of the Iceland scenes that introduce Aquaman have been replaced by a more serious, even solemn tone, grounding the character’s flippancy in pain. (Love the chorus of Nordic maidens singing Balkan harmonies, too.) The footage is the same; the tone completely different through pacing and editing and score. The DC/Warner Bros. films have always been plagued by a grimness that can turn pretentious, but here — finally — Snyder locates a vibe of gravitas rather than thudding heavy-osity.
Best of all? Affleck’s Bruce Wayne finally has purpose and stature in this edition. Maybe the actor was Sad Ben all along because he knew what got cut from his performance the first go-round. Now he’s the film’s Danny Ocean, gathering the troops and laying down the moral ground rules: We do it together or not at all. He doesn’t even suit up for the film’s first hour, which is good, because Affleck still looks ridiculous with the outfit on, beefy and awkward. In civilian clothes, he reclaims the character’s conscience, and when a major other superhero turns up in the final act — is it a spoiler when the film’s been out for years? — Affleck cedes the stage with grace.
Does the movie have to be four hours? Nope — three hours would probably have done it, and when Steppenwolf cries “So begins the end!” with an hour left to go, your heart is with him. And yet the length allows Snyder to indulge himself away from the studio bean-counters, which results in some strange, occasionally wonderful, occasionally stupid things. Strange: a hologram of Superman that just appears for no reason when the others talk about him in one scene, or the music choices, which include two Nick Cave songs, a Tim Buckley cover, and a horribly over-the-top version of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” — a song that is hereby banned from all soundtracks forever — sung by Allison Crowe. Wonderful: the way the movie just slows to an amble whenever Diane Lane and Amy Adams are onscreen, downshifting from bombast into the human. Stupid: a newly shot post-apocalyptic tag scene featuring Jared Leto’s Joker, the least appealing character in comic-book movie history.
Still, a major improvement when all is said and done, and Snyder has conclusively proved his point. Is all the sound and fury worthwhile, the four years of championing, the four hours up on the screen? To the fans who’ve been in it for the long haul, of course. To HBO Max executives, you bet. To casual moviegoers, probably not. For what it’s worth, I went from screening “Zack Snyder’s Justice League” to watching “Quo Vadis, Aida?,” a recent Oscar nominee and a drama grounded in real events that makes all of Hollywood’s costumed fantasias look like the puerile sandbox toys they are.
The heroes in that movie don’t wear capes and can’t fly — would that they could — and they’re more heroic for it, their victories harder won and their losses actually tragic. I know I’m comparing multiplex apples to arthouse oranges, but it’s worth considering that all the time and money and effort and CPU cycles that have gone into “Justice League” have resulted only in a more shapely and still ultimately disposable profit center.
ZACK SNYDER’S JUSTICE LEAGUE
Directed by Zack Snyder. Written by Snyder, Chris Terrio, and Will Beall. Starring Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Gal Gadot, Jason Momoa, Ray Fisher, Ezra Miller, Diane Lane, Amy Adams, Jeremy Irons. Available on HBO Max. 242 minutes. R (violence and some language)