Zack Snyder superhero movies are the black licorice of cinema: Those who like the taste can't understand why everyone doesn't, and those who don't like the taste grimace at the thought. And now the streaming wars and online clamor have brought us "Zack Snyder's Justice League." It's four hours of black licorice.
We're never going to get the von Stroheim cut of "Greed" or the Welles cut of "The Magnificent Ambersons," but thanks to Snyder's let's-call-it-enthusiastic fan base and AT&T/Warner Media's desperation to get more subscribers to HBO Max, the filmmaker has been given the time and money to reshoot, recut and reconceive the film that he had to abandon because of a family tragedy.
The result is a superhero epic cropped for Imax screens but designed for at-home viewing, where audiences can either binge the entire 242-minute running time or use the helpful chapter breaks (six parts plus an epilogue) to turn the movie into a serialized event. Either way, the end result is a very mixed bag; the enhanced running time allows Snyder and screenwriter Chris Terrio the opportunity to flesh out the story and the character introductions (and at this length, it dang well better) but at the same time, Snyder's particular brand of storytelling, sound design, editing and visual sensibility is very much on display.
The bastardized 2017 theatrical cut of "Justice League" -- which now looks more a messy amalgam of clashing visions than ever before -- had to introduce three new superheroes, follow a villain collecting three MacGuffins and bring Superman back to life -- all in two hours. And the strain showed. With double the running time (and the interim release of "Aquaman"), Snyder can more effectively check all the plot boxes, with room left over to introduce a bigger, badder villain who will almost certainly figure into upcoming movies.
"Zack Snyder's Justice League" begins with the death wail of Superman (Henry Cavill), who sacrificed himself at the end of "Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice," literally traveling around the world, from the undersea kingdom of Atlantis to the Amazon island of Themyscira. Batman (Ben Affleck) realizes that Superman's death leaves Earth without a champion to battle intergalactic threats, and he sets out to gather as many heroes as will join him.
He gets the brush from half-Atlantean Aquaman (Jason Momoa) and enthusiastic agreement from Barry Allen (Ezra Miller), aka The Flash. Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) at first gets rejected by the embittered Victor Stone (Ray Fisher), the half-human, half-cybernetic Cyborg. But when Batman's instincts prove correct, and the evil Steppenwolf (voiced by Ciarán Hinds) shows up to combine three alien devices called Mother Boxes that will spell the planet's doom, even the reluctant heroes join up to save the day.
Whereas "The Avengers" benefited from having solo features to establish its characters in advance, "Justice League" has to introduce us to Barry and Victor, and their increased screen presence is one of the best parts of this new edit. Miller adds much-needed levity -- never let anyone tell you that Snyder's take on superheroes is entirely humor-free -- and Fisher finally gets a character and an arc to play, as Victor overcomes his hostility toward his scientist father, Silas (Joe Morton), and finds meaning through heroic purpose and personal relationships with his fellow metahumans.
But then there's the plot-plot-plot, fight-fight-fight rhythms of this new "Justice League," which offer another reason to break the film into pieces rather than ride out a solid four hours. While there are certainly exciting moments in some of the superhero dynamics, much of the film's effects-driven atmospherics are murky and vaporous.
For every moment of grounded human connection -- Martha Kent (Diane Lane) comforting and confronting Lois Lane (Amy Adams) in her grief, or Affleck's Bruce Wayne bantering with Princess Diana or with his butler, Alfred (Jeremy Irons) -- there are seemingly endless, excessively stylized sequences involving a thousand Amazons on horseback or hordes of flying alien drones that have no gravity, no sense of the tangible. There are flourishes where a human character will resemble an Alex Ross painting, only to get lost in the overall visual fog. We are meant to root for the superheroes not because they're particularly engaging, but because we know in advance that we must. Nothing sticks; detachment is the dominant force.
Smaller scale, less-populated battle sequences prove more effective, particularly two separate clashes with Steppenwolf (one in an underwater tunnel, the other a climactic showdown in a nuclear reactor), where these lone wolves have to figure out teamwork and cooperation. More often than not, however, the cumulative weight of the film saps it of energy, to say nothing of any fun it might offer. ("Fun" being anathema to certain fans who think superheroism is deadly serious business.)
Add to that visual cacophony an insistent score by Junkie XL, which frequently sounds like Metallica's tour bus running into the London Philharmonic, and the results are undeniably Snyder-ian, from the name in the title on down. And if you didn't like Bruce Wayne's prophetic dreams in earlier installments of this saga, too bad -- "Zack Snyder's Justice League" doubles down, dropping all sorts of hints about DC Comics characters and plotlines waiting in the wings for upcoming sequels.
If that news delights you, you're already primed for "Zack Snyder's Justice League." If it doesn't, there are plenty of other ways to spend one-sixth of your day.
"Zack Snyder's Justice League" premieres March 18 on HBO Max.