Four years since Joss Whedon Frankensteined together the 2017 Justice League, the film’s original director, Zack Snyder, can celebrate the release of his own unabridged cut, together with the hordes of ardent DCEU fans who pressured Warner Bros. into bringing it to life. Thanks in part to the fandom’s social media paean #ReleaseTheSnyderCut, the studio handed Snyder $70 million to reconceive the project he’d abandoned after a family/personal tragedy, and the film—a four-hour behemoth twice as long as Whedon’s take—is now streaming on HBO Max. Unsurprisingly, much of the critical debate surrounding the “Snyder Cut” hinges on a compare-contrast exercise: is this new version (or the original, depending on how you look at it) better than its theatrical predecessor?
There’s certainly ample room to argue, as Clarisse Loughrey does at The Independent, that “the undiluted Snyder is better than what was released in cinemas, which had the feel of a film directed by committee, puerile jokes and narrative inconsistencies included.” In its basic story, Rodrigo Perez contends at The Playlist, the Snyder Cut isn’t much of a departure from Whedon’s: the Justice League must join forces to resurrect Superman and protect the world from a looming Armageddon. But where Whedon’s version was a dissonant amalgam of two radically different directorial styles, Zack Snyder’s Justice League is a far more cohesive and idiosyncratic affair. And that may be the film’s greatest merit. As Matt Zoller Seitz reminds us at RogerEbert.com,
The vast majority of these blockbusters are not intended as freestanding works of expression. They're meant to function as cogs in a content-producing machine that largely avoids painful or unanswerable questions, feeding disposable imagery and situations to viewers who expect to be rewarded for their brand loyalty and familiarity with comics lore by being given more and more and more of the thing they already know they like. The Snyder Cut, in comparison, gets closer to what Scorsese envisioned than nearly anything else the genre has produced. It's a corporate product that feels as if it sprung from a fever dream…
“This is the heart of the Snyder mystique,” Joshua Rivera echoes at Polygon: “somehow, the giant corporate machinery still produced something that felt like it was made by a person.” Perhaps that’s why conversations around Snyder’s DC films tend to get so impassioned (if not outright hostile), Rivera offers: “these movies are authored.” And perhaps the strong, in-your-face directorial approach Snyder embraces here—“idiosyncrasies and risks,” as Karen Han writes at Slate, “that indicate someone’s fingerprints all over a work of art rather than an over-buffed and polished corporate product”—is exactly the kind of antidote modern superhero movies needed.
Still, personal as it may be, Snyder’s approach raises a number of concerns. “While there are certainly exciting moments in some of the superhero dynamics,” Alonso Duralde remarks at The Wrap, “much of the film’s effects-driven atmospherics are murky and vaporous.” Over at Little White Lies, Hannah Woodhead notes that “the overall look of the film remains overwhelmingly dark, to the extent that the details of the costume design are often lost;” at times, “it’s impossible to see what’s happening.” And even the sickly greys can’t fully hide the seams between the physical and the digital, Pat Brown argues at Slant: when characters move, “the images are awkward, even ugly, so it’s no wonder they tend toward stillness.” That stillness, exacerbated by Snyder’s penchant for slo-mo, carries its own problems: as per Vanity Fair’s Richard Lawson, “there’s so much slow-motion in the film that one has to wonder if an hour could be shaved off if everything just played out in normal time.”
Arguably the more pertinent question then is not whether Snyder’s version is any better than Whedon’s cut, but whether, as Alex Abad-Santos wonders at Vox, “the improvements of Zack Snyder’s Justice League […] are worth the four hours of runtime and the tens of millions of dollars Warner Bros. spent reviving it.”
For better or for worse, Maya Phillips observes at The New York Times, the supersized run time gives the narrative ample room to stretch:
For better: there’s an ambitious mythology at work, revealing the epic that Snyder had envisioned and restoring world-building details […] For worse: Snyder also plods through seemingly endless (and pointless) exposition, adding enough back story for each Justice League hero to strong-arm us into investing in these characters so we care when they finally put on the team jerseys and step out onto the court.
That the Snyder Cut sprawls, scatters, and loses itself in its myriad storylines is hard to deny. But as Bilge Ebiri notes at Vulture, “lose all these melodramatic curlicues and oversized narrative distractions, and you’d lose what makes the film special: there, in its great, glorious bloat, lies the movie’s heart.” At its core, this is a project conceived as an act of stylistic reclamation; to argue for a tighter edit, to borrow again from Matt Zoller Seitz, “would be like looking at a peacock and concluding that the problem was too much plumage.”
I appreciate the point Zoller Seitz is making here, but it doesn’t fully dispel a lingering worry Eric Kohn raises in his IndieWire review, namely that “the drawn-out nature of this relatively simple heroes-save-the-world plot often just amounts to a gratuitous exercise in style.” For “if this Justice League is a fuller, more stylish film than its butchered predecessor,” Justin Chang echoes at The L.A. Times, this doesn’t necessarily translate into a richer or deeper journey:
What Snyder has contrived here feels less like a vital re-energization of the form than a ponderous guided tour through a museum’s worth of familiar superhero-movie tropes and conventions: Look at this, look at that, try not to look at your watch. Like the Flash himself, Snyder wants to slow time to a crawl, to deconstruct every gesture, to make his obsessions your own. He wants the movie to go on forever. Mission accomplished.
For all its stirring flourishes, the main concern is that Snyder’s film, in the words of Screen Daily’s Tim Grierson, ultimately “sags under the weight of its own self-importance.” Whether or not its showy theatrics will speak to you, they threaten to turn the proceedings into a one-note spectacle. As A.A. Dowd astutely notes at The A.V. Club, “every scene is directed the same way, as though it were taking place on Mount Olympus,” and while the mythical grandeur the Snyder Cut is drenched in is an improvement on Whedon’s take, it also deprives the film of any small moment, which in turn “means that there’s no such thing as a big one.”
I wouldn’t go as far as to call the end result “a mental toothache of a movie,“ as Richard Brody bills it over at The New Yorker. But it does strike me, as Hannah Woodhead suggests in her Little White Lies review, as “unabashed fan service,” ultimately “intended for the director and DC’s most ardent fans, rather than as a building block for whatever comes next.” Which brings us to what’s possibly the most fascinating angle of the whole debate. As a work that was in part willed (or bullied) into being via a large-scale social media campaign, what does Zack Snyder’s Justice League say about the fandom’s potential to influence the studios’ creative decision-making?
To be sure, the #ReleaseTheSnyderCut banner came with plenty of earnest pleas (and it bears remembering that Snyder’s fans also helped to raise funds for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, which may explain why many of the film’s thespians rallied behind the hashtag). But as Vanity Fair’s Joanna Robinson warns in her judicious analysis of the campaign, this was also mired in “vitriol that was extreme even for Twitter, including harassment campaigns targeted at critics, HBO Max, Warner Bros, and its employees.” Giving in to fans’ demands may sound like a democratic way to make movies, “but in reality,” Eliana Dockterman reminds us at TIME, “the power is not with the people but with a small, loud contingent of fans willing to spew hatred.”
Whether the studio has effectively legitimized “bad fan” behavior, or whether this is just how fandom ownership operates in our social media age, by capitulating to a warring cry wrapped in so much toxicity Warner Bros. may have set a concerning precedent. Ironically, the campaign’s success also casts serious doubts as to whether the film truly is the vision of a single auteur, or a product shaped and dictated by a fan base convinced they know best how a story should be told, and who should tell it.
The Current Debate is a column that connects the dots between great writing about a topic in the wider film conversation.