clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Watching ‘Zack Snyder’s Justice League’: A Diary

The much-hyped film better known as the Snyder Cut is over four hours long. Watching it is an eye-opening journey of personality, profundity, and absurdity.

Ringer illustration
Spoiler warning

If fans of Zack Snyder—the same ones responsible for an unprecedented, yearslong effort to restore his original vision for Justice League through voluminous internet posting—wanted to savor their moment of triumph, the filmmaker’s got them covered. The Snyder Cut is finally here, and it is boldly going where no superhero blockbuster has gone before: crossing the four-hour threshold. In all, the Snyder Cut—officially titled Zack Snyder’s Justice League—clocks in at [stares into the abyss] 242 minutes, which makes it longer than acclaimed epics like The Irishman, Ben-Hur, Malcolm X, The Godfather: Part II, Titanic, Lawrence of Arabia, and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. Director’s cuts tend to be longer than theatrical releases, whether or not they’re fixing the mistakes of Joss Whedon, but you still get the impression Snyder didn’t leave a single thing on the cutting room floor.

But is the Snyder Cut a bold masterpiece from an auteur that needed a very long time to breathe, a brazen exercise in directorial self-indulgence, or something in between? To answer the universe’s most pressing question, I’ve retreated to the darkest corner of my apartment to get the full Snyder Cut experience. Having already spent 12 hours watching bizarre programming during the Disney+ launch and even more time within the sadistic universe of Nicolas Winding Refn’s Too Old to Die Young, 242 minutes sounds like a walk in the park. Nevertheless, we’ll be breaking down Justice League into chapters, just like the movie.

Without further ado, let’s return to the Snyderverse.

Chapter 1: Putting Together a Team

The new Justice League opens in the most Zack Snyder way possible: violence captured in slow motion. (Obviously, I’ll need to be way more specific.) Here, the action picks up with the ending of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, with Clark Kent dying at the hands of Doomsday, a villain technically formed via the mutated corpse of Michael Shannon’s General Zod by sneering tech bro Lex Luthor, which might be unimportant in the context of Justice League, but still bears repeating because these movies are so fucking weird. Anyway, Superman’s dying scream reverberates (in slo-mo) across the globe, from Wonder Woman’s homeland of Themyscira to the subaquatic Atlantean kingdoms. There’s a real weight and self-seriousness to the death scene, and it works way better than the cellphone footage Whedon’s Justice League used to mourn CGI’d-upper-lip Superman.

Unfortunately, there’s no time to even process the symbolic resonance of Superman’s death, since his demise also reawakens the three Mother Boxes: vaguely defined repositories of power that could do apocalyptic damage in the wrong hands. For a movie that runs over four hours, at least Justice League wastes no time setting up its new villain. Steppenwolf arrives in Themyscira via—and here’s where I’ll use my extensive knowledge of DC Comics—a special magic teleport-y beam, flanked by an army of Parademons, winged creatures I can only assume were designed after Snyder watched The Wizard of Oz and decided that the flying monkeys could use an edgelord’s touch. In short: Steppenwolf razes a Themysciran temple and acquires one of the three Mother Boxes for his master, Darkseid. (More on him later.)

Since Ben Affleck’s beefy Batman can barely get in a CrossFit session before another threat to humanity emerges, he decides to embark on one of my favorite storytelling clichés: putting together a team. (Not to be mistaken with “one last job,” which requires a team that has gone their separate ways to unite once more, possibly to steal money from a Brazilian drug lord, if you’re Ben Affleck in a perfect Netflix movie called Triple Frontier.) Batman’s quest begins in a remote Icelandic village, where he tracks down Arthur Curry, a.k.a. Aquaman. Alas, Aquaman is in no mood to join a team of superheroes, saying, to lightly paraphrase the man, “I’m still doing my brooding loner thing because I’ve yet to be directed in a stand-alone movie where one of my costars is a giant octopus playing the drums.” And so he slowly retreats back to the ocean—but not before a group of female villagers serenade him with a horny hymn. At least, that’s how I’m interpreting it after one of the women picks up Aquaman’s used sweater and smells it with the same zeal as Timothée Chalamet burying his head in a pair of underwear in Call Me by Your Name:

Does this happen every time Aquaman visits the village, or is it just a thing people do any time a shirtless Jason Momoa leaves a location? That much is unclear, but the horny, singing Icelandic villagers are an early contender for the best addition to Snyder’s Justice League. More seriously, it does align with the filmmaker’s penchant for treating comic book heroes with mythical (and somewhat dorky) reverence. From what we’re led to believe, Aquaman is basically a god to these people. And since he looks like Jason Momoa, it’s no wonder they’re in awe.

But whether Snyder intended for the singing villagers to be hilarious or not, we should stop with the misconception that the director can’t be funny just because his superhero movies lean toward grimmer material. (You don’t cast Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luthor if you don’t have a sense of humor.) That’s most apparent with Justice League’s new introduction to the Flash, which sees Barry Allen apply for a job at a pet store and rescue his future love interest, Iris West, from being hit by a truck. Not only is Ezra Miller’s twitchy performance amusing, but having the Flash stop a split-second collision is arguably the most effective instance of Snyder’s patented slo-mo. Flash-related humor isn’t contained to one moment, either. In a later scene pretty much intact from the original Justice League, Allen doesn’t need any convincing from Batman to join the team because he wants to spend time with other people rather than visiting his wrongfully incarcerated dad (somehow, Emmy winner Billy Crudup). Batman also says his superpower is being rich, which is funny because it’s true.

Wonder Woman isn’t quite so lucky after tracking down Cyborg, who gets a much more fleshed-out arc in Zack Snyder’s Justice League. Cyborg was once Victor Stone, a talented quarterback for Gotham City University, a football team that, judging from Snyder’s extremely violent slo-mo game footage, should all be in concussion protocol. Victor should’ve died in a postgame car accident, but was revived with the help of his estranged scientist father and the mysterious properties of one of the Mother Boxes. While Victor first rebuffs Wonder Woman’s proposal by saying “fuck the world” (!!!!!), he does—slowly—find a sense of purpose harnessing his new abilities. Essentially, being Cyborg allows him to hack into and influence the entire digital universe. (Somewhere, Rami Malek is shaking.) Snyder visualizes this by making it look like Cyborg has entered one of Neo’s training simulations in The Matrix:

Cyborg tests out his new hacker skills by putting tens of thousands of dollars into a struggling mother’s bank account; a drop in a bucket considering how much he could influence the world for good. (Per my notes: “Cyborg surged the GameStop stock.”) But because of Cyborg and Aquaman’s initial reluctance to join the rest of the heroes, it takes nearly two hours for the entire team to come together. And that doesn’t even include reviving Superman, who’s decomposing like my patience.

Chapter 2: Abolish Steppenwolf’s Face (and Chris Terrio Screenplays)

In between the scenes of various heroes trying to form a superteam (which ends up taking longer than the entirety of Lady Bird), Steppenwolf spends his time sending out Parademons to search for the other two Mother Boxes and using Magical Zoom Calls (real DC Comics term) to update Darkseid on his progress. Steppenwolf’s plight might be depressingly familiar to anyone who’s worked in middle management. It seems that no matter what he does, he can’t impress the big boss. Apparently Steppenwolf still needs to conquer thousands of planets for Darkseid to even give him the time of day, which is frankly more unreasonable than anything Logan Roy barks about at Waystar Royco.

But maybe Darkseid’s being a dick because his subordinate is, quite literally, a tough look. Steppenwolf got a Snyder-approved redesign for the new Justice League, and while I genuinely can’t remember the Whedon-ized version of the villain, this one looks like the interior of a washing machine crossed with an orc that’s ingested too much HGH:

Staring at Steppenwolf for too long is like looking directly at a solar eclipse, and it doesn’t help matters that he’s: (a) as generic a villain we’ve had in the past decade of blockbuster filmmaking, and (b) not even the Big Bad of the DC Extended Universe, since Darkseid is this comic book world’s equivalent to Thanos. Snyder was obviously stoked to show off snippets of Darkseid, who was entirely omitted in Justice League’s theatrical cut, but it only underscores that a much more formidable villain was waiting in the wings for a sequel that never materialized. In Snyder’s version, the most sustained Darkseid action happens in a flashback, when he first tried to conquer Earth and was defeated by a combination of Atlanteans, Amazonians, regular humans, a Green Lantern (not to be mistaken with the Green Lantern), and the breathtaking return of Jacked CGI David Thewlis:

Of course, Steppenwolf would’ve been a tad more interesting if he was actually given something meaningful to do. The bare bones of both Justice Leagues are the same, and both are burdened by a tepid, unimaginative screenplay from Chris Terrio. (It’s really a testament to Snyder’s ability to create spectacular imagery that this movie, even at four hours and with such a weak script, is still very watchable.) Terrio broke out in Hollywood with his Oscar-winning screenplay for Affleck’s Argo, but has since dipped his toes in the blockbuster pool with Dawn of Justice, Justice League, and most infamously, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.

I’ll say this for Terrio: His scripts are bad in uniquely different ways. Who could’ve imagined Batman and Superman would stop fighting because their moms have the same name, or that Emperor Palpatine survived getting thrown down a bottomless shaft and canonically boned someone? As for Justice League, the movie’s Mother Boxes are, like the map to Palpatine’s uncharted planet in The Rise of Skywalker, shameless MacGuffins that perfunctorily move the plot forward. They’re all Steppenwolf has to cling to. No wonder he looks like such a mess.

Intermission: Overthinking Aquaman Cinematic Continuity

Here’s the thing about Aquaman: It’s a perfect blockbuster. The movie has trippy visuals, a needlessly complex underwater political system, an ancient Leviathan voiced by Mary Poppins who is accessible only via some kind of wormhole in the deepest part of the ocean that transports you to an island where Nicole Kidman lives alongside actual dinosaurs, and a song by Pitbull that samples Toto’s “Africa.” James Wan didn’t have to go this hard, but he did for us anyway.

I’m not willing to go on record with how many times I’ve watched Aquaman, but with apologies to the Snyder zealots, it’s the best DCEU film. And because I may or may not have memorized entire scenes from it, returning to Justice League—which precedes the events of Aquaman—means being able to scrutinize how this movie affects Aquaman’s continuity. Let’s start with the cosmetics: After being cut from Whedon’s version of the movie, Willem Dafoe’s Nuidis Vulko gets to show up in Snyder’s film looking like if Fabio was an extra in The Lord of the Rings trilogy:

First of all, it should be a felony to remove Willem Dafoe from a movie. Secondly, while Vulko didn’t cut his hair in the time between Justice League and Aquaman, he did tidy it up with a man bun. The man bun is a more practical choice if he’s going to end up fighting other Atlanteans, but Vulko’s entire purpose in Aquaman is dumping useful exposition. It’s not like he needed that utilitarian do, and as much as I love Aquaman, not giving Willem Dafoe Fabio hair is a huge missed opportunity.

Another curious Justice League artifact is that all the Atlanteans chat underwater within air pockets—something nobody does in Aquaman. This choice was probably due to the fact that when most of Justice League was filmed, CGI still hadn’t solved the problem of setting an entire superhero movie underwater without it looking completely awful. Thank god we’ve come far enough to stage scenes in which a crab-man monarch known as the Brine King can pump up his fellow crab warriors before going into battle against Atlanteans riding sharks like horses.

Then there’s the mysterious case of Princess Mera’s voice. In Justice League, Amber Heard seems to be trying some bizarre affectation of a British accent, something that thankfully isn’t present in the stand-alone movie. (Mera’s hair also isn’t bright red like it is in Aquaman; as we know, saturated colors don’t exactly vibe with Snyder’s visuals.) What’s more, Mera alludes to both of her parents being dead despite the presence of her father, King Nereus, in Aquaman. Given that King Nereus is played by Dolph Lundgren, who gets to refer to Patrick Wilson’s King Orm as an “Ocean Master” in his surly Swedish accent, this is a case of franchise retconning being used for good.

I’ll be sure to watch Aquaman another five times to make sure I didn’t miss anything, and will update this section as needed.

Chapter 3: I Love Evil Superman, I Am Snyderpilled

By the two-and-a-half-hour mark, the finally united members of the Justice League come to the realization that if they’re to stand a chance against Steppenwolf and Darkseid’s evil army, they’ll need their strongest hero back. And so, with the help of the third and final Mother Box that isn’t yet in Steppenwolf’s possession, the heroes [squints] reanimate Clark Kent’s corpse in the same amniotic fluid that zombified General Zod into Doomsday. What could possibly go wrong?

When Superman awakens, he’s a blank slate with no memories, but still has all his godlike powers. Like in Whedon’s Justice League, we get a brief taste of what it looks like when Superman breaks bad, as he turns on the other heroes and doesn’t break a sweat beating the ever-living shit out of them. Since Man of Steel, Snyder’s gotten some flack for putting his dour sensibilities into such a light and optimistic hero. (It is pretty wild that Man of Steel ends with Superman snapping a dude’s neck.) But I’m starting to get on the filmmaker’s wavelength: While the implications of Superman turning on humanity is horrifying, it’s also undeniably interesting.

We’ve seen what it looks like when a hero with Superman-like abilities is a violent, narcissistic sociopath enabled by society via The Boys’ Homelander, and the Sony Pictures horror film Brightburn perverted the Man of Steel mythos by imagining a superpowered alien farm boy as a budding killer. “What if Superman, but bad?” is not a new phenomenon by any means, but Snyder was alluding to this question going back to Dawn of Justice, when Batman had a dream/possible premonition of a scorched world where Superman turns his grief from Lois Lane’s death into apocalyptic fury.

Don’t mind me, I’m just casually remembering how Superman reacted to Lex Luthor telling him that he kidnapped his mother:

Of course, Justice League isn’t that messed up: Before Clark can do any real damage, he sees Lois coming to the aid of Batman and remembers who he was. (Somewhat rudely, he flies off without apologizing for tossing around his fellow members of the Justice League like rag dolls.) Just in case, though, Lois should probably be covered in protective bubble wrap, and it’s imperative that Clark never finds out about the existence of Hillbilly Elegy.

But given Snyder’s original plans to make a Justice League sequel—and his insistence on a romantic subplot between Lois and Bruce Wayne, which Warner Bros. understandably rejected—the director’s DGAF approach to the material here is almost endearing. Had Snyder been able to make his Justice League sequel, Batman’s Knightmare would become a reality, with a grieving Superman and a fully unleashed Darkseid turning Earth into a Mad Max–esque wasteland. It’s a thrilling proposition that would’ve brought his operatic vision for the DCEU into greater focus, and it’s a shame we’ll never see it fully realized. Maybe I haven’t been fully Snyderpilled, but two-thirds of the way through the Snyder Cut, I’m definitely microdosing.

Chapter 4: Justice Unites in Generic Mayhem

“So begins the end,” Steppenwolf says about three punishing hours into the movie. (The joke’s on him: There’s still an hour left!) With Superman off taking a very important detour to get an all-black spandex makeover, the rest of the Justice League begins their assault on Steppenwolf’s compound, which was seemingly constructed in Chernobyl, even if the city isn’t actually name-dropped. He said the place was toxic; I’m fairly certain he wasn’t referring to the Gowanus Canal.

I’ve been giving Snyder the benefit of the doubt for much of Justice League’s running time, and have genuinely enjoyed chunks of the movie, but here’s where I feel like tapping out. After three hours watching a film, it’s just hard to stay engaged once things devolve into a bunch of CGI fighting predicated on a giant portal opening up (in this case, so Darkseid and his goons can teleport in to invade Earth). We also need to issue a moratorium on sky beams in superhero movies, of which the DCEU is certainly a major culprit. Never forget that Man of Steel ends with General Zod summoning a giant beam that sounds like a Skrillex track to terraform the planet in Krypton’s image.

Much was made about how the climax of Whedon’s Justice League was a mess—an awkward mix of aggressively orange visuals and forced, Marvel-like banter between the heroes. Aquaman shouting “MY MAN!” when Cyborg tossed him in the direction of more Parademons was immortalized for all the wrong reasons. But here’s the thing—and you might want to sit down for this—Aquaman still lets out a “MY MAN!” in the Snyder Cut. The “MY MAN!” remains directed at Cyborg, though instead of Cyborg saying “Ride ain’t over yet,” he now just tells Aquaman, “You’re welcome.” I guess the same enthusiastic sentiment applies: Aquaman might be fighting to save the planet, but he’ll have a rockin’ time doing it.

Yet I’m clinging to the Snyder banter, if only because we know exactly where things are headed. Steppenwolf has the upper hand against the Justice League and nearly delivers a fatal blow to Cyborg, but then, well, Superman shows up. Even if the other heroes sat the rest of the fight out, the Man of Steel wouldn’t have any problems kicking Steppenwolf’s ass all over DC Universe Chernobyl. If Darkseid cared about his subordinate, he’d throw in the damn towel and save the guy from being completely owned. Instead, perhaps hoping he’ll never have to look at that hideous Goblin Transformer ever again, Darkseid watches as the Justice League delivers a Mortal Kombat–esque fatality. In case you didn’t realize Snyder’s Justice League is R-rated, after Superman beats Steppenwolf to a pulp, Aquaman impales him with his trident and Wonder Woman decapitates him and sends his corpse through the magic portal:

Brutal stuff. Wonder Woman really chopped someone’s head clean off. Did Steppenwolf ignore her request to sing a line from “Imagine” or something? Nevertheless, seeing how quickly Steppenwolf’s fortunes changed, now I get why Superman was dead for two-thirds of the movie.

Chapter 5: The Epilogue That Never Ends

Oh, you thought Steppenwolf’s very emphatic defeat would mark the end of Snyder’s Justice League? That’s cute.

There’s still an epilogue to get through, adding another half-hour to this bloated epic. Snyder just keeps hitting you with scene after scene that could’ve ended the movie right then and there, including Batman and Wonder Woman constructing the Hall of Justice and Lex Luthor teaming up with Joe Manganiello’s Deathstroke. (The Deathstroke cameo was the post-credits scene of Whedon’s Justice League, which tantalizingly teased a stand-alone movie directed by criminally underappreciated action savant Gareth Evans that will likely never come to fruition.)

This is in no way meant to equate the quality of the two films, but the Snyder Cut refusing to end has serious Return of the King energy. Instead of Samwise Gamgee vibing in the Shire, though, we get another potentially prophetic Batman dream sequence. This time, we see that Batman is navigating evil Superman’s postapocalyptic hellscape with Cyborg, the Flash, Princess Mera and her weird accent, Deathstroke (sure?!), and [deep sigh] Jared Leto’s Joker. The Joker and Batman have what I can only describe as an edgelord fireside chat, punctuated by Batman promising the Joker that one day he will “fucking” kill him. Even though Snyder already revealed that Batman would drop an F-bomb, it’s an exceptionally fun and silly scene. My inner 12-year-old thought it was fucking rad.

This dream sequence is actually the only new footage Snyder filmed for Justice Leaguehe thought it would be “rude” not to ever film a scene between Batman and the Joker, which is his prerogative. But here’s the most important takeaway from the scene: The Joker does not say that we live in a society. In fact, that was never even part of the plan. Leto ad-libbed the line for the Snyder Cut trailer to mess with all of us. I hate Jared Leto with the passion of a thousand burning suns, but credit where it’s due: ’Twas a good troll.

Batman’s latest bad dream is really just a “what if?” scenario were Snyder allowed to complete his Justice League saga as originally intended, which neither he or Warners are intent on pursuing anymore. Had the auteur gotten his wish back when the DCEU still bent to his will, we definitely would’ve gotten this extended look at the Martian Manhunter, another original member of the Justice League from the comics. (All that’s missing is the Green Lantern, but he’s too busy promoting his own gin.) Martian Manhunter reveals himself to Bruce Wayne in the actual final scene of the movie, expressing gratitude that he’s put together the Justice League. (We also find out that he’s been in the DCEU since Man of Steel, disguised as Army General Calvin Swanwick.) Considering he’s a benevolent shape-shifting alien, I don’t think the Martian Manhunter needs to submit a résumé to join the team:

Somehow, Bruce does not ask Martian Manhunter about his workout routine, and is generally quite chill about an extraterrestrial lifeform showing up at his doorstep. Perhaps he’s just desensitized to new aliens at this point, but I’d like to think he’s acting as an exhausted audience surrogate. Bruce has been through a lot, much like anyone who inhaled the Snyder Cut in one sitting.

So what to make of the Snyder Cut? Well, for starters, its architect could’ve trimmed at least an hour off its running time by using less slow motion. All told, the movie can be excessive, overwhelming, and at times completely ridiculous. (I’ll never forget the siren song of the horny Icelandic villagers.) But it’s hard not to admire how Snyder was able to bow out of the DCEU on his own terms with a vividly realized project imagining superheroes as genuine myth. When the movie is firing on all cylinders, or simply bowing to the perfectly chiseled abs of Jason Momoa, it’s leaps and bounds better than almost anything from the rival Marvel Cinematic Universe. The full, four-hour Zack Snyder experience is certainly an acquired taste, but the film never feels like it came out of an assembly line to appeal to the widest possible audience—a quality that’s virtually nonexistent in superhero blockbusters these days. Three-and-a-half stars out of five. (The half star is for Willem Dafoe’s hair.)

And now—to invoke the MCU one last time—having concluded my Justice League journey, I will make like Thanos by retreating to a remote cabin to tend to a stew. Finally, I can know peace. But just as I look ahead to a life of solitude away from superheroes, an editor slips a note under my door: “We need hot takes on The Falcon and the Winter Soldier.”

The Big Picture

The Oscar Nominations Hangover and the Top 10 Movies at Sundance


The Four Biggest Story Lines Heading Into the Oscars

The Watch

The ‘Chernobyl’ Pod. Plus, ‘Succession’ Season 4 Trailer and Oscar Nom Reactions!

View all stories in Movies