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It could use some editing. Maybe a rewrite?

By Darren Franich
March 15, 2021 at 12:00 PM EDT
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Early in Zack Snyder's Justice League, Aquaman (Jason Momoa) takes off his sweater and swims shirtless into the frozen sea. You may recall this sequence from 2017's theatrical cut. In the expanded four-hour version streaming Thursday on HBO Max, villagers serenade the half-Atlantean's departure with a hymn of adoration. One blonde woman picks his sweater up off the ground. Reader: She smells his sweater, a deep sensual inhalation. Then she sings louder.

I had to laugh. It's an utmost Zack Snyder moment: hardcore, sentimental, worshipful of abs, so metal it's literally Icelandic. And porn-y, sure, but this is the guy who oiled up 300 dudes in speedos and knee-high boots. He's an equal-opportunity objectifier, and the Ode to Aquaman's Pecsweat Musk prepares you for a turbo-hyper version of the director's trademark extremity.  No such luck. Zack Snyder's Justice League is just another bad Justice League.

The main villain remains Steppenwolf (Ciarin Hinds), a boring creature with lame motivation doing find-the-thing-and-the-other-thing plot stuff. Too much of the movie still focuses on the Mother Boxes, wonderful comic book creations reduced to glowcubes. The Atlanteans still speak to each other inside air bubbles. I assumed that goofy effect was a cost-saving measure for reshoots. How awful to discover it was a stylistic choice.

The aquatic scenes are still murky and gray. All other scenes have been made murkier and grayer. Cyborg (Ray Fisher) has a longer origin story, but his CGI body still looks like leftover Lawnmower Man footage. Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) does not say "That's what science is for!", a Joss Whedon addition which is one of my favorite bits of bad dialogue. But when Alfred (Jeremy Irons) warns his master that reviving Superman (Henry Cavill) is like waving a metaphorical red cape at a metaphorical bull, Bruce growls: "This red cape charges back!" What an image. Grrr, I'm a cape!

Repetition overflows. There are two Nick Cave songs, and two crucial car crashes. Aquaman majestically removes his shirt twice. The camera caresses the Mercedes-Benz logo in Bruce Wayne's car, and three minutes later the camera pans across the Mercedes-Benz logo on Wonder Woman's car. We see Batman get off a private helicopter to board a private jet, so now we know this man is going somewhere. And Superman flies into space to stretch his arms into a Christ pose, just like in 2013's Man of Steel. We cannot know the mind of the Almighty, but surely even Jesus thinks this is a bit much.

Justice League
Zack Snyder's Justice League
| Credit: DC

Jesus is here, by the way. The Last Temptation of Christ's Willem Dafoe actually gets to speak extensive dialogue, unlike Kiersey Clemons, Robin Wright, and David Thewlis. Amy Adams' Lois Lane grieves extensively, and Joe Morton has more to do as Cyborg's scientist dad. In a flashback to an ancient battle, we see a Green Lantern. His power ring can create any weapon: A gigantic hammer, boxing gloves as big as trucks, a row of emerald catapults, quaking mountains full of falling rocks. Seriously, imagine anything at all. This Green Lantern holds up his ring… and fires green energy.

He's blasting Darkseid (Ray Porter), Steppenwolf's boss, the tyrant of Jack Kirby's Fourth World mythology. Kirby was powers-of-ten more hyperbolic than Snyder, every page full of exclamation points, every villain a mega-godmonster. Here, Darkseid is a generic see-you-next-sequel baddie, so obviously a wannabe Thanos that it no longer matters Kirby invented Darkseid first.

Everything takes forever to go nowhere. Consider how Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) learns about the invading alien army. In a simpler time, she would have looked out a window and, like, noticed an invading alien army. ("Great Hera!" she might say, costumed for battle by page 2.) In Zack Snyder's Justice League, Steppenwolf attacks her mother, Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), and steals the Amazons' Mother Box. Hippolyta announces it is time to light the signal fires. She gets the Arrow of Artemis out of its coffin-shaped box, sets it aflame, mumbles a ritualistic incantation, and shoots the arrow skyward. It soars through the air to another island, and lands in a temple. The fire burns mystically for hours — and Wonder Woman sees it on television. She sneaks into the temple, grabs the arrow, descends into a cave, and finds a door with an arrow-shaped hole. Behind that door: A room full of ancient runes and spooky images. Then Wonder Woman tells Batman there are aliens invading. Batman already sort of knew that.

Is this lighting your signal fire, kids? Everything in Zack Snyder's Justice League moves with that impersonally busy quality: Action figures glued to a treadmill. For most of the movie, there are five Justice League teammates, but there's only one kind of conversation. Batman, Wonder Woman, and Cyborg explain things. Aquaman asks for clarification. Flash (Ezra Miller) says something funny-adjacent. A four-hour cut means a lot of what sounds like pure Ezra Miller improv. It is not good improv.

Snyder had a significant budget to finalize this edition. The effects are not better, but there are more of them. Steppenwolf gets a glow-up; imagine thinking the problem was his clothes! His new armor comprises countless moving sharp points. At first I thought he looked like a walking Pin Art toy getting tickled by invisible fingers. Three hours later I realized: They made the poor guy a porcupine. Cyborg explores a greenscreen-y virtual world, where his father explains how he can access the entire digital universe, including "the world's monetary systems and its complex interactions." When he hears this, Cyborg sees a huge virtual bull fighting a huge virtual bear. So that's how the economy works.

This cut is in a square-ish aspect ratio, a visual leap from the widescreen theatrical edition. The IMAX-friendly frame allows for greater vertical exploration, and creates moments of genuine awe. There are nifty shots when nobody is talking. But Snyder often loses interest in dialogue scenes. You never feel like these characters are getting to know each other. They disagree, and then they agree, and then they walk everywhere together in slow-motion.

Poor Affleck. I just can't believe anyone thought this is what Batman should be doing: Talking about Mother Boxes, staring angrily at screens, groaning while his Batmobile fires chainguns at sky-goblins. And Cavill was the only actor who gained anything from Whedon's rewrites, playing a chilled out Last Son of Krypton with a casual charisma (and a fuzzy lip). Here, he's back to listening to dead dads talk. The other leads seem to be waiting for their own vastly more colorful focal films.

Snyder isn't reinventing the wheel here. He wants everything to be cool, and he thinks the coolest thing Batman can do is blow up an alien zombie head with an energy rifle. This boom-bang instinct is certainly distinctive. Hey, not everything needs to be an algorithmic Marvel dramedy with self-aware banter and third-act feels. But Zack Snyder's Justice League spends too much time setting its spinoff table. And the different corners of this universe don't feel different. Gotham City resembles Metropolis, which resembles Central City, which resembles London. At nighttime, they are all as shadowy as the Fake Chernobyl where Steppenwolf sets up shop.

HARWOOD
Credit: Clay Enos/Warner Bros. Pictures/DC Comics

The first hour has sincere pleasures. There is a female singer on the soundtrack who howls gloriously when dramatic stuff happens. Wonder Woman beats up white reactionary suicide bombers and tells a girl they held captive "You can be anything you want to be," which is one way to be inspirational. Gloopy special effects tarnish the action scenes, which pile up higher in the third hour. The final battle buries weightless digital oblivion under one laughable plot twist. But the epilogue is the real low point, requiring more painfully obvious reshoots than anything Whedon did.

Snyder's departure was complicated by personal tragedy. The project he left behind descended into an ongoing quagmire of controversy and allegation. Fervent social media support and Streaming War desperation made #ReleaseTheSnyderCut into the most successful fan campaign in history. Lovers may love the result: Where you at, SteppenWolfpack? And the HBO Max presentation could be ideal for such an unwieldy doomchunk of content. I keep calling this a movie, but I guess it's more of a streaming miniseries, complete with chapters. Yet even compared to the glacial Marvel-Netflix Dramas, Zack Snyder's Justice League is a chore. At the end of the rainbow, viewers are left with the promise that the actual cool things will happen next time. This cut is no worse than the theatrical edition, but it sure is longer. "So begins the end," Steppenwolf declares. When he says that, there is one hour left. C-

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