Zack Snyder’s Justice League Indulges the Fans and No One Else

An assembly of heroes from 'Zack Snyder's Justice League'
HBO Max

The film’s official title is Zack Snyder’s Justice League. So when Zack Snyder popped up on the video screen during an HBO Max–hosted virtual watch party last night, the fans went wild—as wild as they could in a chat box, anyway. “This movie is a masterpiece,” a commenter wrote before the film started playing. “Zack I respect you so much,” another gushed. Snyder, the director, choked up as he responded to a fan who called the film the “vision the world had been deprived of.” “If this is the only movie that I ever make, the last movie that I ever make in the DC Universe, that’d be fine,” Snyder said, his voice hoarse. “But I will also say that I never thought I’d be here talking to you about my Justice League.”

Indeed, Snyder’s film had long been considered a mythical project, a collective fantasy on the part of only the most passionate fans of his work. Snyder was the original director on 2017’s Justice League, but stepped away after the death of his daughter, leaving the film in the hands of Joss Whedon. Whedon’s version wound up being a critical and box-office failure that Snyder devotees saw as inferior—sight unseen—to whatever had been planned. These enthusiasts loudly (and at times, aggressively) pushed for Warner Bros. to #ReleasetheSnyderCut, even before they knew such a version existed. Eventually, they generated enough online noise that the studio granted their wish.

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For years, fans have exercised more and more power over the creative decisions of the entertainment industry: Animators for last year’s Sonic the Hedgehog movie spent months redesigning the character after fans responded poorly to the trailer, and the Fast and the Furious franchise will bring the beloved character Han back from the dead. That fans could pressure Warner Bros. into releasing the so-called Snyder cut—a project that reportedly cost an additional $70 million to make and runs at just longer than four hours—might be their greatest victory yet.

Yes, the result is an improvement over Whedon’s version, though that’s a low bar to clear. The plot remains largely the same: After the death of Superman (played by Henry Cavill), Batman (Ben Affleck) forms the titular team to combat an alien threat seeking to destroy Earth. What’s different is the aesthetic. Snyder drenches the film in his signature desaturated look, with a barrage of painterly slow-motion shots that render these characters as demigods. There’s a sense of awe around the leads: Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) spends a scene encouraging a little girl to be anything she wants to be, while civilians look on with admiration. Aquaman (Jason Momoa) stands for a full minute on a dock, shirtless and motionless, as waves cascade over his body, and a group of women sing to him as he returns to the sea. With the punishing runtime, Snyder gets to indulge in such character worship. Several key themes—their tortured upbringings, the isolation of being extraordinary—manage to finally come through, particularly with the character of Cyborg (Ray Fisher), whom Whedon sidelined.

But the majority of the new film’s storytelling amounts to esoterica and clarifications. Snyder has said that he’s never even watched Whedon’s version of the film, but many of his scenes almost self-consciously fill in perceived plot holes. Willem Dafoe’s Vulko shows up to give Aquaman his trident, which Aquaman wielded out of nowhere in the theatrical cut. The Flash (Ezra Miller) indulges in a clunky extended monologue explaining his power, which grinds the action to a halt. The villain Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds) has a clearer motivation for trying to destroy Earth this time around—not just because the film needed a villain, but because he’s desperate to prove his worth to a Bigger Bad named Darkseid (Ray Porter).

The film also labors to reward hard-core fans: The Flash meets his romantic interest, Iris West (Kiersey Clemons). Ryan Choi (Ryan Zheng), who becomes the superhero Atom in the comics, appears in a supporting role. Martian Manhunter (Harry Lennix), a popular alien character who often serves as a foil for Superman, pays the film a visit or two. A few of these added scenes are crucial to the plot—in an affecting sequence, Superman listens to the encouraging voices of his deceased fathers—but most were clearly deleted for a reason. They’re merely bonuses for ardent DC Universe buffs, post-credit scenes that got reinserted into the main movie. The Snyder cut thus operates more as fan service than as a narrative experience, like an extended curtain call for DC’s lengthy slate of characters.

Yet this seemed to be exactly what was desired by the 22,000 fans (according to the platform Scener’s viewer count) that I watched the film with. Snyder, lurking in the chat, only encouraged his audience. “Would anyone like to learn the underwater language of the Atlanteans?” he wrote. “Aka not spoken English.” (“YES!” the fans wrote back.) “Who can count the clues that Lois is pregnant?” he typed later on. (“ME,” flooded the comments.) “Darkseid is bringing the rest of the new gods,” Snyder wrote. “Is Lex still in communication with Apokolips?” The audience loved the suggestion. “Boss dropping hints lol,” one responded.

Snyder has always been a comic-book fan himself, so maybe the line between his goals and theirs was blurred from the start. “If this was my last movie in the DC Universe, I just thought that it was rude that we never had a Batman-Joker scene,” the director said during the opening Q&A, explaining why he shot a sequence featuring the two characters that has nothing to do with the central plot. And Snyder’s work in the past, such as the stunning opening credits of Watchmen, commits comic-book panels extremely faithfully to celluloid. But in the end, this felt mostly like a corrective to Whedon’s version, checking every box Snyder might have thought his fans—to whom he owed the existence of this film in the first place—absolutely needed to see.

Perhaps this film opens the door for an entire genre of movies pressured into existence by zealous fans; they’ve already begun using the hashtag #RestoretheSnyderVerse. Such fan service can come at a cost to creativity. As much as some of the scenes made me, a casual DC Universe fan, gasp—it truly is cool to see Martian Manhunter!—the film’s brutal length and scattershot storytelling induce more headaches than thrills. I don’t think I’m alone in this: By the climax of the screening, the watch-party viewer count had dwindled to less than half the original amount, with only 6,000 fans sticking around for the credits. The movie isn’t for everybody, just the ones who desperately wanted it in the first place and have the time to soak it in. Lucky for them, Snyder’s the kind of director willing to indulge.