Zack Snyder’s JUSTICE LEAGUE: A Big Slice of Hero Cake

I thought about structuring my review of Zack Snyder’s Justice League, the much-anticipated four-hour reclamation-through-supersizing of a misbegotten DCEU non-blockbuster, like a normal piece of film criticism. This would mean crafting a catchy lead, smooth transitions, drilling down into some finer details, and summing it all up to make a broader point about the film, the filmmaker, the genre, whatever. But this version of Justice League stubbornly resists traditional structure; it’s literally one of the longest feature films I’ve ever seen, and not even in service of telling a radically different story from the bastardized version that came out in 2017. Instead, it tells that story again, and at vastly greater length, and with no particular rhythm, discernible construction, or traditional momentum. It’s divided into six parts and an epilogue, and apart from the epilogue (which takes place some days or weeks after the events of the climax), there doesn’t seem to be a particular organizing principle. It’s not sorted by timeline, character, or any thematic unity I could detect (and detecting subtleties are rarely among the challenges this filmmaker poses). The parts are titled seemingly at random, perhaps so Zack Snyder, the architect of this monument to his half-baked ideas, can decide what they mean later. It turns out that Snyder’s ideal movie is an assembly cut with finished special effects.

I could not write a review of Zack Snyder’s Justice League that would truly mimic the style of the movie and do, ah, justice to a proper imitative fallacy. That review would need to be, at minimum, 35,000 words long, and this introduction wouldn’t even be allowed to begin until much further down the page. Zack Snyder’s Justice League opens with a death rattle that lasts minutes on end; how can I compete with that? But at very least, I can play tribute to the equal glory and foolishness of this endeavor by splitting my piece into parts with titles, though I regret to inform you mine will be at least nominally organized.

Steppenwolf Got That Glow-Up

In the theatrically released version of Justice League, Steppenwolf is perhaps the least consequential comics-based supervillain in movie history. When the villains in the MCU are just boring mirror images of the hero, and they often are, this at least tends to reflect a movie that’s ultimately more interested in its hero than its villain—a reversal of a ’90s superhero-movie truism that the bad guy is always more deliciously fascinating than the good guy. Steppenwolf 2017 is a boring mirror image of another mirror, with nothing in it. Snyder’s souped-up version of Steppenwolf still isn’t much more of a character. He’s defined principally by his relationship to Darkseid, a bigger-bad being saved for a never-happening Justice League sequel who only appears briefly here, and if you’re hoping for a more complicated villainous plot to better define him, sorry again: The actual plot of the Snyder Cut is virtually identical to the earlier version. Following the death of Superman, three “mother boxes,” essentially all-powerful and indestructible potential doomsday devices, guarded for centuries by various factions (the Atlanteans from Aquaman, the Amazons from Wonder Woman, and, uh, one scientist keeping it in a closet in his apartment), start to activate. Steppenwolf arrives from another dimension on behalf of Darkseid, looking for the mother boxes to wield all-encompassing power over the puny Earth. So, Steppenwolf is a walking, talking McGuffin who wants the three other McGuffins. He’s also been re-rendered with constantly undulating, spiky armor all over his body, presumably so we know when he appears shirtless, which he does, occasionally. The most relatable thing about Steppenwolf is the work calls he has to make back home to Apokolips to keep in his boss’s good graces. He holds elaborate, ceremonial check-ins that amount to him counting mother boxes. Because there is a maximum of three mother boxes, this feels like it could have been an email. “Two down, one to go.” And that’s it. Steppenwolf may not be a more interesting man in this telling, but he’s certainly a cooler, weirder creature. He has few character traits and I could watch him seethe and ripple for hours. This description may also apply to Zack Snyder’s Justice League as a whole.

The Reluctant Batman

Having Batman realize the threat posed by Steppenwolf and serve as a recruiter for a superteam that will defend Earth in Superman’s place, as an expression of guilt for his role in the death of said Superman (whoops!) is an ideal vehicle for the comedy of Ben Affleck’s Batman. Not in the sense of comic relief, mind, but in the pleasurable spectacle of an overdressed, somewhat irritable billionaire with mussed hair that seems to age a year every time it appears on screen, forced to get all rah-rah about “us united,” in the tortured parlance of a Snyder movie. He seems more comfortable strapping on his Bat-goggles and driving various heavy-machinery Bat-vehicles. This Batman claims to have nightmares (or, in the tortured parlance of a Snyder movie’s slangy promotions, “Knightmares”) about the coming apocalypse, but I don’t know. I think they might be daydreams. They certainly feel like the movie Zack Snyder is daydreaming about making. Based on what we see here, I would enjoy watching that very stupid movie, but would prefer to watch it during its own, discrete four-hour HBO Max World Premiere.

The Two Hearts of Cyborg and Flash

The primary beneficiaries of Justice League’s 100% increase in runtime are two of the younger team members—the two who have not, as yet, appeared in their own solo films. (Ezra Miller’s Flash has been met with uncharacteristic delays, but supposedly will stroll into theaters at a leisurely pace in late 2022. Ray Fisher’s Cyborg, meanwhile, seems to be the casualty of lousy treatment by Justice League pinch-hitter Joss Whedon, as well as the studio’s inability to resolve the matter to Fisher’s satisfaction.) In true assembly-cut fashion, Snyder rolls in an origin movie’s worth of backstory for both of them, which further distends a narrative so odd and arbitrary that it transcends typical notions of bloat or episodic structure. In the press-release style of fanboy reviewing, Cyborg will be referred to, over and over, as the heart of the movie, because he’s a lonely young man with a fraught familial relationship, finding belonging in a team of heroes. The honorific of designated heart [of a massive unwieldy superhero enterprise] could just easily go to the Flash, also a lonely young man with a broken family, and the only member of the never-named Justice League who agrees to Batman’s proposal immediately; he’s eager for new friends and looks up to the absent Superman in particular.

Cyborg gets a slow-motion football game suffused with the disappointment of an absent dad. The Flash gets a super-slow-motion car crash where he saves his love-at-first-sight (who is, naturally, never seen or referred to again). This redundancy is mitigated by the fact that Cyborg and Flash provide some of the movie’s best flights of visual fancy: Cyborg’s ability to hack into any mainframe is illustrated by placing Fisher on virtual walking tours of various locations, while the Flash zip-zaps through space and time, generating bolts of electricity that light up Snyder’s dark color palette. Fisher is stoic, while Miller is manic (if somewhat less prone to mugging than his Whedon double, who does canned riffs asking what’s up with brunch). Their powers are vast—we’re told that Cyborg can control the nuclear arsenal if he so pleases, while Flash, with some exertion, go back in time—which casts new and strange light onto the Superman graverobbing scene, restored to its original glory to reveal that Aquaman and Wonder Woman are just standing there in the background, waiting to load the corpse into a van. Yet despite the universe of power at these characters’ fingertips, they do, in the #SnyderCut, strike an affecting balance between fantastical weirdness and familial dysfunction. It’s reminiscent of the X-Men, who always seem to be starring in 10 or 12 different origin stories simultaneously. Zack Snyder’s Justice League may, for the first hour-plus of its running time, lumber in six or seven different directions. But it does recall those more modest X-Men movies, like an anthology of superpowered disappointments. The Flash is the heart of the team and Cyborg is the heart of the team and the fact that this team has two hearts, and few genuinely emotional moments, tells you what kind of a strange, ornate creature it is.

Wonder Woman and Aquaman: The Ones That Got Away

Zack Snyder’s Justice League has convinced me of something—and it’s not much to do with the absolute necessity of seeing every scene Zack Snyder filmed for Justice League, plus several scenes more, including one with Jared Leto. It does, though, give Snyder some other kind of credit: As much as the solo movies starring Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman and Jason Momoa’s Aquaman were treated as happy-go-lucky course corrections from the dour tone of Snyder’s Man of Steel and Batman v. Superman, those movies owe some of their success, particularly their styles that look, especially, different from anything in the MCU, to Snyder. Not only did he help cast both Gadot and Momoa in roles they play perfectly, his elaborately ridiculous yet earnest flights of high fantasy more or less provided a framework for Patty Jenkins and James Wan to work off of. Of course, Wonder Woman and Aquaman are both leagues better than any movie Snyder has ever made. (Even Sucker Punch!) Part of the reason is that they both evince a stronger understanding of what makes those characters appealing and interesting—and, especially, how to position them in “our” world to contrast with the hidden, fantastical wonders of their origins. (Snyder loves hidden worlds, rituals, and alternate realities. When it comes to the street-level stuff, he’s less convincing.)

This is especially true of Wonder Woman; Snyder gets her broad outlines while losing sight of her wistful optimism, and its value in the grimness of his real world. Even the movie’s treatment of her powers is a bit less interesting: Here she moves with greater, cartoonier speed, less grace, and more sword-wielding fury. It was a Snyder film that debuted her rousing electric-cello theme music, and Snyder can’t leave well enough alone, augmenting five or six of her appearances with generic warrior-woman wailing on the soundtrack. “His” Wonder Woman is more prone to clunky proclamations—like, ironically, her insistence that she “belongs to no one.” Aquaman has less to lose, and Momoa gets some new laughs with his cynical bro shtick (the biggest laugh of the last iteration, Aquaman’s mishap with Wonder Woman’s lasso of truth, is gone with the Whedon). But while it’s great to see Willem Dafoe and Amber Heard suit back up, even in murkier versions of their underwater costumes (and, in an act of bizarre defiance from Snyder, a more pronounced British accent from Heard’s Mera), they mostly serve as a reminder of how effortless the mythological nuttiness of Wan’s Aquaman really was.

Here’s why I give that credit: those versions of those characters and their worlds, which I adore, sprang from Snyder’s version of the DC Universe. And there are repeated flashes of those movies’ winning otherworldly pomp in this Justice League, which even in its Pure Snyder form dissipates some of that Batman v. Superman heavy-osity.

(Superman) (and Lois)

In the theatrical cut of Justice League, an opening Whedon-penned scene where a couple of kids briefly interview Superman goes into a credits sequence, scored to a Leonard Cohen cover, showing a world in mourning and disarray following Superman’s death (which Batman v. Superman rushed into for its sub-grand finale). It’s jarring, and also sorta cool: the kind of nice, small-scale Superman scene Snyder seemed to actively avoid filming whenever possible, followed by one of Snyder’s feats of clear, striking, splash-panel imagery (and covers, always covers, of popular music). In this version of Justice League, the scene with the kids is gone—naturally, as Snyder had no interest in any of Whedon’s footage. But also excised is that credits sequence, which, if it was Whedon’s work, is the most pitch-perfect Snyder imitation ever mounted. More likely, Snyder made this himself, but only as a compromise with one of his shorter-than-preferred runtimes. It’s a creative solution that a four-hour Justice League doesn’t need.

The thing is, it kind of does. In the earlier version, the collective mourning over Superman’s sacrifice and the world’s loss felt a bit facile, sure, in part because the character was hastily sacrificed with little emotional impact in the previous film’s definitive botch. But that loss undoubtedly hangs over the theatrical cut of Justice League. The longer version repeatedly wanders away from those feelings, to explore characters who later express their admiration for Superman’s heroism, but don’t seem especially connected to him, even after they’ve teamed up. They’ve got their own losses to worry about, which are affecting individually but aren’t bundled together with much elegance.

That’s especially true of Lois Lane (Amy Adams), who feels even more adrift here. Technically speaking, Adams probably has more screentime in this cut—it would be quite a feat to double the running time without increasing everyone’s actual minutes—but proportionately, her Lois Lane becomes ever more symbolic, a ghost in her own storyline. This perfect casting has never really paid the dividends it should have, but Zack Snyder’s Justice League is the first time that it feels actively insulting to both Lois and Adams. Because Snyder can’t figure out a way to show Lois mourning the love of her life and muddling through her reporting job, he simply doesn’t: Lois, we’re informed, has stopped turning up at the Daily Planet office since Superman died (something that wasn’t true in the theatrical cut). Visualizing that process is a challenge, so Snyder—a talented image-maker who tends toward the literal-minded—illustrates her sadness by endless shots of her looking sad. Lois, the tenacious reporter of earlier films, is redefined entirely by pensive looks and shots of half-empty beds, and because of that, the grief Snyder labors to show doesn’t register emotionally. We’re also told that she’s vitally important to the non-existent Justice League sequel, for reasons that will be infuriatingly familiar to any comics fans with a background in fridge repair.

The once and future imperiling of Lois Lane is especially enervating because here it plays like a footnote to a footnote. Snyder has now spent three full movies and nearly 10 hours wrestling with his lack of interest in Superman. He tries to jazz up the marriage by casting Henry Cavill, hyperreal in his chiseled handsomeness, and spicing things up with lingerie, er, an all-black Superman costume, and whispering sweet nothings about how great things used to be (Russell Crowe and Kevin Costner voiceover, mixed together—kinky!). But most of the good Superman stuff from this movie was accurately presented in the theatrical version of Justice League. Whedon may have done a lot of lazy rewriting of the Justice League into his own image (he literally reuses a life-and-death Buffy quip at one point), but he or the soulless executives or someone involved understood that Superman shouldn’t be an afterthought in a movie about Superman and his pals.

Zack Snyder’s Hero Cake

There’s a genuinely insane bit in Batman v. Superman where Superman communes with his dead adopted dad (Costner) so that Pa Kent can impart an inspiring anecdote about trying to do something heroic and failing, in such a manner that involves eating a nice slice of “hero cake” his mom baked for him whilst listening to the horrifying screams of drowning horses. Hero cake is a metaphor. It’s not just Pa Kent’s Hero Cake. It’s any dessert we feel like we should be able to enjoy before we’re interrupted by the sound of any screaming, dying mammal.

Zack Snyder’s Justice League is an enormous feast of Hero Cake. So much Hero Cake you could choke on it. You get to spend a lot of time with six durable characters played by actors who cut impressive superhero figures. You get to luxuriate in big, bombastic action sequences that aren’t exactly suspenseful, but have an outsized grandeur often missing from their Marvel counterparts. There are moments where characters pine to bridge the gaps created by death and cruel fates. And there are moments where superheroes kill a bunch of zombie-bug-people with like tridents and guns and shit. It’s a lot like the old Justice League, to be honest. But, as the board room folks in The Kids in the Hall: Brain Candy say, it’s a much larger pill. Or, in this case, slice of Hero Cake.

Some movies gain upon further reflection. This one is a lot of fun to watch, and frankly kind of a chore to think about afterward. It’s the kind of thing you might spend 3,000 words trying to get your head around, not because it’s particularly difficult, but because for all of its weaknesses, it feels like it’s giving you a lot, even if unsolicited. Have another slice. Wonder if Snyder thinks of himself as Batman, snappily dressed and reluctantly assembling all these pieces for the greater good. Have another slice. Is paying this weirdness attention at all just buying into a whole system of fandom that isn’t conducive to making art, even silly superhero art? Just have another slice; the SnyderCut faithful ordered it, and Warner Bros. is picking up the tab. “There’s a war coming,” someone says towards the supposed end of this four-hour sorta-movie. I don’t remember who says it. I remember they sound pretty convinced.