For better or worse, the superhero niche of pop culture is full of bizarre cultural artifacts, from the comics themselves to the TV and movies they inspire. Zack Snyder's Justice League--more colloquially known as "The Snyder Cut"--is just another in a long line of puzzling cape-and-cowl franchise moments. The four hour long re-cut of the 2018 box office bomb, complete with extra scenes and re-shoots will land on HBO Max on March 18 and--well, if you've ever been brave enough to ask the question "is it possible for a superhero movie to feel like watching paint dry?" This one's for you.
It will be easier to recount the parts of Justice League that actually do see some benefit from the re-cut treatment first. Villain Steppenwolf has been given a design overhaul that looks much better than its theatrical counterpart and an entirely new subplot dealing with his motivations has been added for extra context and it does work, for the most part. DC Comics big bads like Darkseid and DeSaad have been added as well, granting the bizarre MacGuffin fetch quest and resulting CGI punch out some gravity. This, however, makes up about twenty total minutes of the extra-long runtime and most, if not all, of the extra villain scenes are done with a distracting mishmash of old and new VFX that give them a dated video game cut-scene feel.
The new stuff also feels very, very crowded with a bunch of vestigial old stuff that remained from the theatrical version. Yes, Steppenwolf has a motivation now and an explicit set of stakes, but they're all pasted on top of the rest--the Lord of the Rings flavored motherbox MacGuffins, "The Unity" terraforming gambit which we still learn about entirely through non sequitur expository one-liners--it's all still there. The excess might feel decadent had any of it been delivered in an interesting way, but instead we're left with characters (mostly Wonder Woman) practically looking directly into the camera to explain the backstory to the audience.
While Wonder Woman and Batman are relegated to exposition machine status and Superman only shows back up over two hours in, Cyborg, Flash, and Aquaman get some added screen time. Unfortunately, Cyborg is the only one who actually sees any benefit from the bonus content with some genuinely interesting glimpses into Victor Stone's inner world, motivations, and existential responsibilities with his unique powerset. Barry Allen, on the other hand, gets a strange and ultimately deeply uncomfortable moment with a woman he rescues that makes him come off as equal parts obnoxious and creepy. The woman is, of course, Kiersey Clemons' Iris West, but she's never actually named and has no dialogue so there's nothing to indicate this character's identity at all if you weren't already clued in to the casting choice well in advance. Meanwhile, Aquaman shares a few new scenes with Vulko (Willem Dafoe) and Mera (Amber Heard) that do little but meander aimlessly around vague Atlantean concepts that, since Justice League's original theatrical release, have been better explored in the solo Aquaman film.
Snyder's bizarre choice to render the movie in a 4:3 pillarboxed aspect ratio gives it the feel of a sloppily cut together amateur fan video--the sort of thing you might have encountered in a Quicktime player back in the early '00s on someone's Final Fantasy villain fan shrine. This effect is exacerbated by the relentless use of slow-mo musical stingers. The first hour has no fewer than three scenes where what would have been a ten-second blip is smeared out into a minute or more, complete with its own mournful, dirge-like soundtrack. The back half trades in music for voice overs, exclusively from the perspectives of fathers and sons, but the function is the same--racking up runtime in the most unenjoyable way possible.
Taking up time seems to be the name of the game for most of the cut--whole scenes exist to engineer deeply contrived explanations for things that need no explaining while actual gaps in the plot's logic are dismissed out of hand. If you were worried about how, exactly, Batman's bracers can withstand the energy blasts from a Parademon, The Snyder Cut has you covered in meticulous detail. If you want to know why Cyborg, who has direct access to every single piece of technology on the planet at his fingertips, Batman, who has a satellite that can pinpoint any object on Earth, or Superman, who can hear conflict happening across the globe from anywhere, can't seem to find an entire Russian town cut off from the grid by a giant, glowing energy field without the help of a sci-fi GPS tag, you're out of luck.
At this point it really must be said that a streaming release is the Snyder Cut's only gift to us. Being able to pause and resume it freely is the one thing standing in the way of it feeling like a cruel endurance test.
That said, it would be pointless to critique Justice League against anything but its own rubric. In a pop culture ecosystem dominated by massive franchises, reinvention of superhero characters is the norm, so any effort spent trying to wring hands about how Batman doesn't feel like Batman when he's mowing down aliens with a gatling gun or Superman doesn't work when he's scowling is moot. These characters, in the form Snyder has given them, probably could have worked if they existed in a better movie. The performances--when they're actual performances and not CGI ragdolls being hurled around the screen--are solid. But they never get to be more than that--a cluster of serviceable actors doing an okay job at not looking like they're addressing ping pong balls on sticks in front of green screens.
None of which is to say that the theatrical version is somehow the superior cut of the film--it's not. The temptation to crown a "winner" between the two versions is obviously there, but doing so largely misses the point. You now have a choice between a slightly shorter uninspired mess of a movie, or a longer one.