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Is Zack Snyder’s Justice League the Worst Superhero Movie Yet?

A TNR roundtable discussion

Courtesy of HBO Max

This week, HBO Max began streaming Zack Snyder’s Justice League, a remake of the 2017 movie Justice League. With an unfathomable running time of four hours and two minutes, the new movie is one of the longest ever produced by a major American studio. Why is this happening? Is this some kind of punishment for being stuck at home with nothing to do but stream movies? And is the new version any good? TNR’s Alex Shephard, Katie McDonough, Jacob Silverman, and Ryu Spaeth are here to answer these questions and more.

Ryu Spaeth: Here is what counts as An Event, as we approach the ragged end of this miserable pandemic winter: a superhero movie that is somehow even more interminable than the usual superhero movie. The Snyder Cut, as it is known, is no ordinary director’s cut, clocking in at twice the length of the original, like some villain who comes back in bigger and badder form. Before we get to the plot (and there is a lot of plot to get to), let’s talk a little about how this second bite of the apple came to pass. The precedent that popped into my head was Kenneth Lonergan losing a bitter battle with his studio over the running time of Margaret, which he later rereleased in a longer, three-hour form to great acclaim—a classic tug of war between myopic Hollywood profiteers and visionary artist. But that’s not quite what happened here, is it?

Jacob Silverman: From my understanding, it boils down to this: Snyder was directing Justice League, a mega-budget DC Comics movie featuring a huge cast of familiar heroes. When Snyder’s daughter tragically died, he left the production, and (the now super-controversial) Joss Whedon finished the movie. Whedon’s version got a mostly successful theatrical release, but fans clamored for the full—and much darker—Snyder vision. Eventually, a Twitter-born hashtag movement formed—#ReleasetheSnyderCut—which somehow got Snyder back into the director’s chair, along with a new budget of tens of millions of dollars for reshoots. I don’t think something like this has ever happened before.

One factoid that really got me is that Snyder hadn’t seen the Whedon cut—and maybe still hasn’t?—when he started pitching Warner executives for a second crack at this thing. He was pitching a reshoot of a movie he hadn’t really seen!

Alex Shephard: My understanding is that people close to Snyder saw the movie and insisted he never see it—Whedon’s cut was so far from his vision that it would break his heart into a million tiny pieces (in super slo-mo). That movie, to be fair, does seem terrible. (Armond White declared it a masterpiece that restored cinema, though he basically said the same thing about the new one, as well.) It made something like $650 million, though when you factor in all the production costs, Warner Bros was left with a couple of nickels to rub together—pity the giant movie studios! 

The idea behind the movement that spawned the Snyder Cut was that the studio balked at his vision when there was a more artistic and commercially successful film hiding in the Whedon version. Snyder’s vision, displayed in masterpieces like 300 and Watchmen, largely consists of slow-motion shots, muddled palettes, and CGI abs.

Katie McDonough: I haven’t read anything about this movie, and I don’t know anything about Zack Snyder. I wanted to keep myself pure for the viewing. 

Ryu Speath: Like Zack Snyder, I also have not seen the original Justice League for artistic reasons, and I only vaguely recall watching Batman v. Superman on a plane(?)

As people have noted, “vision” is a prominent part of the sell of this movie, so much so that it begins with a title card announcing, “This film is presented in a 4:3 format to preserve the integrity of Zack Snyder’s creative vision.” 

Alex Shephard: I tweeted about this on Thursday morning, and my mentions have been a raging tire fire ever since. (Editor’s note: The tweet read, “I’m three seconds in and Justice League is already one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen.”) Did you know that there are lots of people who have extremely strong opinions about aspect ratios? Because I sure didn’t, but I will not make the mistake of mocking them ever again. Supposedly this movie was shot for iMax, so it’s basically a big block the whole time. Some people have said that this was distracting, but I didn’t really notice it. I do not, however, understand what this has to do with “creative vision.” Maybe Zack Snyder just likes cubes? The plot of this movie—which is incomprehensible, by the way—revolves around them, after all.

Jacob Silverman: Yes, cubes! Why do so many of these movies revolve around cubes or squares or other boxy McGuffins?

Ryu Spaeth: And huge funnels pouring from the sky. 

So let’s start at the beginning. Superman is dead, apparently. Batman, played by a jowly and half-sedated Ben Affleck, is going around the world looking for a team of superheroes to fight an existential menace. This turns out to be an invading alien army led by Steppenwolf (yes, that’s his name), with a horned head like a ram and a face like a twisted tree root and armor made of sewing needles that bristle when he’s mad. Wonder Woman, after a scene where she catches bullets like Neo and delivers some inspirational girlboss quotes, figures out that Steppenwolf is seeking to unite the Mother Boxes, which will somehow allow him to conquer Earth.

Alex Shephard: I would like to add that Steppenwolf serves a big bad, whose name is “Darkseid.” Yes, that is how it’s spelled. It’s like a German rap rock group from the ’90s or something.

Jacob Silverman: Don’t forget my man DeSaad. He’s the spooky intermediary between Steppenwolf and Darkseid.

Ryu Spaeth: A good part of the movie involves Batman finding these heroes and convincing them to work with him. And because this movie is four hours long, each hero gets a fully fledged back story. There was some mention in the Slack channel that Aquaman (played by Khal Drogo) was the “best one.” I think I’m coming around to this position. At the very least, I think we need to talk about the movie’s most audacious sequence, which involves Aquaman downing a bottle of whiskey and walking slow-mo into the sea while Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds plays on the soundtrack.

Zack Snyder executing his “creative vision”
Courtesy of HBO Max

Katie McDonough: I do think Aquaman was the best one because he was, like his uncle (uncle?) Willem Dafoe, having a little fun with everything. Everyone else felt quite serious about the endeavor. Except for Barry, who I found annoying.

Ryu Spaeth: I literally laughed when Willem Dafoe popped up, looking like a haggard Elrond.

Alex Shephard: I have a soft spot for Barry, a.k.a. The Flash (played by the titular Kevin from We Need to Talk About Kevin), but only because he added something approximating comic relief to this obscenely self-serious movie. I counted, and I think there were five jokes in this entire movie. One of them was Batman saying his superpower is being rich. The rest of this movie was people brooding and/or punching in super-slow motion.

I will also add that the acting in this movie is terrible. A lot of this is the script’s fault—the dialogue is so silly and wooden that being able to say “Mother Box” with a straight face is a form of success. Some secondary actors bring it—Jeremy Irons plays Alfred with the same gusto he brings to Lear—but the main actors were awful. Gal Gadot cannot deliver a line to save her life. Jason Momoa is amazing at delivering lines in made-up languages but bad at everything else. Superman sucks in general, so I’m not sure Henry Cavill could do anything with that part anyway. And then there’s Ben Affleck. 

Jacob Silverman: I liked Ben as a paternalistic coach figure getting the team together. But you’re right: He’s totally stiff and humorless and HAUNTED BY CHILDHOOD TRAUMA THAT MUST ALWAYS BE LURKING IN THE BACKGROUND.

Ryu Spaeth: My notes are just full of painfully ponderous lines of dialogue. “The great darkness begins”; “We have to light the ancient warning fire”; “Take up your mother’s trident!” The last was delivered by Dafoe, so it was actually kind of good, though I should note that Aquaman’s “trident” mysteriously has five prongs.

There was one line that was so impenetrable—“Bruce is right. We’ve got to destroy the defensive dome so we can reach The Unity before it synchronizes”—that it reminded me of how the old Star Trek writers used to just insert “tech” whenever they needed to make the plot work and fill it in later, e.g., “Commander La Forge, tech the tech to the warp drive!”

Katie McDonough: But to return to Ryu’s noble attempt to establish the plot, once the remaining crew—the aforementioned Barry, who is fast and has a spunky personality, and Victor, a tortured cyborg figuring out his feelings about his dad—finally get together, they go about the business of trying to resurrect Superman to help defeat the parademon types. I think I was getting a glass of water or something when they explained why they were doing this. Also, does anyone know how Superman died?

Alex Shephard: He had a heart attack after sitting through a screening of the Whedon cut of Justice League.

Kate McDonough: Well, the resurrection effort works. And Superman comes back, in sweatpants. At first, he is trying to kill his friends, and then Lois Lane shows up and he stops trying to kill his friends. Then the full group, presumably assembled under the banner of the Justice League, starts fighting the tree-face guy. Are we close to the end yet?

Jacob Silverman: So far from any of this movie’s multiple endings. 

Alex Shephard: I would like to quickly dwell on Superman’s sweatpants. After being resurrected, you would assume that he would be naked. But instead, he just shows up wearing the kind of sweatpants they advertise on Instagram all the time. Was he buried in Mack Weldon sweatpants? Did Superman get a discount from a podcast he was listening to? Does Zack Snyder’s artistic vision not include male nudity?

Jacob Silverman: I had a lot of Superman questions. He’s inscrutable to me, but maybe that’s Henry Cavill’s perfectly muscled face. Why are the Mother Boxes afraid of Superman? Why do they do the final assault before knowing if Superman will even join them? 

Katie McDonough: The movie was boring to me, personally, but I did feel a sense of loss about the nonevent of it all. If we were in a theater together, maybe a little stoned, this would have been fun in a kind of demented way. I felt stripped of the experience of hating it in a group, is I guess what I am saying. Watching it alone in the early evening gave me the same sensation I felt reading Donald McNeill’s 20,000-word Medium post about his exit from The New York Times. Like: What am I doing with my life?   

Jacob Silverman: There was a sadness to it as an event. Maybe that’s because I watched it in several chunks, without anything like the group experience you describe (OK, maybe a little stoned). It’s just this really ponderous, insanely over-produced superhero movie—a grim spectacle. 

Ryu Spaeth: Well, one of the first big reviews of this movie, by Matt Zoller Seitz, said the Snyder Cut actually represented a counterpoint to Martin Scorsese’s now-famous argument that all these superhero movies are not “cinema.” And I know Zoller Seitz is being playful here—“It’s maddening. It’s monumental. It’s art”—but is there anything to this idea? Because to me, it felt like every other superhero movie, just longer.

Jacob Silverman: As a narrative experience, the main problem I have with these movies is that the whole world is always at stake, which means it feels like nothing is.

Alex Shephard: I kept thinking about Walter’s line from The Big Lebowski about national socialism—at least it’s a fucking ethos. We’ve all been making fun of the whole artistic vision thing, but there is something there. Compared to other superhero movies, this is definitely guided by a singular aesthetic vision in a way that doesn’t seem to be about selling action figures or subscriptions to Disney Plus. (Even though, ironically, this movie is being used to sell subscriptions to HBO Max.) Say what you will about Zack Snyder, but he has more vision than the Russo brothers, who helmed Avengers Endgame. 

But beyond the aesthetics and the comic book frame approach to shot construction and the absolute adoration of making people move very, very, very slowly, I don’t think there’s anything there? Like I sat through four hours of this movie, and I have no idea what it’s about? Does this movie even have a theme? Are there any ideas in it at all?

Ryu Spaeth: The lack of theme was particularly striking to me. Like, the old Superman movies were at least about a god coming to earth. That’s interesting! There was nothing like that here.

Katie McDonough: I have this friend who walked across the United States, and he felt that was his art. He liked feats of endurance. And I was like, yeah sure, fine. And I think Snyder seeing if he can fill up four hours with his ideas—and to get people to take it seriously, and to pay him money for it—is some kind of artistic feat to him, and maybe to someone else, even though I mostly experienced it like a commercial or a wave of something washing over me without really leaving an impression.

Jacob Silverman: Yeah not to overdo it, but it does seem like Snyder is more of an industrial auteur, operating in a different register than Scorsese. Snyder’s art is charming executives out of millions for unnecessary reshoots and then turning that into hyper–mass culture. He’s good at that.

Ryu Spaeth: There is so much we didn’t get to—The Flash moving at the speed of light to go back in time; the many, many dimpled superhero chins; Billy Crudup—but we better wrap it up here before we rival the length of the Snyder Cut itself. We’ll leave you with the immortal words of Darkseid: “Get me the Mother Box!”