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It started as a hashtag: a cheekily insurgent social-media campaign against big media corporations who presume to tell superhero devotees what’s good for them. Enraged by DC’s lacklustre Justice League movie in 2017 – which director Zack Snyder had to abandon during postproduction after a family tragedy, and which an uncredited Joss Whedon re-shot and re-edited – the fans took to Twitter demanding that DC Films #ReleaseTheSnyderCut. Like the GameStop share price, hopes soared. But so did cynical suspicions that a pristine “cut” would eventually be fabricated to cash in on customer excitement.
The Welles cut of The Magnificent Ambersons and the Von Stroheim cut of Greed are still not with us, but the Snyder cut of Justice League is, with a new chiaroscuro look, new backstories, new minor characters and a new, disturbing ending. Its sheer colossal size, its sepulchral feeling of doom and its trance-like sense of its own mythic grandeur make it weirdly entertaining, although the familiar superhero-movie MacGuffins are there, and the film needs to absorb the slightly uncharismatic performance of Henry Cavill, an actor who perhaps does not soar to the standards of superness, and is better off playing a character called, simply, Man, with an M on his chest and who has to walk everywhere. Did Snyder really intend the original film to last four hours? Well, this one does: an epic so splurgingly huge that you can see how it might have been purposed as four streaming episodes. Yet its dramatic and theological craziness only really come across when you consume it all at once.
As the film begins, the whole world is in mourning after Superman’s death, and humanity is now menaced by the intergalactically evil Steppenwolf (voiced by Ciarán Hinds), who is after three “mother boxes” that are somewhere on Earth – three occult crucibles of cosmic power which together give their owner complete universal control – left behind, apparently, from a previous incursion. So plutocrat Bruce Wayne wishes to assemble a crack crew of superheroes, the Justice League, to defend the planet in Superman’s memory. They will be the disciples of Superman, and Diane Lane and Amy Adams play Superman’s mum, Martha, and girlfriend, Lois Lane, respectively the Blessed Virgin and Mary Magdalene of the Superman story.
Wayne is played by Ben Affleck with stubble, a perennial expression of lantern-jawed discontent and a voice that drops to a growly lowness when he’s in character as Batman (even though everyone around him knows perfectly well who he is). Gal Gadot is the stylish, creamy-browed Wonder Woman, while Jason Momoa is Aquaman, who is in civvy street as Iceland’s answer to Crocodile Dundee, hanging out with bearded, jumper-wearing Nordic fisherfolk in the pub until the time comes for him to embrace his superheroic destiny.
Ray Fisher is the troubled bionic teen Victor Stone, or Cyborg, and Ezra Miller has the quirky and smart-alecky role of Barry Allen, the Flash, whose job is to supply the ironic self-awareness. There are some nice supporting performances, most notably from Willem Dafoe, who somehow confers actorly dignity on the role of Nuidis Vulko, an undersea personage of Atlantis. Jeremy Irons is Wayne’s manservant (one might almost say his batman) Alfred, who is reimagined as a silver-fox hipster and gadget specialist, waspish of tongue and fussing over the tea served to the Justice League, but who will keep saying “Master Wayne”. (“Master Bruce”, surely?)
You can see from a mile away where it is all going – or rather from three hours and 55 minutes away – and for me, the Justice League still does not have the colour, flair, snap and zap of the Avengers in the MCU; it comes to life most in the regular cityscape settings that it seems keen to avoid. But there is something absorbing about this operatically strange twilight-of-the-superhero-gods that might yet turn out to be daybreak.
The film has something preposterous but surreal, and there is a disturbing epilogue in which Wayne is confronted by his personal demons. Snyder’s film may be exhausting but it is engaging. Justice is served.
Zack Snyder’s Justice League is released on 18 March in the UK on Sky Cinema and in the US on HBO Max.