Even aside from the unprecedented circumstances that led to its release, Zack Snyder’s Justice League is remarkable. Colloquially known as “the Snyder Cut,” the film is a behemoth, clocking in at over four hours (longer than The Irishman) as Batman (Ben Affleck), Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), Aquaman (Jason Momoa), Cyborg (Ray Fisher), and the Flash (Ezra Miller) unite to save the world following the death of Superman (Henry Cavill) in Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. Almost half of it is in slow motion, there are characters who were nowhere to be found in the theatrical release, it’s entirely in the boxy 1.33:1 aspect ratio—and it’s great.
For some probably necessary context, I’ll admit that I’m a Snyder apologist. Despite the fact that his movies are generally pointed to as the place where the DC Extended Universe went wrong, with the relative lightness and fun of the first Wonder Woman as the much-needed antidote, I love them. Man of Steel is a sublime Superman film on the strength of Hans Zimmer’s soaring theme alone, and the grand, gothic weirdness of Batman v. Superman made it fascinating to watch. Admittedly, yes, both movies ultimately devolve into large-scale fights that are a little too dark to parse properly, but even at their most muddled, they’re both singularly Snyder.
It’s that distinction, that Snyderness, that also sets the new Justice League apart. Since his adaptation of 300 hit theaters in 2006, Snyder has established himself as a director who’s impossible to imitate. His aesthetics—a clear love of slo-mo, grungy and dark (yet somehow still saturated and colorful) visuals, pointed needle-drops, and a lot of chiaroscuro—is nothing if not in-your-face, and overwhelming when seen in a movie theater. To wit, the Snyder Cut’s new aspect ratio is designed to overwhelm; the film is meant to be seen in the Imax format (although for now, the only place to see it is on HBO Max). The glut of modern superhero movies has implicitly proven that that kind of strong directorial sense—idiosyncrasies and risks that indicate someone’s fingerprints all over a work of art rather than an over-buffed and polished corporate product—is necessary. The reason that Thor: Ragnarok made such a splash, for instance, was not because audiences were inherently so invested in Thor as a character, but because director Taika Waititi brought such personality to the film. Granted, unlike Ragnarok, Zack Snyder’s Justice League—the official title—asks its audience to take its comic book shenanigans—mer-people, flying aliens who shoot green laser beams, “Mother Boxes,” and villains who look like Dragon Age extras (Steppenwolf is just the Iron Bull from Inquisition but without an eyepatch)—deathly seriously, but that earnestness is part of Snyder’s appeal, too.
It’s a fact best demonstrated, in this film, by the fleshing out of Cyborg’s storyline. The hero’s back story is ultimately a relatively simple one: A young man and star football player is almost killed in a car accident, and his emotionally distant father, a scientist, uses alien technology to bring him back. Snyder’s film doesn’t add much to that, but his style fills in the emotional depth. A shot of Victor, pre-Cyborg, looking forlornly at the empty seat saved for his father while his teammates throng around him after a game-winning touchdown, is framed with Victor as the only one looking towards the camera, a single face pointed up and out of the crowd. It says everything it needs to about his family life, and isolates him even before he’s forced into hiding after his resurrection. Four hours might seem unnecessarily long, but in this case, it allows for time to see these characters when they aren’t superheroes, and makes them more human as a result.
As for some of the more ridiculous aspects of the film, maybe it’s difficult not to laugh when Willem Dafoe, looking like a Lord of the Rings extra, shows up and yells, “Take up your mother’s trident!” at Jason Momoa, but it’s hard not to cheer, too. The fact that these scenes are ridiculous is their entire appeal (remember James Wan’s Aquaman and how much fun that was?), as is the fact that they’ve been rendered to look as big and as bold as possible. Snyder’s penchant for slow motion only drives the point home, as the most outlandish sequences are bestowed a sort of grace by his need to capture and appreciate specific arcs of motion as if they were moving Renaissance paintings. Just compare the speedster sequences in the Snyder Cut and X-Men: Apocalypse. Apocalypse uses Quicksilver’s super-speed as an extended gag, with characters’ mouths wobbling like they’re being hit with a leaf blower as he transports them from one place to another in fast-motion. Snyder plays the introduction of the Flash like the love at first sight scene in Big Fish. The universe slows not because he’s fast, but because he’s just caught his first glimpse of the woman comics fans know he’ll eventually marry. Again, it’s all about the earnestness.
With all that in mind, it’s worth hoping that, whatever results the #ReleaseTheSnyderCut campaign may have produced, it doesn’t set a precedent. I’m glad Snyder could ultimately bring his vision for the movie to life after a troubled initial production, but I’d hate to see fan reaction become the end-all, be-all for studios in the future. Most, if not all, new adaptations of beloved properties have been pushed back against—even Heath Ledger, now perhaps the most famous and acclaimed version of the Joker, was not well-received when his casting was announced—but any film that takes great risks will be more interesting, even if it fails, than a film that takes no risks and succeeds at mediocrity, and, as Snyder proves, a movie with a clear director’s touch is more compelling than a movie that’s been made by committee. Snyder’s Justice League is more, more, more in a way that most films wouldn’t dare, and, after a year of no theaters at all, a movie that makes me long to return to a multiplex—to see more movies that commit so completely to a vision that it’s impossible not to be swept away.
For more on the Snyder Cut, listen to Karen Han and Sam Adams discuss the film on Slate’s Spoiler Specials podcast.