Is Zack Snyder’s Justice League a superhero movie disguised as a fantasy epic, or a fantasy flick cosplaying as a superhero saga? The answer seems to be somewhere in the middle. One thing is for certain: Zack Snyder was not trying to make just another comic book sequel when he set out to make Justice League. After leaving the project only to see so much of his work reshot by Joss Whedon, Snyder has returned to reassemble the movie he originally intended to make. The end result is more akin to The Lord of the Rings than Batman v Superman – a film about humans and fantastical creatures from various kingdoms joining forces to fight against an ancient, all-powerful evil that threatens to plunge the world into darkness.

Even if you don’t obsessively follow these sorts of things, you likely know the basic backstory behind Zack Snyder’s Justice League, AKA the Snyder Cut. While Zack Snyder is the credited director of 2017’s theatrically released Justice League, much of that film is the result of reshoots by Joss Whedon. Snyder had a rough cut of the film ready and then stepped away from the production, at which point Warner Bros. tossed it to the side and went (mostly) with Whedon’s work. Ever since then, Snyder’s very vocal fans have been demanding to see the filmmaker’s original vision. It felt like a pipe dream until HBO Max made it a reality, dumping a reported $70 million into Snyder’s lap so he could go back and work his rough assembly cut into something releasable.

And here is the result of Snyder’s labors – a four-hour film that will thrill some and utterly exhaust others. Is it worth all the hype? That’s debatable, but it can’t be denied that whatever Zack Snyder’s Justice League is, it’s wholly Zack Snyder’s vision – for better and worse. What Snyder is attempting here is worthwhile simply because it’s clear he doesn’t want to churn out the same old superhero flick we’ve seen dozens and dozens of times by now. Instead, Snyder, working with a script by credited to Chris Terrio, is going for something grander – a massive, sprawling epic that has more to do with Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy than it does with traditional tales of spandex-clad heroes in flowing capes. Superheroes (and by extension supervillains) are not a modern invention in Snyder’s world – they’re ancient, eternal, and mythic. They’re the type of figures who are chiseled on cave walls and painted into Hellenic frescoes.

Snyder didn’t invent this idea, of course. Other films have touched on this – most notably M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable, which posited that comic books are the last link between an ancient way of passing down history. Snyder takes that concept and runs with it, giving us lengthy flashback sequences to a bygone era where Earth saw mighty battles in which gods and mortals banded together to fight against evil from beyond the cosmos. The idea of powerful beings putting aside their differences to come together to save the world runs through Zack Snyder’s Justice League, as the weary Batman/Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) strives to make amends. In Batman v Superman, we were presented with a murderous, xenophobic Batman who loathed the otherness of Superman (Henry Cavill). In the end, Batman learned the error of his ways by watching Superman die at the hands of a hulking alien monster. But as the Caped Crusader understands it, the out-of-this-world beastie that killed Supes was only a coming attraction. Bigger and more malevolent forces are on the way, and Batman has to assemble a mini-army to stop them.

So he turns to beings mightier than himself. He already has Amazon warrior Diana Prince/Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) in his corner, but he needs more. He reaches out to Arthur Curry/Aquaman (Jason Momoa), a booze-swilling fish-man who would rather hang out in a damp fishing village than help save the world. And then he finds motor-mouthed speedster Barry Allen, AKA The Flash (Ezra Miller). Rounding out the would-be-league is poor, tragic Victor Stone/Cyborg (Ray Fisher), a college kid who was near death thanks to a car accident – only to be brought back as half-man/half-machine by his well-meaning scientist father (Joe Morton).

The previous version of Justice League brought these characters together somewhat quickly, simply because that is what the plot required. Here, it takes more time; that four-hour length allows Snyder to let things play out while also getting inside the heads of his super-leads. Fisher’s Cyborg is the best-served here, given a full arc as a troubled, angry being who is incredibly powerful but incredibly bogged-down by his own understandable angst. Worst-served, curiously enough, is Gadot’s Wonder Woman, who seems to just be hanging around, although she does get to kick some ass – and in one unnecessary sequence, she literally blows up a terrorist with her mighty gauntlets. “Can I be like you someday?” a traumatized child asks Wonder Woman after watching the terrorist explode in a burst of brilliant light. “You can be anything you want to be!” Wonder Woman helpfully replies with a smile, completely unperturbed that she just vaporized someone.

Earth would be better off if these heroes acted quicker because there’s a new baddie in town – the towering Steppenwolf, who struts around in a suit of armor that looks like it’s made up of garbage disposal blades. A fully CGI creation, and an unconvincing one to boot, Steppenwolf is an utter snooze – there’s nothing memorable about Justice League‘s big bad, although his expanded role here does present him as more of a pathetic, tragic loser trying to make a good impression on his boss than just another world-destroying villain. That boss is the grumbly Darkseid, who is not-so-patiently waiting back on Steppenwolf’s home world, occasionally showing up for something akin to an intergalactic Zoom call to ask Steppenwolf why he’s taking so damn long to conquer Earth.

Snyder presents all of this with the utmost seriousness. There’s no real room of humor or lightness in his world – although Miller’s Flash does get to crack some jokes. Everything is very dark and very bleak, complete with a muted color palette. There’s nothing wrong with taking this type of material seriously, but it’s hard to buy into that seriousness when everyone runs around talking about Mother Boxes, magical devices that have the power to destroy the world once they’ve been synchronized. This leads to lots and lots of cringe-inducing dialogue – “We’ve got to destroy the defensive dome to stop the unity from synchronizes!” someone yells at one point without a trace of irony. Later, there’s talk of something helpfully called the Anti-Life Equation. And just in case you couldn’t tell this was a very serious, very adult story, Snyder has moments like the one where Cyborg, when asked to help save the world, spits back: “Fuck the world!” Harsh, dude.

The actors feel adrift in all of this. Affleck, who is a good Batman, in theory, is oddly wooden throughout the entire film; Gadot’s line delivery is stiff and strained; and Momoa’s miserable Aquaman had me longing for the more agreeable version of the character seen in James Wan’s Aquaman film. Fisher and Miller fare better – Miller’s Flash is a fun character, and while Cyborg is brooding and angsty on the page, Fisher is able to give him some life. Cavill’s Man of Steel is also a welcome presence when he shows up – which he does, eventually, sporting a sleek new black Superman suit; a wardrobe change that’s never, ever explained. Not even slightly.

Whatever one can say about Snyder, it’s undeniable that he knows how to craft a memorable visual, and he excels here whenever he’s staging big, dramatic action. He’s also his own worst enemy – a filmmaker who does not know how to get the hell out of his own way. His penchant for distracting needle drops grates on the nerves. For example, there are multiple Nick Cave songs on the soundtrack, while there’s certainly nothing wrong with Nick Cave, Snyder makes sure to lay it on thick (“They told us our gods would outlive us, but they lied…,” Cave mournfully sings on “Distant Sky,” which plays over a slow-mo sequence of the god-like Aquaman brooding).

Snyder’s bad habit of succumbing to his worst instincts leads to several boneheaded moments – a genuinely moving scene shared between Diane Lane, as Superman’s mourning mom, and Amy Adams, as reporter and Superman love interest Lois Lane, is immediately undone by a pointless twist. And the entire film itself is also almost undone by a terrible, baffling epilogue that should’ve remained on the cutting room floor. Then you have groan-worthy moments like a sequence where Cyborg goes inside of his own mind to explore his own powers, and when he learns he can manipulate the financial market, Snyder decides to represent this by having a giant CGI bear fight a giant CGI bull, like some Wall Street bro’s cocaine-tinged fever-dream. On top of all of this, Snyder has decided to present the film in a boxy 1.33:1 aspect ratio that adds nothing to the proceedings.

And yet…it’s hard not to get swept up in all of this slick mayhem. Yes, Zack Snyder’s Justice League is very long, but it never drags. The narrative is constantly moving, constantly introducing us to new worlds, new characters, new action set pieces. An ultra slow-motion sequence where The Flash saves a woman (a woefully underused Kiersey Clemons) from a massive car accident, complete with CGI hot dogs from a smashed hot dog cart flying through the air, all while a dreamy cover of Tim Buckley’s “Song to the Siren” plays, is somehow both very dumb and very enchanting. In fact, “very dumb and very enchanting” could sum up Zack Snyder’s Justice League as a whole. There was never a single moment where I bought the story Snyder was selling, but I did enjoy his attempt to create a superhero movie that rises above the din.

We’ve been inundated by an onslaught of superhero movies for over a decade now, and even the exceptional titles still follow a very familiar formula. Snyder is attempting to break out of that formula and give us something more grandiose – a world not of human beings achieving greatness but of actual, full-fledged gods; uncanny beings beyond our puny primitive minds. In some ways, this backfires – it feels like there’s not a single normal human being in this film. Every frame is occupied by larger-than-life personalities. The heroes of Justice League are out to save the world, but it often comes across as if they’re fighting for an already uninhabited planet. A borderline-extinct world that’s already dried up and died out. These missteps should utterly sink Justice League, but they don’t. The film perseveres, fighting like hell just to exist. That it exists at all is something of a weird miracle. Zack Snyder’s Justice League is not a total success, but in the end, it’s an utterly fascinating experiment that deserves to be seen. Perhaps that’s enough.

/Film Rating: 6 out of 10

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