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Is Zack Snyder’s 4-hour ‘Justice League’ the lockdown movie we deserve?

By SCOTT GARCEAU, The Philippine STAR Published Mar 28, 2021 5:00 am

The advantage of a director’s cut is it gives the director permission to dictate his/her own pace. While a million editing choices have to be made to release something for commercial audiences, a director’s cut gets to put the brakes on.

Zack Snyder’s recut of the DC epic Justice League (on HBO Max) definitely puts the brakes on. And it just may be the superhero movie we deserve in this long-slogging, never-ending COVID lockdown.

Opening with a slo-mo expression of agony (one of Snyder’s trademarks, from 300 onwards) from Superman as he dies from a Kryptonite spear, it heads straight into darker, ruminative waters for most of its 242-minute length.

While four hours is nothing like the rumination levels of a typical Lav Diaz film, it does instill the proper drip-drip-drip mood for steeping in Snyder’s vision.

Of course, watching the Snyder Cut necessitates comparing it to the 2017 Joss Whedon-completed version, which I’d never actually seen until last week, and which snipped away much of the extraneous length after Snyder left during postproduction. (Warner Bros. was reportedly unhappy about Snyder’s dark take, and wanted a more commercial final product.)

 Ol’ red eyes is back: Superman lives. And he’s not happy about it.

So this means I spent more time watching DC superhero movies last week — six hours — than I’d ever spent watching all previous DC movies combined.

The verdict: Snyder’s version is something to bask in, brood over, and pick a few bones with. Shot in the desaturated grays and pale blues that this director loves to decorate his moody skies with, the reduced palette actually works well for the story.

To arrive at the mood board of Snyder’s Justice League, start with the air of self-importance that overhangs any Avengers movie, subtract all the bright colors, and drain it of most of the humor. You are now in Zack Snyder’s headspace.

Aren’t we all in that headspace? Approaching Holy Week with yet another lockdown directive hanging above our heads, it’s pretty hard to think of resurrection and Easter bunnies. We are still in the slog, trapped in the “travel bubble,” and the Snyder Cut is just the entertainment we so richly deserve.

 Born to be wild: Steppenwolf has an altered look.

Broken up into six discrete parts (convenient for pee breaks), the new version opens with Superman’s dying cry unleashing emanations worldwide — most importantly, rattling a trio of Mother Boxes which are key to the efforts of alien Steppenwolf and his parademons to incinerate earth and terraform it into a fiery hellscape (which they’d prefer).

Thus Bruce Wayne/Batman (Ben Affleck) and Diana Prince/Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) travel the globe seeking new members for their superhero club, including Atlantean Arthur Curry/Aquaman (Jason Momoa) in Iceland, a reluctant Victor Stone/Cyborg (Ray Fisher), and an overeager Barry Allen/The Flash (Ezra Miller).

This is not so much a padding of the Whedon cut as it is a radical restoration of things Snyder previously shot. Emphasis shifts are different everywhere. Plot is abandoned for long stretches, to indulge Snyder’s penchant for slo-mo closeups of raindrops, hurtling Bat blades, and fisherfolk lamenting in Icelandic.

Back to back, you can’t help noticing how the original Justice League seems like it was fed through the Whedonizer: the wisecracks are more gratuitous, the “teamwork” angle is less subtle, and the colors seem imported directly from the CGI computers of Avengers: Endgame.

Gone are brief if unnecessary flashes of humor (such as the scene where The Flash takes a Sharpie to a bully’s face, or when Aquaman sits on the Lasso of Truth), most pop culture references, plus much of the flirty banter between Bruce and Diana. Those are well-known Whedon touches: a few wry lines and sight gags here, a couple of bro callouts there.

Four hours gives fans lots of time to brood along with Batman, Wonder Woman, Cyborg and Aquaman at their leisure. The Flash, in particular, goes from being geeky comic relief to actually serving a key role.

More importantly, Snyder gets to restore whole storylines that Whedon had to take an axe to: the presence of Darkseid as the Thanos of this particular cinematic universe, pushing the whole evil plot along; plus Cyborg’s lengthy back story, which was glossed over in the original cut.

Not incidentally, the Snyder Cut also switches from a widescreen format to a boxier 4:3 aspect ratio, keeping your focus on the main characters.

This is not to say the Snyder version makes for a more cohesive movie. Sometimes, Whedon’s speedy exposition made plot points clearer. His willingness to cut storytelling corners tended to move things along.

But it’s worth noting the Whedon version bombed at the box office, and a fierce #ReleaseTheSnyderCut campaign soon emerged, before fans had actually seen a finished frame. Possibly, DC fans have always craved a darker superhero ethos, and this one fills the role pretty well.

Four hours gives fans lots of time to brood along with Batman, Wonder Woman, Cyborg and Aquaman at their leisure. The Flash, in particular, goes from being geeky comic relief to actually serving a key role.

Snyder’s cut also restores a dozen or so characters, even injecting some into an (overlong) epilogue that spins off the franchise into so many scattered directions, you almost want to throw your hands up and go crawling back to Marvel.

I mean, there’s something to be said for a two-minute post-credits teaser. At least it leaves you wanting more, not less.

Of course, bringing back Superman (Henry Cavill) remains the crux of this project, and in both versions of Justice League, the Man from Krypton pops back to life much like Uma Thurman getting a hypodermic to the heart in Pulp Fiction, though sans shirt and with a significant amount of brain fog. And he’s pissed.

There were some interesting production challenges in making Justice League, even before Snyder took back the reins of this movie.

At the time of the extended Snyder/Whedon shoot, Cavill was contractually obligated elsewhere to retain his moustache for an upcoming Mission: Impossible role. So they (comically) had to digitally remove Cavill’s moustache for his Superman scenes, which fooled nobody. (Maybe it would have made an interesting Snyder plot point to bring the moustache back.)

In addition to the restored Snyder material, the director also managed to wheedle an extra $70 million from the studio to “finish” this version — which involved reshoots, bringing back cast members, rebuilding discarded sets, building new ones, etc. An expensive proposition for what could have been just a bloated vanity project.

And yet it’s something that fans will probably remember long after the Whedon version fades from memory. True, part of me wishes Snyder would go back to the editing room and hack off an hour or so of this restored version. I mean, there are people who still think the Beatles should have cut “The White Album” down to a single album. (Not me.)

This Justice League may not be a masterpiece, but perhaps there’s a happy medium in which the best parts of Snyder’s somber recut can be condensed into a single, watchable classic — with sprinkles of Whedon here and there to lighten the load. That’s a universe I could get behind.