It should be easy to dismiss Zack Snyder’s Justice League as nonsense. It’s about a group of superheroes—some caped, others not—who work together to defeat an intergalactic genocidal alien. This is also the same plot as an Avengers film, so the key difference is in the execution. Whereas the Marvel movies opt for broadly appealing pop sensibility, this Justice League is portentous and sometimes thoughtful, a work of a singular director who has a unique interpretation of superheroes. All this would be interesting, even provocative, if Snyder’s talent matched his vision. Unfortunately, the storytelling bloat and bombastic action undermine his definitive update of the original film.

Due to professional differences and family tragedy, Zack Snyder was unable to finish 2017’s Justice League. Joss Whedon took the reins, then delivered a two hour hatchet job that uneasily fused Snyder’s mythic ambition with his own quip-heavy instincts. This updated Justice League is admittedly an improvement: Snyder jettisoned many scenes that did not work and added a few others to make it (borderline) coherent. The result is a maximalist four-hour epic (yes, this film is longer than Lawrence of Arabia and Gone with the Wind). Are all four hours necessary to tell this story? Absolutely not. Will those who got #releasethesnydercut trending be happy with what they’re given? Probably, although they might be more exhausted than exhilarated.

Snyder adds so much bloat that his film feels like it unfolds over four days, not four hours. There’s nothing inherently wrong with a longer film—The Irishman is nearly three and a half hours, and earns its runtime—so the trouble here is in the details. Several characters are introduced more than once, while the origin stories of Cyborg (Ray Fisher) and The Flash (Ezra Miller) slow down the larger narrative. Over the course of six parts and an epilogue, Justice League creates and extinguishes narrative momentum until all that is left are standalone scenes or images. Some individual scenes are intriguing, like a lengthy flashback where ancient heroes unite against a common enemy. They are opportunities for Snyder to explore his favorite theme—the juxtaposition of superheroes and primal mythology—except his heroes do not evolve the way he desires. In Snyder’s heart, there is a resonant version of this story, but no matter how much he tries, he never quite wills it into ours.

Instead of a “letterbox” aspect ratio, Snyder opts for boxier 4:3 dimensions that are almost square. The reasons for this are twofold: It allows him to fill the height of a towering IMAX screen, even though that means the home viewer will see vertical black bars on the left and right side. More importantly, this aspect ratio allows him to think about imagery and people in different ways. This is where Justice League is somewhat unique. The square frame accentuates faces and bodies, a formal constraint that deepens the “gods on earth” theme that dominates the film. Perhaps the IMAX version of the film is truly immersive, a gonzo superhero experiment that taps into something more urgent and primal. Sometimes the imagery can be sublime, like a shot of Superman (Henry Cavill) striking a messianic pose while floating above the planet. Still, there’s a constant incongruity between the formal beauty and any deeper connection.

This kitchen sink approach to moviemaking is ultimately static, almost like a vacation slideshow that covers every exhaustive detail. Absent any sense of momentum, the performances suffer accordingly. There is no tension between Batman (Ben Affleck) and the other heroes as he attempts to recruit them because we know there is a long, character-driven scene that will soon drag down the proceedings. Aquaman (Jason Momoa) and Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) are like afterthoughts, a forgotten human element in a story that only has room for intergalactic destruction. There have been mild aesthetic improvements to the villain Steppenwolf, but he still has all the menace of a middle-manager whose primary goal is to gather magic boxes (for all its solemnity, Justice League still relies on the same tired McGuffins as its Marvel equivalents). So much of what happens here is about obligation—one that Snyder feels to the characters and his fans—that more important elements like character/performance are secondary.

Between Justice League and the Disney+ TV series WandaVision, a pesky quality to late-stage superhero moviemaking hinders their power. Fans are in more direct conversation with creators, mostly through social media, and that flattens possibilities of both mediums. Easter eggs and exposition matter more than intrigue and catharsis. Watching a film like Justice League is almost like a game of pattern recognition: If you can recognize the more obscure references and characters, then your reward is the reassurance you are a true fan. This means that more casual viewers are forced to abandon their interest or do some homework. More importantly, pattern recognition and fan service ultimately mean these stories have little hope of resolving. In comic books this is a feature, not a bug, but in films, all these nuggets of “lore” diminish their potential to be real art.

Snyder must be aware of the incongruity between his tone and the inherent silliness of the material, so his solution is to make it all darker. His Justice League has a grim color palette—sometimes you can barely make out the red and blue in Superman’s costume—and the frequent violence is about brutality, not suspense. No doubt there are those who will salivate at every Nick Cave needle drop, every bizarre aside, every hint of Snyder’s larger Justice League narrative (it remains to be seen whether this film will have direct sequels). Between Man of Steel and Batman vs. Superman, Snyder has developed Clark Kent’s alter ego into a sinister, brooding force, a controversial alien who cannot necessarily be trusted. It is an apt metaphor for this film: Snyder now has been emboldened to give his rabid fans what they want, ignoring the deeper implications, and the rest of us must suffer through it.

Zack Snyder’s Justice League is available to stream on HBO Max starting March 18.

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