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‘Zack Snyder’s Justice League’: Superhero team-up was more fun the first time

With this recut on HBO Max, the director adds a darker tone and a whole lot more running time.

Teaming up in “Zach Snyder’s Justice League” are Cyborg (Ray Fisher, from left), The Flash (Ezra Miller), Batman (Ben Affleck), Superman (Henry Cavill), Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) and Aquaman (Jason Momoa).
HBO Max

Who would you rather spend a day hanging around with — the Justice League or the Avengers? Not necessarily to accompany them on some death-defying, heart-pounding mission to save the universe, but just to be in the same room as they map out a plan, bicker and banter, maybe order some takeout?

I agree. Avengers. They just seem like a lot more fun, am I right?

Even the names reflect that. “We’re the Justice League, we mete out justice.” “Well, we’re the Avengers, and we assemble!”

We’re reminded of just how dark and nearly fun-free the D.C. Movie Universe can be in the long-awaited, heavily hyped, finally released (on HBO Max) “Zack Snyder’s Justice League,” a.k.a. “The Snyder Cut,” which has been the subject of rumors almost since the day Snyder stepped away from the 2017 superhero film in post-production following the death of his daughter, and the reins were turned over to Joss Whedon.

Although Snyder’s supersized mega-movie (the running time is 4 hours and 2 minutes) has its moments of attempted levity, usually courtesy of Ezra Miller’s the Flash and his “gee whiz!” running commentary, this is one bleak film, with the talented cast often looking as if they’re competing to see who can be the most grim-faced, and cinematographer Fabian Wagner painting in saturated colors that make it seem like it’s cloudy and gray even when we’re indoors.

Is this an improvement over the more straightforward and much shorter original? Not to this reviewer, though I was in the minority who actually enjoyed the 2017 film. There’s a LOT of added exposition and more action sequences, and we get an extended epilogue filled with cryptic, post-apocalyptic imagery that’s equal parts fascinating and infuriating — but the Snyder Cut is worth the four-hour trek, thanks in large part to the first-rate CGI and the gritty and game performances from the all-star cast, most notably Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman, Jason Momoa as Aquaman, the aforementioned Ezra Miller as The Flash and Ray Fisher as Cyborg.

“Justice League” is divided into six chapters (if it had been a limited series nobody would even be concerned about that four-hour total running time), with heavy-ass titles such as, “THE AGE OF HEROES,” “BELOVED MOTHER, BELOVED SON” and “SOMETHING DARKER.”

The story picks up after the shocking death of Superman (Henry Cavill) in “Batman v. Superman.” The dastardly alien god Steppenwolf (voiced by the great Ciaran Hinds), who has a big giant hammerhead and loves to talk trash, has come to Earth to collect the “Mother Boxes” (get thee to a therapist!), three devices that can convert energy and reform matter. Combine the three Mother Boxes and you’ll have control over all the planets in all the universes, which is pretty much always the goal of super-powerful alien beings that invade our insignificant little planet, which they always call an insignificant little planet, and when are they going to stop underestimating us! (One of the notable improvements in this version: Steppenwolf has a jazzier, shinier, more badass overall look.)

The look of villain Steppenwolf (voiced by Ciaran Hinds) improves in this rendition of “Justice League.”
HBO Max

Ben Affleck’s Batman — and I still say Affleck makes for a believable Bruce Wayne and a plausible Batman, even though he borrows his growling Batman voice from Christian Bale — is like the player/manager for the Justice League, as he recruits Aquaman (Jason Momoa), Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), the Flash (Ezra Miller) and Cyborg (Ray Fisher) to save the planet, giving more pep talks about teamwork than Affleck did when he played a basketball coach in “The Way Back.” We take numerous deep dives into the back stories of the superheroes, which seems redundant in the cases of Aquaman and Wonder Woman given they’ve had their own movies. We also catch up with key civilian characters, including Amy Adams’ Lois Lane, who is so consumed by grief she hasn’t gone back to work; Diane Lane’s Martha Kent, who has lost the farm and is all alone after the deaths of her husband and her son; Jeremy Irons’ Alfred Pennyworth; Joe Morton’s Silas Stone (father of Victor Stone/Cyborg), and in an all-too-brief appearance, J.K. Simmons as Commissioner Gordon.

The most intriguing/disturbing plot point of “Justice League” is intact from the original, i.e., Batman and the gang figure out a way to bring Clark Kent/Superman back from the dead, so they literally dig him up and electro-charge him awake, but he’s disoriented (and shirtless) and starts tossing them around like rag dolls, until Lois looks deep into those heat-beam missile eyes, takes him back to the Kent family farm, finds a nice flannel shirt for the big guy and helps him remember his true identity — just in time for the big extended battle against Steppenwolf, which the Justice League has no chance of winning without Superman coming off the bench in the fourth quarter.

With an ambitiously elegiac score and those hyper-real, saturated visuals, this “Justice League” often plays like an extended dream that periodically turns into a nightmare. (There’s even talk of dreams, and an actual dream segment.) Nearly all of the story takes place on Earth, but it’s an Earth where Atlantis is real and that wondrous woman with the magical lasso is 5,000 years old, and you can bring back the most super of superheroes from the dead. Like Superman when he’s first brought back to life, the new “Justice League” isn’t necessarily better than the original, but it’s different and darker, markedly so.