The simple part first: the massive, monumental beast of a comic book movie released under the gravely ponderous title Zack Snyder's Justice League is better in basically every single way that can be quantified than just plain Justice League from 2017, which is both fundamentally the same thing and so wildly, indescribably different that it feels insane to even consider them basically just recuts of the same footage (which is already simplifying it too much: a comfortable majority of the footage in Justice League is unique to that version, and Zack Snyder's Justice League is more than twice as long as Justice League, so simple math tells us that would have to be at least 50% new footage, at a bare minimum). I will not say that I reject every last little bit of Justice League: the Danny Elfman score that quoted from his own 1989 Batman music and John William's themes from 1979's Superman was a real pip, and while the new score by Tom "Junkie XL" Holkenborg is a perfectly strong mixture of the themes he and Hans Zimmer have whipped up for this franchise with new action-adventure motifs that lean heavily into bass-heavy Romantic Sturm und Drang, it's not necessarily "better" as music in some unmistakable universal sense. Better for this particular film, sure, but not inherently better.

The thing we now have in front of us in all its meaty glory isn't exactly the film we almost got in November, 2017; in a sense, it isn't anything that should exist at all. It is, viewed from one angle, the assembly cut of Justice League that director Zack Snyder prepared in 2017 before the shocking suicide of his daughter Autumn (in whose memory the film is dedicated) took him and his wife, producer Deborah Snyder, off the project, whereupon it was reworked to be extremely different and we needn't get into that part. The theatrical cut of Justice League has now been entirely superseded and need never bother anyone again. Let us be clear, though, this assembly cut was never going to be released, not even as the "director's cut". It is an impossibly unwieldy thing at four hours and two minutes, unimaginable as a commercial theatrical release and not really built that you could just do the simple "cut it in half" thing and release it as a two-parter. And the version that has now been completed, with color grading visual effects, and music that were all completed at a $70 million price tag that could pay for a very fine superhero movie in its own right, has been made even more impossible by one of my all-time favorite creative decisions that has ever been made in the entire history of the superhero movie genre: it has been released in the 1.33:1 aspect ratio of a standard-definition television.

Or, to be more accurate, an open-matte 35mm film frame, which is actually what we have here, and given that the original production was protected for an eventual IMAX release, all of those open-matte compositions were always designed to look good. But how good they would look comes as a real surprise. Snyder's motivation in making this choice was, in his words, because superheroes are "vertical", and so is the 1.33:1 frame, which I think is just absolute gobbledygook (he has also mentioned, by name, Kelly Reichardt's First Cow as an example of the kind of great things that 1.33:1 could do for a movie, and I will not deny that the discovery that he liked First Cow enough to randomly name-drop it in an interview single-handedly improved my opinion of the man by about 40%). Regardless of what weird theories he's come up with to explain it, the open-matte compositions in his Justice League do look really genuinely beautiful, especially coupled with his and cinematographer Fabian Wagner's tendency towards low angles that tend to make the characters loom up with the iconic portraiture of a comic book panel that dominates half or two-thirds of a page (so yes, I do get the vertical thing - he has made the film vertical. Verticality isn't an inherent feature of the aspect ratio, is all, but I get it).

It's the bluntest visual incarnation of an attitude that makes Zack Snyder's Justice League different not just from its predecessor, but from very nearly the entire corpus of contemporary superhero movies, or really movies in general: an honest-to-God sense of awe. This is a big movie, not just because of its dumbfounding running time. The characters are big, larger-than-life embodiments of godlike heroism, and while Snyder was moving in that direction with his earlier superhero movies (to which this film is sequel), 2013's Man of Steel and 2016's Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, those both feel like nervous dry runs for what he was up to in this film. They act with big, portentous movements, they speak in slablike statements in Chris Terrio's screenplay - which isn't devoid of any humor (it is, in fact, the funniest movie Snyder has ever directed, which admittedly doesn't take very much), but it's not hard to see why Warner Bros. freaked out and hired professional quip-monger Joss Whedon to punch up the draft that saw theaters in 2017 - they have big, essentialised emotions about Grief or Loss or Being A Good Son, and they always do come with those capital letters firmly affixed. It is very self-conscious comic storytelling that's trying to make an explicit one-to-one equation of these characters with mythic heroes, with an entire flashback battle sequence that's has literal Greek gods. The iconic compositions, the acting, the subdued color scheme (which I think is used fairly cunningly, though I get where somebody would feel like the whole thing was just too damn monochromatic) all contribute to a great heaving sense of grandeur - grandiosity, if you prefer, and heck, this is even the kind of thing that threatens to make "grandiose" a compliment.

Because, as wearisomely heavy as all this probably ought to be, somehow, to my eyes, it's all breathtakingly watchable. In a useful reminder that pacing is about more than just the number of minutes it takes to do something, the film's four hours, divided into six parts and an epilogue, dance by much faster than the two hours of Justice League, or the 2.5-3 hours of Batman v Superman (depending on your preferred cut), not least because the chapter-based narrative structure means that the story feels like it's made out of smaller pieces that can be gotten through with much less effort. But also because the space given to each of the characters' individual arcs makes the scenes feel productive and purposeful, and not just there.

And so we get what amounts to an epic about how a team of sad and troubled superheroes are gathered together by the saddest and most troubled of them all, Bruce "Batman" Wayne (Ben Affleck), and in so doing are able to be less sad. Not complicated stuff, but then the best popcorn movies never are, and the sheer monumental volume of Justice League gives ample emphasis and weight to these fairly straightforward stories: Victor "Cyborg" Stone (Ray Fisher, who is by far the biggest individual beneficiary of the new cut) has to come to terms with the violation done to his body and the strain it's put on his relationship with his mad scientist father Silas (Joe Morton); Barry "Not Yet The Flash" Allen wants to prove that he's not just a neurotic fuck-up and demonstrate to the world that he's not on the same track as his dissolute jailbird father Henry (Billy Crudup); Arthur "Aquaman" Curry (Jason Momoa, who definitely hadn't cracked the character yet, and wouldn't until 2018's Aquaman) is bitter and sarcastic and refuses to trust anybody, a relic of his torturous relationship with the haughty mer-people race of his mother, rather than his father, so that's at least a tiny extra wrinkle. Even the big stupid CGI villain, a big antlered dude in shimmering pointy armor named Steppenwolf (voiced by Ciarán Hinds) - turns out that $70 million still wasn't enough money, and Steppenwolf is where this is the most apparent - is a much more nuanced and interesting big stupid CGI villain than most, with a desperate need to please his boss and nephew, intergalactic tyrant Darkseid (voiced by Ray Porter) so he can just go back home and be an old monstrous alien in comfort.

The point is, there are a lot of people in this movie trying to work through feelings of loss and isolation - the film doesn't really do this with Diana "Wonder Woman" Prince (Gal Gadot), presumably because Snyder and Terrio didn't want to step on Patty Jenkins's due-to-come-out-earlier Wonder Woman - and that, really, is where the film lives. It's not actually about the way that the team of superheroes resurrects Clark "Superman" Kent (Henry Cavill, this time with his own actual upper lip) to fight Steppenwolf in an abandoned nuclear reactor in the former Soviet Union, which is all the two-hour 2017 cut had time for. We don't see Superman for a long time in Zack Snyder's Justice League, and we get the actual "plot" even less. Instead, and in keeping with Man of Steel and Batman v Superman, the film is mostly interested in playing around with ideas about superheroes, their iconography, their place in popular culture, and their big-scale operatic emotions, and the big action setpieces feel somewhat arbitrarily welded on. Though this film's climactic CGI fight sequence is a damn sight better than those films' were. And the ideas that get played with here are ultimately more satisfying, because they're less abstract than Man of Steel's "yes, but what if God was depressed?" and Batman v Superman's "yes, but what if there were two Gods, and both of them were depressed?"

If all that sounds like an up-its-own-ass slog, well, it's not not that. But it's also a real blast. The key to this is that it is Zack Snyder's Justice League, and whatever one thinks of Snyder - I find that it's extremely hard to maintain my previously dim view of the man as an artist on the basis of this movie, even more than the First Cow thing - this is a startlingly personal work, for such a costly piece of corporate-financed cinema. Snyder's thing, from the moment his career started, has been a kind of a dopey enthusiasm for the power of iconic imagery and an almost unnerving sincerity about the Big Ideas that pulp garbage can explore, and to filter all of this through whatever will be most egregiously Cool. In Justice League, he has found the ideal vehicle for doing this in a way that makes iconic characters seem even more iconic. When is his beloved slow-motion better-suited than in lingering over a character like the Flash? Where does his limited but enthusiastic skill for staging violence thrive better than than in the flat 1.33:1 panels where he can have these characters move in the straight lines between expressive poses of actual comics? Right from the beginning, when we see how he blocks Wonder Woman's interruption of a bank robbery as a series of fast diagonal movements across the middle of a frame, it's clear that this is going to be a real "everything that could go right did" situation, where the content, the form, and the auteur's unbridled little-boy excitement about doing excessive shit with his superhero toys are all lined up perfectly to feed off each other. And in some ways, Zack Snyder's Justice League never gets better than the first hour, when it's just introducing each character, one by one, and lingering on them at their most iconic - Wonder Woman moving fast, Flash moving slow, Batman looming, Cyborg... honestly, I don't even know why somebody would care about Cyborg, but this movie gets me unusually close to figuring it out. And yes, the movie gets generally slacker and sillier as it goes along, and it is pure indulgence of the most barbarically unashamed sort, especially when it's seeding plot points for sequels that are never going to get made. And boy, do the second and third parts of the inexplicably distended epilogue suck. And wow, is it ever po-faced and gloomy for something so inherently kitschy as a comic book movie. Because after all, superheroes aren't our modern myths, they're corporate product, and this was always first and foremost a branding exercise. But a branding exercise with more nakedly earnest personal touch you'd be hard to find, and while the film is certainly nowhere close to perfect, it's sure is awesome.

 Reviews in this series
Man of Steel (Snyder, 2013)
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (Snyder, 2016)
Suicide Squad (Ayer, 2016)
Wonder Woman (Jenkins, 2017)
Justice League (Snyder / Whedon, 2017)
Aquaman (Wan, 2018)
Shazam! (Sandberg, 2019)
Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) (Yan, 2020)
Wonder Woman 1984 (Jenkins, 2020)
Zack Snyder's Justice League (Snyder, 2021)
The Suicide Squad (Gunn, 2021)