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Zack Snyder’s Justice League is a four-hour-long superhero spectacle that feels both familiar and startlingly new.Courtesy of HBO / Crave

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Zack Snyder’s Justice League

Directed by Zack Snyder

Written by Zack Snyder and Chris Terrio

Starring Ben Affleck, Ray Fisher and Gal Gadot

Classification R; 242 minutes

The release of Zack Snyder’s Justice League is an event that could only happen in 2021, Our Year of Chaotic Hope. For those who are blissfully unaware of just what Zack Snyder’s Justice League is – and how it is different from the movie simply titled Justice League, which was released in 2017 also bearing the directorial credit of “Zack Snyder” – then sit back and let me explain. I’ll try to make it as painless as possible.

During post-production on the original Justice League, which is a direct sequel to Snyder’s own 2016 Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, the director stepped away from the project, following the death of his daughter Autumn. Studio Warner Bros., not wanting to miss the film’s release date, hired Avengers director Joss Whedon to finish the job – but also recalibrate the film’s dark tone and unwieldy length. What audiences saw in 2017, then, was a yiiiiiiiiikes mish-mash of two directors’ competing sensibilities, ultimately satisfying no one.

Flash-forward a few years – during which an internal Warner Bros. investigation was ignited by Justice League co-star Ray Fisher’s allegations of “gross, abusive, unprofessional” behaviour against Whedon – and the “Release the #SnyderCut” movement is a very real, very loud social-media thing. Enough to get Warner Bros., now also eager to lure subscribers to its fledgling HBO Max streaming service, to give Snyder about $75-million to finish his ultimate director’s cut – a marvellously surreal act of corporate synergy-slash-apology. A have your kryptonite and eat it, too, kind of moment.

So now here we are with Zack Snyder’s Justice League: a four-hour-long superhero spectacle that feels both familiar and startlingly new. In almost every way, it is a far better film than the drippy slop that Whedon and Co. served up four years ago. It is still by no means a great film, even compared against the standards of contemporary superhero cinema, which is bleeding any sense of individual artistry and purpose each passing year. But it is a wild, invigorating experiment to experience.

The basic plot is the same: In the wake of Superman’s death, Earth’s mightiest heroes must unite to stop the invading alien forces of Steppenwolf, a Thanos-like madman who works for the even more Thanos-like Darkseid. (For the comic book fans in the back: I know that DC’s Darkseid was created before Marvel’s Thanos; but one of them made it to the big screen first and that’s what counts today, I’m sorry!).

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The basic plot of the #SnyderCut is the same as the 2017 version: Earth’s mightiest heroes must unite to stop the invading alien forces of Steppenwolf.Courtesy of HBO / Crave

But whereas Whedon’s film was intent on giving its heroes as little personality as possible, all while undercutting a high-stakes set-up with curiously low-stakes action, Snyder’s work expands the Justice League’s world to sometimes great, sometimes unnecessary, purpose. In practice, this means a lot more character back story (especially for Fisher’s Cyborg), a lot more flashbacks explaining just who Steppenwolf is and what those “Mother Boxes” are that he covets, and, more importantly and appreciatively, a lot more action, all shot in a boxy 1.33:1 aspect ratio.

There are many extended, and sometimes exhilarating, battles here. In Themyscira, the Amazonian homeland of Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot). In Atlantis, the underwater home of Aquaman (Jason Momoa). And in Russia, which is thankfully not this time around home of some random family of civilians that Whedon added to inject some vaguely defined humanism to the story.

We get to see The Flash (Ezra Miller, still annoying) display his super-speed skills more often, and with a greater sense of wonder. Cyborg gets at least three times the screen time, with his father Silas (Terminator 2′s Joe Morton, forever tasked with portraying men who create dangerous robots) playing a larger role, too. Although Aquaman still gets to yell his unintentionally-hilarious-but-also-maybe-intentional-who-can-tell-anymore cry of, “My man!” during battle, he also gets to share more screen-time with his Atlantis counterparts, including a here-for-the-cash Willem Dafoe. And Batman (Ben Affleck) gets, um, to deeply sigh a lot more. And also show off his pecs. Good for you, Batman.

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From left, Aquaman (Jason Momoa), Cyborg (Ray Fisher) and The Flash (Ezra Miller) get more of the spotlight this time around.Courtesy of HBO / Crave

Consisting of six chapters plus an epilogue, Snyder’s work is best consumed over the course of two evenings – though I admire the filmmaker’s chutzpah in thinking anyone but the hardest of hardcore #SnyderCut acolytes would be able to sit through this in a single theatrical showing. But the film’s intimidating length and narrative breaks don’t automatically make the production a secret television miniseries, either – this Justice League is a cinematic work in pacing, tone, style and narrative beat. It just happens to be very, very, very long – a point underlined when one character grimly utters the line, “So begins the end” with 40 more minutes to go.

Oh, and because Snyder is intent on proving that superhero movies aren’t just for kids (or overgrown kids), his Justice League is a thoroughly R-rated affair. By that, I mean in a backward juvenile way that allows Snyder to have Batman utter the F-word and deploy an ultra-serious rendition of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah over the end credits. It is all very faux-edgy ridiculous, but because Snyder is so straight-faced in his commitment to the exxxxxxxtreeeeeme-ness of it all, it works.

When Batman v Superman was released in 2016, I dismissed Snyder’s version of the DC universe as one that should be shuffled off into the twilight. Today, I don’t think that Zack Snyder’s Justice League marks the dawn of a new era, exactly. But its release does prove that, to borrow the words of the director’s favourite Montreal poet, there is a crack in everything. And that’s how the light gets in.

Zack Snyder’s Justice League is available to stream on Crave starting March 18

In the interest of consistency across all critics’ reviews, The Globe has eliminated its star-rating system in film and theatre to align with coverage of music, books, visual arts and dance. Instead, works of excellence will be noted with a Critic’s Pick designation across all coverage.

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