01:02 - Source: CNN Business
See the new trailer for the 'Justice League' director's cut
CNN  — 

The title “Zack Snyder’s Justice League” pretty much says it all, representing the culmination of a campaign that – like a certain Man of Steel – brought the director’s epic version of the 2017 movie to life. It’s a fascinating exercise and superior to its predecessor, but clocking in at four hours, the operatic highs are somewhat offset by the lack of any pressure to say “cut.”

That might seem like an ironic criticism of what came to be known as “the Snyder cut,” driven by anticipation that the director’s darker vision – upended when he left the project after a personal tragedy – would be a big improvement over what was delivered by Joss Whedon, who replaced him and conjured a lighter version of the DC superhero team-up.

In recent interviews, the director has also cited concerns among DC and Warner Bros. executives regarding the movie’s direction under Snyder, whose “Man of Steel” and “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice” presented glorious moments and images, but didn’t quite light up the box office as hoped. (Those corporate entities, like CNN, are units of WarnerMedia.)

The result of this fresh take, strictly from a creative and filmmaking standpoint, is fascinating: How did two different directors – Whedon, who birthed the “Avengers” franchise on screen; and Snyder, who tackled adapting the famously unadaptable “Watchmen” – approach the same material? A venue like HBO Max, hungry for subscribers, offered the time and latitude to find out.

The good news for fans is that Snyder – largely be reassembling used and plenty of unused footage, augmented by a bit of new shooting – has delivered a wildly distinctive, harder-edged take on the material, one that develops better backstories for secondary characters the Flash (Ezra Miller) and Cyborg (Ray Fisher). Fisher has been notably critical of Whedon, both for his personal style and version of the movie, and based on his more fleshed-out role here, it’s not hard to understand the latter.

This iteration, from Snyder and writer Chris Terrio, also delves deeper into the comics. That includes overtly turning the towering, new-look villain Steppenwolf (voiced by Ciaran Hinds) into a minion of Darkseid, the Thanos-like conqueror of worlds created by the legendary writer-artist Jack Kirby.

Jason Momoa, Gal Gadot and Ray Fisher in 'Zack Snyder's Justice League' (Courtesy of HBO Max).

Some of the most satisfying wrinkles, not surprisingly, involve Superman (Henry Cavill), whose revival to ward off this apocalyptic threat (or Apokolips-tic threat, in deference to Darkseid’s home) provides a central dilemma. Where Whedon went for the stirring and staid – “Truth and justice,” etc. – Snyder again goes grand and indeed messianic, casting the son of Krypton as Earth’s savior, who pays a price for his service.

So far, so very good, and this “Justice League” proves a richer and more rewarding experience on almost every level. Some of the best original scenes are still there, such as an awakened Superman’s fight with the rest of the team, but it’s jarring how much is new and completely different, helpfully divided into chapters, plus an epilogue, to navigate the sprawling length.

Simply put, nobody frames superhero action more lovingly than Snyder, who going back to “300” has exhibited a knack for translating comic-book imagery to the screen. The effect is visually dazzling, and far more visceral than what previously saw the light of day.

Where, then, is the down side? Mainly that producing this for streaming, as opposed to a theatrical version, didn’t require any significant choices about excising unnecessary threads.

What might have been a terrific 2 ½ or even three-hour movie thus becomes a somewhat bloated four-hour indulgence intended for die-hard fans, bypassing logical places to end things to pile on tantalizing teases for storylines that seem unlikely to be pursued anytime soon.

Granted, most of those complaints come down to the last 30 minutes or so, and for those who crusaded to “Release the Snyder cut,” the subscription to HBO Max will be worth every penny. In that sense, this consumer-driven spectacle represents a logical use of the streaming service, super-serving fans in a way that doesn’t care, or have to, about time constraints or how well it will play with the broadest possible audience.

In the final analysis, that’s what willed “the Snyder cut” into existence, so from that standpoint, mission accomplished. Whether that means Warner Bros. gets its money’s worth out of this unique use of its newest platform, or emboldens future efforts to use hash tags to revisit and expand upon cinematic history, remains to be seen.

“Zack Snyder’s Justice League” premieres March 18 on HBO Max.