To answer your most immediate question — yes, Zack Snyder's Justice League is better than its 2017 version. It would be hard not to be. Joss Whedon's isn't aggressively bad, but it isn't up there with the best superhero movies of all time either. It's a nothingburger of a film, a serviceable, by-the-numbers superhero team up that lacks a singular voice or vision. Snyder's version retains the same basic plot of the six Justice League members teaming up to fight big bad Steppenwolf (Ciaran Hinds), but is a stunning example of how the same material in the hands of two filmmakers could produce such strikingly different results. Notwithstanding some gore, two f-bombs and a Henry Cavill sans the awkwardly CGI'd face, here are the major ways in which the Snyder cut differs from its predecessor:
You know what you're in for when you watch a Snyder film — elaborately staged sequences that play out in slow-mo, a dozen different needle-drops and an aesthetic so slick, so pervasive, that it threatens to overwhelm the substance. Still, his singular voice and distinct style make his Justice League cut feel like it was made by a human being with an actual personality, instead of a soulless corporate machine.
Snyder likes to ask philosophical questions of his heroes and their environments. In Man of Steel (2013), he asked if superheroes should consider it worth fighting for a world that might just turn against them. In Batman Vs Superman (2016), the world had turned, and he asked what it would cost to keep fighting. Justice League is about superheroes who've been alone for too long realizing that part of what it means to save the world is letting others into theirs. It infuses the film with the warm glow of companionship that the 2017 version eschewed in favour of an efficient team up and takedown.
Snyder described his DCEU trilogy (Man of Steel, Batman V Superman and Justice League) as "mythology at an epic level", which is exactly what you get here. At 242 minutes, it's a little more than double the length of its previous incarnation. Scenes that could be edited into montages are drawn out into full-length sprawling sequences — Batman (Ben Affleck) doesn't just travel to a Scandinavian bar in search of Aquaman (Jason Momoa). He journeys, on horseback, in the biting cold, past glaciers, set against sweeping score, for a whole two minutes. That his quest isn't easy imbues it with a mythic significance. Aquaman doesn't just swim away, the residents of this fishing hamlet gather around and sing a mournful farewell, inhaling the scent of a sweater he left behind.
Is Snyder indulgent? Yes. But damn does he know how to induce a reverential atmosphere. His sprawling canvas and bombastic shots are in service of a particular brand of heroism — his heroes aren't relatable, nor are they meant to be. They're Gods among men, to be gazed at with awe. A low-angle shot of the six Justice League members towards the end, in which they look out serenely into the world they've just saved, their faces benevolent, encapsulates that brand of hero worship.
At the same time, the heroes in Snyder's universe initially wear their heroism as a curse rather than a badge of honor, using it to care for people in need but simultaneously hiding it from the prying eyes of the public (Aquaman), wondering if they can help people at all without being discovered and ostracized (Superman) or hiding themselves away completely (Cyborg). It's this idea that the Whedon cut of Justice League failed to grasp, making its heroes glib and quippy. That the director was reportedly brought in to lighten the film led to its jarringly uneven tonality in 2017 and makes even less sense now, given that Snyder film isn't completely morose, and actually pretty funny when the situation calls for humour.
That Batman V Superman and the Justice League Snyder cut both begin with a climactic scene from the previous installment, shown from a different perspective, makes them feel like part of a shared, cohesive universe. The Snyder cut begins with the scene of Doomsday killing Superman from Batman V Superman, but adds Superman (Henry Cavill) letting out a reverberating death wail. Then, for good measure, it adds several more. (Snyder and subtlety? Not a chance.) It's these wails that wake up the Mother Boxes (magical macguffins) that parademons can sense, and this event that alerts Steppenwolf that he can now move to conquer a defenseless Earth.
Aquaman swooping in to defend Atlantis against Steppenwolf despite never having set foot there before is less a coincidental case of 'right place, right time' as the 2017 version suggests and the direct consequence of his mother's friend Vulko (Willem Dafoe) asking for his help. These are crucial establishing sequences and Whedon's removal of them makes for a disjointed viewing experience while also reducing the 2017 film to a series of plot conveniences.
Snyder's cut is as much an ambitious crossover event (the formation of the Justice League) as it is an incredibly moving origin story for Cyborg (Ray Fisher). If the 2017 film focussed more on his cybernetic aspects, placing value on his machinery as a battle advantage, the Snyder embraces the human, with all his rage, hurt and confusion. Victor Stone's fraught relationship with his father gets an added dimension. Flashbacks depict him scoring a touchdown in college, his exuberance cut short when he sees the empty seat where his dad was supposed to be. Near death after a car accident, his father decides to resurrect him, a monstrous enough decision that's lent more weight by their shared history — dad didn't show up for me when I was alive, what right does he have to exert control over my death? is the subtext. Stone's initial mistrust of his father, and hatred of what he's been turned into against his will, lays the stepping stone for a full character arc, the only one that any of the superheroes in this movie get. It's his film through and through and he, its beating heart.
It would be remiss to talk about Cyborg's shortened role in the 2017 film without mentioning Fisher's allegations of Whedon being abusive towards him on set. In the alternate timeline in which the Snyder cut is the only cut of Justice League, Fisher's role isn't hemmed by Whedon and he gets the big, star-making turn he was destined for. This is what he deserves now.
The camera doesn't creepily pan to Gal Gadot's butt as it does in the 2017 film and for that, I'm grateful. There's no sequence of the Flash (Ezra Miller) falling face first onto her chest (a move Whedon ripped straight from his 2015 MCU film Avengers: Age of Ultron, in which Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow is subjected to that clumsy maneuver from Mark Ruffalo's Hulk). Thankfully, there's also no forced romance between Bruce and Diana (What is it with Whedon and writing terrible superhero romances?) Alfred doesn't chide her over her lack of a romantic relationship, nor does he encourage Bruce to view her as more than a teammate. Bruce and Diana have a working relationship based on mutual respect, unlike in the 2017 film, when he throws the death of her boyfriend in her face as a cheap shot during an argument and she hits him in retaliation, both out-of-character moves.
Lois Lane (Amy Adams) gets a better deal in this movie too. It doesn't demean her by using her as bait to get the raging resurrected Superman to calm down and it doesn't make Batman display a stunning lack of judgement for putting her in that position.
Good news, Steppenwolf is no longer a disposable CGI villain with a creepy penchant for snarling 'mother' repeatedly. The Snyder cut fleshes out his backstory — having betrayed his master in the past, he's now trying desperately to crawl back into his good graces. It's character motivation rooted in a redemption arc which makes more sense than attributing his motives to a blind lust for power. Snyder makes him more compelling, not by making him more powerful or menacing, but by turning him into a frazzled employee just trying to meet his boss' demands. Unfortunately, as is the case in superhero films with several villains, one of them gets the short end of the stick. Darkseid (Ray Porter) has the skin texture of an avocado and ultimately, fewer motivations than one.
The slow-mo, a Snyder specialty, really works when the Flash is onscreen, on a practical and a thematic level. The first time we meet him, he saves Iris West (Kiersey Clemons) from a car crash, pausing to gently move a strand of her out of her face. It's an elaborate showcase of his powers, but also a clue to his feelings — when you look at someone you have a crush on, isn't the whole world supposed to slow down?
He gets a second, stunning slow-mo sequence towards the end. When he decisively reverses time to gain a tactical advantage, it's simultaneously the slowest and the quickest a character has ever come of age in film. It's also a great example of how Snyder can meld aesthetic with an emotional core.
The slow-mo effect, however, doesn't work as well when applied to Wonder Woman, or Victor Stone scoring a touchdown in his pre-Cyborg days, lengthening an already very long movie.
Wonder Woman's resistance to resurrecting Superman is one of the few bits in 2017's Justice League that actually makes sense. The many unknown variables could render the plan a failure and make a bad situation worse, something that the earlier film acknowledges and this one glosses over.
The film is officially divided into six chapters, but a 20-minute-long epilogue, which appears as the seventh, is its weakest. I might be biased, but I find DCEU villains Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg, great otherwise but miscast here) and the Joker (Jared Leto, for whom I have no compliments) grating and they both appear in different segments. Nowhere is it more apparent that Snyder's 2017 film was meant to set up a larger universe than in this final chapter, which exists solely for the purpose of teasing (non-existent) future films while adding nothing to the one it's in, except bloat.
The Luthor segment depicts a scenario in which he's escaped from Arkham Asylum and has hired Deathstroke (Joe Manganiello) to kill Batman. The Joker segment elaborates on the Knightmare sequence from Batman V Superman, setting up the importance of Lois Lane as someone the future hinges on. There are Robin references and a Martian Manhunter cameo, but Snyder's decision to tack these all onto the film instead of releasing them as separate snippets is a bit bittersweet. This becomes not just an epilogue to Justice League, but to a shared superhero universe that never got the chance to begin.