Zack Snyder’s Justice League is a surprisingly earnest and engaging four-hour superhero epic that never should have existed. I am glad it does.

I am not predisposed to love this film. The DCEU has mostly disappointed me. I loved Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn; I have long appreciated Man of Steel for the audaciousness of its innumerable faults; I gave bad reviews to Aquaman and Shazam, two of the more popular entries in the franchise. I think Wonder Woman is just OK and WW84 a campy, very forgettable romp. My feelings on Suicide Squad are nil. Five years ago, I panned Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, although its Extended Cut has grown on me ever so slightly since then for the same reasons I enjoy Man of Steel: It’s an ambitious and provocative Elseworlds story that consciously includes some of the worst possible interpretations of its heroes. Man of Steel and Batman v Superman are both overlong, generally unpleasant experiences (the latter moreso than the former). That being said, I think Joss Whedon’s version of Justice League is one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen. After walking out of that abomination, I was one of many many who felt like Snyder’s version couldn’t possibly be worse than that.

Turns out Snyder’s version of Justice League is the movie where he finally hits his stride with these characters.

Snyder’s dark, world-weary take on the DC Comics stable of heroes was a problematic starting position for a franchise, leaving little leeway to explore new aesthetics and moral dimensions with its stable of characters. Everything boils down to Snyder’s troubled depiction of Superman in Man of Steel, who is conflicted about the wrong questions and whose moral complexities are lost in the soup of the film’s hyperactive, non-linear storytelling.

There are plenty of think-pieces about how Snyder is an Ayn Rand acolyte whose depiction of Superman is akin to her legendary protagonist Howard Roark, but I don’t see that. I think a lot of people shit on Man of Steel because it doesn’t fit the Superman they’re interested in watching. That’s fine. It is not a great film, but there is nothing in Man of Steel that posits the triumph and supremacy of a superior man. In this universe, Superman and Clark Kent are a flawed Christ imbued with the dual heritage of God and Joseph. His anchors are his parents and Lois. I don’t think Superman should be anchored to the world by a handful of people, and that thesis doesn’t work for the character. That said, it’s a stunningly human approach — maybe too human — to a character. I appreciate it for its ambition even if Snyder’s filmmaking wasn’t up to the task of making his Superman, well, Superman.

Likewise, Batman v Superman‘s extended cut introduces a really great story for Clark Kent specifically that was cut from the theatrical version — about him hunting Batman because he sees the Caped Crusader as victimizing the poor and downtrodden. Unfortunately, none of that matters as both versions of the film move into a boneheaded third act and denouement, which once again reduce Superman to being willing to destroy the world for the sake of his mother or Lois Lane. Greatness, again, just out of reach. Both movies meant to launch this franchise fail Superman and, in turn, fail to create a viable mythological universe. Superman doesn’t have to be perfect, but he has to be the ideal in which the other heroes believe (or against which to bristle).

Superman – and Batman – should not be driven to irredeemable choices by their relatable sufferings. They are superheroes because they do not do that.

So what do I still see in them beyond the fascinating but unsuccessful takes on Superman? I think Snyder’s aesthetic obsession with the DC heroes as living myths is tremendous. His vision of Superman (Henry Cavill) as an angel from a fallen heaven, and the occasionally (really … frequently) pretentious imagery associated with that take, is fun to watch. More importantly, this obsession is unique to cinematic interpretations of the characters.

Superman and General Zod (Michael Shannon) razing an entire segment of Metropolis at the end of Man of Steel remains one of the most awe-inspiring superhero fights put on screen. It’s also one of the worst Superman moments ever told. Batman (Ben Affleck), the ultimate man, witnesses this and decides Superman is an inevitable threat. That, too, is an interesting take. The problem is that, in Batman v Superman, Snyder seems to suspect Batman might end up being right. It’s an unbalanced movie that remains needlessly nervous about depicting a proper Superman, even as it moves to unite the two during its dull climax.

The studio fiddled with Snyder’s Justice League adaptation while in production. According to Variety, Snyder was working with additional studio notes to change his vision of what the ultimate DC team-up would look like before the death of his daughter Autumn. After that, Snyder lost the will to fight them, the studio allowed him to leave, and they hired The Avengers director Joss Whedon to “salvage” the product into one of the biggest pieces of shit I’ve ever seen.

Thus launched the “movement” to release the Snyder Cut (which did not exist in any real form). Even at the time, critics who hated Batman v Superman remarked that a bad but singular vision from Snyder was preferable to what happened with the Whedon version.

It is impossible to say whether Zack Snyder’s Justice League reflects the film Snyder was going to make immediately following Batman v Superman — at least as it exists in 2021, which is a four-hour epic tentpole for the HBOMax streaming service owned and operated, like Warner Brothers, by AT&T. Frankly, I doubt it. Snyder more or less disappeared after leaving the project to spend time with his family following Autumn’s death. I don’t want to psychoanalyze another man’s tragedy, but the film that has emerged from the ensuing five years is a much lighter, simpler and kinder approach to these heroes than what Snyder has made in the past.

In Batman v Superman, Batman is driven to hate Superman by a fear of God. In Zack Snyder’s Justice League, he tells Alfred (Jeremy Irons) that he knows a resurrected Superman will show up to help him. Why? “Faith, Alfred.” Like his reborn Batman, Zack Snyder’s Justice League leaves the impression that Snyder understands what makes these heroes so appealing. What makes them good. What makes Superman good.

That’s not to say this is a compromised product for fans of Snyder’s deeply 1980s, Heavy Metalinspired approach to the world of the DC Universe. After all, it’s a four-hour movie. There’s plenty of action here for everyone. His heroes — particularly Wonder Woman — still land blows on their enemies with the force of gods. Collateral damage is still present, albeit to lesser and more comic degrees. Slow-motion footage certainly contributes to the running time, as you’d expect. Snyder has a particular style and he sticks to it here. He just lets the characters be hopeful, even as they mourn.

Again, it’s not my place to narrate the director’s personal trauma. But it’s notable that the strongest character work in Snyder’s version of the film revolves around characters mourning and growing from the lessons of those they lost. Batman mourns Superman and the loss of what he represented. Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) mourns for her lost love, Steve Trevor. (WW84 is not canon with this film.) Aquaman (Jason Momoa) is adrift between two worlds he doesn’t belong to, abandoned by a mother he can’t remember. The Flash (Ezra Miller) lost his mother and wants to free his wrongfully convicted father from prison.

Cyborg (Ray Fisher) is one of the MVPs of this reconstituted film, lending even greater depth to the tragedy of his negative experience with Warner Brothers. Victor Stone was a brilliant high school student whose mother died in the same accident that almost killed him. In an act of desperation, his scientist father, Silas Stone (Joe Morton), used an extra-dimensional Motherbox machine to resurrect Victor as a cybernetic Frankenstein’s Monster. His conflict with his new self and the father who chose to keep him alive in this form is one of the core emotional conflicts of the movie and, in the end, one of the most touching.

These aren’t arcs about how heroes are overwhelmed by disappointment, grief and doubt, leading them to fail (like Man of Steel or Batman v. Superman). It’s precisely the opposite. Zack Snyder’s Justice League is a hopeful movie about six heroes coming together to persevere. It is not by any standard a unique take on these characters or on the superhero story. The plot binding them all and the central villain is not particularly interesting. But it all feels authentic, emotionally and stylistically. It feels like a filmmaker rediscovering what these heroes mean to him.

I have not really detailed the plot, which is more or less the same as the shorter, lousier 2017 version of the film. Steppenwolf, an emissary of galactic conqueror Darkseid, has arrived on Earth to retrieve three Motherboxes, “change machines” that can allow the cosmic Satan to bring Earth into his hellish domain. There are changes to the overarcing story about Steppenwolf and Darkseid, most notably more mention of the Anti-Life Equation that Darkseid can use to bend the entirety of reality to his will. These are characters and concepts from Jack Kirby’s Fourth World series of books, which are some of the most visionary superhero stories ever told (and soon to be adapted in an unrelated movie from Ava DuVernay). Snyder doesn’t provide enough of them to really capture what he sees in the Kirby Cosmology beyond Steppenwolf’s utility as a villain and offers hints about Darkseid’s potential corruption of Superman in a later movie that will never come to pass. Still, Steppenwolf and Darkseid function well in their limited capacity for this story — as unifying threats for the heroes to beat up.

At four hours long, Zack Snyder’s Justice League is officially the longest superhero film ever made, topping Avengers: Endgame by a whole hour. It contains much less story than Endgame and far fewer characters. The story is separated into six chapters, each of which feature key action sequences and feel clearly designed to be viewed either as a serial or in one sitting as a complete film. There was talk of releasing them sequentially. I’m glad they didn’t. It feels like a journey.

I can’t believe I’m saying this: I did not want it to end.

However, it does have to end, and Zack Snyder’s Justice League is surely the end of the filmmaker’s broader involvement in this Warner Brothers franchise. For the best! I do not think Snyder needs to say anything further on these characters. Having a four-hour runtime and unlimited creative boundaries to make a somewhat somber and personal story about six heroes overcoming grief and finding renewal is a dream scenario that cannot be replicated. There are definitely hints at future stories for these characters and a hypothetical Justice League 2, but those hints are incredibly dispiriting in comparison to the relative restraint Snyder shows here. We know thanks to repeated “Knightmare” sequences that one sequel would be a nightmare apocalypse where Superman has been turned into a villain thanks to the Anti-Life equation (oft mentioned, never explained in this movie). Don’t need to see that!

Then again, the hashtag #releasethesnydercut started as a meme, then became influential enough in both positive and negative ways that it caught the attention of a desperate studio and resulted in the existence of a very, very good Justice League story. That movement won’t entirely disappear, thanks to the adherents who made the “movement” their home. Perhaps, for some, it will become #releasethesnyderuniverse.

However, backlash to this version of the film is already popping up on a lot of right-wing message boards and image sites. For some, the story of Snyder being prevented from telling his version was a legend around which to rally. Actually witnessing it may shift things. I wonder if this is the movie those folks wanted — a toned-down, more thoughtful version of Snyder, less abrasive and willing to break toys just for the sake of being edgy.

Superman is no longer snapping necks. Batman is no longer branding felons to ensure they’re abused in prison. Wonder Woman is hopeful. The Jesus imagery for Superman is absolutely present, essential to Snyder’s take on the character, but relatively toned down. There is less anxiety about Evil Superman besides the much-hyped new “Knightfall” sequence featuring Jared Leto’s (presumed) swan song as Joker. That sequence hints at a sequel, but also feels like Snyder just having fun with some toys he never got to touch before putting them back in the box forever.

Nothing Snyder does here redeems the flaws of his past Superman and Batman stories, but it does feel like Snyder sees these heroes and the reason they appeal to audiences with a clearer vision than before. I’ve thought greatly about his trilogy over the years, rewatching them every so often because they’re interesting if not necessarily ever good. I’ve dealt with some of his more evangelical fanboys to great annoyance; my Shazam review got me mean messages from DC fanboys a few years back. I started Zack Snyder’s Justice League expecting a weird mess of pretentious imagery and shocking-but-interesting takes on DC’s most famous heroes. What I got instead was a hopeful movie about characters who help one another and who help each other overcome their pains and insecurities to face a better day. A long, toned-down version of Zack Snyder finally melding his mythological vision with Gods worth having faith in.

Color me surprised: Zack Snyder’s Justice League is great.