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Why is ‘Justice League’ back — with a new R rating and 4-hour run time?

What to expect from the upcoming ‘Snyder cut’

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Ben Affleck as Batman in “Justice League.”

Ben Affleck as Batman in “Justice League.”

Warner Bros. Pictures

“Justice League” first came out in 2017. The two-hour, PG-13 film grossed $657 million at the box office and received mixed reviews from fans and critics alike. The film had been mostly left behind in the pop culture scene.

It’s now 2021, and “Justice League” — the exact same film, only this time from director Zack Snyder — will arrive on HBO Max on March 18.

But it’s a little different than what you might remember from the original. This new version is four hours and 2 minutes long. (Yeah, it’s a four-hour movie.) And it’s been given an R rating because of an increase in violence and language.

This new “Justice League” is also quite grim.

It’s set after the events of “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” in which (spoilers) Superman dies. So now, Bruce Wayne and Wonder Woman team up to take down the alien Steppenwolf and his troops. Cyborg, Aquaman, the Flash, Lois Lane, the villain Lex Luthor, Hippolyta and Martian Manhunter are among the mammoth character list.

So how does a film go from PG-13 and two hours to R and four hours? And what does that say about the direction of the superhero genre?

Here’s a breakdown of how we got to this dark reimagining.

What does the ‘Snyder Cut’ mean?

Snyder completed most of “Justice League” in 2016. However, he left the project to deal with a family emergency at the time, which put a quick end to his vision.

Joss Whedon, who directed the first two “Avengers” films, jumped in to finish the project. He was a natural fit since the “Avengers” films — also about superheroes teaming up — performed so well at the box office.

But Whedon’s version — which the audience ultimately saw — did not include everything from Snyder’s original cut. According to reports, the film released in theaters had 80 to 85% of the original.

In fact, the Snyder version of the film was rumored to run at 3.5 hours compared to the two-hour cut for theaters. The released version also reportedly nixed several storylines and changed the tone of the entire film. Whedon’s version was believed to be the “funny version” with a comedic tone, according to Den of Geek. But Snyder said the original version was “really scary.”

The film that hit theaters included “the varying styles of both men” and “led many fans to believe Snyder had envisioned a much darker take on the project,” according to Variety.

The #ReleaseTheSnyderCut campaign

For years, fans wondered about the Snyder Cut since they were ultimately left disappointed with “Justice League,” which posts a 40% score on Rotten Tomatoes from critics.

Soon after the release of the original, the hashtag #ReleaseTheSnyderCut began to circulate through social media. Not long after, the #ReleaseTheSnyderCut campaign became a staple of Twitter. The movement became a massive grassroots campaign to get the original version of the film — with all Snyder’s scenes and storylines — released at some point.

Ben Affleck as Batman in “Justice League.”

Ben Affleck as Batman in “Justice League.”

Warner Bros. Pictures

Still, despite the campaign, the “Snyder Cut” was a bit of a myth. But Snyder later admitted that it was real. However, he didn’t have the power to release it. Warner Bros. owned the rights.

“While plans to release the Snyder cut theatrically never took shape, its value for HBO Max is undeniable,” according to Variety.

New life on HBO Max

Warner Bros. announced back in May 2020 that Zack Snyder’s cut of “Justice League” would arrive on the HBO Max streaming service in 2021. The film would tell the story of Batman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, the Flash, Cyborg and Superman — but this time with Snyder’s original vision.

The film’s release gave HBO Max a unique piece of content that can’t be found anywhere else. For streaming services, original projects are the name of the game. So it would make sense for HBO Max to release something so massive and desired.

“Since I got here 14 months ago, the chant to #ReleaseTheSnyderCut has been a daily drumbeat in our offices and inboxes. Well, the fans have asked, and we are thrilled to finally deliver,” said Warner Media Entertainment and Direct-To-Consumer chairman Robert Greenblatt, according to Slash Film. “At the end of the day, it really is all about them and we are beyond excited to be able to release Zack’s ultimate vision for this film in 2021. This could never have happened if it weren’t for the hard work and combined efforts of the teams at HBO Max and Warner Bros. Pictures.”

Ray Fisher as Cyborg in “Justice League.”

Ray Fisher as Cyborg in “Justice League.”

Warner Bros. Pictures

Snyder couldn’t have been happier at the time of the announcement. He praised the social media movement for helping make the release happen.

“I want to thank HBO Max and Warner Bros. for this brave gesture of supporting artists and allowing their true visions to be realized. Also a special thank you to all of those involved in the SnyderCut movement for making this a reality,” said Snyder, according to reports.

Why is it four hours long?

The original version of “Justice League” had a two-hour runtime, which is a typical (if not shorter) length for a modern superhero flick.

But the four-hour version represents an entire unedited cut of Snyder’s film. Because it’s on HBO Max — free of the restrictions connected to movie theater releases — the project can last even longer than a normal movie.

But Collider’s Matt Goldberg made the case that the four-hour length is a little too much. In fact, the runtime reveals why there’s a need for editing because it just features too much content for one film.

“The problem with a movie that feels like a rough cut is that it constantly demands a need for editing. It’s not that a four-hour superhero movie can’t or shouldn’t exist as much as (Snyder’s “Justice League”) never makes the case for why it needs to be four hours,” he writes. 

Goldberg continues: “Sometimes you have to kill your darlings, and the problem with (Snyder’s “Justice League”) is that it seems built to keep in everything. This approach not only kills the pacing, but it also makes it difficult to latch onto any kind of thematic or emotional arc, especially as the movie attempts to service six different superheroes, three of whom (Aquaman, The Flash and Cyborg) are basically being introduced in this movie.”

Why is it rated R?

The original version of “Justice League” received a PG-13 rating from the Motion Picture Association of America for science-fiction violence and action, which isn’t too uncommon for a superhero film.

“There’s plenty of opportunities for Snyder to inject more violence and language, considering the Snyder Cut includes 150 minutes of previously unseen footage,” according to IGN.

Brief teasers for the new film show off a darker film, too. Vanity Fair recently detailed what to expect from the Joker character, who will be part of the new “Justice League” film.

The Joker wasn’t a part of the original version from Whedon. But when Snyder got the chance to finish his version of the film, he decided to add Joker into the project, according to Vanity Fair.

“The Joker is really the only thing that I thought of in retrospect,” Snyder told Vanity Fair. “But I will say that it was always my intention to bring Joker into that world.”

The Joker figure appears in a hospital gown and surgical mask. He is also seen wearing a bulletproof vest. There are separate photos of him wearing a crown of thorns.

“Gone are the face tattoos and slicked-back emerald undercut hairstyle of (“Suicide Squad”), replaced by a visage that looks like a creature who crawled out of the basement of a long-abandoned insane asylum. Maybe he did,” according to Vanity Fair.

It’s clear, then, that “Justice League” will strike a darker tone. How dark it will go remains to be seen.

What does this say about Hollywood?

The debut of the new “Justice League” means a few different things for the state of Hollywood superhero films. To start, the four-hour length may indicate that streaming services allow directors more creative freedom. Director’s cuts could be released en masse.

Rated-R superhero films have been popping up a lot more in recent years. “Logan” was an R-rated telling of Wolverine’s story, and “Deadpool” has popularized the R-rated superhero gimmick with coarse language. That’s not even mentioning films like “Joker” or “Birds of Prey,” which were also rated R and tried to tell serious stories about violence, mental health and more.

Clearly, superhero movies are heading into the R-rated territory. In fact, Marvel Studios boss Kevin Feige said at a “WandaVision” press event that Ryan Reynolds is working on a script for a new “Deadpool” film, Collider reports.

“It will be rated R and we are working on a script right now, and Ryan (Reynolds is) overseeing a script right now. … It will not be (filming) this year. Ryan is a very busy, very successful actor. We’ve got a number of things we’ve already announced that we now have to make, but it’s exciting for it to have begun. Again, a very different type of character in the MCU, and Ryan is a force of nature, which is just awesome to see him bring that character to life.”

So it’s clear that the R-rated superhero film isn’t going to be disappearing anytime soon.

How to watch ... if you want

“Zack Snyder’s Justice League” will debut on HBO Max on March 18, so you will need an account to watch. The streaming service costs $15 per month, according to CNET.