Spoiler warning ahead for Zack Snyder’s ‘Justice League.’ Seriously. You’ve been warned.
Can a filmmaker’s vision be fully translated to the big screen 100%? When their final product is released in theaters, are we watching their vision as originally intended, or are we watching an amalgamation of the director’s vision, the studio’s stipulations, and the fans’ expectations all at once? In Zack Snyder’s Justice League, we face an unusual circumstance where all three converge into one without interfering with the other. The result is a groundbreaking four-hour epic that challenges the very fabric of what superhero movies are and what they can be. It’s safe to say that there is no other film quite like it out there, and it’s highly likely there will never be another one like it in the future, unless Warner Bros. decides to come out with a six-hour cut of Justice League 2 or something.
If any film has ever had a troubling production, it was Justice League. Before the movie was even released in 2017, Zack Snyder suddenly exited the film halfway through production and Avengers director Joss Whedon was hired to finish rewrites and post-production in his place. The reasons for Zack’s sudden departure are still heavily up to speculation. Some say Warner Bros. was dissatisfied with Snyder’s intentions and forced him out to go in a different direction. Others feel that Snyder left due to his daughter Autumn committing suicide. More likely than not, Zack’s reasonings for leaving were probably a combination of all of his problems, both personal and professional.
Either way, Joss Whedon ended up rewriting and reshooting a good chunk of the film, ending up with what viewers call The Joss-tice League. And surprisingly enough, it ended up being just as bad as Batman V. Superman was. The colorization was way too bright, the tone was jarring and did not flow well at all, this awkward humor persisted throughout the movie, and Zack Snyder’s grounded and edgy tone seriously clashed with Joss Whedon’s fun and light-heartedness.
Say what you will about Batman V. Superman (and there is plenty to say about it): at least you can say it is one man’s whole and complete vision of what he thought a Batman and Superman movie was supposed to be. The theatrical cut of Justice League didn’t even feel like a movie: it felt like a strangely amalgamated Frankenstein’s monster of four different movies crammed into one. Nobody knew what it was supposed to be, let alone how we were supposed to feel about it. So yes, while Batman V. Superman and Justice League are both failures, at least Zack Snyder owned both his strengths and shortcomings with Batman V. Superman. You didn’t know who to blame for Justice League’s outcome, and that was the worst part of it all: it didn’t feel like it really belonged to anyone.
So when news came out that some of Zack Snyder’s original footage was still out there and just needed to be edited together, fans rallied around the director demanding that Warner Bros. #ReleaseTheSnyderCut. And I’ll be honest, whenever that news originally came out, I thought it was nonsense. After all, filmmakers’ passion projects go unfulfilled all the time, from Guillermo Del Toro’s At The Mountains Of Madness to Martin Scorsese’s Frank Sinatra. Zack Snyder’s situation wasn’t particularly unique, so why would he get the chance to remake his own movie when so many other filmmakers were never afforded their own chance?
Well never underestimate the power of the fans. After Gal Gadot, Ben Affleck, and Ray Fisher also came out in support of the so-called “Snyder Cut,” Warner Bros. finally caved in and provided an additional $70 million to fund Zack Snyder’s original vision of the movie. The result is a four-hour film split up into six parts, and whatever you were expecting, I guarantee you that it’s better.
The film starts in an eerie and ominous tone, quite different from the innocent cell phone footage of Henry Cavill’s CGI mustache in the theatrical cut. After Doomsday kills Superman at the end of Batman V. Superman, Superman’s final breath sends out a shockwave across the universe, illuminating everyone that, as Lex Luthor puts it, “the God is dead.” This is already a much better opening than the theatrical cut because it sets the tone of what to expect from the movie. While the original opening of Superman talking to these kids was clunky and hokey, this opener is much darker and foreshadows what’s coming to the planet. It’s a fantastic reintroduction and it really informs the audience why Batman (Ben Affleck) feels the need to assemble a team in Superman’s place.
There are other noticeable changes to other character’s intros too. Aquaman (Jason Mamoa) vanishes into the sea like Batman vanishes into the night, Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) rams through terrorists in London like she’s Supergirl, Cyborg (Ray Fisher) is given a lengthy backstory into how he became a metahuman, and Flash (Ezra Miller) hilariously saves some girl from a truck collision while simultaneously scoring a job as a dog walker. They’re funny, dramatic, intriguing, and sometimes heartfelt introductions that really set up who these characters are and who they’re supposed to be. While I missed a few of the scenes from the original cut here or there, most of these reintroductions are an improvement over the theatrical cut.
At last, we are reintroduced to the film’s big baddie Steppenwolf (Ciaran Hinds) as he arrives in Themyscira to steal one of the sacred Mother Boxes from the Amazons. In my original review, I pointed out how badly Steppenwolf was originally developed, both in his character and his visual effects. He looked like an awful Playstation 3 boss that you had to fight, and his character was about as fleshed out, serving as a carbon step-in for the big baddie we really wanted to see (more on that later). Here, he stands on his own not as a smirking villain, but as a vicious bull powering through his enemies like he’s seeing red. He hacks Amazons and Atlanteans left and right with his battle axe, he throws horses like he’s tipping cows over, and when he’s shot with arrows, his armor snaps them off like a snake shedding its skin. It’s such a great reintroduction for the character, and unlike his original debut, he has an actual presence that you can feel and are more fearful of. The fact that this mammoth answers to an even bigger threat makes him all the more terrifying.
One of the biggest changes between the theatrical cut and the Snyder cut is the inclusion of Darkseid (Ray Porter), Steppenwolf’s master and ruler of Apokolips. While his role in this new cut is minor and Darkseid doesn’t have many lines, he is a prominent, powerful presence that chills you to the bone. His first appearance is in the flashback where his armada fights the old Gods on Earth, a role Steppenwolf originally fulfilled in the theatrical cut. The fight is so brutal, violent, and unflinching that it felt like you were watching one of the epic battles in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. His other appearances throughout the film are just as terrifying, whether he’s giving a cold-blooded speech to Steppenwolf, destroying the world in a Knightmare vision, or just eerily staring at our heroes through a portal to Apokolips. The last line he says in the movie is the most chilling: “Ready the Armada. We will use the old ways.” The flashback sequences already show us what the “old ways” are, and they aren’t pretty.
By the time we reach the halfway point, Batman, Wonder Woman, Cyborg, and the Flash just came together to fight Steppenwolf for the first time beneath Gotham Harbor. And surprisingly enough, this is one of the few scenes that I felt was done better in the theatrical cut. For one thing, Flash is much more confident in the Snyder cut, whereas in the theatrical release he questioned himself and was much more hesitant to fight. That was when Batman stepped in and told him to save one person, and when Flash asks what then, Batman responds “You’ll know.” It’s a great exchange and a great character-building moment for both of these heroes. Unfortunately, Snyder decided to cut that out in exchange for more action. I’m happy to watch it, but it just feels less fulfilling than the theatrical cut did.
Also, the scene on a technical level just has some weird changes that doesn’t make sense. When Cyborg enters Batman’s Knightcrawler, the theatrical cut presents him in clear view, while the Snyder cut obscures his appearance through a broken windshield. Even if that is his view, wouldn’t it be more clear to cut to his perspective inside the cockpit rather than outside of it? Also when Flash speeds up and taps Wonder Woman’s sword to her in slow motion, he did that in the theatrical cut because she was being attacked by Parademons, whereas in the Snyder Cut he’s doing it just because she’s falling. That was a strange omission from Snyder because the theatrical cut showed there was a purpose for tossing her the sword, while in the Snyder cut it was just unnecessarily for the sake of style.
But then we come back at the Batcave, and yet another scene is performed better in the Snyder cut: resurrecting Superman. While in the theatrical cut the decision to resurrect Superman felt forced, the decision here feels much more weighty and consequential, like the heroes are playing fire with forces they barely understand. And even right before Superman is resurrected, Cyborg gets a startling vision of a future that might come to pass from Superman’s resurrection. Wonder Woman is dead. Darkseid murders Aquaman in Atlantis. Superman grasps onto Lois’ charred body. And after Darkseid gently places his hand on his shoulder, Superman can be seen hovering over a crumbled Justice Hall as Darkseid’s armies siphon the Earth. It is a chilling moment and provides a dark connotation to a moment we were expecting to be uplifting from the movie.
And surprisingly, everything surrounding Superman’s arc is done beautifully in the film. From his death, to Lois and Martha’s grief, to his resurrection, to fighting the Justice League, to revisiting his family farm, to re-embracing his Kryptonian heritage, everything regarding Superman’s return felt monumental and meaningful. I was surprised by this, because the death and return of Superman is actually one of my most hated arcs in the comic books, even more so in Batman V. Superman. Here his return feels like a new tomorrow: a coming of hope the heroes weren’t expecting but so desperately needed. Again, a creative decision that felt incredibly underwhelming in the original cut is breathed with new life in this version.
Cyborg’s dad Silas (Joe Morton) dies in Zack Snyder’s version, and to be honest I have mixed feelings about this. On one hand, I like Whedon’s version how he’s alive at the end and he and his son make amends and work towards rebuilding their relationship together. The ending even pays homage to Cyborg’s traditional look in the comics, and you know I always love a good Easter egg. On the other hand, I do like how it adds to Cyborg’s tragic arc in the film and emphasizes just how much he’s lost in his life. In truth, both versions work well and neither one is done poorly. I think it just comes down to personal preference depending on which ending you like more.
We then arrive at the film’s climax, and holeeeee crap are the stakes raised. Batman is shredding through Parademons, Wonder Woman and Aquaman are fighting Steppenwolf, Flash is building up speed, Superman pops in out of nowhere to lay the literal smackdown against Steppenwolf, and Cyborg is connecting to the Mother Boxes desperately trying to stop them from unifying. But close to the film’s finale, something unexpected happens. The Mother Boxes unify, they incinerate the planet, and Darkseid portals to Earth. The Justice League loses.
And then, right before everything is lost and the Earth is destroyed, Flash runs beyond the speed of light, reverses time, and stops the Mother Boxes from unifying. Flash literally undoes their loss. He saves the world.
I love this sequence for a number of reasons. For one thing, the score by Junkie XL is epic and moving and really swells into the emotion of the moment. For another, Ezra Miller’s performance is phenomenal and he does a great job showing off his dramatic chops aside from his usual comical lines. But one of the things I love most about this sequence was just how unexpected it was. It’s so rare for a superhero movie to show our heroes losing, even rarer to have one of them undoing that loss mere seconds later. It was such a cinematic moment, and eons better from having Flash save one family before awkwardly muttering “Dostoyevsky” in the theatrical cut.
Finally after Cyborg separates the Mother Boxes in an emotionally moving moment where he acknowledges that he is neither broken nor alone, Aquaman, Superman, and Wonder Woman unite to give Steppenwolf a much-deserved decapitation. Then the film wraps up mostly in the same way the original did: with the heroes going their separate ways, having their own adventures, only uniting at the Justice Hall when they are needed.
Interestingly enough, the film’s weakest moments come in its last hour, which doesn’t behave so much like it’s part of the movie as much as it is additional content included under the DVD extras. The brief exchange between Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) and Deathstroke (Joe Manganiello) has a few different lines in it. The Knightmare sequence, while more ominous and forbearing than it previously was in Batman V. Superman, is equally irrelevant (although I did like Jared Leto’s return as Joker quite a bit).
The jarring inclusion of Martian Manhunter (Colin Powell) is the most perplexing. He appears twice in this movie, and in both scenes he feels like he doesn’t belong in either of them. In his first appearance, he’s masquerading as Martha Kent (Diane Lane) while having a heart-to-heart with Lois Lane (Amy Adams) about Clark’s death. This was a very human moment — one of the best in the film — and it did a great job talking about loss, grief, and the importance of moving on. Having such a raw and real moment interrupted by an alien shapeshifting from Martha was so out of place and robbed the scene of whatever sincerity it had. Did it ruin the moment? I don’t think so, because regardless of the would-be Martha, the words still meant something to Lois anyway. But it does change the implication of the dialogue, and that bothers me more.
In the second scene, Martian Manhunter appears on Bruce’s balcony warning him of Darkseid’s arrival, but Bruce’s reaction is so underwhelming that it feels less like he’s reacting to meeting an alien and more like he’s annoyed that some homeless guy walked up onto his house unannounced. His nonchalant “Can I help you?” feels so casual that it sounds like somebody is asking him for directions rather than warning him that the literal planet is at stake.
Overall if I had to describe Zack Snyder’s Justice League in one word, it would be “self-indulgent.” It’s indulgent in its action, it’s indulgent in its characters, it’s indulgent in its visual effects, its comic book lore and universe, and more than anything else, it’s overly indulgent in Zack Snyder’s vision of these characters and how they’re supposed to be. Then again though, maybe what this movie needed was a little more indulgence. While Warner Bros. and Joss Whedon were strictly thinking about the commercial landscape, Zack Snyder’s Justice League genuinely feels like a labor of love and deep fulfillment of a dream he’s always had. It’s rare to find filmmakers that believe in their projects as much as Zack Snyder does his own. And while many of his films lack refinement or coherency, you can’t take away the deep appreciation he has for his work and his characters.
I am confused by the #RestoreTheSnyderverse movement, which asks that Warner Bros. continue to follow the storyline being pursued in Zack Snyder’s Justice League. Aren’t they already? Of the six upcoming films being released by Warner Bros., five of them are in the DC Extended Universe, including The Suicide Squad, Black Adam, The Flash, Aquaman 2 and Shazam! 2. Sure a Justice League sequel isn’t on the books, but it would be a simple thing to add it back to the slate. All you would have to do is kill off Cyborg’s father in between movies, and you’re back on track with the same continuity. So maybe the hashtag shouldn’t be #RestoreTheSnyderverse as much as it should be #ReleaseJusticeLeague2. Either way, it’s confusing and doesn’t lend much to the conversation at hand.
So which movie is better? The theatrical cut or the Snyder cut? In my opinion, the Snyder Cut is vastly superior, even if some of Whedon’s better lines and scenes were cut out. Still, we’re witnessing a special moment with the Snyder Cut’s development and release. This is the first movie, in a very long time, where the filmmaker, the studio, and the fans all converged into one very special moment they got to share with each other. More than anything else, I’m happy that Zack got to fulfill his dream and his vision of the Justice League: it’s a privilege many, many other filmmakers don’t get to experience very often.
Four years ago, I started my Justice League review paying tribute to Autumn, and I will end this article by doing the same thing. Zack Snyder’s Justice League gets three stars out of four. Autumn Snyder gets four. So does Zack Snyder.