In the years after the release of 2017’s Justice League—a film with a tortured production that saw the departure of original director Zack Snyder, who was then replaced by Joss Whedon, only to have his contributions also minimized in favor of some strange hybrid pieced together anonymously by the studio. In a recent Vanity Fair feature about the making of Zack Snyder’s Justice League, Snyder indicates that he left the project as it became clear that the studio was looking to essentially push him out in favor of Whedon, a decision he chose not to fight as he was too overwhelmed with grief over the recent death of his daughter. Because a group of hardcore fans demanded the release of this “Snyder Cut” and because WarnerMedia needs content to bolster their new streaming service HBO Max, we have arrived at Zack Snyder’s Justice League (ZSJL).
The idea behind this director’s cut is one that’s always tempting to fans—that just behind Door #2 is something better. That what we received was butchered, watered down, and a grander experience is in a studio vault somewhere if we can only get it out. And to be fair sometimes this is the case. The Director’s Cut of Kingdom of Heaven is a full 50 minutes longer than the theatrical version, but it essentially restores the heart of the movie and fleshes out the character motivations into a compelling picture about faith, honor, and sacrifice. And ultimately, isn’t it far better to see a director’s original vision than whatever the studio chose to release simply to meet a release date?
But the experience of watching ZSJL is confounding. In his Vanity Fair interview, Snyder revealed that he had never seen the 2017 version (which I’ll refer to as JL17 for clarity). Perhaps he should have, because if he had he would know that structurally, the films are astoundingly similar. Divided into six parts plus an epilogue, it isn’t until ZSJL reaches its final two parts that it starts to strongly diverge from JL17, and even then the differences don’t feel monumental. More often than not, the experience of watching ZSJL is like watching the extended version of JL17. It is, in other words, a rough cut but with the benefit of finished VFX.
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 4-hour superhero movie can’t or shouldn’t exist as much as ZSJL never makes the case for why it needs to be four hours. No matter how much of your audience’s attention you’re demanding, you always have to make the case that what you’re presenting is worth that attention, and a good editor knows that not every moment is golden. Sometimes you have to kill your darlings, and the problem with ZSJL 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 despite having awkward cameos in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice via video files on Lex Luthor’s computer.
JL17 runs two hours, and I’m not going to try and defend that film (you can read my review from the time of its release), especially after re-watching it a few days before I saw ZSJL and seeing that it had not improved with time. But the solution to fixing that film is not ZSJL, a film that could never truly be Snyder’s original vision unless Snyder believes that he nailed everything without the benefit of both reshoots and test screenings, tools that filmmakers typically find helpful when releasing blockbusters designed for mass appeal. Neither reshoots nor test screenings would inherently damage Snyder’s “vision”, and at the very least, this is a project that needs pushback because it plays as an incredibly indulgent, shapeless work. Without having seen JL17, Snyder has basically elongated that movie in ways that feel senseless and far too merciful in what should be cut.
Here’s a typical example of how Snyder’s version has more but doesn’t make the film any better: In the 2017 version, after Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds) steals a motherbox from the Amazons, Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) fires an arrow that flies all the way to a temple and sets it on fire as a way to tell Wonder Woman/Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) that Steppenwolf and his forces are already here. But in ZSJL, Hippolyta makes a prayer on the arrow before firing it. And there’s nothing particularly wrong with the prayer, but if you want to be ruthless with your storytelling economy and considering how much a moment adds to the overall narrative, then the prayer probably lands on the cutting room floor because it not essential to the pacing of the story nor does it illuminate any of our central characters.
However, there are new scenes that enhance JL17. You have to remember that the entire enterprise of the DC Extended Universe (DCEU) was that The Avengers broke records when it was released in 2012, and Warner Bros. was eager to catch up without laying the same groundwork that Marvel had done with its individual characters. That means that coming into Justice League, you really don’t know much about The Flash/Barry Allen (Ezra Miller), Aquaman/Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa), or Cyborg/Victor Stone (Ray Fisher). To Snyder’s credit, he gave all three characters lengthy introductions establishing who they were and where they were coming from. One could argue that Barry Allen rescuing an unnamed woman (Kiersey Clemons), who fans will know as Iris West, his love interest in the comics, is not essential to the overall plot, but Snyder is forced to carry these kinds of origins and introductions that Warner Bros. refused to do in solo movies because they were so intent on releasing their own version of The Avengers as quickly as possible.
Nowhere is ZSJL more successful than in its handling of Cyborg. In JL17, the character has basically been cut to the bone, and is nothing more than a plot device who can hack into stuff and break apart the motherboxes. In Zack Snyder’s Justice League, he’s a fully formed character. He’s resentful of his father (Joe Morton), feels like he’s been transformed into a monster, looking for a place to belong, and willing to risk his life to save the world. While Fisher has been public about his disdain towards how he was treated by Whedon, producer Geoff Johns, and Warner Bros, I also have to imagine he was unhappy with seeing a finished product that severely negated a much richer character.
I would also be remiss if I didn’t note how heavily parents and their children factor into the DC superhero stories Snyder tells across Man of Steel (particularly the relationship between Kal-El and his two fathers, Jor-El and Jonathan), Batman v Superman (the “Martha” reveal, as silly as it is in practice because it plays as coincidence rather than providence, is ultimately about recognizing humanity through parentage), and Justice League with Barry Allen trying to get his dad out of prison, Aquaman’s resentment towards feeling abandoned by his mother, and particularly Victor’s anger towards his father, Silas. All of these child-parent relationships now exist in the shadow of Snyder’s own loss of his daughter, which I feel like we have to talk about since Snyder says she was the reason for him returning to this project and finishing it.
I can’t even imagine the grief of losing a child, and especially losing that child to suicide. However, we must also disentangle that grief from art even if the two are connected for the artist if for no other reason than we can’t say that any critique of the art is also a critique of the grief. The grief may have influenced the art, but any critique should never be about an emotional state, but rather the finished project, which, in the case of cinema, is the work of hundreds of artisans serving a director’s vision. Furthermore, in the case of a massive blockbuster like Justice League, we must also acknowledge that this is studio product, and that ZSJL exists in part because of fan-demand, but also because WarnerMedia is looking for a way to lure subscribers to its new streaming service. Yes, this is art and emotional investment, but it is also commerce.
This is all to say that criticizing Zack Snyder’s Justice League is not a personal criticism of Zack Snyder or his loss. I only know Snyder from interviewing him once as part of a roundtable for 300 back in 2007 and from interviews I’ve read. And in a way, you can see his grief permeating his version of Justice League far beyond the “For Autumn” title card at the end or the billboard for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. When Lois Lane (Amy Adams) visits the Superman (Henry Cavill) memorial site, you can feel Snyder tapping into that grief and what it means to lose someone you love.
And yet the film is also attempting to serve Snyder’s tendencies and inclinations, which is why immediately following this scene, you get the scene from JL17 where terrorists hold a building hostage and Wonder Woman comes and saves them, except in Snyder’s version it’s much more violent and bloodier with bad guys getting their heads smashed against walls and Diana using her bracelets to obliterate the main terrorist. It’s that bizarre kind of dissonance where death and loss are treated as very real things until it’s time for an action scene in which case they now become fodder for exhilaration, and I don’t think Snyder ever manages to completely get a handle on the tone because this cut would never allow for that kind of finesse or precision. As I said before, Snyder directed no reshoots (aside from one new scene in the epilogue) and he didn’t have the benefit of test screenings. I’m hard-pressed to believe that this is the ideal version of this movie as opposed to the version that is truest to Zack Snyder’s original vision given the circumstances.
That leaves me wondering if even Snyder is truly happy with his cut, or if this is something that allows him the personal emotional catharsis of closure on a project that was suffused with his own personal grief. Snyder makes a massive demand of an audience’s time and patience, and to be blunt, he does not earn it. I suppose one could draw comparisons to an epic like Fellowship of the Ring and how the titular Fellowship doesn’t get formed until halfway through, but that film is also doing immense world-building, and by comparison, ZSJL haphazardly moves between scenes, failing to even provide basic character development so that by the end of the film, it’s hard to see how anyone other than Cyborg has undergone a personal transformation. ZSJL feels like a kitchen sink approach where Snyder has simply thrown everything he had at the audience and had the opportunity to finish the VFX. But that doesn’t make for a good movie because it feels like an experience absent any choices, which diminishes the argument that this is Snyder’s true “vision.”
Snyder’s approach to include what feels like everything he filmed robs the movie of any pacing or tone. I really could not tell you what Zack Snyder’s Justice League is about in any grander thematic sense. Scenes move to one another without much rhyme or reason. We’ll spend some time with Aquaman and then we’ll be over to Amy Adams still grieving over Clark. Even with four hours, the project still feels doomed because we simply never care about Superman and his sacrifice in the way that we should because instead of getting a Man of Steel 2 we were rushed straight into Batman v Superman, which divided the time between the two heroes and tended to view Superman as a distant god-figure connected only to humanity through his mom (Diane Lane) and Lois. And maybe that’s how Snyder truly views Superman, but if that’s the case, it’s difficult for his death to also become a rallying point for heroes, and even ZSJL seems to settle on Superman simply being a necessary weapon to defeat Steppenwolf rather than the Christ figure whose resurrection will save humanity.
Also, if I can make a brief digression about Steppenwolf, it highlights some of the larger issues with ZSJL in that bigger is not necessarily better. If you were hoping that, like Cyborg, Steppenwolf is a rich, interesting character who was rendered inert by JL17, I have bad news for you. Steppenwolf is just as boring as before, but now he’s in spikier armor. That’s really all that’s changed. We get more scenes of him, but those scenes are him doing teleconferences with middle management (my dude rarely even gets to talk to Darkseid directly) about his progress on collecting motherboxes. And this is a key problem that clearly Snyder was never going to address, namely that Steppenwolf is ultimately a boring, ugly, CGI lackey. He exists to be defeated, which in turn only lessens the stakes because there’s nothing interesting about him nor does his presence provide a thoughtful foil for our heroes. Zack Snyder’s Justice League shows how Snyder could be so consumed with future installments that he at times missed the importance of the current story he was telling (a sin that Marvel movies have also been guilty of).
This leads to the epilogues, which I won’t spoil here beyond saying that they tease movies that even Snyder knows will never happen. It’s basically a big, “If I hadn’t been removed from this franchise and been allowed to see this story through to the end, here’s how it would have gone.” On the one hand, that’s kind of interesting in a “road not taken” kind of way, but even here, these scenes tell us little about character and are more about plot beats to come. I fear that these teases, rather than being an answer to Snyder’s larger vision for the DCEU, will only lead to toxic behavior from fans who feel entitled to receiving these particular kind of superhero movies. With the Flash movie essentially already in motion as a franchise reset, Zack Snyder’s Justice League is the conclusion of his vision for the DCEU, not its midpoint. Nevertheless, we should still brace for new hashtags.
But the last hashtag campaign was a success. We did receive “The Snyder Cut” of sorts. It’s not a movie that would ever be released in theaters under normal circumstances, nor was it one that went through a typical post-production process where the original director was able to finesse and refine his vision with reshoots and test audience feedback. Even if you discard tonal and stylistic issues one may have with Snyder—his propensity for graphic violence, his uneasiness with humor in his superhero movies, and the deconstructionist approach that constantly has to explain why things are unfolding in a certain way rather than trusting the audience to buy into the conceit of superhero stories—you’re still left with a fundamentally flawed narrative that never earns the four hours of time Snyder believes are necessary to tell this story.
For everyone else, it’s hard to even justify Zack Snyder’s Justice League as a bizarre curiosity. It is a longer version of 2017’s Justice League, but it is rarely better. There are some good additions here and there, but nothing to justify the vastly extended runtime. There’s nothing here that transforms the 2017 cut of Justice League into a better movie even if it’s now more in line with Snyder’s artistic sensibilities. The story is still shaped by its root issues of not giving us a Superman worth caring about, denying us full origin stories for lead characters, having a one-dimensional villain with a dull plan, and then trying to argue that the viewer would be satisfied if only the larger scope of the story had been allowed to unfold. At some point we need to acknowledge that Snyder’s deconstructionist approach, which was fitting for Watchmen, was not the right one for DC’s big superheroes.
I truly hope that Snyder found some sort of solace in making this new version. I don’t know the man personally, but he seems like a good enough guy, and if this cut of Justice League brings him a modicum of peace, then at least we can say that in the film’s defense. But for the audience, Zack Snyder’s Justice League fails to make the case for its existence. It doesn’t radically change what we know about this approach to DC superheroes and given the underperforming box office returns of Man of Steel, Batman v Superman, and Justice League there’s not much audience appetite for it either. For those passionate, intense fans who demanded this new cut, now you have it. I hope it brings you peace.
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