Well, it really happened. When last we saw the movie JUSTICE LEAGUE, it was credited to director Zack Snyder – who had left the movie unfinished due to a family tragedy, and amid creative battles with the studio – but was known to have been heavily rewritten and reshot by SPEED script doctor Joss Whedon. Although I called it a “perfectly watchable, okay super hero romp” it was poorly reviewed and did not do the gangbusters business Warner Brothers had hoped for. The studio continued with related characters in AQUAMAN, BIRDS OF PREY and WONDER WOMAN 1984, but seemed to abandon hopes for their own AVENGERS.
Meanwhile, a group of Snyder Riders petitioned, hash-tagged, billboarded and sky-wrote for the company to “release the Snyder Cut,” the fabled vastly different pre-reshoots director’s cut of the film. As time went on, the movement seemed increasingly pestering and delusional, but it persisted until somebody at AT&T or somewhere got the notion that the corporation could promote their new streaming service HBOMax by releasing this Snyder Cut thing on it.
One small complication: it didn’t exist. Snyder had left before he was able to finish the movie, as had been reported all along. So they invested a reported $70 million (more than the entire budget of Marvel’s THE NEW MUTANTS) for Snyder to complete the FX and the edit, add a couple new things and a new score. And since who gives a fuck anymore they let him pretty much do what he wanted this time, and what he wanted was to make it 4 hours long (about 14 minutes longer than LAWRENCE OF ARABIA) and in a 4:3 aspect ratio as an homage to MID90S and MEEK’S CUTOFF.
You may have feelings about the particular way this version called ZACK SNYDER’S JUSTICE LEAGUE came to be, and I may share some of those feelings. But I always want a director to have their unvarnished vision on screen and not have to compromise with the marketing and money people. I also really like most of Snyder’s movies, and part of what has made his filmography interesting is how impossible it seems. DAWN OF THE DEAD and 300 were big hits, so then he pretty much got a license to kill. He got to do WATCHMEN, the 163-minute R-rated adaptation of a previously-considered-unfilmable comic. That only scraped by, but he still got to make the even more unlikely photorealistic owl fighting cartoon LEGEND OF THE GUARDIANS: THE OWLS OF GA’HOOLE. And I guess that was profitable so maybe I shouldn’t be surprised that he also got to make his weirdest movie so far, the reality-bending anime sex slave battle musical (I don’t know – you try to describe it) SUCKER PUNCH.
That most of these movies didn’t exactly connect with the public didn’t seem to slow Snyder’s roll. Warner Brothers pretty much trusted him with anything, so they gave him the company’s most valuable asset that they hadn’t quite figured out how to make work in recent years: Superman.
MAN OF STEEL got mixed reviews and reportedly did not meet the hopes of the studio at the box office, so we tend to forget that it was Snyder’s biggest hit ever, and made more money than another franchise-starter called BATMAN BEGINS. His followup, BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE was even bigger, but much more poorly received, and that was a problem. The plan was to milk a whole universe out of this thing, like Marvel was doing, and now that was in doubt. BATMAN & ROBIN made money too, but the fact that most people hated it almost killed comic book movies. I think in the eyes of the executives this comic book shit is a license to print money if you do it right, and Zack-Attack is their bro who knows how to do it right. So when he seemed to have fucked up Batman of all things they started thinking, “Oh shit. Did we give him all the keys? Do we need to change the locks?”
I admit my faith was shaken too. There’s plenty I find interesting in VERZUZ: BATMAN VS. SUPERMAN, but enough that I find frustrating for it to feel like a disappointment, and after JUSTICE LEAGUE I was happy for Snyder (and Batman) to move on to something else. A few years later, when they announced the new cut I didn’t think it would be anything more than interesting. I figured the original was already kind of cheesy at the time, and has become dated since, and the idea of turning an unfinished 2 hour movie into a 4 hour one with minimal new filming (and during a pandemic!) did not seem promising.
“I’VE BEEN MOONBLINKED!”
I’m happy to be wrong! To me ZACK SNYDER’S JUSTICE LEAGUE works as the satisfyingly epic MAN OF STEEL followup I thought we’d never get. I didn’t remember many specifics about the theatrical cut, so it was interesting to re-read my review after watching this. The one sentence plot summary that I opened with still works:
“Sometimes, you know, Superman dies, so a bad guy decides to conquer the world, so you have to put together a team of other super heroes to fill in for Superman, but then you decide to bring him back to life, but he seems evil at first and fights you, but then he chills out while you fight the CGI guy, then he shows up.”
A few sentences later I got to my biggest complaint, that it had “very little of the gravity or operatic style” I wanted from Snyder. And that, I’m so happy to say, is not longer the case. Yes, it has more of the Snyder speed-ramping, slo-mo musical montages and freezes that look like comic book splash pages, but also story choices that shift the focus away from the small and human to the massive and mythical. While Whedon’s version opened with a cell phone video of Superman (Henry Cavill, HELLRAISER: HELLWORLD) talking to a kid, being charming, Snyder’s opens at the climax of the last film, at the moment of Superman’s death, his scream visibly rolling across the earth in waves, being heard by various characters and triggering three different “motherboxes,” two of them kept under heavy guard in mythical kingdoms (one underwater).
The vastly different openings are two deliberate storytelling choices, but Snyder’s is the better one for this movie because it takes advantage of his unique talents as a filmmaker and makes JUSTICE LEAGUE stand out from other super hero movies. Almost every Marvel movie is gonna do the funny relatable hero thing better than Snyder can, but I don’t think any of them match the humans-looking-up-at-gods awe he creates with the heroes and the super powers, or the epic fantasy feel he gets with all this mythology.
I don’t think the long run time would’ve gone over well in theaters, but it works very well for this format, with the ability to pause (it’s even divided into six chapters with KILL BILL style titles, if you want to treat it as a mini-series). It makes this story of godlike beings returning to the sight of their one defeat thousands of years later feel huge in a way that other single super hero movies do not. There are enormous battles that were either reduced or entirely absent in the original release, and the build between them makes it all feel more like natural developments of the story and less like a muddy mess of zapping and exploding. The final battle is similar to how I remember it, but it feels so different and works so much better because of all the steps and plans that lead up to it.
The biggest improvement is that epic new opening, the way Superman’s death scream reverberates throughout the world and even, narratively speaking, the movie. In the old version it just seemed like there was a McMuffin that the bad guys had to get and the good guys had to hide, like the Allspark in TRANSFORMERS. The more detailed history laid out here when Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot, TRIPLE 9) gives Batman (Ben Affleck, THE ACCOUNTANT) a TED Talk about “The Age of Heroes” makes it feel like part of a rich mythology (even though Gadot’s voiceover is, if not quite Harrison-Ford-in-BLADE-RUNNER-theatrical-cut stiff, strangely below her abilities). In the old version we saw a bit of the thousands-of-years-ago battle between Steppenwolf (voice of Ciaran Hinds, GHOST RIDER: SPIRIT OF VENGEANCE) and the united Amazons, Atlanteans and Greek gods – now it’s Darkseid (voice of Ray Porter, “First A.D.,” ARGO, which includes Darkseid creator Jack Kirby as a character), with a more involved fight. His forces retreat, abandoning the three motherboxes which, when united, would turn the planet into a hellscape and its inhabitants into his parademon drones. So the Amazons, Atlanteans and “men” (viking dudes) each take one to hide and guard in the ways of their people. (The way of men is to just bury it a couple feet underground in the woods. Amazing how long we got away with that.)
There are indications that maybe it was Green Lanterns that kept Darkseid from returning, but more recently the presence of “the Kryptonian” was box-blocking him. So the very sound of Superman’s death activates those motherboxes like they’re Siri. And they say Heads up guys – the Kryptonian’s gone. Come and get it!
“THIS IS SPARTA!”
Snyder’s Amazons are as fierce and intense as his Spartans in 300. When their motherbox starts to glow it’s greeted by about a hundred swords pointing in its direction. When Darkseid’s stooge’s stooge Steppenwolf and his forces show up to reclaim the box, he speaks of fear, so Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen, 3 DAYS TO KILL) yells for her warriors to “Show them your fear!”
“WE HAVE NO FEAR!” they shout in unison. How much have they practiced this shit?
(Whedon kept that scene, cut that part. Who the fuck would cut that part?)
Hippolyta personally makes a run for it with the box and says “Ready the hammers!” because, let’s face it, this is a society that knows what it means when the Queen says “ready the hammers.” It means the buffest ladies in the tribe are standing by to smash through the columns and bring the entire structure down on top of themselves and many of their sisters to maybe save the world. This incredible sacrifice is the triple exclamation point on the sequence that was removed in the theatrical cut. In the theatrical cut they just lose.
Now there’s a more intense melee that includes Steppenwolf picking up and tossing horses. Not cool, Steppenwolf. I mean, yes, it’s very cool, but it’s not chill. When you compare the two sequences you can see that Snyder’s version is not just longer and more exciting, it has more rhythm and momentum to it. Whedon’s removal (or Snyder’s addition) of things as small as the waves of Amazons on horseback skidding to a stop after Steppenwolf escapes them make a big difference. The Amazons are still badass in that version, but not as mythically badass. And the latter is obviously better.
This version of the movie compares less to THE AVENGERS and more to the extended cuts of LORD OF THE RINGS. The long, drawn out approach to the storytelling gives the proceedings a weight I never thought it could. Economy is often key to storytelling, but there’s also something to be said for detail and how fascinating procedure can be. I appreciate that this is not only a movie where the Amazons light what humans see as an ancient ruin on fire knowing that only Wonder Woman will know its meaning – it’s also one that depicts a whole ceremony, bringing out a case with giant metal arrows, holding it up and saying the words, lighting it, launching it. Then Wonder Woman goes to it, finds the arrow, finds an arrow shaped-socket in the ruins and opens a secret chamber full of murals that explain the threat to her.
In my original review I wrote, “It would be nice if they had a villain to fight who had some sort of personality or point-of-view or interesting characteristics of some kind.” Giving us more information on Steppenwolf is a crucial improvement. There’s now a hierarchy – Steppenwolf reports via hologram to the cool looking hooded ghoul DeSaad (voice of Peter Guinness, THE KEEP, ALIEN 3, SLEEPY HOLLOW), who reports to Darkseid. And Steppenwolf is certainly an evil motherfucker, but he becomes so much more interesting when the assistant manager treats him like shit and he’s always very transparent about trying to get on the big boss’s good side. Apparently he once betrayed Darkseid and after all of the world-conquering he’s done is still in debt to him for fifty thousand more. The way he tells it this one is kind of a layup because there are no Green Lanterns protecting it, yet you see how much work he puts into it. Imagine looking down the barrel of 50,000 more of those. Worse than student loans, in my opinion. Cancel all Darkseid debt.
It also helps that the design of Steppenwolf’s face is much better, and I like the heavy metal album cover excess of his bladed armor. (Only speculating, but I think this is one that Snyder improved with the benefit of time and technology. I can’t imagine Whedon would’ve vetoed the knife armor considering all the quips he could’ve written about it.)
“I LEARNED IT FROM WATCHING YOU, DAD!”
The middle section of the movie feels fresh in that it adds lots of new stuff for the movie’s new characters, Barry “The Flash” Allen (Ezra Miller, LET’S SET ASIDE SOME TIME TO SIT DOWN AND HAVE THE KEVIN TALK) and especially Victor “Cyborg” Stone (Ray Fisher, True Detective). Flash has a cool new introduction where he makes love-at-first-eye-contact out the window at a passing driver (Kiersey Clemons, SWEETHEART) during a job interview and then saves her from a car accident. Although I disagree with him touching her hair without consent while she’s being thrown from her convertible, I think this is a good scene to establish him as the one who shares the god-like powers of most of the team but only knows how to live the life of a normal, awkward dork.
Though some of the funniest jokes of the theatrical cut were added by Whedon, Barry was already a very effective comic relief character. He gets to make jokes at his own expense while everybody else is serious, with some humor about how badass they are (like when Aquaman [Jason Momoa, WOLVES] dumps a rescued sailor at a bar, takes a bottle of whisky and says it’s on him). I respect this alternative to Marvel’s (very effective) formula of deflating cool super hero moments with self-deprecating jokes.
Cyborg has the biggest increase in screen time, which unfortunately makes the movie flounder a bit in the middle. I assume it’s straight from the comics that he’s introduced making the winning play in the big football game and then when he looks into the stands his smile drops as he sees the empty seat where his father promised he’d be but he didn’t make it because he got caught up at work again, but I think you gotta update that shit. A sitcom cliche that hoary can’t bear the weight of the grandeloquent Snyder filmatism, so it becomes laughable and undercuts Cyborg’s legitimate reasons for standing in a dark room wearing a hoodie and pouting while staring out the window. But I do appreciate the sweatshirt for covering up his overly complicated TRANSFORMERy design, and once he joins the team his hate/love relationship with his dad (Joe T2 Morton, who gets a great Miles Dyson self-sacrifice in this version) becomes more compelling. I also like the creepy way he turns off all the lights on a city block before arriving to meet with Wonder Woman.
Aquaman retains the obviously Snydery slow motion swagger and the line “Mah man!,” but loses goofball jokes like sitting on Wonder Woman’s lasso. My favorite addition is that after rejecting Bruce Wayne in Iceland and swimming away, a woman sniffs his discarded sweater BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN style and then leads the locals in singing a song about him. My wife says anybody would do the same. I understand why if you’re making a two hour movie you have to cut that part of the scene, but having that part of the scene is what makes this an unusual movie. That shit never happened to Tony Stark, I’ll tell you that. I love the direction James Wan took Aquaman in his solo movie, but I also love Snyder’s idea to take this character who was a punchline, cast him with a fuckin barbarian, make him act like a rowdy biker, and have people literally worship him as a god.
Even more than before I really like Affleck as Bruce Wayne. Out of costume he has a Batman seriousness, a rich playboy swagger and a focus on this mission to change his loner ways in order to unite the most powerful people to save the world. I’m more nitpicky about his Batman, which is on Snyder’s choices and not Affleck’s performance. I accept that Snyder is into the Boris-Vallejo-is-too-subtle muscleman shit, and it doesn’t really matter how illogical it is to have an actor torture himself to build real muscles and then hide them under giant fake He-Man ones, because logic is overrated. But I just personally think giving Batman a fat ass tree trunk for a torso makes him look dumb and makes all the fighting stiffer and faker than it could be in something more relevant to actual anatomy. This guy is so detail-oriented he sculpted crow’s feet onto his mask, you’d think he’d want his torso to look human-shaped.
(Also I don’t like the robot voice or the part at the end where he tells the Joker “I swear to God I’ll fuckin kill you,” but overall the movie is light on dumb ass Punisher shit.)
“LOOK, UP IN THE SKY, HE HAS A BLACK SUIT NOW!”
In this version the team plan together more like a team, with FAST FIVE style scenes where they stand around a table discussing a problem, taking turns adding thoughts, finishing each other’s sentences as they work it out. It flows much better than before because it better explains their choices. We see Cyborg convincing them that the motherbox, which threatens the world but also saved his life, is not an evil magic thing, but a tool that can change matter. We see Flash realizing this means they might be able to use it to bring Superman back to life, but not wanting to be the one to suggest it. And we hear Bruce Wayne making the strong argument that the motherboxes activating upon Superman’s death proves that the motherboxes themselves believe Superman can stop them.
Whedon reshot most of Superman’s dialogue, which more observant people than me noticed by the weird look of his mouth because they had to digitally remove his MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE FALLOUT mustache. But the overall resurrection story is not as different as had been reported. He still comes back, doesn’t remember who he is and lashes out at the others until Lois comes to him and he flies her back to the Kent farm in Smallville and begins to remember. There’s some new stuff where he goes to his old ship and then (for no narrative reason that I picked up on) has a black version of his costume.
It’s a pretty quick run through the “Superman comes back evil but then gets better” storyline, but plays better because there’s much more build up of digging up his grave, breaking into Star Labs, The Flash having to run dangerously fast to charge the motherbox, Cyborg having to jack into it and have scary visions, Aquaman having qualms about the decision.
I kind of wish Superman got more to do at the end, but the whole story is centered around him. His absence causes potential doom, so the people come together; his presence solves the problem, and hopefully the people will stay together. The epilogue is inevitably the messiest part because it’s the loose threads meant to set up sequels that will now never happen and/or stuff he wanted to throw on there because he never got to use them. I always thought the weird BvS stuff with Batman’s “Knightmare” of evil Superman and the Flash appearing to him to warn “Lois Lane is the key” were setting up JUSTICE LEAGUE, but now we know he planned to stretch that across two more movies. Jeez. (His description of what would happen, including Batman dying and being replaced by Superman’s son Bruce Kent, sounds fucking stupid to me. But I was wrong about this one, so who knows?)
The ending features the two most iconic villains in comic book history in their worst cinematic incarnations. I hate Jess Eisenberg’s decision to play Lex Luthor as Max Landis, so I didn’t need to see him here in a little better version of the theatrical cut’s post-credit scene where he recruits poor Joe Manganiello (MAGIC MIKE) with painted on grey hair and cosplay Deathstroke armor. That’s followed by a newly shot scene where Batman is having that post-apocalyptic desert dream again and this time he’s with Jared Leto’s Joker. I actually liked SUICIDE SQUAD’s idea of the Joker as tattooed, grill-wearing gangster asshole, give or take some parts where he copies Heath Ledger’s voice too much. But nobody else did, so they redesigned him as a long hair, and Leto veers between self-conscious weirdness and Jim Carrey voices.
What is cool about this scene is that Deathstroke, introduced one scene ago as a guy out to avenge Batman, is now part of his team – how the hell did we get here, and why does giving him a mohawk make him look so much better? Even the inclusion of the Joker is kind of cool because of the fact that Snyder will never have to explain what the fuck Batman thinks Joker can do against Superman, forcing them to team up like Hobbes & Shaw. A nice unsolvable mystery to ponder. It occurred to me that if Snyder was able to continue this story it should be some crazy ROAD WARRIOR meets SUCKER PUNCH meets Super Friends shit in this alternate future. But Evil Superman would be such a waste of Henry Cavill. Maybe CG him. They already have his upper lip rendered.
I’ve talked to friends who say they’re happy people like ZACK SNYDER’S JUSTICE LEAGUE, but they worry about its release emboldening entitled fans and online harassers. In this case they’re thankfully rallying around the vision of a particular director, but often that sort of fervor goes in the opposite direction – applying an idiotic “the customer is always right” idea to art and launching deranged, hateful crusades against directors, actors and executives they blame for not making the space adventures to their exact specifications. Letting those people think that being obnoxious enough for long enough will get them what they want is pretty much an invitation to finally make the internet uninhabitable, forcing us all to unplug and move to that seaside village where they sing about Aquaman.
To avoid that we’ll need them to understand that The Snyder Cut Precedent only applies to supporting the vision of artists, not “what the fans want.” The studio or whoever messed up the movie and now they’re sending the filmmakers a note of apology, some flowers and a budget to fix THE KEEP or whatever. ZACK SNYDER’S JUSTICE LEAGUE may be the most extreme case, but we’ve also had SUPERMAN II: THE DONNER CUT, PAYBACK: STRAIGHT UP, DOMINION: THE PREQUEL TO THE EXORCIST, ALIEN 3: THE ASSEMBLY CUT, HALLOWEEN 6: THE PRODUCER’S CUT. These are good. These are just. It doesn’t mean Zack Snyder has to change Batman to be the way I want him to be. Even though my way is better. He still gets to do it his way.
When I went through the theatrical version to get a better idea of the differences I realized what’s unique about this situation. Right now everybody’s throwing Whedon under the bus, because he has recently been exposed as a cruel asshole, and also we can all now see that Snyder’s version is better. (I really haven’t seen anyone say otherwise, whether they liked it or not.)
But take a look at what Whedon changed. He added funny lines for all the characters, which are not missed, but were enjoyable in that iteration. He added more bonding between the team, celebrating their victories and stuff, which also is not missed but was enjoyable the first time. His first Batman scene (the rooftop scene with the parademon) feels like a Batman movie, with him doing Batman stuff, more than anything Snyder shot. He gave Superman dialogue about hope and truth, justice and the American way. He added awkward dialogue about all the buildings in the area being abandoned, and a part where Superman interrupts a discussion of how to save the world because he senses what he straight up calls “civilians” being in trouble. And, the least missed aspect of the theatrical cut: he added a whole subplot about a poor Russian family who live near the site of the final battle just so there’s someone the Flash can rescue.
The truth is that almost everything he changed was aimed at delivering what very vocal parts of “the fandom” (as they call it now) were saying they wanted after MAN OF STEEL and BATMAN V. SUPERMAN. Lighter tone. More humor. Brighter colors. Happier Superman. Constantly making sure people understand that Aquaman smashing a building doesn’t mean unseen innocents were inside being mangled. Now that we can see for ourselves what was rewritten and reshot it’s clear that both the Joss Whedon theatrical cut and ZACK SNYDER’S JUSTICE LEAGUE are the result of people in this company panicking and trying to give in to “what the fans want.”
This one turned out better because it was the correct approach to this type of commercial entertainment: hire a director who has a mix of crowd-pleasing skills and idiosyncrasies. The kind of guy who can make thrilling battle scenes but also wants to make it 4 hours and in the same aspect ratio as FIRST REFORMED. Okay, you did that? Now let that person do what they want. Maybe it will be good. We’ll see!
Long story short, ZACK SNYDER’S JUSTICE LEAGUE died in battle, and we were sure it was gone forever, but a scary new technology with the potential to change everything came along and brought it back to life in a different form, and it seemed like it might be evil but then it turned out okay and everything is fine right now but we need to be vigilant to make sure our visions of it turning against us in a nightmarish dystopian future don’t come true. The end.
P.S. It’s weird that the bastardized, shortened version is the one with a god damn Danny Elfman score! Snyder’s has Thomas Holkenborg (a.k.a. Junkie XL, BEOWULF, FURY ROAD). I wish the theatrical had a weird synth score so it still had some novelty value, like SHOGUN ASSASSIN.