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Let’s wade into these waters and begin with a disclaimer: I have never been a fan of Zack Snyder as a director. I do not like any of his movies, no matter how many times I’ve seen each one. I respect him, but he’s in the vein of filmmakers, for me, like Terry Gilliam, John Cassavetes, and Kelly Reichardt: “visionary” directors whose style is not something I’m all that into.
That being said, I couldn’t help but be intensely curious as to whatever in the world Zack Snyder’s Justice League would be, given its long, partially toxic, and rather tragic gestation.
A history lesson: 2016’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice was designed to be both Zack Snyder’s sequel to2013’s Man of Steel, continuing his personal take on DC characters, and a set-up for various new characters in the so called “DC Extended Universe” or DCEU. The set-up was clunky at best, hilarious at worst. Besides giving plentiful screentime to Ben Affleck’s Batman and throwing in the debut of Wonder Woman on screen in the last battle complete with an already-iconic Hans Zimmer theme, we as an audience had no idea what Aquaman, Flash, and Cyborg were like beyond three silly emails. And rather than give said characters room to identify themselves as individual heroes in spinoff movies, all three made their debut in the Justice Leaguefilm coming out next year.
Many saw this as a transparent attempt by Warner Bros. to “catch-up” to Marvel Studios having already made two Avengers films. These obvious attempts and the overwhelming grim tone of the film lead to a box office run short of the $1 billion take which the studio had hoped for, a critical consensus of 29% from 430 reviews on Rotten Tomatoes (with an average rating of 5 out of 10), and general mixed reviews from audiences beyond the DC or Zack Snyder fandoms. By all accounts, this made Warner Bros. panic.
The Justice League movie had begun shooting a month after Batman v Superman’s release, with the script already completed in 2015. Reports indicate that Geoff Johns, then co-chairman of DC Films and President and CCO of DC Entertainment, was rewriting Chris Terrio’s script, supported by Warner Bros as they must have seen Snyder’s work as incompatible with where they wanted the first Justice League movie to go. Zack Snyder is, for better or worse, a particular filmmaker who makes the kinds of movies he wants to see, something that the studio has supported before with other filmmakers like Christopher Nolan. But during that post-BvS period, things got heated.
Tragedy struck when in March of 2017, during the long post-production period for the film after filming had wrapped in October 2016, Zack Snyder’s daughter Autumn took her own life. Snyder left the post-production work in May, with reshoots to be written and directed by Joss Whedon. The news was sudden and terrible, but Whedon as a replacement seemed odd to many as he has a completely different style and tone to working compared to Snyder. How was this going to turn out?
The answer was “worse than you can imagine”. Henry Cavill’s reshoots had to work around using CGI to remove his contractually-obligated moustache for Mission: Impossible – Fallout, the film wasn’t moved from its November 2017 release date which meant that VFX and reshoots were sped-up to meet deadlines for Warner Bros executives to get Christmas bonuses, and we now know that Joss Whedon behaved rather unprofessionally during his time as replacement director, something Ray Fisher, playing Cyborg, has detailed since at great cost to his future in the DC film franchise. For all intents and purposes, this whole thing was a great big mess.
The finished product certainly reflected that. Cavill’s moustache CG was about as invisible as an elephant hiding behind a tree, the Snyder-shot scenes clashed wildly with the obvious Whedon reshoots which never matched lighting or costume continuity, many scenes from the trailers were gone, Flash, Cyborg and Aquaman were relegated to insufficient screentime, and everything was crammed into a claustrophobic 2-hour runtime. On a gargantuan $300 million budget, Justice League only made $657.9 million worldwide, less than any DCEU movie released up to that point. Mixed to negative reviews from fans and critics flooded in. The general consensus was “that’s it? That’s the very first Justice League movie? Wow.”
History became legend, legend became myth. And for 3 years the world moved on. DC and Warner Bros. put stock into new films with different characters, only briefly referring to what came before as a means of minor continuity. Ben Affleck hung up his cape as Batman, effectively cancelling his anticipated solo movie. Henry Cavill’s future as Superman was left in doubt, a Wonder Woman sequel was in development, and Aquaman grossed $1 billion worldwide at the end of 2018. The Flash movie lost more writers and directors, and nothing happened with Cyborg.
But at the same time, fans of Snyder’s work became to rise up and demand in overwhelming numbers that Warner Bros. release something called the “Snyder Cut”.
The validity of these claims that there was an entirely complete cut locked away in some vault was dubious at best. There were certainly many scenes left on the cutting room floor which we got glimpses of in trailers, but an entirely different movie to what we got seemed like a pipe dream. To complete such a thing, Warner Bros. would have to pool millions more into a box office bomb and re-negotiate with a filmmaker who most likely wasn’t left with a positive experience last time with the studio. Even if these things happened, would it be a theatrical or direct-to-physical media release a lá the Ultimate Cut of Batman v Superman?
The fans wouldn’t go quiet, and toxicity rose up from a vocal minority which lessened the majority’s cause.
And then HBO Max happened. Warner Bros. launched their own streaming service as a competitor to the rapid success of Disney+, but they needed content. They have a massive library of incredible titles, but the content machine demands more. Such is the world we live in. An opportunity arose to give a filmmaker a second chance to finish off their vision, and to release such a mythic product as a huge boost to the HBO Max subscriber numbers.
Now we finally have something that even I thought we would never get completed, no less with Warner Bros. putting up $70 million to finish the VFX and Snyder shooting new scenes.
Zack Snyder’s Justice League is still the same basic story as the 2017 cut. Batman is looking to unite a team of metahumans and protect the vulnerable Earth in the wake of Superman’s death. Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) works to help Batman on his quest of uniting Flash (Ezra Miller), Aquaman (Jason Momoa), and Cyborg (Ray Fisher) while looking for answers as to who or what is coming for a fight.
The biggest change from one cut to another is that Zack Snyder’s version is double the length of the 2017 cut, running at 4 hours and 2 minutes. Instead of being structured like an epic film from the 50s and 60s with an opening and intermission, the film is broken up into 6 parts with a prologue and epilogue, all running anywhere between 10 to 45 minutes. It’s a smart editing move to ensure that people give this cut time and effort and not feel like it’s an epic cinematic event, seeing as you can only watch it at home for the foreseeable future. Chopping it up into parts encourages plentiful bathroom breaks.
That being said, the movie does not need to be this long. Beyond the individual breaks into each part, the interconnecting stories of Batman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, Flash, and Cyborg struggle to flow seamlessly one into the other. Giving each character more room to exist in the story and thus gain more weight and development is a huge improvement, but it makes the movie feel like an uneven miniseries. This pacing problem is a shared flaw I felt with Man of Steel and Batman v Superman where every scene feels like its own piece rather than flowing along with a kinetic rhythm. This is the way Zack Snyder makes these movies and it is not for me.
I did come away feeling very different feelings about these characters. You are left waiting two and a half hours before Superman shows up, but you end up learning more about how regretful Batman is for his actions in thinking Superman was humanity’s enemy, how humble Aquaman really is beyond his brash exterior, how doubtful Wonder Woman is about Batman’s hope of winning against the forces of Steppenwolf and the parademon army of Darkseid, and how intricately the Flash sees the world. All of this is nice and more measured than the painful simplicity given to each character in the previous cut, but we’ve had a lot more time with Aquaman and Wonder Woman in the interim, we’re not sure about Flash’s direction in his upcoming film, and Affleck’s Batman will be left unresolved no matter what.
The biggest bonus and the shining example of why I am glad this version exists to erase away the terrible mistakes of the past cut is with Ray Fisher as Cyborg: the best character in this whole movie. Every other character gets their own dedicated time, but Cyborg gets a massive and deserved chunk of development, understanding the possibilities of his amazing powers as well as coming to terms with his own traumatic past. This all leads to a beautiful sequence where he doesn’t have some big action set piece timed to a weird song choice or a super slow-mo montage emphasising how cool he looks. Instead, we have a superhero helping a random person in need. Cyborg changes someone’s life in an instant as his was tragically taken away just as quickly. Fisher gives so much radiant and committed emotion to this part and we as an audience are all the better for it being restored by Zack Snyder. It is a horrible shame that Fisher trying to do something right and speak up against an abusive workplace and corporate toxicity has been met with Warner Bros. denying his character a future in their DC universe. For shame.
Steppenwolf (voiced by Ciaran Hinds) is a much more well-realised character visually and dramatically. His look has been upgraded from a generic alien sporting a dumb helmet to a generic alien encased in an armour of moving and pulsating blades. By also allowing us to understand who his superior Darkseid, essentially the DC version of Thanos (there is debate as to who inspired who), actually is, we are able to understand what really motivates the movie’s villain beyond whatever bland ideas we were left with before. Not amazing but his existence is a clearly-defined threat with more menace. This is the way Zack Snyder makes these movies and it’s not my thing.
As I said, not much changes from the basic plot points. The Justice League is still on a quest to find and protect the Mother Boxes, pieces of an old pseudo-magical means to wipe a planet clean for invasion, from Steppenwolf and his alien army. We do have the same big action sequences, changed in minor but better ways. Snyder obviously cuts out all of Whedon’s pointless reshoots, keeping a more consistent tone that has more natural humour, and everything builds up again to recovering Superman’s body, resurrecting him which leads to a big fight stopped by Lois Lane (Amy Adams), the Justice League recover and track Steppenwolf to his hideout, and thus we enter the big grand battle.
Instead of being soaked in an ugly red colour palette that screamed “last-minute changes” in the 2017 cut, the climactic battle plays out in a more natural, albeit-desaturated blue-grey landscape which Snyder prefers. Not my taste, but better. The action plays in more clearly structured and edited sequences, with more thrilling pieces from Batman in the Batmobile mowing down parademons and Cyborg bringing down two buildings with ease. In full honesty, I was loving the final battle. Everyone just feels like they’ve got something more to do than stand around and be pieces of a plot. Superman’s arrival was the one thing I liked about the 2017 cut and that still remains here, giving us more and more of what could be if we just gave Cavill one more shot in an all-out Superman movie, as well as rocking out a slick black suit that I’ve always wanted to see in action (though it would have been better had he worn the corresponding mullet). Everything builds again to punching Steppenwolf as hard as they all can, but then it changes.
I’ll head into spoiler territory now, so here’s your only warning.
Instead of Superman just destroying Steppenwolf single-handedly and his parademons attacking the villain before the whole lot is whisked away to places unknown, our heroes fail to stop all three Mother Boxes from uniting and wiping out all life on Earth. Even with Superman showing up, it doesn’t work. As the blast destroys our planet, the Flash, who’s spent the whole battle zooming around the perimeter and charging up his powers to separate the Mother Boxes with Cyborg, stops in his tracks and splits himself away from our reality. He enters the Speed Force and realises what he has to do. The Flash successfully speeds through time and space, reversing the events of the last few seconds and gets to Cyborg just in time to complete their mission and save the world. It’s a fantastic moment that I cannot believe was thought to be expendable by the studio in 2017. The heroes win and kill Steppenwolf, sending his decapitated body through a portal opened up by Darkseid. The Justice League, united and successful, stare down the big bad, obviously trying to still lead up to a fight between the two forces of good and evil. Only time will tell if that will ever happen. Things end virtually the same as the last cut, heroes united for the first time, settling their personal moments before Clark Kent removes his glasses and tears open his shirt to save another day as Superman.
And then it keeps going. We are then “treated” to the post-credits scene from the 2017 cut of Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) escaping prison and hiring Deathstroke (Joe Manganiello), only here he reveals that Batman’s real name is Bruce Wayne to the mercenary. Okay, more set-up for stuff that might not ever happen.
And then, in a bizarre move that left a bad taste in my mouth, we jump to the dystopic world seen in Bruce Wayne’s “Knightmare” dream from BvS, with broken and battle-scarred versions of Batman, Deathstroke, Queen Mera, the Flash, and Cyborg meeting Jared Leto’s Joker. The following conversation between Batman and the Joker is a gross and incredibly weird exchange of Batman threatening that he will “f**king kill” the Joker, and the Clown Prince of Crime joking about giving Batman a handjob. I don’t know how to explain how weird this is. Superman blasts in and the sequence ends as another nightmare Bruce Wayne wakes up from. Bruce is then visited by Martian Manhunter, who apparently was Harry Lennix’ General Swanwick from Man of Steel and Batman v Superman this whole time, who tells Bruce that he is going to finally help Earth in its fight against Darkseid.
These two scenes were the only new footage shot for Snyder’s version, and while it’s obvious no one was in the same scene on the same day due to COVID, it just all feels so out-of-place. I cannot stand Jared Leto’s Joker so I ignored his parts, but I am a massive fan of Martian Manhunter. I was unfortunately left disappointed by the character’s design that looked like rejected concept art for his appearances in the CW DC shows, all realised through weak CGI that should have been given more time. Not to mention how his sudden appearance makes no sense and opens up new plot holes in the previous movies.
If you have made it all the way here, congratulations. Let’s just say I was intentionally trying to write something as long and exhausting as Zack Snyder’s Justice League.
I couldn’t simply review this as a brand new movie experience, because it isn’t. There is still at least an hour or more of Snyder footage that remained in the 2017 cut, and the plot is still virtually the same.
As it stands, this is a Zack Snyder movie and it is not for me. Despite all the best efforts of the filmmakers, and I can say confidently that this was their actual best effort, I just don’t care much for these versions of the classic DC characters, beyond Wonder Woman and Cyborg. If I had liked Man of Steel and Batman v Superman, then I would have loved Zack Snyder’s Justice League. But I didn’t so I don’t.
The movie is still made of Snyder’s style that isn’t my taste. Desaturated colour palettes, super slow-motion, weird choices of songs to underscore various scenes, choice of dialogue that is trying to be epic and full of grandeur but never resonates emotionally, and having Tom Holkenborg AKA Junkie XL as composer. Holkenborg’s work sounds epic and works well-enough but he overuses several character themes, particularly a new one for Wonder Woman that sounds like a cliché choice from every swords-and-sandals movie post-Gladiator.
Even if I don’t like it, I do Zack Snyder’s Justice League as catharsis for a grieving father who expresses his love and hope for humanity through superheroes. Good for him. Many people will love this movie and it will mean the world to them. Good for them. A passing reference on a billboard to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and the final tag reading “For Autumn” are beautiful touches on a film that is a deeply personal expression of a filmmaker gifted a second chance to complete their vision. At least this movie feels like someone’s vision.
Ultimately, I see Zack Snyder’s Justice League the same way I see Batman Returns: Unique, personal, respectable, and I see why a lot of people love it.
It’s just not my thing.
Director: Zack Snyder
Cast: Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Gal Gadot, Ray Fisher, Ezra Miller, Jason Momoa
Writers: Zack Snyder, Chris Terrio, Will Beall, (based on characters created by Jerry Siegel, Joe Shuster, Gardner Fox, Bob Kane, Bill Finger, William Moulton Marston, Jack Kirby)
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