Back in 2016, Zack Snyder shot 5 hours of assembly footage during principal photography for the planned 2018 film “Justice League.” From that footage, he and his editor completed a 214 min (3.5 hour) film, which he dubbed his director’s cut. From that, he edited together a 3-hour version, intended for theatrical release, with the idea that the 3.5-hour version would be released on Blu Ray (this is how Batman v Superman was done, by the way, which saw a director’s cut that was much better received…though I would argue is just as fundamentally flawed from a story-standpoint).
Warner Bros, however, was trying to maximize profits on opening weekend (due to the horrible legs Batman V Superman had) and wanted Zack Snyder to cut his 3.5-hour movie down to a mere 2 hours for the theatrical cut. Snyder resisted and wrestled with the studio for a few months over it, but when he suffered a family tragedy he bowed out of the project. That last part is kind of iffy, actually, as it is not exactly known if he left the movie voluntarily or if he was pushed out.
Anyway, Snyder stepped down and WB hired Joss Whedon, gave him a 100 million dollar budget (roughly) and turned him loose. Actually, scratch that last line; Whedon was hardly “turned loose.” He was given a strict set of rules and conditions that had to be met, including a two hour run time, a lighter tone, and the “freedom” to use whatever he wanted from Zack Snyder’s footage, provided the final product distanced itself from the Batman v Superman storyline and featured no teases or cliffhanger moments to segue to any potential Justice League sequels. Considering how closely the story of BvS was written with Justice League in mind, and how much of Justice League was written to be the first of two JL movies, Whedon had a mountain to climb.
With little to work with that would satisfy WB’s demands, Whedon oversaw two months of reshoots and basically remade the entire film. He wrote 88 pages of new script, which translates to almost 1.5 hours of the final 2-hour product, with the last half hour of Snyder footage being heavily modified in post-production. All of this was confirmed by the film’s original cinematographer, Fabian Wagner, (and later Snyder himself), who basically detached the director entirely from the movie and regarded it purely as a WB/Whedon project.
In the aftermath, WB regrouped and put its focus on solo adventures. Aquaman made a billion. Shazam was a critical favorite. Joker became a phenomenon for a hot minute. Things were turning around and WB seemed happy to have Zack Snyder in the rear-view mirror.
Except his fans kept hounding the studio to #ReleaseTheSnyderCut.
Despite protests and assurances that there was no “Snyder Cut” of Justice League and that the theatrically released product is what it is and no more, fans were determined. With the release of HBOMAX, the studio realized their new streaming service needed content, so they phoned up the director they were previously happy to be rid of and…here we are.
The movie releases on HBOMAX this weekend. Now the questions become: Does it change anything? Does it work? Does it matter?
And the answers are: Absolutely, Yes, Maybe.
Zack Snyder’s Justice League is the finished product the director began and was forced to walk away from. Clocking in at four hours, it contains 3.5 hours of footage we never saw in the original release and a final thirty minutes that look very different from what we saw in theaters. The only genuinely “new” material includes four minutes of footage Snyder shot recently with Jared Leto and Joe Manganiello, which he added to the film because he wanted this universe’s Batman and Joker to meet at least once. Other than that, everything here was shot in 2016, in the direct aftermath of Batman v Superman, before Wonder Woman 84, before Aquaman. This is the movie Snyder was making before any other DC properties were off the ground. This is the movie he was making when he made Batman v Superman, regardless of the mixed reaction that the movie ended up receiving. This was the movie he was going to make without any thought to react to the negative opinion here or there or anywhere. For all intents and purposes, this is the DC movie that was meant to follow Man of Steel and Batman v Superman.
I’m honestly surprised how amazing it is. I don’t even want to put condescending qualifiers on it, like “it’s amazing for a Snyder movie” or “it’s amazing for DC movie.” No, this is just a breathtaking film, so radically different from the theatrical version they might as well exist in different universes. Synder’s Justice League is, true to the director’s visual style, the most grandiose and epic superhero movie I’ve ever seen. DC Comics has always been about showing characters that were essentially gods struggling in a world of mortals, in contrast with Marvel Comics, whose heroes are essentially mortals struggling with the powers of godhood. Snyder literalizes the DC mentality but shooting these characters as though they are modern-day Greek gods among men. The camera sweeps around them in slow motion, the music chants and howls in reverence for them, the battles are sweeping, the action poetic. It’s not a comic book come to life; it’s a Greek myth put to film.
Of course, Man of Steel and BvS were sweeping and epic as well, but the former was too dour and the latter was ruined by bad plot contrivances that dragged it down. Snyder’s Justice League is the director’s most finely tuned, ambitious, and fully realized film, and it’s maybe the best motion picture DC has released since The Dark Knight.
The “movie” can hardly be called such, as it’s really more of a six-part mini-series stitched together into one package. There are even chapter titles dividing up the whole affair, which will probably help people who won’t have the time to sit through it all in one sitting. My recommendation, if you can’t take it all in one go, then cut it in the middle and stop after chapter three. But if you can, consume it all at once; it works best as one epic story.
The best thing about the movie is how limited the dialogue is, considering how it’s four hours long. There are some big exposition scenes, certainly, but those are almost always delivered as voice-overs during gigantic battles and slo-mo montages of titans clashing. The rest of the time, the dialogue is limited only to what needs to be said to be functional to the plot. That’s not a bad thing as the way the dialogue worked against the plot of BvS was that movie’s greatest crime. This movie is basically Snyder doing Snyder-like montages of epic battles. The man’s got an eye for this stuff, and I get that not everyone digs his style but the one thing almost everyone agrees on is “If you give him a good screenplay, he works.” Here, they gave him a barebones screenplay and just turned him loose. If the DC movies were all like this—giant sweeping tales of gods vs monsters—that’d be a beautiful contrast to the hipper, more snappy Marvel stuff. There’s room for both in cinemas.
Part one of the movie is light on plot, but part two dives us deep into the exposition well, giving us the villain’s backstory. Steppenwolf was a complete nonfactor in the original release, but here he has a legit character arc that makes his appearances worthwhile and memorable, and makes the climax of the film genuinely thrilling. His connection with the uber DC villain Darkseid was completely excised from the previous version, but here the big bad is fully featured, and makes his presence known repeatedly, working through the story in a way similar to how Thanos made the occasional appearance in the MCU movies before Infinity War.
The first two parts serve as an hour-long prologue to the film, but part three is where the movie seems to become a “movie.” A lot here is “the same” from the theatrical release, but everything is just a little different; a little more sober, a little less silly. It still has humorous moments which work very well, but they work better here than they did in the other version, as Joss’ trademark style of humor didn’t mesh with this established world. In fact, other than the “Aquaman sits on Diana’s lasso of truth and starts confessing his deepest secrets” scene in the Joss version, there’s nothing in the previous film that I missed seeing here. Okay, the scene where Flash saves a truck full of people and then looks over to see Superman carrying an entire apartment complex to safety was a great gag, but I’m happy to sacrifice it if I must.
In parts four and five the heroes first fight the villain and though everyone is given the spotlight to strut, the bad guy gets away and the team realize they are outmatched. Thus, they devise the plot to resurrect Superman. It gets there a little more directly in this version, where the previous film featured a full-on argument about the ethics of it, but the end result is the same: Superman returns and his mind is a blur in the aftermath, leading to the big fight next to his memorial. The wonderful bit where Flash is moving super fast and notices that Clark is following him with his eyes (my favorite moment of the original movie) is retained here, which was such a perfect gag I was certain Joss Whedon had thought of it. But no, it was a Snyder moment, and illustrates just how well his version of the movie was always going to lighten the tone naturally.
Ultimately, Superman‘s physical role in the film is small, but his presence is felt in the hours leading up to his resurrection, as his sacrifice and what he stood for guides the heroes we follow in the film. Whenever the Man of Steel is on screen, he’s shot with a grandeur and reverence worthy of the first modern superhero. Zack Snyder has been criticized a lot over the past eight or so years as being a storyteller who didn’t “get” Superman, or as someone who didn’t like him or favored Batman over him, etc. Based on the way he is depicted in this movie, those arguments hold no water.
The final chapter takes us to the climax, as the heroes race to stop Steppenwolf from uniting the Mother boxes. The movie does a good job establishing the stakes: There are three mother boxes. If they are united, they unleash a power that (A) destroys all life on the planet, and (B) recreates what’s left in the image of the conqueror’s homeworld. In this case, the conqueror is Darkseid and the world is his planet of Apokolips. We’re told throughout the movie that Darkseid and his minions have used the mother boxes to destroy and enslave thousands of worlds; earth is just the next in line. However, while on the hunt for the mother boxes on earth, Steppenwolf discovers something else, something far more important to Darkseid: Earth contains the secret to the infamous Anti-Life Equation, which grants the wielder the power to completely control the mind and will of the victim. Darkseid has been searching for the ALE for ages and now he knows earth has it. All that stands in his way are the members of the Justice League, who (as you might guess, stop Steppenwolf from destroying the planet and leave Darkseid to order his armies to prepare for an old school invasion. The stage is set for an even more epic Justice League II, which was supposed to come a year after part one. Instead, here we are four years later, wondering if we’ll ever see Zack Snyder direct another DC movie again.
A year ago, I would have been fine forgetting all about Snyder’s take on the franchise. Now? After seeing such a thrilling, sweeping and (here’s that word again) epic depiction of DC’s gods among men, I will be supremely disappointed if the studio doesn’t greenlight a proper sequel, to give us the ending to this story that fans deserve.
9/10 – Zack Snyder’s Justice League, as a four-hour epic, is a brilliant depiction of mythological titans battling it out for supremacy in the confines of the modern world. As a production, it is the ultimate vindication for one of the most maligned blockbuster directors working today.