Long time readers of this site will know that I have a a complicated history with Zack Snyder’s take on DC’s most iconic characters. While my opinion on his first foray, Man of Steel1, has waxed and waned over the years, I’ve never been able to see Batman v Superman as anything more than a convoluted mess of bombast and pretension feigning to be more profound than it actually was (Batman’s fight in the warehouse was cool, I guess). Moreover, the ferocity of the online debate about these films — both the religiosity of Snyder’s fans and the unnecessary cruelty of his detractors — turned me off to the whole enterprise. Talking about these movies on the internet was not worth the hassle or the harassment (says the guy who actively engaged in online arguments defending Last Jedi for at least three years).
In other words, I didn’t come into my screening of Zack Snyder’s Justice League (the official title of the Snyder Cut which will finally be streaming on HBO Max on March 18) with a lot of high expectations. Well dear reader, I am as surprised as anyone to say that not only did I like what I saw, I wouldn’t be opposed to seeing how a proper sequel to this version might play out. Oh my god, am I actually hopping on the #RestoreThe Snyderverse bandwagon?!
Not quite. But before I dive into my thoughts on the film, I first need to take a step back.
Part of the reason I used to feel so viscerally against the films in the “DCEU” was because I didn’t quite jive with the sensibilities of the filmmaker. “Grimdark” gets tossed around a lot as a pejorative to describe the DC film canon, but for me, it was less Snyder’s cynicism for superheroes and more the overindulgent CGI (the destruction porn of Man of Steel’s third act) and overwrought dialogue (“Do you bleed?”) that was laughable when it wasn’t mind-numbing. So in the wake of BvS and Suicide Squad in 2016, the future of DC on film looked bleak.
You also have to remember that in 2016, movie studios were still chasing Disney in trying to develop their own cinematic universes of interconnected franchise films. Half a decade later, matching the MCU in box office clout and critical acclaim has proved to be beyond the reach most studios not named Marvel. Hell, even Marvel couldn’t compete with itself since its pre-WandaVision television offerings failed to attract the attention of the monoculture. Rather than trying to weave its own complicated mythology, I thought back then that WB should take the opposite approach. Build a DC Cinematic Multiverse, I argued. Embrace the diverse visions of different filmmakers! Allow multiple versions to co-exist! Every interpretation is valid!
When I initially made the case, I had no idea the Brothers Warner would actually consider it. Then, The CW announced they were doing Crisis on Infinite Earths, merging not only their television shows but acknowledging that classic DC series, films, and even animation all existed together in an infinite multiverse.
Knowing that DC was moving away from the concept of a continuity-heavy cinematic universe, it actually freed me to appreciate each entry as its own entity — not some ominous harbinger of the next decade of superhero storytelling. This mindset has allowed me to find new appreciation of previous, oft-reviled films in DC’s history. I even started a podcast about it (which is coming back, I swear!).
All that said, I didn’t hate the theatrical cut of Justice League. First, some caveats. As much as I felt that the Snyder films weren’t my cup of tea, I would be lying if I said that coming out of Comic-Con 2016, I wasn’t excited for Justice League. Debuting in Hall H a mere four months after BvS divided critics and moviegoers, the footage promised a movie that was closer in tone to one that I was hoping for all along. Set to the strains of The White Stripes’ “Icky Thump,” the Comic-Con footage promised a shift away from the darkness of the previous installments — highlighting the banter between Bruce and Diana, plus the fresh blood that Ezra Miller, Ray Fisher, and Jason Momoa brought to the proceedings. It also didn’t hurt that the release date was going to be on my 40th birthday.
Of course, we all know the story of what happened in the intervening months between July 2016 and November 2017. After months of battling with the studio and the tragic death of his daughter, Zack Snyder walked away from Justice League and was replaced by The Avengers’ Joss Whedon. Though Snyder’s name remained on the film, Whedon’s fingerprints were all over the finished product.
I have to admit that when I walked out of the theater on November 17 (remember when we walked out of theaters?), I felt entertained. The movie was by no means good or anything, but I liked a lot of the humor and felt Henry Cavill was finally allowed to portray a version of Superman he hadn’t before — dodgy upper lip, notwithstanding. Visually, though, the film was a mess. Say what you will about Snyder’s directorial style, the one thing you can’t deny is that he at least has style. Whedon’s strength, on the other hand, is not visual language. (As successful as the MCU is, its drab, broadcast-TV color-grading, and uninspired action set pieces are my biggest gripes with the franchise). To make matters worse, Whedon didn’t even seem to try to match his reshot scenes to the existing footage (Barry’s unfortunate brunch monologue and Affleck’s shifting hairline being the biggest offenders). So even though I was entertained for two hours, I couldn’t help but be curious about what the movie was supposed to be.
For others, though, Snyder’s version of the movie was more than a curiosity. Looking back, it’s easy to dismiss those fans as “toxic” or “entitled.” And to be sure, just like any fandom, there is an element of hostility and aggrievement that can feel overwhelming whenever you wade into the nerd internet — or the comment section under any Warner Bros. post. And while you may think it’s kind of ridiculous to raise money to put up Snyder Cut banners at Comic-Con, a lot of those same fans also raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for suicide prevention. And even though I think doing things “for the fans” can be tricky, I will never begrudge an artist for having the opportunity to realize their vision. And for what it’s worth, the #ReleaseTheSnyderCut folks were ultimately right. Snyder should have been allowed to deliver his original version of Justice League.
And to be clear, Zack Snyder’s Justice League is a very different movie from the one released to theaters in 2017. The bones of the story remain: Bruce Wayne seeks out other metahumans to join his fight to defend Earth and prevent Steppenwolf from joining three Mother Boxes to bring about the apocalypse (Apokolips?). In the process, the heroes resurrect Superman and learn to work together as a team. The beats are the same, but how they’re executed makes all the difference. One of the most significant restorations is how the League brings back Superman.
SPOILERS FROM HERE:
In the theatrical cut (it’s weird to call the 2017 film the “original version”), Batman is the only one who wants to bring Superman back from the dead. The scene in the Batcave in which Batman goads Wonder Woman about Steve Trevor is probably one of the most significantly retooled in the entire film. (Not for nothing, the camera work is much more dynamic here than in Whedon’s static cutting between close-ups and wide shots). Seeing how the scene was supposed to be played out, though, it’s clear that the need to bring back Superman is the first thing the newly formed team decides to do together. It’s quite a powerful moment that is heightened by the return of Hans Zimmer’s original Man of Steel leitmotif.
The other significant improvement brought forth by the Snyder Cut is the score by Junkie XL (née Tom Holkenborg). Just as Joss Whedon half-assed the direction of his version of Justice League, so too did legendary film composer Danny Elfman. Normally, Elfman’s scores are some of the best in the business. His Batman theme is one of the most iconic ever composed, but his Justice League score actually tarnishes its legacy (as well as John Williams’ Superman theme from 1978) in the way they’re incorporated in such a lazy and unmemorable piece of film music. Holkenborg, on the other hand, reestablishes the primacy of Hans Zimmer’s original concepts for these particular interpretations of these particular characters that is more fitting. For instance, there is a triumphant version of the Man of Steel theme that plays near the climax of the film that is absolutely chill-inducing.
If there is one misstep in the Snyder Cut score, it would be the vocalizing that accompanies Wonder Woman and the Amazons’ every appearance in the film. It might have worked sparingly, but as a recurring leitmotif, it’s tremendously distracting (especially considering variations on Diana’s now-iconic electric cello theme would have worked just as fine, if not better). Also, speaking of weird vocalizing, there is a scene in the Icelandic fishing village where Bruce first meets Aquaman that is just… odd. Sweater sniffing is involved.
Because it’s over four hours long, it’s hard to believe this is the version that fans would have gotten in 2017 had tragedy not struck the Snyder household. Even if the studio was fully confident in Snyder’s vision, there’s a lot in here that is unnecessary. (I would have cut at least three of the “Steppenwolf consults with Mother Box-enabled visions of DeSaad” scenes, for example). I suspect that there is a potentially great two-and-a-half hour movie in here somewhere. In fact, Snyder told the New York Times that he had indeed delivered several two-plus hour cuts of the film (I can see a world in which Warner puts out a blu-ray boxset of each of these versions Blade Runner-style. #ReleaseAllTheSnyderCuts?)
That said, the slow pacing, especially in the first half, actually benefits the film by benefiting the characters. For the first time, you really get to see some human moments peppered throughout. My favorite is probably the scene in which Alfred grows increasingly agitated with the way Diana makes tea. Also, the humor and banter this time feels more organic and less forced. Believe it or not, Batman has as many “jokes” in Snyder’s version as he did in Whedon’s, they just feel more in-character now. (One Snyder-shot line that was ultimately cut, even from Snyder’s cut, is Bruce’s “I heard you talk to fish” joke to Arthur. I wish that had stayed in). Ezra Miller’s still the comic relief and his presence injects a lot of energy into the proceedings (the pace of the film really picks up as soon as Barry’s introduced, which is fitting). But the character that really shines in the Snyder Cut is Ray Fisher’s Cyborg.
A lot has been written about Fisher’s experience on the set of Justice League. A relative unknown, the actor was plucked from the Off-Broadway stage to star in one the biggest tentpoles in the Warner Bros. catalog. And for all intents and purposes, Fisher is the star of Zack Snyder’s Justice League. Of all of the new characters, Cyborg gets the most fleshed out story, making Justice League, in essence, a Victor Stone origin film. Which is fitting because, despite having to reshoot nearly all of his scenes for Whedon, Fisher’s performance is one of the highlights in the theatrical cut as well.
Along with Joe Morton and Karen Bryson, the Stone family take center stage in this iteration, and Fisher imbues his character with the kind of pathos that usually feels overwrought in Snyder’s superhero canon, but feels just right here. Morton, as his father Silas, also gets more to do, and though he doesn’t survive in this version (like he does in the theatrical), both he and Victor actually experience character arcs. It’s a shame that Fisher and the Powers that Be at the studio are at an impasse because, if anything, he deserves to continue exploring this incarnation of Cyborg in future installments.
Another actor who deserves to continue in his role is Henry Cavill as Superman.
We don’t need to go over mustache-gate again. Needless to say Cavill (and his upper lip) looks great in this version, though he probably has less lines in the Snyder Cut (I don’t know why Snyder insists on keeping Cavill monosyllabic. He has proven to be quite charming outside the DC Universe and it would be nice if he would finally get a chance to show it as Superman).
The much hyped Black Suit is… fine? Honestly, I don’t get the big deal. Sure, Superman wears a black costume when he returns from the dead in the comics, but other than that, I don’t understand why fans were up in arms about its removal in the first place. If anything, making Superman’s suit black is as much of a CGI add-on as removing his mustache was (though better executed, of course) because behind-the-scenes footage show that Cavill wore red and blue on-set anyway. In fact, if there was one thing that I was most disappointed about the Snyder Cut is that he recolored Cavill’s suit for the iconic “shirt rip” scene at the end. Like, I get that he wears the black suit in the end battle, but did he have to keep it?
It’s a small gripe, but since we’re talking about gripes, the other thing I didn’t like was the return to Batman’s “Knightmare” timeline. If you recall, there’s a scene in Batman v Superman in which Bruce imagines a post-apocalyptic future in which Lois Lane is dead and Superman is evil. In the Snyder Cut, we see a tease of this potential future when Cyborg first activates his Mother Box while resurrecting Superman (we see shots of Wonder Woman and Aquaman dying alongside a grief-stricken Superman holding Lois’ corpse succumbing to Darkseid Anakin-style). Later, after the movie essentially ends, we get what could have been a post-credits sequence that shows our hero in the distant future, this time Knightmare Bats is joined by Flash in his time-traveling costume from BvS, a souped-up Cyborg, a now-widowed Mera, plus Bat-rogues Deathstroke and Joker.
Yes, the much discussed Jared Leto cameo is in this dream sequence, and again, it’s fine. It’s clear that this entire sequence was shot exclusively for this cut and was not part of the original. If anything, it hints at where Snyder’s Justice League story was heading, and though I know a contingent of fans really want this, this is where I won’t fully hop on the Snyderverse bandwagon. Rumors, that Snyder has pretty much confirmed over the years, were that the original plan for the DCEU was to realize Batman’s Knightmare. Lois would die, Superman would turn evil, and Batman would have to send Flash back in time to “fix everything.” To be honest, that’s not a storyline I’m interested in watching because it reinforces the worst instincts of the DCEU that Justice League actually does a good job of growing beyond. “The world is scared of Superman” has been done to death, especially in this universe. Clark and Bruce’s reconciliation and Superman’s triumphant return is immediately upended by the Knightmare sequence. It feels tacked on, and I could do without it.
Similarly, the film’s R-rating is absolutely unnecessary. All of the extra blood and f-bombs are obviously tacked on (the blood splatter is CGI-enhanced and at least a few f-bombs are clearly ADR’d after the fact). My issue with R-rated superheroes is well established. And I’m not categorically opposed to all R-rated superhero stories (Birds of Prey is my favorite movie, after all). But the mature content has to be justified. In Justice League, it’s gratuitous for gratuitous’ sake. I mean, there are (sort of) Starro easter eggs here for chrissakes. You can’t have Starro easter eggs and an R-rating!
Ultimately, Zack Snyder’s Justice League is a fascinating work that will not only deserve its own chapter, but probably its own volume, once the definitive history of superhero cinema is written. Diehard Snyder fans will revere it, diehard critics will probably still hate it, but those with open minds may be converted. I know I was.