Before we can even begin to get into Zack Snyder’s version of Justice League, which was released earlier this week on HBO Max, we first need to take a moment to really break down what happened to bring us to this point, as the story about how this movie was made in some was is more interesting that the movie itself.
Back in 2016, Zack Snyder was working on Justice League, his follow-up to Batman v. Superman. The state of the DC movie universe was in an upheaval at the time. Batman v. Superman had managed to make almost $900 million worldwide and still be seen as something of a critical and commercial disappointment. Suicide Squad had also come out in 2016, but was being retooled by the studio to the point where the company that had made the trailer for the movie had been hired to re-edit the entire film. The idea of a massive two part Justice League saga, had been whittled down to one Justice League movie, and nobody was really sure what was next in terms of DC. It seemed as though everything was being thrown at the wall just to see what would stick. At one point over twenty projects had been mentioned as currently in development for the extended universe.
Then, due to personal reasons Zack Snyder stepped away from the project. The film had been shot, but there were still reshoots, edits and pickups that needed to be done over the next several months before the movie hit theaters. Warner Bros. picked Joss Whedon (who at the time was best known for bringing The Avengers to the big screen) to take over the project, rewriting and reshooting parts of the movie, to finish what Snyder had started. In total somewhere around $25 million was spent reshooting parts of the movie after Zack Snyder left the project.
This in and of itself is not necessarily unusual. Reshoots are a part of every major Hollywood production. Sometimes a scene needs to be added or changed. Something needs to be clarified, or a better way to shoot an action sequence it thought of after principal photography is over. You can find reports of reshoots taking place for every Marvel movie, every Star Wars movie, and pretty much every blockbuster over the last twenty years. It’s expected, and built into the budget of the film, as well as the schedules of the actors who are expected to return to the project several months after principal photography for additional shooting.
However, by the time Justice League came out in November of 2017, it was clear that much of what Snyder had filmed for the project was missing, and a large portion of what was on screen had been filmed during reshoots. It would take too long to try and break down exactly what happened on the project and a lot of it would be speculation, but it’s safe to say that as much as forty percent of the movie we saw in 2017 was not footage that had been a part of Snyder’s original movie.
The response to Justice League was not that much better than the response to Batman v Superman, the movie it was supposed to make up for. At best, you could call the response muted, as the movie was viewed as aggressively mediocre, which might not be as bad as Batman v Superman, but it made for a much more boring product. This was the time that the #releasetheSnyderCut trend started.
Based on the idea that Snyder had a better movie finished when he left (or at least one more in line with his earlier DC movies) and that the movie was ruined by Warner Bros. and Whedon, the call went out for Warner Bros. to fix their mistake and to release the better version of Justice League. The trend spread like wildfire. Online petitions were signed, letter writing campaigns were organized, and even billboards were rented, showing off the hashtag. Now, whether or not a “Snyder Cut” actually existed at the time, is a complicated question and again, one that we don’t really have time to go into here, but the end result was that Warner Bros. decided to allow Zack Snyder to present his take on the movie with all of his footage, as well as fund some reshoots for him to complete his vision and put the whole thing onto HBO Max.
The end result is a four hour long epic version of the two hour movie that was released in 2017. While we’ve gotten director’s cuts and extended cuts of movies before, this might be the first case where two versions of the same movie are so divergent from one another. At the same time, the two movies are impossible to untangle from one another and any attempt to try and review Zack Snyder’s Justice League will have to involve comparisons to the studio release from four years ago.
So let’s start with the title. Putting Snyder’s name in the title already lets you know exactly what you’re in for. The aesthetic that Snyder is best known for, the one on display in everything from Watchmen, to Sucker Punch, to Batman v. Superman is on full display here. Zack Snyder’s Justice League has the slow motion moments, the color palette and the shot composition that screamed that the creative decisions for this move were being made by Zack Snyder himself. In many ways, that is the biggest contrast between this version of Justice League and the one we saw back in 2017.
The original theatrical cut of Justice League was one where you could almost watch the list of studio mandates get checked off as the movie went on. More jokes. Less than two hours. Brighter colors. Watching the theatrical version of Justice League feels like every creative decision was made to appease a studio who’s goal wasn’t to necessarily make a good movie, but to avoid a disaster like Batman v. Superman. It’s an incredibly safe movie, trying to make sure it doesn’t upset anyone with any of its decisions. If you took a list of the biggest complaints about Batman v. Superman from back in 2016, you can see how Justice League goes out of its way to avoid those complaints. But at the end of the day, Justice League is so worried about not being a bad movie, it forgets to even try being a good movie. In an effort to not upset anybody, the theatrical release has all of the edges sanded off to the point that the movie doesn’t really stand for anything.
Zack Snyder’s Justice League on the other hand feels like the story of the Justice League through the eyes of Zack Snyder, for better or worse. While there is still some course correction from Batman v. Superman ( Snyder and Warner Bros. were already talking about a lighter tone for this movie before Snyder stepped away the first time), this feels like a culmination to something that Snyder had apparently been building towards.
One of the biggest advantages that Snyder has at his disposal here is his apparently unrestricted runtime. Coming in at over four hours (compared to the less than two hour runtime of the theatrical cut) Zack Snyder’s Justice League plays out almost like a mini-series, and Snyder even split the movie into titled chapters like episodes in case you can’t watch the whole thing in one sitting. But if the biggest complaint of the theatrical cut is how fast the whole movie moved, not giving any character development time, in this cut, there’s time for everyone. Three new characters are added to the Justice League roster (Aquaman, Flash, and Cyborg) and where each character gets little more than an introduction scene last time around, in this version we get more fleshed out characters, and character motivations for each of the newcomers. Cyborg especially is given a much more complicated and interesting backstory, and in many ways becomes the heart of the movie’s narrative.
Ben Afleck’s Batman is also presented in a much better light in this movie. As the defacto leader of the team, Batman is more or less the main character and the one pushing the story forward. Carrying the guilt of his actions in Batman v. Superman, Afleck’s Batman moves through the movie on a journey of atonement as he tries to right his previous wrongs. It’s a much more interesting take on the character than what we’ve seen from Afleck’s previous outings as the character. Whereas the theatrical cut basically expected the audience to come along and cheer for him because he’s Batman, this movie has the time to let us remember his faults from before and have to deal with the consequences.
Ultimately Snyder’s version of the movie works to build itself as a cinematic epic, one that is telling a story that spans eons and worlds. There are at least two moments that return to the Knightmare world of Batman’s visions to present possible futures and alternate timelines. There is a fair amount of time dedicated to Darkseid that puts this particular story as a small blip on the much grander scale that Snyder seems to present his universe as operating on. The flashback sequences that took only a few seconds in the theatrical cut plays out in this version as setting the stage for a generational struggle, reminiscent of the War of the Last Alliance sequence in The Lord of The Rings. This is a movie that portrays itself as impossible to be properly told in any shorter runtime, and even then, is only one small chapter in a much bigger saga.
Of course the movie’s unrestricted runtime is also its biggest weakness. While there is no doubt that it would be impossible to tell this story in two hours, four hours feels like it can be indulgent at times. The look and feel of the movie is much more emotionally charged, and without the ticking clock of the studio mandated time limit, moments are given time to hold weight, allowing these characters to become fleshed out and the emotional beats to stick. But occasionally there is a slow motion sequence that feels a little too self indulgent, or a sequence that feels like it’s doubling down on criticisms of earlier Snyder movies, as if to take a victory lap after years of Batman v. Superman criticism. It’s a shame because while so much of the movie is presented as a condemnation of the idea that this could have ever fit into such a short runtime, it undercuts itself a bit with a final product that could have probably still used fifteen to twenty minutes shaved off.
Zack Snyder’s Justice League also sets up for eventual sequels that we’ll likely never get. These scenes may be forgivable as the movie is supposed to present itself as the version of Justice League Snyder would have released in 2017 when he thought he would be making at least two more Justice League movies. However, when the movie is already well past three hours you have to wonder if adding even more minutes to the runtime to tease movies that you don’t ever intend or expect to make, is that really in the best interest of the current film?
Ultimately, Zack Snyder’s Justice League is something that we’ve never really seen before. Is it good? Parts of it are. Parts of it are even great. Is it flawed? Again, parts of it are. But is it worth watching? Without question. This is one of the most fascinating pieces of mainstream art to be released in recent memory. Just to be able to compare different takes on the same story with such familiar characters, this could become the default example for discussion about auteur theory for mainstream audiences. The story of Justice League’s journey to the big screen has been one that has been fascinating fans for years, and while we’ll never know everything that happened behind the scenes, this is just the next, fascinating, chapter.