"Something is coming," and that something is a historically weird film: Zack Snyder's Justice League, widely known as "The Snyder Cut," the filmmaker's four-hour reinterpretation of his very own DC Comics superhero movie.
With Zack Snyder's Justice League comes the rare example of an artist regaining creative control over a long-gone work, the stuff that many directors surely dream of, but few get to realize. As the HBO Max epic's release looms, offering Snyder a chance to restore his vision for DC’s beleaguered answer to Marvel's Avengers, there's no better time than now to revisit the movie’s original theatrical cut — and appreciate how utterly strange it actually is.
Justice League: Road to the Snyder Cut
Landing March 18 on HBO Max, the so-called Snyder Cut comes four years after the original theatrical release of Justice League.
Although officially credited to Snyder, the 2017 version of Justice League is far from his work. (In fact, as was recently revealed, Snyder hasn’t even seen that cut, having been warned off by his wife and Justice League executive producer, Deborah Snyder.) Just months before the movie’s release, Snyder departed the production in the wake of his daughter’s death by suicide. In his absence, Warner Bros. called up Snyder's replacement: Avengers director Joss Whedon, hired to complete the movie.
Whedon’s work on the movie included two months of reshoots and significant reworking of material that already existed, although just how much reworking has been a matter of debate since the movie’s release. In November 2017, producer Charles Roven claimed that “80, 85 percent of the movie is what was originally shot,” but in December 2019, the movie’s cinematographer Fabian Wagner said the figure was closer to just 10 percent. According to the New York Times, Whedon wrote around 80 new pages of script, suggesting that the majority of the version that hit theaters was indeed his.
Nonetheless, the movie only credits Whedon as a co-writer, alongside the original screenwriter, Chris Terrio, with Whedon uncredited for his directing duties. Ironically, this was perhaps a favor: the theatrical version of Justice League is, to be blunt, a deeply goofy mess — and not just for the reasons that many would assume.
Justice League: What Went Wrong?
Yes, the theatrical cut of Justice League is tonally uneven, to say the least. Yes, there are subplots and scenes that seem to go nowhere or make no sense. And, yes, it’s surprisingly easy to tell when Henry Cavill’s beard has been digitally removed because apparently, technology has advanced to the point where we can make any actor look decades younger, but no-one can work out how to digitally generate a fake upper lip. These things, each a long-lived complaint about the feature, are unmistakably true, and each one makes Justice League that little bit worse of a movie.
What makes Justice League fascinatingly odd, though, are the less obvious bad decisions made during the final editing process.
The film, for example, is shockingly garish and colorful. Snyder’s two earlier DC movies, Man of Steel and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, had been repeatedly criticized for their dull and dark color palettes, but Justice League wildly overcompensated with colors turned up so far that almost every moment looks like a poorly made video game cutscene. Are the red skies in the climactic action sequence there to make things more dramatic, or to reference the “Red Sky crossover” trope from DC’s 1980s comic series Crisis on Infinite Earths — and does it even matter when the end result evokes a direct-to-DVD movie from the 1990s?
The movie’s music cues are equally baffling. It’s one thing to re-use themes for specific characters, but Danny Elfman, who’d worked with Whedon on Avengers: Age of Ultron, inexplicably uses his own 1989 Batman score as well as John Williams’ theme from 1978’s Superman: The Movie instead of music from the contemporary movie series. Specifically, Elfman uses Williams’ “Superman Main Theme” during a scene where the Man of Steel, newly resurrected, fights the rest of the Justice League, causing significant damage to Metropolis in the process… but shouldn’t that iconic musical moment have been saved for something a little more heroic?
And then there’s the fact that the movie fails to deliver on its own core themes not once, but twice. The audience is told, repeatedly, that Superman’s absence is so detrimental to events that he has to be resurrected to restore hope — but once he has come back to life, he essentially disappears from the movie until the climactic moments, where he… just duplicates the efforts of the other heroes. Given that this is also a movie where the team comes together but rarely actually works in unison, perhaps this shouldn’t come as a surprise.
Justice League: A Chance For Redemption
In so many respects, the theatrical Justice League is a failure. The idea that the “Snyder Cut” will fix everything is likely a foolhardy one, but it will replace a contradictory committee-led process with one viewpoint, ideally adding some coherency in the process — surely a good thing, no matter your feelings on Snyder’s filmmaking talents or the culture war brewing behind this director’s cut.
Will Zack Snyder’s Justice League actually be better than the theatrical cut? The jury remains out on that until its release, but one thing’s for sure: it would be hard for it to be any worse.
Zack Snyder's Justice League streams March 18 on HBO Max.