Zack Snyder’s Justice League arrives as the culmination of a years-long saga which, in many ways, exemplifies the odd intersections of big-budget filmmaking, studio strategizing, and fan culture. This release is a triumph and not just for director Zack Snyder and his collaborators, who toiled on the original production of 2017’s Justice League and felt cheated when the film was taken over by Joss Whedon. It also belongs to the vocal contingent of people who, since late 2017, have done good (raised thousands of dollars for suicide prevention charities), bad (engaged in a ton of online harassment), and silly (buying out a billboard in Times Square) things to make it happen.
The “Snyder Cut” is the crowning demonstration of how we live in the age of the fan. Their whims can dictate the actions of multi-billion-dollar corporations. The film did not exist, but through sheer force of will, they made it real.
And then there’s the unlikely third group of victors: cinephiles who are more invested in individual artistic vision than studio-mandated filmmaking. They now have an extraordinary case study for auteurism: Snyder was given tens of millions of dollars (added to the hundreds of millions already spent to create the film in the first place) and no restrictions on what he could do. Just as a film, the result is unlikely to appeal to anyone but the hardcore fans, but as a historical document it is fascinating. Even at this early point, the possibilities for its potential as an instructional tool seem vast.
Observe how the two versions of Justice League provide case studies in different kinds of bad editing. Both films have essentially the same story: In the wake of Superman (Henry Cavill) dying at the end of 2016’s Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, Batman (Ben Affleck) and Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) assemble a superhero team to stop an alien army from destroying Earth. The particulars of how the two cuts approach this plot demonstrate opposing modes of film creation. Among other things, Snyder clashed with Warner Bros. over the planned length of the movie. He stepped down from the production during the editing process, after his daughter Autumn died by suicide, whereupon Whedon took over. One of WB’s main mandates was that Whedon keep the film at a trim two hours. The result is an atrocious mess of nonsensical cuts during action sequences, abrupt and clumsy character introductions, and an overall rushed feeling.
As a creative in his own right, Whedon is known for snappy dialogue and ensemble dynamics, but this was him in pure mercenary mode, acting as an instrument of a higher authority. (It also should not go without mention that his behavior on that set and others has been criticized as abusive and manipulative.) The “Whedon Cut” is really the WB Cut, molded entirely by what executives believed would appeal to the broadest possible audience.
In contrast, the Snyder Cut is what can happen when there is no one to say “No.” It is consistently slack, with many scenes going on for much longer than feels comfortable. It’s already part of Snyder’s style to begin and/or end a scene where you might not necessarily expect — focusing at length on a character going about an unrelated activity before the main action starts, for instance. He also loves to fixate on specific details during dramatic moments — a spent or broken weapon falling to the ground is a recurring motif. These are not bad traits, but here they get overused to the point of disillusionment. If every moment is dramatic, then it’s hard to find any of them special. In the macro view this also means the movie drags terribly; it’s four hours long and feels longer. It’s stuffed with superfluous bits — especially in the first hour, during which Aquaman (Jason Momoa) gets three or four redundant introductory scenes.
The structure of the story also suffers mightily in this version. While the 2017 iteration was slapdash, it still had better flow from one narrative beat to the next. Here, at one point Batman spies his famous Bat-signal in the sky and heads off to answer the call, and then an entire protracted action sequence goes down in a completely unrelated location before the film cuts back to him arriving at his destination. One group of characters announces their urgent need to send a warning to the world; we return to them 15-20 minutes later for another extended, overly elaborate sequence of them sending that warning. Snyder’s film is segmented into six chapters and an epilogue, but the divisions sometimes seem arbitrary. And the length truly becomes excruciating in the last half-hour stretch, taken over by a sequence which sets up sequels now scrapped by WB and which contains entirely too much Jared Leto.
Still, this is undoubtedly the superior Justice League. The 2017 release is not just a rushed jumble but also lacking in verve. Snyder is easily mocked for his frequent use of slow motion and overall dour, joyless tone, but that’s preferable to the halfhearted attempts to ape the Marvel Cinematic Universe formula that WB imposed on the previous production. For all the talk about how superheroes are supposedly our modern mythology, Snyder is the only one to actually treat these figures as mythic. He poses them in striking, memorable tableaus, and brings the epic sensibility of a great comic book panel to the screen like no other filmmaker. Given that the MCU is part of a studio machine that demands a flattened, samey quality to all its installments, it makes sense that this would appeal to any viewers thirsting for someone different.
It’s a pity that the script still can’t live up to that grandeur. Batman and Superman have weirdly little to actually do (even accounting for the fact that the latter is dead for like two thirds of it), Wonder Woman gets a nonstarter subplot, and Aquaman and Flash (Ezra Miller) are mostly developed through scenes designed to set up later solo movies. The exception is Cyborg (Ray Fisher), the only lead who goes through a full arc. A former varsity athlete laid low by a devastating accident, he grapples with his unfamiliar new robotic body and his resentment of his father Silas (Joe Morton). Cyborg’s role was done incredibly dirty by the theatrical release, and Fisher was both one of the earliest high-profile supporters of the Snyder Cut campaign and the first to go public about Whedon’s alleged bad behavior on the production. (His bravery there cannot be understated, given the drastic power differential between the two of them in the industry.) Seeing his material, previously cut and now restored, his dissatisfaction is completely understandable. Cyborg is the heart of the film, the source of most of its moments that aren’t merely visually impressive but also emotionally resonant.
If Justice League had found more to do in that vein, then it could have been something great. But it was abruptly abridged by outside forces. Even with all the resources allotted him, this isn’t Snyder’s true vision of the film, what he would have made back in 2017 if he’d been able. More than anything else, it feels like a workprint polished to a high gloss. And it’s also intensely personal in the unlikeliest cinematic environment — closing with a dedication to Snyder’s daughter Autumn, and a cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” playing over the credits, less because it’s thematically appropriate than simply because it was her favorite song.
Comics fans will surely delight in all of Zack Snyder’s Justice League‘s digressions and excesses, and I have a feeling that auteurists will hungrily devour something so divergent from the standard blockbuster template. The film might not offer much more than a curiosity to anyone else, but it very much is not “for” them.
Zack Snyder’s Justice League will be available to steam on HBO Max starting March 18.