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Zack Snyder’s Justice League

Back in 2017 I reviewed Justice League and gave it a generally favorable rating. It had flaws, especially in the stylistic differences between Zack Snyder and Joss Whedon causing a tonal dissonance that was difficult to explain. Almost immediately after that release there were demands for a Zack Snyder director’s cut which was supposedly a better film in every way.

This rumor mill about a four or five hour production cut that Snyder put together before leaving the project was reinforced by rumors of behind the scenes shenanigans with WB brass who wanted to change the tone of the film after poor reactions from Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, and a trailer that included footage completely absent from the theatrical release. The internet just knew there was another version.

This became a constant reoccurring thing, a rumor that wouldn’t go away. Over the intervening years, this Snyder Cut grew into an almost mythical beast that could never materialize. The simple financial hoops and contracts and logistics in bringing about this version seemed insurmountable. I mean really, a four hour version of Justice League? Just typing that sounds absurd. What executive in their right mind would greenlight the money required to edit and complete special effects work?

Then 2020 happened and the introduction of HBO Max.

HBO Max launched late in 2020 and had some content, including the transfer of shows, movies and animation from the now defunct DC Universe and HBO content. Unfortunately it also had a $14.99 a month price tag and not a lot of universal appeal. Combined with the big tentpole movies gaining little traction at the box office, profits were down on two fronts, and the future was looking particularly gloomy for Warner Brothers, who owns HBO Max.

So it wasn’t a tremendous surprise when the announcement came, initially starting with the news that Wonder Woman 1984, which had already been delayed four times, was coming to HBO Max on the same date (Christmas day) as its theatrical release. It drew good numbers for the nascent streaming service, despite the poor reviews. Then they dropped a bombshell: every movie distributed by Warner Bros. in 2021 would release the same way on HBO Max. This move pissed off a lot of people in the industry, especially the theater chains that are holding on by a thread.



So why all this backstory? To give context to the beast. A while back, sometime in 2020 (I honestly cannot remember when) it was announced that Zack Snyder was coming back to do his now infamous director’s cut of the beleaguered Justice League, using only his own footage and with an additional 70 million to complete it. Plus a couple of extra days to film pick up shots. Up until this moment, the idea of a Snyder Cut was just a pipedream for a small but vocal group who seemed convinced that they were given an inferior version of a movie they wanted to be great. To put it mildly, the internet went insane. Then we got our first trailer a couple of months later, and the hype train was real.

Paradoxically, while it was a neat idea to have two versions of the same movie, some people admitted some reluctance to actually watch this new version, myself included. Partially because I wasn’t sure the building blocks of this film were good enough, no matter how they were edited. But mostly because of the runtime we were promised, four bloody hours. At first it was going to be a four part mini-series, but having watched the final product, that was never going to happen. I do think they came up with a reasonable alternative, but I’ll get to that in a minute.

Switch over to Marvel, and we finally got our first Phase 4 project, WandaVision, which showed us that a long form superhero project could actually have some merit. Perhaps this four hour version of Justice League might be… good?

In short, yes, it was good. Not great, and definitely still flawed, but it was clearly a passion project for the director and anything made with that kind of love shines through. The quality of this… project (I’m hesitant to say film or movie for reasons I will explain later) is almost less important as it is utterly unique and cannot be judged on the usual merits of a traditional movie (writing, acting, effects and directing), because all those things are basically the same as the other version. I know how contrary and nonsensical that sounds. Because this will be a bit of an exploration of an author's voice and audience expectation.

Let's start at the top with what this version brings to the table. By dropping all the added footage written by another director, you would think there wouldn’t be enough to cobble together even a working copy of a film without major reshoots. The thing is, now that we’ve seen this new version, we understand the extent of butchery the theatrical cut went through as nearly every connective tissue scene developing character and establishing motivation was cut or totally re-written. Entire sub-plots and even a major character were almost completely removed.



The biggest and most important of these alterations was the outright destruction of Cyborg as a character. To say that the theatrical cut did a disservice to the character is an understatement. There isn’t just one scene of added detail and character development, there are like a dozen. His arc as a hero, his relationship with his father and a wonderful framing device that showed his growth were finally restored. He is without a doubt the heart of this film, and while the theatrical cut left me wanting more from him as a character, this version of the film satisfied that and more.

The performances of all the major actors in this cut are pretty good, and each character is given more to do with more nuance than in the theatrical cut. Characters actually interact like you would imagine they would, and the humor was different, almost dry. Some of it was stupid, but for the most part there was actual emotion in this cut, and it is better for it. The stand out for me, beyond Cyborg, is the Flash, who was no longer just the comic relief. He wasn’t so annoying that you wanted to punch him; he had some surprising depth as a brand new hero. He had a personal arc, and even some of the best moments in the entire film. Which is a stark contrast with the theatrical cut where he was basically there because the franchise required it.

Of course I have to mention that Batman, Wonder Woman and Aquaman also had some nice alterations to their characters, especially Batman whose arc actually paid off some of the more brutal choices made for the character in the previous film (Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice). Wonder Woman was once again my favorite character, and she got some nice moments, especially her opening action scene which was just nuts especially in comparison to the theatrical cut. Aquaman was no longer a creep and an asshole, but still pulled off the reluctant hero schtick, which I thought was a good compromise.



Visually, this version is much darker in tone, with the contrast turned down on color. This matches the previous films well, and fits in context with the story being told. This is also R-rated with some pretty brutal violence and mild gore, and even a few instances of coarse language. I’m not entirely sure what audience this is for, but I have my guess.

Which brings me to the more existential aspect to this thing. The reason I said it isn’t really a film or a movie is because it kind of isn’t. The structure is all over the place, separated into six parts which do break up the screen time nicely, but are only really breaks in the action. While this does have more in common with a mini-series, it is also not structured for each part to stand alone or even give any meaningful resolution, so breaking it apart doesn’t work, either.

What Snyder delivered is a visually stunning, wildly different (yet still similar) and all together unique director's vision of a project that is unprecedented. While director’s cuts are almost a dime a dozen nowadays, this will stand on its own as something we may never see again, a completely different version of a theatrically released film.

Bits:

The beginning of this film picks up from the end of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, so if you haven’t seen that, you may be a bit lost.

Alfred has quite a bit more screen time and it just illustrates how great Jeremy Irons is in the part.

Mera, played by Amber Heard, has a British accent in this version, but doesn’t in the Theatrical cut and Aquaman. This must’ve been dropped after Snyder left the project.

The aspect ratio for this cut is 4:3 which means you will see bars on the sides. This is on purpose, since the footage was shot using IMAX cameras which have this vertically inclined format. It may seem strange at first, but after a few minutes it isn't bad at all.

There are some odd audio motifs in this, the worst is a vocal cue that shows up whenever Diana shows up in costume.

I mentioned this in my other review of the theatrical cut, but Snyder left because his daughter Autumn died tragically. This was dedicated to her.



The main villain Steppenwolf was given a complete makeover for this version as well as some actual motivation. This dramatically improves him, to the level of a good villain, which was unexpected.

The trend of Director's Cuts frequently brings up the question of ‘why.’ Yet this director’s cut is not only worth the time and effort to create it, but worth your time to explore it as a totally unique experience. Is this better than Justice League (2017)? Absolutely, but I leave it to you to determine if it is good, because honestly it is hard to judge it on its own merits.

Samantha M. Quinn spends most of her time in front of a computer typing away at one thing or another; when she has free time she enjoys pretty much anything science fiction or fantasy.

3 comments:

CelStudios said...

I was surprised at how much I enjoyed this one. It's still flawed, overlong, and padded out with odd scenes and sequel hooks, but the action and visuals were great, the third act was excellent, and the character arcs were drastically improved, Cyborg's especially. Snyder was right about him being the heart of the film and he was seriously shafted in the theatrical cut. It was also a lot neater of a film, so many of my complaints about inconsistencies in the original were pretty much addressed. Still not sure how it stands on its own merits, but it's a masterpiece compared to the 2017 version.

Anonymous said...

All Zack Snyder needs is a good editor and Kevin Feige. WB completely miseed up trying to fast track and 'avengers' up there films. Cant believe how much more i enjoyed this film. Plenty of flaws but im far more forgiving if its the directors vision. Snyder has alot of strengths and weaknesses.

Despite the 6 part set up i thought the film flowed very coherently and i did it in one sitting and barely noticed the extra run time. Its not like we dont binge 4/5 episodes of our fav shows.
Every character shined and there was far more depth, even Steppenwolf who i hated in theatrical cut became an almost sympathetic character by the end.
Wonder woman was fantastic. Cut all her scenes and the amazonian scenes together and you have a better WW film than The 1984 sequel.
All the action scenes were far superior and even entertaining and inventive. But i was surprised how much funnier the film was and how much better and more authentic the character interactions were.
The whole point Whedon was brought in and surprisingly it was Snyders stuff that was far superior.
Alot of fans don't like the darker world and characters but Dcs storys are like that at source.
There are plenty of superhero films for this iteration to exist. Dcs darker animated stories are there highest rated and selling content. The r rated Harley Quinn show is a must for any who hasn't seen it. Flashpoint paradox and Apoklps War are brilliant animated movies also.

Patrick said...

I absolutely loved Zack Snyder's Justice League. It's amazing how much better the story works when you actually take the time to set it all up and get the audience invested in the characters. Was it perfect? No. I still think Zack Snyder is too obsessed with slow-mo. There were definitely some scenes where it worked, but there were also times where it felt gratuitous. And yeah, there were some areas where I thought the movie could be tightened up a bit for pacing. But looking back after sitting through the whole thing, I honestly don't think it could be cut down all that much without diminishing it. It was four hours and two minutes, I'm not even sure you could get it down to three and a half. There's just that much story. Maybe the action scenes could be trimmed up a bit, but honestly they all play SO much better than they did in Josstice League. I watched it all in one sitting, and while it does feel like a long movie, it doesn't feel four hours long. The chapter breaks help too, and they're inserted at good times for them. I'd love to know how many people who complain about the runtime happily sit down and binge-watch four or more episodes of each new series that comes out on Netflix or Amazon Prime.

More than anything, I'm glad Zack got to revisit this story and finally tell it the way he wanted to. After the butchery that was done for the theatrical release, he deserves to have his original vision be seen, and it was magnificent.