For the easiest way to understand the difference between Joss Whedon’s version of Justice League and Zack Snyder’s version of Justice League, consider the following.
In the original script by Chris Terrio, the version shot by Snyder and shown to Warner Bros. execs in three-and-a-half-hour workprint form, Cyborg (Ray Fisher) is an actual character with an actual arc. We see his disappointment with his absent father, his love for his mother, the tragedy of his near-mortal wounding, the astounding abilities he is given when brought into contact with a mystical piece of science known as a Mother Box, and his forgiving his father. We witness him rise into herodom, become worthy of joining a team that has men both super and bat, women that are wondrous.
In the hacked-down, rejiggered script put together by Joss Whedon—which he then reshot for WB after Snyder stepped aside to deal with a family tragedy—we have almost none of Cyborg’s story. Oh, Whedon makes sure we get to hear Cyborg’s signature catchphrase, “Booyah!”, but we get little of the pathos that comes with his Frankenstein-like rebirth, his anger with his father, his sorrow at the passing of his mother. Rather than Cyborg’s story, we’re treated to endless cutaways to a random Russian family living in the nuclear hot zone that has been taken over by interstellar warlord Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds). Rather than seeing him come into his own as a hero worthy of adulation and emulation, we watch a group of people we don’t care about fight off CGI bugs while they wait to be rescued by Superman (Henry Cavill). Rather than having the Flash (Ezra Miller) run faster than light in an effort to reverse time, Whedon had him push a truck with a few people in it real fast to get them away from some evil bugs.
And this is why Whedon—whose Age of Ultron’s endless sequences about saving civilians from becoming collateral damage by tussling titans was in a very real and direct way a rebuke of the action-packed finale of Snyder’s Man of Steel, a calamitous struggle between Kryptonians Kal El and Zod (Michael Shannon) that killed thousands of innocents—was always a terrible fit for Justice League. Because Whedon cares too much about ordinary people. But the Snyderverse isn’t about ordinary people. Even when it’s about people trying to grapple with the meaning of Superman, as Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) and Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) do in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, it’s not about ordinary people.
It’s about extraordinary people and the ways in which they can inspire ordinary people to greatness.
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If you’re confused as to why HBO Max is making a big deal about the release of Justice League this week—if you vaguely remember the movie coming out four years ago, bombing, and never thinking about it again—don’t worry, it means you’re not Too Online. If your new Justice League lasts more than four hours, again, don’t worry. There’s no need to call a physician.
Welcome to the Snyder Cut.
Here’s the (very short) history of the Snyder Cut. Following the critical drubbing of, and audience ambivalence toward, Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, WB was very nervous. They freaked out when Zack Snyder showed them what he was doing with Justice League; following a screening of the mostly FX-less workprint, the studio heads got together and called in Whedon to rework the script and coordinate on reshoots of the already-largely-shot film. Following the death by suicide of Snyder’s daughter, Autumn, Whedon was given more or less free rein to do as he pleased.
“We just lost the will to fight that fight in a lot of ways,” Snyder told Vanity Fair recently. The version of Justice League that debuted in theaters in 2017 still bore Snyder’s credit as director, but Whedon had reportedly reshot 75 percent of the footage. Another tidbit from that Vanity Fair story:
After their private screening of the Whedon cut, [Executive Producers Christopher] Nolan and Deborah Snyder emerged into the light with a shared mission. “They came and they just said, ‘You can never see that movie,’” Zack Snyder says.
There is something . . . well, almost beautiful about that image. Of a man’s wife and his creative partner understanding the pain being exposed to such a deformation would cause. Of their commitment to protecting him from the cruelties of the world.
Justice League debuted to boos from audiences and critics alike, and for good reason: It’s a jokey, sloppy mess of a movie. Many of the choices, like the decision to replace composer Tom Holkenborg, a/k/a Junkie XL (who had worked on Man of Steel and Batman v. Superman) with Danny Elfman, baffled diehard fans of the series. But rumors persisted of a cut of the film untainted by the Buffy creator’s hackwork. Fans seized on the idea, mounting an entirely grassroots online effort to pressure the studio into releasing it. While film Twitter sniggered, Snyder fanned the flames by releasing hints here and there, story boards, nuggets of ideas, glimpses into what might have been. Eventually the stars got on board, tweeting their support for their director. Added to all this was the fact that Warner Bros. needed something to promote their new streaming service with, a big splashy title sure to grab eyeballs and attention.
Hence: Zack Snyder’s Justice League.
The film released Thursday by HBO Max is about as pure a representation of the visual will and ideological trappings of its creator I can think of outside of the oeuvre of Terrence Malick. It is a four-hour exercise in striking shot compositions, gratuitous slo-mo action, and brutal justice meted out by Übermenschen in a 4:3 aspect ratio designed for IMAX screens while it’s watched at home on your widescreen TV.
But is it any good?
In a word: yes. Look, maybe I’m just a sucker for Snyder’s grandiosity, but the man knows how to frame a shot to make a visual point. One small example: There’s a great moment when Wonder Woman, née Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) is at her day job, restoring a marble statue. The camera slowly, lovingly spins around and we see that she’s dressed in form-hugging white, as white as the art she’s working on. She’s literally statuesque, a goddess brought to life.
And he understands how to stage a fight. Gone is the quippy banter of the Whedon cut; in is Wonder Woman straight-up liquidating a terrorist who tries to unload a rifle into a lineup of children. Righteous violence is Snyder’s métier, and there is no one on the planet better at depicting it.
God knows it’s superior to the theatrical horror show; every single decision Whedon et al. made when trying to figure out how to get the movie from three-and-a-half hours to two hours was incorrect, starting with the very choice to get it under two hours. Because this isn’t a comic book movie, exactly, and trying to cram it all in under two hours was never going to be satisfying.
No, this isn’t a comic book movie. It’s a fantasy epic, more Lord of the Rings than Avengers. Earth’s heroes—Batman, Wonder Woman, Flash, Aquaman (Jason Momoa), and Cyborg—are tasked with defending the planet from an immense, unimaginable threat. And it’s not even the threat presented by this film’s villain, Steppenwolf. This movie? This whole four-hour thing? It’s merely prologue to the real showdown, the fight against Darkseid (Ray Porter), a magnificently catastrophic battle that would’ve seen the forces of men unite with their erstwhile heroes with the aid of the Green Lantern Corps and the Martian Manhunter and who knows who else. It’s a prologue to something we’ll never end up seeing, sadly; I get the sense this is the end of the line for the Snyderverse.
Does Zack Snyder’s Justice League have pacing issues? Sure. I don’t think it would have been impossible to get this down to a more wieldy 200 minutes; still a bit long for your average theatergoer, but not outrageous in an age when the three-plus-hour Avengers Endgame can shatter box office records. As it is, though, this is probably better understood as a TV miniseries, and a 240-minute miniseries is by no means outrageous. Indeed, it’s helpfully broken into six chapters for you to consume at your leisure.
I’m glad for the bloat, just as I’m glad that Snyder’s unobstructed ideal has finally seen the light of day. Yeah, it’s a bit much. No, it’s not for everyone. But this is as pure an expression of idiosyncratic cinematic vision as you’re likely to see in a $300 million movie. And it has the added bonus of consigning Joss Whedon’s handiwork to the ash heap of history.
Maybe there is justice in this world after all.