It’s not every day you get to watch a film be made completely and utterly irrelevant. On March 18th, 2021, after years of fan demand and petitions, the dreams of many diehard DC Extended Universe fans will be made as Zack Snyder’s Justice League will be released. Back in 2017 during the production of Justice League, Zack Snyder had to leave the project due to creative differences with the studio and a tragic and horrific family tragedy, one that for decency’s sake I’m not going to go into out of respect to the Snyder family, but you can read more about here. Warner Bros. had an incomplete movie on their hands that needed to be out by November 17th so they promoted Joss Whedon, who they already had “advising” on the film, to director. The film went on to be a box office bomb and only did marginally better with critics.
To talk about Justice League, as it originally was, is a shockingly complex task. The 2017 version of the film can be seen as a lot of things. It could be seen as the culmination of DC’s attempt to outperform Marvel’s MCU, which it most certainly did not. It was meant to open up the DCEU to even more characters and possibilities, most of which have since been put in production hell. It was meant to be a mulligan on George Miller’s Justice League: Mortal project after WB second-guessed themselves and missed out on beating Marvel to the superhero crossover punch. And that’s not even getting into the meta-commentary that the film is now providing us on the impact of fandoms on what projects can or can’t be greenlit and the very icky PR nightmare that’s been brewing out since Joss Whedon turned out to be a total asshole.
But come March 18th, 2021, none of that will matter. Justice League will be completely irrelevant as The Snyder Cut, as it is lovingly referred to, will replace the original film in nearly every way. Why? Why is it going to replace the original film? Is it because the Snyder Cut will undeniably be better than the original cut? Reviews are saying that it’s better than that film, but reviews also said that Joker was a cinematic masterpiece (ours did not).
What if, just what if… the 2017 version of Justice League ends up being better than the Snyder Cut? What if all of the years of fan demand and passionate pleas turn out to have been for a movie even worse than the one they were given? Time will tell, but that will be for next time. For now, let’s dig in, dear readers. Let’s talk about Justice League.
Dawn of Justice
Regardless of your viewpoint on the original cut of the movie, it’s important to look back on the state of the DCEU at the time the original film premiered. In theory, the Snyder Cut was meant to be the original version that flowed directly from the previous DCEU movies, so what was the DCEU like before Justice League?
In short, it was a nightmare. Following the critically and commercially successful Nolan trilogy of Batman films, Warner Bros. and DC ran into a problem. The MCU was growing at an alarming rate and raking in an absurd amount of cash. DC and Marvel had always been rivals dating back to the 50s, so to watch Marvel completely eclipse DC in terms of relevance, and most importantly income, was something that could not stand. Marvel had spent years creating an interconnected roster of heroes and villains for their universe and their intentions to make a large-scale cinematic universe were made public as early as 2008.
Meanwhile, DC was producing solo movies that didn’t connect with each other in a large and grand tapestry. The Nolan movies were their own entity, George Miller’s Justice League would have had its own separate cast and universe from them, and DC was putting the finishing touches on Watchmen, which itself was in its own separate continuity away from anything else because Alan Moore is Alan Moore.
It’s important to keep in mind that no one had ever attempted what Marvel was doing. Everyone expected Marvel, who was still on the mend from bankruptcy at the time Iron Man released, to fail and prove that a large-scale, interconnected cinematic universe would be too lofty and impractical. And then they succeeded. And DC was left with the dawning realization that they were too late. They missed out on being the first and would now have to play catch-up.
And play catch-up they did! I remember distinctly interviews at the time about Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel being a test to see if there was an interest in a DC cinematic universe. If it did well, then it would be repositioned as the launch of the DCEU in the same way Iron Man was for the MCU. The film did well enough commercially (so-so critically) to convince WB and DC executives to move on with the cinematic universe. So DC fast-tracked a franchise almost immediately, even before the movie released. What? Did you think that they were going to wait to see if it did well? This is Warner Bros. we’re talking about after all. Fast-tracking and poorly planning ideas is their forte!
And while Marvel decided to spend years slowly building the foundation of its universe with solo films and mini franchises, DC went all-in with big, ensemble team-ups to maximize their profits as quickly as possible. It was more of a kitchen sink approach where even if the films were terrible, there had to be at least one thing they could salvage from it and make into their own little franchise. Think less of it as less a precise effort at cultivating world-building and more using audiences as test dummies to see what works and what doesn’t.
So three — technically four films, but Wonder Woman is a clear outlier in this equation — came out in this same model. Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, Suicide Squad, and Justice League, all released to theaters and met with near-universal lambast from fans and critics. Batman v. Superman is one of the worst films of the last decade and embodied everything wrong with DC’s approach to the cinematic universe concept, everything wrong with the genre, and everything wrong with action blockbusters in general. To even discuss the film is a mockery and there are people that have done a much more comprehensive and detailed look at every conceivable way that film went wrong. Suicide Squad didn’t fare much better, arguably being even more hated by fans, but hey, at least it won an Oscar.
Justice League was the most well-received of the three in comparison, but when combined together, all three films just represent how misguided the original DCEU was. Spectacle with no substance. It was filmmaking not by committee, but by marketing, trying to gauge what would sell and what would be marketable. And, to those film’s small credit, there were elements that would be salvaged for later. Harley Quinn, who had been around for over two decades at that point, became the idol of many a Hot Topic fangirls throughout the world and sold TONS of merch. Gal Godot’s Wonder Woman was strongly praised and her solo movie, which was FAR removed from the DCEU, was one of the best films of 2017. Even Jason Mamoa’s Aquaman, who debuted in Justice League, was well-received enough to receive two films, with his first solo movie making over $1 billion dollars and the second one in preproduction, though sadly with Amber Heard still attached.
My point is that while all three of these ensemble DC movies fail spectacularly, there were elements to be salvaged from them that do in fact work. It’s just that the mindset that DC was in for most of the 2010s was purely motivated by doing whatever they could to put themselves back in the public spotlight, the spotlight that was rightfully taken from them by Marvel. But probably their biggest problem was placing their faith in the hands of one Zack Snyder.
Zack Snyder does not get the DC Universe.
Zack Snyder is a very particular director with a very distinct vision and visual style. Like how you can always tell when a film is made by Quentin Tarantino, George Miller, or Spike Lee, it’s very easy to tell a Zack Snyder film. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, as Snyder’s style is a fun one, but it’s one that only works in specific circumstances. Snyder doesn’t really handle metaphors well and most of his films opt to focus a lot on over-the-top action, special effects, and very dour and serious tones with little room for levity of any kind. Just look at Sucker Punch for a pure distillation of how he works as a director, for better and worse.
But what separates him as a director from, say, the Michael Bays of the world is that he knows how to shoot a film and make it look very pretty. His action scenes flow well with each other and can even deliver some spectacular shots, like the ones we see in 300 and Watchmen. But the problem that I usually have with his films in the DC Universe, which include Man of Steel, Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, and Justice League, is that they’re not reflective of the DC Universe. Most of the decisions he makes are incredibly dated ones, harkening back to the 90s, when DC was at its edgiest and poorest quality.
For Watchmen, Snyder’s vision matched perfectly with Alan Moore’s original series because the ideas present in Watchmen match-up well with how Snyder typically portrays his characters: masculine, morally compromised, set in a world that is unfair and broken, with systems of power in place to oppress the people versus helping them. And all the while making his heroes look like badasses as they shoot and fight and kill.
It worked in Watchmen because there are analogs present in that story to make those connections work in the form of the Comedian and Rorschach, two characters who get most of the development and attention thrust upon them. The same can be said for King Leonidis in 300 as the Spartans are historically like that. Their society was uber-masculine so portraying that for Snyder was like a wet dream.
The problem comes when you try to do that with Superman. Or Batman. They’re not typical badasses. They’re not super muscular and they aren’t morally compromised. They don’t mesh with how Snyder traditionally frames his heroes. But despite that, Snyder tried his damndest to present both Superman and Batman in ways that they haven’t been for decades. Man of Steel bends over backward to justify Superman killing Zod, Batman v. Superman is gleeful about Batman being a paranoid maniac indiscriminately branding and murdering criminals and forces the two to fight each other because the plot demanded it with an equally stupid conclusion. All of this is done to push an image of the characters that only Snyder seems to be interested in. Superman isn’t a killer and seeing him behave as one just robs him inherently of what it means to be Superman.
And this is the guy DC tasked with helming their cinematic universe. A guy with a dated outlook on most of its cast of characters that ignores their basic traits to emphasize what HE thinks they should be about. It’s no wonder that Wonder Woman decided to completely separate itself from the grim darkness that Snyder was portraying in his films. Snyder’s vision for the DCEU, while undeniably different from Marvel’s, wasn’t exactly all that great. Which now finally, FINALLY, brings us to the main event.
The basic plot of Justice League is this: Superman is dead after the events of Batman v Superman and while the world is in mourning, an alien general, Steppenwolf, from the planet Apokalips tries to launch an invasion of Earth. Batman assembles a team of heroes to stop Steppenwolf from succeeding, but after failing to do so, the team tries to revive Superman to help and does Superman then helps them beat the bad guy. The end.
On the surface, the plot of the movie is very basic, which it really should be. One of the faults from Batman v. Superman was the myriad of subplots running throughout the movie that took focus away from the central conflict, a central conflict that itself was super murky and hard to clearly explain. On a basic and fundamental level, it seemed that Snyder learned his lesson from Batman v. Superman and tried to dial things back in. Whether that was intentional or not is another story entirely, as Warner Bros. imposed a hard two-hour limit on the film as they viewed the lengths of Snyder’s previous films to be a negative rather than a positive. WB had clearly lost faith in Snyder’s visions after Batman v. Superman going as far as to bring two handlers onto the set to make sure he wasn’t being too dour in the film.
Unfortunately, it’s at this point where the discussion of the movie will have less of a focus on Snyder himself and instead an amalgamation of various different chefs in the kitchen. We know that Snyder was present for a significant amount of shooting and that the basic concept of the plot was already locked in, but just how much Warner Bros. and Whedon changed, altered, added, or refine Snyder’s original intention is now up for discussion. We also know that the film underwent numerous rewrites and reshoots and turned into a very different film under Whedon and the studio’s guidance, a fact now backed up by the drastically different Zack Snyder’s Justice League.
Again, given the circumstances that happened back in 2017, nobody can fault Snyder for leaving Justice League. He was in an emotionally challenging spot and felt forced out of his own film by a studio that had soured on his ideas. Warner Bros. was also in a tough spot. Deals were made and the movie had to come out by a certain date, come hell or high water… and also WB executives wanted cash bonuses before they merged with AT&T. So Whedon, only slightly tarnished by Avengers: Age of Ultron was given free rein to get it done. With their backs against the wall, what he was able to come up with certainly met the bare minimum of being a two-hour action blockbuster.
In short, the film is confused. Not confused that it doesn’t know what it wants to do, but confused because the film is more of a set up for future movies than a film in and of itself. Early in the film, we watch a sequence where the Amazons, Atlanteans, the Green Lantern Corps, and the humans fight against Steppenwolf and his parademons in early history. Both the Atlanteans and the Green Lantern Corps are introduced in this scene but they don’t play a fundamental role in the story. They’re just there to be introduced for future films to flesh out.
Aquaman gave the Atlanteans more of a culture and society, but none of that was present in Justice League. We spend all of one scene in Atlantis, a place that Aquaman doesn’t even like to visit cause he’s a loner. Why is he a loner? Because the movie said so. The Green Lantern Corps are presented as just being a thing without ever being expanded upon. A group of space cops with ultra-powerful energy weapons get virtually no development and don’t factor in at all other than blatant fan-service.
There are varying schools of thought when it comes to writing and how to develop stories. Usually in a story, if a character or object is introduced it’s meant to serve some kind of a purpose, even if it’s as blatant as just moving the plot along. The Mother-Boxes, interdimensional cubes of unlimited power, are the things Steppenwolf wants because it’ll help him conquer Earth. Stop him from getting it. They’re a Macguffin. They have a clear purpose, as blatant as that purpose may be. What is the purpose of introducing the Green Lantern Corps? What do they add to the movie that couldn’t be done by any other group?
Characters and concepts are introduced and don’t receive much development as the plot takes full charge. It’s the polar opposite of Batman v. Superman, which was all character-focused to the detriment of the plot. The rush to have everything shoved into two hours means Batman, Wonder Woman, Cyborg, Aquaman, and The Flash never really come together as a team. Aquaman doesn’t even join the team until after the movie is half over. Whenever the Justice League are together, they usually argue with each other or never fully trust one another. They’re less of a team and more like strangers just kind of working together for a vague, common goal.
We get snippets of their characters, like how Cyborg is still processing the trauma of becoming a cyborg and his strained relationship with his father or Barry Allen’s relationship with his dad. We get the bare minimum for these characters and nothing else. Barry is the comic relief, Cyborg dishes out the information and mopes, and most of the characters never coalesce as one unit. Even when they’re fighting against Steppenwolf at the end, it never felt like they truly trusted each other, but instead were doing it out of necessity.
And then we have the visuals… oh boy the visuals.
So CG is notorious for aging poorly as time goes on and technology progresses well beyond what was originally capable, but even back in 2017, the visuals weren’t stellar. The biggest offender is Henry Cavill’s upper lip, which had to be CGI’d due to his role in Mission Impossible preventing him from shaving a rather large and bushy mustache from his face. This stems from the very extensive reshoots that took place conflicting with his other projects, and Paramount, who were producing Mission Impossible, wouldn’t budge on the mustache. Because of that, we have a super awkward and ugly CG that turned Superman into a meme.
A large majority of the movie was completed with CGI thanks in large part to the film being pasted together after Snyder left and, of course, the massive amounts of special effects in a superhero film. The CGI feels patchwork and rushed, used to finish scenes that weren’t completed before Snyder left. This isn’t like Cats where the film is a borderline mess of odd-looking animation, because Justice League does function. Outside of Cavill’s stiff upper lip, it’s not noticeable in a bad way. Unless you were privy to everything that happened behind the scenes, you wouldn’t pay it much mind. But if you know even one thing about the movie’s production, then you can easily tell that the film leans more on the CGI than Batman v. Superman did.
When you compare Justice League to a film like the original Avengers, both movies don’t really have a lot of substance behind them but the Avengers is easily the better of the two movies despite doing nearly the exact same thing. The Avengers, at the end of the day, was the culmination of half a dozen movies and gave Marvel an excuse to just go all-in on the explosions and CGI, but it earned those explosions and CGI after developing nearly all of its cast in other movies.
Justice League doesn’t have that luxury and simply can’t create a worthy team dynamic in the span of two hours while it tries to do so much else. Justice League trips over itself to pump up so much world-building and character interactions that it somehow manages to say very little at all. Both films are spectacles, but while DC is trying desperately to engage you because it hasn’t earned your engagement, Marvel barely puts forward any effort and succeeds to engage you because it had at that point four years’ worth of worthwhile development and pacing.
The New Frontier
What happens next we all should be familiar with. The film, upon its release in November, bombed. It was one of the most expensive movies ever made, totaling over $300 million without including marketing costs. It cemented firmly in the minds of WB executives that the idea of a shared universe model for their films wasn’t worth it the studio spent the next four years making solo films for its characters, most of which went on to critical acclaim and financial success. And then the world moved on and no one thought of the Snyder films ever again.
And then you saw #ReleaseTheSnyderCut.
In response to Snyder’s version of the film being eliminated in favor of Whedon’s now-hated cut, fans began to wonder and demand what Snyder’s original intention for the film was. Allegedly, test audiences hated the version created by Snyder but favored the Whedon version and most of Snyder’s work was scrapped in favor of that. Granted, this bit of news came alongside reports that Snyder was fired from the project, which were thoroughly debunked by several higher-ups, so take that with a grain of salt. Regardless, fans campaigned for years to see this mythical cut of the film, this supposed true version of Zack Snyder’s DC epic.
And that’s perfectly fine. I’m all for seeing Snyder complete a project that he had to leave due to personal circumstances. I’m glad that this chapter of film history can finally be closed. But can we also just acknowledge for a second just how absurd this entire chain of events has been? Fan culture has become more and more toxic over the years where fans have become more entitled to getting what they want and doing whatever it takes to get it, whether it is bullying an actress of a character you don’t like or launching death threats at people who were just trying to earn a living making a film.
I would say that the fact that the Snyder Cut is releasing sets a dangerous precedent for fan entitlement, but this was a battle that was always so strange to me. Like… you want more of Zack Snyder’s DC Universe? You want more of the guy who delivered Man of Steel and Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice? You want that chapter of the DCEU back when what’s on offer right now is better, more well defined, and enjoyable? This isn’t like the overcorrect Disney did with Rise of Skywalker that neutered anything and everything Rian Johnson did with The Last Jedi. This is fans demanding a cut of a film that was originally just okay to conclude a storyline that DC is no longer interested in pursuing.
Really, the decision to actually #ReleaseTheSnyderCut looks to be purely a business one. It’s not because DC is interested in seeing if this is a chapter of their history that they can revive, but in reality, they’re using it to bolster their HBO Max line-up. As a streaming service, HBO Max has done a pretty fine job at just existing. I’m not really aware of any major new content coming to the service outside of simultaneous day releases of their major films coming out in theaters. That’s a good selling point, but as far as original content goes, they’re severely lacking. The Snyder Cut is, at its basic core, original content. There are fans who are demanding to see it, so make it exclusive to HBO Max to get new subscribers. It’s a smart decision, and an effective one.
But the Snyder Cut is pure Zack Snyder. To some, that’s going to be great and fulfill whatever hopes and dreams you may have. But even without having seen it yet, there are some telltale signs that have me concerned over the general direction of the film. For example, does it really need to be four hours long? Avengers Endgame was a slog to get through at three hours, so the very act of watching the Snyder Cut may well be an endurance test. Do we really need Jared Leto’s Joker to return? And what would characters like Deathstroke and Martian Manhunter truly add to the film that wasn’t readily apparent years ago.
Zack Snyder’s Justice League still has questions swirling around it. Will it be better than the original cut of Justice League? It would be a pretty amazing monkey’s paw wish if it was somehow worse than Whedon’s version. But given Snyder’s pedigree as a director, the telltale signs are there. Justice League may be a fairly unspectacular film, but maybe, just maybe, it’ll be better than the Snyder Cut.