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Justice League’s Snyder cut review: No longer Whedonesque—and all the better

Justice League is easily the most surprising comic book film adaptation I’ve seen in years.”>
Enlarge / The Snyder cut of Justice League is easily the most surprising comic book film adaptation I’ve seen in years.
Warner Bros.

I knew I’d have a lot to say about Zach Snyder’s Justice League, a director’s cut coming to HBO Max later this week that went from hearsay to industry buzz to a full-blown production in 3.5 years. What I didn’t know was how much good I would wind up saying about it.

Don’t get me wrong: this four-hour film (four hours!) is far from perfect. It carries the dead weight of its lead-in bummer, 2016’s Batman v Superman. It tries to shoulder the burden of DC’s “connected-film universe” aspirations. And it’s a Zack Snyder production, which means these four hours are sometimes padded by ponderous, overlong sequences instead of character development.

But! Buuuuut. Snyder was clearly building up to something huge with Justice League—a crystallization of the dark-superhero ethos he had been creating piecemeal, now buttressed by a more rounded-out cast of massive egos—so it’s interesting to not only see his vision come to fruition, but also to compare it to what Joss Whedon pieced together when Snyder left the original production cycle due to a personal tragedy. As imperfect as this cut of Justice League is, it is better than Whedon’s directorial vision—by a Krypton mile.

I went to the painstaking trouble of watching both versions side by side, constantly pausing one and checking the other, to make this determination (and to hopefully save you the trouble of doing the same). Honestly, I found myself wishing a super-duper-director’s cut might someday emerge, perhaps as a fan project that cribs from both versions’ sequences and edits to make something a little shorter, a little snappier. But, by golly, that version would be better off erring in Snyder’s direction than Whedon’s. This bonkers straight-to-HBO-Max project is utter redemption.

Steppin’ up with Steppenwolf

In terms of director’s cuts as revisions, Justice League will go down as one of the biggest in filmmaking history—arguably just shy of how much Brazil‘s versions differed. While much of the original JL‘s two hours remain, their intent completely changes. And what Snyder elected not to bring forward to his own cut is telling.

For the uninitiated, the plot of Batman v Superman created Justice League‘s world-threatening stakes. Three “mother boxes” full of ancient, mysterious energy had been protected for thousands of years by a respective council of Atlanteans, Amazons, and humans. When BvS ended with Superman’s death (sorry, but JL is too obsessed with dead Supes to hide that spoiler), this broke something in the mother boxes’ protective seals. Thus, Justice League begins with DC Comics’ big-bad Steppenwolf recognizing their energy signature, warping to Earth, and endeavoring to reclaim all three boxes.

One of the first big changes in tone is Snyder’s insistence that we better understand and feel the weight of Steppenwolf’s hunt for the boxes. In the 2017 version, Steppenwolf quickly plucks each from its hiding place. He’s a breezy, unstoppable force—and a needlessly petulant one, at that.

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Snyder had a fuller vision for developing his film’s big-bad, and the result is a much more compelling villain. For one, Steppenwolf looks and sounds completely different. An enticing coat of animated-spikes armor looks far cooler in action than in blurry, leaked screenshots, while his every line of dialogue has been redone with tasteful vocal modulation. Now he sounds otherworldly and creepy, but he’s not as hard to understand as Christopher Nolan’s Bane.

Additionally, Steppenwolf’s efforts to strip humanity of the boxes all have so much more weight—and they’re all met by a fiercer human resolve to stop his sickle-wielding madness. Each Steppenwolf fight in the Snyder cut unquestionably feels more epic, with the human sides of each battle showing off strength, resolve, and bravery in their sacrifices against his might. Plus, the film’s superheroes land many more heavy-duty blows, so now, the film really does feel like Steppenwolf faces an incredibly powerful team of superheroes alongside a determined alliance of Amazons, Atlanteans, and humans before ultimately succeeding in his evil plan.

Lastly, Steppenwolf’s own journey becomes more apparent through tasteful dialogue and more logical shouts at his foes. We as an audience are finally let in on his higher calling, which may have been spoiled for you if you’ve kept up with Snyder’s teases and comments about how the film was originally meant to play out. I’ll leave those unspoiled here, but suffice it to say, a significant portion of the film’s all-new scenes revolve around this emphasis, and they’ve all gotten top-notch CGI attention.

More like Zack Snyder’s Cyborg League

Then there’s the matter of the heroes’ plots and how they intertwine—and it’s here that Snyder and Whedon clearly differed. (For the rest of this article, I will refer to each director by name when comparing the cuts, even though their differences could have boiled down to any number of reasons. These include: getting the film down to a two-hour length; a DC executive rejecting Snyder’s vision and ordering major edits and rewrites; certain material not being filmed or written until this new cut’s production; and so on. In other words: vilifying the “Whedon cut” may not be as simple as vilifying Whedon, even though that is easy to do as of late.)

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Despite totaling four hours of runtime, Snyder’s Justice League lops off two significant chunks of content from the Whedon cut: development of The Flash as a bumbling, neurotic kid, and emphasizing a relationship between Batman and Wonder Woman.

In their place, Snyder reinstates what appears to be original-production footage revolving around the live-action introduction of Cyborg (aka Victor Stone). Snyder was clearly invested in this hero, played by Ray Fisher, as the film’s beating heart, and one of the best things about the Snyder cut is how this restored Cyborg defibrillates the production. In terms of the plot, one of the film’s mother boxes was in humanity’s hands, as opposed to Atlanteans or Amazons, and Snyder borrows from a “New 52” comic book plotline to have Cyborg’s origin story revolve around said mother box—along with his researcher-father’s hand in accessing and protecting said box in order to bring his dying son back to life. Thus, Steppenwolf’s path to this “final” mother box marches through a tenuous father-son relationship, which Snyder weaves together for one of the best strained-parenthood story arcs I’ve ever seen in a comic book film.


That was all callously sliced out of the Whedon version, enough so that you can see some bizarre and ill-fitting dialogue insertions and overdubs to hide this content when compared to what Snyder completed. The theatrical version was more invested in inventing disagreements and in-fighting between Batman and Wonder Woman while simultaneously trying to egg on a romance between the two—but Snyder’s cut does a better job of respecting Batman’s grief and remorse over Superman’s death and his duty to undo that damage. Snyder’s cut seems to allege that this film was never the place for Bruce Wayne to flap any prima donna, playboy wings. After comparing both versions, I soundly agree—and find myself eating my words alleging otherwise in my original review.

There’s also the matter of Whedon’s cut getting “sweetened” with quips from Ezra Miller’s Flash, which made him out to be a squirrelly, whiny new hero with an emphasis on apparent attention-deficit disorder. But Snyder’s cut sees Flash organically step up as a new superhero getting accustomed to his abilities—all while respecting that this young hero had already developed confidence and swagger. In this week’s new version, Miller still gets a few quips and lighthearted comments; really, every hero gets a few of these as appropriate. Snyder also restores some scenes that show Aquaman’s progression from sullen Atlantis expatriate to restored hero—one of the Whedon cut’s most hurried and illogical character shifts, I might add.

If you want to inhale my sweater, whoa-oh-oh

But Snyder also clearly didn’t take this cut’s opportunity to kill some darlings. As one telling example, the original film’s opening bank siege returns at nearly triple its length so we can get a better look at how diabolical the terrorists are. We learn more about the chaos they want to sow. We learn that they had planned to catch a field trip of children in their crossfire. We get an explanation for why police didn’t immediately storm the site.

Yet none of these long, pondering shots and deep-dives into third-tier characters matters. Wonder Woman still shows up, quells the attack, and reassures the crowd. You can paint over a discarded receipt in as many shades of gray and nuance as you want, but it’s still meant for the trash bin.

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Before that, Snyder remixes the original film’s timeline so that Batman meets Aquaman a few scenes earlier. In good news, their conversation gets a bit more room to breathe in terms of building tension and letting additional dialogue play out, and it’s honestly a better demonstration of this duo’s early animosity. But then Snyder turns his camera to a chorus of Icelandic women as they watch Aquaman swim away. As they stare at his disappearance with mourning eyes, they break into a full 60 seconds of native song. It goes on for so long that one of the women picks up Aquaman’s sweater, as if Snyder is saying to the audience, “You’re right, this song is getting boring and confusing. We should punch it up with a young woman sniffing Aquaman’s clothes.”

The song never returns in this film. Nor does the sniffing fetish. But Snyder can’t let go of ponderous, mourning shots that are arguably unearned within the course of the film itself. The worst examples come when Snyder aims his camera lens at Lois Lane, who we see walking through the rain, staring at framed photos and looking like stock footage from a Big Pharma commercial for antidepressants. Snyder didn’t use his second Justice League chance to ground her Clark Kent-related grief within this film itself, instead relying on the assumed melodrama of her loss one film earlier. In one exception, at least, Snyder eventually offers viewers a payoff when Kent’s mom and Lane process their combined grief. These two characters have a similar conversation in the Whedon cut, but that one is framed much differently and feels criminally soulless in comparison.

DC filmmaking redemption

In terms of filmmaking calculus, I’d argue that maybe 10 percent of the Whedon cut’s unique content could stand to be restored in terms of time-hurrying edits and clever quips. But that equation isn’t quite fair to how much better the Snyder cut is. In particular, the Whedon cut’s rewrites—especially of the heroes against Steppenwolf—drain the original cut’s vision of hope, bravery, and humanity.

Justice League hopes and dreams… or maybe he’s just offering notes for the next scene. Either way: good work on this film, sir.”>
Enlarge / Zack Snyder (right) points to his Justice League hopes and dreams… or maybe he’s just offering notes for the next scene. Either way: good work on this film, sir.
Warner Bros.

Snyder’s cut largely wins by using its four hours of breathing room to juggle six superheroes, each with their own development and baggage. By bravely placing the upstart character Cyborg at the top of the film’s emotional pyramid, Snyder gives the DC film universe the gift of Fisher’s charged performance, especially in scenes with his on-screen father, played by Joe Morgan. Having seen this cut, I can’t help but look at Fisher’s fraught responses to Joss Whedon and the film studio in an entirely new light.

If you’re already paying for HBO Max or if you have a vested interest in DC filmmaking redemption, you should absolutely tune in to what another Justice League hath wrought. It has most of the solid bits of the original, along with a much more fully realized cast of heroes, a top-to-bottom coat of VFX paint, and plenty of opportunities to pause the film and come back another time. As far as a breakout hit or “best superhero film ever,” well, tap the brakes. Snyder still aspires to auteur status within a film where big-bads wage CGI war, and the results are both too slow for action-hungry popcorn munching and too half-baked for the Criterion Collection.

That being said, I remain fascinated by films that swim in an uneasy space between artsy-fartsy and “why is that man wearing spiky Fortnite armor all the time” ridiculousness. This is easily Snyder’s best work in that murky in-between realm, an area he has trafficked in for years. I’m glad to see it—especially because of how much better the film gets every single hour. You’ll need to strap in to overcome biases and get through the first hour, but by the fourth, you’ll be cheering that this unthinkable edit exists—and, Darkseid willing, that it might put Snyder and crew in a position to make a Justice League 2 after all.

Zach Snyder’s Justice League premieres on HBO Max March 18.