‘The Birth of a Perished Vision’ – Zack Snyder’s Justice League

What a wild and unpredictable time we live in. No two days are the same. Never for one minute consider classifying anything as “normal”. Such a term doesn’t even really exist anymore. Modern society is fluid, ever changing and untethered by the rules of yesterday. We live in an age of uncertainty, one in which notions of impossibility can take the form of a four-hour HBO Max special.

Zack Snyder’s Justice League (2021) is a film that under no circumstances should exist within the known universe, yet somehow, it does. Many years ago, back in the year of our lord, 2017, the idea of Zack Snyder getting a chance to recreate a box office and critical flop in his own image was unthinkable. Warner Bros had turned their back on Snyder’s vision after his four-year attempt to kick off the studios’ interconnected universe failed to gather momentum. Justice League (2017) was likely to be his final contribution to the DC Extended Universe before the plug was pulled. Sadly for Snyder, even that was not meant to be. After suffering an awful family tragedy, he had to exit the project prior to completion. In a knee-jerk reaction, Warner Bros hired Joss Whedon to complete the project, hoping he’d bring some of that sweet all-star magic he was able to muster up during his time working on The Avengers (2012).

Nope, turned out all Whedon would bring to the set of Justice League was a toxic workplace culture and a string of terrible decisions. During his time on the back half of Snyder’s unfinished project, he managed to jettison key plot elements, entirely sideline one of the feature’s most vital characters, shoehorn a handful of mediocre gags, and photoshop the colour palette so much it made the film look unwell. The finished product was a contorted shambles stretched in two opposing directions. It was the cinematic equivalent of Gordon Brown trying to smile on his YouTube channel to try appear more friendly to voters. None of it seemed to sit right.

Following Justice League’s critical and financial failure, Warner Bros gradually started distancing themselves from the DCEU model, opting instead to revert back to the good old days of standalone features. This decision is a little mixed in some respects, as some films are still sort of set in the timeline started by Snyder, but even those seem in denial about their relationship with Justice League. It seemed Snyder’s vision, which started coming together all the way back in Man of Steel (2013), would never come to fruition.

Yet none of this determined Snyder’s most avid of fans from trying to turn back the clocks. In the years following Justice League’s release, a continuous outcry of #ReleasetheSnyderCut rain down upon the Twitter sphere. While the rest of the world tried to get on with their days, this crowd of individuals screamed and screamed and screamed. They signed petitions, purchased ad space at an FA Cup gam demonstrating their demands and harassed anyone who disagreed with their opinion. It’s this later part that made me uncomfortable with the idea of a new cut of the film getting release. The behaviour donned by certain members of the movement dripped with toxicity and entitlement. So much so, DC Entertainment’s Diane Nelson had to shut down her Twitter account after falling victim to cyberbullying at the hands of some of the movement’s members. Giving into such behaviour set a dangerous precedent that risked emboldening an entitled and abusive sub-culture of pop culture fans. It also ran the risk of creating a culture of bowing to fan pressure.

In addition to the concerns of following the demands of a problematic movement, there was also the financial factors to consider. Justice League didn’t make that much money. A $657,924,295 may sound like a sizeable sum of money to most, the fact the film cost $300 million in addition to the various marketing/reshoot costs, the film failed to break even. The negative reviews following its release also meant future instalments would like entice even fewer people back to watch subsequent releases. The pitch to fork out further cash to recut to an unpopular movie was sure as heck not going to moisten the lips of any money-hungry execs. It was a high-risk product for cinemas; a bonafide recipe for financial disaster.

But then HBO Max happened, which further coincided with the Covid-19 Pandemic. At the time, Warner Bros were trying to build up an audience base in a climate where Netflix, Amazon Prime and Disney+ already had a firm grip on the streaming market. Cinemas were shut, and movie goers were more keen than ever to consume new content from the comfort of their own homes. All of this, topped off with the ever growing cries of a movement unwilling to shut their mouths gave the HBO and Warner execs a bold idea.

Release the Snyder Cut.

Before we proceed, I think it’s best for me to disclose that I’m going to spend a sizeable chunk of this review criticising various elements of the 2017 theatrical cut of this film. During my previous post on The Suicide Squad (2021), I mentioned how I felt it unfair for me to praise James Gunn followup by comparing it to the 2016 predecessor. While my opinion on the matter has not changed, and as much as I would like to apply the same methodology when discussing Zack Snyder’s Justice League, I didn’t feel this this to be possible without compromising what I liked so much about the latest cut. Unlike Suicide Squad (2016) and The Suicide Squad, despite the differences between Joss Whedon and Zack Snyder’s take on Justice League, they are still technically variations of the same film, making it harder to review without comparing them to one another. To talk about what makes Snyder’s version work so well is incredibly difficult without comparing it to the 2017 edition. Many of the areas in which Snyder’s edit flourishes happens to be in many of the areas where the studio version failed. Therefore, a sizeable portion of criticism will be raised in relation to the 2017 theatrical cut when discussing the 2021 version. None of this is intended to kick a dead horse, but is done to emphasise the strengths of the most recent interpretation of this movie. If you’d like a better view of my thoughts toward the theatrical cut, you can ready my original view here.

On March 18th a four-year-long fantasy made its way into the material world. After the original cut of Justice League dimmed out the flames of the DCEU, the man who started it all returned. After a $70 million budget and several months of various reshoots, Zack Snyder’s Justice League was born.

From a personal perspective, perhaps the most surprising thing about this film, above all else, is just how much I enjoyed it. Although I consider the film to be bloated mess that frequently falls victim to the usual Snyder trappings, the context of Zack Snyder’s Justice League makes for a thrilling and fascinating watch. It’s a gigantic, tangled, beefed up ride of a movie that seems to defy all odds. After spending a good few days in the run-up to its release wondering how I was going to stay awake through a 242 minutes version of a movie I didn’t particularly enjoy the first time around, I ended up walking away with a spring in my step.

One of the best things about this movie is the fact it is the most explicit and in-depth glances at a film that was never made. If we park the entitled fan crap that kicked off prior to this film getting green-lit, we’re left with what can only be described as a fascinating product, one that only exists due to a number of coincidental occurrences that happened during months preceding its release. Stories of would-be films and studio-botched projects have emerged from the walls of the Hollywood offices since the days of their construction. Ideas change, directors are fired, scriptwriters are rehired, and the big kids with the cash occasionally do 180s in the midst of a production. Ideas change and life happens. While there have been attempts to bring dead projects to life in the form of Graphic Novels (Willian Gibson’s Alien 3) or mild Blu-ray recuts (Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut [2006]) never have we been in a position in which an aborted alternative film release has been brought to life in the form of a finished, fully-polished, unedited cut.

Not only is Zack Snyder’s Justice League a recut of its theatrical release, it’s been touched up, reshot, rewritten and re-scored with over $70 million dollar’s worth of additional cash. This isn’t simply a re-edit, it’s the next best thing to an entire remake. In general, there’s something invigorating about watching a director’s cut. Even if it detracts from the finished product, witnessing bonus content in a given movie feels like an additional treat; a peak behind the curtain of the fictional world these characters occupy. When we cut to a populated LV426 in the director’s cut of Aliens (1986/1992), we don’t care that it removes the mystery and tension of later scenes. The fact we’re getting chance to see what this world looked like prior to its devastation ignites a thrill in one’s bones.  Directors cuts give us a chance to look at the bigger picture, to see new corners of a fictional world while gaining further insight into the directors’ original intentions.

Now take that feeling of glee and amplify it tenfold. Ranging from minuscule extensions to already-seen scenes to entirely new sequences altogether, Zack Snyder’s Justice League takes the thrill of an extended cut to new heights. Old subplots have been widened, new ones applied all together, and previously undeveloped protagonists fleshed out into fully-formed characters. While hefty portions of footage from the theatrical cut have remained in this version, the vast expansion has resulted in them transforming before our very eyes. The shape of th story has remoulded and Recontextualised itself into an entirely new beast.

Perhaps one of my favourite aspects of this cut is the expansion of its characters, particularly those who were sidelined or underused in the original. One of the advantages of having a four-hour long canvas to play with is it gives Snyder a chance to give the key players of his movie time to reflect and converse with one another. While the original cut didn’t seemingly have enough time for the story’s inhabitants to sit around and discuss their experiences and place within the wider narrative, Zack Snyder’s Justice League is at liberty to give its protagonists and antagonists time to develop.

Barry Allen’s Flash (Ezra Miller) is one such character. In the original, Allen’s role was to function as the annoying “funny” guy who wasn’t all that great at being a hero if we’re being honest. It makes one wonder why Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) brought him aboard the Justice League in the first place. Were there really no other superhumans available at the time? Did he just want someone aboard who could crack naff japes and keep the tone frothy during perilous situations? Anyhow, in this version, Allen’s character is given ample more screen time which gives the character more room to breathe. He still pops many of the same quips as he did last time around, only now there is an actual person surrounding the humour. Snyder’s version emphasises the relationship between Barry and his imprisoned father; something that’s alluded to in the 2017 version, but never fully fleshed out enough to become profound enough. Allen also plays a significant part in the climactic sequence, putting himself in a sacrificial position that allows the Justice League to avert annihilation and save the day. Snyder’s Allen is a brave and troubled kid who uses humour as a mask; miles more interesting than the quippy plum we got last time around.

Another character vastly transformed is Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds). Aside from the visual makeover which makes him look a billion times more terrifying than the video-game-looking monstrosity we got before, Steppenwolf’s backstory is vastly altered to include a more logical motive to his actions. He’s a disgraced lieutenant, scrambling hopelessly in an attempt to satisfy his cosmically abhorrent master, Darkseid (Ray Porter). His methods to try and please the beast who favours him now more is by obtaining the three mother boxes that will allow him to conquer earth. There’s a desperation to this version of Steppenwolf that makes him a far more dangerous threat to this world. I’ve always appreciated film villains who are depicted as essentially pathetic people-pleasers who act out of despondency. It’s through such desperation and blind loyalty that make them so utterly dangerous in the first place. They aren’t simply unbelievable stereotypes who are evil for the thrill of it, but monsters created by their need to be accepted by venomous individuals or institutions they belong to. Such antagonists feel believable and equally menacing. A ticking time-bomb, willing to go as far as it takes in order to win back the respect of those above them. Steppenwolf becomes such a character here; pathetic and shamed, but also willing to tear the universe apart to rebuild his reputation.

Of all the character expansions served up in Zack Snyder’s Justice League, however, the finest example has to be Victor Stone’s Cyborg (Ray Fisher). As many will be aware, following the release 2017 cut, Fisher came forward to discuss the levels of abuse and mistreatment he received at the hands of Joss Whedon and other members of the film’s production team during his time on set. While recounting some of the abuse Fisher faced during Whedon’s time working on the project with him, Fisher discusses how Whedon chose to cut much of the back story concerning Victor Stone and his father, Silas Stone (Joe Morton), from the theatrical cut. Not only does Snyder’s cut confirm the extent to which Whedon reduced Victor and Silas’ presence within the theatrical release, it also reveals how absurd an idea such a decision was. Victor and his father are pivotal players in both a narrative and emotional sense when it comes to this movie. Reinstating them into the 2021 cut improves the plot considerably. They are crucial when it comes to moving the story forward. Furthermore, they provide some of the most heartfelt sequences Zack Snyder has produced in his career up until this point. The restoration of Victor and Silias are perhaps the most enjoyable aspects of this film, making the existence of the Snyder cut all the more worthwhile.

There’s a lot to love in Zack Snyder’s Justice League. The fabulous rescoring of the soundtrack by Thomas Holkenborg, gorgeous CGI recreations of Steppenwolf, fleshed out character arcs, improved narrative context and unending giddiness felt by witnessing an oceans’ worth of supplementary footage make for a thrilling ride. The film does still have its problems of course, some of which can be difficult to overlook, even in light of all the good that can be taken away from it.

For starters, it’s vastly bloated. In spite of the benefits a beefed up runtime provide the film with, there’s also mounds of content in here that’s painfully unnecessary. In classic Zack Snyder fashion, we’re forced to sit through sequences that provide next to no benefit to the larger plot. We even get entire minutes’ worth of content in which characters walk down streets, sing at seashores, rescue people they fancy in hyper-slow-motion, and dream about aborted future DC projects (again!). For all the good that comes from a liberated runtime, these are the moments in which giving Snyder 100% creative control become painful. I fully appreciate Snyder is making the most of the freedom he’s getting to bring a project to life in a way he otherwise wouldn’t be able to – and who can blame him for that matter – but from a viewers’ perspective, it’s moments like these that make you feel the four-hour runtime. I’d understand his motives for putting such sequences in if the movie’s run time was far too short for its own good, but in a film that’s already bursting at the scenes with plot and content, why so much padding?

And while we are on the subject of unnecessary runtime, let’s talk about the film’s epilogue. The final 30-minutes are perhaps the strangest inclusion this cut, mainly because they do not belong to this movie in any way shape or form. There is absolutely no way Warner Bros would have allowed this content to be included in the previous cut, regardless of whether Snyder remained onboard or not. I can therefore assume much of this footage was rewritten and shot during the reshoots taking place during the months prior to its release.

The epilogue is essentially an amplified version of the bewildering dream sequence from Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice. Although the sequence gives us a little more of an idea as to what that sequence was supposedly all about – and is probably one of the reasons Snyder decided to include it in the first place – it remains just as attached and nonsensical as it did the last time around. I mean what is the logic behind this scene? Does Bruce Wayne have the ability to dream about alternative timelines that potentially lie in his future? I thought Wayne was just a super-rich mortal? Am I missing something here? Is there a reason he can see into the future? I’m guessing there may have been some intention to explain this in future Synderverse movies. Problem is, considering the DC movies have no intention of proceeding ahead with this story line, there’s a high chance we’ll get no further clarification (then again, I said we’d never get a Snyder cut, yet here we are…).

There’s an argument to be made that the epilogue functions more as a bonus reel intended to reward fans of Snyder’s work. I can get behind that idea. It’s also probably Snyder indulging in the idea of pretending to set up a shared universe. If you’re a storyteller who is given freedom to do absolutely anything you want with a $70 million budget, why not throw everything you want at the wall; despite whether it will pay off or not. I think the main reason I struggled to invest in this particular portion of the film lies in the fact I spent the previous three and a half hours consuming a plot that’s now wrapped up. Exhaustion meant consuming a semi-detached mini movie after a vast epic was a little too much for my fatigued attention span. Also, I’m not a huge fan of seeing teasers or mysteries for stories I’ll probably never get to see (it’s one of the reasons I hate planned trilogies that never come to fruition following a box office flop).

Zack Snyder’s Justice League is a big, bloated and occasionally messy love letter to a faded vision. It’s also fascinating and wildly entertaining. For all its flaws and Snyder-heavy trappings that would have frustrated the life out of me in any other context, I had an exceptional amount of fun watching this. If you love directors cuts or hearing about potential visions for films that never were, this is the sort of movie that will enthral you. It’s a movie that should not exist under normal circumstances, and would never get released in a theatrical climate. Except as we now know, normal no longer exists. Plus we’re not watching this in a cinema. An impossible project assigned to another universe has somehow made it into our own reality, available on streaming services accessible in our own homes.

Easily the best of the Snyder trilogy, and hands down one of his best movies to date. Such a statement is not damning with faint praise. This is great stuff and absolutely worth a watch.   

Published by Amber Poppitt

I'm an autistic, trans writer from the UK with dreams of someday becoming a professional screenwriter. I also happen to be a huge film/TV/novel enthusiast with an undying obsession toward Doctor Who.

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