Between the hours of 5 PM and Midnight on Thursday, I watched nothing but Justice League. First, I watched the original two-hour theatrical run of Justice League and then followed that with the four-hour Zack Snyder’s Justice League. And you know what? I feel robbed of a truly great movie.
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For all the people who need to know geek credentials, I present the following. I’m a lifelong DC fan, I prefer Superman to Batman, Batman to Iron Man, and despite those facts, I do like Marvel as well. If you made me pick a favorite Green Lantern, that’d be John Stewart followed closely by Kyle Raner.
That leaves me spending a lot of time watching shows like Young Justice, and just old enough to have grown up on Batman the Animated Series and Justice League Unlimited, in addition to my time spent reading comic books. But to say I went in expecting to be disappointed by Zack Snyder’s Justice League would be an understatement. What could possibly live up to the hype?
We can’t get into Zack Snyder’s Justice League without at least a brief overview of how we got here. In 2013, Zack Snyder kicked off a new DC Extended Universe (DCEU) with Man of Steel, the first decent Superman film since 1978’s Superman. It didn’t nail Clark Kent farm boy, but it was an excellent start. That led to a less than stellar Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, a truly remarkable Wonder Woman spinoff, and then the theatrical run of Justice League (I’ll refer to this as the Whedon cut for clarity).
I don’t think it’s fair to call Justice League an abomination. But it wasn’t good. It wasn’t even coherent half the time. The big bad guy looked atrocious, the tone shifted between dark and whimsy from one scene to another, and it had plot holes the size of a Bat Cave.
The problem stems from how the movie came to be. During filming, the execs at Warner Bros. and DC started to doubt Snyder’s vision and fought him on detail after detail. Then tragedy struck, and Snyder’s daughter died. He stepped out to take care of family, as anyone would, and Joss Whedon took over.
Whedon decided to take the movie in a different direction, even though filming had already begun. He reshot scenes, added new content, and all of that famously led to the CGI’d Shaved Lip Debacle. And the mishmash of tones. At times it felt like you could call out which director created which scenes. It was a mess. And let’s not get into Whedon’s insistence on Wonder Woman butt shots or that cringey scene with Flash tripping onto her breasts. Those are mercifully cut from Snyder’s version.
But for all the problems Justice League had, it did have plenty of good moments. For the first time, you could feel the farm boy in Superman (Henry Cavill). Flash (Ezra Miller) added much-needed levity to the movie (I defy you to disagree with him on brunch). Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) showed strength of character in fighting the plan to bring Superman back to life. But everything from the plot to the music itself revealed a war of visions that led to a subpar product.
And so the fans revolted and called for a Snyder cut. And now we have it, for better and worse.
I’m throwing this here because I will be getting into details of the Zack Snyder cut, which means spoilers. You have been warned.
Snyder makes it known that this version of Justice League is miles apart from the Whedon version from the absolute beginning. The Whedon cut begins with strange cell phone footage of Superman talking about the meaning of hope before he died. The Snyder cut begins with Superman’s death cry literally heard around the world. You watch the scream spread across the globe for nearly two minutes, all in epic slow motion.
And that in many ways sums of how Snyder’s cut is different. At four hours, Snyder is willing to spend all the time in the world on the most minor and most insignificant details. And if something was light-hearted or funny, it very likely got the boot.
If you thought Flash was funny in the original cut, be prepared for disappointment as nearly all of those lines got the boot. If you roared at Aquaman (Jason Momoa) spilling his heart after he sat on the Lasso of Truth, don’t get your hopes up to see that. There’s no room for fun in the Snyderverse. Or at least, not much room. Likewise, the music gets an overhaul that’s more dark and brooding. Gone are callbacks to Danny Elfman’s Batman themes and John William’s Superman themes. We get dark and broody music and the return of the amazing Wonder Woman theme in their place.
Often, that “getting down to business” attitude and insistence of spending time on all the things does lead to a story that makes more sense. It’s never really clear why the Mother Boxes chose now to wake up in the original cut. At best, we got a throwaway line that maybe it’s because Superman died. In the Snyder cut, the scream tells us without a doubt that the Mother Boxes heard his death and realized Earth stood without its great defender.
In the Whedon film, it made no sense for Aquaman to be in Atlantis when Steppenwolf went out the second Mother Box. He hates Atlantis. It’s also unclear why he’d ask for a random Trident and armor from a people he despised. The Snyder cut inserts a scene explaining all of that, and it finally makes sense.
But for every scene that helped the plot make sense, there were so many more unnecessary scenes that just increased the run time. In the original cut, Wonder Woman’s mother fires an arrow to the land of man as a warning of the war to come; it comes and goes quickly. In the Snyder cut, we watch the arrow get hauled up from a vault, ceremoniously unpacked, listen to an explanation of the origin of the arrow, and on and on and on.
In the original cut, when Bruce Wayne talks to Aquaman for the first time, the latter swims away suddenly at the end of the conversation. As Arthur swims out in the Snyder cut, we listen to a group of women singing mournfully for thirty seconds while Burce looks on. Why? Reasons. It’s all fluff that we don’t need.
Synder made significant changes to the plot, and along the way, that means total character changes. In some cases, that led to an improvement, and others not so much.
Cyborg (Ray Fisher) is a much better character in this cut. In part because he has a character. He pulls a 180 from angry at his dad and his life to an almost happy jovial dude ready to be a superhero in the original cut. It feels weird. In Snyder’s cut, he’s angry. Very angry. And he should be. He’s less likable, but he’s a better, more understandable character. He uses that anger and feelings to drive him, and his relationship with his father comes to a stronger conclusion.
Batman becomes a man of faith, which is an odd thing to see. But instead of spending an entire movie fighting against the very team he put together, he puts his trust in them and Superman. It’s a good change, even if it contradicts my subsequent complaint.
Wonder Woman gets a mixed bag. Her fight scenes are somehow better, more powerful in the Snyder cut. The bank vault scene somehow got bigger, more explosive (literally in one case). But in the Snyder film, she goes along with the plan to bring Superman back from the dead without a second thought. Aquaman, Cyborg, and Flash all end up having doubts, but never Wonder Woman. The Whedon film gave her more strength of character; Snyder gave her more strength in a battle. Oh, and it treats Wonder Woman’s body with respect, so bonus points for that.
Flash isn’t funny anymore. And that’s honestly sad. But we get a better sense of how much his dad means to him, how hard he’s working in his jobs, and a lot more insight into his time-traveling powers. And we’re no longer treated to a doubting Flash who needs pep talks from Batman, nor are we treated to a fanboying Flash willing to challenge Superman to a race. Take that for what you will.
Aquaman is a bit of a wash, as in some ways he had the least to do in either movie. Unfortunately, some of his best quips went to the trash can in Snyder’s broody goals. But Momoa still shows us that Aquaman can be an awesome superhero.
Unfortunately, it’s perhaps Superman who gets the shortest end of the stick. In the Whedon cut, the gang brings him back to life with 48 minutes left in the movie. The Snyder cut brings back with an hour and 23 minutes left to go. Yet despite that, we don’t get much more time with him. And what we get is less of an overall character. Once he decides to join the crew, he picks a black suit for no reason and becomes a glorified punching machine. He barely says anything or does anything beyond punch the bad guy and brutally heat visions off one of Steppenwolf’s body parts. Perhaps the only thing the Whedon cut got right was Superman’s farm boy feel. That’s gone here.
So in the final scheme of things, is Zack Snyder’s Justice League a success? Well, in my mind, it has two bars to clear. The first bar is to be better than the Whedon cut. The second bar is to live up to all the Snydercut hype. The first bar is so epically low; Superman could step over it. The second bar is so incredibly high; Superman might not be able to leap it in a single bound.
Zack Snyder’s Justice League is an improvement on the Whedon cut. That’s without a doubt. Most of its plot makes sense for one. The first often had me yelling at the screen, “but why?” The second answered that question nearly every time. The music is usually (but not always) better. Alfred ties things together nicely; Wonder Woman literally strikes killing blows. The special effects are much better. Steppenwolf looks dangerous, and Cyborg’s red eye moves around like an eye.
But it’s four hours long. And you’d think with four hours, it would make complete and total sense. Alas, it doesn’t. In a significant change from the Whedon cut, Steppenwolf isn’t truly the big bad guy. He’s a henchman, capturing worlds in the name of Darkseid. Darkseid visited Earth once long ago to conquer it, but man, Amazons, old gods, Green Lanterns, and Atlantians banded together to defeat him. In the process, he sees the Anti-Life equation, something he has searched the universe over. As he is defeated, the three Mother Boxes he brought with him are left behind.
He goes on to tell stories of the one singular planet that fought back, the only world that drove him off, the only planet where the Mother Boxes can be found. But later, all the bad guys are surprised when this planet that just happens to have the three missing Mother Boxes is also the planet with Anti-Life equation. It’s a major plot hole that I just can’t reconcile. Sure, I can get behind Darkseid losing track of Earth. But the moment the first Mother Box shows up, they should have known this is the planet with the equation.
I have to imagine that in the effort to trim down this movie for theater viewing, someone could have caught that inconsistency—along with cutting tons of fluff, unnecessary scenes, and tightening up the whole story in general. And that’s why I feel robbed.
Zack Snyder’s Justice League is a good, decent movie. But it’s not a great movie. It meanders, it moves too slow, it skips all laughter, and though it solves nearly every plot issue with the Whedon cut, it introduces a few of its own. Like having a new superhero show up at the end to reveal that after watching three events that nearly ended the world, maybe now he cares and will do something in the future. Worse yet, it ruined that surprise reveal mid-way through the movie with a premature reveal.
Now I’m left imagining a world where the execs at WB trusted Snyder a bit more, where tragedy didn’t strike, and he got to finish a theater-appropriate movie in a two, perhaps two-and-a-half-hour run time. I want that Justice League. I want just a few bits from the Whedon cut slipped to lighten things up a smidgeon (and only a smidgeon). What we got is a good movie that’s too long. What we could have was a great movie that was just right. If only. But for now, I’ll take what we can get.
You can watch both the Whedon cut ofJustice League and Zack Snyder’s Justice League on HBO Max right now. I don’t recommend you watch them back to back as I did. But you should watch each at least once.