Four years since Joss Whedon dropped his reviled cut of Justice League, original director Zack Snyder gets the chance to tell his story his way. But is it worth all the fuss?
Zack Snyder’s Justice League plays a cover of Leonard Cohen ‘Hallelujah’ over the end credits. The laziness of ending your film with one of the most overused songs of all time tells you everything you need to know about the director’s recut of this notorious 2017 flop.
Justice League (2017) was a film that almost nobody liked and fewer people remember. The film was Zack Snyder’s third contribution to the DC Extended Universe after Man of Steel and Batman v Superman, and its critical and commercial failure (despite grossing over US$650 million worldwide, it didn’t break even) was so serious that it threatened to derail the DCEU entirely.
Zack Snyder’s Justice League is not that film. This version, colloquially known for years as the “Snyder Cut”, is the result of a series of events that are frankly, more fascinating than anything actually in it. In March 2017, eight months before the original film’s eventual release, Snyder walked away from the project citing creative conflict with the studio – including over a studio stipulation that the film be under two hours – and the tragic death of his daughter.
Enter Joss Whedon. The semi-cancelled Buffy creator, who had already directed two massively successful Avengers films for Marvel, was brought in to finish post-production on the film. He ended up rewriting and reshooting over half of it. Essential backstory was chopped out, character development was left on the cutting room floor, and Snyder’s super-serious tone was replaced with Whedon’s familiar, quip-happy patter. Both fans and critics hated it. The cast who weren’t already contracted for future films immediately departed their roles.
Despite their disappointment, DC fans couldn’t let go of what could have been. Rumours of a version of the film that was true to Snyder’s original concept persisted, with the director’s vocal fanbase and comic book nerds uniting behind a single hashtag: #ReleasetheSnyderCut. Three years and $70 million worth of reshoots later, the fans got their wish: a four hour superhero epic that is, for better and often worse, every ounce Snyder’s vision.
So was it all worth it?
Honestly, no. I can’t restate hard enough that this is a film, in 2021, that has a cover of ‘Hallelujah’ over the credits, and a cover that the singer herself has explicitly called a “very sexual” interpretation. (This is the second time Snyder has used ‘Hallelujah’ after 2009’s Watchmen, and I firmly believe you get one use of ‘Hallelujah’ per career, no more.)
Zack Snyder’s Justice League is a better film than Whedon’s, sure, but a great many films are better than the original version of Justice League. Whedon’s cut was a mess: the quips only made a leadenly self-important film even more unwatchable, and the studio’s demands to keep the runtime under two hours made it almost impossible to understand. The good news about Snyder’s cut, which has been split into six chapters with self-important titles like ‘Beloved Mother, Beloved Son’, is that it actually makes sense. Sense doesn’t equal quality, though.
The plot, such as it is, is what you’d expect of a superhero film that unites the franchise’s flagship characters. An evil creature from out of space, Steppenwolf, wants to terraform Earth to make it more suitable for his boss, Darkseid (cut completely, somehow, from Whedon’s version). To do this he has to reunite three Mother Boxes (mystical artefact nonsense, just think MCU’s Infinity Stones), which have now been reactivated thanks to Superman’s death scream at the end of Batman v Superman. Batman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, The Flash and Cyborg have to unite to stop Steppenwolf, and they resurrect Superman along the way.
If that sounds stupid, it’s because it is stupid. Snyder’s charm, at least for his fans, is that he treats all of this like it’s Ibsen, whereas Whedon (and by proxy the rest of the MCU) will always take a wry laugh over a sincere cry. Snyder’s take on the DC Universe is more than earnest; it’s full-blown, elbows-deep melodrama. The characters are mythical, larger than life, and their feelings are even more so (although it’s unfortunate that his cast isn’t quite able to match the dramatic intensity of Snyder’s vision). Tonally, his take on the DCEU is not markedly different to that of Batman director Christopher Nolan, but at least Nolan’s movies have a bit of political commentary to offset the dourness. Snyder’s darkness is all surface. Attempt to penetrate all the aggressive slow-mo, faux-orchestral scoring and declarative statements of heroism, and the truth becomes clear: this whole franchise is still full of stale air, regardless of the cut.
Snyder’s value has always been as a technician: he can put together a compelling action sequence … and that’s about it. As an artist, though, he’s severely lacking. Subtlety and nuance are not in his toolbox. Whenever Wonder Woman appears on screen, she is accompanied by a one-woman wail. Every scene is colour corrected to the point where it might as well all be CGI. Every line is delivered with the cadence of a pastor delivering the last line of his sermon. Snyder doesn’t paint with broad strokes, he uses a damn roller. It’s all impact, no effect.
Since the dawn of cinema, studios have been getting in the way of filmmaking visionaries. Stories of directors fighting back – like Hayao Miyazaki sending Weinstein a sword with a note saying ‘no cuts’ – are to be cherished, but Zack Snyder’s Justice League is different. This wasn’t a director wrestling back control of his art; Snyder had apparently resigned himself to the film’s fate (though he couldn’t stop himself dropping hints about what his version of the Justice League would’ve looked like). No, this film is here thanks to his fans – including a very vocal, toxic contingent – spamming the internet until Warner Brothers capitulated. Let’s be honest, though: money is the motivator here. If there wasn’t a struggling streaming service to promote, we wouldn’t be seeing a second of this cut.
On the surface, this film is a hard-won, community-driven restoration of an artist’s vision, but dig a little deeper and it’s not hard to see the links between the tactics that got this film released and those that got Leslie Jones, Kelly Marie Tran and countless women in the gaming community pushed off the internet. What’s the difference between Snyder and these people? I’ll let you sit with that one.
Artists, should, in general, be allowed to achieve their vision: what’s the point of art otherwise? But it’s a monkey paw of a situation that the film a massive studio like Warner Brothers kowtowed to is… Justice League. Even if the film was great, it’s a futile exercise: Snyder’s stepped away from the franchise, and the solo DC films – Wonder Woman, Aquaman, the upcoming Flash – make no reference to the events of this one, and aren’t likely to do so as those characters march forward. Even within this franchise, there’s little justification for this cut to exist, outside of fan demand.
What’s the point of reviewing Zack Snyder’s Justice League? The people who called for it will love it no matter what. People who don’t care will continue not to care. It might seem like artistic vision is the winner on the day, but if this is what we get as a result – another film plundering the corpse of ‘Hallelujah’ for emotional depth, amongst other sins – I can’t say that it was worth the fight.
Zack Snyder’s Justice League is streaming now on Neon.
Subscribe to Rec Room a weekly newsletter delivering The Spinoff’s latest videos, podcasts and other recommendations straight to your inbox.