You could forgive me if I doubted.
After years of hearing about the mythological ‘Snyder Cut’, there was simply no way that this film could meet expectations. After all, the original film was such a tepid piece of fodder that there was simply no way that a few tweaks or additional scenes could self-correct a franchise that had fallen so far off the rails. Now, with a refreshed budget and a new home on HBOMax and Blu-ray, Zack Snyder’s Justice League has finally arrived.
And I admit that I was stunned by the results.
The details of the Snyder Cut’s resurgence has been well-documented. Determined not to copy Marvel’s roadmap to success, DC chartered their own path that rushed the process. By the time that The Avengers came around, standalone films had charted a path that allowed audiences to connect with the characters before they attempted to work together. Falling behind in the box office, the release of Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice gave DC the chance to try and regain some traction in the pop culture world. In their attempt to speed up the process, they threw their characters into films without any proper introductions. Whether they were attempting to ‘catch up’ to Marvel or simply afraid of being accused of ‘copying’ Disney’s juggernaut franchise, the result was a middling mess of confusion that left no time to create something special.
After Joss Whedon’s cut of the Justice League failed to catch on with audiences, WB may have thought they were free of the franchise with a chance to reboot things once again. However, they underestimated their fans. After an unprecedented fan campaign that lasted three years and a hashtag (#ReleaseTheSnyderCut) that simply wouldn’t die, WB found themselves portrayed as the villains of a fiendish plot to suppress a director’s vision. Even so, they held firm to their comment that any other version for the film simply did not exist.
All that changed with the creation of HBOMax. Even if Snyder had been able to complete the film initially, there’s simply no way that the WB would have allowed a four-hour cut to be released in theatres, especially for a franchise that had been viewed as flailing. Although, with the move to streaming, Snyder suddenly had the opportunity to lean in to his longer take on the film. All of a sudden, he had the time (and freedom) to tell the story his way. Given more space in the world of digital media, Snyder’s League feels less like a theatrical release and more like the first chapter of a mega mini-series event. At a time when binge-watching has taken over the ‘theatrical experience’, Zack Snyder’s Justice League leans into our current obsession with long-form storytelling, complete with ‘chapters’ marking breaks within the film.
Most importantly though, what about the quality of the film itself?
The truth is that it’s good. Very, very good.
Shockingly good, really.
In the new cut, Zack Snyder’s Justice League picks up immediately following the events of Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. After Superman’s (Henry Cavill) death, the world is left with a need for heroes. As such, Batman (Ben Affleck) and Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) begin building a team of super-humans who will stand together against an ancient evil that is preparing to return and exact revenge on humanity.
Although I have never considered myself a ‘Snyder-apologist’, one can’t help but recognize the quality of his epic saga. The ‘director’s cut’ is far from a new concept in our culture. Even so, the extent of these re-edits usually amounts to a few additional scenes or some updated special effects. In the case of the new League, Snyder offers an almost entirely different story with new subplots and expanded character beats.
In fact, it’s not an exaggeration to suggest that it improves on the original theatrical cut in virtually every way.
While Whedon’s original film attempted to ‘lighten’ the tone with more quips and less exposition, that vision never truly fit with the world that Snyder had already created. Marked by rushed character arcs that never satisfy and a bland villain, the original film rarely works. Nevertheless, with the move to HBOMax, Snyder’s version has the proper time to explore the stories of new characters without betraying the larger superhero story. Though this saga would obviously have benefited from prior stand-alone films, Snyder’s League does its very best to compensate by giving meaningful backstories to its new additions, especially Ray Fisher’s Cyborg. Once a side character with little relevance, Cyborg has suddenly become the film’s emotional core with an arc that has a significant impact on the outcome of the story.
In addition, the most notable change comes through a more fully realized villain in Steppenwolf. Whereas Whedon trimmed the brute’s story down to almost nothing, Snyder’s new footage offers a meaningful role to the character. Instead of a standard ‘big bad’ who’s forgettable (at best), the new League highlights his motivation and relationship to the larger impending force of nature in Darkseid. As a result, not only does Steppenwolf become more interesting to the viewer but his actions simply make more sense. (What’s more, new special effects give the character a much more menacing look, a factor that was lacking in the original cut.)
Of course, it’s also important to know that the film ends on an enormous cliff-hanger. Originally conceived to be the first of three films, League operates in grand strokes but never fully concludes. (For the record, Snyder has currently stated he has no intention of returning to the world.)
What’s more, despite its overall quality, this League will not likely win any new converts from those who struggle to connect with Snyder’s vision. Although it goes without saying that this a vastly improved version of the film, all the Snyder-isms that will cause derision remain front and centre. Off-putting to some for his showmanship, there’s little question that his visual polish drives his work. Featuring a litany of stylized effects, slow-motion action and dark, gritty story-telling, League is Snyder is at his free-wheeling best yet he will still likely alienate viewers who are looking for something more along the lines of Marvel’s lighter, more humorous tone.
However, these vast differences are all very intentional. Whereas Marvel has taken a much more scientific or ‘human-centred’ approach to their content, Snyder’s vision for the DC Universe has always included viewing these heroes as modern gods. Though Marvel seems to create heroes on par with mankind, Snyder views characters like Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman as super beings who have been sent as examples to inspire humanity to greatness. (One need not look further than the giant monument to Superman to see that this is true.) There’s a deep admiration for his characters within Snyder’s work that hints at the spiritual longings of a culture looking for heroes. As such, his vision for the League meets every superhuman act with a grand crescendo. Bursts of electricity, clangs of metal and a bombastic soundtrack give the film an epic scale that highlights his vision. To Snyder, the DC Universe is an example of our modern mythology and, as such, he is unapologetic in his reverence for the material.
With the release of his ambitious superhero opus, Snyder truly does come out as the winner here. With grandiose storytelling and vastly improved character arcs, Zack Snyder’s Justice League shows what the director can do when given the time (and money) to bring his vision to life. As a result, this reborn League certainly feels like the unexpectedly epic conclusion that this chapter of the DCEU (and Snyder himself) needed.
That is, until #RestoreTheSnyderVerse takes effect.
Zack Snyder’s Justice League is available to stream on HBOMax and on Blu-ray. The special feature included is “Road to Justice League” as Snyder reflects on the three DC films he made for Warner Bros.