A.I

Zack Snyder’s Justice League does right by Cyborg but no one else

On Oct. 14, 2014, Warner Bros. announced its long-awaited response to the Marvel Cinematic Universe: 10 DC films, kicking off with 2016’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, and concluding with a Green Lantern reboot planned for 2020. Looking at the press release today, it seems hilarious in its hubris — while six of those 10 movies did come out, and a seventh (The Flash) does seem like it will happen, it’s safe to say that the intended plan for all of them was initially very different. Film studios make plans, and Darkseid laughs.

The failure of Justice League’s theatrical release and the collapse of the initial DC film universe around it has made it one of the most infamous productions in the modern era of superhero cinema. After two previous Zack Snyder DC films, Man of Steel and Batman v Superman, failed to match the impossible billion-dollar revenues of The Avengers, Warner Bros., according to Snyder, began to push back on his plans. At the same time, Snyder suffered a terrible personal tragedy in the death of his daughter Autumn, and made the decision to leave the film rather than engage in a long creative struggle.

Following Snyder’s exit, Justice League was handed off to Avengers writer/director Joss Whedon, who rewrote and reshot significant portions of the film, to mostly disastrous results. That sense of disaster extended to his behind-the-scenes conduct, a still-unresolved scandal that has overtaken discussion about the film. Since last summer, actor Ray Fisher, who plays the mechanically enhanced hero Cyborg in the film, has said that Whedon exhibited “abusive and unprofessional” behavior on the set during reshoots. He’s also accused then-DC Entertainment president Geoff Johns and producer Jon Berg of enabling him. While Fisher has declined to cite many specifics, Warner Bros. conducted an internal investigation and, in a statement, said “remedial action” has been taken. No one has said what that means, and perhaps no one ever will — for his part, Fisher has said he is not satisfied with the result.

There are a lot of ways to read Zack Snyder’s Justice League — as a filmmaker’s passion project, a work of restorative justice geared toward righting wrongs, as a case study in the symbiosis of corporate opportunism and toxic fandom, as a swan song for the DC Extended Universe — but mostly, it’s a monument to the corporate hubris of October 2014. It was a big, audacious plan to reverse-engineer a competitor’s success, entrusted to a man who could not have been any more different from that competitor. Zack Snyder’s Justice League is a roughly assembled four-hour version of the movie he likely set out to make — one that was, according to those initial plans, guaranteed a sequel.

That sequel was doomed, though, and the movie we have now doesn’t necessarily make a good argument for it. It is, however, endlessly fascinating to think about.

PART I: IS IT BETTER?

Photo: HBO Max

Let’s get the biggest question out of the way first: Yes, Zack Snyder’s Justice League is better than the theatrical cut of the film. Just about anything would have been. But the new edit also isn’t quite a movie.

Second thing to get out of the way: Breaking this review up into sections wasn’t my idea. It was Zack’s.

Zack Snyder’s Justice League is curiously divided into “parts” with interstitial title cards; there are six parts (this review has fewer) followed by an epilogue. Some are about 20 minutes long, others closer to an hour. They’re too unevenly spread out and narratively thin to be “episodes” — don’t expect them to appear as individual TV-style chapters on HBO Max, but the streamer does say viewers will be able to navigate to each part, as if they were chapters on a DVD or Blu-Ray. Still, they’re natural bookmarks that help make the four-hour journey feel more manageable, and not as long as it actually is.

They also make the movie feel disjointed, a series of vignettes that build on each other, but don’t necessarily make a story. While Justice League is an ensemble epic by necessity — introducing Aquaman (Jason Momoa), the Flash (Ezra Miller), and Cyborg (Ray Fisher) to the DC Extended Universe for the first time, in addition to its villain(s) — Snyder never really finds a neat way to tie them all together. A big part of the Snyder League’s bloat comes from embracing inelegance: Snyder chooses one character (Cyborg) to get a complete arc, while he gives everyone else lengthy sequences that mostly amount to snapshots of their lives. Snyder’s priority is in giving each character time to look cool as hell, but not necessarily in making the audience like them any more — except for Cyborg, who gets a proper tragic origin story doled out piecemeal. He has the closest thing to an emotional throughline in the film. Sometimes, it even seems like he’s the protagonist.

Cyborg’s story is the point where Justice League’s troubled production becomes impossible to ignore. In the absence of closure, Zack Snyder’s Justice League offers a window into a world where the film’s biggest controversy never happened, and first-time star Ray Fisher gets to carry a blockbuster movie. It’s a shame Fisher’s performance is weighed down by unsightly CGI that often makes him look like he’s not actually sharing the screen with other actors, but in some scenes — particularly those involving Cyborg’s father, Silas Stone (Joe Morton) — it almost works.

Unfortunately, what’s really remarkable about Zack Snyder’s Justice League is how unsurprising it is. Almost all its additions expand the story sideways, not forward. We simply spend more time with these characters, watching them fight longer and slower (there’s a lot of slow-mo), and in a much clearer context. This is perhaps a given when a version of a film is twice as long as the previous edit, but the storytelling in this edition makes a lot more sense, even though it still feels hollow. This cut isn’t going to win anyone over — it’s a self-serious sermon to the converted that isn’t terribly concerned with getting the audience to like its characters — but it all goes down much smoother than the theatrical cut, which feels garish and jagged by comparison.

PART II: WHERE WE TALK ABOUT PART TWO

The Justice League assembled on the edge of a cliff.

Photo: HBO Max

The most substantial changes to the Justice League story in Zack Snyder’s version are the ones that seem to confirm the suspicion that it was never originally intended to be a standalone film. It feels like the line Zack Snyder and his producing partner and wife Deborah Snyder gave about how it was always going to be one was a bit of Hollywood bullshit.

This is perhaps the most important thing to understand about this new edit: It’s very easy to see trailers with a new villain, hear about the film’s four-hour runtime, and think it’s going to have a whole second film’s worth of story. It does not. This is the Justice League Part One that was initially pitched in DC’s press release seven years ago, before plans went south.

To that end, the plot is largely the same as in the original cut: Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds), a powerful warrior from another world, arrives on Earth in search of three Mother Boxes, powerful whatsits capable of leveling a planet, and Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) gathers heroes to stop him. This time, however, motivations that were previously ignored or glossed over are made clear: Steppenwolf arrives because Superman’s final scream as he died at the end of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice reverberated across the entire planet, waking up the long-dormant Mother Boxes and alerting him to their presence. That’s literally the first sequence in the film: hearing Henry Cavill deliver a death-wail that echoes out all over the world. Zack Snyder’s Justice League does not do subtle.

The new wrinkles in the story of the Justice League’s formation and battle against Steppenwolf, are all the ones that gesture to the once-planned Justice League Part Two. Steppenwolf is revealed to not in fact be the movie’s big bad — he’s just a lackey eager to get back in the good graces of his planet-killing New God, Darkseid. Scenes where the League members learn about what they’re up against are fleshed out a little more, and viewers crucially get a little more insight into the notorious “Knightmare” sequence from Batman v Superman, which ostensibly would have paid off in full in Justice League Part Two.

Virtually all of the film is made from footage Snyder shot before his departure; the only new scene shot specifically for this release comes during the film’s extended epilogue, which is mostly a tease of what could have been. For a four-hour movie, Snyder’s Justice League feels incomplete.

PART III: WHAT’S DIFFERENT?

Steppenwolf’s shiny, overarmored new look in Zack Snyder’s Justice League

Photo: HBO Max

Loads of things are different, but the sum total of them suggests that maybe Snyder’s vision wasn’t all that compromised by studio meddling, just his sequel plans. The film is now rated R as opposed to the previous film’s PG-13, but that doesn’t change a whole lot — two characters say “fuck” several hours apart, and there’s more digital gore, but not the sort that makes the film feel any more violent than it already was. It’s mostly silly, and it only happens a couple of times.

Also new is the film’s score. Thomas “Junkie XL” Holkenborg’s new soundtrack is turgid, overly somber stuff that ditches the phoned-in but occasionally inspiring heroics of Danny Elfman’s theatrical-cut score. Mostly, it works as a backing track for Snyder’s visual excess, but it’s still forgettable — except for maybe the inexplicable and hilarious decision to preface nearly every Wonder Woman appearance with an embarrassing “one-woman wail” cue.

The needle-drops are also all different, with music cues like the White Stripes’ “Icky Thump” Aquaman hype reel dropped, which is really a shame. “There is a Kingdom,” the Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds song that takes its place, isn’t really better — it mostly suggests a desire to erase every trace of the original movie. If that’s the case, it’s a petty gesture I can’t help but respect.

Zack Snyder’s Justice League is most interesting when it’s approached as a work of art restoration, with the theatrical cut fresh in mind. Walking through the parts that were scrapped and repurposed in the first film, and noting how they look in their original context is a terrible way to enjoy a movie, but it isn’t the worst way to spend a rainy afternoon: Playing movie archeologist and contemplating, for example, the way Snyder’s version seems to have a very different take on Wonder Woman’s powers, making her appear more Superman-esque than either the theatrical version or Patty Jenkins’ films. It’s hard to imagine anyone choosing to watch this version cold, without any prior familiarity or an overwhelming feeling of curiosity. It’s too roughly hewn together, an assembly cut with finished visual effects. This is the beginning of a movie, still lacking a narrative spine.

One of the reworked scenes teased for Zack Snyder’s Justice League is a longer version of a flashback present in the theatrical release, where the history of the Mother Boxes are explained. It’s very Lord of the Rings, a story about an alliance between men, Atlanteans, and Amazons, defending Earth from a would-be conqueror, millennia ago. In the theatrical cut, the adversary is Steppenwolf, beaten back by an old age of heroes just like he eventually will be by the present-day Justice League. But in the new cut, it’s Darkseid, whom Steppenwolf serves — the true existential threat behind the events of this film.

The new scene is longer and more detailed, highlighting details that viewers of the theatrical cut might have missed the first time around — freaking Zeus is in there! — but it’s also the same scene. Steppenwolf is just replaced with Darkseid, one digital puppet going through the same motions as the other. None of it particularly matters.

PART IV: THE ZACK SNYDER OF IT ALL

A close-up of Henry Cavill’s grim face as Superman in Zack Snyder’s Justice League

Photo: HBO Max

Zack Snyder might be the last superhero auteur. His primary competition at Marvel Studios has been guided by producers like Kevin Feige, which makes them cohesive, but also gives them a house style that feels a little stale by now. On some level, this is the reason discussion of his DC superhero films is so impassioned, and at times hostile: these movies are authored.

As with any blockbuster, countless people are responsible for bringing these films to life, but they also unquestionably bear Snyder’s signature: they reference the comics he clearly adores, embrace the interpretations of characters he’s most interested in, and tap into the primal energy that defines what he considers cool. For nearly a decade, that vision dictated an entire slate of movies, and their aesthetic still persists even as plans are made to move beyond it.

This is the heart of Snyder mystique: Somehow, the giant corporate machinery still produced something that felt like it was made by a person. He has a clear point of view that can be agreed with or rejected, but either way, it’s specific and unique in superhero cinema. That specificity is admirable, especially as we enter decade two of the MCU, but it’s come with some strange baggage, a cult of personality that colors how the entire enterprise is perceived. It’s possible — likely, even — that some viewers will be preemptively turned off by it all. And if they push past all of that, they still might not feel particularly welcomed by the movie in front of them.

Zack Snyder’s Justice League is remarkably uninterested in people. Its heroes are gods with no believers, walking nuclear weapons that have deigned to prevent Earth from destruction. In this, Zack Snyder’s Justice League might be the only honest work of superhero cinema, a film that understands these figures as tools of domination. They are here to level the culture, to narrow our discourse and occupy our thoughts every few months. They don’t bother with the niceties of MCU heroes: no quippy banter, no GIF-friendly gestures at the camera. They are shock and awe, disaster porn speckled with a few shots that look like the Frank Miller comics fans loved growing up, all to make the blitz of corporate IP go down easier.

There’s a word for this, one Zack Snyder understands on a primal level and has explored across almost his entire filmography. It’s what he devotes most of his energy to in Zack Snyder’s Justice League. It’s the thing the theatrical cut was trying to hide, with its awkwardly inserted slapstick, script-doctored jokes, and brighter colors. The word is violence.

Violence dictates the compositions of Snyder’s most arresting imagery. Violence fuels a considerable number of his additions. Violence threatens Earth, saves it from alien conquerers, and teases Snyder’s would-be sequel. Snyder has a narrow view of the superhero mythos, and a cynical one, uninterested in the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s endless platitudes about what it means to be a hero in the complicated modern world. His version of the story is simpler: heroes are people who have power, and therefore must wield it.

This, ironically, adds another layer of tragedy to Cyborg as Zack Snyder’s Justice League’s almost-protagonist. In this film, he’s a version of Frankenstein’s monster, a creation of hubris from a scientist in denial. He hates what he’s become: a being connected to the entire world by his new powers, but alienated from it, mourning his perceived loss of humanity. It seems especially cruel then, to place him in Snyder’s Justice League pantheon: a character desperate to feel in a movie that mostly rejects emotion. His human half is supposedly what matters, but it’s hard for Snyder to focus on that when he so fervently believes that the mechanical half — the half that holds the power, and handles the fighting — is what really gets shit done. Snyder’s worlds are violent, and his characters have to be gods to survive and thrive. And in a world where the heroes are gods, humanity is cheap.



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