Well, folks, this is it. The epitaph of the DC Cinematic Universe. Everything the fans, the execs, the cast, the crew, and Zack Snyder ever wanted; all their hubris, their hopes, their ambitions, and their shattered dreams; everything that was promised, everything that came to be, and everything that never came to pass… all of it poured into this 240-minute behemoth, to be paraded through HBO Max so we may all finally lay the DCEU to rest and find the closure to move on. Zack Snyder’s Justice League isn’t a movie, it’s a funeral.
To be clear, I say that with the utmost respect for the very real death that’s cast a pall over this project since the gut-wrenching news of March 12th, 2017. This director’s cut is dedicated to the memory of Autumn Snyder, and I hope with all my heart that its completion may bring some measure of solace and closure to the loved ones left in the wake of her tragic suicide. I might add that Zack Snyder and his legion of supporters have already raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
There’s a very real possibility that this movie may have literally saved someone’s life. Zack Snyder publicly dedicated this movie to his late daughter, raising money and awareness to make sure that some family, some school, some community never has to suffer such traumatic loss as he did, and somebody at risk of suicidal depression might get the help that could’ve saved Autumn’s life. No matter how the film turns out or what happens next, that’s got to be worth some measure of gratitude and respect.
THAT BEING SAID…
The toxicity of the DC fanbase — most particularly with regard to the “Snyder cut” — has been very, VERY well–documented. Snyder and DC/WB can talk all they want about how the trolls and bullies are only a small minority of fans, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that the worst of the fanbase is somehow being rewarded for their rampant fuckery by getting the movie they demanded. There’s a very real possibility that this could set a dangerous precedent, an excuse for other entitled assholes in various other fandoms to break whatever they can until Hollywood finally caves.
Then again, maybe this is a calculated ploy by a company that’s billions of dollars in debt, stuck with an online streaming service that desperately needed a huge tentpole exclusive to drive up subscriptions and divert customers away from their other failed streaming service. Hell, maybe someone at DC/WB reached the same conclusion I did and figured this was a necessary step in closing the book on the DC Cinematic Universe before freshening up the superhero holdings into something more profitable. One thing’s for damn sure: Nobody at DC/WB/AT&T gives a rat’s ass about the fanbase, the characters, the Twitter feuds, or anything else except money. They finished the director’s cut because they figured it was worth a profit, nothing more and nothing less.
Anyway, I’ve long since taken the attitude that the proof is in the pudding. The hype, the promotions, whatever reputation any upcoming movie has, all of that ceases to matter once the film is released. After that, the film stands to be judged on its own merit and we all move on to obsessing over the next huge tentpole release. It was ever thus.
So, what have we got? Well, to start with, we’ve got a freaking four-hour movie. And believe it or not, the outrageous length of the film isn’t the problem. Indeed, four hours is exactly as long as the film needed to be to tell this story. That’s the problem.
When DC/WB structured this whole superfranchise, it was deliberately designed so that the Flash, Aquaman, Cyborg, and the rest of the DC Universe (outside the main Superman/Batman/Wonder Woman trinity, that is) would be introduced in this one massive movie before branching out into their respective franchises. I don’t know if anybody realized it at the time, but the drawback to this approach is that the “one massive movie” has to be this freaking massive. We have to spend so much time establishing these characters, their motivations, their powers, and that’s not even getting started on all the exposition necessary to explain their antagonist and the Apokaliptic threat we’re dealing with.
It’s like the execs wanted a movie on the scale of Avengers: Endgame, but without twenty other movies to develop the world and the characters. So instead, they crammed twenty movies’ worth of exposition and world-building into the one film. Put another way, it’s like all the problems of Iron Man 2, times a hundred.
(Side note: It occurs to me that Amazing Spider-Man 2 tried and failed at something similar. The filmmakers crammed in too many villains to try and spin them off into their own separate franchises, and all we got was an overstuffed failure of a movie, which in turn led to a hugely disastrous and shamefully unprofitable superfranchise.)
That said, it’s an old established rule (albeit a loose one) that the Marvel brand is about flawed and fallible people learning to accept and fully utilize their powers, while the DC brand is about godlike beings who struggle with life among mortals. Snyder shows a keen understanding of this. Early and often, Snyder leans HARD into the notion of the DC characters and lore as modern mythology. He goes for a grand operatic feel, clearly portraying the Atlanteans, Amazons, and all the various heroes as modern analogues to the deities and demigods of antiquity.
Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) is the high-and-mighty rich white guy mocked with derision by everyone in a lower tax bracket. Diana Prince (Gal Godot) has no friends, she keeps her coworkers at a civil yet professional distance, and her people might as well be on another planet. Barry Allen (Ezra Miller) is zooming all over the place, struggling to hold down multiple jobs to pay for his college tuition, and all his powers are unable to get his falsely-convicted father out of prison. And of course that’s not even getting started on Victor Stone (Ray Fisher), who’s got basically zero chance of living a normal life since he was brought back to “life” as a Space-Age Frankenstein.
The movie is crystal clear in showing how these larger-than-life personalities are visibly, painfully struggling to live among people who don’t have their gifts, and know nothing about their costumed identities. Yet the film also shows how we mere mortals can be lifted up by their example, looking to them for hope and justice and inspiration. All of this is done in such a way that it clearly shows a great love and respect for what makes the DC Universe so iconic.
The unfortunate downside is that we get a movie loaded with pathos, filled to the brim with mourning for Superman, Aquaman’s rebellious attitude, Batman’s single-minded focus on averting Apokalips, Cyborg’s all-consuming angst, and so on. It certainly doesn’t help that the whole film is so dark and void of color that it looks like someone smeared shit over every camera lens. Yes, we do have Alfred (Henry Irons) to bring an ounce of humanity, Wonder Woman provides a bit of heart, and Flash is on hand as our comic relief, but that’s still not enough. It’s too much of an uphill battle to make this four-hour epic into anything genuinely fun to sit through.
The epilogue only further proves this point. The end of the movie (before the credits, I mean — there is no stinger here) expands on the “Knightmare timeline” glimpsed in BvS, casting a bit more light on what exactly happened to make that post-apocalyptic future materialize. Without getting into spoilers, that epilogue makes me overwhelmingly grateful that this film series never went any further. If this is where Snyder wanted to go with the world and the characters — particularly Superman, Batman, and Jared Leto’s wretched take on Joker — count me the fuck out.
But how does the movie stack up against the theatrical cut? Well, the Snyder cut is certainly better in that it was very clearly the end result of one man’s artistic vision, and not something mutilated by committee in an effort to try and force the thing to be something it was never designed for. That said, if anyone was given the fool’s errand to try and pare this story down to two hours, I’d say Joss Whedon did the best job that anyone could’ve asked for.
Yes, it absolutely sucks that Cyborg’s best material got cut from the theatrical release, and the Snyder cut is far better for bringing it back. That said, the Superman/Batman/Wonder Woman trinity had been firmly established as the foundation of this movie, Aquaman had to be established for his own upcoming film, and God knows we needed the Flash around for comic relief. Somebody had to take the brunt of all the cuts to get this down to two hours, and process of elimination meant it had to be Cyborg. It sucks, but it was the least awful of all the options in this no-win scenario.
Getting back to the point, everything that was wrong with the plot for the theatrical cut of Justice League is still wrong here. The plot is still a thin and contrived MacGuffin hunt. The MacGuffins in question are still the Mother Boxes, which are still magical all-purpose plot devices instead of massively powerful sentient supercomputers. (Imagine if God had a smartphone. That’s basically what a comic book Mother Box is like.) The method of reviving Superman is exactly the same and it’s still just as stupid. The main villain (Steppenwolf, voiced by Ciaran Hinds) is still hopelessly generic and unmemorable.
That’s really what it comes down to here: The Zack Snyder cut is more or less the exact same movie, there’s just twice as much of it. And yes, while a lot of the surplus helps support a few of the story beats and adds depth to the characters, it’s still not enough to hide the fact that this is a pathetically thin plot and it’s not enough to elevate the movie into anything that could be considered “good”.
Superman is still a character more defined by his absence than his presence. Ben Affleck still looks like he’s already sick to death of this role. Batman, Aquaman, and Cyborg are still three characters defined by their brooding angst more than anything else. Flash is still nerfed by all manner of contrived and idiotic means.
That said, there are a lot of noteworthy changes when the climax finally comes. Barry suddenly remembers that he can heal super-fast, which only calls attention to how stupid it is that he got shot or tripped up and taken out of commission so many other times. Also, it’s made explicitly clear that the climax takes place in a radioactive wasteland that’s been abandoned for years, so no civilians to rescue this time.
And yes, the 4:3 aspect ratio takes a bit of getting used to. Then again, if you stream movies with subtitles (like I do), that extra black space at the bottom comes in handy.
Then there’s the matter of the score. I honestly didn’t want to see a Joss Whedon film scored by Junkie XL, and I don’t want to see a Zack Snyder film scored by Danny Elfman. I’m no fan of Junkie XL, but he was absolutely the man for this particular job. He’s far better suited for using the musical themes established in these movies, and it helps a great deal that he actually composed music for Batman instead of bashing his head against the keyboard. (DUUUN DUN-DUN-DUN DUUUN DUUUN!)
Zack Snyder’s Justice League belongs exactly where it is. If this had been a major theatrical release, with tickets selling at upwards of $15 a pop so the studio could shoot for a billion-dollar gross, it would have made DC/WB into a fiscally insolvent laughingstock. If this was supposed to be the new DC cinematic canon, the template for all DC superhero films going forward, it would have destroyed the brand’s future in cinema, making it radioactive for years or even generations to come. Instead, for better or worse, the Justice League theatrical cut was released, and WB only floundered until AT&T agreed to bail them out. DC in film may have been undeniably broken, but at least there’s enough for a slow and gradual phase-out into whatever comes next.
This director’s cut will never be released in theaters, it will never be accepted canon, and it cannot do any damage beyond what’s already been done. Anyone with an HBO Max subscription is free to watch it at their own pace, and with no additional charge beyond the monthly subscription already paid. The film now only exists as a relic of a past age, the residual effects of an ambitious failed experiment. It’s a curiosity, a window into what might have been and what the filmmakers might have been thinking. On those merits, under these terms, the film is at least worth a look.
This director’s cut shows exactly how wrong-headed and ass-backwards the entire DCEU experiment was. This particular cut shows that Zack Snyder could’ve had everything he needed — a sky-high budget, a phenomenal cast, absolute creative control — and this whole superfranchise still would’ve been destined to fail because of the decision made so early on to put the cart before the horse. The minute DC/WB decided to introduce so many characters and such a massive world in one crossover film — rather than giving each character their own franchise first, as Marvel had done — the film was doomed to be an overcrowded mess. No script rewrites or film re-edits could’ve saved it.
As for Zack Snyder himself, the film proves once again why he should never have taken the Man of Steel gig. I get why the decision made sense at the time, and he clearly understands the DC brand on a macro scale. But from MoS to BvS all the way up through this director’s cut, Snyder has consistently gotten so bogged down in the brooding pathos of the characters that he didn’t leave room for much of any fun to be had with them. And I’m sorry, but the very minute Snyder (or whomever) suggested that Knightmare post-apocalyptic scenario as the endpoint for the whole superfranchise should’ve been fired on the spot.
What matters now is that we move forward. We must accept that the DC Cinematic Universe is no more, it was destined to fail, and we’re all better off now that it’s gone. If it takes seeing the film for yourself to find that closure, then go for it.
Incidentally, news recently broke that J.J. Abrams and Ta-Nehisi Coates have signed on to reboot Superman, though no star or director have been named of yet. Of course Abrams already proved — by way of his endeavors in Star Trek and Star Wars — that he’s more than comfortable with inspirational big-budget blockbusters, and Coates is a widely celebrated author with a noted and respectable history in comic books (including a stint writing for Captain America). It’s early days yet (and we still have to see how things shake out with Matt Reeves and James Gunn), but the future for DC is looking brighter already.