After years of online campaigning by fans, the mythical Snyder Cut of 2017’s Justice League is here. Created from footage shot before Snyder’s premature exit from the project, and eschewing nearly everything Joss Whedon added, this is, for all intents and purposes, an entirely new film.
In 2017, in the midst of post-production, director Zack Snyder (300, Watchmen) stepped down as director of Justice League due to the sudden passing of his daughter. With the November release date looming, the negative critical reaction to Snyder’s Batman V Superman, and the ongoing box office dominance of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Warner Bros. Studios replaced Snyder with Avengers director Joss Whedon. Despite assurances from all sides that Snyder’s original vision would be respected, two months of hasty reshoots followed, downplayed as routine for a blockbuster of this size.
Justice League represented the first live-action teaming of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, The Flash, and Aquaman — the Justice League, touted for decades as “The World’s Greatest Superheroes”. Well, in this case, them and Cyborg, but hey, five out of six ain’t bad. When the film was finally released, it hit with all the force of a wet noodle: disjointed, tonally-inconsistent, and punctuated by cringe-worthy attempts at humor. When all was said and done, audiences were left largely unimpressed, and critics even less so.
How in the name of Jor-El did the crown jewel of the DC Extended Universe go so terribly, horribly wrong?
On viewing, it was painfully obvious that Whedon had been hired to graft his style onto Snyder’s material in hopes of creating something more lighthearted and, well, “mainstream”. Regardless of how one felt about the DC Extended Universe introduced in Snyder’s Man of Steel, it was impossible not to wonder what could have been, had he been allowed the time and resources to complete his Justice League.
Almost immediately, calls to #releasethesnydercut hit social media, gaining additional traction with support from the film’s stars, including Ben Affleck (Argo) and Gal Gadot (Wonder Woman). Despite studio claims that no such edit of the film existed, rumors persisted that Snyder had been able to present a four-hour assembly cut before stepping down. Over the next two years, fans campaigned online, before going so far as to pay for #releasethesnydercut ads at San Diego Comic Con 2019, and a billboard in Times Square during that year’s New York Comic Con.
In May 2020, the impossible happened, as Snyder himself announced that his nigh-mythical vision for Justice League would be making its way to fans by way of the HBO Max streaming platform. It wasn’t going to be an expanded version of what Whedon put out, however – Warner Bros. would be spending upwards of $70 million to allow Snyder to perform the entire post production process as if 2017’s version had never happened. He was even going to shoot new scenes to tie it all together.
In much the same way as internet campaigns had saved Deadpool and Sonic the Hedgehog, the fans had won. The only question now, was, would the Snyder Cut be worth the wait?
The film begins with an entirely new title sequence, recapping the climactic events of Batman V Superman that led to Superman’s (Henry Cavill, Mission Impossible Fallout) death. With the threat of an unnamed enemy foretold by Lex Luthor (Jessie Eisenberg, Zombieland, The Social Network), it falls to Batman (Affleck) and Wonder Woman (Gadot) to assemble the world’s greatest heroes in hopes of protecting the Earth. Racing against time, their team will come to include the fastest man alive (Ezra Miller, Fantastic Beasts), the lord of the seas (Jason Momoa, Game of Thrones), and a young cyborg (Ray Fisher, True Detective) with ties to the looming alien menace. To save the world, this motley crew will learn to work together, if only they can figure out how to trust each other.
Right off the bat, Zack Snyder’s Justice League pulsates with a cohesiveness and sense of purpose that the 2017 abomination lacked. From the shot selection to the CGI, and the superb musical score (by composer JunkieXL), you feel every ounce of the epic that Snyder set out to create. Snyder has always maintained his lack of interest in portraying the DC pantheon of characters as anything less than gods, and in this film, more than any other, it shows. These aren’t the MCU’s relatable people elevated to extraordinary circumstances — these are higher beings, fighting it out for nothing less than the fate of existence.
This isn’t to say that the story’s any better this time around, mind you — the same head-scratching leaps of logic exist here — but just seeing shots and story points in their proper contexts, and having scenes actually flow from one to the next, help immeasurably in selling what Snyder’s always talked about. Unlike in 2017, characters have actual motivations, arcs, and (gasp) growth! Four hours may be a hefty time commitment (Snyder declined Warner Bros’ offer to break it into weekly chunks), but much of it justified, and given how we’ve all gotten used to binging entire seasons in a day, it’s really not that big a deal.
The extra runtime means there’s lots here that you’ve never seen (reportedly, only one Whedon-helmed shot remains in the movie), and it’s downright revelatory. Forget every director’s cut you’ve ever seen, this would be remarkable just for how much Whedon inexplicably threw out — even the HUMOR is better here!
Given the space to breathe and unfold, though, brings with it some drawbacks, as you realize that the first two hours probably could have been spread out across separate films introducing the different League members. A lot of the first two hours is dedicated solely to set-up, which pads out the proceedings in a manner that probably wouldn’t have been necessary if characters and plot points had been introduced in other movies.
Sure, some of it (ok, a lot of it) is self-indulgent on Snyder’s part, but at least the movie no longer looks like it was assembled by a committee, and he’s arguably won the right to a victory lap. Not every scene is necessary (possibly the result of Snyder declaring that this would be his last foray into the DCEU he helped create), but the scope and clarity of vision that this version delivers on are undeniable. The introduction of Darkseid (who was almost entirely excised in 2017) brings a palpable dread and urgency to the proceedings, and there’s much fun to be had in seeing the team learn to work together. The action sequences of the team in action are as big and audacious as one would expect from the man behind 300, and when they finally go engage the enemy as a united whole, it’s a comic book splash page brought to life.
The one that benefits the most from this cut is Fisher’s Cyborg. Originally touted to be the most important hero in the movie, the character was reduced to an afterthought in Whedon’s hands. The main story beats were there, but, disconnected from the context and narrative they were intended for, his inclusion alongside more established characters stand out all the more. Under Snyder, Cyborg’s angst at being resurrected against his will by his grieving father (Joe Morton, Terminator 2) is brought to the fore, his inner turmoil forming the story’s emotional anchor. Even Miller’s Flash, whom Whedon used as little more than snarky comic relief, is now given a tangible backstory, and while we still don’t know how or where he got his powers, we at least have a better understanding of why he does what he does.
The ostensible king of the seven seas, however, receives the least development here, which is a shame. Momoa is a massively charismatic performer, but he honestly doesn’t have much to do, other than act cool and look great (both of which he does very, very well). Seeing as Aquaman’s solo film was already in production when Justice League was released, it’s entirely possible that somebody figured his backstory wasn’t essential, but seeing as how Snyder straight up reprised Batman’s (extremely well-known) origin in Batman V Superman, the omission is made all the more glaring.
The only one who doesn’t have a backstory problem are the trinity of Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman. Gadot’s Diana, in particular, had her solo film released six months before Justice League, so the moment she appears onscreen, we already had enough of an emotional connection to be excited at her arrival. In addition to kicking ass like nobody’s business, Diana helps to sell the gravity of the oncoming alien threat, with Snyder smartly playing up her ancient wisdom and doing away with cringey touches (such as Flash falling face-first into her chest).
The Dark Knight, Dumbfounded
This brings us to the elephant in the room, ie. the fact that Snyder still doesn’t understand what makes DC’s biggest guns, Superman and Batman work. Let’s start with how his Batman is so paranoid that he would rather kill Superman than take the 99% chance the Kryptonian could be an actual hero. The ludicrousness of their mothers having the same name, notwithstanding, why in the world would Bruce assemble a superhuman team based on nothing more than Luthor’s say-so? Sure, Diana fills in the Darkseid backstory later on, but Bruce was already seeking heroes out prior to that.
Now, Batman is paranoid, that’s a given, but he’s not a knee-jerk reaction kind of guy — he’s the one who plans everything eight steps in advance. He doesn’t jump at shadows, he’s the one the shadows are afraid of. One understands that this isn’t the comics, cartoon, or any other version, and Snyder is, of course, free to come up with his own interpretation, but the one thing Batman should never be is incompetent, and here, Affleck just looks bewildered as he reacts to things happening around him. And don’t get us started on the fact that he just discloses his secret identity to strangers within minutes of meeting them.
On the other hand, Bruce’s scenes with Diana are actually kind of delightful, playing up the dynamic first introduced in the iconic Justice League Unlimited animated series, and one wouldn’t mind seeing more from this potential pairing. Unlike Superman, Batman has always had more in common with Diana, based on the mere fact that he’s as much a tactical thinker as she is. These two will do whatever it takes to get the job done, even if it means bending the rules they’re enforcing.
Man of Steel, Substance of Air
At the other end of the equation, we have Superman, who Cavill still portrays as having an absolute dearth of charisma. Unquestionably, his physique meets the character’s minimum requirements, but other than that, we are given no reason to believe this Superman would ever be looked up to or be as venerated by the world as the movie implies. Ultimately, this Superman remains a missed opportunity.
While the decision to present him as a lost soul is, in itself, fascinating, the decision to reduce his Earth parents’ influence on his decision to do the right thing just doesn’t make sense in the greater scheme of things. Superman is Superman, not because of his alien heritage, but because of the (somewhat cliched) traditional midwestern American upbringing he received. Otherwise, he would just be a vigilante, rather than the beacon of hope the symbol on his chest implies. Whatever doubts this character would have, they certainly wouldn’t have come from the Kents.
This isn’t entirely Snyder’s fault, of course. Between umpteen reboots and Superman’s general lack of popularity with younger audiences, it’s become somewhat of an axiom that a character of inherent morality wouldn’t succeed in today’s pop culture atmosphere (for literally all the reasons that made Chris Evans’ Captain America click, but hey, what do I know?).
On the bright side, one is happy to note that Cavill no longer has a CGI face to cover up his contractually-obligated mustache.
The Bottom Line
To ask whether or how Zack Snyder’s compares to the rubbish Joss Whedon put out in 2017 would be to do this new version a disservice. As presented, Snyder doesn’t just request that his effort be judged on its own terms, he demands it. Does that mean it’s a great movie? Not entirely, but there’s no denying that it’s leaps and bounds over what we got in 2017, and the fact that we can appreciate it as it was intended is an accomplishment in and of itself. Powered by social media and growing demand for streaming content, the mere fact that we can have this conversation at all could very mark a turning point, not just in how popular culture is consumed, but, possibly, how much agency its creators should have over it.
After all, if the so-called “Snyder Cut” could be released, who knows what unseen masterpieces could be sitting in studio vaults, just waiting to be uncovered?
Zack Snyder’s Justice League streams in the Philippines exclusively on HBO GO, beginning at 3pm on March 18