Zack Snyder’s Justice League

Year: 2021
Studio: Warner Bros
Director: Zack Snyder
Producer: Deborah Snyder/Charles Roven
Writer: Zack Snyder/Chris Terrio
Cast: Ben Affleck, Gal Gadot, Jason Momoa, Ray Fisher, Ezra Miller, Henry Cavill, Willem Dafoe, Jesse Eisenberg, Amber Heard, Jeremy Irons, Diane Lane, Connie Nielsen, JK Simmons, Círian Hinds, Joe Morton, David Thewlis, Amy Adams, Marc McClure, Kiersey Clemons, Harry Lennix, Carla Gugino, Russell Crowe, Jared Leto, Kevin Costner, Billy Crudup, Joe Manganiello, Robin Wright

Like a lot of the world, I hated the Justice League that appeared in cinemas in 2017, so there was one reason I was interested in watching this film and one reason only, and it wasn't in search of a good (even a better) superhero film.

If, like me, you don't really like superhero movies and you were particularly underwhelmed by this film's first stab at viable life but you're interested in the economics and business practices of Hollywood, this might be one of the most important films you've watched in years.

How? Compare it to the original and you'll see, with greater clarity than ever before, studio interference and the mandates they imposed on the film, either while director and cowriter Zack Snyder was still at the helm or later, on incoming movie doctor Joss Whedon after Snyder stepped away following the tragic suicide of his daughter. The nuances of which is more the case are probably lost to history but aren't important.

What is important is that you can almost read the memos or hear those mandates to make it more accessible and family friendly while watching the film.

'More comedy' would have led directly to the stupid scene of Aquaman casually talking about his abandonment and parental conflict issues before the camera pans down to see he's been hooked by Wonder Woman's (Gal Gadot) lasso of truth. 'No bathroom breaks' would have led directly to the original being a clipped (in more than one sense of the word) two hours.

'Make the Russia set piece about a family in peril' would have led directly to the idiotic forcefield covering a rural village during the climactic parademon dust-up with a shack containing a terrified family at the epicentre, a visual orgy of VFX oversaturation that just looked like a cheap copy of the Gungan battle shield thingy from Star Wars Episode 1 - The Phantom Menace (although I've read since that was actually Whedon's idea).

Snyder later said he thought the original film used only about a quarter of the material he shot. The DP said it was close to a tenth, which means one of several things. Snyder's aesthetic was too much of a departure from Whedon's, and the latter (since proven to be a MeToo-level scumbag) wanted his mark on it, not caring how confusing a melange it made the final product.

Or maybe Warner Brothers saw Snyder's exit as a chance to make the kid friendly romp they really wanted it to be but couldn't because he had too much power (and they're already underwritten him to the tune of $250m) – apparently the two hour limit came directly from then-CEO Kevin Tsujihara himself before he was also chucked on the Weinstein trash heap for banging an actress.

Or you can believe the Wikipedia article, which claims a Warner executive saw Whedon's cut and panicked, realising it was a 'pile of shit' but knowing they had no choice but to push it as hard as they'd planned.

Whatever the behind the scenes machinations, fights or desperate compromises, this movie shines a brighter light than you've ever seen on what a movie can turn out to be when they happen.

Because what's most interesting about Snyder's 2021 cut is that, using the same basic skeletal structure, actors, costumes and many of the same set pieces or action scenes, it's a better movie by several orders of magnitude.

In fact I'd go as far as saying it's one of the best superhero movies ever, and that's from an avowed non-fan of the genre. We've had brilliant outliers like Joker or Logan, but within the strict guardrails of the genre that set up characters, give them a CGI bad guy with a minion army that's hot-swappable from any other blockbuster regardless of how recognisable they are to fans and lead everyone to a final battle, it's the best possible version of itself it could be.

It's obvious Snyder was interested in the pathos and power of the mythology from day one, giving the characters (dare I say it) dignity, purpose and a sense of profundity about their mission instead of comic mugging.

Just look at the poster – the original version leaned into all the colours and variety the costumes and actors bought to the screen, while the Snyder Cut's marketing was all monochrome. It was never going to be an avant garde arthouse film, but the tone is certainly more heavy-lidded and menacing.

It's also interesting that such a tonal approach meant most audiences hated Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice for being joyless. Snyder sticks the landing so perfectly here while still being serious it makes you wonder if the the studio stepped in and screwed up that film too, cutting or mishandling some aspect that was cohesive in Snyder's hands instead of just dour.

You can also feel the mandate of making it shorter and funnier all over the place because this version's four hour runtime gives every major character and their stories time to breathe and come together naturally.

You can also imagine the studio promising Snyder and producer Charles Roven that using humour to introduce characters meant you could make deeper cuts, but all it meant was the original cut everyone's stories to shreds, mishandling all the arcs and subplots it needed.

That very arresting and endlessly cool scene from the original trailer where an enormous wave crashes up around Aquaman (Jason Momoa) before he disappears int the water wasn't even in the film, but this movie has time for it because it knows it's an essential character artifact.

It even has room for more characters, from The Joker (Jared Leto) during a flashforward/nightmare to Commissioner Gordon (JK Simmons), and it still doesn't give them short shrift. Every character and line has something to do, and it feels more efficient and narratively robust at twice the length of the original movie.

It even finds time to include characters and asides that – at the time – were probably intended to branch off into multiple other movies with Martian Manhunter, Deadshot, Darkseid himself and an expanded part of the mythology to be played by Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg).

Maybe most gratifyingly of all, even though the MacGuffin is still those stupid glowing magical box thingies you couldn't care less about, they're not the focus. The focus is the challenge Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) sets himself to assemble the League to counter some extraterrestrial threat and the character interactions behind it all. It feels like a story about people rather than special effects.

I'm not going to recount the plot again because it's broadly the same as that of the original, but the biggest takeaway from watching this is how much better a film can be made from what's essentially the same overall parts, but how simple nuances of script, character and performance can result in a completely different creative execution.

Two more interesting tidbits. I still think the groundswell of fans demanding the Snyder cut was bullshit – I guarantee you it was an official marketing strategy by the studio who either made it up or used a few online comments to stoke it into being to sell HBOMax memberships, especially while cinemas were still shut because of COVID.

Then there was the official studio position at the time that it was a 'cul-de-sac' in the DC universe with no sequels or side projects planned. That's more certain as I write these words since the installation of Peter Safran and James Gunn at the creative helm of all DC movies and shows, but Snyder, Roven and the studio dodged a bullet in any case.

First, Ezra Miller who played Barry Allen/The Flash went off the rails, videos of him beating up women in bars showing up online, making me wonder if Warner Bros might try to swallow some of the hundreds of millions they'd spent on Andy Muschietti's version of The Flash because of what a corporate embarrassment he'd become.

Then Ray Fisher, who played Victor Stone/Cyborg, went on a social media hate rant about Whedon, senior executives at Warner Bros and everyone else he said he'd been mistreated by.

I'd long since written Snyder off as a wrecking ball who throws too much CGI around and has no storytelling finesse, but this movie made me wonder if I should change my mind about him – maybe Justice League wasn't the only project a studio or producer has focus group-fucked to death.

If they'd run with this cut in cinemas, the DC superhero universe would probably look very different right now, but William Goldman's immortal insight into the movie business very much applies. Nobody at DC – back then at least – knew anything.

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