The tale behind the Snyder Cut, or Zack Snyder’s Justice League, is long and complicated. There was the tragedy behind Zack Snyder leaving Justice League, the Joss Whedon reshoots, the mustache, the fan campaign to #RestoretheSnyderCut, the fan harassment. The news that Ray Fisher had allegedly been completely sidelined on the set of Justice League and was subject to racist harassment. Essentially, a four hour documentary could be made about how this film was assembled, and it’s enough to make even viewers who are lukewarm on Zack Snyder, the director, curious.
And Snyder’s cut seems like it’ll be extremely satisfying for fans of his aesthetic and his previous DCEU films and the characterizations there-in — essentially they’re the people he made this for. It’s ultimately a better product and a more coherent storyline (unlike his previous theatrical cut, Batman v Superman), and personally I found it far less irritating than the theatrical cut (which I thought was low-effort but fine).
However, viewers hoping this would be a complete reinvention of the superhero movie, or an enormous departure from what they’ve seen before, will probably be disappointed. I’m glad Snyder was given a second chance to create his vision, but it’s only the backstory (and length) that sets the Snyder Cut apart from any other cape flick. It is, at its core, just another tale of getting the gang together, a handful of McGuffins, and a thrilling climactic final battle.
Zack Snyder’s Justice League
Zack Snyder (director, screenwriter), Chris Terrio (screenwriter), Will Beall (screenwriter)
Ben Affleck, Ray Fisher, Gal Gadot, Jason Momoa, Ezra Miller, Henry Cavill, Amy Adams (cast)
March 19, 2021
There are a few major differences in the story and motivations, but it all ultimately revolves around the same set pieces featured in the theatrical cut (henceforth referred to as TC). That means it was impossible for me to watch without comparing the two cuts, despite not having seen Justice League since it opened in theaters (remember those? And yes, I re-watched before writing this). It’s fascinating on a craft level to see how smaller edits, like a new line of dialogue, can recontexualize a whole scene. And it’s very clear where the two visions diverged.
To start, much of the Snyder Cut still relies on visual and environmental character insights, and if you’re not already all-in on Snyder’s color palette and record drops, well, this isn’t going to change your mind. I understand what Snyder’s trying to do when he cues Nick Cave’s “There is a Kingdom” over a slow motion scene of Aquaman, or the incessant repetition of choral lamentations whenever Wonder Women does anything in general, but I was not moved by it and found the latter especially grating. (His penchant for repetition, like the slo-mo I discuss later, tends to have very diminishing returns). Ultimately, I found the film visually too brown and would have liked to see a few moments of our heroes interacting that weren’t either a fight or an exposition dump.
With that said, Cyborg’s (Ray Fisher) storyline is the biggest, and most successful, difference between the stories. While I was actually into the body-horror element the TC introduced — and promptly forgot — Victor Stone is more than an assembly of tropes here. The Snyder Cut takes time to explore his relationships with his mother, his father, and even his body pre-accident in an extended football scene. We get a full picture of who he is, and in a delightful little subversion of his previous story, we get to see him joyfully test the limits of his new cyborg enhancements.
In fact, Cyborg’s story is so compelling I found myself wishing that he was the main POV character (or that the film rambled just a little less). Part of that is that while Snyder manages to completely excise all of Whedon quips and snark, he doesn’t do a lot to replace it with more compelling characterization. Instead he really gives these scenes breathing room. Batman no longer sounds like a bog-standard Whedon character, and I did really enjoy how awkward he was as a man just trying to make some friends, but I didn’t really learn much about him and I’m not sure that he grew much, either.
The other major change, also effective, was giving Steppenwolf a more detailed backstory and scaling down his power level. He was a big nothing in the TC, and here he’s powerful but also pathetic, only destroying worlds to gain re-entry to Darkseid’s good graces. When he’s hit hard enough, he feels it, which gives all the battles a little more weight and interest.
This rewriting is especially noticeable during the early Amazon sequences; I knew the women weren’t going to win, but this time it wasn’t insulting to watch them lose. Snyder extends the fight and lingers on the sacrifice of the Amazons, creating some emotional tethers in what was previously something choppy and out of character.
The way women, in general, fare better in the Snyder Cut highlights just how dismissive Joss Whedon was to these iconic female characters. Diana isn’t still hung up on Steve Trevor, thank god, and while he’s mentioned, it’s more like her imparting the lessons she’s already learned rather than still processing his loss. Here, the Amazon’s are the credible fighting force we know them to be. Diana gets fewer upskirt shots, Lois gets to feel her feelings, and even Mera (Amber Heard) gets a cooler fight scene than her previous one.
I remember Mera’s fight so vividly because she’s got a totally unique and gnarly move, yanking blood out of Steppenwolf — the kind of fight scene that exemplifies something about her character. It’s also memorable because so many of the other fights in the Snyder Cut don’t stand out, and didn’t teach me much about the characters. The range of the Justice League affords a director a lot of visually unique fighting styles to choose from, but in the Snyder Cut that translates mostly to everyone just using different weapons when we see them battle. The fights don’t feel new or different to me; it’s just more beating up nameless and expendable non-human villains.
Compared to Cyborg’s storyline, the portrayals of the rest of the Justice League feel less successful. The sequence where Wonder Woman foils a group of nihilistic terrorists from blowing up a bank full of children takes twice as long, and one of the reasons for that is the gratuitous use of slo-mo. And we keep seeing it; every non-Batman character is super fast, and yet that speed is presented to us almost the exact same way visually. The world around them slows, the music swells, then the world snaps back into real-time. By the time we’re introduced to the Speed Force, super speed is old news.
Flash himself still has the feeling of a Whedon character, tonally out of place in a more serious film. He gets several changes in his story — a new introduction scene and more prominence in the final fight — but much of the footage of him is the same as the TC. He’s less grating (just like Batman is less grating) and definitely weirder, but I wonder if Barry could have used a few reshoots himself.
There are a few irritating plot threads still hanging out in this cut, reinforcing my desire for a tighter edit and focus. Cyborg loses control of himself and attacks Superman just the same as in the TC, but here there is no foreshadowing of potential malevolence in his hardware. Superman doesn’t arrive on Earth furious about being ripped from his peaceful slumber (pulled straight from Buffy), but that makes the entire scene more inexplicable. And Wonder Woman remains underpowered when facing Superman, which was something I was hoping would be righted in this edit.
Superman continues to be a non-entity in this movie, barely speaking to the point that it’s explicitly commented on by Lois. He has no real growth or arc, despite this being a movie about his resurrection (a problem the TC also had, to be fair).
Ultimately, after watching the film, I didn’t come away feeling like I had a better insight into these versions of these characters, or that I’d learned anything about them on a metatextual level. They were there; they saw; they conquered; and they remained unknowable.
Snyder also indulges in his absolute worst impulses here (beyond the music selection). He sets up an extremely elaborate future storyline even in this, despite no plans to ever create a sequel. Sometimes it’s neat: Ryan Choi gets a few scenes obviously setting him up to be the Atom. But other times it’s gratuitous, like an absolutely inexplicable scene in the film where Martian Manhunter, in the guise of Martha Kent, gives Lois Lane a pep talk about moving on past Superman’s death. (This is all because J’onn J’onzz knows how important she is to preventing that very future nightmare.)
Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) pops up for a little stinger scene with Slade Wilson (Joe Manganiello), and then we cut to the most extraneous and expensive nightmare scene. Joker (Jared Leto) finally appears, taunting Batman and being taunted in return. This little visit to a nightmarish desert wasteland, where Mera is ready to destroy Superman and Batman has teamed up with Deathstroke, is both fascinating and frustrating. It exemplifies the best of Zack Snyder and the worst: an intriguing and powering set-up, fully and powerfully visualized — that you know is never going to deliver.