REDEMPTION CUT – a review of Zack Snyder’s Justice League
A 4 hour epic movie that may change human storytelling and that culminated an unprecedented fan movement whose implications we haven’t seen the last of yet deserves a thorough investigation. Here is my review of Zack Snyder’s ‘Justice League’. This long-form article also analyses some of the larger cultural questions at play…
PUSHING THE STORYTELLING ENVELOPE
Zack Snyder’s Justice League is an ambitious, magnificent movie setting itself the epic mission of re-engineering ancient and contemporary Western Myth for the modern Pop Culture Age. It is quite possibly the greatest Superhero movie yet committed to film. For those to whom this is a bridge too far, they must at least concede that it certainly belongs in the company of the elite of that Circle- an elite that includes Into the Spider-Verse, Spiderman 2, Avengers Infinity War (not Endgame people), Blade, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and Doctor Strange. However ZSJL transcends the superhero genre itself and elevates to also become one of the greatest fantasy films of all time. Its dazzling epic scope, visual and literary poetry, and intimately drawn humanism not only perfectly pays off the promise and the arcs of the two ambitious but flawed Superman films that preceded it, but it may just have done something else that I am not hearing any international critics catch on to yet: with the Snyder Cut of Justice League Zack Snyder may have invented a completely new form of storytelling! For those of us who would have signed up to HBO Max to see this lovingly wrought 4 hour 2 minute artefact- we may in fact have just witnessed the end of cinema as we know it!…
A SHORT HISTORY OF THE SNYDER CUT FOR THE 3 PEOPLE IN THE BACK WHO DON’T KNOW
The most successful pop culture franchises in the world at the moment, bar Star Wars, are Comic Book movie franchises. They occupy the highest reaches of Pop Culture, driving billions of dollars to their owners and commanding the attention of millions worldwide. The genre is led by Marvel who is owned by Disney. Marvel had a half-decade long head-start on its rival DC comics, controlled by Warner Brothers, with Iron Man launching in April 2008. DC’s Man of Steel came out June 2013.
A TALE OF TWO CITIES
Marvel placed its fate in the hands of Kevin Feige (who had worked in comic book movies with the X-Men, Fantastic Four, etc. for Fox a decade before.) Feige with a team of Marvel insiders and film-makers executed a 15-year plan introducing fringe Marvel heroes like Iron Man, Thor, and Dr. Strange into mainstream consciousness through stand-alone but connected movies that created a shared superhero universe. This all culminated with a Universe threatening villain in the Avengers movies which featured ALL of the heroes in an epic battle for the fate of the Universe. Marvel’s take on superhero movies was known for its comic wit, lightness of tone, bright colours, warm palette, clever interconnected narrative, and a steady studio hand, paced by the charismatic performance of Robert Downey’s Tony Stark… In all this they were aided by the fact that Marvel in the comics always had a supremely ordered Universe, with clear relationships between its worlds, cities, and scales of heroes down to scientific explanations for their existence. This is even codified in the exhaustive Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe series from 1982. A map like that made Marvel’s world-building easier. Marvel released 22 movies in 12 years and grossed US$22.587 billion (in just box office, not counting merchandise, etc.) spending US4.5 billion in production costs to do it! It is the most successful film franchise of all time with an exhaustive mythology still to draw on.
DC, which dominates the television live-action superhero market and runs a successful dominant animation division known for its diverse vision, placed its entrance into movies into the hands of the very individual film-making vision of Zack Snyder. Unlike Marvel, they dictated no shaping oversight of direction for the DC Movie Universe nor did they give any comic book whisperer to Zack. They left it all up to him. Snyder’s hold on the reins followed three false starts where DC attempted to launch its Universe with Brian Singer’s very vanilla Superman Returns, the misguided Green Lantern film, and an earlier version of Justice League which was aborted by the 2007-8 Writers Guild strike.
The DC Universe in the comics is a lot more helter skelter than Marvel, so less easy to organise into a shared Universe. Apart from that, many DC heroes like Superman (and unlike Batman), despite their familiarity to global audiences, suffer from the fact that they are so powerful or so 1950s in their sensibility that they are not relatable to modern audiences outside of their niche. When they share a world or are part of modernity they are difficult to realistically portray, especially under threat.
A FOUNDATION OF STEEL
Snyder did good by immediately establishing a lane and style for DC that distanced its brand from Marvel. His debut installation Man of Steel was adult, dark, leaned hard into science fiction, and grappled with the problematic nature of Superman’s almost undefeatable powers and what that meant for the Earth. He grounded the epic in a tale of an alien immigrant trying to fit in, dealing with planetary racism, and anchored it in a tale of fathers and sons. In there he threw in grand themes like duelling ideas of how to rescue a dying civilization, and how does a gifted youth grapple with adulthood, responsibility, and great power.
The result was one of the great science fiction movies of all time, with some of the most dazzling superhero flight, fight, and action sequences ever filmed. Some comic book purists and a host of “agenda-ed” haters launched themselves at the vision calling it too dark and homicidal and a direct affront to the ‘mom’s apple pie’ version of Superman, coloured by their Christopher Reeve nostalgia. These criticisms missed the point and the genius of the take: Snyder was actually saying that such a take is impossible to sustain in the modern world, and he was right. 2006’s Superman Returns is a case in point. Man of Steel chose a harder route than relaxing into the 1930s myth. It started an arc where Superman had to win his humanity, love, morality, myth, and status as global guardian. He had to embrace the responsibility and threat of his phenomenal powers. For Superman to mean anything he had to not want the mantle and be pushed to the brink. He had to wrestle with the burdens of near omnipotence, regulating that power to deal with threats, and to cipher his place in the world.
The movie succeeded at the box office — spending US$225 million to earn US$668 million — but the critics were suspiciously over-hostile. The spectre of a rival studio sponsoring hate reared its head…
Critics found a more accommodating target with Snyder’s second DC film Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (BvS). That movie was charged with not only introducing the 2 biggest DC icons into a shared universe together for the first time filmically, but also with introducing Wonder Woman and the future members of the Justice League. The load would prove to be a little too large for Zack to lift comfortably. For once his stunning visual style forfeited him.
THE STUMBLE OF BATMAN v SUPERMAN
Apart from a bravura opening sequence of the Man of Steel’s Zod battle as seen from Bruce Wayne’s perspective and innocent bystanders on the ground, the movie felt heavy and shorn of Snyder’s stylistic flourish. The movie attempted to do too much and suffered from narrative blind spots: if Metropolis is right next to Gotham why doesn’t Perry, the editor of Metropolis’s largest newspaper, act like Batman, who has been around for 20 years, is new news to him? If Gotham is crime-ridden, right across the water from Metropolis, why doesn’t Superman just go and clean up crime there? Why doesn’t he arrest Joker, Penguin, and all the other non-super-powered villains that occupy so much of Batman’s time? Not enough time is spent building out Batman’s 20 year career in Gotham, his personality, or his sudden ultra-violent turn due to the murder of Robin by the Joker. It is only hinted at and is not built into the narrative. Not shown or told. These are major omissions. All these missing motives make the movie confused, forced, and meandering, especially the central conflict between Batman and Superman.
The movie tries to do all these things and then adds even more enormous extra burdens, introducing such things as: a new shrill tech-mogul take on Lex Luther; the comic book Knightmare scenario that teases a post-apocalyptic Earth and the introduction of the supreme villain Darkseid and an evil Superman; a time-travelling Flash; the Kryptonian Frankenstein monster Doomsday resurrected from Zod’s body; and, to crown it all off, it surprises the audience by killing Superman in the third act! All in one 2-hour movie! Zack even kills comic book regular Jimmy Olsen in the opening minutes when we learn he is really a federal agent! Even the extended director’s cut, which is plenty more satisfying in character development and plot lines than the cinematic release, does not resolve the narrative holes and can’t account for the narrative overload.
The “agenda-ed” critics smelt blood in the water and moved in for the kill. Pop culture empires are a savage set of kingdoms, a real Game of Thrones. Who is to say if some of the most vocal and nasty of the critics and internet trolls aren’t agents of rival studios who want to take out the competition? At times it certainly felt so. This time some of the criticism was earned amidst the excessive hate. Audiences also voted with their feet and stayed away, whether on merit or from the bad press. There also was a dark cynicism in BvS, a nihilism that rubbed people the wrong way. It was Snyder’s sometimes bombastic fascism, seen in 300 and Watchmen, that had come home to roost. Without his stylistic flourish on display to inspire adrenalin the darkness was naked. It was not there in any one thing, it was something immanent, felt throughout many of his choices. From a darker and grimier colour palette than ever before, to the casualness of its murders. I even found myself, an unabashed fan of Man of Steel and who thought I merely was displeased with BVS, getting angry describing BvS in a review. I heard myself spiralling out of control in criticizing it. To me, it meant that something was wrong with its emotional core.
There indeed was something jarring in BvS’s unrelenting darkness without explanation. And Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex was truly annoying; a performance that could have threaded the movie through with wit, subtlety, poetry, and sensitivity instead was a real weak link. Shrill, manic, and annoying, it was not Eisenberg at his best. At the same time one could admire the ambition to cover the ground and set up the Universe comprehensively. Snyder had taken about 6 different historic comic book storylines (Frank Miller’s Dark Knight, The Death of Superman, Batman’s A Death in the Family, Injustice: Gods Among Us, Final Crisis, and JLA: Rock of Ages) to make one movie, but the movie crumbled under the weight. Snyder was attempting to do in 3 movies what took Marvel 15 years and 22 movies to do. To a strange degree he was actually succeeding, but Batman v Superman was the sacrifice…
The fallout from the critical and audience backlash to BvS was enormous. The film earned US$872.7 million from a spend of US$250 million; nothing to scoff at in normal business circles but in the competitive world of comic book movies many believe a premium brand like Superman should have been able to cross a billion dollars easily. Snyder was already into production of Justice League when the backlash to BvS hit. One of the casualties was the movie Suicide Squad which was in post-production when the backlash rolled in. The movie was subject to $22 million in reshoots and was wrested out of director David Ayers’ hand and re-edited into a kind of long form music video with untold changes to characters, motivation, fight scenes, dialogue, and more. The movie earned $746.8 million against a production and marketing budget of $325 million, but was panned critically. No one knows if its flaws are due to its original DNA or the studio interference. Nevertheless Warner Bros placed Geoff Johns and Jon Berg as guard dogs on Justice League and Snyder. They were also assigned the role of fabricating the DC Extended Universe.
DEAD MEN WALKING
A lot of reputations would be destroyed before the Snyder Cut wound its way towards denouement… Jon Berg entered the picture having a rep as a successful studio executive on blockbusters like Edge of Tomorrow, The Blind Side, the Sherlock Holmes movies, Argo, The Dark Knight and American Sniper. He also produced the successful Elf with Will Ferrell. Johns was a successful popular comic book writer enjoying acclaim for extended runs on Flash, Green Lantern, and Aquaman. His work on books like Infinite Crisis, the New 52 Justice League, and Batman Earth 1 further garnished his reputation as a risk-taker who redefined comic book mythology. He famously expanded the Green Lantern Universe by portraying the Green Lanterns as just one on a rainbow spectrum of corps all with their own stories and pantheon of heroes. He would be called on to branch out into film and TV to embellish DC properties, co-developing the TV series The Flash (2014–present), Titans (2018–present), and Doom Patrol (2019) and he created and produced the TV series Batwoman (2019–present), Stargirl (2020–present) and Superman & Lois (2020–present). His other work in television includes writing and producing various episodes of Blade, Smallville, and Arrow.
Neither man would leave unscathed…
Rumours began to swirl that the 2 were imposing restrictions on Snyder and changing the script and conception of characters, and that Warner had turned against Snyder. In the midst of the battles on the set came the tragic news of the suicide of Snyder’s daughter, Autumn, in March 2017. The event shattered Snyder’s world. Zack and his producer wife, Deborah, overlooked a brood of 8 children, 4 of whom were adopted, including Autumn. Snyder would shoulder on for 2 months and complete principal photography and a master edit before the pressure would be too much, from without and within. He would retire from the Justice League project in May 2017 leaving behind 4 hours plus of movie to be mannered, and a release date of November looming.
Warner Brothers, who had taken the bait from many critics and trolls, took the opportunity to try and remake Justice League and the DC Universe into the Marvel Universe image by bringing in Avengers 1 & 2 director Joss Whedon into the director’s chair. The ostensible reason was to complete Snyder’s vision of the movie, but it would soon become apparent that Whedon was charged with a dramatic overhaul of the movie, cutting out all avenues to a wider Darkseid/Knightmare future and to infuse the movie with brighter colours, more corny teen humour, a more voyeuristically sexually exploited Wonder Woman, and a drastically reduced run time of under 2 hours.
Warner was fooled into believing the negative hype about Man of Steel, a cinematic masterpiece and the North Star of how DC could distance itself from Marvel. They instead had bought into the trap that they needed to imitate Marvel’s shtick. It was a mistake. In his defence, Whedon had a real conundrum. You could not pick a director with whom Whedon had a more opposed directing sensibility than Snyder. Whedon was also given only 5 months to do his remake with a long laundry list from the studio of what needed to be excised and changed. He also inherited a massive cast and crew devoted to the vision and personality of the previous director. Also, Justice League is a heavy special-effects laden superhero movie with multiple sets on multiple continents and locations with complex green-screen and motion-capture set-ups. A minefield to negotiate. It could not have been easy. Despite all this, Whedon delivered the movie on time, according to the notes from his superiors, and on budget. He took on the responsibility and gave it his all. This much I will say in his defence and place in his plus column.
In his negative column as a director, the Whedon cut exhibits a whole slew of what can only be called petty film-making: the erasure of another director’s vision ‘just because’. There are examples of Snyder shots that are gorgeous and that organically complete Whedon scenes, that have been left out when there is absolutely no logical reason for this. What is worse is that these shots had already become familiar to audiences in trailers so there excising felt like spite: numerous shots of Aquaman on the pier or rescuing the shipwrecked sailor come to mind. The most grievous would have to be the shot of Batman on top the gargoyle by Gotham PD looking down on Commissioner Gordon. Cinematographer Fabian Wagner had been on record as saying that nailing that shot was one of his proudest moments as a cinematographer. Audiences had seen a tease of the shot and agreed. In the Whedon cut the shot is notably absent, replaced by a longer take of the shot rudely obscured by a garbage bag or piece of plastic! That kind of blasphemy hinted at Whedon’s (and Warner’s) feelings about Zack and his cut. It was a disrespectful handling of a director’s labour and had a feeling of “kick him whilst he’s down” about it. There are scenes where it is apparent that main cast, crew, extras, and special effects teams were reassembled to do shot by shot recreations just to include one joke! Entire character arcs for new characters like Cyborg and Flash were removed, the colour grading was brightened, and the motivations and look of the main villain was changed to make a self-contained more cliché climax. Over $100 million was spent changing the movie. From what was supposed to be simply a director completing another’s vision, in some accounts, only 20% of Snyder’s footage was used in the final release!!!
The affront of the Whedon Cut was so great that it forced Snyder’s wife, a senior producer at Warner, and legendary director Christopher Nolan also a producer on the movie, to tell Zack that he must never ever watch it! The extent to which Whedon’s changes were really a corruption and dumbing down of the source material would only be seen 3 years later with the release of the Snyder Cut.
Up until this time, Joss Whedon was known as a Hollywood wunderkind, having changed network television with his teen operatic fantasy series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, and Firefly. He would go on to disturb the horror genre with his Cabin in the Woods and then become a global popular fan favourite with his nailing of Marvel’s tent pole Avengers 1 and 2 movies, which cemented Marvel’s reign on global pop culture. His sensibility was firmly within the pop mainstream with enough outsider edginess to give it some street cred. Warner Bros hired this sensibility to convert Snyder’s dark gritty empire into a mainstream colourful billion-dollar blockbuster. What Whedon instead delivered was a movie emptied of promise, one whose previous Snyder-trailer-hype had promised a visual extravaganza with a tease of villains for the Ages. Instead it delivered cookie cutter formula. It promised insights into the new Justice League members like Cyborg, Flash, and Aquaman, but never delivered. It promised answers to the questions raised in BvS of Flash’s time travel, the Knightmare sequence, and the death of Robin; none of these topics were broached. What is more, the movie emotionally cheated on things like the resurrection of Superman, the final battle, and the stakes in the defeat of Steppenwolf. It was not that it was a terrible movie, it was that it was average, when its trajectory and trailers promised so much more. It left audiences unresolved, with questions and unrequited teases of larger vistas still to be explored. The movie felt like it was trying to wrap up a meeting prematurely and usher everyone out of the room, ‘’Nothing to see here!…’’
Justice League left a bad taste in fans’ mouth and it did not do enough to convince laypeople to attend or sing its praises. Memes of a depressed Ben Affleck from BvS coupled with unmet expectations and the terrible CGI done on villain Steppenwolf (that made him look like a second rate video game character) cast a pall over the movie. The movie simmered when it should have been an explosion of exuberance led by bravura film-making.
The film grossed over $657 million worldwide against a break-even point of $750 million, becoming a box-office bomb and losing Warner Bros. Pictures an estimated $60 million. With the $100 million extra that had been placed into the Whedon reshoots and the extra marketing budget it was one of the most expensive movies and flops of all time…
If there was an artificial crisis before Justice League there definitely was a real one after. How was the DC Universe to proceed? The answer came with 2 spin-offs from the Snyderverse — Wonder Woman which debuted in May 2017, the same month Snyder retired from Justice League, and Aquaman which debuted the following year in November 2018. Both were critical and financial successes featuring brighter and lighter interpretations of the characters Snyder introduced. Aquaman earned US$1.148 billion off a budget of $200 million and Wonder Woman earned $822.3 million from a budget of $200 million. Wonder Woman also had the added bonus of pinching Marvel to becoming the first mainstream female superhero movie of all time! That, and Jason Momoa’s ethnic Aquaman also had the benefit of showing just how non-diverse the Marvel Universe was with its collection of frontline blonde White male lead actors all named Chris…
All of these virtues were of Snyder’s making, in fact he was still credited as producer on both films and both story ideas were his. The way forward to further differentiate the DC Universe (and emancipate it from Snyder) was also ironically of Snyder’s making too; the idea of the Multiverse.
With his introduction of a time-travelling Flash and the Knightmare sequence in BvS Snyder had introduced the idea of the Multiverse into the movies, a concept that was being brilliantly explored in the CW Flash TV series, and lovingly embraced by mainstream pop culture fans. It was the idea that there could be multiple timelines featuring different variations of any character and it would be sparked off by Flash travelling back in time and messing with the past to save his mother from murder and his father from being wrongfully convicted of it.
After the failure of Justice League, Warner decided that DC would abandon a shared Universe like Marvel and instead become a home for diverse director’s interpretations of heroes and villains from DC Comics using the Multiverse as the excuse. This pathway would get a perfect trial by a trinity of wildly different films, two of which are almost diametric opposites of the other. Shazam! was a superhero iteration of Tom Hank’s Big with a lot of 80s movie charm and, apart from its shaky CGI in the end and a half drawn villain, it had heart. The Joker was a gritty 70s style noir and a direct tribute to Martin Scorsese’s gritty 1970s movies Taxi Driver and The Comedian. It even starred Robert De Niro. Both films were critical and financial successes with The Joker earning US$1.074 billion and making history by becoming the highest grossing R rated movie of all time and earning multiple awards including Oscars for Best Actor and Original score and 11 nominations! The Joker sealed this new Multiverse direction for Warner.
Despite all its shenanigans, Warner’s DC Universe was scoring major historic accomplishments whilst still scoring financial successes. However, because Warner has constantly failed to be introspective and seems instead to be too willing to be suckered by trolls and critics, it has never taken stock or trumpeted its accumulation of victories, far less spun them into a personal mythology of a studio pioneering new paths through thorny ground. Even financially, prior to the Snyder Cut, Warner had earned US$5.63 billion from production expenditures of $1.64 billion over just 8 DC movies… They are actually further along than Marvel was at that exact point. Nothing to scoff at!
The other movie in the Multiverse trinity of releases was Birds of Prey, the vanity project of Margot Robbie. Made for $82 million it would earn US$201.8 million and received mostly favourable reviews for visual tone, Margot’s performance, and its female empowerment message. Its flaw was a shallow script which suffered from the lack of precisely the kind of grounding in landscape and character that would emerge from a shared Universe full of story and consequence provided by the Snyderverse. Another DC victory not trumpeted by Warner was the animated Teen Titans go to the Movies movie released in 2018. It was another critical and financial success grossing over $52.1 million worldwide against a $10 million budget. It was a genuinely funny movie that put 2D and kid’s animation back on the big screen proving that traditional animation still had a place in a CGI world. Warner was not paying attention to any of its victories. It was allowing Marvel to live rent free in its head.
THE ABORTED SLATE OF MOVIES
There were other consequences of Justice League’s failure; a whole optimistic slate of movies which had been dreamed up in the heady early days of Man of Steel were immediately put on ice. Immediate casualties were Ben Affleck’s Batman, the Cyborg movie, David Ayer’s Gotham City Sirens, Joss Whedon’s Batgirl, and Chris McKay’s Nightwing. Added to that list were the Deadshot movie, Ava DuVernay’s New Gods, Steven Spielberg’s Blackhawk, Guillermo del Toro’s Justice League Dark, Plastic Man, Static Shok, Constantine, and Hourman movies!!! The only green-lights going forward were Matt Reeves’ The Batman and Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson’s Black Adam solo movie. Wonder Woman 1984 was in production and Aquaman 2 was in advanced preproduction. Everything else now was in flux.
And then everything changed again
Justice League was now history, a failed experiment at a shared DC Universe in some people’s imaginings, and an also-ran in the superhero blockbuster stakes, but there was a quotient of fans that would not accept this verdict and the travesty of a film that had allowed it. Those fans also believed that all studio decisions coming out of falsified evidence were going to be flawed, except for the gift of the Multiverse as a way forward. These fans believed in the vision that Zack Snyder was uttering in the 5 movies he said he needed to set up the DCEU. They had also seen enough of the trailers of the Snyder Cut of Justice League to know that the film that they were sold was a pale imitation of Snyder’s vision. These fans started a campaign that would eventually change the entertainment industry.
The idea of director’s cuts of course is nothing new. In the 1970s the Hollywood studio system — notorious for not giving final cut to film-maker’s — saw a slew of directors like Sam Peckinpah and George Lucas given a chance to release their cuts of films shortly after studio butchered theatrical releases. Ridley Scott with Blade Runner and Richard Donner with Superman 2 were other high profile examples of directors given chances to restore their original visions after the studios had transformed their movies for theatrical release. Both however took over 20 years to get their chances! The idea of director’s cuts found its way into the mainstream with the advent of videotapes and DVDs, where it amounted to mostly deleted footage add-ons and slightly longer runtimes. This added material incentivized audiences to spend money on movies they had already seen or could see on cable. Despite all this, the likelihood of Snyder getting an immediate reprieve of his vision did not look likely; Warner was adamant. They had moved on.
But the fans had not. Too much was at stake they thought. The entire DC Universe could be compromised if the blasphemy of the Whedon Cut was to stand as canon and the wrong lessons learnt from the Snyder experiment. A huge global groundswell began to grow.
The hashtag #ReleaseTheSnyderCut appeared and immediately began to trend, a fan petition of over 160,000 signatures catapulted it. All over YouTube fans put together all the pieces of trailer footage never seen in the film reconstructing Snyder’s vision from clues. Other videos compared Snyder footage with Whedon footage of the same reshot scene. Leaks began to appear of intended scenes, behind the scenes videos of never-seen-before battles, half-rendered special effects shots of wondrous scenes featuring Cyborg and the Flash — two heroes who were mere ghosts in the Whedon Cut, shorn of character, backstory, and motivations. Snyder joined in and started releasing stills of scenes not featured in the movie, design conceptions of the main villain Steppenwolf that trounced the Whedon version completely. The chorus began to rise to crescendo. By 2018, the group comprised die-hard Zack Snyder devotees, DC fans, and fans of artistic integrity. The arrowhead group formed themselves into a unit embarking on skilful guerilla campaigns: spam calling Warner Bros; flying a plane with a #ReleaseTheSnyderCut banner over the San Diego Comic-Con in 2019 with Warner in attendance; renting a digital billboard in Times Square New York; and more emphatically raising hundreds of thousands for Suicide Prevention in honour of Zack’s daughter. Not only did they have the momentum but they also had the high road!
Snyder began participating more wilfully in the movement and the call was joined by other lead actors from the show- most notably Jason Momoa who was now worth billions to Warner Bros. Cyborg Ray Fisher also was going on the record outing the alleged toxicity of the Whedon shoot with Berg and Johns as accomplices. He leveraged accusations of racism and sexism fuelling the edits and reshoots. Strangely enough no one silenced Fisher with a lawsuit, which made people feel that the allegations must be laced with truth. Ben Affleck and Gail Gadot joined in re-tweeting the hashtag. So now the 3 leads in Warner’s flagship franchise were rebelling. Voice actors Ray Porter (Darkseid) and Ciaran Hinds (Steppenwolf) also spoke out defiantly about the blasphemy of the Whedon edit, Hinds saying that hardly anything he recorded with Snyder survived and Porter confirming that Darkseid actually was in the movie substantially. Cinematographer Wagner also chimed in, as well as soundtrack composer Junkie XL who had been replaced by Danny Elfman. It was becoming a crowded field of dissenting voices.
Arrayed against these voices were the traditional set of trolls and critics who have hounded the DCEU from the beginning, suspect pop culture blogs, mainstream reviewers with particular hatreds for Snyder or the DCEU, anonymous trolls filling comments sections with bile. Many denied the existence of a Snyder Cut and trumpeted Marvel and Disney as the only game in town. They repeated the talking points that Warner had internalized- ‘Man of Steel’ was rubbish, etc.
The game changers would come from two sides: Zack Snyder released a still of the film canisters containing the Snyder Cut saying that friends of his had seen the full film and that the entire thing only needed editing. The other thing that happened was the intensification of the streaming wars and its escalation due to the COVID pandemic.
THE STREAMING WARS
Netflix changed the entertainment delivery system of the world by introducing the idea of streamed original content. With their original series House of Cards in 2013, which they eventually dropped as a complete series to be binged they changed the face of home entertainment. Cable companies with their terrestrial boxes and weekly release schedules did not know how to respond. Soon all major entertainment conglomerates, whether they were devoted to computers, cable, or cinema, had to engage streaming portals or be left behind.
Disney acquired HULU, to add to ESPN+ and National Geographic as streaming options and then created a streaming behemoth in Disney+ which it loaded with its frontline traditional Disney fare but also Star Wars, Marvel, and Pixar brand content. Amazon Prime was in the market as well as Sling TV and fuboTV. Apple TV is due to ramp up content soon and Peacock (NBC), Discovery+, and Paramount+ have also jumped in. All of these traditional content creators plan to pull their content from other distributors and stream exclusively from their platforms. HBO Max, the streaming portal owned by Warner, not only had to differentiate and diversify its content away from its competitors, but also from its own HBO cable partners as well. The only solution to that is to invest in original content. But with the marketplace saturated with major movie studios who have content creation machines and heritage intellectual property (IP), HBO Max needed a tent-pole and a stream of mythology with built-in audience. What did HBO Max have in terms of IP that could immediately get them to drive subscribers in droves to get them to the magical 150 million subscription mark?
The one property that could move the needle like that is the DC Universe of films and the only thing that had the notoriety and acclaim to make an event of it was the Snyder Cut.
There is more than enough evidence to suggest that senior execs in Warner may actually hate Zack Snyder, Ray Fisher, and the #ReleaseTheSnyderCut movement, but their parent company AT&T has no such misgivings. They know money when they smell it!
When COVID-19 hit the planet in 2020, it sent humankind indoors under regimes of lockdown, changing work and leisure for the foreseeable future. Performance-based entertainment flatlined. Destination-related events collapsed. In real terms this meant that Disney’s theme parks closed and began haemorrhaging money internationally ($6.9 billion in losses in 2020). It also meant that cinemas closed worldwide. Movie sets were shuttered. Netflix however saw its profits and share price soar. The world was experiencing the virtualization of business and streamed television content was keeping the planet sane. A number of things happened simultaneously: Disney pivoted its business to Disney+, its streaming platform, and lumped its premium brands there, including Star Wars, Marvel, and Pixar, announcing a bonanza 100 projects going after 260 million subscribers by 2024! An increase of 180 million subscribers for which they are willing to spend $16 billion! Netflix, who rules the roost, has 206 million in subscribers at the moment. HBO Max has 37.7 million,
With the #ReleaseTheSnyderCut movement rising to a crescendo culminating with a day of hundreds of thousands of tweets Warner finally relented, or more likely HBO Max stepped in as instructed by parent company AT&T and instructed Snyder to get his Cut ready for the streaming service. Snyder was given $70 million to finish the edit and special effects, and do whatever other marketing and curatorial things he desired. This included a Dreamscapes of Zack Snyder’s Justice League exhibit at the AT&T Discovery District in Dallas, Texas, which includes costumes, sets, and props from the movie as well as storyboards from the next two “un-shot” films in the franchise. Snyder did not take a fee for the movie. The victory came from a perfect storm of grassroots agitation and marketplace opportunity. Snyder seized it.
The magic of the moment was also this: the Zack Snyder who began working on Justice League in 2016 was not the Zack Snyder who was granted this second chance at life in 2021. 2021 Snyder had three years to re-edit and re-conceive the movie a million times in his head, he had a new lens on family and the relationship between parents and children, his collaborator Junkie XL was older and wiser, and his wife and Christopher Nolan were seeing eye dogs as to the flaws of the Whedon Cut. Paced by the criticism of BvS, and framed by the film being a dedication to his dead daughter, Zack entered a redemption arc to arrive at the definitive Snyder Cut. He knew that this movie would either stand as a vindication or a nail in a coffin of his career as a film-maker. He knew that there would probably not be a film in history more scrutinized for its flaws and feats as this one. Some people would crumble under such expectations and real responsibilities. Snyder did not. He came with it.
THIS NEW THING
The revolution of Netflix was it got the world committed to TV Content and Bingeing. Billions of dollars are now being invested into TV Content by competing streaming, cable, and network channels. Netflix’s intervention has gilded what was already a Golden Age of Television and accelerated an audience and content crisis for theatrical cinema — a crisis that began with the small screen revolution that came with the tech boom of the late 1990s.
Bingeing is another Netflix revolution. By dumping new anticipated series in one drop for thirsty audiences Netflix changed the viewing habits of the world. It is not uncommon now for millions of individuals to sit down and binge ten hours straight of a TV series to swallow a story in one gulp. This is a new thing.
Zack Snyder’s Justice League has now taken all these trends to their logical conclusion. Despite all the dissing of the interfering suits at Warner Brothers and the disastrous Joss Whedon version, the artistic success of Zack Snyder’s Justice League was not possible if he had released his film in 2017. Even if given license to complete his vision for conventional cinema, Snyder’s movie would never have been 4 hours 2 minutes. It would have been consciously and subconsciously compromised by Zack himself to be at least an hour shorter to fit the narrative conventions of cinema. Not to mention what compromises he may subconsciously internalize from ‘the suits’. There is no such concession in the 2021 Snyder Cut.
With the loud clamour for the inclusion of all Canon and Apocrypha in this version of the film by fans, Snyder was given the luxury to tell his story in excelsis deo, and with that added plush luxury that television offers: Time. Time, and the familiarity that TV breeds with characters. Television breeds a strange alchemy of intimacy with characters probably born out of the fact that it enables you to meet these characters in the comfort of your own home. There is something to be said for that. But the magic ingredient of series television is Time. The time as a storyteller to let things breathe, seethe, mulch, marinate, and mature.
And the other magic of streaming is the pause button.
There is an unhurried nature about Zack Snyder’s Justice League that is not slowness or bad pacing. It is the luxury of emotional time, a thing that is not a creature of cinema, which requires urgent denouement, but it is wholly a character of series television. The movie is also cleverly composed in six chapters and an Epilogue which wrap-up neatly and offer natural breaks. I watched Zack Snyder’s Justice League three times in less than 24 hours on the first day of release. That’s more than 12 hours — half a day spent watching one film again and again — and I never felt the time. In fact each time a chapter ended I wished it would last longer. This is a supreme artistic achievement, but it is also a manifestation of this new form Snyder has stumbled upon. Cinematic Blockbuster Streaming Television. What it means is ‘cinema with added time’, and it feels that its place is the small screen, especially now that small screens have surround sound, HD graphics, and yes, larger screens.
Even before the pandemic in this Golden Age of Television, directors, actors, and production teams were abandoning movie theatre releases to go after ready streaming and cable money and the narrative freedom of the new Age of TV. It feels that Zack Snyder’s Justice League will be the tipping point of a storytelling revolution and start a stampede in the direction of long-form narrative-movie television. Actors in particular are finding the new cinematic series television form a more exciting show-piece for their skills in evoking character nuance and development. The elongated streamed-movie may be the next evolutionary step.
The events surrounding the Snyder Cut have been a perfect laboratory for the creation of this form, but Snyder himself was also a perfect lab rat.
Snyder has been known to shoot 6 hours of first reel footage for a 2 ½ hour movie. He is a maximalist who probably has always required such a form. Probably in the past he may have compensated for all the excess footage he had by refining his style down to its most didactic and bombastic stylistic elements, with all the shades of grey and emotional arcs on the cutting room floor. Here, over the course of three years, he was presented with a scenario to tell the full story his way. To resurrect and use the discarded footage to tell a story that breathes in the same tempo as the audience.
Now to the virtues of this miraculous movie.
A STORY OF FATHERS AND MOTHERS, DAUGHTERS AND SONS
The reason that Zack Snyder’s Justice League transcends the superhero genre is that it roots its story in the immortal tale of absent or dominant fathers, caring mothers, and the sons and daughters that live in their shadows. The superhero team the Justice League is a ragtag group of children (Aquaman, Wonder Woman, Flash, Cyborg, and Superman) with daddy and mommy issues led by an orphan (Batman). The 4 hours enables Snyder to artfully tell the backstories of these characters, rooting their individual griefs in parental struggles: Cyborg is a genius and a football star with a heart of gold longing for his father’s approval and love, but his father is too busy as a detached scientist to show affection or give time. His mother then dies cruelly next to him on a night of his greatest triumphs where his dad is again absent. Flash’s mother also is killed and his father wrongfully accused. Flash’s father is absent behind bars trying fitfully to get Barry to abandon the quest to save him. Wonder Woman’s father Zeus enslaved the Amazons and she is now cut off from her mother Hippolyta. Aquaman’s mother abandoned him under strange circumstances and he holds it against all Atlanteans, refusing to take up his birthright as King. Superman has two fathers whose messages to him contradict one another causing an internal war between his Kryptonian and Human heritages. Batman, who saw his parents murdered in front of him as a child, then witnesses his adopted son killed by the Joker, loses control, and becomes a ruthless vigilante. But by witnessing Superman’s sacrifice after connecting with him over their Mother’s name (Martha), Batman fathers this ragtag troupe and in so doing learns to restore his humanity again.
The Fathers too are present and have their own internal arcs of redemption, accepting their boys for who they are, seeing them as heroic and worthy. Barry’s father cries with the news that his son has gotten a ‘real job’ and accepts that he will continue battling for his release. Silas Stone apologizes to his son for his absence and gifts him a second lease on life and purpose, but he also lives to see his son forgive him and become a leader of men and a superhero. The mothers too are powerful presences of empathy and loss. Martha Kent and Hippolyta yearn to see their lost children again. Dr. Elinore Stone sees the promise in her son just before she is killed. Lois is to become a mom. And finally, all poor Steppenwolf wants is the fatherly love of his nephew Darkseid and to return to Apocalypse forgiven, but DeSaad and Darkseid are unforgiving. There is no family conciliation with the villains. Even the distant spectre of Granny Goodness turns the nurturing image of grandparents on its head. She is an acolyte of evil. The Apocalypse family remains dysfunctional and does not heal.
All of these stories are laid out poetically, never melodramatically. Each story is told with economy but without cheating the runway. The 4 hours allows us time to live with characters. All the character actors deliver. Joe Morton is brilliant and subtle as the distant genius scientist who can’t even laugh at a co-worker’s joke. We believe his devastation at his wife’s death and son’s near death. His genius and grief makes his son’s resurrection as Cyborg possible. In a devastating scene he cries, ‘’I will not let you die. I will not allow it!!!’’ We also buy the father/son alienation following this act and Silas’s growing ability to show love for his son. All these things are shown in quick but telling scenes that are never overacted, telegraphed, or cliché. They are all brilliantly scripted and acted. The cutting out of Cyborg’s entire emotional arc in the Whedon Cut, which is at the very centre of the Snyder Cut, along with the cutting out of arcs or performances by other minority actors — Flash’s future love interest Iris West, Dr. Elinore Stone, Star Lab’s researcher and future superhero The Atom/Dr. Ryan Choi, Martian Manhunter, and John Stewart, the black Green Lantern — has reinforced Ray Fisher’s claims of racism by Whedon, Johns, Berg, and Warner execs. Fisher has been consistent in revealing on-set shenanigans that paint a picture of a toxic, sexist, racist, and neurotic work environment that definitely changed the buoyant optimism that characterised the Snyder shoot. Cyborg’s missing arc is a revelation, for its complexity and its portrayal of the ascension of a gifted Black Youth to near divinity. It is groundbreaking in its portrayal. Snyder many times said Cyborg is the centre of the story and truthfully, in the rushes of the film, he is in fact called ‘The Ascended Ancient’.
It is the words of fathers that takes the movie home in the end. Superman’s Kryptonian and Earth fathers, Jor-El and Jonathon Kent’s words narrate the heraldic vision of Superman’s return as he dons the black Superman suit and flies to absorb the energy of the sun. It is a narrative about accepting your gifts and using them unapologetically for the good of man. It is Silas’s words to Cyborg that provides the pageant for the League splitting up into their individual lives as they reconcile their contradictions and step into their own individual power. It is these stories, no doubt infused by Zack’s meditation on fatherhood, parenting, and what it means to be a child, that makes Zack Snyder’s Justice League resonate so much at its core. The tragedy of his daughter’s suicide may have enriched Snyder’s exploration of children and their relationship with their parents, the theme that is shot through this movie. Autumn’s presence may be the thing that gifts Zack Snyder’s Justice League its phenomenal beating Heart and so much emotional resonance…
A TONE POEM TO GRIEF – LOIS LANE AS A MUSE OF RETURN, REMEMBERING, AND REDEMPTION
I may be overstating how much Autumn’s death may have influenced Snyder’s direction of Zack Snyder’s Justice League, but I don’t think so. I cannot shake how her presence hovers over the project. One of the places it echoes is with the presence of Lois Lane in the film. For most of the first half of the film Lois’s appearances are strictly concerned with the ritual of her mourning. Her visits to the Superman shrine at Heroes Park, her camaraderie with the policeman there (played by Marc McClure, the Jimmy Olsen from the old Donner Superman), her feeling Clark’s absence on her bed, or in his cape… Lois is a kind of cipher in the film for grief and a proxy for us and the world’s feelings towards Superman’s death. She also is a special kind of female force, an active empath. Just as her intervention saves Batman from killing Superman in BvS, it is her intervention that saves Batman from being killed by the resurrected amnesiac Superman here. It is her presence as a kind of avatar for humanity that brings Superman back to sanity. In BvS the time-travelling Flash warns Batman that, ‘Lois is the key.’’ In moments like these we are reminded of her power and importance as the human connection and conduit to a God, a Muse—a Virgin Mary figure to Superman’s Christ…
Lois’s first appearance starts a series of some of the most lyrical sequences ever assembled for superhero movies. The heart-wrenching sequence when we first see her walking with hot coffee in a rain-drenched Metropolis to the shrine is accompanied by a mournful song — Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds’ Distant Sky — whose lyrics end, ‘’They told us our Gods will outlive us. They lied…’’ It is one of three incredible sequences using well-chosen blues-drenched lyrical pop songs to tell deeper emotional truths images alone can’t. These are just three sequences from about 20 in the movie that are breathtakingly beautiful in style, execution, and emotional impact. They deserve closer inspection and celebration.
THE MOST BEAUTIFULLY COMPOSED THINGS
The Snyder Cut contains a series of sequences of such devastating lyrical beauty that they not only obliterate the Josh Whedon version but they set this movie apart from any of its superhero predecessors. At its best Zack Snyder’s Justice League is a movie that physically and emotionally affects audiences by bringing them to tears, establishing real terror and fear, but also intoxicates with a real sense of anxiety and then catharsis, joy, and emotional liberation. It does this always without cheating. It is an exhilarating ride. There are at least 20 moments throughout the 4 hours where the film-making power is elevated to poetry, which is a lot for any type of movie far less a superhero one. I will identify a couple of them now and analyse their power.
1. Superman’s death screams
The Opening sequence of the movie underlines the trilogy’s penchant for opening with a new take of the central action of the previous movie, but with a worm’s eye view of the losses and consequences of action. Here it is Superman’s death, up close and personal. We see and hear his death cries in a maelstrom of colour and energy, witnessed by Lois, Wonder Woman, then Batman, and we witness the waves of sound heading across cityscapes and across the universe until they awaken the Mother Boxes, which sets the action of the movie in motion. It is a brilliant sequence that immediately sets the tone, showing the consequences of the death of a God.
2. The song to the Ocean God
This underpinning that these superhuman beings are perceived as gods by humanity is brilliantly shown in the scene where Arthur Curry the Aquaman departs from the Icelandic fishing village that he saves with fish seasonally. The women sing a community’s folk-song to an Ocean God in a ritual of departure that is ancient and unexpected. The moment jars at first as we are suddenly in the pagan Arctic Circle 2000 years ago witnessing a primordial rite. It is a brilliant stylistic device that shocks the viewer into contemplation of what super-humanity must mean. It is a stylistic device we do not expect of a modern superhero movie, but probably a European arthouse film. It would not be the last time music is used so powerfully in the film- nor arthouse cinema techniques to elevate subject matter.
3. The song to the Ocean King
Arthur Curry’s role is again fleshed out in another brilliant musical sequence after he has rescued a sailor from drowning. After downing a bottle of rum in the rain he walks down a storm-lashed pier where 20 foot waves crash and a sign warns of danger for mere mortals. Instead Arthur strides to the end of the pier with no fear as the ocean rises with ferocity to welcome its master. Meanwhile, the lyrical genius of Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds’ There Is a Kingdom strums in the background and the lyrics crescendo, ‘‘There is a Kingdom. There is a King! And he lives without, and he lives within. There is a Kingdom. There is a King!’’ And the towering waves embrace Arthur as he disappears in thundering white mist. Even without claiming his mantle the Ocean knows who Arthur Curry is… And so does the audience.
4. The song of the rescue of Iris West
The speedsters of the superhero genre have some of the most beautiful sequences in modern action cinema — Quicksilver in Fox’s X-Men, and a different incarnation of Quicksilver in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The most cosmic but soulful rendition of superhuman speed however is Ezra Miller’s Barry Allen/Flash in the DCEU. All of Barry’s interactions with things whilst inside the Speed Force are delicate, his tipping of Wonder Woman’s sword towards her as she falls, or his Michelangelo-ean finger of God touching the Adamic Mother Box in the resurrection of Superman sequence.
However, nothing is quite like the breathtaking beauty, delicacy, and wit of Barry’s rescue of his future wife, Iris West. The scenario is perfectly set up with their instant infatuation with one another; the chemistry between the actors is palpable. The sequence leading up to Iris’s car crash is excellently composed; Barry’s slapstick job interview intercut with Iris’s stalled car and the antics of the clutziest of truck drivers. But it is the accident sequence that sings. It begins with silence and the one piano note where everything else in the world freezes except for Barry as he races to save his love. The ripping off of his sneakers, the fingertip breaking glass, the rippling of the hood of the car on impact, the synchronising of piano note with lightning strike, and Iris’s body flying towards certain doom, it is all perfectly composed. But it is here where the sequence elevates even further as Barry races to where Iris is floating towards her impact and we see his wonder and adoration of her. The scene is shot through with the aura of the chemistry these two characters had from their first bounce. The sequence is framed and given mood by a blues drenched musical track, Rose Betts and Tim Buckley’s rendition of Larry Beckett’s Song to the Siren. The lyrics bear repeating
‘‘Long afloat on shipless oceans,
I did all my best to smile,
‘Til your singing eyes and fingers,
Drew me loving to your isle,
And you sang,
“Sail to me, sail to me
Let me enfold you.
Here I am.
Here I am.
Waiting to hold you”
The vision of Iris’s cherubic face, framed by light, and the insane care and tenderness with which Barry wraps her arms and guides her body out of death’s way to rest safely on the ground is a vision. His devotion to her whilst in wonder at her beauty is brilliantly punctuated with classic Ezra Miller/Barry Allen humour as he inexplicably snatches a hot dog from out of the sky and laughingly pushes it into his pocket, a ridiculous gesture amidst the carnage and his wondrous care. We get the comic pay off right afterwards. But it is the vision of his confidence in his power, his mastery of speed, the beauty of frozen time, the beauty of Iris, his puppy love, but at the heart of it life triumphing over death that makes the sequence sing. Set to a timeless song it makes this sequence one for the Ages… A Masterclass.
5. The Resurrection of Superman and Cyborg’s Knightmare vision of the future, plus a glimpse of Flash turning back time
The grave robbing sequence is brilliant as a nod to a grittier edgier type of English Gothic film, and the sequence where they eventually figure out that they must attempt to resurrect Superman is brilliant for its Socratic logic as they realize it’s their only chance. But it’s the sequence inside the Kryptonian ship where the stakes are established and the movie kicks up another gear. After a solemn procession through the ship, which acknowledges Superman’s dead body by showing all his suits as they pass, the team enters the amniotic Chamber where the rebirth must take place. Against the vocal protest of the ship itself, the anxious beats of the opposing beliefs of the League resound: Aquaman’s rejection of the idea; Wonder Woman’s stolid watchful nervousness; Barry’s childish anxiety; and Bruce’s emphatic stubborn military general’s Yes! But the scene is punctuated by two unnerving elements: one is the disembodied robot goddess voice of the Kryptonian ship, which is clear in its warnings that this is a bad idea and irreversible! The other is Cyborg’s Knightmare vision which he gets at the moment of impact from either the Motherbox or the ship.
And what a vision it is — the first shot is of Satan on his throne — Darkseid triumphant, the next is of the funeral of Wonder Woman with ancient Greek rites, her body being burnt with coins on her eyes for safe passage to Hades whilst her mother Hippolyta and the Amazons watch on in tears as the conquering ships of Apocalypse hover and land. This is followed by the image of Superman cradling the burnt out corpse of the pregnant Lois lane in his arms in the Bat Cave whilst Darkseid strides over to claim him as a prize, resting his hand tenderly on the devastated shoulder of Kal-El. The final vision is of the destroyed Justice League building with the body of the champion Green Lantern Killawog in the rubble whilst evil Superman hovers over with Batman’s cowl in his hand. The Anti-Life Omega sign is imprinted in the desolate earth where the lake behind Bruce’s house used to be. Cyborg emerges from this vision in shock with the word, ‘’No!’’ which Barry mishears as, ‘’Go!’’ and the confusions and tumult of emotion goes off the scale.
The beauty of Barry’s explosion into the Speed Force is beautiful to watch as all the confusions and contradictions of the past few moments cascade. The scene culminates with a tease of Flash’s ability to change time when we see the fall of the Mother Box reverse as it hits the water (Barry was supposed to touch it before it touches so his reversing of time unintentionally saves the sequencing). The final savage verdict on everything we have just witnessed comes from the disembodied robot goddess voice of the ship who says, ‘’The Future has taken root in the Present.’’ It is a terrifying indictment and premonition that no one except Cyborg and we, the audience, understand! It is also breathtaking film-making matching dialogue with characterization, plot points, and special effects with stakes that are personal and cosmic simultaneously. This is not normal superhero movie stuff!
6. Barry changing time
The cinematic highpoint moment of the film is Flash’s ascent into the Speed Force and his changing time to reverse the destruction of the Earth. Zack Snyder’s Justice League is full of brilliantly composed frames, stunning effects, and a brilliant Junkie XL score. All come together to sing in this moment here. The moment of the Apocalypse is devastating as Flash is suddenly alone in the whole world! Replacing the wasteland loneliness is the extreme galactic vision of the Speed Force, and dancing out of the darkness comes Junkie XL’s incredible Speed Force score led by a haunting lone dancing melodic guitar-line against a perfect bed of techno and orchestral music, a perfect soundtrack for the strangeness and spectacular nature of what we are witnessing. But again, this new 2021 version of Zack Snyder does not leave it for the visuals alone, he roots the moment again in humanity — a personal intimate conversation between Barry and his absent father, echoing and answering lines from their moment of disagreement. He answers his father in what might be his and humanity’s last words, “Dad, whatever happens now, I just want you to know: your kid was one of them, dad. One of the best of the best. Make your own future. Make your own past. It’s all right now…” The marriage of the insane visuals coupled with the haunting music anchored by this whisper of validation of a child to an absent parent is heartbreakingly beautiful. This is insanely emotional film-making and there is really nothing like it in the superhero canon. The closest are moments in Into the Spider-Verse which come close…
7. The ode of Cyborg’s father to him, part 1
As I said before the turning points of the movie are sandwiched by these messages from fathers to sons- Superman’s two dads speaking to him as he embraces his dual heritages, and Cyborg as he embraces his super-humanity (and humanity) in full at the end. But these have a precursor when Silas leaves a tape recording for Victor alerting him to his power. Again, the writing is excellent as Silas says, ‘’Your super strength is just the tip of your powers. The tip of the tip!’’ This poetic economy of language is present throughout the film. The sequence that follows next is brilliant as Victor Stone discovers he is a digital God. The immersive virtual visions of him controlling all the planet’s nuclear arsenals and watching at the combative dance of the Bull and Bear forces of financial markets is anchored by a human story at its core, as again this new Snyder searches for the human connection at the heart of spectacle.
8. The parable of the poor immigrant lady
Silas warns that Victor’s real challenge would be restraint given all his power, resisting temptation and whimsy. But Victor is already ahead of him and hones in on a particular vision, a vision of an immigrant mother working as a waitress battling to make ends meet but still generous herself. We see her taking care of her son, unable to afford food at a bargain store, giving money to a homeless person, and being evicted herself for lack of payment of rent. We see Victor’s empathic humanity for her as he watches from an almost divine height through all manner of surveillance instruments. He then intervenes like a Robin Hood and gifts her with $100,000. We see him watching her reaction in real-time as she discovers the money at the ATM. The sequence is counterpointed when the elation that Cyborg feels is punctured by a couple recoiling in horror on seeing him, forcing him to retreat under his hoodie. A loaded sequence which evokes historical and modern day racism as much as it evokes the terror of villagers in a gothic horror in seeing Frankenstein’s monster.
9. The Knightmare sequence and the phenomenal repartee between the Joker and Batman at the end of the world
The final sequence I want to talk about is the Knightmare sequence in the Epilogue, specifically the dialogue between Batman and the Joker. Zack Snyder’s Justice League is a Redemption Arc for many: Ray Fisher, Ezra Miller, Ray Porter, Ciaran Hinds, Ben Affleck, Zack himself, and more, but none would probably receive more of a Hail Mary pass salvation from this film than Jared Leto as Joker. Leto’s Joker was a casualty of the butchering of David Ayers’ Suicide Squad. The smattering of his performance that was used in the movie did not impress many people and it is safe to say that his version of Joker has been touted by many as the weakest of any committed to the screen, including the campy Caesar Romero version in the equally campy 1966 TV series. This Knightmare sequence with the verbal showdown between Joker and Batman is the only new thing that Snyder filmed for the Snyder Cut, his reason being that it would be a shame if this entire chapter of storytelling would pass without the payoff of getting a face to face between Affleck’s Batman and Leto’s Joker. The sequence is another Masterclass of film-making and acting restraint and subtlety.
The post-apocalyptic Knightmare world is as terrifying as ever as we are faced with the surviving ragtag heroes hiding from evil Superman and Darkseid’s forces whilst on an unspecified mission. It is clear that many heroes and villains are dead and that humanity’s last hope rests with this motley crew of surviving heroes and villains. The strangest of bedfellows are Batman and the Joker. When they speak we can feel the acrimonious decades of their history in their voices. Both have experienced the death of loved ones and the loved ones of their enemy. Joker’s murder of Robin hovers over the entire conversation as he taunts Batman, ‘’How could you send a Boy Wonder to do a man’s job?’’ But Batman’s rejoinder is a tale of his own, Harley Quinn’s last words to him as she lay dying, telling Batman to kill Joker, and slowly. Batman drops an atomic f-bomb when he says he definitely is going to kill the Joker whilst looking him straight in the eye. It is a savage moment of many savage moments between them. But the response of Joker to this is an incredible bit of acting by Leto where he freezes with dead eyes on Batman and then begins to shake uncontrollably. It is not fear, it is spectral, like possession. The conversation turns when Joker indicts Batman for leaving a trail of failure and Apocalypse across multiple timelines because he refuses to sacrifice himself for humanity and only sends proxies. The words seem to hit home! We never get to hear if this is true or not because evil Superman lands and his heat vision is poised to strike.
The scene is shot through by the disembodied strangeness of Leto’s Joker who is now like a shell of a Jester, King Lear’s fool as a scarecrow. Snyder and Leto design him as a synthesis of his interpretation mixed with Joaquin Phoenix’s and Heath Ledger’s. His voice is haggard and weary and his laugh is not wild and maniacal any more but sounds like a ghostly crow coming from inside of a well. It is a deeply captivating performance and many are calling this repartee between Batman and Joker the best on-screen encounter between these two age-old fictional characters ever. The sequence magnetizes and haunts. As an audience you instantly want more! The Epilogue puts the cherry on top the Snyder Cut teasing that the adventure cannot end here. It works. We want more. Even storied online critics of the Snyderverse have retracted their criticisms and demanded more. Through the online response it is clear now that millions globally want to see more of these characters in this word. It is testament to how brilliantly crafted Zack Snyder’s Justice League is. The victory is that the thing that magnetizes us to want to return to this world is not just visuals, it is character.
The thing that rings across Zack Snyder’s Expanded DC Universe and his Justice League is the sense of consequence. It is something he had instilled into his imagining of the Universe from the very beginning. Despite all his cinematic bombast, Snyder always brought his super-heroic and cosmic action back down to human scale with its impact on human life. It is a trait shared with the other great superhero films I mentioned, films that transcend the genre and are just beautiful movies. Again they bear mentioning: Into the Spider-Verse; Spiderman 2; Avengers Infinity War; Blade; Captain America Winter Soldier; and Doctor Strange (despite its fun veneer I would actually put Aquaman in there too, and despite its CGI overload in its final act Wonder Woman too).
The stakes in these films normally flare out into deaths. Deaths of loved ones. Of intimates. Of people who we have come to care about or for whom our lead characters care deeply. The losses are shown and told. They are normally part of the catastrophe that faces humanity in dealing with the villainy at hand. The death of the original Spider Man and Miles’s uncle in Spider-Verse, the death of the Chosen One and Elder Mystics in Doctor Strange, the death of half of everyone in Infinity War…
I would argue that none of these movies deliver a better geometry of the cost of evil than Snyder’s Justice League where at every turn the impact of villainy is intimately felt: its threat, its dire individual and communal consequence. Even the cost of the violence necessary to put it down! This sense of consequence in relation to the scale of power of superhuman beings, from the merely very-skilled to the cosmic, is what Snyder has built into the DC Universe at its core from the very beginning. It is something the continuing architects of the DCEU should applaud him for, and continue. It is something he attempted to articulate in his previous films with various degrees of success, but it is something he nails perfectly in Justice League. Strangely enough this is not something that is in the DNA of DC comics, but is really a hallmark of Marvel Comics.
The irony of this pop cultural moment has always been that the aesthetic of colourful witty fable that Marvel movies has adopted is actually the aesthetic of DC Comics, and the brooding consequence-laden aesthetic of the current DC Cinematic Universe is actually typical of Marvel Comics! So there’s that…
The lack of the weight to the solution of Thanos’s genocide from Infinity War is actually the flaw at the heart of Avenger’s Endgame. The supreme accomplishment of Infinity War’s deeply felt cosmic devastation confronted Marvel with the conundrum of how do you solve the enormity of Thanos’s victory, and make people feel that solution the same way they felt the loss. Endgame solved it by playing fast and loose with time travel, having Tony Stark flippantly solve the mystery of time over dinner whilst watching TV. It feels like a cheat. The first journeys back in time by Hulk and squad are played for laughs. It rings hollow as a solution to match the epicness of Thanos’s feast of Death. Yes, Tony Stark dies in the end, but the cinematic solution to Infinity War did not have the aesthetic weight required to match one of the great cinematic genocides ever depicted. It was not worthy enough.
There is no such irreverence and cheating in Snyder’s Justice League; every victory here cost, and must be earned. We feel every inch won and lost, every step taken, even when they are taken at lightning speed. The Art never wavers in letting us off feeling the consequence of things. In a real world where sometimes consequence seems imbalanced at best and absent at worst for evil, in a world where a younger generation seems consequence-challenged, it is good to be reminded that actions really do matter, and that things have consequence. This maybe one of the more telling lessons of the film.
VILLAINS & THE SENSE OF THREAT
They always say that an action movie, especially a fantasy/sci-fi/ superhero movie, is only as good as its villain, and Justice League delivers a host of some of the most memorable in some time. Steppenwolf is one of the best designed cinematic villains of all time. He is in the Pantheon with Darth Vader, Darth Maul, Jason, Freddy Kruger, and Heath Ledger’s The Joker. He combines a monumentality, a demonic flush, the strangeness and terror of prehistoric and alien bone, a murderous brutality, and a spectral fishplate armour lovingly rendered (no doubt by an army of CGI artists). He also has a tragic backstory of trying to return from exile for a betrayal gone wrong that leaves his demonic quest almost sympathetic. But it is the whole Court of Apokolips who stars, from their design to the personality of the individual demons themselves.
Snyder has layered his Superman and Justice League myth with parallels to the Christian biblical battle of Heaven and Hell, Jesus Christ and Satan, and it continues here with his messianic Superman, complete with resurrection and cruciform pose over planet Earth. But he escalates the aesthetic emphatically with his Hell-ish images of the Court of Apokolips: from the sorrowful insectoid fallen Angel silhouettes of the Parademons to Steppenwolf’s massive demonic horns to the fire-drenched images of Steppenwolf’s superiors as they communicate with him through the burning morphing Mother Box slag. The cruel sarcastic DeSaad is the archetypal vision of demonic Death, one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse whose every gesture is a Medieval triptych depiction of the Seven Deadly Sins. Each time the character appears he sends chills. But none deliver more a sense of thorough scare than Darkseid. Every utterance, gesture, and frame of Darkseid is a violence. In a court that is a corrupt cathedral of the Underworld, DeSaad may be Beelzebub, but Darkseid is King Satan himself.
The villains in Snyder’s Justice League all mean business, there is no cheating. The sense of threat and consequence extends to each and every action. The movie opens with a close-up of Superman’s death and its cosmic ramifications; Steppenwolf appears on Themyscira and the Temple where the Mother Box was guarded is sacrificed along with all the Amazons inside underlined by a massive landslide which sinks it into the sea. Atlantean guards are sliced in half by the invader. A loving father and a brilliant scientist sacrifices his life because he knows it just may save the world. Fate cruelly intervenes, a car crash kills a loving mother and maims a son, another crash almost kills a potential love. Terrorists kill innocents on the way to a nihilistic act of slaughter and only extreme violence stops them. Superheroes stumble and fall, fail to rescue everyone, cars crash, people die. Superheroes kill to save life. This is not a PG13 world of cars flipping ten times and people walking out alive. This is a comic book movie with real world stakes. And the stakes are high! Some people are up in arms about Wonder Woman killing at the beginning and end of the movie. To this I say, ‘’Wonder Woman fought in the trenches of World War 1. Do they think she was stopping Germans with Socratic arguments? She fights with a sword. People who fight with swords kill and maim people. She is a Warrior. She kills. Ethically, but she does. Deal with it!’’
The flip side of this sense of consequence in the face of the sliding scale of superhuman power and villainy is the overwhelming humanity of this movie. I have already spoken of Snyder’s masterful capture of the power of the relationship between fathers and mothers, daughters and sons. This enduring compassion and humanity permeates everything in this version of Justice League. It is not a Captain America-style stubborn rigid morality, it is not the rhetorical bombastic morality of past Snyder’s films, it is something softer. It is Love. There is a Humanism in this Justice League not present in any Zack Snyder work before. It is not just a plot device, a specific theme of this particular movie, it is a new empathy even in the film-making technique. Yes, this third film was always supposed to be the hope and light filled one as opposed to the grim BvS, but the sea shift here is monumental. Fans of Zack must also begin to be honest and nuanced enough to see such things. No director is a monolith, they should be allowed to fail, but also to change. A devotion that does not allow the object of affection that freedom is dangerous.
The sensibility at the helm of Justice League shifted, and in a good way, sun has broken through clouds. It is there in the softer touch that now alights on with every gesture, action sequence, and line of dialogue. This is a different Zack Snyder. There is a sense of a huge beating heart behind every action and decision of our heroes, of their care for a thing larger than themselves, in their care for one another, and unquestioning sense of compassion. It is shot through the entire film and gives it the holy aura of a Grail Quest. One reviewer says that Cyborg’s Robin Hood intervention in the life of a working class immigrant is the first time that we have seen a superhero intervene in structural systemic inequality ever. I am saying that this film, dedicated to Autumn Snyder, is deeply felt and humanly wrought.
There is still fan and hater nitpicking about Ezra Miller’s casting as Flash, and especially of his awkward geeky running style. I would be the first to admit, when I first compared him to the brilliance and elegance of Grant Gustin’s TV Flash, he aesthetically was found wanting. But the thing is this, Ezra Miller’s portrayal of Barry Allen has so much charm, wit, and soul and he makes the character so empathetic and earnest that you must love him. Because of this, even his gawkiness in running feels like a creature of Barry’s boyish geekiness, a sense of a child still growing into his body and powers. His character also has the best comic lines.
All of this is to say that Snyder deserves a trophy for the way that he has populated the DC Extended Universe with such brilliantly cast leads. Not only his physical actors deserve acclaim but his voice actors too. The Apokolips villains are spot on, delivering a Masterclass of subtle layered Shakespearian villainy unlike any I’ve seen in film for some time. Ray Porter’s Darkseid and Ciaran Hinds’ Steppenwolf are excellent, but the glue that holds the sense of scale of the villains together is DeSaad. DeSaad is the torturer of the Kingdom, and boy is he ever! In DeSaad, we get a vision of a being that cruelly delights in another being’s humiliation, subjugation, and subordination. The way he lays an extra ‘’50,000 worlds’’ penance on Steppenwolf for insubordination is devastatingly cruel and humorous simultaneously.
Snyder’s DCEU casting has been modern, diverse, sensitive and unexpected for the leads and supporting cast and deserves commendation- especially as paid off in this movie. Every single Snyder casting has delivered on creating definitive takes on these storied characters. Some may argue many are the best renditions of those characters thus far. Henry Cavill’s rock-jawed super-muscled Kal-El alternates between little boy naivety and compassion with bristling arrogance and flashes of a violent steel which give his Superman a range the character never had before. Ben Affleck is a world-weary Batman and a Bruce Wayne wrestling with demons whilst on a road to redemption. He is comfortable in his riches- but haunted by losses. Jason Momoa’s casting cancelled out the ‘weakest-link’ Aryan California-blond Aquaman of our childhood completely, reinventing the character as a hard-drinking loner with a heart of gold, conflicted by twin heritages, alienated from both. Ray Fisher, as Cyborg, authors a performance that dismantles the ‘angry Black man’ label and presents a complex genius of a young man, a mental and physical prodigy with a sensitive caring heart, yearning for a father’s love. Zack Snyder’s casting of Gal Gadot was spot on and his conception of Wonder Woman is still the definitive take on her. She alternates between motherly love and a bemused immortal female knowing about the foibles of men and Men, but at heart she is a Warrior who does not hesitate to defend innocents or take the life of threatening Evil. The supporting cast of Amy Adams, Diane Lane, JK Simmons, Connie Nielsen, Jeremy Irons, Jared Leto, Joe Morton, Willem Dafoe, and the voices of Kevin Costner and Russel Crowe are all pitch perfect. In Justice League even the excesses of Jesse Eisenberg’s loud discordant Lex Luthor have been tempered by time in Arkham. We start to see a more mannered ruthless calculating Luthor with a quieter cackling wit.
Not only did Snyder deliver the first female superhero lead with his set up of Wonder Woman, but in his conception of the League at full strength he has delivered the most diverse set of super-humans yet assembled in mainstream cinema. His full-length team would have constituted of three Black men: Cyborg, the Jon Stewart Green Lantern, and Martian Manhunter, with a fourth and fifth possible with Detective Crispus Allen’s possible return as The Spectre and Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson’s anti-hero take on Black Adam. There also is a Chinese Atom, a brown Aquaman, and a Jewish Flash and Shazam! Superman and Wonder Woman are also illegal immigrants (LOL.) Alongside Wonder Woman are Mera and Hippolyta as strong self-possessed female heroines, and the Amazons of Themyscira are a vision of female agency and power. This is an incredibly diverse kingdom of heroes! Marvel is still far behind in this respect, despite its larger cinematic output. For all these reasons the Snyderverse is important and should continue.
PERSONALITY AND WIT
Here’s the strange thing. Despite all Warner Brothers’ and Joss Whedon’s Avenger’s-type corny humour in the Whedon-cut, Zack Snyder’s Justice League is the infinitely funnier movie. None of the humour feels dialled in, which it does at times in Marvel, where sometimes it descends into schtick. Part of this is the wonderfully written and brilliant unconventional quirkiness of Ezra Miller’s Flash with his self-deprecating nerdy blurts, but a lot of it is the repartee between the fully formed personalities of the League and surrounding team: Victor Stone’s sarcastic weariness, or Aquaman’s loner incredulity. None of it is forced. They’re all smiles and snickers… It’s all threaded through; Jeremy Iron’s sardonic wit as Alfred, the Flash and Aquaman choosing military hats, Flash and Cyborg macking on Wonder Woman at the grave, the flirty playfulness between Bruce and Diana… None of the humour is tacked on one-liners, it is all hard-won humour emerging from the grim reality of the situations.
And this again is the difference between the Snyder-led DCEU and Marvel Expanded Universe as evidenced between the Whedon and Snyder Cut of Justice League. Whatever you might say about Whedon’s cut, you have to confess that he did indeed recast the film in Marvel’s image. The tricks he uses are all Marvel tricks to create empathy, write dialogue, and choreograph action (except when done by the Russo Brothers). The Marvel Universe is a light comic-bookish take on super-heroism. England’s celebrity vloggers The Cyber Nerds said that Marvel’s conceives their superheroes as celebrities, but DC’s conceives theirs as Gods. They are right. The gravitas of that godhood is what Snyder has given his Universe, it is what is missing in the Whedon Cut and is missing in Marvel except in Infinity War. Humour is never far in Marvel, it is a sitcom-based world occasionally shot through with consequence and darkness. Snyder’s DCEU is a real world noir where humour is won and treasured…
This is the best dialogue that Zack Snyder and his team have ever written. It is shot through with a subtlety and poetry not present in his previous work which has been full of comic book bombast and a sense of absolutisms. There is a new economy, delicacy, and wit that has been earned in the dialogue. A sense of hard won truths… Listen:
Hippolyta: ‘’ Evil does not sleep, it waits.’’
Wonder Woman: ‘’ I belong to no one.’’
Wonder Woman: ‘‘Hate is useless.’’
Steppenwolf: “I’ve come to enlighten you to the great darkness. I will bathe in your fear.”
Hippolyta: “Daughters of Themyscira. Show him your Fear!’’
Daughters: ‘’We Have No Fear!”
Ghost of Elinore Stone/Mother Box: ‘’ We’ve been waiting for you Victor, my broken boy.’’…
Cyborg: “I’m Not Broken. And I’m Not Alone.”
There are extended bits of writing that could easily have descended into comic book corn, but instead have the punch of classical poetry:
Queen Hippolyta’s incantation to the Arrow of Artemis: ‘’Sky torch. Hero beacon. Scatter the darkness. Burn as you burned in days before. Show her the darkness before the daylight of history. Warn my daughter that war has come, and protect her. Return to me, Diana.’’
Silas Stone’s brilliant tape-recorded message to Victor: ‘’Everything breaks, Victor. Everything changes. The world is hurt, broken, unexchangable. But the world is not changed in the past, only the future. The not yet. The now… Now’s your time Victor. To rise. Take your place among the brave ones. It’s time you stand. Fight. Discover. Heal. Love. Win. The time is now.’’
Nuidis Vulko’s exhortation to Aquaman: ‘’The Mother Box our people guard is not safe. Go to the stronghold of Atlantis. Protect the box. The time has come. Take up your mother’s trident! You can’t turn your back on the world forever, Arthur. Above or below.’’
Wonder Woman’s recount of the History Lesson of Darkseid’s First Coming and defeat: ‘’They did what no world had ever done before, sent the enemy back into the stars. The three Mother Boxes never synchronized. The Unity never came to pass. But in their retreat the Boxes were left behind on Earth. They grew weak. Dogs without masters. Falling asleep. Awaiting their return. Fading from the view of the enemy. Anonymous amongst a trillion worlds.’’
And there’re many more, all are brilliantly economical and poetic. All contain short brilliant lines:
Steppenwolf: ‘’Noble Queen, why do you fight? You cannot save her. You cannot save any of them…’’
Silas Stone: ‘’ In the world of ones and zeroes, you are the absolute Master.’’
Cyborg: ‘’ They’re change machines.’’
Cyborg: ‘‘The ship is begging me not to wake the Box.’’
Cyborg: ‘‘It wanted to fly. Flight is its nature.’’
Alfred Pennyworth: How do you know your team’s strong enough? ‘Cause if you can’t bring down the charging bull, then don’t wave the red cape at it.’’
Bruce: ‘’This red cape charges back!!!’’
Batman: ’How do we do that again?’’
Flash: ‘’With the Power of Love?’’
Flash: ‘’With a catastrophic energy surge!’’
Flash: “Wow, Wonder Woman. What do you think, man? You think she’d ever go for a younger guy?”
Cyborg: “She’s 5,000 years old, Barry. Every guy’s a younger guy,”
Joker: “I’m happy to discuss with you, in any way you like, why you sent a Boy Wonder to do a man’s job.”
Joker: ‘’ Poor Lois, how she suffered so.’’
Jor-El: “You will give the people of Earth an ideal to strive towards… They will stumble, they will fall… But they will join you in the sun, Kal.”
Darkseid: ‘’Ready the Armada. We will use the old ways.’’
The movie also contains a series of brilliantly composed action sequences. The opening sequence where Wonder Woman bursts into action to defeat the terrorists is an explosion of Diana’s power, dazzling in its execution and its lethality. The ancestry to her warrior-hood is displayed in the Themyscira Amazonian battle with Steppenwolf. That sequence is brilliant in its escalating sense of threat where we see the Amazons in coordinated military battle and retreat against a murderous alien adversary of unknown strength. All Steppenwolf’s battles are well appointed: the savage battle in Atlantis against Mera, Aquaman, and the undermanned guards; and the skirmish with the League in the tunnel. All are paced differently and are as much about the personality of Steppenwolf’s foes as much as his strength. The Amazons are steadfast, isolated, and doomed, Atlantis is weakened from within by a tyrant King, the League is disunited and impulsive in their first battle…
The battle with Superman again shows the lack of coordination of the League and their lack of strategy in battling scaled-up power, but it’s also an opportunity to gauge each of the League’s power on a scale. The showpiece battles are the History lesson of Darkseid’s first assault on Earth and the final battle with Steppenwolf, both times when Earth’s defenders got their acts together. In the first we get a chance to see the epic battle of Gods, Amazons, Atlanteans, Lanterns, and the Tribes of Man repulsing Uxas (Darkseid’s younger incarnation before he received the Omega power and grew into his adult strength). In the final battle we see the League now fighting as a strategic fighting force in several theatres of battle, fighting according to their talents. Batman acts as battering ram, baiting, decoying, and commanding the high ground like a General whilst Flash acts as a battery. Aquaman, Cyborg, and Wonder Woman triple team para-demons and eventually Steppenwolf. Each engagement with the enemy is well shot and composed. The fights are logical with real stakes and everything builds towards the return of Superman whose battle with Steppenwolf is epic as we see a Superman unleashed. The final battle sequence with the death of Steppenwolf is brilliantly composed with each League member contributing. It concludes with the dread skull-crushing brutality of Darkseid on the other end of the portal as the heroes stand-off, sizing up each other, in anticipation of the cataclysm that will surely constitute their inevitable conflict.
THE LOOK OF THE FILM & WORLD BUILDING
Zack Snyder’s Justice League is a beautiful looking film. It is Lord of the Rings scale in terms of set pieces and vistas. With over 2,650 special effects shots, it does not put a digital foot wrong. You believe this world. Darkseid, Steppenwolf, and Apokolips terrify! Flash’s speed effects are a joy to behold. Cyborg is there in front of you. Despite the strangeness of the 4:3 aspect ratio (IMAX format) rather than widescreen the shots work. Apart from shooting in anticipation of an IMAX release Snyder reasoned that much of the movement in the film was vertical (flying characters, characters wielding axes overhead, etc.) rather than horizontal. The film is effective world and character building. Snyder has now fleshed out Metropolis, Gotham, Atlantis, Apokolips, Themyscira, and assorted other haunts. There are vehicles, costumes, props, weapons, personality tics… Snyder has done what he set out to do. He has given DC its Universe. From cosmic alien powers to terrestrial gods to heroes to normal humans who we care about. He has given each strong personalities, and he has been faithful to the source material, even deepening the lore in some cases. It’s taken him three movies to do this!
As I said before Man of Steel perfectly set up the metrics of the Universe, its aesthetic, and its weight. BvS crumbled under its own narrative weight and blind spots, trying to do too much whilst also being a low point for Snyder aesthetically. However, it also was ambitious in the amount of mythology it sought to make come alive in the form. In a strange sense it worked because Snyder’s casting, design, and story context of the characters was so strong it allowed them to live on and be successful in stand-alone series and reverberate with fans. But the series required a strong third act to reinforce these gains and establish the stakes and the panorama of the Universe. Zack Snyder’s Justice League delivers that in spades. It is a phenomenal artefact of world building and cinematic ambition.
FIGURES, BUT WARNER BROTHERS STILL REFUSES TO UNDERSTAND THE GIFT OF THE SNYDERVERSE
The weekend before the Snyder Cut was released WarnerMedia Studios CEO Ann Sarnoff told Variety magazine that although they are glad that Zack had gotten a chance to ‘complete his vision’, Warner had effectively closed the book on the Snyderverse.
This makes absolutely no financial or cultural sense.
The creation of a sustainable global mythology is not something that many artists can accomplish. If it was, everybody would do it. The creation of a coherent immersive world populated by characters that an entire globe cares about is a sacred and unique thing. Zack Snyder has done that. In three movies! Given all that I have just said, plus the stunning figures of viewership globally, why is Warner Brothers still saying that it has closed the door on the Snyderverse? Everyday more independent agencies are releasing figures of the movies success, the purchases of the movie on HBO Max and licensed streaming sites, the record breaking 1,500,000+ strong Twitter storm of #RestoreTheSnyderVerse on Friday,26th March, 2021 (which broke the record set by Avengers Endgame).
The figures don’t lie.
The movie crashed HBO Max’s servers on the first day. Fans were watching the 4 hour movie multiple times in a row. Analytics firm Samba TV reported, ‘’1.8 million households watched Zack Snyder’s Justice League in its opening weekend in the US… This means the Snyder Cut was more popular than Marvel’s The Falcon and The Winter Soldier episode 1, although it didn’t beat Wonder Woman 1984‘s 2.2 million opening weekend. That’s not much of a surprise, though, given the Snyder Cut released on a random Thursday in March, whereas Wonder Woman 1984 dropped over the holiday period.’’ Millions across the world also watched the movie on pirated platforms because of the unavailability of HBO Max in their region.
In Canada, Bell Media reported, ‘‘Crave announced today that last week’s exclusive premiere of ZACK SNYDER’S JUSTICE LEAGUE is the most-streamed title in the platform’s history, beating out the previous Crave record holder, set by the final season of GAME OF THRONES in 2019. The HBO Max Original film also had more than 1.1 million viewers tune-in on Crave’s linear channels, including Super Écran.’’ The Hindustani Times reported, ‘‘Within three days of launch, Zack Snyder’s Justice League made history, in India at least, on BookMyShow Stream. The movie generated a lot of interest pre-launch with plenty of pre-bookings coming in on the platform and latest numbers show that the more than four-hour-long superhero extravaganza has crossed over 100,000 streams in just three days.’’
Bloomberg reports, ‘‘AT&T Inc.’s HBO Max had the biggest increase in video streaming last week, as viewers flocked to its recut version of the superhero epic “Justice League.” The WarnerMedia streaming platform recorded an 8.9% jump in users launching its mobile app, according to Bloomberg’s analysis of Apptopia data… For the week ended March 28, downloads of the HBO Max app rose 64% for the top increase.’’
These are just some of the figures coming in. WarnerMedia Studios CEO Ann Sarnoff speaks about moving forward with a ‘more diverse slate’ that includes a Black Superman movie written by Ta-Nehisi Coates, the Latina Supergirl movie, and more. Whilst the expansion of representation is definitely a mission that Hollywood should not shirk, my worry is that minority inclusion is constantly being used to set up false oppositions against old mythologies and ultimately ‘good storytelling’. Sarnoff even flags what she calls ‘toxic fandom’ as if it were one of the reasons Warner is now distancing itself from Snyder. By going against a genius storyteller, using minority and gender inclusion as a shield, and by overstating the delinquency of toxic fans, Sarnoff has raised herself up as Warner’s mirror image of Kathleen Kennedy over at Disney, who has been called out as the person responsible for the destruction of the Star Wars franchise with the terribly written Ray Palpatine saga.
Kennedy notoriously betrayed the trust of George Lucas who put his mythology under her custodianship after the sale to Disney. Kennedy immediately threw away Lucas’s story ideas for the next three movies as well as the entire Star Wars Legends mythology, which gave shape to the Universe through hundreds of books, games, and animated series. Along with JJ Abrams, Kennedy’s stated aim was to create a more inclusive Star Wars Universe with a female lead and ethnic heroes. Her sub-text agenda was to kill off and humiliate the legacy heroes of the franchise like Han Solo (a dead beat dad who dies early) and Luke Skywalker (a coward who abandons the Galaxy in its darkest hour). The thing is that even Kennedy’s ‘virtue signalling’ was false. In the trilogy, all the ethnic characters were sidelined for the lone White female lead and her White emo boyfriend Kylo Ren; the both of whom were near invincible and were written with nuance and complexity. John Boyega who played fan favourite Finn who was massively sidelined as a character as the series progressed has gone on record flagging the casual racism that was evident in the marginalizations. Boyega said he felt used by Disney to bring a minority audience in, but he himself as a fictional character was not respected.
All this is to say that a lot of the people pretending to be ‘Woke’ and ‘Inclusive’ are actually not, they are just people who want to see THEMSELVES on screen, at the expense of everybody else. It seemed that all Kennedy really cared about was elevating a White female like herself, nobody else. But Kennedy and her team were also something just as bad, they were terrible storytellers. And this is the real enemy that we all need to worry about right now.
THE FALSE LEFT, SLEEPING WOKE, AND THE STOKING OF REACTIONARY RACISM
Western pop culture fandoms, especially in America, have been rapidly splitting into camps which have been pitting what is labelled as ‘the Woke’, ‘Virtue Signallers’, or the ‘politically correct’ against “the real fans of classic mythology and genius storytelling.” Let me very clear, this is a false dichotomy and an artificial battle. The only winner in this false equivalence are real Right Wing or fringe groups who are looking to capture brilliant loners ideologically by alienating them from progressive ideologies.
The first thing to note is that people like Kathleen Kennedy, Ann Sarnoff, and other Hollywood execs are not real progressives and do not represent any real liberation struggles. Battles by Black, Native American, female, Latinx, Asian, LGBT and other marginalized communities for equal rights, justice, and cultural representation are real. Many of these groups have been disenfranchised for hundreds of years, suffering genocidal processes and enforced structural poverty. Black representation in the history of Hollywood TV and film would account for a small decimal of a percentage point, despite Blacks being 13% of the population and an outsize contributor to America’s cultural output. Most of that representation would consist of the most heinous of stereotypes and images of Black death. The need for representation is real. But so is the need for brilliant genius storytelling to accompany that. Without flying a flag, Zack Snyder has created a superhero team that when fully constituted will be majority minority and female. But what matters is that the characters he created are brilliantly written. What matters is that he is faithful and respectful of the DC lore. Inclusion only makes sense if it is accompanied by exceptional storytelling. The Rise of Skywalker is terrible storytelling so that even though it has a female hero, because it is so badly written, nobody wins. Into the Spider-Verse is the opposite. It diversifies a 60 year old global mythological figure through genius level storytelling that happens to be about the creation of a Black Spiderman, the character resonates, the lore is respected. Everybody wins.
When execs like Sarnoff say that they are disrespecting a genius storyteller because they are going “a more diverse route,” they are creating a false opposition between “fans of great storytelling” and needed representation. No minority ever asked for that! There are a host of legacy pop cultural mythologies, which have been challenged by diverse retrofitted representation: Idris Elba as Heimdall in the Thor movies, and Sam Jackson as Nick Fury in the whole Marvel Universe. And there are others currently playing out and to come like the black female lead in Star Trek Voyager and the Black Captain Marvel to come. What will determine if these roles mean anything to the battle for racial and gender equality will be if the characters are well written and the stories are well told. Zack Snyder has just told a story for the Ages. It also happens to have many powerful roles for women and people of colour who are there on their on the merit of their talent. This is a win for everybody.
THE CRITICS & THE TROLLS
There are some people who just love to hate. And then there are others who are paid thugs… The internet can be a cruel place. Looking at comments under sometimes the most innocent of posts, one is horrified by the kind of hate, insults, and crazy conspiracy theories that pour out of the cracks. So I’m not being a shocked nun who stumbled into a Chippendale show, but it’s one thing to see outright lies and negativity in an anonymous comment under a YouTube video by IHateSnyder21112, but it’s something else when you see such sentiments being expressed in a review by a mainstream publication or a sponsored Vlog!
There are critics who have said with a straight face that the Whedon and Snyder cut are the same movie with no noticeable difference. There are mainstream voices that are saying without the hint of irony that the Snyder Cut is average film-making and good riddance. Some of the Rotten Tomato critics who have crapped on the movie seem to be speaking almost from an alternate reality. It certainly feels at times like if there are certain voices in the pockets of competitors….
Not that everybody’s taste will be the same, but there is such a thing as objective truth. Not that I feel that dissenting voices are going to sabotage this movement, but I feel it necessary to flag certain tactics of cultural assassins which I find to be dangerous.
There have been “agenda-ed” critical movements in the past, which have destroyed beautiful work and mythological possibilities. The biggest ploy of these has been to actually openly attack the virtues and the excellence of good work with bald-faced lies, ‘alternative facts’. I have seen it play out to terrifying effect ending several beautiful things- John Carter Warlord of Mars and Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter were two phenomenal movies that were savaged until their follow-ups or audiences were aborted. That attacking of virtue in the DCEU has been present in the attacks against Man of Steel and Aquaman.
Fanboys sometimes buy into portions of these traps by agreeing to false oppositions between their treasured cause célèbre and things not even opposed to it. So fans of Snyder for no reason hate on James Wan’s Aquaman, a gorgeous triumphantly designed and written film. If the lighter tone is not your thing that’s fine, but you cannot fault Wan’s design of the Aquaman Universe and his respect for the Legacy gifted him by Snyder. It is one of the most gorgeous movies of all time. Fans need to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time. Just like in the comics Jim Starlin is a different artist than John Buscema Sr. who is different than John Romita Jr. who is different than Jim Lee who is different than Frank Miller who is different than Jack Kirby… All are genius artists bringing a different interpretation of the same characters. With different strengths! Fanboys need to let the universe breathe and realize when people are actually on their side.
WARNER BROTHERS PARADOXICAL FACILITATION OF AND TERRIBLE HISTORY WITH GREAT ARTISTS
With the issue of silencing the Snyderverse coming right after the Snyder Cut revealed just what the Whedon Cut had silenced, Warner Brothers runs the risk of casting themselves as historical enemies of Genius Artists, raising old shibboleths like Prince’s battle with the company over artists rights and ownership. I would suggest that Warner does not want to be known as the company that historically exploits or silences Genius Artists. The battle that Prince fought over his catalogue and over his ability to release music freely was historic and became a global phenomenon. The singer famously changed his name to a symbol and wrote the word SLAVE on his face during a vow of silence to prove his point. That particular debacle ended with the genius singer/multi-instrumentalist divorcing the label in an acrimonious parting of ways. Prince’s battle with Warner is said to be the impetus for campaigns for Black ownership of musical masters and better recording deals and has been cited by many Hip Hop multi-millionaires moguls as being the inspiration for their aggression in leveraging their value and wealth when dealing with labels. Prince’s war against Warner inspired Artists of all stripes globally. There have been other artistic Warner spats.
The fact is that Warner Brothers is a legacy pop culture company that has had many owners and executives. It is not a monolith and has had different regimes of ideas running it at different times. It has facilitated some of the greatest artists in the world in music, TV, and film. Musicians like Led Zeppelin, Tom Petty, Madonna, James Taylor, Joshua Redman, Rod Stewart, Seal, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Ashford & Simpson, George Benson, Bootsy Collins, De La Soul, Earth Wind and Fire, Fleetwood Mac, Duran Duran, Jane’s Addiction, REM, Paul Simon, and Curtis Mayfield have called it home!!! And many more. Its movie catalogue includes The Lord of the Rings saga, The Matrix saga, the Sherlock Holmes movies, Mad Max Fury Road, Wedding Crashers, Gremlins, Oliver Stone’s JFK, Paul Newman’s Cool Hand Luke, The Exorcist, Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity, A Clockwork Orange, Goodfellas, A Streetcar Named Desire, Casablanca, and Ben Hur. It is a phenomenal catalogue of human creativity that only could have been produced by a conglomerate willing to commit astronomical resources to Artists. Of course, with the expectation (in most case met and exceeded) of profit. Yet still, it is a risk on Art!
Warner however does not want to be known as the company that has generational spats with the top genius talents of its Age. This is not a good look or a rep that any company that depends on elite creators for their bottom line wants…
This has never happened before. Fans have never risen up and forced a global conglomerate to reverse its decision as regards a property they have shuttered, bending the arm of the company to restore the artist to full creative control in direct contravention of the company’s wishes. The #ReleaseTheSnyderCut movement is unprecedented and its central figures and members should take a lap of honour.
The fans at the heart of the largest global mythologies, Star Wars and the DC and Marvel Comic Book films and all the downstream Comic-Con nerds, are a unique bunch in that their fandom now is at the heart of global mythology and billions of dollars. It is a serious responsibility. The toxicity of fandom that I am worried about is not the inflated sense of threat execs want to paint trolls with it and pass off as reasons for bad decisions, no, the toxic fans I am worried about are of two types. One is the fandom that becomes a mob and believes that their devotion to the lore exceeds that of the author. The pillorying of George Lucas at the altar of a self-righteous fandom is Exhibit #1.
Lucas is the creator and orchestrator of the first global mythology of the modern Age with the original Star Wars trilogy. Without going into it at length the reason his Mythology resonated was that at core it asked the question, “How to Overthrow an Empire?” This is a deeply felt human question and one that resonates with cultures all over the world (and especially with children of the 1960s who it was written for and by.) All the other story devices, symbols, tropes, etc. that Lucas and team employed so richly emanated from this essential question. Of course, fans don’t understand the levels of architecture that goes into Myth as much as they might think they do. Lucas pulled references from all over global mythology and cultures to tell his tale whilst expanding the imaginative, visual, and technical language of the medium. For the prequels the question Lucas chose to place at the centre was the even more compelling human question “How do Republics become Empires?” It is the more terrifying question. More subtle, but infinitely more urgent. It meant a different type of epic, one of intrigue and politics. Yes some of his narrative urgency had slowed, yes he still wrote clunky dialogue, yes some of the actors did not have the lived-in-magic that the original cast had, and yes, sometimes characters in their conception slipped from being archetypes into being stereotypes (and 1950s ones at that), which made them buffoonish and anachronistic. But Lucas’s vision was still there: the grandeur, the invention, the brilliance of design and character creation, the phenomenal invention of the plot and character arcs. Yes, Episode 1 was clunky at times, and the immersive CGI was young (he was inventing it for these very movies!!!) but truth be told Episode 1 is a better movie than Return of the Jedi. And the Revenge of the Sith is still the third best of the six, and contains some of the most inventive scenes in modern mythology. Yet fans turned on Lucas and basically hounded him out of his own creation! Those fans believed they were better authors of Star Wars lore than the Genius himself.
But here’s the thing, Genius is Genius is Genius. Not that it cannot be criticized, but you cannot replicate it or learn it. It just is. Lucas created two trilogy story arcs that answered two of the greatest questions in human history whilst creating a startling galactic mythological world as its metaphor. But fans thought they knew better. The mob rule of the fandom at that time was poisonous. It became a virtue to diss Lucas and hate the Prequels. EVERYTHING about them. When JJ Abrams took over, he fed into the narrative and signalled subtly and overtly that he thought exactly like the fans and would ‘correct’ Star Wars from Lucas’s corruption. He dropped certain buzzwords like ‘real sets vs CGI’ and ‘no more politics’. Fans were ecstatic. It felt like one of them was in charge. And they were right!
This brings me to the second kind of toxic fan I’m worried about: the fanboy creator who now has gotten control but misunderstands how Myth works. And believes himself bigger than the creator! From the first shot of The Force Awakens I knew the new trilogy was doomed to fail. It literally was written in the stars!!! From the opening crawl I knew JJ Abrams did not understand what Star Wars was about (hint- it’s there in the name!). In the opening crawl he got the idea of the wars behind Star Wars completely wrong and so everything else that came afterwards was going to ultimately fail. This is the difference between Genius and Fan. To create a work, a Genius researches about 50,000 things to create the one story, it is an amalgam of thousands of influences and core ideas. The fan researches just one thing: the Genius’s story. The only thing Abrams brought to Star Wars was Star Wars, and he only understood it shallowly. It was obvious that Abrams was out of his depth and so was everybody else. The entire thing collapsed spectacularly.
John Favreau and Dave Filoni who handle The Mandalorian on the other hand listened to Lucas. Whilst being fans submerged in the lore and respectful of Genius, they also are curious artists. Neither may be the kind of insane super-creative Genius like Lucas, but by listening they opened themselves up to exploring some of the 50,000 things Lucas mined to create Star Wars. From the first shots of The Mandalorian you know you are in safe hands. It feels like Star Wars. Every second of it feels like the Universe we know and love.
I would add Game of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss to this list only because of the last season of the show. The moral of their story is instructive; they proved themselves exceptional interpreters of George R.R. Martin’s work and in turn created some of the greatest television ever seen for the first seasons of the series. For these they had the books as reference. However, as they ran out of reference, as Martin has famously been taking his time finishing the series, they imagined themselves to be a little more than they were. The last season of Game of Thrones– despite some inspired moments here and there, was complete fanboy fiction, lacking depth, motivation, wit, and the Magic that comes from Genius. The moral of the story is that fans are not Genius. No normal human being is. Genius is Genius is Genius!!! And we must respect this. Are you listening Warner? Yes, the victory over Warner to get Snyder to emancipate his vision was brilliant and essential, and yes David Ayers should be assigned the same privilege, and yes the Snyderverse should be continued, but the fans must be careful in the future that their dark side does not rear its head and they do not facilitate the same kind of blasphemy that sunk Star Wars and Game of Thrones. Fans must be careful they do not cannibalise themselves
THE ARCHITECTURE OF A UNIVERSE AND A FUTURE
As it stands Zack Snyder has succeeded beyond his wildest dreams in terms of the construction of a shared DC Universe. He has created literally dozens of characters that tens of millions of people all over the world are invested in, and has created a hierarchical landscape of multiple worlds where these characters live and adventure. He has set the core threats at each level of that Universe and has given adjacent directors the map, clues, and tools to build out those worlds and expand the possibilities of the characters using the historic source material of DC Comics. He has done this with three movies!!! The ball is in AT&T, Warner Bros, and HBO Max’s court. The fans however have begun the march. They will not be denied.
And finally I conclude.
I have committed all these words because I care about Storytelling, Myth, Creative Genius, the idea of the Hero, and the way that the tempo of an Age or the soul of a People is conjugated in the best stories told in that time. The world is wrestling with historic wrongs and inequalities, with new pandemics and old prejudices. The shape of the stories we tell are changing. As racist, sexist, and classist systems continue to be interrogated and overturned, as the world learns to share more and more of a common central marketplace, the heroes that populate that centre must become more diverse. The stories and authors must come from every corner.
There needs to be a world where Disney and Marvel have competition, right at the top, not just from one quarter, but from many. We cannot allow a monopoly on heroism, super-heroism, and global mythmaking. So yes, I champion Zack and DC (and Sony and the Spider-Verse), and Netflix and Apple TV because of this. But more so, I champion Anansi (African and Caribbean trickster folk hero) and Wong Fei Hung (Chinese martial arts folk hero). I champion heroes that come from the fringe that should be at the centre. It is morally right that the heroes and stories at our centre be diverse. And it goes without saying that they must be compelling on their own merit and told well.
Zack Snyder is a brilliant storyteller who had a vision that was different and more complicated than the one offered by his rivals. The world deserved to hear that take. Snyder also has grown as an artist and as a human whilst engaging this great work through personal tragedy. It has enriched his sensibility and style. Loss does that. It is morally and artistically right that he should be allowed to continue to do the job of bringing this fascinating world he has uttered more into existence. It is also morally right that Ray Fisher who was at the centre of that vision and whose outspokenness for artistic freedom and transparency and whose stance against racism, sexism, and toxicity in the workplace is pioneering and necessary. It is morally right that he be reinstated to his role as Cyborg. Morally and artistically right because he excels in the role. He OWNS it! It is morally right that his role in the Flash movie be written back in and that plans resume for his solo movie. The masses are demanding it. It is morally right and it makes great business sense. A happy conjunction.
As it stands, here are the movies that Warner Brothers has confirmed following their nixing of the Snyderverse: James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad; Matt Reeve’s The Batman; James Wan’s Aquaman 2; James Wan’s The Trench; Shazam 2: Fury of the Gods; Dwayne Johnson’s Black Adam; The Flash’s Flashpoint movie; Wonder Woman 3; Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Black Superman project; Batgirl; Ava DuVernay’s New Gods; Spielberg’s Blackhawk; Jared Leto’s Joker movie (rumoured); the Joker and Harley Quinn (rumoured); and the Lantina Supergirl. This is a pretty decent slate of movies on their own merit. But as we saw with the Birds of Prey movie, all of them can be sabotaged by not having a shared Universe to reference from. They need an interconnectivity that comes from an emotional connection to characters, events, landscape, objects, and worlds that people care about, that has built resonance. They also need a sense of culminating consequence!!! Zack Snyder’s Snyderverse has done all that heavy lifting for the DC Universe and Warner Bros and HBO Max. Let it lead the way!
Missing from that line-up of interesting movies are most of the characters, events, and worlds from the Snyderverse that now have resonance with a global faithful of possibly hundreds of millions. It is morally, artistically, and financially right that AT&T, Warner Brothers, and HBO Max engage the following films: Zack Snyder’s Justice League 2 & 3; Ben Affleck’s Batman; Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel 2; the Deathstroke movie or series; the Flashpoint movie with Cyborg reinstated; The Atom movie set in China as per Snyder’s idea; the Green Lantern Corps movie or series with the John Stewart Green Lantern; the Jared Leto Joker movie or series; the Martian Manhunter movie or series; and the Suicide Squad David Ayers’ cut. I have just mentioned about US$25 billion in profit that is available for AT&T if it is interested in such things. And that by the way is the only pathway to 250 million subscribers to HBO Max on their platform.
© 2021, Rubadiri Victor. All Rights Reserved
Posted on April 2, 2021, in President's Blog and tagged comic book, DC expanded universe, movie criticism., zack snyder's justice league. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.
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