WARNING: Spoilers for Justice League
Wow. Here we finally are! Only days away from the release of the Snyder Cut of Justice League! A day that this fan never thought would happen. Never before in the history of cinema has a director been able to return and release their original cut of a film after a different director took over (the closest would be Richard Donner’s cut of Superman II, but that happened under very different circumstances and was not nearly as extensive). So, before viewing this film in its original form, I decided to go back and watch the theatrical cut of Justice League, or as many fans have come to call it “Josstice League.”
First, a very brief history lesson: Zack Snyder directed both Man of Steel and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. He also was hired to direct Justice League. However, many critics and audience members felt that BvS was both too dark and too long. The studio panicked (as they did with Suicide Squad). Warner Bros. ordered Snyder to make JL shorter and brighter film. In order to accomplish this, they hired Joss Whedon, fresh off his success from The Avengers and Avengers: Age of Ultron. He was originally only hired to help brighten the dialogue and tone in certain scenes for Snyder to reshoot himself. Then, tragedy struck. Snyder lost this daughter to suicide and left the project to focus on his family. Instead of postponing reshoots to wait for Snyder to come back, Warner Bros executives chose push ahead.
It was at this point that Joss Whedon took over as director, rewriting and reshooting somewhere between 75-90% of the film (the exact extent may never be known). Even though Snyder was still credited as director on this cut of the film, the final product that was released in theaters only features a total of roughly 30 minutes (or less) of Snyder’s original footage; with most of that footage being digitally altered. Also, due to Henry Cavill’s contract with Mission: Impossible - Fallout, he could not shave his mustache when he returned for Joss’ reshoots. So that threw another wrench into the works. Now add to the fact that the studio refused to change release dates. That means that the poor digital effects artists did not have enough time to properly craft the hundred of new effects shots, resulting in some extremely shoddy CGI. This final product was so different from the original intent that producers Deborah Snyder and Christopher Nolan reportedly told Zack Snyder to NEVER EVER watch the finished film.
What audiences got in 2017 was an end product that felt cheaply made, tonally inconsistent, and featured a Superman with mostly CGI mouth. Not exactly the first outing for the Justice League everyone was hoping for. For years rumors swirled that the original cut (the fabled “Snyder Cut”) of the film existed. Many didn’t believe it was true. Or believed that such a cut may exist, but would never see the light of day. And then we finally got the word: it was REAL! And it was being finished! A four hour epic that will (more than likely) bare very little resemblance to the film we got in theaters four years ago. So, do we really need an alternate cut of Justice League? How different will it be? Well, we won’t know all the differences for sure until the film is released. But in the meantime, I rewatched “Josstice League” to determine if it really was bad enough to warrant an alternate cut. And in this humble reviewer’s opinion, the new cut can only be better.
“Josstice League” starts off with a really goofy opening scene (which is not in Snyder’s version) in which Batman uses a criminal’s fear to attract a Parademon. Dialogue confirms that this is not the first Parademon Batman has been tracking which inadvertently creates a rushed feeling; like the film just wants to get the plot details out of the way. Why didn’t we start with Batman seeing a Parademon in reality for the first time? Up until this point, we as the audience have only seen Bruce witness these creatures in his dreams. So wouldn’t watching him see them in reality for the first time be dramatic and scary? Nah, forget about that. This film is going to skip Bruce’s first encounter with a Parademon and throw you right into the middle of his investigation and hope you get on board. Now, throwing your audience into the middle of things isn’t inherently bad, but you need to make sure that you give people enough information to go on.
This opening scene tries to do too much to accomplish this and sloppily establishes that A) Parademons are attracted to fear B) Batman has been tracking them for months C) These Parademons are also apparently attracted to the sound of a siren, and finally D) when they self-destruct, they leave a pattern in their blood that perfectly forms the shape of the Mother Boxes (the film’s MacGuffin). Wow. That is A LOT to establish in a single 5 minute scene. Now, I’m not saying that establishing all of these things in one scene is impossible. However, I don’t believe it was done properly here. None of these reveals feel natural. They just sort of happen without any dramatic weight in order to move the plot along. I had far too many questions. How did Bruce know a Parademon was nearby? Why does their blood resemble the very item the hero is looking for? (that’s WAAAAAYYYY too convenient). These creatures have taken over hundreds, if not thousands of worlds… and its distracted by a siren? Is this the first time Parademons have heard sirens? Why can’t your first scene make sense? I’m distracted by these logic flaws instead of enjoying the ride and letting the film answer those burning questions for me.
Okay, so the film starts off a little wonky. It throws a ton of stuff at you and just hopes you don’t ask too many questions. Other films have trouble starting off and find their footing later in the story. So with that in mind, how does the rest of the film hold up? Not great. The truncated plot is essentially Avengers 1.5: villain invades Earth to prepare it for a larger threat only to be met by a ragtag group of heroes that must put their differences aside and rise to the occasion. Yeah, broad strokes, it’s the exact same movie. But it was shot by Snyder right? So while the bare bones might be similar, it’s at least going to feel different and hit different plot points, right? Well, not exactly. Since Joss reshot most of the film, there are actually very few Snyder scenes remaining. And you can tell where they are! That makes this feel like a weird splice of a dark and gritty Man of Steel-type film fighting against a more jolly Avengers-esque movie. This results in one of this film’s biggest issues: conflicting tones.
Joss Whedon is a good filmmaker. He has a talent for writing snarky and enjoyable characters and knows how to build a nerdy comic book moment right. The Avengers is a fantastic superhero film. HOWEVER, his style is NOT the same as Snyder’s and you can see that right off the bat. It is very obvious which scenes were shot by Zack Snyder and which were shot by Whedon. His lighting is different, the tone of the dialogue is different, even the way the characters interact with each other is different than the way Snyder had envisioned. Sometimes lighting, camera placement, or even an actor’s hairstyle (!) will change in a scene from shot to shot. Most of Snyder’s footage that was kept is in the action scenes. So the film does has a certain energy in those moments that it lacks in other places. Camera moment is completely different; with long sweeping shots gliding in and frantically moving with the action. That is Snyder’s style. But it clashes with Whedon’s who prefers more stable and still shots to let the action be present in.
Wonder Woman’s opening action scene in the museum was clearly shot by Snyder. As was most of the fight under Gotham harbor. In fact, that fight under the harbor is the best action scene in the movie. It actually shows all our characters working together rather well as a team. But most of act three was changed in order to accommodate the new characters (yes, the Russian family was NEVER in the original version). And even if they used some of Snyder’s shots, they were digitally changed to feature the red background and color scheme Joss added. There are a few exciting moments at the end, like Batman shooting down the smoke tower or Aquaman sky-surfing on a Parademon. But these are very few and very far between.
Character’s also seem off, or different, from when we last saw them. They are much less dramatic. The mythic, operatic weight that Snyder imbued his films with is gone. Batman no longer has deep brooding thoughts about the status of his own soul. Here he is much more jovial and acts more like Tony Stark than Bruce Wayne: a snarky billionaire who is the team’s leader and tech supplier. Snyder had envisioned a film that saw Batman searching for atonement for his actions in BvS; a man seeking redemption. Here, he’s just a cool guy looking for some friends to crack a few jokes with while they save the world. And Ben’s performance certainly changes depending on who is directing. You can very clearly feel him taking the character more seriously in the Snyder scenes than in the reshoots by Whedon. Superman has also become a cartoon of himself, spouting groan-inducing dialogue like “Well, I believe in truth. But I’m also a big fan of justice.” Ugghhhh. He is also FAR too overpowered. He basically trounces Steppenwolf in thirty seconds flat, meaning the whole film would not exist if he was alive. Zod and Doomsday were more formable opponents. Hell, even Batman gave him a harder time.
Cyborg and Flash’s roles in the film have also been severely limited. Flash is relegated to the comedic relief while poor Cyborg is simply a plot device instead of a real person. And I cannot stress enough how awkward and lame most of the added humor is. Flash’s rant about brunch is nearly unwatchable. His relationship with his father feels very disjointed and rushed. Probably because there was A LOT more to their relationship than we were shown. Oh, and there is a bizarre new scene where, while at the prison, Barry draws on an intimidating visitor. This isn’t a fellow inmate, this is a person coming to visit someone else in prison, just like Barry. And Barry just draws on his face because he thinks it’s funny, which leads to the security guard calling in reinforcements… for some reason. Is having drawn on Sharpie glasses really that threatening looking? But hey, at least Jason Momoa is having a blast as Aquaman. You can see him acting like a big kid again and his energy is infectious. His Arthur Curry is one of the few good elements here. And of course, Gal Gadot is still perfect as Wonder Woman. Even if her dialogue is lame, she’s trying.
But how about the villain? Steppenwolf needs to be a world-ending threat. He needs to be intimidating and intense. He needs to be taken seriously. After all, it’s going to take six heroes to defeat him. Well, we didn’t get that. Steppenwolf looks anything but intimidating. The CGI on him is really rough, giving us a plastic-skinned digital monster with a personality just as stiff. His design also seems very uninspired. A far cry from the spiked, hulking threat Snyder envisioned, here Steppenwolf looks like a genetic grey-skinned giant in battle armor. He has no clear motivation in this cut of the film either and only seems to be conquering Earth simply because he can. He also becomes significantly less threatening once Superman shows up and beats the piss out of him while helping the whole gang AND saving more people. If ONE of your heroes can defeat the villain in-between doing other things, then maybe your villain isn’t all that good at his job. Apparently Steppenwolf is far more threatening and has much clearer motivations in the original cut. I really hope this is the case because as it stands now, Steppenwolf is just as cardboard and cookie cutter as Enchantress was in Suicide Squad.
All this, and I still haven’t even brought up “Mustache-Gate”.
You knew it was coming. How could I not talk about it? Fifty-five seconds into this film and you know something has gone wrong. I am not exaggerating when I say that calling Cavill’s CGI face “disturbing” is an understatement. The mouth makes looking at him one of the most difficult aspects of the movie. Think about that before I continue. Merely LOOKING at Superman, one of the main heroes in the film, is one of the hardest parts of watching it. Wow. The CGI mouth perpetuates throughout nearly every shot of Cavill, meaning we have barely even seen what he was originally supposed to do in the film. And even if you’re able to stomach looking at it, there’s still that nagging voice in the back of your head telling you that something is very wrong here. Supe's fight scene at Hero’s Monument has flashes of great stuff, but is ruined by truncated editing and directing, bad dialogue, and terrible CGI. It also has extremely uneven lighting, revealing that the scene was originally supposed to take place at night, but was digitally altered to match the daylight reshoots.
Another bummer is the change in music. Gone are the deep, emotional and dramatic tones of Hans Zimmer and Junkie XL (Tom Holkenborg). Instead, they have been replaced by the light, whimsical tones of Danny Elfman. Personally, this is one of my biggest complaints. I LOVED the soundtrack to Batman v Superman. Say what you will about the film, but that score was AMAZING. Deep, brooding, intense, operatic, epic. It was such a wonderful film score that helped lift that film’s themes off the screen. Well, ALL of that wonderful music is gone. I like Danny Elfman. He is a brilliant composure who has given us some of the all-time greatest film scores; including one of the most recognizable superhero themes ever: the theme to Tim Burton’s Batman and Batman Returns. But rather than crafting new themes that fit within the realm of the music we have heard before in this franchise, Danny just falls back on his old music. Yes, he uses the EXACT same themes. I don’t know if this is because Danny was lazy or because he was told to include the old movie themes (including John Williams’ original Superman theme). Regardless, it’s an AWFUL decision. Why would you remind me that I could be watching FAR SUPERIOR Batman and Superman films?
Okay, so the villain is pretty lame, the dialogue is too jokey, it has really jarring and distracting CGI, the music isn’t the same, and the cinematography is inconstant. Oh, and they have turned the characters into caricatures of themselves. But the movie is at least FUN right? It’s a good time waster, right? I mean, I guess. It certainly does WASTE YOUR TIME, but not in the way you want it to. The film may be jokey, but that doesn’t make it fun or funny. The tone may be lighter than Man of Steel (and is certainly lighter than BvS) but that doesn’t make it more fun either. At least not for me. There are a few moments that do catch my interest as a fan of comic book films and action. But that’s LITERALLY all it does. It’s just me looking up at a scene and, for only a few seconds at a time, going “oh, that’s cool” or “that looks pretty.” But they are singular moments in a vacuum. Nothing feels earned. I no longer care about any of these characters because they don’t feel real. Batman is a cartoon of himself. Flash is the goofy side kick. Cyborg is just simply a machine. Wonder Woman is the most fleshed out, and even she is simply biding time until the action starts.
You see, this film doesn’t really feel like a film. It feels like a puzzle stuck together with the wrong pieces. Nothing flows like it should. Things just happen, then other things happen, and then characters do stuff. None of it feels organic or motivated. It’s a hollow, soulless machine just walking around without a purpose or goal. Batman v Superman may be dower, intense, and dark, but it felt motivated. It also felt like a natural progression with Clark basically learning the consequences of the collateral damage he caused in Man of Steel. Batman felt real and gritty. He may have killed people, but he had a true motivation and a viewpoint that was shown through his actions. Here he’s just saying a bunch of gobbledygook to move the plot along without any character behind the motions. This was also supposed to be a triumphant resurrection film for Superman, but that plot point fell flat on its face. I didn’t feel anything when they brought Superman back from the dead. Read that again. I didn’t feel ANYTHING when a film brought SUPERMAN back from the DEAD. Oof.
Instead, this film feels like the studio had a basic plot already figured out and just took names and characters out of a hat and placed them into the pre-arranged story. Like they focus grouped what fans want and then made this by committee. It’s a game of superhero Mad-Libs; you could replace any of these characters with any other hero (from either DC or Marvel). There isn’t anything in here that shows why Batman or Wonder Woman is the best choice to save the world. It’s a studio trying to make you care about characters and events without putting any actual effort into it. This is clearly a case of too many cooks in the kitchen. One thing you learn in the entertainment industry, is that sometimes if you try to please everyone, you end up pleasing no one; which is certainly what happened here.
If you can’t already tell, I am not a fan of this film. But I think there is something really good hidden underneath. Under all the terrible dialogue and awful reshoots… hidden beneath the studio’s desire to get a product out as fast and as cheap as possible, is something that might be very special. But when a studio comes in and completely changes a director’s vision, there will always be problems. Some people may not like Snyder’s style, but you cannot deny its visual splendor and uniqueness. You can’t call it watered down; which is what this version of Justice League is. This was a far cry from the exciting team-up we all know the League deserves. This film gets worse and worse every time I watch it. I personally think this cut of JL is one of DC’s worst live action films, falling right in line with the likes of Catwoman (2004) and Jonah Hex (2010).
That being said, I am extremely excited for the Snyder Cut. I am hoping that with the proper respect and plot, the man of steel’s return can feel earned and triumphant. I’m excited to see Batman actually search for redemption. With the right character development, Cyborg and Flash might actually feel like people instead of just plot points. And I am very much looking forward to the expansions on the “Knightmare” timeline. Even if the Snyder Cut of Justice League turns out be a bad film, at least it will have a singular vision to guide the film through to its conclusion in a complete manner. I would rather watch a bad film that was made the way it was intended than watch this Frankenstein creation any day of the week. “Josstice League” stands as a warning of what can happen when a studio interferes too much with a director’s vision. And as a fellow creative, I can only hope that studios learn from this and don’t repeat the same mistakes (though I’m not holding my breath).