WARNING: Spoilers for Zack Snyder's Justice League
Before I start my review, I want to take a moment to address the recent behavior of several people in the #ReleaseTheSnyderCut and #RestoreTheSnyderverse movements. I want to bring up the incredible charity work these groups have done. They alone have raised over a $500,000 for AFSP (American Foundation for Suicide Prevention). Most of these people are good, decent folks, and it is a shame that their good deeds are being overshadowed by a few rotten apples. So next time you see an article talking about the #RestoreTheSnyderverse movement being toxic, remember that most of the members are not behaving in this way; these are the actions of a rude few.
We fought for it. We rose to the challenge. We shouted to the heavens and back. Our mantra: #ReleaseTheSnyderCut. Our battle: to have Zack Snyder’s original vision for Justice League restored and released. And we won. Was it worth it? In this reviewer’s opinion, the answer to that is a resounding ABSOLUTELY. You can see how I felt about the original theatrical cut of the film for reference right here.
So, just HOW different is this new cut of the film? Well, broad strokes, it is essentially the same film. Most of the big plot beats and action moments happen very similarly, though a few have been changed drastically. Each of our characters end up in mostly the same places (except for Cyborg), so the destination still stays relatively the same. But this is a clear case where the journey itself is more important than the destination. However, your enjoyment of the journey will depend entirely on how you feel about Zack Snyder as a filmmaker. This is 100% his vision, good and bad; and there is plenty of both. But even with the addition of several unnecessary scenes and moments of slo-mo, I think it is obvious that this is the more coherent (and superior) version of this story.
There is so much to talk about here, from the changed aspect ratio, to the new character dynamics, designs, and interactions, to the incredible and wondrous new musical score, to all the new special effects sequences. I really could teach an entire college course on the differences in this film. It is a perfect example of how two different filmmakers (under different instructions from the studio) can create two vastly different versions of the exact same story. So to keep this review from being as long as a college lecture, I will simply focus on a few key areas where the differences are most noticeable: aspect ratio, plot coherency, and character changes.
But quickly, I do want to talk about how to view this film. It’s an odd thing to talk about, but I believe it is important to view this film with the understanding of how it came about. This alone may answer questions as to why certain scenes were included. So, way back in 2015, Chris Terrio wrote this long and epic script. This version of the film was shot in 2016 (except for the Joker scene, but I’ll get to that later). Then, when Zack left the project and Joss Whedon took over, many scenes were left out of the film while other new scenes were shot in order to connect the plot without the use of those rejected scenes. The theatrical version was released in theaters in 2017 while this four-hour cut of the film sat in a box without having ANY post production work done (ie: no color grading, sound mixing, visual effects, etc). So, when Warner Brothers decided to finish this longer version, ALL of those post production needs had to be completed. And all on a budget FAR lower than given during the film's original production.
This is why some of the new visual effects shots aren’t to the quality of something like Avengers: Endgame, which had FAR more time and money to craft their effects. The CGI wizards behind the Snyder Cut had to create so much more with far less time and money. Cyborg obviously got the most work done. That makes sense since he is a main character and has much more screen-time than Darkseid or even Steppenwolf. Sacrifices needed to be made and sadly not every green screen background or digital character was able to get the time needed. Taking everything into consideration, I think it’s incredible the film looks as good as it does, with most of it the effects looking even better than the 2017 version.
This is also why certain plot lines are not concluded, like the Knightmare sequences, or Darkseid’s threat “prepare the old ways”: they were never meant to be. These and other questions were purposefully made to be answered in the sequels. Had this version been released in 2017, and had the audience responded to it as they are now, then we would have already had these questions answered in Justice League 2 and we would be eagerly awaiting the arrival of Justice League 3 to finish off the trilogy. These plot lines and unanswered questions very well may still be answered. As of this writing, HBO Max is currently deciding whether or not to pursue the rest of the so-called “SnyderVerse”. But if this is all we get, then this film almost NEEDS to be viewed in a bubble. This is a “what if?” type of story; a look into what could have been. I personally think that looking at the film with that viewpoint can change how one reacts to certain elements present in the story. Okay, so now that I’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s move on.
The aspect ratio. This is a big one that confused a lot of people. “Why is the film in full frame instead of widescreen?” This boils down to Zack’s choice in film stock. IMAX is the name of the game. True IMAX is a gigantic full frame image (4:3), the intent being to get as much definition and picture as possible. When an IMAX film is shown in a regular theater or on home video, it is not true IMAX. The image is cropped to fit with either 16:9 (typical American widescreen) or 2.39:1 (anamorphic widescreen). That means that the tops and bottoms of the picture are removed, which also means that a filmmaker needs to frame their images in order to compensate for the loss of those areas. This is why films like The Dark Knight, Aquaman, and Mission: Impossible - Fallout, will switch from anamorphic to regular widescreen on your television for sequences with a larger scope. Since those scenes were shot in IMAX, they have extra image on the tops and bottoms that can open up and be shown. This still isn’t true IMAX, but it lets the viewer feel closer to that experience. Zack has gone on record stating that the taller frame that IMAX afforded him, fit better with how he wanted to film his heroes. Superheroes stand tall in the frame. A popular shot choice for superhero films is low to the ground looking up at the hero in action, or in a heroic pose. Superman is usually flying UP into the sky, not sideways. And Batman leaps DOWN onto criminals and parademons. Snyder decided to make use of the taller frame, intending to release the film on the largest screens possible in 2017, not small television screens in 2021.
Herein lies the problem. Because Zack never intended to change his aspect ratio, he never compensated for the cropping. That meant that in order to make scenes that Zack shot fit into widescreen, the editor had to zoom in on the image. No wonder the cinematographer for Zack Snyder’s Justice League claimed that only 10% of what he filmed was in the theatrical cut. Even if they used one of his shots, it was not the same. It needed to be blown up and moved in order to fit in the widescreen framing. Going back to the theatrical cut, this is now glaringly obvious. The film feels VERY close up on each of our hero’s faces. Wide and Medium establishment shots are nearly non-existent. When you watch the Snyder Cut, you may have a smaller image on your television, but what you are seeing is the full image as intended.
Let’s compare the shot above. On the left we see Snyder filmed a Medium Close-up, giving us a shot of Batfleck from his chest up to his head (while also giving him a little head room). Now, compare that to the images on the right which were cropped for the different widescreen formats. The shot has now become a full Close-up. It cuts off his chest, and even cuts off the top of his head. This is why many of the shots in the theatrical version feel oddly close up, and amateurish. We were not getting the full image. This makes even the action scenes feel neutered. Joss could never accomplish the kind of kinetic energy Zack is able to capture in his shots and editing, even if he was given an R rating. Steppenwolf and Wonder Woman in particular feel much more intense and ferocious in this cut, and that is all thanks to the shot composition, editing, and sound effects Zack chose.
Now on to plot coherency. Justice League is a comic book film. Many things in it do not, and will not, make sense. It comes with the genre. However, the plot of any comic book film should still make SOME kind of sense. At least within itself. Elements should flow into each other. We should watch our heroes react to an event, not just do something because the plot demands they do it. This is one of the biggest problems with Joss Whedon’s cut of Justice League: things just happen because they need to happen. This is due to the film cutting several scenes out while still needing to make a modicum of sense. However, I feel that they failed miserably in their attempts.
The opening of the film is completely different. We pick up precisely on the moment of Superman’s death in the previous film, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. This is actually a very important opening that immediately establishes what is going on far better than the theatrical cut. Here we witness Superman’s death yell awaken the Mother Boxes; with one box calling for Steppenwolf. This establishes that the boxes slept (for however long) until the precise moment Superman was killed and Earth became vulnerable. NOW is the time to activate and call upon their master. That is why Steppenwolf is attacking now and not several years ago. And all of that information was presented without any actual dialogue explaining it. It was all visual, and it all makes sense (to the degree any comic book film “makes sense”). Compare that to opening of the theatrical cut: CGI faced Superman followed by Batman fighting a Parademon only to have said Parademon explode, prompting Alfred to explain what we are seeing. Cut to musical montage of the world getting use to life without Superman. I got winded just typing that out. That is FAR more complicated than “the death of the world’s greatest protector has awoken the boxes.”
Another example is how and why Aquaman arrives to protect Mera and the Atlantan Mother Box. Here in Zack Snyder’s Justice League, Vulko (played by Willem DaFoe) seeks out Aquaman. He gives him his armor and his mother’s trident. He tells him that it is his duty to protect the Mother Box and that he needs to go to the stronghold before it is too late. This scene also explains how he gets his armor and trident as opposed to him already having them in the theatrical cut. While not every piece of information in the scene with Vulko is necessary, let’s compare that to how Aquaman comes to the conclusion that he needs to check out the Atlantan Mother Box in the theatrical cut:
Arthur Curry (Aquaman) rescues a sailer at sea (this scene is also in the Snyder Cut). He then takes the sailor from his sinking boat to a bar on the shore. Arthur then notices some digitally added Parademon blood on his hand. Oh, and that is after he’s already sat inside the bar and taken a drink. Remember, the man’s boat sunk and Aquaman can swim. How did the blood not wash off? How does he even know what it is? Has he faced a Parademon before? Does he know what its blood looks like? He then decides “well, this is enough information to make me want to go to the Atlantan stronghold.” It makes no sense. It’s a film connecting dots illogically just to move the plot along.
Moments like that litter the theatrical cut, and thankfully nearly every one of them has been addressed. Now, that’s not to say the Snyder Cut isn’t without its WTF moments. Darksied has apparently forgotten where Earth is even though he was already here. This can be somewhat explained by the fact that Diana specifically says he is from a different DIMENSION and not from a different planet. This one word implies the existence of a multiverse, meaning thousands of Earths could exist. It’s possible Darksied knew the Mother Boxes were on Earth, he just didn’t know WHICH Earth. But still, like, pin the planet on a map, dude. I’m certain that this plot hole would have been answered in a sequel as it’s not that hard of an issue to fix. But as it stands now, it is a lingering question. And yet, even with a few big holes like this one, the storyline and its narrative flow makes FAR more sense in this cut of the film.
Now on to the biggest change in the film: the characters. These cannot be understated. There are a TON of subtle changes to characters. These changes may not seem big, but when you step back and look at the progression each character has, the differences can be staggering. Let’s start with the biggest revelation: Cyborg.
Victor Stone (Cyborg) was basically non-existent in the theatrical cut. Through dialogue, we discovered that he was in an accident and his dad used a Mother Box to bring him back to life, turning him into half-machine. Victor hates his dad, and Diana (Wonder Woman) lures him out of hiding to help. That’s it. He can’t even do the one thing he was there to do (stop the Unity) without Superman’s help. Now, let’s look at his involvement in the Snyder Cut. We SEE his backstory, instead of being told about it. We see that he was a good man even before the accident, using his intelligence to help those in need in addition to being a star athlete. We see that his father was never there, and how he had a very close relationship with his mother. We watch the accident. And then we witness the moment when he is brought back to life (his Frankenstein moment if you will).
Immediately, his anger toward his father is more grounded and realized. There is more here than simply being mad his dad brought him back to life. His father was never there for him even when he was alive. We watch Cyborg grieve for his mother and wrestle with his feelings toward his father. We even watch him discover his knew abilities. One of my favorites scenes in this cut of the film comes from this subplot. When discovering how much power he has over the internet and electronics, Victor watches a single mom struggle to pay her bills. She can't even take care of her children and is evicted from her apartment. Victor uses his abilities to hack into the network and change the system, granting that woman enough money to help her through this rough time. It’s beautiful and sums up the actions of a true superhero in a singular scene. It’s a travesty that scene was cut. Cyborg’s father also sacrifices himself in order to make the Mother Box trackable. He dies in front of Cyborg’s eyes. As much as Cyborg hated him, he is still his father. This impacts Cyborg profoundly and gears him up for act three much better than in the theatrical cut. If you remember, Cyborg’s father survives the Whedon cut.
Cyborg’s importance in the third act is also far more realized. As mentioned before, in the theatrical cut Cyborg is charged to separate the Unity. But he needs Superman’s help to do so, thus presenting him as far weaker than he was originally supposed to be. In the Snyder Cut, Cyborg is imperative to the plan. He needs to go INSIDE the Mother Boxes and face his inner fears and turmoils into order to stop the Unity. The Mother Boxes go after Cyborg’s weaknesses and try to exploit him. But Victor rejects their offer and declares who he truly is, bringing a triumphant climax to his character arc. Only AFTER he’s separated the Unity does he ask for Superman’s help in separating the Mother Boxes themselves. But he’s already done the hard part.
The Flash is also very different. In the theatrical cut, Barry Allen is poised as Batman’s student. He’s never fought before, has to be told to rescue people, and in the third act his only significant contribution is saving five people… while Superman saves dozens. He is completely wasted. Here, he is on equal footing with the rest of the league. We see he has more control over his abilities (even if he still trips when he’s showing off or not paying attention). He isn’t afraid to fight. He doesn’t need to be told to rescue anyone, he just DOES IT. He saves hostages from falling debris like it was nothing. He is also the ONLY reason the league succeeds.
Like Cyborg, he was far more important in the third act of this version of the film. True, he is simply running around the city, but he is doing so in order to build up enough charge to propel Cyborg into the Mother Boxes. When he is shot and his momentum is lost, Darkseid WINS. The film literally has the villains win and Flash is the only one that can fix things. In a moment that has to be included in the Top 10 Most Epic Super Hero Moments ever put on film, Flash literally RUNS TIME INTO REVERSE, bringing all of our heroes back to life and giving Cyborg enough charge to enter the Mother Boxes and win. Without Flash, the heroes lose. This is a massive change from the punchline of a character Barry Allen was in the theatrical cut.
Superman (oh, Clarky) also has subtle changes, but they are very important and give us a much better conclusion to the character arc Snyder started in Man of Steel. First of all, no horrible CGI mouth (phew). But secondly, his absence in this cut of the film feels much more realized. In the theatrical cut we know he’s gone because everyone keeps telling us. Also, he’s not on screen. But here, you can FEEL his absence. We actually watch both his mother and Lois grieve for him. Bruce Wayne is very heavy hearted over the events of BvS. His arc is far more realized simply by focusing on Clark’s absence. He feels this need to bring the team together in order to atone. Snyder gives us new scenes with each of the heroes where they talk about how Superman influenced them and how much reverence they have for him. This makes his return FAR more powerful and cheer-worthy. But Synder also simultaneously makes Superman LESS important in the scheme of things.
In the theatrical cut, once Superman arrives, the film is over. He kicks the shit out of Steppenwolf, AND does both Flash and Cyborg’s jobs for them. It’s ridiculous. That is not the case here. Yes, he still shows up and kicks Steppenwolf’s teeth in rather quickly (sigh). BUT, that’s all he’s there for. He is the team’s heavy hitter like Hulk is to the Avengers. Once the Unity completes, he is blown into dust just like everyone else and is only saved by Flash reversing time. He also only helps Cyborg separate the Mother Boxes AFTER Cyborg has defeated the Unity inside. He is the BACKUP the team needs, not the WHOLE TEAM. In fact, the entire team works far better together in the Snyder Cut. Each member is integral to the success of the mission. Cyborg needs to separate the Unity with Flash providing the charge to do so. Wonder Woman and Aquaman are the heavies, intended to keep Steppenwolf busy while Barry and Victor complete their part of the plan. All the while, Batman runs interference with the Parademons to make sure they don’t pick anyone else off. Superman is the backup when the heavies fail; that’s it. Compare that to the theatrical cut where Superman does everyone’s jobs for them. Here I cheered for his arrival. The music swelling as voiceovers from both his fathers echo through his mind, telling him that now is the time to rise, gave me chills. It was a beautiful culmination of Clark’s journey from Man of Steel.
Even Steppenwolf is a far more realized character. True, his appearance in this film is far more menacing and Snyder’s action scenes paint him as a more brutal fighting force, but he also has an actual motivation! He even has a little sympathy. He is, in essence, just a man trying to redeem himself in the eyes of his family so he can go home. Warner Brothers made the mistake of thinking his villainous visage would be too scary for audience members, only for the entire internet to fall in love with him. Now THAT’S ironic.
Even Wonder Woman has two small changes. One is her position on resurrecting Superman. In Snyder’s version she agrees with the team that it needs to be done. This makes perfect sense because the film is about uniting the team. They all need to agree on resurrecting Superman. Joss Whedon on the other hand, completely copied his own scripts for The Avengers and Avengers: Age of Ultron and has Diana disagree, fracturing the group’s dynamic. She then decides to join the team later even though she’s against what they are doing, simply because the film needs her to come back. So what happens when her fears are proven right and Clark doesn’t know who he is when they wake him up? Nothing. She goes back to the team like nothing happened. Because she was never written to disagree in the first place! Now, can you guess the other change? Watch the scenes Joss Whedon shot for the theatrical cut. They are littered with gratuitous butt shots of Wonder Woman. Now, go back to Batman v Superman, Wonder Woman, Zack Snyder’s Justice League, even Wonder Woman 1984, and you will see that Diana is NEVER sexualized by the camera like that. It’s shocking. I don’t know why Joss felt these shots would work; they completely undermine her character.
But is this new cut of the film perfect? No. Not by a long shot. This is Zack Snyder UNCUT. And for all the good that comes with that, there are certainly drawbacks. Zack loves his slo-mo. And while a lot of those moments work perfectly fine, he really doesn’t need to use it as much as he does. A whopping 10% of this film is in slo-motion. That’s A LOT. Some of them last too long, like the slo-mo shot of Aquaman at the pier or when Barry rescues Iris from her car crash. I also personally don’t like the music chosen for several of these moments. But Zack loves his music video moments. He likes to sit on a character while a song describing their mental state plays in the background. These types of moments littered Watchmen and they rear their ugly heads here as well. The Icelandic song sung to Aquaman at the beginning is far too long.
Snyder also has several scenes that are not needed. Martian Manhunter, while a cool addition, is simply a sequel tease. A tease to something we may never even get. Manhunter talks to Lois, encouraging her to get back into the world, no doubt setting up her importance in the sequels. He then also tells Bruce Wayne that he will be there to join in the fight. That’s great! But he's only there for a sequel we may never get. Again, this was filmed back when they thought they were setting up sequels, so I understand his inclusion. But it still isn’t needed.
Same goes for the Jared Leto reshoots. His inclusion was only done because Zack realized that his plans for his cinematic universe were more than likely never going to come to fruition. And so, he saw this as an opportunity to have a scene where this incarnation of Batman and Joker talk face-to-face. I completely understand his reasoning behind it. And this scene doesn’t change anything in the film. It ties directly into the Knightmare visions that Cyborg has when connecting to the Mother Boxes and Bruce saw in BvS. In fact, the inclusion of Martian Manhunter may help these scenes make more sense as that character is known for strong telepathy and precognitive powers. Could he be sending these visions to Bruce? At this point, that’s simply a theory. But the Knightmare scenes, as cool as they are, don’t NEED to be in the film. They do have a motivation, and that is to push both Bruce and Cyborg on their journeys for fear of this dark future. But beyond that, they are simply teases for sequels which may not happen. But hot damn are those Knightmare scenes cool!
I was also still disappointed that the fight between Steppenwolf and Superman wasn’t longer. The new structure of act three does help that, but if I’m being completely honest, I did want the throw-down to be a little longer. Also, Flash’s opening lines… you know, the ones about the lady on the bus and the “pocket monster”, are atrocious. Nearly as bad as the lines Joss Whedon gave Barry. Thank God most of his dialogue after that point is much more “Barry”, and while it may still be goofy, his dialogue does feel less forced and painful. There are also a few times where Batman’s digital voice changer makes him sound a little goofy, but that's a nit-pick. And even though I understand the addition of the ending Knightmare sequence and Lex’s recruitment of Slade Wilson (side note, it was awesome seeing Joe Manganiello in full costume) at the end of the film, it still gave me flashbacks to the multiple endings The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. Too many endings. And of course as mentioned earlier, some of the new digital effects shots don’t look great. But again, taking everything into consideration, I am willing to forgive some wonky CGI.
Is the film too long? That entirely depends on how much you are enjoying the film. I personally do not think it is too long. But I love world-building within films. If I enjoy a character or setting, then I don’t mind sitting in it for longer. That is one of the reasons why I love the extended editions of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies. So even though I will completely agree that some scenes should have been left out, I also do not mind watching them. If this version was released in 2017, I am convinced it would have been trimmed down to around three hours for theaters with this extended version being released as a director’s cut on blu-ray. We are watching the purest version of this film, for better or worse.
Zack Snyder’s Justice League doesn’t reinvent the wheel. But then again, it was never trying to. It lives inside comic book film convention, but does so on a massive scale. This is grand, mythic filmmaking to the fullest. Everything is as dramatic and epic and badass as it can possibly be. And in that regard, this film succeeds and then some. If I were to be completely critical, I would have to point out the unnecessary scenes, overuse of slo-mo, annoying music choices, and some cringy dialogue. But I personally just ENJOYED the good in this film far more than I hated the bad. If the trade off for having Barry Allen run time backwards is sitting through a few Icelandic women singing to Aquaman for too long, I will gladly listen to their song. But really, when it comes down to it, many comic book fans just simply want to enjoy their comic book movies. The theatrical cut of Justice League made it very hard to do so by leaping through the plot points like a dog at a competition. The Snyder Cut may be extremely over-indulgent, but it treats its characters with respect and its plot with the grand scope and scale it deserves; delivering a wholly satisfying experience. So my purely critical analysis would probably give this film no higher than a 7.5. But my love for the genre, filmmaker, characters, and scope makes this one of my absolute favorites of the recent DCEU films. And as a fellow filmmaker, I also see this as a massive win for creative freedom. Final critical analysis plus personal enjoyment would make this film’s final score at: