It’s hard to admit you are wrong. We like to be right and we like to be proven right. It’s time we admitted it, though. We can just come out and say it and no one is going to be upset with us about it because no one really believed it would happen: We were all wrong about Zack Snyder’s Justice League.
(Note: When I say we were all wrong I do realize that not everyone thought this way. It’s hyperbolic. You knew it all along? Awesome.)
It took me a full two hours to admit it myself. Two straight hours of watching Zack Snyder do Zack Snyder all over my HBO Max subscription before I was willing to admit that I was having a good time and that my months of light mockery of the man and belief that this cut would be a train wreck were entirely incorrect. At about the two-hour point of this four-hour film, I finally gave in and admitted I was enjoying it, that Snyder had something here, and that this cut was better than the theatrical one, which I admittedly also enjoyed on first viewing.
I wasn’t alone in this change of heart either. The general consensus about Zack Snyder’s Justice League is that if it’s not exactly good, it’s definitely entertaining. Even the people who came out of it less than happy with it can find good things about it. Many of us tuned in for a multi-million dollar train wreck and were given something that worked. Snyder somehow proved us all wrong.
We shouldn’t feel bad about being wrong, though. Snyder didn’t make it easy to believe that his overblown cut of the movie was somehow going to deliver anything enjoyable. For years, Zack Snyder was ostensibly the bad guy. He was the man who drove the DC Extended Universe into the ground, first by delivering a Superman movie where no one liked Superman in Man of Steel and then following that up with the nearly universally despised Batman v Superman.
And while, yes, Snyder’s director’s cut of the latter film did help it in some ways, by the time Justice League production rolled around, no one really wanted him touching DC superheroes anymore, including the studio itself. Let’s remember that when Snyder left, due in part to the tragic death of his daughter, most people at the time saw it as a good thing for the film itself.
Then the theatrical cut of Justice League disappointed in terms of both box office and fan reaction. At the time there was very little information out there about which parts were Whedon’s and which were Snyder’s, and while we knew that Whedon had done reshoots, his involvement in the film was still being touted as someone who came in and finished it off, not a new director who oversaw a wholesale remaking of the movie itself.
This left audiences assuming that much of the depressing and dire aspects of the movie, including a rampantly dour opening sequence and Batman graveling his way through the entire thing, were Snyder’s choices. That would mean his four-hour version of the movie would be even worse.
There’s plenty of digital ink spilled on how we got to a place where Zack Snyder was allowed to make a four-hour Justice League film with almost no oversight, but suffice to say that it took a conflagration of events that included a global pandemic, a director somehow stealing all the files for his movie, the rise of streaming, a dedicated fanbase, and a few miracles sprinkled in. None of that incredible return, though, garnered Snyder or the film any more credit towards its being good. In fact, all the promotion and hype leading up to the movie made it all the more insufferable.
First, there was news that the movie would be four hours long, the fact that it’s basically a giant publicity stunt for HBO Max, that Snyder needed $70 million more dollars, that he was going to do some reshoots, that the aspect ratio was going to be built for IMAX despite the movie landing on a streaming service. Everything pointed towards a movie that was already a mess turning into a bigger mess.
Then the all-black-and-white trailer with Zack Snyder’s name bigger than the film title dropped, and it was hard to believe Snyder was going to do anything but drag us through four hours of superhero hell while taking himself far too seriously. As we began seeing and hearing more about the film, everything felt like the pretentious crap Snyder had fed us in his previous two DC films. From the slow-motion shots with sad songs over them, to the re-recasting of Jared Leto as the Joker for a new epilogue on the film, to every interview with Snyder sounding like the film was the second coming, it looked like Snyder was just tossing everything he could into a blender and throwing it onto the screen with as much angst as he could.
Taken altogether, one could assume the film was going to be an overlong, overblown, dour mess.
But it wasn’t.
Zack Snyder’s Justice League is a coherent, fleshed-out, relatively well-paced, character-driven film. There are many reasons for this shift espoused across the internet (including my own review): The overt humor is replaced with natural jokes. The broken-up structure actually makes the four hours work. Cyborg is changed from a token cast-off to the central character of the film. Flash is an actual character, not a walking punchline. The Batman / Superman relationship takes a backseat to the team. Batman isn’t a dour asshole. Superman isn’t a dour asshole. Wonder Woman isn’t a dour, exposition-spouting asshole. Steppenwolf is given a surprisingly good backstory and character development. There’s also no moustache removal, stronger themes of unity, and actors who actually appear to want to be there.
The list goes on when discussing the many ways that this is actually a cut above the theatrical release and Snyder’s previous films. However, the biggest reason the film works is that it dials down all the Snyder-ness. Not the slow motion or the talking about emotions out loud or the hyper-dramatic moments — those are all there in spades, for sure — but his gritty, edge-lord, Martha-ness is missing for most of the film.
Those emo parts of the theatrical cut? They mostly seem to be from Whedon, not Snyder. That depressing opening with Sigrid singing “Everybody Knows” that felt so much like Snyder? All Whedon. Zack Snyder’s Justice League is actually a surprisingly hopeful film about redemption, teamwork, and family. Yes, this is Snyder at his most Snyder, but it is also him reeling in his desire to make everything feel written by a 14-year-old kid in the back of his school notebook. It’s a Snyder many assumed just didn’t exist.
The true assumption that we all got wrong was that Zack Snyder was the issue with the original film, that he couldn’t change, and that what we saw in theaters was more or less what we were going to get this time around, just with two more hours. But considering nearly all the content in the Snyder cut was already filmed, that means that this better film was indeed his plan all along. He was pivoting his take on the DCEU and looking to create a really intriguing universe, far different from Marvel’s, that wasn’t just heroes standing around in the rain.
The assumption had been that his creative freedom with this film would make things worse. That’s why Warner Bros. sent people in to watch him in the first place and brought Joss Whedon in. The great irony is that in removing his freedom in an attempt to make the film better, they clearly made it worse.
Although, there is one caveat to this entire thing. Zack Snyder’s Justice League would never have released in theaters in this state. The total creative freedom given to him for this cut would not have happened even under more perfect conditions, and there’s no way that the studio would have allowed a four-hour cut of a film into theaters. Plus, Snyder had the benefit of three years of hindsight, and while he professes this is his dream cut as he would have released it, it’s hard to believe he didn’t make some changes with that in mind.
If Zack Snyder had been able to finish Justice League, we would not have gotten this HBO Max version out of it and it would not have been as good. Period. Part of the success of his cut is the ability to unfold extensive amounts of character development because he has the time to do that. Whedon may be an ass and he clearly made a lot of terrible decisions in rewriting the film, but he was also turning an already done movie around in a time crunch. So yes, we were all wrong about Zack Snyder’s Justice League, but that doesn’t necessarily mean we were wrong about Zack Snyder’s Justice League.
Look, we probably shouldn’t be celebrating the fact that Zack Snyder’s Justice League works. It isn’t great cinema. It is full of all of Zack Snyder’s biggest faults and issues and it needs an editor badly. There’s plenty of stuff that should be cut out as needless, including the film’s epilogue and Martian Manhunter. But overall, it works, it’s fun, it has characters and functions and those are all things we — the internet, society — didn’t think the film would do. We were all wrong and the world is… well, not better, but it’s definitely not worse, and that’s something. Right?