Zack Snyder’s Justice League: Prophet or False God?

“Am I a provocateur? A little bit … I have purposely, because I love it, made the movies difficult.”

-Zack Snyder

The name in lights at the front of this redacted cut of the maligned studio monster, Justice League (2017), splashes its opening credits with the understated glamor of an auteur’s signature. Even Orson Welles’ name never saw such a treatment, perhaps because Welles himself was never given so much control. The name in “Zack Snyder’s Justice League” is not only a statement of ownership but of the promise of fulfilling the modern illusion of the auteur, as though this giant film is an individual’s pet project. But a film is not the product of one person. It is the work of thousands of craftsmen, bankrolled in this case by over a billion dollars in various sources of marketing and funding over multiple timeframes of production. This particular film is not only one of the most expensive pieces of art ever made but also one of the priciest goodwill projects, if the tone of the marketing can be taken as a truth of the intent. No film has ever convinced its target audience so well to accept its existence as a favor to them, rather than a product, or more confidently extended the illusion of the one-man filmmaking model that directors (even Welles) have sought to reinstate since Citizen Kane created it.

Regardless of Snyder’s willingness to justify the film’s intentions (in interviews, he “explains” this movie like Dirk Diggler explained to Jack how he envisioned his porn name in the hot tub in Boogie Nights), the film is the result of many artists struggling for clarity against a gigantic vision. The name “Snyder” on social media is now a battle cry against a studio unwilling to produce the content its most militant proponents want, a name that means everything from artistic freedom to Catwoman cunnilingus (often at the same time). Viewing it is a surreal experience – the film that should not exist, yet does. No meaningful discussion of it can begin without first acknowledging how incredible that is.

Part 1 – A Plea for Closure

The film is split into parts, separated by placards, yet each scene is as disconnected as those surrounding the cards. For 39 minutes, the film wallows in numerous unrelated openings that all feel like drafts of the first scenes of seven other movies, like a house that opens into seven adjoining rooms before circling back to a familiar one. The cold opens do not stop until Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) appears for the second time, 39 minutes in, which is the first time the film exhales and feels like starting. The film's best feature is how it lingers on scenes too long for a normal blockbuster, searching for truth, but its worst is how long it takes for the sum of the lingering to add up to anything remotely dramatic, especially in connection to the trilogy it's meant to close. You could watch entire other films before anything happens in this one.

Zack Snyder and Chris Terrio (his screenplay for Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker was written with similarly aggressive ambiguousness) neglect the previous films in this tribute to them. The first thing Justice League needed was capitalization on Batman v Superman in the form of Bruce’s soul. The impact of his vital relationships, such as with Alfred (Jeremy Irons) and Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), could have contextualized his state of mind after previous events. He could have interrogated Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg). He might have developed a self-loathingly cathartic father-son relationship with the hologram of Jor-El (Russell Crowe), Superman’s father, or Jim Gordon (J.K. Simmons, a wastefully perfect casting). Given four hours of time, there are many conceivable ways to have built emotional stakes with this soul-weary character using these key (more importantly, established) dynamics.

Instead, each scene either recaps messy mythology, invents new ones, or introduces a new character, with almost no attention given to building Bruce’s perspective despite the fact that he drives the plot. The editor David Brenner (previously a Roland Emmerich regular before becoming a Snyder favorite), juggles unrelated sequences with the resourceless fudging of a grad student and the presumption of Terrence Malick crafting a cosmic exposé. Each edit dispels rather than builds tension, even when sequences share the same character (which is rare). Cyborg (Ray Fisher) jumps from suspecting his house is being invaded to hiding from the invaders from inside his house in one janky cut, which is a "scene" only a few seconds long – barely a whiff of a scene. Off-screen, everyone in this film moves as fast as the Flash to get to their mark.

Superman Death

Each segment is scored with painstaking music choices for pure “effect,” from pop music covers to airy tribal choruses. In sequence, they are a disjointed association of clips with the impression of watching the six ads that play in a row during the breaks on free streaming services. Most of them include a slow-motion sequence far more interested in being accepted as meaningful than creating meaning (not since Sucker Punch has a film with so little demanded to be credited for so much). Justice League was not wrong to set a somber mood for a group of characters that might have been silly by default, but the effect would only have been admirable at such a slow burn if it built something dramatic from it. With no clear narrative center for more than ten minutes at a time, each segment feels like it could be randomized and lose nothing. It’s an ADD epic.

This disjointedness suggests the most surprising comparison between Zack Snyder’s and Joss Whedon’s cuts of the film, which is inescapable in any discussions of it. If the Whedon Cut’s primary problem was its lack of dramatic growth and resolve, the Snyder Cut despite having twice the runtime still jots along like an algorithm completing a task. In both versions, I’m left wondering if these Justice Leaguers are really humans. Do they spend a night in Wayne Manor? Do they talk about anything except the plot and their backstories? Do they eat a single meal? The Flash (Ezra Miller) eats to keep his metabolism up – even eating is nothing but a plot point. If anyone so much as sleeps, they have to dream about six new character introductions, a villain callback, and a sequel teaser to justify it.

The result is a film that could take place over a year or an afternoon, no matter which cut you see. Despite its lingering pace, it eerily lacks the details that keep time in normal human interactions, reducing its people to pieces stuck on the checkerboard of its plot. Combined with the constant stylistic demands to be taken seriously, the four-hour cut contains none of the catharsis of other similarly long epics, resorting instead to a feeling of uncomfortably rushed timelessness. The rare repose, such as a moment when Alfred and Wonder Woman make tea together, is all that feels remotely human in a film so hell-bent on climaxing that even pleas for emotional redemption are plot-specific. Even Cyborg’s backstory, played off as a major tear-jerker, feels more like the intro before an athlete’s season profile on ESPN than character development. When his father dies before his eyes, it only takes him around 30 seconds to realize its importance to the plot.

Snyder’s version vastly improves the final fight with Superman (Henry Cavill), which Whedon over-extracted into a pantomime of the Donnor aesthetic (complete with an out-of-place John Williams sting). Whedon’s need (or Warner Bros.' requirement) to make exchanges sillier just reinforces the recut version’s impression of being a vandal in a holy temple. Yet many of Snyder's additions would never have been missed, such as one where they snarl about a "battle plan" that has only an impression of complexity that the Whedon Cut replaces with a simple Justice League moment between Batman and Flash ("You'll know what to do"). Miller's Flash character interjects comedy almost as awkwardly in the Snyder Cut as in the theatrical. When they walk upstairs at normal human speeds, the camera luxuriously lingering, the score thrums a desperately epic guitar riff. The tonal contrast would not be starker in a parody.

Even the villains struggle for clarity. The time-starved Whedon Cut (the studio misguidedly restricted its runtime to two hours) had to lose the third-string and first-string villains and invest in Steppenwolf only. The Snyder Cut demands significance with all three no matter how hazardously established, including "DeSaad," a henchman character whose name is so similar to "Darkseid" that the person on the couch next to me asked if that was Darkseid since none of them had been shown yet. The laborious explanations for these villains do not pay off. Snyder's Steppenwolf, despite an angry posture, has a face rendered with lifelessly cute features, as though at any time the heroes will discover that he’s really a CGI avatar being controlled remotely by Grumpy Cat. Though all of Whedon’s changes were maligned on principle (even those that ended up being Snyder’s decisions after all, a contradiction no one talks about), changing Steppenwolf into a design through which the actor (Ciarán Hinds) could emote is one of the least grievous in retrospect.

The most basic irresponsibility with Warner Bros’ restrictions, Snyder’s ambitions, and Terrio’s translation of them is the amount of information the film demands not only to be absorbed but also accepted as significant – even the most complex films treat the audience more gracefully. Yet the story is as simple as a bad guy trying to take over the world, an amount of narrative content that could be challenged by any Saturday morning cartoon. It demands to be taken as complex without formulating complexity, giving no quarter to a viewer who doesn't already know characters before they are introduced. To Snyder, this may make it “difficult,” in an admirable way. But this attitude is why multiple studio execs saw this cut and called it “unwatchable” (that was before they realized how profitable it would be to call it an unrealized masterpiece instead). The film’s core brokenness, the conclusion to all these comparisons between the two cuts, is that no cut could ever exist that has enough time to set all this up. Snyder proved that, with a four-hour film that still manages to feel rushed.

Part 2 – Epic Drama

No scenes are more injured by this information overload than those that try to be heartfelt. The most glaring example is the scene between Martha Kent (Diane Lane) and Lois Lane (Amy Adams), sandwiched between action scenes and other character introductions like an ad break for Prozac. They talk in Lois’s apartment about the death of Superman, after which the color seems to have gone out of their lives – without him, Lois is a blob, lounging wistfully in bed, considering going to work, touching his pecs in the photo she keeps by her pillow. The scene has at least an impression of drama, one that establishes emotional stakes between two characters regardless of how well it executes them (armed with Amy Adams, these DCEU films tapped 1% of her potential).

Then when Martha leaves the room, her eyes glow red, and she transforms into a caped green alien named Martian Manhunter, who then transforms again into the general (Harry Lennix) from Man of Steel, whom only yearly observers of that film would even remember. Blink at the wrong time and you could go the rest of the film thinking that Martha and Lois had this scene together and never know that she was actually a shapeshifting green alien man, a “twist” that is absurd not because it happens but because it makes zero difference to the rest of the film that it does. The exchange is robbed of drama because the "climactic reveal" contradicts the premise, too obvious for this writer/director, that two characters might share a meaningful moment without a DC mythology reference. They swap its meaning for a little wink, like dozens of hard-earned arcade tickets traded for one sticker. A later scene in a cornfield even blissfully ignores the fact that it's technically the first time Martha and Lois have met in the film, from Martha’s perspective. Even Manhunter returns later to "reveal" his name, which makes no difference to the film and wouldn't matter to anyone who didn't know it already.

If this recognition-reaction strategy was restricted to sensationalizing DC icons, it would be more typical of the average franchise-ender. But Justice League uses the same strategy in even basic actions, as though a reference to emotion counts as the real thing. One example involves Wonder Woman’s introduction. After deflecting bullets and disposing of a bomb, instead of disarming the final henchman, she clinks her gauntlets together and blows up the room. The scene goes out with a literal bang, forcing the editor to minimize the effect of an exploding wall of glass and stone on the fracturable skulls standing around it. This is in spite of the terrorist's estimation that their five pounds of C4 will blow up “four city blocks" yet produces a noticeably smaller explosion when Wonder Woman chucks it like a volleyball through the roof in agonizingly self-important slow-motion. The film insists that stopping a room from blowing up by blowing it up is admirable; the whole thing is scored like a goddess returning to her expectant followers. But its dramatic exaggerations are symptoms of the vital flaw in Terrio’s screenwriting in any situation – that nothing needs to logically follow through, so long as it “sounds” important.

Another example in the tunnel fight is purely visual, more a feat of direction than writing. Wonder Woman falls, lunging for her sword; the film halts for more slow-motion as tribal music revs up, which it always does in moments of significance (which is all of them). The Flash runs to touch her sword, sending it back into her hand. It sounds victorious, yet there’s no connecting logic to it, nothing even as simple as a bad guy to slash at that exact moment to necessitate the save. It’s just a pass at the audience’s emotions, a demand to take an extra action moment as climactic when in the context of the scene, Wonder Woman could just as easily have landed and grabbed her own sword without the minute-long fireworks. Whether the film demands the deniability of a cartoon or the significance of a eulogy (it switches between them at will, often in the same scene), it constantly uses climax-flavor to justify the most average action, even when nothing else contextualizes it. The same conflict between visual excess and drama plagued the final hour of Man of Steel – rather than mediating it, Snyder seems to have made it his chosen aesthetic.

Wonder Woman

This fight concludes with the heroes struggling on Batman’s crawling robot as it lurches out of the flooding tunnel, the music pounding expectantly as though any of this is tense and exciting or even could be. And then the film cuts to Steppenwolf, as it often does, mumbling about global domination with barely-introduced villain cohorts. And then it cuts back to the heroes, safe and sound out of the tunnel. Situation normal. Despite four hours of runtime, the film never finds time to satisfyingly resolve an action sequence, much less capitalize on its dramatic context. Watching it is like having tea with the Mad Hatter. As soon as you’ve got your sugar and cream situated and are about to take a sip, he screams, “Clean cup, clean cup, move DOWN!” and you have to move to the next seat and try to finish making your tea in time to taste it.

Part 3 – Power Play

The film compulsively overlooks logical observations while declaring their importance in scenes that "explain" details, as though Terrio believes you can get blood from a stone if you write it in there. The detail could be small, such as when Wonder Woman suggests that Aquaman (Jason Momoa) is a "half-breed" because he can breathe air, despite the fact that all high-born Atlanteans are shown breathing air; they even create bubbles of air to talk to each other underwater (Terrio may not have been aware of that visual when he wrote that line). They could also be universe-defining, such as when Darkseid "forgets" which planet Earth was, a plot hole big enough to warrant Snyder offering a half-explanation on Twitter, lapped up like a trickle of milk by starving kittens, even though all he said was, "much time had passed" (Darkseid has a number of henchmen only expressible in E notation – you'd think one of them would have written it down). Even the main plot of the film hinges on a hole that needed patching, which is that the Mother Boxes only awaken after Superman's death, a cool idea that offers no explanation for why they didn't awaken in the millennia before he was born. To tranquilize analysis, Terrio offers lines that sound full of rumbly awe ("They were afraid of him"). Yet it's all in service of an impression of climactic relevance only, backed up by style but never by logic. Diana could blow her nose and it would be scored like a primal spiritual.

Even the purely visual sequences lose any semblance of manly elegance present in the Snyder films shot by Larry Fong, such as 300Watchmen, Batman v Superman, or even Sucker Punch. Without him, the workout aesthetic no longer seems grounded by any artistic relevance; in its place is an experience like watching a streamer play a video game that's all cut-scenes. This is never more evident than in the flashback sequence, when a cast of gods fights Darkseid's army in an unconvincing green screen sheen, all oiled up like sexy firemen calendar cutouts (girls used to pinch their cheeks to make them look rosy; Snyder actors must pump iron off-screen for similar reasons). The battle is scripted with stern obviousness, which is not helped by Gadot's haphazard narration (she reads everything with the tone that kids say, “I Spy with my little eye,” like every sentence is the first line of an ad for skin cream). Yet it's the visuals that dispel its power, which beyond a few shots of interest, reposted online with compulsive "I told you so" energy, have an unconvincing cartoon quality. In Fong's shoes, Fabien Wagner is behind the lens of this unwieldy monster after only shooting a comedy and the glossy studio schedule-filler, Victor Frankenstein. It was never going to be Lawrence of Arabia, despite sharing its runtime.

Zack Snyder Zeus

The result is a film that values action more than life yet constantly lacks impact – the punches are all puffs. Aquaman surfs on an "enemy," as they call them, through the air, crashing through a building saying "Oh yeah" like the male stripper version of the Kool-Aid Man (five years ago, I was positive this was a Whedon addition). It's less visually engaging than when Momoa just smiles. Even Batman, the character Snyder has staked his career on reinterpreting as a gun-toting, snarling badass, is limp in this film. If he was meant to transition to the "real" Batman through the events of the previous film, Justice League lacks opportunities for him to show it. It even baits a classic Batman beatdown when the enemy breaks into his plane and the lights flicker off, but he just shoots them with a big gun.

Yet Fong is never so missed than in the immersion-dissolving travesty of the second-to-last ending, shot by Snyder in nauseatingly low focus as part of the film’s reshoot process, in which a group of alternate reality superheroes observes the end of the world in Batman’s dream. The speech by Victor’s father (Joe Morton) was the clear ending for the film, casting this trilogy off on a note of hopeful patriarchal wisdom in a series loosely defined by the guidance and legacy of fathers, like a Viking on his funeral barge, floating to Valhalla, on fire, with his pecs out. Superman opens his shirt to reveal the “S” – perfect ending point. Yet the film unbelievably has 25 minutes to go, sabotaging any impression of emotional catharsis to bait multiple realities of sequels that have not been funded (Snyder may be baiting fans to materialize them for him). I would have thought the film would at least give its supporters a powerful concluding argument to their trilogy, but that’s not what they wanted. They wanted a private screening to the rough cut, with Snyder in the next chair explaining with one hand wrapped around his beer how all the awesomeness was achieved. No film has ever had more scenes that feel like deleted ones, or feels more like the director's commentary track is on even when it isn't.

Epilogue – What Falls is Fallen

Snyder seems to have wanted nothing more heinous than to make these heroes real, to bring them to life for those of us who spent childhood with our noses crammed into Justice League and The Dark Knight Returns and All-Star Superman. It’s not completely his fault that in the process he has created the most demanding fanbase in the history of cinema. There are moments where the ambition seems to have worked (the people of Aquaman's village sing a worshipful hymn as he returns to the sea, which feels more mythic than all of James Wan's Aquaman). But a big-budget yet grounded take on the Justice League did not require every possible scrap of footage that was shot, as though every second is a valued cultural artifact, exhaling thematic text with the forced relevance of a Sunday school lesson when the only narrative concept in play is villain-of-the-week material. Even if treated as a four-hour rough cut, like a block of marble that could contain a strapping statue of manly elegance culled from Snyder’s strange pectoral mythology, it’s a rough cut shot by the guy who shot Victor Frankenstein and written by the guy who wrote The Rise of Skywalker. It is never, at any point, an impressive creation, even compared to Batman v Superman, which for all its off-putting instability is still a brutal bruise of scowling action that gives me the same backhanded joy that Conan the Barbarian does.

The great artist thrives on total freedom, pursuing it in a world that seldom allows it because great art requires risk and risk is the natural enemy of investment. But to the average artist, there is no greater handicap possible than total freedom. The average does not limit itself; it does not question its potential or know how to cut off something that it made. The task given to Whedon was impossible – turning an unwatchable rough cut into a film with a different tone and practically the same number of characters but with half the runtime. Working within those restrictions was insurmountable. But the task Snyder gave to himself was just as impossible. He had to make a rough cut worthy of being released without any of the creative adversity that would result in a coherent vision (or the technicians that could have provided the artistic deniability for one).

Instead, he settled for something that could be worshipped on principle but not watched in practice (even its strongest supporters have opinions on when to strategically take breaks). The result is a film engineered to be taken as difficult even in the face of its simplistic badness, perhaps because of it – the worse it gets, the harder the critique becomes against the reverence of its supporters. Regardless of how the film sells itself as a cultural offering, Snyder made it for himself. Warner Bros., eager to make this the lynchpin of their HBO Max negotiations like the crucifix of a straight-to-streaming religion, just provoked the world into thinking it was for them too.

Images are screenshots from the film: ©Warner Bros. Pictures

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