“Here we go again. Again.” Tugg Speedman, Scorcher VI
Seriously, what the hell was the boardroom-mandated compromise that was Justice League 2017? It was meant to introduce DC’s answer to The Avengers, but I’ll tell you what it wasn’t: it wasn’t any bloody good.
You can understand Warner Bros. execs getting nervous mid-shoot about the fact their plan to keep going with the whole Dark Knight grimdark thing had gone a bit too grim and dark. In fairness, it must be a right pain trying to sell toys based on a version of a rage-filled Batman whose most quotable line is “Do you bleed?” Can you imagine pushing a button and hearing that coming from your action figure? I mean, it’d be awesome, but I suspect terrifying for most kids.
Original director Zack Snyder – lover of grim darkness, usually at 100fps – was therefore already on a shoogly peg. Yet fate stepped in, and a family tragedy saw the man once seen as the keystone of the DCEU quietly step down to be replaced with Avengers quipmaster Joss Whedon. With a change of tone from dark to light overseen by the director who made Marvel several billion dollars, Warner Bros were hopeful they could kickstart their franchise. Sadly, the best thing to come out of the whole mess is the story behind the utter sh*thousing displayed by Paramount over Henry Cavill’s moustache.
It’s not a leap to say that WB’s hopes of a successful release disappeared along with their HR department’s spare time. For, not only did Justice League somehow gain worse reviews than both Man Of Steel and the theatrical cut of Batman vs Superman (a film that is pretty good in its Ultimate Edition form), but it turns out working for a massive corporate behemoth might be pretty shady.
But look, you’re not here to find out whether or not I think Warner Bros. are institutionally racist or if Joss Whedon is a massive twat, let’s get on with it.
We’re back here because, after the DC fandom noticed just how much of the original trailer contained footage and scenes not in the “final” film, the hashtag #releasethesnydercut was born and somehow revised Snyder’s affiliation with the DC Extended universe. $70m worth of reshoots and re-editing later then, and here we are. A newer, mammoth version – four hours long! – based on Snyder’s original vision.
Is it the Citizen Kane of superhero movies? Ok, calm your geekgasm, it’s more like the Chinese Democracy of Director’s Cuts – delayed, divisive, better than it has any bloody right to be, and just might be a classic of its genre.
There’s alot to unpack here. New character arcs are put in place for almost all the main players, whole scenes have been excised, and almost every line uttered is from an alternate take. There’s less objectification of Gal Gadot, there’s more for Ray Fisher to do as Cyborg (alot more; he is effectively the protagonist for much of the film), and even the fake ‘tache is gone, but even with those welcome steps there’s at least five characters and 20 minutes worth of tea-making scenes too many. That’s not an exaggeration by the way, someone literally explains to a superhero how to make a decent brew.
The film occasionally feels over-stuffed with these superfluous touches. There’s barely a scene goes by without a new storyline to pickup, meaning it’s like Where’s Wally?, but with a casting director’s contact list. Commissioner Gordon! Lex Luthor! A badly-inserted comic book cameo by a character I had to look up! Watching it is also complicated by the script setting up strands for movies either already released and announced – Aquaman, The Flash – or, strangely, that will never be seen (a late revelation seemingly points to Ben Affleck’s abandoned solo Batman project). At times it’s like an advert for one of the alternate universes mentioned, or a filmed meme, which means it occasionally can’t find its own feet as a film. Honestly, there’s so much in here, if Bob Kane and Bill Finger were credited as writers, I wouldn’t have been shocked.
Yet when the film takes off, it soars. Ezra Miller’s Barry Allen gains a fantastic new introduction scene, whilst jettisoning the more forced quirkiness of Whedon rewrites that previously strained the aptly zippy performance. The reawakening of Superman still begins with an all-out brawl, but The Last Son Of Krypton then gets a few moments to dwell on his burden as the saviour of mankind – complete with portentous Jor-El and Pa Kent voiceovers – that make his eventual black-suited return a crowdpleasing moment to savour. The redesigned Steppenwolf looks fantastic, the end battle looks less like a child drew it, and thanks to the removal of reshot scenes, Ben Affleck looks like he can be bothered. Even Jason Momoa’s broseph leanings are toned down to a mild brood – although why his first scene ends with a discarded cardie being mourned by a Scandinavian town singing a sea shanty, I’ll never know. I don’t think Zack Snyder knows, to be honest, he maybe just thought it added weight.
And that’s the main difference between the two versions. Whedon is a man whose raison d’aitre as a writer is to subvert existing tropes (typically concerning masculinity), someone who takes the call of a line loaded with psychosis and rage like BvS’ aforementioned “Do you bleed?”, and turns it into a response that merely sets up a punchline. Snyder, on the other hand, knows that by treating these characters as quip generators they become less like Gods and more like parody, and so lose the weight an audience might need to invest in their heroes. To give the oft-derided director his due, he is a rare filmmaker unafraid to add gravitas to even the smallest scenes – even if it makes that scene purposefully epic or accidentally pompous – and his way with action beats is miles ahead of most of his peers. Sure, this devotion to maximalism drifts close to overbearing (and there is zero chill when it comes to unleashing Wonder Woman’s savage banger of a riff, or the trademark over-abundance of slow motion), but at least in this version the Flash doesn’t fall onto Wonder Woman’s cleavage like it’s a deleted scene from Porky’s.
We still have a perfectly cast central team, here bolstered by tweaks to their initial forms in the theatrical cut. Aquaman now has more of an arc to get him from sneering outcast to trident-wielding dude-God, whilst Ben Affleck’s Bruce Wayne more obviously works through his guilt at his part in Superman’s downfall, and is still probably the best Batman (so there). Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman gets most of the cooler action moments – her nonchalantly dodging projectiles a la Pierce Brosnan in Goldeneye is pretty awesome, to be frank, and her deciding moment in the final square-off definitely earns the more mature rating. As before, Ray Fisher’s Cyborg is central to the film’s storyline, except here he actually has screen time and a fleshed-out tragic backstory to earn his position in the denouement. Alas, this version of Henry Cavill is still pre-Geralt, so although he looks the part his Superman still has a slight issue with…well, acting. Sorry man, loved you in The Witcher.
The cast is also expanded in surprising ways that make full use of the extra time (and budget). Personally, when the weirdly metal Knightmare scenes kicked in – the ones that look like a Megadeth album cover set in the desert – and a ragtag Injustice League stopped to watch Jared Leto’s suddenly bearable (in fact: almost mesmerising) Joker trade barbs as well as a playing card with Batman, I was hooked. It was a bizarre detour in BvS – and it’s doubly bizarre here seeing as the story threads it creates may never be explored further – but f*ck me do I want to know more about this madness.
And that might be the real tragedy here. Yes, let’s not feel too sorry for a bunch of millionaires who got to finish off their project on their own terms. However, it’s the audience for these films who are missing out. Boardroom malaise means we only now – when contracts have ran out and some of the main players have moved on – have the course correction the franchise so badly needed. It must be a sore point for fans that they’re only now realising through this film that they’re losing this Superman too soon, have appreciated this Batman too late, and at the moment their most interesting characters arcs haven’t even started.
With all that said, now the hype has died down, is it the best DC film? That particular question is still probably answered by a battle between The Dark Knight, Wonder Woman, Joker, and Batman Returns. The one success of DC films is that (if you do want to get slightly academic), reeling off those names means there is tangible proof that a near-auteuristic way of making a blockbuster works much better than the conveyor belt focus-grouped method that led Scorsese to decry this part of the modern movie business as “theme park”. Zack Snyder’s Justice League offers something different from those films, in that it tries to be all things to all viewers. Yet the miracle is, it almost manages it and does so by exceeding all expectations placed upon it. It may at some points miss the concise slickness of Whedon’s barbs, and at others mistake pretension for grandeur, but it’s refreshing to have an actual honest-to-God director’s cut relatively untouched by boardroom notes.
The only question left after sitting through its four hour runtime is: can you survive #restorethesnyderverse?
So there it is. A better, infinitely more satisfying version of a story already told. A fantastic cast finally get to show their mettle, a maligned director gets to prove he was heading in the right direction all along, and if this is the canonical goodbye to these versions of Batman and Superman, at least they go out on a high.
Oh, and no, Joker doesn’t actually say that line – but I added 5% just for making us think it was coming.