Ah, the “Snyder Cut.” Originally, this blog post was going to cover a more macro event in the industry—that was, AT&T/Warner Bros decision to disrupt the standard path of theatrical releases for 2021 by going directly to HBOMax subscribers, and the fallout and ramifications of the move.
But one of those films—Zack Snyder’s cut of Justice League—has been the hot topic of the last few weeks, and after dedicating a Saturday afternoon to screening it, I need to talk about it.
Warner Bros’ efforts to bring DC Comics properties to the silver screen this century has been a mixed bag, both critically and commercially. But before addressing the film, I want to make few things clear.
First, I have no feelings toward Snyder one way or another, which is apparently unlike most people. For me, he’s simply a director that, by most accounts, runs a set that actors and crew enjoy being on.
Second, I’m not really that much of a film snob. As I get older and direct more, I have a great appreciation for a film that sets about to be a thing and accomplishes that. I like popcorn movies. For my daughter and myself (pre-pandemic, naturally), going to the movies was “our thing.” This started when she was about eight with 2007’s Academy Award-snubbed The Game Plan, starring The Rock, and it really accelerated with The Avengers. When we go, I’m not droning on about Cassavetes or Japanese cinema. We’re there to be entertained.
Finally, while it might be seen as a betrayal to my craft, I usually don’t like so-called Director’s Cuts. Maybe this shows my producer-side brain is stronger than I care to admit, but they’re usually bloated, and pace and tightness are often sacrificed.
All this being said, I was kind of floored by Snyder’s JL Grey. I don’t see this as much as a “Director’s Cut,” but rather as a totally different movie. Snyder’s four hours of 4:3 cinema (a weird choice, but I stopped noticing) features changes to the major elements of the story.
I’m not going to do a movie review, but I want to explain what I liked and the differences in the story between the two films. I’m going to speak far less in comic book fandom—just more film and storytelling structure.
For me, there are two incredibly basic elements to storytelling that are important. They seem simple and maybe even obvious, but they’re not.
Most people think a story or film works because of, or hinges mostly on the strength of, the protagonist. But the secret is that that’s not entirely true. Or more accurately, it’s not solely based on it. Two really important factors outside of the hero are wildly important: stakes and the antagonist. Joseph Campbell’s book isn’t simply called The Hero. It’s called The Hero’s Journey.
What’s at stake, and who (or what) does our hero have to go through? Because if someone or something isn’t challenging our heroes in a credible way, how can they overcome? How can they change?
What makes a good antagonist? Well, your college lit professor has already told you that “the villain is the hero in his mind.” There’s a lot of truth to that. So is the ability to RELATE on some level to the antagonist.
SPOILERS AHEAD. STOP READING IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN THE FILM.
The theatrical release of Justice League featured a villain—the alien Steppenwolf—who previously tried to take over the Earth thousands of years ago by uniting these three magic cubes from his home world. He was stopped, vowed to return, and ultimately does. Only now our heroes—the members of the Justice League—are here to protect Earth.
Sure. That’s a thing, I guess. We’ve all seen it a thousand times, and apparently so had my daughter, even in just her 15 years on the planet, because she was snoozing in the very comfy chair next to me, taking a very expensive nap.
Quick note: I will try to hold back as much on deep and specific reveals as possible.
Well, it turns out that Zack Snyder’s original vision was that Steppenwolf is not THE villain, he is just A villain. More importantly, his motivations are far more relatable than the blanket alien/sci-fi “take over the planet” trope. Turns out he’s been demoted to third on the food chain and trying to get back in the good graces of his alien overlord after showing some serious hubris.
He’s literally in the process of paying for his sins, as he owes the true “Big Bad 50,000” world as his penance. Also, it turns out he can’t even speak directly to the “Big Guy,” but now must communicate exclusively with the #2. Also, rather than Steppenwolf, it was the real Big Bad who’s defeated in a prior attempt to conquer. So there’s some special significance and brownie points that come along with conquering this planet.
This is, well, kind of amazing. It’s some straight Godfather-level mafia-movie stuff. I’m immediately interested in a different way.
And then it turns out that something that Steppenwolf’s master has been hunting for more than a hot minute (50,000 years or some other crazy alien math number) has been hidden on Earth all along! And the exiled villain has found it. Steppenwolf is thinking “Not only am I getting out of the doghouse now, but I’m moving up the ladder!” It’s so important that the big bad opts to come visit Earth in person.
This entire plotline, along with the villain’s motivation and stakes, is gone from the theatrical cut. Which led to dialogue changes from our antagonist. “And now, finally, I’ll have my redemption” (I feel you) to “and now praise to the unity—with three as one.” (So…I care? And what does that even mean?)
Oh yeah, the protagonist. Better make it plural. While yes, the film features an ensemble cast on paper, the theatrical cut is clearly focused on one character’s journey. What comes after in a world without Superman, and how can he come back because that’s our only salvation. Batman (Ben Affleck) and Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) lead the charge to get us our hero back, and Aquaman (Jason Momoa) is there for brooding and “reluctant heroism.” The Flash (Ezra Miller) and Cyborg (Ray Fisher) are there because, well, five people balance a wide shot better?
The “Snyder Cut” gives and takes much more of a true ensemble approach and gives character depth to the entire team. It actually de-emphasizes Superman & Batman.
Two characters in particular—The Flash and Cyborg—are given a ton more character depth, screen time, and I think connection to the audience. Miller’s idiosyncratic portrayal of The Flash was super-interesting and distinctly different from Grant Gustin’s portrayal of the character in the DC Television/CW/Arrowverse.
Snyder uses chapter title cards to break up scenes. Some say using cards or dips to black show you don’t know how to transition scenes or parts well, but coming from documentaries and growing up on Clerks, it doesn’t bother me. It’s used often in docu-series as well.
For the runtime, sure, four hours is a long time. But Zack Snyder’s Justice League is about the same length as rival studio Disney/Marvel’s Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame films combined. Delivered in one film, but via home streaming, it didn’t bother me. I also would binge half a season of Netflix’s Daredevil series in a day when they were being released.
Better characters, clearer stakes, and true antagonists that are relatable and/or credible will always make for better storytelling. And this actually brings up an interesting future for DC Films and Warner Bros.
Both the original Suicide Squad director David Ayer and Birds of Prey director Cathy Yan appeared to commiserate about being noted to death via Twitter. Warner Media’s Anna Sarnoff recently stated we would not be getting director’s cuts of the films, but there may be a cool opportunity here if they think about things differently.
Beating Disney/Marvel at what they do (i.e., a blended cinematic universe telling a larger story across multiple films) will be an awfully tall task. But DC Films could be in a totally different place, where directors with distinct voices want to come and bring something unique to DC characters on the silver screen. Warner has gotten it half-right by hiring these types of directors. Maybe they just need to complete the second half of the process and let these storytellers do what they do best.
Dan Napoli is head of Post-Production & Creative at Hurrdat Films. He’s an award-winning documentary film writer, director, and editor. In full transparency, he does consider himself “more of a Marvel guy.”