Tarnished visions, lost films and abandoned or otherwise destroyed cuts are not unusual occurrences in the history of cinema. Erich von Stroheim’s Greed, Sergei Eisenstein’s ¡Que viva México! and Ivan the Terrible, Part III, or almost any project of Orson Welles’ following The Magnificent Ambersons speak to the consequences that might await filmmakers whose ambitions stray too close to the sun or come up against the wariness of studios and producers who see a bottom line threatened by artistic largesse. In this sense Zack Snyder’s Justice League – a film that really requires little introduction, though if a primer is needed Cinepunx has one for you here – stands in a fine tradition and as something of an anomaly in the current century, not only for being a rare instance of outsized avidity cut down and hidden away but also in the diffuse sense of cult mythos and fevered debate (phenomena usually the province of cinephiles) it has accrued in mass culture.
Indeed, while a film such as Orson Welles’ Netflix-released The Other Side of the Wind found its resuscitation and completion after some 42 years, chiefly for those who would be interested in an obscure Welles picture, ‘The Snyder Cut’ and its resurrection – perhaps, in part, due to its subject matter centering on superheroes who have come to enjoy an outsized cache in the cinema of the last two decades – took little under four years to receive its backing and release on Warner Bro.’s own streaming service HBO Max. It is this that renders it a truly remarkable and strange work, and rightly or wrongly one of the most discussed films in recent memory.
Of course, throughout his career Zack Snyder and his films have often been the subject of online discussion, be it 300, Watchmen, or his first two DC films Man of Steel and Batman v Superman. For some, he is a mere brainless aesthete, others a Riefenstahl-esque fascist, and to many more – as Ms. Bamert sees it in the article linked above – he is simply a director who “doesn’t understand the characters he’s making movies about” on account of an overly serious and resentful approach to the material. Yet, all of this seems to fundamentally misunderstand Snyder as a director and artist. As a recent interview he gave to The New York Times makes clear, Snyder “take[s] these characters and their mythology really seriously” – the seriousness is the point! – and far from being resentful of the characters or the material he “do[es]n’t think that it’s cool to have fun at their expense”. If there exists an issue, it is rooted less in Snyder as a filmmaker but in a culture that is unwilling to be as serious and intellectually engaged with the material in terms of their design and meaning.
Snyder’s filmography makes plain his interests in the imagery and architecture of sources historical, fictional, modern or futuristic, be it Greek, Roman, Renaissance, Arthurian, Lucas-ian; and these interests are not simply aesthetic, they inform – even often are – the storytelling. The history of General Zod as represented in Man of Steel in the style of a Roman tableau is a fine example (though the painting imitating Gustave Dore’s ‘The Fall of the Rebel Angels’ in Batman v Superman or the Themysciran murals in Zack Snyder’s Justice League also demonstrate the point): it’s not simply a pretty way of delivering exposition, it unveils character and reveals the central antagonism of what unlimited power might be and mean – is it a servant or a master? Will it help or destroy? And if design is functioning in this way inside the films, it is also worth asking what design or impulse could be at work between each of Snyder’s DC pictures? To which it seems most likely Snyder is thinking in terms of Homer, unfolding a saga across multiple films that, through its interrogation of symbols and mythology, brings humanity back to itself and incarnates gods in order to energize the world and stimulate thought on what it might be and how it could change.
It’s in the spirit of continuing and developing these ideas that the 242-minute long Zack Snyder’s Justice League begins, as images of Clark Kent/Superman’s sacrifice in Batman v Superman see his death cry pulsate around and through the world, uniting it in a shared sense of loss and mourning of the good; while awakening the intergalactic threat of Steppenwolf that precipitates Bruce Wayne/Batman’s efforts to bring Diana Prince (Wonder Woman), Arthur Curry (Aquaman), Barry Allen (The Flash) and Victor Stone (Cyborg) together to face it. Fundamentally, the plot is more or less identical to the 2017 Warner/Whedon version of Justice League that many viewers will have already seen, with most of the action that defined the main body of that film present in the latter half of Snyder’s cut. The chief difference is in the all-encompassing sense of more that not only beefs out what will already be familiar to audiences but the opening sections of the film that largely will not.
Informed to a limited degree, so Snyder claims, by Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, the opening sections of this tale-told-in-six-parts see the Justice League slowly brought together while the dimensions of Steppenwolf’s invasion become clear to each member and their respective worlds. It’s a passage of the work that is often interesting, establishing the fractured nature of the film’s world, the isolated status of its heroes in the help they provide and the danger of the enemy; while also suffused with choices that range from the exceptionally cool (e.g. the battle on Themyscira, the Age of Heroes war against Darkseid) to the frequently bizarre (e.g. an Icelandic town choir singing an ode to Aquaman or multiple music montages that help introduce other League members). This entirely new opening few hours may do little to win over the most hardened Snyder detractors and could even leave defenders of the director struggling. It’s poorly paced and haphazardly arranged, and while scenes are often engaging on their own terms, the opening movements lack for Kurosawa’s intuitive sense of methodically establishing a film’s themes and givens and efficiently getting it on to the task of unravelling them. Nevertheless, it is hard not to be won over by the sincerity and love that Snyder displays for these characters in over-indulging in time spent less uniting them but showcasing their individuality and in what ways they are uniquely able to aid the world. Far from not understanding or even resenting his characters, Zack Snyder’s Justice League reveals a director who, if anything, cares too much – for better or worse.
The film’s final two hours are chiefly set pieces: the assault on the tunnel under Gotham Harbor, the resurrection of Superman, and the battle to stop Steppenwolf’s destruction of Earth. It is here the film truly finds its energy and the sense of more becomes invaluable as scenes are expanded and the characters come into their own, both individually and as a unit. Indeed, the decision to see the Justice League defined by a sense of trust and confidence in its members and what they can do is especially winning, each is aware and trusts that they are all capable of saving the world and using their abilities competently and so they talk, make a plan and carry it out. The choice to eschew egomania and in-fighting allows Snyder’s rigorous conceptualization of what the characters are capable of to come through and have the film truly revel in it, with almost everything involving the Flash being of particular note as Snyder wrestles with the question of how to visualise the interactions with time and space experienced by a character who moves fundamentally faster than what a film image could ever capture or represent.
The results are stunning, much in the same way that across its entire runtime the film looks simply beautiful – even if the 1.33:1 aspect ratio is a debatable choice – with Snyder’s sense of composition and colour fully restored and apparent across every frame. It ends promising more, becoming an optimistic (the detractors will be satisfied) stepping-stone on the way to a Knightmare future, while seeding themes that may never be realized in Snyder’s grand odyssey toward envisioning a unified world that truly believes in the planet. More than anything else it is a lot of movie – maybe too much for some – resembling at times a workprint given permission to be brought to full realization and as a result lacking the focus that defined Man of Steel and Batman v Superman – but what is to be expected of a film that intends to encompass and unify worlds? Yet, finally and most importantly, it is “For Autumn”, Snyder’s daughter who passed away during the film’s initial production. It is a gift to a lost child, completed for those who need encouraged toward a belief and hope in the possibility of goodness in the world. In this way, it is ultimately a love letter and the film – regardless of whether one wishes to debate if it should exist or not – is here to be read.