I knew I’d have a lot to say about Zach Snyder’s Justice League, a director’s cut coming to HBO Max later this week that went from hearsay to industry buzz to a full-blown production in 3.5 years. What I didn’t know was how much good I would wind up saying about it.
Don’t get me wrong: this four-hour film (four hours!) is far from perfect. It carries the dead weight of its lead-in bummer, 2016’s Batman v Superman. It tries to shoulder the burden of DC’s “connected-film universe” aspirations. And it’s a Zack Snyder production, which means these four hours are sometimes padded by ponderous, overlong sequences instead of character development.
But! Buuuuut. Snyder was clearly building up to something huge with Justice League—a crystallization of the dark-superhero ethos he had been creating piecemeal, now buttressed by a more rounded-out cast of massive egos—so it’s interesting to not only see his vision come to fruition, but also to compare it to what Joss Whedon pieced together when Snyder left the original production cycle due to a personal tragedy. As imperfect as this cut of Justice League is, it is better than Whedon’s directorial vision—by a Krypton mile.
I went to the painstaking trouble of watching both versions side by side, constantly pausing one and checking the other, to make this determination (and to hopefully save you the trouble of doing the same). Honestly, I found myself wishing a super-duper-director’s cut might someday emerge, perhaps as a fan project that cribs from both versions’ sequences and edits to make something a little shorter, a little snappier. But, by golly, that version would be better off erring in Snyder’s direction than Whedon’s. This bonkers straight-to-HBO-Max project is utter redemption.
Steppin’ up with Steppenwolf
In terms of director’s cuts as revisions, Justice League will go down as one of the biggest in filmmaking history—arguably just shy of how much Brazil‘s versions differed. While much of the original JL‘s two hours remain, their intent completely changes. And what Snyder elected not to bring forward to his own cut is telling.
For the uninitiated, the plot of Batman v Superman created Justice League‘s world-threatening stakes. Three “mother boxes” full of ancient, mysterious energy had been protected for thousands of years by a respective council of Atlanteans, Amazons, and humans. When BvS ended with Superman’s death (sorry, but JL is too obsessed with dead Supes to hide that spoiler), this broke something in the mother boxes’ protective seals. Thus, Justice League begins with DC Comics’ big-bad Steppenwolf recognizing their energy signature, warping to Earth, and endeavoring to reclaim all three boxes.
One of the first big changes in tone is Snyder’s insistence that we better understand and feel the weight of Steppenwolf’s hunt for the boxes. In the 2017 version, Steppenwolf quickly plucks each from its hiding place. He’s a breezy, unstoppable force—and a needlessly petulant one, at that.
Snyder had a fuller vision for developing his film’s big-bad, and the result is a much more compelling villain. For one, Steppenwolf looks and sounds completely different. An enticing coat of animated-spikes armor looks far cooler in action than in blurry, leaked screenshots, while his every line of dialogue has been redone with tasteful vocal modulation. Now he sounds otherworldly and creepy, but he’s not as hard to understand as Christopher Nolan’s Bane.
Additionally, Steppenwolf’s efforts to strip humanity of the boxes all have so much more weight—and they’re all met by a fiercer human resolve to stop his sickle-wielding madness. Each Steppenwolf fight in the Snyder cut unquestionably feels more epic, with the human sides of each battle showing off strength, resolve, and bravery in their sacrifices against his might. Plus, the film’s superheroes land many more heavy-duty blows, so now, the film really does feel like Steppenwolf faces an incredibly powerful team of superheroes alongside a determined alliance of Amazons, Atlanteans, and humans before ultimately succeeding in his evil plan.
Lastly, Steppenwolf’s own journey becomes more apparent through tasteful dialogue and more logical shouts at his foes. We as an audience are finally let in on his higher calling, which may have been spoiled for you if you’ve kept up with Snyder’s teases and comments about how the film was originally meant to play out. I’ll leave those unspoiled here, but suffice it to say, a significant portion of the film’s all-new scenes revolve around this emphasis, and they’ve all gotten top-notch CGI attention.