Not since Orson Welles’ The Other Side of the Wind, which was recently revived by Netflix, has a lost pop-culture project generated so much hype and curiosity.
In fact, you might have to go back further to some of the projects that remain lost forever, like Dr. Dre’s Detox or Jerry Lewis’s The Day the Clown Cried, to find the fevered speculation and rabid anticipation that has accompanied Zack Snyder’s Justice League, which finally debuts on HBO Max today.
Anyone fully versed in the world of comics and comic-book movies knows the entire sordid saga by now. For those who have maybe seen Wonder Woman and Aquaman but haven’t necessarily kept up with every single release in the DC Extended Universe (DCEU), however, all that internet chatter about “releasing the Snyder Cut” is probably rather confusing.
Now that the four-hour beast is right outside your door, here are the things casual fans should know before letting it in.
The story behind the production
DC arrived late to the extended universe party. Zack Snyder (300) was in post-production on the Superman reboot, Man of Steel, when Marvel’s The Avengers hit theaters in the summer of 2012, forever changing the trajectory of blockbuster movie franchises. Although criticized as overlong and dour, Man of Steel made a more-than-respectable $291 million at the domestic box office, and Snyder earned a larger role: getting Justice League, DC’s equivalent of The Avengers, into theaters ASAP.
By the summer of 2016, when Snyder finished shooting Justice League, which was originally slated as a two-part film, things had changed dramatically.
The early 2016 sequel to Man of Steel—Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice—hadn’t made that much more money than its predecessor, despite the presence of Batman, and was reviewed even worse by critics. Warner Bros. executives were worried about blowing their shot at an Avengers-level ongoing phenomenon, and threw several scribes at the project for on-set rewrites, most notably Joss Whedon, the writer-director of both The Avengers and Avengers: Age of Ultron who was once set to helm a Wonder Woman movie. Between studio pressure and the fallout from a personal tragedy, Snyder ultimately dropped out of the film in post-production. At that point, Whedon was hired to complete the project, and even given a budget for reshoots.
The resulting film—in which Batman (Ben Affleck) and Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) bring together The Flash (Ezra Miller), Cyborg (Ray Fisher), and Aquaman (Jason Momoa) to defeat a global threat—earned a marginally better critical reception than Batman v Superman, but made significantly less money. It also failed to capitalize on the huge success of Wonder Woman some four months earlier. Although the DC Extended Universe has had some genuine hits since, including Aquaman and Shazam!, those films’ lack of connection to the Justice League and its accompanying mythology has only been considered a boon to their success.
Over the ensuing years, the more vocal defenders of the DC films have contended that if Zack Snyder had been allowed to see his vision through to completion, Justice League would have been much better. Fans quickly found 130,000 signatures for a petition to get Warner Bros. to release a director’s cut. By January 2018, they had created the website, ForSnyderCut, full of ideas to keep the campaign going. Snyder himself soon started teasing elements that had been cut from his version of the film, and later encouraged its stars to echo the growing fan outcry for the studio to #ReleaseTheSnyderCut. The hype around this mythical film felt pitched somewhere between conspiracy theory and a trolling in-joke that Elon Musk might get behind. Somehow, it worked. So much happened between the initial release and Warner Bros.’s announcement in May 2020 that Zack Snyder’s Justice League would eventually come out on HBO Max, it could fill a book. (In fact, it did.)
What you need to know from the other DC films
While it’s a marathon task to get a casual Marvel fan up to speed before a screening of Avengers: Endgame, Justice League is a comparatively light lift. It probably has something to do with the fact that nearly 20 movies preceded the final (for now) Avengers movie, while only four came before Justice League. Here are the most pertinent plot points:
Man of Steel
All you need to know is that it ends with Superman (Henry Cavill) destroying large chunks of Metropolis and neighboring Gotham City, during the climactic fight with General Zod (Michael Shannon).
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice
The two heroes are at odds throughout the film, in part because the chaos at the end of Man of Steel struck a Wayne Enterprises building, killing several of Bruce Wayne’s employees. Midway through, Wonder Woman enters the fray and eventually hacks into Lex Luthor’s (Jesse Eisenberg) computer, learning about the existence of other heroes like herself. Eventually, Superman dies fighting alongside Batman against the CGI villain Doomsday, created by Luthor, who ends the movie in superjail. Batman blames himself for the death of Superman.
Although Justice League does a decent job of establishing that Wonder Woman hails from a tribe of Amazonian warrior women, knowing as much already before the newer movie starts might save viewers a few moments of wondering who this Hippolyta lady (Connie Nielsen) is when she and her many friends show up.
Nothing about this one is required knowledge before Zack Snyder’s Justice League, save for knowing who the titular squad members are, in preparation for a certain cameo.
What’s different about the new Justice League?
Holy hell, where to even begin? So much is different. The most obvious thing, of course, is the runtime, which doubles the original’s two hours into four. In addition to the gobs of new footage, which feature multiple appearances from the series’ big-bad Darkseid, several scenes from the first film are now gone, including an entire weird thread about a Russian family in danger. Snyder rearranged the order of many scenes for this new cut, added beats to every single action sequence, and slightly but noticeably amped up the violence and foul language. While far too many director’s cuts are ultimately vanity projects that teach viewers the value of brevity, the maximalism on display here actually lends itself to a vastly superior movie.
Some of the ways it’s expanded, however, only emphasize why the DCEU as an interconnected series has paled in comparison to Marvel so far: The creators clearly bit off more than they could chew, story-wise, for their first major ensemble film. While Kevin Feige, Jon Favreau, and the other Marvel architects carefully built themselves enough runway to ramp up gradually to Avengers, Snyder and company tried to cram a couple extra movies’ worth of exposition into Justice League. That problem was already evident in Whedon’s version, which felt weirdly both overstuffed (too many characters to establish!) and too short (those characters need more characterization!). The Snyder Cut fixes this problem by fleshing out the origins of Cyborg, showing off more of what The Flash is capable of, making the “mother boxes” (the groan-worthy name for DC’s counterpart to Thanos’ stones) more comprehensible, and providing more backstory for CGI supervillains Steppenwolf and Darkseid. What had been explained in a line or two that might have gone over viewers’ heads in the Whedon cut now gets Snyder’s trademark visual storytelling treatment.
These changes do count as improvements, but they give the film more of a “limited series” feel, which is probably part of why executives were concerned about Snyder’s direction in the first place. He was hired to make a movie, not a limited series.
Is it worth watching?
Absolutely, and for just about everyone. #ReleaseTheSnyderCut die-hards will feel vindicated as they notice all the quippy Whedon dialogue that has been excised here. (I was sad to see a funny Pet Sematary joke from the Whedon version removed, but a lot of the other cut jokes had felt shoehorned in.) Casual fans who are just curious will find an enormous, action-packed, overloaded lark for late quarantine.
Considering the general aversion to Batman v Superman, it has seemed strange that so many DC fans have claimed that only the guy who saw that film to the finish could turn Justice League into a misplaced masterpiece.
It’s even stranger that they were apparently right.