I read an interview with director Zack Snyder in which he said that his director’s cut of Justice League was something he never thought would get released. He figured he’d have a rough version of it on his computer as a memento: “We would just show it to random people who stopped by, like our friends or whatever.”
It gave me a thrill of tender pity for any visitor to the Snyder home in that scenario. You can picture it, can’t you? Some unsuspecting pal, or a relative, perhaps — or, even more poignantly, a delivery person or someone cleaning the pool — minding their own business, just trying to get through the day, and suddenly they’re corralled into watching the four-hour Zack Snyder’s Justice League on his laptop, probably with him leaning over their shoulder, pointing out the “cool” parts.
He’s a true enthusiast, you’ve got to give him that. Snyder wants to make his superhero films achingly profound, to the point that everyone must bear witness to their greatness as Our Modern Mythology. That desire does, indeed, come across, because Snyder tries so hard to be impressive, especially in the film’s ten-minute opening credit sequence, that he achieves true incomprehensibility. If you haven’t been living and breathing DC film plots, you’re not going to know what’s going on in that opulently overdone chopped salad montage, so here’s a brief plot summary to save you the trouble of piecing it together over the course of several hours:
Superman (Henry Cavill) dies in battle, and his death cry echoes across the entire world, waking up the three “motherboxes” (of all the goddamn embarrassing Freudian names) in their various locations around the world. There’s one vibrating in Cyborg’s closet, one locked up in Atlantis, and one under heavy guard on Amazon Island, or whatever it’s called. If the three boxes are captured and brought together by Steppenwolf — a villain with a hammerhead-shark noggin and disco-metallic skin, voiced by the great Ciarán Hinds — they’ll create a kind of epic thermal reaction that will go kablooey and allow bigger and meaner villain Darkseid (pronounced, mortifyingly, “Dark Side”) to take over Earth and turn it into a deathscape.
So, world-weary Batman (Ben Affleck) has to get the gang together once again to fight the destroyer-god threatening Earth, lining up Aquaman (Jason Momoa), Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), Cyborg (Ray Fisher), and the Flash (Ezra Miller). Only, how can they ever win without the one heavy-hitting god on their team, Superman?
I can’t relate to the impulse to take material like this super seriously. It absolutely begs for the low-down, riotous, pulpy joys of popular entertainment, and any thematic depth emerging from such plots is fun for an audience to discover on its own, without some self-important git trying to turn it into cinematic art to rival The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser.
But if you’ve got to try to “elevate” a genre, there are sane ways to do it. It should be noted that Snyder is hardly the first director to take on such an ambitious task, though he may go down in cinema history as the one who had the wackiest level of hubris. Back in the 1930s, John Ford wanted to make a Western of such manifest quality and significance, it would force those who scorned the ultra-popular genre — critics and legions of snob viewers — to take it seriously, and that’s why he did Stagecoach (1939). But Stagecoach is a fleet ninety-six minutes, popping with groundbreaking stunt work, a star-making role for John Wayne, exciting experiments in cinematography and editing, and parodic humor that highlights the inventive twists he’s adding to well-established Western archetypes.
Profundity doesn’t preclude such delights, yet Snyder seems to equate it with slowness, narrative opacity, and unrelieved gloom. Plus, constant bids for more solemn fanfare over what he’s doing. How could a director of any intelligence allow such an insufferably pompous opening title card as the one that begins the Snyder Cut, reading, “This film is presented in 4:3 aspect ratio to preserve the integrity of Zack Snyder’s creative vision”?
The use of the old-fashioned 4:3 ratio that dominated classic Hollywood’s film output before the invention of widescreen systems in the 1950s is a perfect example of Snyder’s creative vision, which tends toward the showy and pointless. I assume there’s some idea that 4:3 would make the film look like a “classic” film, which it doesn’t, and I read that Snyder’s commitment to 4:3 is with an eye toward eventual IMAX screenings and the awesome tallness of superheroes packed tightly together in the frame.
The actual impact of 4:3 on a superhero film of this budget level and pumped-up grandiosity is to make you vaguely conscious that there’s something missing from your field of vision. Early on, you can sense the two absent slices of screen on each side of the nearly-square image, missing but still pulsing slightly like phantom limbs.
Snyder’s project has been pushed along by legions of fans who can match and surpass his own obsession with deepening the superhero genre, to the point that the rest of us would love to see it go deeper yet, fathoms deep, landing somewhere at the bottom of the ocean.
And, on top of all this whipped-up drama, Snyder has been giving interviews as if he were the greatest auteur since Akira Kurosawa died, as if the Snyder Cut has the incalculable cinematic and cultural importance of Seven Samurai (1954). Snyder seems convinced that he’s doing truly challenging cinema, even at the cost of greater success with the general public:
Am I a provocateur? A little bit. Is my job to make some pop-culture piece of candy that you eat and forget about the next day? Nah. I would rather [expletive] you up in a movie than make it nice and pretty for everybody.
Ironically, I forgot the Snyder Cut immediately after viewing it, and I had to rewatch sections again the next day in order to review it. The funereal style of the film, presumably meant to reflect the characters’ mourning of the death of Superman and the threatened end of our world, is so overly familiar by now, it can’t hope to have any major effect. The glum “desaturated look” became popular back in the 1990s and has been used relentlessly since then in neo-noir thrillers, action films, and superhero movies. Snyder brings nothing new to it, and his reliance on the dominant CGI style seen in so many big-budget films and computer games is now so boring I want to rip my own eyes out every time I encounter it. His swirling pans over cities or rugged landscapes, or circling among superheroes, are so utterly divorced from meaningful affect that they seem like a personal tic, something he can’t help doing regardless of what’s happening in the narrative.
Snyder’s signature moves are almost invariably showy but crude attempts “to [expletive] you up,” to achieve devastating emotional effects, without his being able to pinpoint how exactly to get them. So many memorable film sequences turn on one insightful, visceral factor, conceived at the script level and then shot and cut in a way that will make everyone in the audience feel something intensely. “Shoot the glass!” in Die Hard, for example, and the raining down of a million machine-gunned shards that can hurt only barefoot John McClane has us curling our own toes in sympathetic agony, watching as he drags himself out, lacerated feet trailing gory smears of blood on the floor.
There’s not a moment of violent action in the long slog of the Snyder Cut that makes us feel a punch, a spear tip piercing flesh, or the muscle burn of a desperate all-out sprint to save somebody. He’s like the Novocaine King of Cinema, numbing us to all feeling.
A good example of Snyder’s overconfident haplessness in his “big emotion” attempts is the sequence in which the Flash’s character is introduced.
As a side note, I’ll say that I liked the Flash (Ezra Miller), not because he’s particularly interesting but because he’s fast. That’s his superhero thing, obviously — the ability to light-speed sprints — but even in his regular-human disguise as a babbling nerd, he talks fast. And given that this is a film, with its pace set at “lumbering,” aggravated by the sedating overuse of slow motion that’s a Snyder trademark, anything that happens fast comes as a sweet relief.
I gather from reading other reviews that the critical standard being applied to the Snyder Cut is this: Is it superior to the widely reviled Joss Whedon version that came out in 2017, that heinous violation of Zack Snyder’s creative vision? NPR reviewer Eric Deggans breathlessly reports that the answer is Yes:
With an avalanche of terrible reviews [for Whedon’s version] and a reported $300 million budget, the film lost many millions for Warner Bros. But passionate fans and some stars from the film kept hope alive . . . I may sound like the biggest of comic book-superhero story geeks, but it must be said: Zack Snyder’s Justice League is a much better movie.
By that standard, the Snyder Cut succeeds as a film because it’s better than what is universally regarded as a piece of shit. And I think that’s useful to know, in that it’s telling us that the standards being applied to these films have reached total insanity.
Crushingly serious superhero films are being made for obsessive fans who approach them with almost medieval religious reverence, wanting to argue about how many superheroes can dance on the head of a pin. But somehow, the suffering agnostic citizenry has gotten dragged into the mix, and many cowed critics and journalists are approaching the films as if they’re covering the works of the holy prophets.
I hereby deny the faith and officially declare myself an apostate. [Expletive] the motherboxing Snyder Cut.