Do you have a filmmaker whose work you admire on a technical level, but emotionally has always kept you at arm’s length? Because that’s a pretty succinct summary of my relationship with the films of Zack Snyder. The 55 year-old director has 8 features under his belt, and for me at least it’s mostly been a case of diminishing returns. My favorite of his films is his very first, 2004’s Dawn of the Dead remake, which helped re-establish the zombie genre back before seasons of The Walking Dead were in their double-digits and we’d all gotten sick of it (if you can imagine such a time), and along with 28 Days Later helped to popularize the concept of fast zombies, which felt fresh at the time and has since been used in everything from World War Z to Train to Busan. Armed with a tight script by James Gunn and keeping the stylistic trappings he would become known for to an absolute minimum (the slow-mo is done briefly and tastefully, and you can count the massive explosions on one hand this time around), Snyder crafted a memorable apocalyptic chiller that saw the fall of society as something both terrifying and revealing.
However, he wouldn’t truly come into his own until his next film. 300 is what properly introduced the “Zack Snyder style” that we think of today, and in some ways he has yet to tell a story that this style is more perfectly suited to. An adaptation of Frank Miller’s graphic novel, which itself was a fantastical re-imagining of the historical battle of Thermopylae, this film has it all. Desaturated color palette? Check. Every other scene either prominently features or is entirely depicted in slow-motion? Check. Characters are either sexualized to within an inch of their lives (male and female alike), or are among the most disgusting individuals you’ve ever seen? Double check. This was the first feature that allowed Snyder to fully put his own stamp on the visuals, and by utilizing a primarily green screen approach that enabled him to fully control the imagery surrounding his characters (a technique that had been used to equally stunning effect on a previous Frank Miller adaptation, Sin City), the director was able to craft shots that felt like comic-book panels in motion, with all the operatic grandeur that entailed. 300 as a whole is perhaps a bit silly and over-the-top, but it knows exactly what it wants to be, and succeeds as such with flying colors.
From here, things get a bit trickier. With the massive success of 300, Snyder was essentially given carte blanche to tackle whatever story he wanted. Never one to shy away from a challenge, the director landed on another graphic novel adaptation, one that had previously been thought of as unfilmable following failed attempts by everyone from Terry Gilliam and Paul Greengrass: Watchmen. As an adaptation of Dave Gibbons’ artwork, Snyder’s film is a tremendous success. Some of the most iconic panels in all of comic history are translated to film near flawlessly, and it’s clear that from a visual standpoint at least, he essentially treated the source material as an elaborate storyboard. When it comes to adapting the writing of the deeply cynical Alan Moore, however, Snyder’s film stumbles. This was the first time we realized that the “Snyder style” wasn’t something the director could just turn on and off. It was all or nothing. And while he excels in making superpowered individuals look badass, heroic, and sexy at all times, this approach finds itself in direct contrast with the characters as written, who are mostly defeated, washed up, and psychologically scarred. A story about how awful the world might be if such heroes existed suddenly became a story about how awesome it might look if they existed, resulting in a film that’s a feast for the eyes and ears, but thematically never quite comes together. This would also be our first glimpse of Snyder’s utter reverence for superheroes as god-like figures towering above us, with the fate of the world squarely on their shoulders.
Watchmen turned out to be only a modest success, not exactly worth its mammoth budget to Warner Bros., but well-liked enough to keep the director on tap. The next few years saw Snyder experimenting with mixed success. We had Legends of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole, an animated epic presumably for kids despite a healthy amount of violence and carnage. We also had Sucker Punch, which saw Snyder attempting to use his style for an original concept (the first and last time so far that he would do so). An earnest attempt to examine the minds of exploited women resulted in a tone-deaf and exploitative action film where young women fight robots in a fantastical dream setting, with several layers of reality obscuring the fact that they were likely getting abused and worse by the staff of the psychiatric hospital they are trapped in. It’s Snyder’s weakest film to date by far, but as with all of his projects, it’s not for any lack of effort or ambition. From here, Snyder’s next project would be the one that in many ways defined his directorial output for years to come.
Man of Steel is a film that was clearly created with two parameters in mind. Firstly, it was to be a dark and gritty retelling of the Superman mythology, very much in line with what the Dark Knight trilogy had done for Batman. It was greenlit in the wake of those films’ success, and featured Christopher Nolan as a producer (he even worked on the story with David Goyer, his co-writer for Batman Begins). The second parameter was that it needed to serve as a pilot of sorts in DC’s attempt to create a cinematic universe to rival Marvel, who had just struck gold following the release of The Avengers, a superhero team-up that was bolstered by familiarity with the characters, not just from the usual comic-book fans, but from filmgoers who had been introduced to this cast through a series of standalone films released prior.
The end result from these directives is not Snyder’s best film, but it is one of his most experimental. There is a conscious effort to minimize some of the more overt elements of his by-now firmly established style, starting with an almost complete absence of slow-motion. His typically hyper-controlled method of shooting is replaced with an abundance of handheld camerawork that echoes Terrence Malick as much as anything, and there is a legitimate attempt at something more cerebral rather than overtly literal. These changes are admirable, though they are unfortunately in contrast with the elements of Snyder’s style that did make it in: namely an oppressively gloomy and washed-out color grade, and the bombastically hyper-violent nature of the action scenes. The climax in particular stretches on for way too long, and feels far more concerned with depicting the damage such a character could create than with understanding him as a person. The result is a tonal mishmash that plays like the best and worst instincts of Snyder and Nolan as filmmakers colliding together. Even if it doesn’t always work, it’s undoubtedly a unique take on such a ubiquitous character.
Though Man of Steel may have been a fascinating experiment, it was perhaps not the sturdiest foundation for a cinematic universe. Though financially successful, there was a certain degree of backlash from fans who didn’t care for the rampant destruction inflicted by a character intended to symbolize hope. Changes had to be made, but at this point the studio was still comfortable with allowing Snyder to establish the vision that this franchise would take its cues from. Eschewing a direct sequel in favor of getting a head-start on building out their universe of heroes, WB and Snyder decided to go straight into their first team-up, the clunkily titled Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. The film was tasked with addressing the controversy surround Man of Steel’s conclusion, introducing a new version of Batman less than five years after Christopher Nolan’s much-loved iteration had wrapped up, and sowing the seeds for what feels like over a dozen different characters to flesh out this newly expanded universe.
On top of all that, Snyder and co. also wished to tell a complicated story about the relationship between gods and men, using a rivalry between the title characters as the centerpiece of a geopolitical thriller that delves into everything from corporate espionage to the morality of vigilantism to a jar of piss that’s frankly given way too much screen time. Corporate mandates and artistic expression collide in hopelessly chaotic fashion, resulting in a film that’s constantly at war with itself, trying to do too much and stretching itself too thin. Some inspired performances and beautiful images are buried underneath a funereal atmosphere of misery and bombast. Potentially complex character work is obscured by numerous scenes that clearly only exist to set up any number of sequels, the worst of which involves Wonder Woman (herself barely introduced at this point) sitting down to watch a series of Quicktime files that essentially play as found-footage trailers for the three other prominent members of the future Justice League. In the meantime, the adventurous nature of Man of Steel’s filmmaking has been supplanted by Snyder’s more comfortable stylistic traits, and the inherent silliness of his source material combines with the Wagnerian opulence of his directorial style to create something that cannot be taken nearly as seriously as it desperately wants to be.
Your mileage may vary on the success of Snyder’s first two DC films. Clearly enough of a fanbase exists to have fueled the #ReleaseTheSnyderCut movement after the desecration of his next and presumably final entry in the series. The story has been oft-repeated at this point, so I’ll recap it quickly: following the divisive reaction to Batman v Superman’s tone, and a box office that was good, but not as great as the studio had been hoping for, the decision was made that for Justice League, a heavier hand would be required. This was to be DC’s answer to The Avengers, after all, and the studio powers that be did not want a controversial director’s vision to be what sank their shot at a proper franchise. So the mandate came down that Snyder’s third entry had to be lighter, funnier, less doom and gloom. Though he was still given a substantial budget to create his own take on the seminal super team, the second-guessing and oversight became more pronounced, the lack of faith in their star director became more apparent. After a reportedly disastrous screening of an early rough cut (without score or finished visual effects, mind you, two of Snyder’s most powerful tools in bringing his films to life), WB decided to bring on Avengers director Joss Whedon to rewrite large chunks of the script, and eventually direct the reshoots that would bring the film more in line with what the studio wanted.
This all came as Snyder was experiencing personal tragedy following the death of his daughter, and he ultimately decided it would be best for him to walk away from the project, giving Whedon full control to bring the initial 4+ hour rough cut down to a more manageable 2 hours, and ultimately reshooting as much as 75% of Snyder’s footage. The resulting film, a product of two different directors with wildly incompatible approaches, released in 2017 to scathing reviews and dismal box office. Whether you loved or hated the first two films in this loose trilogy, is was clear that the studio’s meddling had resulted in a film that pleased no one. I personally like it better than Batman v Superman, not because it’s a better movie, but because its ineptitude is so staggering that I find it entertaining on the same level as something like The Room or Birdemic, where at least I can laugh at how terrible it is. Plans to grow out the expanded universe where hastily reshuffled, and for the next few years Warner Bros. and DC’s output primarily consisted of standalone movies that kept the world-building to a minimum and (crucially) placed more faith in directorial vision, which allowed filmmakers like James Wan and Todd Phillips to bring their own distinctive takes on their respective characters.
Yet even as WB and Snyder had mostly severed their ties, the latter’s fanbase became increasingly vocal about wanting to see his completed vision for Justice League. It was clear that through reshoots and other tampering, the film released in theaters is not what the director had laid the groundwork for in his previous entries, and the demand grew in size and popularity to release the original cut that Snyder had been developing before his version of the film fell apart. Despite some bullying and otherwise toxic behavior from certain segments of this movement, the majority were comprised of well-meaning fans who were showing their love and passion, even going as far as to raise money for suicide prevention in honor of Snyder’s daughter, Autumn. Even the film’s stars lent their support, and there was hope that Warner Bros. could be persuaded to see the error of their ways and make amends.
Now is when I must confess my skepticism of this whole endeavor. As someone who liked but didn’t love Man of Steel and actively hated Batman v Superman, and as someone whose confidence in Snyder’s vision had waned well before that of the studio, I found myself with very little reason to expect that this movement would result in anything, or indeed that the results would even be worth it. I have no great love for the theatrical cut of Justice League, but based on the miserable experience of the film that preceded it, I was unconvinced that the director’s cut would be any better. Not to mention that there’s very little precedent or incentive for a studio to spend the money that would be necessary to actual finish and release a new version of a film that had already bombed at the box office and to which the general public was largely indifferent.
And yet, materialize the Snyder cut did, thanks to two very important elements: the launch of WarnerMedia’s new streaming service, HBO Max, which found itself in desperate need of exclusive content to help it rival competitors like Netflix and Disney+, and the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Suddenly, sinking a few million dollars into finishing a film remotely that had enough fan demand to ensure excellent streaming numbers didn’t seem like such a crazy proposition after all. And thus, Zack Snyder’s Justice League was born. Several months of tinkering, a few quick reshoots, and a brand-new score later, the film launched on HBO Max. And yet, even after its announcement and subsequent trailers showcasing never before seen footage, I remained unconvinced. Even if the fan demand and some unique circumstances had somehow willed this thing into existence, Snyder’s track record did nothing to assure me that this wouldn’t be another repeat of the BvS Ultimate Edition: a film that’s longer but by no means better.
So imagine my surprise, dear reader, when I sat down to watch this 4-hour behemoth, a cinematic albatross that could only exist as a streaming curiosity, pretentiously segmented into six chapters and an epilogue, displayed in an IMAX-friendly 4:3 aspect ratio that required a disclaimer at the outset so viewers wouldn’t think something was wrong with their TV. Imagine my utter shock as I came out of this viewing experience that all logic and reason was informing me I should hate, only to realize that I actually kind of loved it. Not only was it infinitely superior to the theatrical cut in every conceivable way, but it may very well be the truest and most successful implementation of Zack Snyder’s directorial style that has yet been depicted on screen. Rather than a generic team-up of heroic characters with no meaningful relationship beyond a need to save the world from an uninspired CGI monster, this new version is a fantasy epic that takes the time to really dig into and flesh out its various characters. They’re still gods among men, but they now have doubts, insecurities, rich character arcs begging to be fulfilled, and most refreshingly, a team dynamic that makes their individual journeys feel purposefully intertwined. The forming of the titular league is no longer a dramatic necessity to combat an obligatory threat, but now a profound union of talent required to protect the world from an existential menace that challenges them as both heroes and people.
Every scene that was in the previous cut has been somehow tweaked here, using alternate takes, adjusted pacing, or additional content that doesn’t always drive the plot forward, but succeeds in creating a greater sense of place and character. The various races and factions of this world tap into a deep root of mythology, making the central struggle feel more timeless as a result. The new score by Tom Holkenborg (aka Junkie XL) lends the proceedings an exhilarating grandeur that was otherwise lacking, and the inclusion of Superman and Wonder Woman’s themes from their respective films goes a long way towards unifying the characters across their multiple film appearances. The garish and oversaturated color grade applied to Whedon’s version (along with numerous attempts at comedy that almost entirely fell flat) have all been excised in favor of a darker palette that still manages to convey an undercurrent of hope and wonder beneath the self-serious pomposity. The hallmarks of Snyder’s grandiose direction are evident in every scene, yet here they add up to more than the sum of their parts, contributing to a tale that now has as much in common with Lord of the Rings as it does with The Avengers. Even the much-maligned villain Steppenwolf has had a VFX rehaul and is given more motivation that just destroying the world for the sake of conquest.
It’s not a perfect film by any means, and certainly not the masterpiece some segments of the fan community have already proclaimed. There are a few scenes where the mythic self-importance backfires and results in some unintentional comedy. Though Superman is relieved of the grotesque CGI facelift he had in the previous cut to obscure his reshoot mustache, I couldn’t help but miss the goofy, optimistic version of the character seen in the finale of that film, which felt more in line with how the character has traditionally been portrayed, even if the transition never felt earned. And as nice as it can be to luxuriate in Snyder’s deliberate pacing, the new version never quite justifies its extensive runtime, especially when it ends with no less than three back-to-back scenes setting up hypothetical sequels that both Warner Bros and Snyder himself have confirmed are almost guaranteed to not happen (although for the longest time the Snyder Cut itself seemed profoundly unlikely itself, so never say never). It also goes without saying that this film is not for everyone, and if you don’t have some level of investment with these characters or this universe you may very well find yourself bored to tears.
Yet as an outspoken Snyder skeptic who has spent years believing that his version of Justice League was not only irretrievable, but not worth the effort it would take to restore it, I have to say that I couldn’t be happier to be proven so very, very wrong. This is a bold, weird, outsized film that swings for the fences and connects far more often than it doesn’t. There’s more emotional engagement here to be had than in the rest of Snyder’s filmography combined. Every moment feels purposeful and superfluous at the same time, creating a potent cocktail that finally brings his contrasting stylistic and thematic predilections together in a way that’s every bit as strange as it is satisfying. Zack Snyder’s Justice League doesn’t retroactively improve the flaws of Man of Steel or Batman v Superman, nor does it make me particularly anxious to see the so-called “Snyderverse” restored. But as a piece of pop-art that’s so overblown yet so singular that it demands to be seen, discussed, argued about, and reckoned with, I do truly believe that in spite of all my reservations, the world of film is that much better for its existence.