‘Zack Snyder’s Justice League’ is the last time anyone’s gonna get away with this
What Tim Burton began in 1989 ended this week with Zack Snyder’s Justice League. No, I’m not referring to the decision to replace Danny Elfman’s (itself a replacement) score for the 2017 theatrical cut of this film, which featured hints towards his original Batman theme from ’89. Rather the three decades and change of auteurs and quasi-auteurs being handed valuable comic-book IP by studio execs and allowed to apply their style to it is likely no more. Zack Snyder broke that system. And Zack Snyder’s Justice League is the investigation into how he did it.
The tale of how Snyder’s Justice League came to be released on HBO Max has been covered a lot on this site so I’ll skip the setup. The film dropped on Thursday, all four hours plus of it, and is a fascinating damaged object for those curious about studio interference in big-budget projects. To observe the Joss Whedon-directed/Snyder-credited theatrical cut alongside this ‘director approved’ final version is to witness a massacre in action; merely one example from a concerning 2015–2017 run that saw Fantastic Four, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Solo: A Star Wars Story and Suicide Squad all undergo varying degrees of studio mandated surgery to make them ‘releasable’, ie. shorter/snappier/funnier/more franchise-friendly. The majority of the films named there are considered some of the worst blockbusters of recent times. It simply does not work when a studio interferes that much with a director’s work, even in the case of a bad director like Suicide Squad’s David Ayer. Better to see one man’s stupid vision than the pandering outcome of committees and focus grouping.
Whedon’s Justice League came in at exactly two hours but had enough narrative for double that, and was near-impossible to make heads nor tails of. What Snyder’s new cut asks is… what if it was double that length, but was still impossible to make heads nor tails of? It’s incredibly stupid and confusing and — at times — tests the patience of even the most morbidly interested viewer, but at least it’s a real movie with a creative’s intent on display. It has a functional narrative, multiple character arcs, a decent score, two or three inventive action sequences and a baffling cliffhanger for a sequel that will presumably never be made, but at least feels consistent with the ambition with which this film was conceived. It’s not cheap and lazy like Whedon’s was. And it has about 20% less contempt for women (although Snyder is still on many levels a spectacular proponent of the male gaze). It lacks any attempts at the softly enjoyable style of action-comedy that Marvel churns out; no sense that a former Community or Office writer has polished the jokes; no real romantic threads or gestures towards contemporarily. It’s feet are firmly sunk into the action movie tonality of 2004–2007 (when George Miller was originally going to make a Justice League movie) and apart from the particularity visual effects there’s nothing to date it to either 2017 or 2021.
Snyder appears not to be massively concerned with the world as it is; the most fantastical elements of the film, although set on earth, bear more resemblance to Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy (some characters are incredibly similar in design) than — say — Avengers: Endgame. This results in some extremely long piss-filtered action scenes that look like a badly rendered video game from ten years ago, staggeringly unappealing and incoherent, but with a degree of slow motion and choreographed motion in general that one can — at least — tell that they were properly storyboarded and not merely pre-vized a week ahead like so much of Whedon’s film appeared to be. Whedon’s film, I might add, that seems to have been completed in five or six months in the middle of 2017, one of the most extraordinary turnarounds for a big-budget film (granted, you can tell they used the first take of everything and only got to 98% on the render bar).
Where Snyder’s Justice League, in its bleeding eyeballs final moments, feels like a poignant closing chapter of sorts, is in the sense that no filmmaker with as much (albeit frustrating) distinctiveness as Snyder will be allowed — nor will want — to deal with IP this precious ever again. We should be buckling in for a few decades of Jon Watts, Russo Brothers and best case Peyton Reed types to run the table on comic-book adventures, the occasional Jon Favreau type old-school studio stooge dropping in for a Star War or two. Sam Raimi’s upcoming Doctor Strange sequel feels like the last remnant of this age yet to be seen, but given its Marvel Studios backing one has to assume Raimi has signed a ‘Feige Gets Final Cut’ disclaimer of some kind. On one level it’s undeniable that generic Marvel movies are just more enjoyable than a film like Snyder’s Justice League; fast and funny, consistent, everyone’s charming and having a good time; but it’s McDonalds for moviegoers. And Snyder’s Justice League is the dodgy family-owned chipper down the road from your house where you’ll either get food poisoning, or have the best meal of your life. Unfortunately the former outcome happened one time too many and spoiled everything.