In a dual act of legal and artistic distinction from Gian Luigi Polidoro’s film Satyricon (1969), Federico Fellini named his own adaptation of Gaius Petronius’ novel Fellini Satyricon (1960). The accompanying tagline—”Rome. Before Christ. After Fellini.”—relished in the film’s indisputable authorship, which Fellini referred to as 20 percent Petronius, 80 percent Fellini. For his acolytes, the auteur served as the main attraction. Though Zack Snyder falls far below Fellini by measure of ingenuity, fans (especially those of his DC Extended Universe movies) praise him as a peerless virtuoso. Zack Snyder’s Justice League (2021), an “entirely new thing" from the expurgated Justice League (2017), validates their defense by granting him the same mythic status as his god-like heroes.
History affirms that the boast is well-earned. Through public interest alone, Zack Snyder’s Justice League has saved itself from joining a lineage of pictures destroyed by studios keen to please fickle audiences and spiteful critics. The film, a cogent collage of intellectual properties, belatedly reveals growth. It enriches our understanding of a filmmaker long flagged as divisive, thus affording him an odd luxury in a world where films like Erich von Stroheim’s Greed (1924) and Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) remain known only in bowdlerized form.
Withering critical responses to Snyder’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) led Warner Bros. to demand a funnier, shorter Justice League. Loosely inspired by Frank Miller’s series The Dark Knight Returns, the sequel to Man of Steel (2013) extended Snyder’s Homerian epic to a new height of iconoclasm: An ill-fated match between a megalomaniac Batman (Ben Affleck) and a fearsome Superman (Henry Cavill) concludes with Superman’s death, as he completes his apotheosis by sacrificing himself for mankind. The film was one of the studio’s highest-grossing films of all time, but critics like A.O Scott (who stated that Snyder was an “ambitious hack”) and Scott Mendelson (who described the film as an “an utter mess”) ridiculed the film, finding it humorless and pretentious. Concerned Warner Bros. executives imagined that circumscribing Snyder’s creative control for Justice League might satisfy those who wanted none of it.
During Justice League’s principal photography in London, Warner Bros. flew in journalists who’d given Batman v Superman negative reviews. The tour involved a sneak peek of witty banter and smiles exchanged between the film’s cast of heroes, now with the addition of Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), Cyborg (Ray Fisher), The Flash (Ezra Miller), and Aquaman (Jason Momoa). SlashFilm’s Peter Scrietta compared the footage to the “same kind of delightful interplay” as the Marvel films. The film’s changes indicated that Snyder (who assured the critics that Justice League would have plenty of fun) had gotten his comeuppance and wished to compensate for his artistic wrongdoings. Devin Faraci of BirthMoviesDeath left the set enthusiastic:
“Snyder and company truly understand how they fucked up BvS. They’re not just paying lip service. They really get it. [...] This hater thinks that this time they could be getting it right.”
Behind the staged appearance of a lighthearted film, arguments between Zack Snyder and Warner Bros. continued. The studio reportedly stated that a rough cut of the film was “unwatchable.” But after his daughter Autumn’s suicide, Snyder “lost the will to fight” any further, and he and his wife (producer Deborah Snyder) exited the project in May of 2017. Replacement Joss Whedon helmed the reshoots and rewrites necessary to inject Justice League with the cheekiness of Marvel buddy comedies like Whedon’s The Avengers (2012) and Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015). Nicknamed “Josstice League,” the two-hour theatrical cut of Justice League (2017) features only saturated scraps of what Snyder had planned. Its most flagrant tweaks include the removal of nonwhite actors (Joe Morton, Karen Bryson, Harry Lennix, Ryan Zheng, and Kiersey Clemons) and the insertion of gags about Wonder Woman’s body, K-pop, a race between Flash and Superman, and brunch. (Actor Ray Fisher later accused Whedon of “gross, abusive, [and] unprofessional behavior” enabled by Warner Bros. executives.) Intercut among these are expository cues—like a large mural of Aquaman and Cyborg’s Internet search for “Bruce Wayne”—that spoil the mise-en-scène with the whiff of condescension.
Disappointed fans speculated that given the disagreements between Snyder and Warner Bros., and his tendency to release “ultimate” cuts of his films, surely a “Snyder Cut” of Justice League must exist. With only cryptic confirmations of this theory by cast and crew, for years fans asked the unrelenting studio for the Snyder Cut’s release. Much like the 2004 letter-writing campaign that called for the completion of Richard Donner’s Superman II, they turned to billboards, banners, trending hashtags, online harassment of journalists and studio executives, and a half a million dollars in donations to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention to advocate for the film that Justice League had once been, and that it might one day be.
In May of 2020, Warner Bros. announced that Snyder would complete Zack Snyder’s Justice League for HBOMax, WarnerMedia’s newly launched digital streaming service. (To secure his negotiation powers, Snyder did not accept pay for the film.) But as additional photography and visual effects pushed the $20 million budget to $70 million, Zack Snyder’s Justice League ballooned into a larger effort to distinguish the film from a cut that would only serve as an addendum. Divided into six chapters and an epilogue across four hours, Snyder’s film restores its 4:3 aspect ratio (for which it had originally been shot) and lost narrative arcs (like backstories for both Cyborg and The Flash), and adds 2,700 VFX shots. The plot has been restored to its original size with the reinstated villain Darkseid (Ray Porter), the overlord of the planet Apokolips. Along with his henchman Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds), Darkseid wants to conquer the world with three ancient alien devices referred to as the Mother Boxes. In an act of desperation, the League revives its divine weapon, Superman. This elongation levels the biblical proportions of Snyder’s agnostic Passion, its plain profundity now sustained by swathes of crucifixion darkness that have been fixed by countless retouches.
The case of Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut (2006) presents the limitations of any such endeavor to rescue a creative vision from its circumstantial compromises. Although the film satisfied Donner’s fans, the filmmaker insisted that the finished result (completed by editor Michael Thau) was “not my cut [and] not really my film anymore at all.” The footage, according to Donner, only served as a reminder of his younger self’s naivety, and how “there were so few things you could use.” Despite fans’ wishes to vindicate Snyder’s integrity, his reassemblage of material shot within studio-mandated parameters cannot be considered a full expression of his artistry. Though Zack Snyder's Justice League succeeds in taking out much of its former guff, its lopsided humor and the studio’s deletion of one scene suggests that not every restriction could be overturned. The film instead excels as a reach for total freedom, its possibility exhibited in part.
To quote Pauline Kael’s description of Francis Ford Coppola, Snyder is “not a small picture man.” Ironically, the film that takes place on his largest canvas possesses an elementary emotional core. Injustice clouds its first half, in which the sorrowful protagonists mourn the loss of past selves, distant parents, former lovers, and Superman. They’re introduced by their human names—Arthur Curry, Victor Stone, Barry Allen, Diana Prince, and so on—and in their earthly habitats. These segments meet at the midpoint in a flooded tunnel swarmed by Steppenwolf’s army of Parademons, where raised stakes force the Justice League to embrace their metahuman powers.
Sporadic digressions from the film’s plot display a reflective (and not referential) approach to cinema history. The film’s IMAX aspect ratio strives to project massive computer-generated cities and wastelands in the same lineage as D.W. Griffith’s towering Babylon in Intolerance (1916) and Kurosawa’s flooded village in Seven Samurai (1954). Both films inform Snyder’s juggle between loose narrative and tight action, elastic pacing and massive scale. Stitched together by fast cuts between wide and close-up across long distances, these instill a strong sense of magnitude internal to the compositional form. But the most sophisticated and entertaining allusion of Zack Snyder’s Justice League spreads itself across the moment of Superman’s eagerly awaited awakening. This messainic promise immediately becomes a lethal threat when the risen hero detects his allies as foes and attacks.
Whedon crowds the sequence with sarcastic quips, but Snyder buries it in a silence fractured by punches. The icy switch recalls the seizing entrance of Ivan IV in Sergei Eisenstein’s two-part film Ivan the Terrible (1944 and 1958). After having been presumed dead by his lecherous relatives, Ivan—a stand-in for the Soviet Union’s own “man of steel,” Joseph Stalin—emerges from his deathbed. He scans the room for traitors with a pupil that contains more authority than the entire court. Part I ends with the death of Ivan’s beloved Tsarina, the people’s pleas for his return, and his renewed vow to rule over them. Ivan’s trajectory offers a visual and thematic model for Snyder’s characterization of Superman from a bright leader to a destroyer of worlds, as proven by his now-scrapped plans for Justice League 2 and Justice League 3.
Referring to Michael Cimino on the unruly set of Heaven’s Gate (1980), Kael argued that United Artists could not control the filmmaker because “you can’t fire a director who has the movie in his head.” A variation of this occurred between Warner Bros. and Zack Snyder during the 2017 production of the film: Since the movie in Snyder’s head had already been shot, the studio sought to extract and eliminate his tone. This turned out to be an ill-fated venture given that tone forms the pictorial unity of Snyder’s films. Among a surplus of superhero movies thinned out by derivatives and an industry-wide pressure to stay silly, Snyder’s tone—what some derogatively deem “Snyderesque”—has alienated an audience that decries his films as unusually serious, gloomy, and dour.
Zack Snyder prefers a monochromatic palette, low in saturation but high in contrast and pronounced shadows. The resulting chiaroscuro allows his characters to coalesce into, and not settle atop or collide against, their green-screened surroundings. Warmth is added sparingly, whether diffused in flames or red hair, or scattered across blocks of neutral color in the cheeks and bloody gashes of a stampeding army. Subtle resemblances appear between Snyder’s images and those of the Tonalist artists of 1880 to 1920. More a “mix of tendencies'' than a movement, the misty landscapes of Tonalism were filled with muted hues and dim lights, enveloped in the melancholy that lingered after the American Civil War. Alexxa Gotthardt writes that Tonalism fell “out of vogue [as] the mood in America had become brighter and less hazy.” A similar shift colors the vexed responses to Snyder’s style.
Snyder’s blockbuster grammar (his compact dialogue, selective slow motion, and atmospheric montages) submits to the Tonalist tendency of his compositions. Any dissonance between the two (usually provoked by a gag of indeterminate function) induces a suspicion of both—a visceral rejection of tonal imbalance. The trilogy’s action scenes, however, demonstrate their perfect harmony. Figures and features become abstract accessories of the cataclysm. Occupied skyscrapers crumble like sand around an insect-like Superman in Man of Steel. Smudges of teal and black in Batman v Superman submerge the red panel of his cape in defeat. And from bird’s-eye view, blazing grenades become tiny shooting stars in Zack Snyder’s Justice League, a conversion of the fireworks scattered about James Abbott McNeill Whistler’s dreamy nocturne.
Snyder’s iterations of the DC heroes pass through three stages of responsibility, from the individual and the institutional to the interpersonal. In the bleak and wistful Man of Steel, Kal-El accepts his multiple identities as Clark Kent and Superman. His decision to help humanity becomes a fundamental part of his civic duty in Batman v Superman, which regards costumed vigilantes as equally culpable political entities among government officials and corporate heads. Though too premature to be labeled friendship, the teamwork in Zack Snyder’s Justice League adds some much needed accountability. In place of icebreakers and hangouts, the team builds camaraderie in combat, where the Flash’s time-bending speed and Cyborg’s technological omniscience secure the League’s victory through metaphysical interference.
Any emotional reward for an ethical or moral commitment is a scant commodity in Snyder’s films. In his children’s film, Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole (2010), an elder owl warns his little mentee that “[fighting in battle] is not glorious, it's not beautiful, it's not even heroic. It's merely doing what's right, and doing it again and again, even if someday you look like this.” Zack Snyder’s Justice League makes the more heartening assertion that an inclusive, collective pursuit of justice generates inner healing. Cyborg, an amputee whose body has been cybernetically reconstructed, best exemplifies the trilogy’s progression towards catharsis. Played with Shakespearean gravity by Ray Fisher, Cyborg’s past self haunts his new form. The three Mother Boxes detect this insecurity and offer to make him whole; but Cyborg responds with the truth: “I’m not broken. And I’m not alone.”
Dedicated to Autumn Snyder, the film shares this slogan with that of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (which also makes a brief cameo on a billboard). The Snyders’ advocacy for suicide prevention and mental health awareness fortifies a distilled theme of hope in a film that leaves no hero behind to brood as before. Though potent in feeling, this appeal to the heartstrings dilutes the ideological uncertainties—the presentation of multiple sides, none particularly good and all mostly evil—that gave Man of Steel and Batman v Superman the bitter and enduring aftertaste of tonal sophistication.
Fandom fervor erratically wavers between the extreme zeal of brand loyalty and of auteurism, rendering fans periodically welcome defenders of an artistic practice but fundamentally unreliable barometers of artistic quality. Even George Lucas received unsolicited editing advice from The Phantom Edit (2001), a fan-made version of Star Wars: Episode I—The Phantom Menace (1999) that declared itself to be a “stronger movie.” Lucas loathed making films for the fans who presumed themselves experts of the franchise. He proceeded to complete his maligned prequel trilogy, much to their dismay. Snyder, however, credits his fans—their donations to charity and their full support of his artistic authority—for the optimism that holds Zack Snyder’s Justice League together. Enabled by a rare convergence of twenty-first century factors, the release of the film has not culminated in a calculable overthrow of the critical establishment or the studio system that incubated its dismemberment. Still we cannot deny the right of Snyder and his followers to raise the middle finger. “Fuck the world,” as Cyborg tells Wonder Woman. But every so often, the right loser wins.