BY MATT TUCK
Zack Snyder’s Justice League has been a major hit for HBO Max and DC Comics, and it would not have been possible without the bane of DCEU fans everywhere, Joss Whedon. Maybe it’s time we stopped petitioning to have him tarred and feathered.
A QUICK REVIEW
It took me two days to get through Snyder’s massive four-hour cut of JL. Granted, I was expecting a slow start considering the run time, but the first half, while entertaining, is plodding. By the time we reach the third act, the pieces are in play, and the final battle with Steppenwolf is engaging with a moving and impactful ending. Also, the additions of Darkseid and DeSaad with a tease of Granny Goodness in the background triggered my inner fanboy something fierce.
What I enjoyed most, aside from Batman acting like Batman, is the character development given to Ezra Miller’s Flash and the beauty of his first meeting with Iris as well as Ray Fisher’s Cyborg exploring his estranged relationship with his father. It provided an added layer of humanity in a movie that would be otherwise hard to ground in reality. For that matter, even Steppenwolf is portrayed in a sympathetic light as he begs to undo his mistakes and return home.
Overall, it is not the perfect superhero movie, but it is easily the best DC movie since Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, and it gives the masterpiece Infinity War some real competition. It reminds us that we live in a great time to be a comic book fan.
Onto the bigger picture.
While great in many regards, the film’s real accomplishment is convincing mainstream audiences that the DCEU is not - nor has it ever been - another version of the MCU. Here’s hoping that DC and Time-Warner continue the Snyder-verse.
THE DC MOVIE LEGACY
Where the Snyder Cut shines brightest is in proving to the world that not all superhero movies have to be action-comedies. But this is DC, and they’ve been doing that for years.
I think all of us are DC Comics fans to some degree. DC is the original superhero publisher. They gave us Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman, which gave rise to the likes of the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, and the X-Men. The Justice League's core characters were the first superheroes to make it onto the big screen in the days of black-and-white movies. Even into the 1970s, ‘80s, and ‘90s, DC’s holy trinity continued breaking ground in films and on television, carving a path for the modern box office behemoth, the MCU.
For that matter, DC has continued forging new ground and changing the perception of superheroes in mainstream eyes. In 2008, Christopher Nolan completely changed the landscape with The Dark Knight, arguably the greatest superhero movie ever made. Well before Black Panther was nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars, many felt it was a travesty that Dark Knight did not receive a nomination of its own.
When Zack Snyder and Nolan, who worked as a producer, kicked off the DCEU with 2013’s Man of Steel, fans were not quite ready for a darker take on the superhero genre, though they should have been. After all, DC Comics has been producing mature, complex stories since the 1980s.
DCEU VERSUS MCU
The trouble started a year before. After Jon Favreaux introduced the world to the MCU via Iron Man, Joss Whedon pulled the pieces together and showed mainstream audiences what an ensemble capes-and-spandex movie could be with the first Avengers. And it was signature Whedon, filled to the brim with thrills, laughs, and it was an utter crowd-pleaser. Whedon accomplished everything Marvel Studios asked of him, and everything post-Whedon followed his lead. Here we are nine years later, and the MCU steadily churns out the action-comedy-dramas to box office supremacy.
On the other side of things, Zack Snyder was not looking to compete with Marvel so much as he aimed to build an alternative to the MCU. Where the Marvel installments were family-friendly action-comedies, Snyder was looking to give audiences a more emotionally grounded and mature comic-themed universe. When you think about it, that perfectly suits DC because the comics paved the same road decades prior.
The trouble from the start was that mainstream audiences had grown accustomed to the MCU formula. While I love Marvel, everything superhero related does not have to be bright and cheerful with a dash of silliness. Not everyone agreed with that, and Man of Steel received mixed reviews from audiences, especially those who clearly wanted the DCEU to be a copy of the MCU, complete with pop music and gags.
By the time Snyder began work on Justice League, there was a clear divide in the superhero fanbase. Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice received more mixed reviews from audiences and critics, and I speculate that the WB executives wanted to sprinkle that magic MCU dust on the upcoming JL. After Snyder’s personal tragedy left him to depart the directorial role prematurely, WB hired Whedon to fill the void, and possibly right the ship considering the lackluster support from the mainstream audiences.
A CASE FOR JOSS WHEDON
This is where we can begin to forgive Whedon for the atrocity that was the theatrical release of Justice League.
As the story goes, after Whedon made his adjustments to Snyder’s vision, different versions of the movie were test-screened. Reportedly, the audiences viewed a variety of JL cuts, with at least one being more in line with Snyder’s emotionally richer but darker film while other test groups viewed Whedon’s work. In the end, the test audiences preferred the brighter, upbeat and comical JL, and that is what the WB executives chose to put in theaters.
There is no argument from me that the 2017 Justice League was horrendous. The list of complaints is vast, from the cardboard villain, Steppenwolf, to Superman’s CGI lip, but the biggest sin was dethroning Batman. BVS gave us a battle-hardened, no-nonsense Dark Knight who was traded in for what was more-or-less a wise-cracking Tony Stark. It came across as if Whedon had a personal grudge against Batman and set out to dispel the mythos of the character. It worked, too.
As much as I have lambasted Whedon for what he did to Batman’s character and Superman’s lip, the JL failure is not necessarily his fault. The Time-Warner executives got exactly what they paid for. They wanted the Avengers, and that’s what they got - an Equate Avengers, mind you, but the Avengers nonetheless. The problem was that Snyder hadn’t been building the Avengers for two movies. He was building something that was intentionally not the Avengers, and it appears that WB hired Whedon to transform Justice League into the Avengers.
Now that we have had a chance to witness the mythical Snyder Cut, I think it is even more clear that the 2017 JL cut was exactly what WB wanted. It was a bit more whimsical, brightly-colored and family friendly. Snyder’s JL was not that in any way. There are occasional jokes for levity, but this was not an action-comedy in any fashion.
That is why I believe Whedon was facing an uphill battle. Not only did he have to complete another filmmaker’s work, but it was nowhere near his wheelhouse. From his days of Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Firefly and Avengers, we see that Whedon is best at action-comedies that give a wink and a nod to the audience. Snyder’s JL, as we have finally seen, was far outside Whedon’s comfort zone. What we got in 2017 was more or less Frankentein’s monster of Snyder and Whedon’s writing and directing coupled with executive input. We are lucky it turned out as good as it did.
THE SNYDER CUT COULDN’T HAVE HAPPENED ANY OTHER WAY
WB had to have known all of this before they hired Whedon. In the end, I don’t blame him for the 2017 JL failure that nearly ended the DCEU.
After Justice League, the DCEU changed course and started leaning toward the action-comedy realm, and the result were the hits Aquaman, Wonder Woman, and Shazam! Those three movies effectively kept the DCEU alive, while the advent of a streaming platform like HBO Max provided the avenue for an R-rated, four-hour epic that never would have made it into theaters. Even if it had, general audiences were not ready for that type of movie from Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman. It may not have been a box office bomb, per se, but it would not have gotten the overwhelmingly positive reception it earned in 2021.
Love him or hate him, Whedon indirectly helped make the Snyder Cut a success. Does that mean I want to see Whedon direct a Justice League sequel? Please, no. But it is time to forgive Joss and take it all as a reminder that, alas, filmmakers should never listen to corporate executives and focus groups.
Matt Tuck is the author of the novel, Lost Bones of the Dead. He is also a teacher, freelance writer, comic collector, and an international man of mystery. You can follow him on his Facebook page, The Comic Blog.