“I want it to be good, because that’s how the story is supposed to end.”
To most of the general population, the word “Yahtzee” conjures up a board game that you turn to when your party guests are too young for Cards Against Humanity, not nerdy enough for Settlers of Catan, and too prone to violent meltdowns for Monopoly. For capital-G gamers, however, it’s the moniker of one of the most hilariously vicious reviewers in the industry, Benjamin “Yahtzee” Croshaw of Zero Punctuation fame. If there’s a popular video game that you enjoy, odds are that Yahtzee has reviewed it and torn it to shreds, and managed to do so in a way that makes even the most ardent fanboys laugh. Whenever he doesn’t eviscerate a game, for whatever reason, that’s when you should sit up and take notice.
And so it was for his review of Duke Nukem Forever.
For the purposes of this piece, all you need to know about Duke Nukem Forever is that it was a sequel to a popular game franchise that was announced in 1997… and didn’t come out until 2011. There’s development hell, and there’s development Dante’s Inferno — the unfortunately named Forever was very much a product of the latter. For fans and nonfans alike, Duke Nukem Forever was to video gaming what Dr. Dre’s Detox is to hip-hop or George R.R. Martin’s The Winds of Winter is to fantasy literature: a hotly anticipated project that eventually devolved into a punchline for creators dragging their heels. When the game finally released to middling reviews across all platforms, things were tee’d up perfectly for Yahtzee’s review to be the final nail in its coffin.
Yet throughout his review, Yahtzee seems subdued, almost apologetic even. By his own admission, he’d “pushed games off subway train platforms when they had less problems than this,” but his characteristic causticity is dialed all the way down here. For what may well be the only time in over a decade of gleefully acerbic video game reviews, Yahtzee truly seems to hate having to criticize a bad game. And then halfway through, he drops the quote up above, which remains one of the more quietly depressing sentences I’ve ever read for how widely applicable it is.
On the other side of Zack Snyder’s Justice League, that sentence essentially constitutes my reaction unto itself.
After all the tampering, toxicity, and tragedy surrounding the original theatrical release of Justice League, to say nothing of the fact that it’s a direct sequel to a movie I loathed, I wanted this movie to be good. I wanted the crap that the actors and crew put up with behind the scenes to have meant something. I wanted a creator whose work I don’t always enjoy to still have the opportunity to realize his vision without undue interference. I wanted the fans who’ve waited decades to see the superhero team on the big screen to have their patience rewarded. Given that the film industry has since moved on to new versions of Batman, Superman, the Joker, and the Suicide Squad (maybe?), I wanted one last hurrah for this arc of the DC Extended Universe, as much for what it was while it lasted as for what it could’ve been.
I very much wanted this movie to be good, because after all of that, “that’s how the story is supposed to end.” And in a metafictional sense, there’s no other way for a superhero story to end.
So in the end, Zack Snyder’s Justice League is easily better than the theatrical release, and for many people, that may well be good enough. And after powering through the entire four-hour cut in one sitting with my comrade Mr. Benjamin Austin, I certainly enjoyed myself for enough of it not to regret taking the plunge.
But while there’s definitely good stuff in this movie, I still don’t know if the movie itself is good. And if it is, I don’t know if it’s because I’m the kind of person who would always see a Justice League movie regardless of its quality, because I’m the kind of geeky trash whose mind automatically smooths over the bumps in comic book storytelling, or because, much like Yahtzee and Duke Nukem Forever, because I simply want it to be.
Let’s roll the tape.
Zack Snyder’s Justice League opens immediately after Batman v. Superman ended with the latter’s death, in no small part thanks to the former trying very hard to kill him for the better part of two hours. As the world reels from the Man of Steel’s passing, a guilt-ridden Dark Knight vows to honor his memory by gathering a team of heroes to protect the planet in his absence. Good thing, too, as Superman’s death somehow sets off a beacon across the universe that Earth has lost its greatest defender and is now ripe for invasion, this time at the hands of an alien general named Steppenwolf. What follows is a race against time as Batman and Wonder Woman seek to build the nascent Justice League before Steppenwolf can locate and activate the three Mother Boxes, mystical artifacts with the power to turn the planet into a literal hellscape. The most groundbreaking plot, this is not; there are multiple McGuffins, an omnicidal villain, tortured heroes, and apocalyptic stakes. Or should I say, given who Steppenwolf is really working for, Apokoliptan stakes.
Anyway, the basic outline of the story is fairly identical to the original release; in terms of broad strokes, there are no real surprises to be found here. The fun of watching the #SnyderCut is to see what, if anything, elevates it from the version that landed in theaters three-and-a-half years ago. The answer, to my surprise, is quite a bit, and nowhere is that more present than in the depiction of the League itself.
Warner Brothers was widely mocked for trying to ape the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe by rushing out a superteam movie before half of its members had been previously established with their own films. But the expanded runtime and reversion to the more serious tone of Snyder’s first two DC outings do wonders for the three newcomers’ personalities, and serve as decent preludes unto themselves for their solo movies. Arthur Curry, or Aquaman, is less of the aggressive fratbro that the original release made him out to be, but more of a scarred loner trapped between two worlds whose cynicism is understandable, if not necessarily justified. Barry Allen, who at this point has still not officially taken on the mantle of The Flash, is still a dorky kid, but one whose fear of both his immensely burgeoning power and the massive stakes of the war he’s been recruited into are far more evident. And far and away, the character who benefits the most from the #SnyderCut is Victor Stone, aka Cyborg. I’m still not sure I like the character being rebranded from a cornerstone of the Teen Titans to a founding member of the Justice League, but the #SnyderCut is effectively a Cyborg origin story in its own right, all the way down to actually showing the accident that led to him gaining his abilities in the first place.
It’s not just the characters that’re improved, but also their interplay. The quiet moments between the League’s battles do a better job of establishing that this isn’t just a collection of soldiers for a war to save the planet, but the makings of a true team of companions, and it can still be funny at times without trying to ape the MCU formula of a million quips a minute. I don’t say this lightly, but there are times when this version of the League feels more established as a group of (super-)friends than the Avengers ever did.
(It also helps that, in stark contrast to the original release, Wonder Woman is not constantly being drooled over by the other Leaguers. We get it, boys, she fine, move on.)
Aside from the titular Leaguers, the #SnyderCut just gives the story more time to breathe. Granted, considering it’s twice as long as the original movie, that probably goes without saying. But the scenes that dig more into Cyborg’s creation, Steppenwolf’s motivations, the history of the Mother Boxes, Batman’s fatigue after twenty years of crimefighting, Superman’s recovery from his untimely demise — it all feels so much more like there was a vision here beyond the speedy vapidity of the #WhedonCut. The scale of the story is still far too big, far too soon, but it makes more sense why Snyder was prepared to swing for the fences. And in spite of myself, now that I know where he was going to go in Justice League II and III, part of me wishes there was a world in which those might’ve happened, too.
And whatever else can or can’t be said about Zack Snyder as a director, he can still direct the bejeezus out of an action scene. ‘Nuff said — the finale to this movie, especially once Barry gets to really cut loose, is almost worth the price of admission alone… you know, if paying a price to be admitted to a movie theatre was still a thing these days.
Global pandemics! What fun.
But as obvious as the #SnyderCut’s improvements are, so too are its shortcomings. The desaturated palette of the shots compared to the original cut, combined with the standard freneticism of those admittedly awesome action scenes, make it really hard to follow what’s happening at times. On the other end of the spectrum, Snyder abuses slow-motion to an almost comical degree; one wonders how much of that four-hour runtime could’ve been shaved off if scenes were left to run at their normal pace.
And while we’re on the subject of the runtime… you feel every minute of those four hours, even if the last twenty minutes or so are essentially an extended epilogue and teaser for a sequel that will probably never be made. The slog isn’t as bad towards the second half of the movie, but there’s no way that this cut needed to be this long. I’m not saying the brisk two hours of the #WhedonCut was the way to go, but there’s definitely a happy medium to be found there, and this cut badly needed someone to reign in some of its excesses.
For instance, there’s a scene early on in the movie where the Amazons send Wonder Woman a warning that Steppenwolf is moving against the Mother Boxes. In the original release, we see Queen Hippolyta decide to send the warning, we cut to Diana at her day job as a museum curator where she acts coy about her double life, and then we see a news report about how there was a fire in the Temple of Artemis that Diana immediately recognizes as a warning of invasion before relaying the message to Batman.
In the #SnyderCut? We see the Queen decide to send the warning, then very dramatically reveal that the warning is an ancient arrow to be fired into the realms of men from Themyscira, then fire the arrow, then we see the arrow flying through the air, then we see it land, then we cut to Diana at her day job where she sees the news report, and then we cut to her going to the temple to see it for herself, then she explores the temple for greater context, and then she relays the message to Batman. It’s a small example, but it’s one that showcases how just much “more” less can really be sometimes, and the new cut is littered with scenes like this that don’t seem to trust the audience to fill in the gaps without having their hand held throughout the entire story.
And for all its length, there are still flaws baked into the story that neither cut manages to rise above, in no small part to both of them being sequels to the impossibly flawed Batman v. Superman. All the extended scenes in the world still don’t satisfyingly explain Batman’s change of heart from wanting to impale Superman’s heart on a kryptonite spear to being willing to risk everything to bring him back to life — and for the love of Martha, please don’t tell me that realizing their mothers shared a name was a sufficient trigger, because earlier in the fight he already offhandedly mentioned that Superman had parents. It’s still never really explained how or why Superman’s death immediately triggers Steppenwolf’s invasion, especially since in this continuity, he’s only been openly protecting Earth for a couple of years. And while Henry Cavill and Amy Adams still make for a damn fine Superman and Lois Lane, the story seems to expect to you care about their romance because they’re Superman and Lois Lane, the most legendary couple in all of comics, not because there was any real development of their relationship in this specific continuity. The same goes for the epilogue’s teasing Batman and the Joker joining forces; the movie seems to want you to care because they’re Batman and the Joker, not because you have any investment in their rivalry this time around.
In the interest of time, I’ll stop there. But suffice it to say that it’s stuff like this, and there’s a lot of it, that brings me back to the worry I mentioned in the beginning. Is this movie good, or do I just want it to be?
And if it’s the latter… why?
When it comes to movies like this, namely the ones that have connective narrative tissue with the stories I obsessed over twenty years ago instead of making friends, I do my best to try and step outside of myself and approach it as someone without any emotional investment. Someone who couldn’t tell you what sector of space Earth was in for the purposes of Green Lantern patrols, or who couldn’t name all of the Robins in chronological order.
A normal person, in other words.
And for normal people, I can’t recommend seeing this movie, not in the same way that I might recommend Shazam! or Wonder Woman to someone who otherwise doesn’t care about comics. There’s just too much of the #SnyderCut that relies on inside baseball for you to get invested, especially if you’ve already sat through the #WhedonCut and were unimpressed the first time through. Comic book nerds know how much of a horrifying villain DARKSEID IS, for instance, but the layman will probably see his depiction here and shrug him off as a low-rent Thanos. We might geek out at the sight of the Martian Manhunter or feel a chill run down our spine when Dr. Ryan Choi starts working with nanotechnology, but to the uninitiated, those are just names. And in the knowledge that that this particular chapter of DC filmmaking seems to have closed, the teasers for what could’ve been are intensely intriguing, but ultimately a bit hollow.
The other side of that, of course, is that this isn’t a movie made for those people.
For all the squawking surrounding the existence of #SnyderCut, which didn’t actually exist at the time the campaign really took off, there was a kernel of genuine longing that lay at the heart of it. As silly as it may be, the heroes of the DC Universe are genuine American icons; arguably moreso than any of the Avengers other than Spider-Man were before the MCU put them on the map. There’s a reason the team’s full name is the Justice League of America, and Snyder seems like someone who wanted to do right by that, and by the people who are still invested in these characters and their stories.
People, in other words, like me.
The #WhedonCut may have been aimed at the masses, but the #SnyderCut was aimed at what that one guy from the other company would call “true believers.” And when you factor in the unthinkable tragedy his family suffered during the filming of the original cut and the corporate tightrope of executive meddling that he had to walk, it’s very hard to say that Snyder did not deserve a second chance, especially if Warner Brothers (however cynically) was prepared to give it to him.
But it’s also hard to divorce the #SnyderCut from the not-so-vague aura of self-superiority about his own genius or dismissiveness towards his films’ critics that comes across in some of Snyder’s interviews, especially in relation to other creators in the DC Universe. I say that as someone who genuinely enjoyed no less than three of Snyder’s previous comic book adaptations. And as my viewing partner Mr. Austin pointed out before our odyssey, it’s hard to envision many, if any, other directors getting the same kind of support after a similar cinematic misfire, no matter the circumstances. If James Wan had bombed with Aquaman or Patty Jenkins with Wonder Woman, would there have been a push for a #WanCut or a #JenkinsCut? Would the studio have indulged them if there were? Or would they have just shelved the IP, waited it out, and powered through another reboot, as has become the norm?
Was there something so important about this version of Justice League that made the #SnyderCut necessary? Or is it just that we really (and understandably) like Superman and Batman?
Because if it’s the latter… they’re not going anywhere. Not just in the distant future; I’ve already mentioned that new movies starring both are already in the works. But later this summer, both Christopher Reeve’s Superman from 1978 and Michael Keaton’s Batman from 1989 will be getting continuations in comic book form. Over on the CW’s Arrowverse, which is no stranger to being executive meddling, Tyler Hoechlin and Elizabeth Tulloch are currently killing it as the title characters of Superman & Lois. Say what you will about the quality of the direct-to-DVD DC animated films (and trust me, I have a lot to say), but like clockwork for the past dozen years, there’s been a new animated movie starring Bats or Supes at least once a year. And there are, of course, the comics themselves.
What I’m trying to say, in my characteristically long-winded way, is that I still don’t know what to make of the #SnyderCut. I don’t know that I ever will, and I suppose in the end that’s kind of the point, good or bad. In the end, the movie might just ultimately be a four hour-long reflection of what you want it to be. It’s either proof of Snyder’s genius or his hubris, of faith being rewarded or of expectations being dashed, of Hollywood and America’s slavish devotion to violent power fantasies of adults playing dress-up or the enduring power of mythology to inspire people to and for better. For me, it’s somewhere in between, and I suppose it’ll have to be enough.
Because while this might be the definitive version of one man’s vision of the titans of the DC Universe, it was never going to be the definitive version. The beauty of being a comic book fan is that no such thing really exists, thus giving us fodder to argue over until we’re old and grey. This movie’s Justice League is as definitive as the DCAU’s version was, or as Smallville’s, or as the Arrowverse’s, or as the Injustice games’, or as the 1997 made-for-TV mov — okay , not that one. Forever might have been the last gasp of Duke Nukem, but good or bad, what appears to be Zack Snyder’s final words in the DC Universe will be far from the League’s final bow, in this or any other medium.
I’ll be waiting for what comes next.