If you’ve got a little more than six hours to spare — one quarter of Earth’s daily rotation! — then watching Zack Snyder’s Justice League and 2017’s theatrical cut of Justice League in succession is a fascinating experience. Both versions tell the same story of superheroes teaming up to save the world, but broad strokes aside, they’re completely different movies in ways big and small.
The version of Justice League that was shown in theaters — which I’ll call the Whedon Cut — was rewritten and reshot by Joss Whedon after Snyder left the project due to a family tragedy and amid creative tensions with the studio. Years later, he was brought back to restore his vision — the Snyder Cut — for HBO Max. Comparing the successes and failures of the two is at once clear-cut and impossible to do.
The Snyder Cut is the indisputably better movie, which makes the whole experiment feel like Warner Bros. opening Pandora’s box. It’s also four hours long. What I would be interested to see is the Snyder Cut that would’ve played in theaters, without the promise of an unrestrained runtime. If Snyder were forced to edit his film down to two hours, would it feel a bit more like the Whedon-executed Franken-movie? (Or Cyborg-movie, heh.) I would say we’ll never know, but I never thought we’d see this version.
If you’ve watched Zack Snyder’s Justice League and now want to dive into spoiler territory with me — or if you decide you don’t have four hours to devote to a movie you’ve ostensibly already seen — here are the biggest differences between the Snyder Cut and the Whedon Cut.
A Different Beginning
The difference between the two directors’ Justice Leagues is clear from the jump. Whedon began with cell phone footage of Superman (Henry Cavill) and his CGI-ed out mustache bantering with kids, before launching into an action sequence of Batman (Ben Affleck) trapping a Parademon. It’s edited within an inch of its life, cut together as tight as possible around the exposition. Snyder scraps all that.
The Snyder Cut begins where Batman v Superman ended, following the literal shockwaves from Superman’s death as they ripple out through the DC universe and “awaken” the movie’s central McGuffins, the Mother Boxes. The opening establishes where each Box is hidden, long before the villain makes a play for them and the titular league must come together to stop him.
The Snyder version also loses the big Superman funeral and worldwide tributes and instead conveys the loss through Lois Lane’s (Amy Adams) private mourning. Adams, it’s worth mentioning, has a reduced role in the Snyder Cut. It appears her screentime was beefed up in Whedon’s reshoots, but her added scenes were obviously not the answer. (In the Snyder Cut, for example, Lois doesn’t tell Clark he’d be disappointed in how not strong she was after his death.)
A Different Big Bad
The Snyder Cut reinserts not one but two villains back into the plotline. Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds) is still the immediate baddie the team fisticuffs with, albeit with a CGI makeover to give him a shiny new exoskeleton, but he is now third in line behind even bigger big bads, Desaad (Peter Guinness) and Darkseid (Ray Porter). In this, Steppenwolf is gathering the Mother Boxes not to enact his revenge, but for Darkseid, to get back into his good graces after previously betraying him.
We get the rundown on Darkseid via a sequence in which Diana (Gal Gadot) follows a burning arrow from Themyscira to an ancient temple: He’s a megalomaniac tyrant bent on destroying Earth. (Think Thanos but make it DC.) In the Snyder Cut, the “Age of Heroes” sequence is not against Steppenwolf but Darkseid, an expanded battle that sees the Amazons, Atlanteans and man, along with gods like Zeus and at least one Green Lantern, drive Darkseid off. Amid all of that, we learn Darkseid’s real endgame is locating the ominous-sounding Anti-Life Equation, a supervillain objective put in play for some future sequel.
Cyborg Gets His Origin Story
Both Ray Fisher’s Victor Stone and Ezra Miller’s Barry Allen get extended introductions in the Snyder Cut, the former being more consequential — both plot-wise and because most people know the gist of Barry’s origin story. (Flash’s Speed Force gets upgraded effects, however, on display in a new sequence in which he saves Kiersey Clemons’ Iris West from a car wreck.)
“It was always a Cyborg movie in a lot of ways,” Snyder told ET. Thus, we spend a full act parsing out how Victor became Cyborg — which includes a different car wreck — learning the extent of his robo-powers and digging into his relationship with his father and creator, Silas (Joe Morton). Morton has more to do here, as well, including mentoring a sidekick (Ryan Zheng’s Ryan Choi, who is Atom in the comics) and a late-in-the-game death scene when Steppenwolf comes for the third Box.
Superman Isn’t Funny
In the Whedon Cut, Superman is brought back from the dead and is LOL-ing it up in no time at all, a number of scenes rewritten to give Cavill and his shiny CGI top lip more to banter about. The Snyder Cut keeps this version of Superman as we know him — mainly, stoic — but in a new black super suit. He does not say to Batman, “Tell me: do you bleed?”
How the League decides to bring Superman back is also completely different. Bruce Wayne has no contingency plan involving Lois (she just happens to be there) and there’s no fight between Bruce and Diana about whether or not they should do it. A lot of inter-league dynamics appear to have been tweaked in the Whedon Cut, adding in hints that Bruce has a crush on Diana and their drama over her leadership role on the team. In the Snyder Cut, they are on equal footing, and the team, on the whole, gets along for the greater good. Flash is much more competent in Snyder’s hands too. Doofusish still, but competent.
Batman Says F**k
If you want to boil down Snyder and Whedon’s differing approaches to superheroes, compare a Batman scene from each film. In the Whedon Cut, upon Superman’s return, he tells Batman, “I knew you didn’t bring me back because you liked me.” “I don’t not like–” Batman putters back goofily. Har har. In the Snyder Cut, Batman says “f**k.” (In a separate scene, Cyborg says “f**k” too.)
Holding the two Justice Leagues side by side reveals each director’s best and worst tendencies: In the Whedon Cut, every single scene ends with some ironic dialogue or physical humor. Jokes about whether Aquaman can talk to fish abound. The Snyder Cut indulges in its own brand of overkill: Slo-mo action and metal nihilism, an Icelandic choir spontaneously bursting into song for Aquaman. (Not all of Snyder’s choices are improvements.) Neither is especially great at female empowerment, but at least Snyder had the good sense to jettison the bit where Barry saves Diana and falls into cleavage.
A Different Climax
The entire third act — sixth act? — is reimagined by Snyder, including doing away with the awful red sky Whedon transposed over this entire stretch of the movie. There’s no longer some poor Russian fleeing the destruction, which means there is no Superman vs. Flash race to save more civilians. Superman doesn’t fly by carrying an apartment building.
The new plan of attack is: Flash will use his super speed to push Cyborg into the Mother Boxes’ Unity and Cyborg will pull them apart from within. All the lead up fighting is to set that in place. Flash runs around Russia to generate enough power. Batman is fighting Parademons. Wonder Woman and Aquaman fend off Steppenwolf. Superman arrives to save Cyborg, not to make a quippy one-liner. And then they lose, requiring Flash to run faster than the speed of light to turn back time.
The part where Cyborg goes into the Unity sort of makes sense once you’ve seen his full origin story, and Steppenwolf meets a much more brutal end at the hands of the heroes (not his own Parademons): Aquaman maims him, then Superman punches him, then Wonder Woman cuts off his head — which flies through a portal where Darkseid crushes it beneath his foot and vows to return. No flowers magically grow back. No one says “booyah.”
A New Sequel Setup
Though the Snyder Cut will likely mark the end of the Snyderverse, the director leaves plenty of threads of what future installments might have included: The dawning of Diana wanting to find her way back to Themyscira, of Aquaman linking up with Vulko (Willem Dafoe, not present in the Whedon Cut) and Mera (Amber Heard) before heading off to find his dad, of Cyborg embracing life as a superhero. It’s all set to voiceover from Morton’s Silas, not Lois Lane writing some sort of op-ed. That’s how the film ends.
Then there’s the epilogue. The post-credits scene — where Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) now reveals to Deathstroke (Joe Manganiello) Batman’s real identity, instead of planting seeds for an Injustice League — has been moved forward, followed by a newly shot Knightmare sequence.
In this alternate future, Batman teams up with Cyborg, Flash, Mera, Deathstroke and — yes — Joker (Jared Leto) for, well, we don’t know. (Something something about Lois dying led to the apocalypse.) Joker taunts Batman about his parents and Robin and offers to give him a reach around. Batman tells Joker that Harley Quinn is dead, and he’s vowed that he will kill Joker. “Make no mistake. I will f**king kill you.” Superman flies in, back in his blue suit, and revs up his laser eyes as he descends upon this new League.
And then Bruce wakes up, stepping outside to meet Martian Manhunter (Harry Lennix, revealed in a prior scene). “I’m sure you know Darkseid is not done with Earth,” Manhunter says. “There’s a war coming, and I’m here to help.” It’s a small taste of what Snyder had planned for any number of sequels that will only ever exist as this epilogue. Or it’s a call to action for fans to demand more, to #ReleaseTheSnyderSequels and #RestoreTheSnyderverse. “If this is the final version of Justice League anybody sees, we’re quite happy,” Snyder tells ET. We’ll see about that.
Zack Snyder’s Justice League is now streaming on HBO Max.
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