Now that the long-discussed “Snyder Cut”—a.k.a. Zack Snyder’s Justice League—is finally out on HBO Max, those who have spent the past few years complaining about the damage Joss Whedon did to Snyder’s work (i.e. the original theatrical release of Justice League) can finally get a close side-by-side comparison of the two films. Yes, rather than bemoaning the tragically sidelined glory of a film they never actually saw, people who have been grinding the axe since DC brought in the Avengers director to oversee extensive reshoots now have the ability to see what was changed—what got added, edited, and cut. (And cut. And cut. And cut some more. Because Zack Snyder’s Justice League is four hours long. The original version of the film would be over before you even hit the moment the heroes are all in a room together in this new iteration.)
And as it turns out, the reason those reshoots were so extensive wasn’t because Whedon radically changed the story. Instead, it’s because the new material was largely slotted into pre-existing footage, as a means of more efficiently expounding the plot and making a more lighthearted tone (translation: adding jokes). Whedon essentially had to restage large sections of the film in ways that allowed him to add small amounts of scenes here and there, liberally adjusting the pacing and axing vast quantities of additional sequences and longer takes to create a tighter narrative. Which is a testament to the dangers of too many cooks in the kitchen, as Justice League feels like a film that quite literally suffered death by a thousand cuts.
It also means there’s far too many changes to simply present a laundry list of everything that’s new or different about this version of the movie. Reading such a tome would probably take almost as long as watching Zack Snyder’s Justice League. Instead, we’ve tried to break down the most significant changes from the first to the second iteration of Justice League: the noteworthy subplots, reworked action, and additional characters that all contribute to the epic runtime of this new version of the film. (And we’ll end with a quick look at what it got rid of—namely, every single thing Whedon added.) Here’s a rundown of what most stands out in Zack Snyder’s Justice League, compared to the original.
In Justice League, the film opens with a brief interview with Superman, conducted by a couple eager kids on their smartphone, before segueing into a montage of the world following the death of Superman (from the end of Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice), set to a cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Everybody Knows.” All of that? Gone. Instead, we watch the scene of Superman’s death in the previous movie play out again, from a different perspective, with his final cries literally sending a shockwave across the world. Those shockwaves somehow trigger the movement of the three “Mother Boxes” we saw in the original film, though it’s unclear what, exactly, is happening. (We also get a quick shot of Cyborg sitting in his apartment, because one of the Boxes is hanging out in his closet.) If you hadn’t seen the first version of Justice League, you may wonder, “What the hell are those things, who is that guy, what is going on.” You would be right. Answers eventually arrive (and they do justify why these Boxes have suddenly awoken in a much more coherent, logical way), but it sure takes awhile. Much of the film is like this: Numerous coincidences or unexplained moments from the first film now get far more reasonable causes. It simply requires a lot of movie to pack them all in.
The first time around, our introduction to Barry Allen (who never actually gets called “The Flash” here, to be clear) was the character visiting his father in prison, followed by a cut to Batman recruiting him for the team. As far as introductions go, it was awfully brief, and told us very little about him. Those scenes, in modified form, are still here, but what stands out is a much more noteworthy start to the speedster’s story: We watch Barry make the world’s worst first impression during a job interview for a pet-care business. He’s late (irony!), has terrible excuses, produces a ripped and crumpled resumé from his pockets, and generally comes across like a motor-mouthed weirdo you wouldn’t want even visiting your business, let alone working there. But in the middle of it, a massive car accident at the intersection right outside occurs, triggering his flash speed and leading to a slow-motion meet-cute with Kiersey Clemons’ would-be victim, after he saves her from certain death. It doesn’t really make Barry more likable, but he’s certainly more memorable.
Zack Snyder’s Justice League doesn’t just give us a brief backstory of Steppenwolf, aided by a few clips of the ancient battle that banished him and left the Mother Boxes on earth in the first place. It throws us back in time, right into the midst of that fight, and doesn’t rush to return to the present. This sort of travel back into the past happens several times throughout the movie, and it’s part of a renewed emphasis on flashbacks as a means of filling out the history and motivations that were otherwise so thinly sketched in Justice League. That don’t necessarily throw more light on the actions of our protagonists, but they help contribute to the overall sense of a vast mythology and ongoing narrative that underlies the goings on in the here and now of the movie.
If there was one character that got dealt the worst hand by Justice League, it was Victor Stone, a.k.a. Cyborg. True, in terms of screen time he was roughly equal with The Flash, but compared to the attention he gets in the Snyder cut, he may as well have been a cameo before. Now we get flashbacks to his football-star schooldays, sequences laying out his loving relationship with his mom (and conflicted one with his dad), and even a traumatic event that spurs him on to the climactic heroics of the movie. It’s a full character arc restored, one that illuminates not just his motivations and behavior, but why he’s such an integral part of the team—the reason Batman and company find him to be such a crucial asset in this battle. Previously, he was just some guy whose dad made him a half-mechanical marvel; now, there’s a clear justification for his central role in the story, even if his character remains largely a cypher outside of the basic building blocks of his persona. (Not to say that any of these people are especially deeply shaded, nuance-wise.)
So much of the action in Justice League felt perfunctory, as though we were just getting through the splashy battles so the film could get on to the next plot point. As it turns out, that’s largely by design: Most of the action sequences in the original film are simply radically truncated versions of the much lengthier scenes we get here. While that can occasionally lead to numbing mistakes (the underground fight against Steppenwolf in Gotham is now awkwardly overlong), it also helps to clarify a lot of things. In particular, Steppenwolf’s theft of the Mother Boxes in Themyscira and Atlantis no longer feel like painfully confused mish-mashes of events—the former, in particular, is much grander and more elegant in scope, Snyder’s gift for iconic imagery serving well to illustrate the intensity and scale of the stakes. Here, the entire building in which the Amazons guarded the Mother Box collapses into the ocean; that’s well worth seeing.
Yep, there used to be a whole other villain in this movie! Cut from the theatrical release, Darkseid (voiced by Ray Porter) is supposedly an even bigger bad guy than Steppenwolf. Whereas the flashback to the original separation of the Mother Boxes on Earth only showed Steppenwolf, now we see that metal-covered antagonist is actually trying to get back into Darkseid’s good graces, with our little blue planet just one of the tens of thousands that Steppenwolf had colonized in the name of his master. Several times, we watch as Steppenwolf converses through a long-distance portal, first with an underling, than with Darkseid himself, as though checking in with his boss on Slack. It’s not really essential to the story, and most of it ends up feeling like little more than table-setting for a sequel that’s never going to happen (Darkseid never even sets foot on Earth, outside of a flashback), but it certainly scrambles the previous understanding of what was happening.
By far one of the strangest and most inexplicable choices Zack Snyder’s Justice League makes is the introduction of Martian Manhunter, a character previously unseen and unacknowledged in the franchise. Halfway through the film, Clark Kent’s mother Martha arrives at Lois Lane’s apartment, to share the pain of losing the man they both loved and to encourage Lois to move on with her life. Only, that’s not what actually happens. Once Martha leaves, we see her transform into some mysterious red-eyed alien, and then transform once more, into a general played in Man Of Steel and Batman V Superman by Harry Lennix. There’s no introduction, and no explanation of who he is or what he’s doing there; without preexisting knowledge of the character, it makes no sense. Snyder has Martian Manhunter reappear briefly at the very end of the movie to introduce himself, but by then it’s too late to really serve a purpose. It’s a deeply weird decision to add this to the movie.
The most immediately noticeable shift in the final fight between our heroes and Steppenwolf and his army of parademons is a question of color correction: What previously took place during the day now unfolds under cover of night. Second is location: Whereas rescuing the innocent civilians caught in the vicinity of Steppenwolf’s base of operations was of paramount concern to the good guys, in Snyder’s rendering the battle takes place in the site of a former nuclear accident, completely devoid of any other sentient creatures. (Honestly, that’s probably for the best; none of these ostensible good guys ever evinces much care for the rest of humanity in whose name they’re supposedly saving the day.) And the fight plays out markedly differently, despite much of the footage Snyder shot being included in the theatrical release: when Superman shows up in his black outfit, it’s pretty much instantly curtains for Steppenwolf, and there’s also a lengthy and totally unnecessary sequence where our protagonists all die and the Flash has to run backwards through time to save the day. It all plays strikingly different from its predecessor—oh, and Wonder Woman cuts off the villain’s head, in a move that feels very much in keeping with Superman’s brutal neck-snap maneuver from Man Of Steel.
It’s hard to imagine that, even if Snyder had somehow finished the movie the first time around with his vision largely intact, there’s any chance in hell Warner Bros. would have let him tack on such a thudding, clumsy, and interminable ending as he has here. After the good guys save the day—and we even get a lengthy voiceover monologue from Cyborg’s dad to put a feel-good, inspirational cap on the emotional journey of the story—it cuts to a near-future dystopian nightmare in which Batman and a hardscrabble group of survivors (including Cyborg, Flash, Amber Heard’s Meera, Joe Manganiello’s Deathstroke, and, yes, Jared Leto’s Joker, looking nothing like he did in Suicide Squad) try to undo whatever colossal disaster has befallen the world. They stand around talking for an eternity, before a red-eyed, villainous Superman arrives on the scene. At which point Bruce Wayne wakes up from a nap—in other words, this wasn’t even an actual scene, but rather some worrying dream of his. Cool, cool. By the time Martian Manhunter flies up to Bruce to say hello and offer his services in fighting the forces of evil, even Ben Affleck’s billionaire crimefighter looks like he’s checked out of the movie. The whole thing feels like nothing so much as a weird flex from a director still pissed about what went down, and wanting to stick it to the people who didn’t trust him to deliver a quality movie. Too bad this particular addition doesn’t really help his case.
If there was a joke in this movie, it’s probably gone now. Most of the little moments of levity between characters have been axed, part of Snyder’s commitment to using only what he shot, and not a single frame of Whedon’s work. It’s fascinating to see how many tiny moments meant to illustrate the humanity of these characters are no longer there, replaced by far more grave and portentous exchanges. Everything from Bruce Wayne’s “I hear you can talk to fish” crack to Barry Allen’s ramblings about the foolishness of brunch are removed. (That being said, what little lightheartedness remains stays mostly with Barry, his character lending itself naturally to a looser, more acerbic tone.) But also, multiple scenes of exposition are no longer here, including those at the end in which the team forms their plan to attack Steppenwolf. Whedon’s streamlined sequences of explanatory dialogue are thrown out in favor of Snyder’s far lengthier variants on the same. And Cavill’s Superman is back to being the stoic sourpuss, denied even a smile. Many of Whedon’s attempts at a hack ’n’ slash salvage job fell flat; it’s just as well they’re gone. But the sense of vulnerability and humanity also went with them. These aren’t humans: They’re basically gods, and that’s how Snyder likes them.