I never thought I’d say these words, but I’ve watched Zack Snyder’s Justice League. I expected four hours of overblown bombast. I got that, but I also got a really interesting look at storytelling. More importantly, I got to see the Mass Effect problem from the other side.
In case you missed it: Director Zack Snyder made Man of Steel, followed up by Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. I was not a fan of either movie. During my write-up of Bats v. Supe, I said:
[…] it’s kind of darkly hilarious that Zack Snyder was chosen to adapt modern-day Superman for the big screen. I can’t imagine anyone more ill-suited for the material. You can see the fumbling Hollywood thinking at work behind the decision. “This Snyder guy is really good at making movies about the funnybooks. He directed [Watchmen] a few years ago, so let’s give him this one!” It’s like saying, “This guy who made Snowpiercer did a great job, so let’s give him The Polar Express. I mean, both movies have trains in the snow! He’s a natural fit!”
Anyone capable of successfully adapting Watchmen shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near Superman. The two works are opposed on a philosophical level. Superman is profoundly idealistic, and Watchmen has cynicism oozing out of its pores. Watchmen isn’t just a deconstruction of the idealized superhero myth, it’s a controlled demolition. It takes the entire premise of super-beings and says, “Actually, having nearly-indestructible godlings running around would be horrible for the world, because they would still be people and People Are Awful.”
We don’t actually know what the studio heads were thinking at Warner Brothers, but the most popular narrative was the the studios wanted to make their own version of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But Snyder’s self-serious tone wasn’t resonating with audiences the way that Marvel movies do. Snyder took these stories about fighting crime in blue spandex and shot them as if he was adapting the Iliad. His movies have this overpowering Wagnerian vibe. You’re deafened by the angelic chorus as Snyder beats you into submission with one blunt symbol after another.
As the story goes, the studio heads didn’t know anything about art, but they did know that they were coming up short in the global dick-measuring contest against Marvel. So when Snyder suffered a family tragedy during the production of Justice League and he needed to step away from the project, the studio was only too happy to replace him with nerd culture darling of the moment Joss Whedon. Whedon is famous for his lighthearted tone and having lots of witty banter between the various leads. Under Whedon’s pen, all characters eventually turn into jokesters, dorks, or audience-insert critics. The characters become incredibly self-aware and the film starts to take on the “rollercoaster” vibe that Marvel movies are (in)famous for.
Stylistically, Whedon is basically the anti-Snyder.
Supposedly Whedon was just coming in to finish this 90% completed movie, but the belief is that the studio saw this as their chance to change course and be more like Marvel. So Whedon hacked the movie down from four hours to two and shot some of his own scenes to fill in the resulting gaps. The result is about what you’d expect: A movie with lots of disjointed ideas and weird tonal shifts. The movie didn’t do well. It made money, but it didn’t make “Avengers” money, so the studio heads weren’t thrilled either.
The executives didn’t get what they wanted. Snyder fans didn’t get the movie they wanted. Whedon fans got a little of what they wanted, but those moments were stuffed in the margins of a messy cobbled-together movie that was trying to be something else. Basically, the movie was an awkward compromise that left everyone unhappy.
Snyder fans felt like the movie could have been a success – perhaps artistic if not commercial success, anyway – if we could see Snyder’s original vision. And thus began the demands for the “Snyder Cut”.
Dan Olson has a great video that summarizes the situation:
Basically: Yes, there was a bunch of footage that could be called the “Snyder Cut”. But that footage was basically raw. No special FX. No score. No color grading. It hadn’t yet been edited into a proper movie. Turning the “Snyder Cut” into a proper movie was going to cost tens of millions of dollars, which nobody wanted to pay since the movie had already bombed at the box office.
But after years of fan petitions, self-funded campaigns on the part of Snyder himself, and various backroom corporate skullduggery, we at last have a proper Snyder Cut of Justice League. It’s being used to get people to sign up for HBO Max. So this is less about preserving Snyder’s original creative vision and more about finding some stunt that will drive subscriptions in the already-crowded streaming marketplace. Coming up with a few tens of millions of dollars for that is a much easier proposition.
So how is it?
As you’ve probably guessed, I’m much more a fan of Joss Whedon than Zack Snyder. I realize that the colorful, lighthearted, joke-heavy superhero thing has been done to death by now and large parts of the market are fully satisfied, bordering on oversaturation and burnout. But in terms of personal taste, that’s my jam. I know it’s junk food, but it’s my favorite junk food.
So when Whedon took over Snyder’s movie, turned up the color vibrancy, added some out-of-nowhere quips, and shortened it to a two hour experience, I figured this was a net win for me. Yes, the resulting movie was a bit of a mess, but it was a mess I liked rather than another overlong Snyder movie.
But now I’ve seen the Snyder Cut, and I have to admit: This is a much better movie.
It’s hard to compare an excellent version of something you don’t like with a shoddy version of something you do. If I typically love pizza and despise spaghetti, then how do I choose between terrible pizza vs. excellent spaghetti? I don’t know. But in this case I have to favor the well-made version of a thing I don’t like. The movie is amazingly long and overstuffed with plot elements. But those plot elements now have time to breathe and develop, and they form a cohesive whole.
Back in Mass Effect, the series was transformed from something I loved into something I loathed. It began as a thinky / talky space-mystery about an explorer looking for answers and became a loud obnoxious action movie about a badass space marine who used a magical space-weapon to “defeat” the space-demon. At the time I wondered what it would be like if things went the other way and the games transformed from a thing I hated into a thing I liked. And I think that Justice League proves that it doesn’t matter. When you change authors, you change the tone of the world. And that will ultimately break the world / story, regardless if you liked it better at the beginning or the end.
In short: Don’t try to pivot to a more appealing audience in the middle of a story. It won’t work. You’ll ruin the story you started with, and that newer, bigger, more attractive audience isn’t going to want your ruined story, even if it was ruined in a style they find appealing.
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