The Evolution of the Original Vision for Justice League
The Many Snyder Cuts
The story behind Zack Snyder’s Justice League (2021), a director’s cut of the 2017 superhero crossover film, feels both unique and familiar. Following a family tragedy, director Zack Snyder left the picture partway through post-production.
Warner Bros. then effectively replaced him with Joss Whedon, who would go on to reshoot and re-edit much of the picture, changing its story, visual appearance, music and tone to address studio demands, while also putting his own stamp onto the content. The released film was poorly received by critics and audiences, resulting in an outpouring of fan demand for the restoration of Snyder’s vision.
Now, less than four years after the release of the much maligned 120-minute theatrical version, the four-hour-long director’s cut has premiered on the Warner Media streaming platform, HBO Max. Naturally, much online writing is devoted to documenting and analyzing the numerous differences between the newly released Snyder Cut and the 2017 Whedon Cut.
Comparatively little, however, has been said about the differences that exist between the various incarnations of the Snyder Cut itself. The fact is, there are multiple versions that can be referred to as the “Snyder Cut” and the changes from one version to another can provide insight about how and why a director’s “vision” or “intention” for a given film can evolve over time. This is what I hope to demonstrate in this article.
For quick reference, I’ve made the following chart, which summarizes information about all known Snyder cuts and includes the “Whedon” version for comparison.
Pre-Theatrical Snyder Cuts
The earliest known Snyder Cut of Justice League had a running time of 214 minutes. Snyder first revealed this to the public on his Vero account in December 2019, possibly in response to the various claims circulating at the time that a Snyder Cut “doesn’t even exist.” He did not, however, go into detail, as to what exactly this cut was or when it came to be. This may have contributed to the false impression circulating among Snyder fans that a “complete” director’s cut of the film (that is, one that had fully undergone the post-production process) was ready for theatrical release and merely sitting somewhere in the vaults of Warner Bros. at the time Snyder exited the project.
A May 20, 2020 THR report indicates that this cut was an unfinished work-in-progress version developed around January 2017 and was not intended for theatrical distribution. This means it came into existence early into the picture’s post-production phase, approximately a month or so after Justice League concluded principal photography at the beginning of December 2016. (If the THR report is accurate, it had no post-production and/or VFX at this point at all.)
Based on all this, it is safe to say that this version is an example of what I have defined as a “pre-theatrical director’s cut” guaranteed to a member of the DGA. Its existence attests to Snyder exercising his basic creative rights as a Hollywood filmmaker. Though Snyder considered it to be his “optimal version” of the movie, he also recognized that this was a version that “the studio would not release” and so chose not to show it to Warner executives. Instead, he delivered for review a shorter 140-minute Director’s Cut that was in line with the studio’s desire for a running time of two hours, making it the first Snyder cut the studio saw. (It goes without saying that this version was also unfinished and had little if any post-production.)
That Warner Bros. wanted such a duration is backed up by a Wall Street Journal article on the production of Justice League, according to which WB CEO Kevin Tsujihara essentially mandated that the film be under two hours in length. We can infer that this 140-minute Snyder Cut was then intended to be the basis for the eventual theatrical release version (and may very well have served as the basis of the Whedon version).
Snyder would’ve been contractually obligated to continue post-production work (including editing, sound, VFX, etc.) on Justice League until he stepped down in May 2017. It is therefore likely that multiple other intermediate cuts of the film were developed by him during the five month period since the initial screening of the 140-minute cut. This is given credence by a New York Times interview, where he claims to have made about “10 Snyder Cuts” and presented various iterations of it to the studio:
“The truth is there’s probably about 10 Snyder cuts — there’s a longer version than the four-hour version. There’s a three-hour version. A two-hour and 20. I think I showed the studio two hours and 40 minutes. And then I showed them subsequent cuts of two hours and 30 minutes, and two hours and 28 minutes, and two hours and 22 minutes.”
Post-Theatrical Snyder Cuts
When he left the project in May 2017, Snyder took with him a hard drive containing what was presumably the 214-minute “Original Director’s Cut.” Some time later, he began releasing images on his Vero [social network] account of footage that had never appeared in the theatrical Whedon cut. These images were in black-and-white (b/w), indicating that he possessed a b/w edition of Justice League or its footage.
Its existence was confirmed in the THR Report. In February 2020, Zack and his wife Deborah invited a “select group of executives from Warner Bros., HBO Max and DC to their house in Pasadena to screen Snyder’s little-seen version that was shown in black and white.” The Snyders followed the screening with a presentation, pitching the idea of completing and releasing the director’s cut of Justice League to the executives.
Judging by the amount of finished VFX appearing in the b/w photos (see next section), coloring was not the only difference between the pre-theatrical Director’s Cut and the B/W Director’s Cut though the latter still required extensive post-production work.*
This iteration of the picture would then serve as the basis of the post-theatrical complete version titled Zack Snyder’s Justice League (ZSJL) that will have premiered on HBO Max following a new round of post-production that reportedly cost 70 million dollars. Its completion, however, went beyond simply finalizing the technical aspects of the 214-minute cut(s) that remained unfinished. The final running time of ZSJL ended up being 242 minutes, 28 minutes longer than the 2017 director’s cut.
* My guess is that Snyder incorporated the post-production work he had conducted between January and May 2017 on the 140-minute cut into the 214-minute cut. This would make a lot of sense, as he would’ve wanted the Warner executives to see the most complete version of his cut to successfully sell them on finishing it. One has to wonder though why exactly he had presented it in b/w. At the moment, I can only speculate that this was a personal preference.
Approximately 10 minutes consist of new footage shot specifically for the 2021 version. This includes a scene revealing that the character of General Swanwick (Harry Lennix) is the alter-ego of the superhero Martian Manhunter and a new two-scene epilogue at the very end that depicts Batman leading a group of heroes in a post-apocalyptic future before waking up from a nightmare at his lakeside home to speak with Swanwick/Manhunter.*
* It has not been explicitly confirmed by the filmmakers that the Swanwick scenes were part of the additional material shot for the 2021 Snyder Cut, though the post-apocalyptic dream sequence has been repeatedly confirmed to be a newly shot scene that had never been planned when Snyder was working on the film in 2016–2017. It was created specifically for ZSJL, mostly due to a desire on Snyder’s part to have an interaction between The Batman and The Joker. I believe that there is enough evidence that the Swanwick scenes are indeed all-new. Please read this article by The Wrap for more information.
In turn, this means at least 18 minutes of previously shot but unused footage were added to ZSJL in the course of its completion. Unless the older variants of the Snyder Cut are released, we may never know precisely what 2016 material was added to and/or subtracted from the assemblage of the 242-minute Snyder Cut. However, it is possible to deduce some key visual differences, particularly between the B/W Director’s Cut and the post-theatrical Snyder Cut, using publicly available information, such as interviews and Snyder’s social media posts.
Visual Differences between the Snyder Cuts
The Superman Costume
One aspect that appears to have been a point of contention in the production of Justice League in 2016 was the color of Superman’s costume. Snyder wanted to have Superman, to don a black-and-silver suit following his return to life, while Warner wanted him to appear in his traditional red-and-blue suit. Snyder the got the idea to shoot the picture with the traditional suit, but then possibly change it to the black suit in post-production using color correction. In the end, though some tests were conducted, the idea was not executed during the original post-production period in 2017.*
When the chance came to do ZSJL, Snyder returned to this idea and it became one of the selling points of the new version. This essentially guarantees that Superman still appears in his traditional outfit in the earlier director’s cut variations. (Indeed, every single shot featuring a suited Superman from the available footage would have to have been digitally altered to feature the black suit in place of the blue one.)
* The black suit does, however, appear briefly in a deleted scene on the theatrical cut’s home video release. But this is a topic for another time.
Had Snyder stayed on with the picture through its completion, it is likely that the theatrical version would retain the red-and-blue Superman. Even though Snyder may have intended the black suit appearance of the character, the change in strictly technical terms counts as a revision.
The Steppenwolf design
One of the most easily discernible differences between the Whedon Cut and ZSJL lies in the visual appearance of its big villain, Steppenwolf. In the former, he is depicted as a white-skinned humanoid alien resembling a medieval knight. By contrast, in the latter, he appears as a demonic-looking alien clad in spiky, technologically advanced armor. For convenience, I will refer to them as “Humanoid Steppenwolf” and “Armored Alien Steppenwolf” respectively.
What is interesting is that the Humanoid Steppenwolf seen in the theatrical cut had already appeared in Snyder’s B/W director’s cut. At least two images of deleted footage shared by Snyder on Vero clearly show him in scenes that never appeared in the Whedon cut, indicating that the digital VFX for the character had been completed for a number of scenes at the time Snyder had left production.
It follows that Steppenwolf had been redesigned before Snyder left and was therefore not the result of the film’s reworking by Joss Whedon. This has been more or less confirmed by producer Deborah Snyder, who has explicitly stated in an interview with Polygon when discussing the Armored Alien Steppenwolf:
“At the time, the studio didn’t like the way he looked… I don’t know if it was too menacing or scary, but we redesigned him.”
When the opportunity came to make ZSJL, Snyder wanted to “put back the things that got changed…” Given that the CGI effects for Steppenwolf were finished in at least some scenes, those scenes would have to have been redone to replace Humanoid Steppenwolf with Armored Alien Steppenwolf. Deborah Snyder indirectly corroborates this in another interview, where she discusses the extensive number of VFX shots needed to complete ZSJL. She states:
“It was a big job in finishing it because Zack wanted to go back to the original models of the characters. Visual effects were done, but they were done in a way that visually didn’t work with his palette. So we had to redo those shots. Like some of the backgrounds, they just looked different. They had a different look and feel, which I think is pretty obvious when you see the two films. So there was a lot of work that we had to go back and redo as well as new work of characters, like Darkseid, who wasn’t in the original.”
Clearly, Snyder wanted an alien or demonic appearance for the villain, while Warner wanted something more recognizably human. It is all but certain that, had Snyder continued to work on the film for theatrical release, his theatrical cut of the picture would’ve included the Humanoid Steppenwolf. Much like in the case of Black-Suit Superman, Snyder was only able to include the Armored Alien Steppenwolf by virtue of revising the film for HBO Max.
All these examples indicate that, rather than being the version that was always intended, the 2021 Snyder Cut is really an example of an authorial revision produced specifically for an ancillary, non-theatrical market. Notably, though, it’s not the only authorial revision that will be available en masse.
There are up to three other official versions of ZSJL already being considered for release in the near future. And one other variation of the Snyder Cut was in development before being abandoned.
Let’s take a brief look at all of these.
More Snyder Cut Variations
The TV Miniseries Version
Snyder was not initially certain at the time of the May 2020 announcement, as to whether or not the Director’s Cut would be distributed as a single, uninterrupted movie or a TV miniseries, in which case the picture would be broken down into multiple episodes ending in cliffhangers.*
*It is safe to conclude that the cumulative runtime of this TV iteration would’ve been higher than that of the cinematic iteration due to the need to repeat opening and closing credit sequences in each part.
He appears to have settled on the latter approach by the time of the DC Fandome event in August 2020, announcing in an online panel that the film would be released in four hour-long parts, though there would be a way of “bundling” them, so they could be experienced as a single film.
Exactly how far along this iteration progressed is difficult to say, but an opening title sequence for the miniseries version was created, only to be repurposed as a promotional trailer titled Mother Box promo when the decision was made to abandon the four-part format in favor of a single uninterrupted film release.
The “Justice is Gray” and IMAX versions
In a recent interview with IGN, Snyder revealed that there are plans to soon distribute a black-and-white version of the Snyder Cut called the “Justice is Gray” edition on HBO Max. Its circulation alongside the color version in that regard suggests that streaming platforms could be modern-day equivalents of pay-cable and video.
Furthermore, he voiced his hope to also release a variant of the Snyder Cut in Imax theaters with a 1.43:1 aspect ratio, which would presumably be cropped from the 1.33:1 ratio used for the Max releases. On top of having a different aspect ratio, the IMAX release would have an intermission “that adds an extra 10 minutes to the movie” due to it being shown in theaters.* This brings up its total duration to 252 minutes.
*Some reports suggest that there is no IMAX version currently planned or in development. However, Snyder has claimed recently that he’s “seen it in the theater, in IMAX. It has one intermission at about two hours and 20 minutes.”
Finally, there’s also the possibility of an IMAX release of the “Justice is Gray” edition that Snyder claimed in November 2020 would represent his “ideal version” of the film. So, in total, there could be as many as four different officialSnyder Cut variations in circulation within the next few years. From the perspective of fulfilling authorial intent, all of these qualify as a director’s cut. Yet none of them can claim to be truly authoritative. The differences between them reflect how much the different aspects of a film version (length, aspect ratio, etc.) can be shaped by its exhibition format.
Overall, it is clear that Zack Snyder’s vision naturally evolved over time. His initial intentions and creative choices for Justice League were clearly informed by the desires of the studio and the restrictions of theatrical exhibition. The opportunities offered by post-theatrical technologies and markets in turn changed his vision for ZSJL. And quite likely, some things changed just due to the passage of time between the initial production of the picture and its re-editing/completion.
This article was originally published on Substack on March 20, 2021.