“Justice League” is such a bizarre film, its production history and context it was made in more dramatic than a lot of the film itself. The product of two directors with such enormously different styles and attitudes towards superheroes, of reshoots reshaping not only pivotal new scenes but sprinkling minor quips throughout old footage where actors appear looking noticeably different, of a a film that had completed principal photography being recrafted by the director of the studio’s greatest competitor, it’s such a resoundingly surreal experience with a rich, rich history behind it. It’s a film difficult to discuss and consider without context, so before really addressing the construction of the film itself, I’m going to look at how the film came to be in the first place.
Superman was created by writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster in 1933. Batman was created by writer Bill Finger and artist Bob Kane in 1939 (although Finger would go uncredited until Zack Snyder’s 2016 “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice”). Both characters were published under what would eventually become known as DC Comics.
In 1978, Richard Donner’s film “Superman”, starring Christopher Reeve, was released. It was the first major, large scale, big budget superhero film, and was massively successful. Composer John Williams’ musical theme for the film (the “Superman March”, an upbeat, very memorable melody ) quickly became iconic. The 1980 sequel, “Superman II”, had a troubled production. The majority of the film had been filmed alongside the first film by Donner in 1977, as a back-to-back production, but Donner was controversially removed from production (for reasons still debated) before his work on the sequel was completed. A successful comedy-action director, Richard Lester, was chosen to complete the film instead. Much of the film was reshot, and some of the new material was edited around Donner’s material to reframe it ways he hadn’t intended. Twenty-nine years later, in 2006, Donner would release “Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut”, a cut restoring much of his original footage and bringing the film back to his tone and vision.
In 1989, Tim Burton released “Batman”, starring Michael Keaton. It was the next extraordinarily successful, iconic superhero film. It too had a memorable theme for its title character, written by composer Danny Elfman, a theme that would be deployed in various cartoons and video games as well, not just for the Keaton iteration of the character. The film was such a massive success that Warner Bros gave Burton more freedom and creative control in his development of the sequel, “Batman Returns”. That film was notably more dark and idiosyncratic than its predecessor, much more the product of Burton’s particular style, vision, tone. Its reception was more mixed. One review read “Burton still hasn’t figured out how to tell a coherent story: He’s more interested in fashioning pretty beads than in putting them on a string….Yet for all the wintry weirdness, there’s more going on under the surface of this movie than in the original. No wonder some people felt burned by ‘Batman Returns’: Tim Burton just may have created the first blockbuster art film”. Nevertheless, the film’s less family-friendly vision was criticised, and Burton was jettisoned from directorial duties. A new director was brought in, one that would be more in line with Warner Bros’ more family-friendly, comedic vision for the series.
Any film series is partly improvisational. After Bryan Singer’s 2006 quasi-sequel to the Christopher Reeve Superman films, “Superman Returns”, didn’t perform as well as intended, Warner Bros wanted to restart the character in a new Superman film series. They also occasionally cast their eye on film adaptations of the Justice League team of superheroes, or starting a cinematic universe with various superheroes – the poorly received 2011 “Green Lantern” film was once intended to start such a cinematic universe. Fox started such a universe in 2000 with “X-Men”, and Marvel Entertainment (first under Paramount, then later acquired by Disney) started a more consistent, successful venture, starting with “Iron Man” in 2008.
Warner Bros had their own hit superhero series in famed director Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight” trilogy with Christian Bale (consisting of “Batman Begins” in 2005, the massively acclaimed and successful “The Dark Knight” in 2008, and eventually the final film “The Dark Knight Rises” in 2012), but it was a discrete, closed series concerned only with Batman. When “The Dark Knight Rises” did release in 2012, it was the same year as Marvel’s “The Avengers”, their massively successful superhero team-up film written and directed by Joss Whedon, a popular television showrunner. Superhero films were becoming bigger and bigger.
Zack Snyder’s 2013 “Man of Steel” film, retroactively the start of the “DC Extended Universe” cinematic series, was born out of Warner Bros’ lawsuit with the heirs of Siegel and Shuster, the creators of Superman, over the ownership of the Superman character. A film had to be made to demonstrate Warner Bros’ active use of the character. Around this time in 2010, Nolan and his frequent writing partner David Goyer were working on their third and final Batman film, “The Dark Knight Rises”. Nolan knew Goyer had an idea and pitch for a Superman film, and helped tighten it up, develop it together, and present it to Warner Bros while the two of them were having trouble cracking aspects of writing “The Dark Knight Rises”.
Warner Bros did not have much time to get a Superman film up and started to demonstrate their use of the character, but understandably had a lot of faith in Nolan and Goyer for the success they had brought them. Goyer’s pitch and eventual script was apparently shopped around to various directors, but Nolan personally convinced Zack Snyder to agree to the terms and schedule and take the job, and he succeeded. Snyder became the director for a new Superman reboot film. Snyder was known for his highly stylised, highly successful film “300”, adapting the Frank Miller comic of the same name, and for “Watchmen”, his 2009 adaptation of Alan Moore’s seminal comic. Known for being a very stylised and kinetic director, his style was certainly nowhere near as celebrated as Nolan’s, but it was a distinctive style (he storyboards all his films by hand himself, an approach that melds well with adapting comic panels), and he’d had his successes in adapting comics. Nolan said of choosing Snyder “Zack has an innate aptitude for dealing with superheroes as real characters. That was what a new approach to Superman required. He understands the power of iconic images, but he also understands the people behind them”.
The marketing and media around “Man of Steel” consistently positioned it as a spiritual and thematic successor to his “Dark Knight” Batman trilogy with Christian Bale. The trailers anchored Nolan’s name heavily to the film. Some bristled over Nolan apparently saying of post-credit scenes, like Marvel employed in their films, “a real movie wouldn’t do that”. He said other things like “We shouldn’t be chasing other movies, but stay true to the tone of Man of Steel”. In keeping with the idea of creating a completely new film and not resting on previous film’s laurels, composer Hans Zimmer eschewed the iconic Williams “Superman March” and developed a new theme for Superman, alongside multiple other motifs in the film, in a texturally diverse soundtrack eventually arguably more acclaimed than the film itself. Talk of a trilogy, like the “Dark Knight” films, swirled around “Man of Steel”.
[Spoilers for “Man of Steel” begin below.]
For all the positioning of the film next to the “Dark Knight” films, Nolan was adamant that “[Man of Steel is] very much Zack’s film….David Goyer had this, I thought, brilliant way to make Superman relatable and relevant for his audience. Zack has built on that and I think it’s incredible what he’s putting together”. Interestingly, Nolan initially disapproved of the ending Snyder and Goyer went with, where Superman kills General Zod. The film’s non-linear structure seemed very similar to “Batman Begins”, but the visuals (curiously Malick-inspired and drawing visual cues from documentaries and snap zooms of all things, worlds away from Nolan’s colder and flatter style) and specific story beats seemed unique to Snyder and Goyer’s vision.
The same year that “Man of Steel” released, 2013, Warner Bros got a new CEO, and Warner Bros’ other large film franchises (Harry Potter, the Middle-Earth movies with The Hobbit trilogy) wound down to a close. Studios were growing greedy and envious of Disney’s success with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and Warner Bros was looking for a new long-running film franchise. Retooling a more discrete Superman series into an extended cinematic universe seemed logical given Warner Bros’ direction. There were rumours of Nolan being asked to tie his “Dark Knight” films to “Man of Steel”, but Nolan was of course adamant on keeping his trilogy closed and ended. “Well, as I’ve said, and I’ll say definitively again, I am done with the Batman films, the trilogy is completed. It ended in the manner we had envisioned”.
The only real talk of any film connected to “Man of Steel” that wasn’t a direct sequel was a prequel following Russel Crowe on Krypton, partially because Goyer and many other creative personnel had created an immense amount of worldbuilding, lore, art and so on for the planet and its culture (eventually some of this would be used on a SyFy series), but that evaporated as a new direction for the “Man of Steel” sequel began to emerge. Nolan’s distaste for cinematic universes was possibly part of him relaxing his role with the “Man of Steel” sequel as it began to swerve away from its original vision, but Snyder didn’t seem perturbed. He had previously expressed interest at directing a film adaptation of the 1986 “The Dark Knight Returns” comic, which involves an aged Batman fighting Superman. In 2009, the year he released his “Watchmen” adaptation, he said “I said I’m interested in Frank Miller’s ‘The Dark Knight Returns’. That’s really my favourite comic book. However, the studio has this massive franchise and I don’t think they’ll let me make a Batman movie where he’s fifty years old”. Little did he know, they eventually indeed would.
As the “Man of Steel” sequel swerved away from being just a second Superman film and to something wider, and connected to a greater cinematic universe, Snyder (perhaps diplomatically?) explained the genesis of what would become “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” as follows:
“I gotta be honest, it definitely was a thing that… after ‘Man of Steel’ finished and we started talking about what would be in the next movie, I started subtly mentioning that it would be cool if he faced Batman. In the first meeting, it was like, ‘Maybe Batman?’ Maybe at the end of the second movie, some Kryptonite gets delivered to Bruce Wayne’s house or something. Like in a cryptic way, that’s the first time we see him. But then, once you say it out loud, right? You’re in a story meeting talking about, like, who should [Superman] fight if he fought this giant alien threat Zod who was basically his equal physically, from his planet, fighting on our turf…you know, who to fight next? The problem is, once you say it out loud, then it’s kind of hard to go back, right? Once you say, ‘What about Batman?’ then you realise, ‘Okay, that’s a cool idea. What else?’ I mean, what do you say after that.…But I’m not gonna say at all that when I took the job to do ‘Man of Steel’ that I did it in a subversive way to get to Batman. I really believe that only after contemplating who could face [Superman] did Batman come into the picture….Batman and Superman…teach us about ourselves. I think Batman – now after Chris [Nolan]’s movies and the way we track Batman through his cinematic history – he does have this license to enter our world and be a real character and not a complete cartoon, and he’s able to tell us about the way we live and our society. He moves with us, his morality – I think Superman probably less so, but I think Batman definitely sort of reflects us in a more personal way”.
Ben Affleck was hired to play Batman. Affleck brought his collaborator, Oscar-winning writer Chris Terrio, to do a rewrite on the script Goyer had written for the sequel. Snyder and Terrio’s visions apparently meshed extremely well. Henry Cavill, the actor for Superman, stated “I wouldn’t call this a Superman sequel….It’s a separate entity altogether. It’s introducing the Batman character and expanding upon the universe, which was kicked off by ‘Man of Steel’”. A “Man of Steel” sequel came to mean a possible eventual second Superman “solo” film, with “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” its own entity, leading up to eventual “Justice League” team films and tying into a whole slate of other films in what Warner Bros had announced as the “DC Extended Universe” cinematic universe.
In Warner Bros’ rush to get the DC Extended Universe off the ground running, Snyder was bumped up to executive producer for future films, he and his wife Deborah Snyder’s production company Cruel and Unusual Films gained more sway, and Snyder became the de facto overseer of the cinematic universe as it developed. He developed a roadmap and overarching story for the series films down the line, including what was then announced as a 2017 “Justice League: Part One” and a 2019 “Justice League: Part Two” (eventually retooled to be more distinct and separate films). Snyder assembled the cast of what would became the Justice League, and set the story structure of the series in place. What was once the “Man of Steel” sequel became a film left up to him far more than most franchise films, let alone franchise-forming films, would ever be.
Tim Burton was granted greater creative control and freedom over his DC film sequel back in the 1990s, Zack Snyder was not granted greater creative control and freedom for the same reasons – but he was granted it, at an even larger scale. “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice”, for better or for worse, was arguably the greatest distillation of his particular vision, style, mindset, and idiosyncrasies, instead of a more studio-led safe bet. Criticism Burton received for Batman Returns – “Burton still hasn’t figured out how to tell a coherent story: He’s more interested in fashioning pretty beads than in putting them on a string….Yet for all the wintry weirdness, there’s more going on under the surface of this movie than in the original. No wonder some people felt burned by ‘Batman Returns’: Tim Burton just may have created the first blockbuster art film” – does not seem that dissimilar, at least from what Snyder was attempting. Snyder may be called an auteur more jeeringly than sincerely in most cases, but few would argue he doesn’t have a distinct style and approach.
At one point, “Batman v Superman” was delayed ten months to give “the filmmakers time to realise fully their vision, given the complex visual nature of the story”, as per Warner Bros. Before the film did release, writer Chris Terrio spoke to what he and Snyder often described as a trilogy of films (”Man of Steel”, “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice”, the then-upcoming “Justice League”). Terrio said “’Batman v Superman’ is a bit of an ‘Empire Strikes Back’ or ‘Two Towers’ or any similar middle film in a trilogy. The middle film tends to be the darkest one. I do think from ‘Man of Steel’ through ‘Justice League’ it is one saga really. I expect ‘Justice League’ will not be tonally quite as dark as ‘Batman v Superman’. From that point of view, I felt compelled to go back and try to lift us and myself into a different tonal place because I think when you write a darker film, sometimes you want to redeem it all a bit”.
[Spoilers for “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” start below.]
The film was received extremely poorly, the most frequent criticisms being that it was too dark, incomprehensible, and incompatible with how people traditionally perceived and enjoyed the superhero characters. Superman’s death was particularly poorly received. Terrio had long already written “Justice League” (”Justice League: Part One”) at that point, and “Justice League” filming began only two short weeks after the release of “Batman v Superman”, so the series was full steam ahead in a way that didn’t make it easy for Warner Bros to recalibrate and reassess the series more thoroughly if they wished. But they did step in and begin reasserting creative control. They established a new division, “DC Films”, to oversee the series, with producer Jon Berg and comics writer Geoff Johns at its head. Goyer exited the series and the two Snyders lost a lot of their sway, alongside other shifts in the company.
Snyder said of the next film’s tone “I think I’m obsessed with tone in the movies. Tone has always been the main thing that I go after with a movie, and I really wanted the tone of the three movies to be different chapters and not be the same note that you strike like, ‘Okay, there’s this again.’ I really wanted that, and I do believe that since ‘Batman v Superman’ came out and we’ve wrapped our heads around what ‘Justice League’ would be, I do think that the tone has, because of what fans have said and how the movie was received by some, is that we have kind of put the screws to what we thought the tone would be and I feel crushed it that little bit further”.
The roadmap Snyder developed for the series included character development as well as story beats. Snyder’s words on discussing Batman’s overarching development with Affleck include “When we were making ‘Batman v Superman’ I was really conscious of this idea of like — and I talked to Ben about it — of like, how can the character, how can we not be stuck with this single-note Batman for whatever, if it’s three movies, because he’s making his Batman movie, like what do we do? And we talked long and hard about like, ‘Okay, in ‘Batman v Superman’ he’s here. He’s at the end of his career, and he’s down here, and he’s seen this thing that now he wonders what his relevance is, and maybe he can do this one thing.’ And then the example of Superman makes him go, ‘No, you know what? I’m not done. I’ve got more to do. I’ve got to persevere and make it right.’ And that’s the Batman you get now at the beginning of Justice League, is that he’s on a mission, and he’s really clearheaded about the mission and about the others that he’ll need to complete it”.
Snyder’s words on Superman’s development across the films were similar – “inherently also you’ve got to remember the whole thread of [Batman v Superman] was to draw those two into conflict. So I wanted to make sure that each of them was — and I felt like they were both evolving, in mind anyway. I think Superman was on his way toward something that I — I wanted to get to a Superman that had a reason to be Superman, like a reason to feel the way he felt about humanity, that we all understand from the comic books as far as he’s pretty, as far as a moral compass goes, he’s pretty much the thing. But I feel like he had to go through something to be that”. Superman was kept out of the vast majority of the marketing for “Justice League” in a coy way, a few bits of promotional art featuring him, but not the posters. The main poster for the film drew heavily from comic artist Alex Ross’ style, employing a very specific type of stylised lighting. A cleverly edited sequence in the final trailer showed Superman in an apparent dream sequence, but for the most part the marketing followed the premise of the film being the formation of the Justice League in the wake of Superman’s death, the story throughline Snyder planned.
Warner Bros’ public relations began to consistently position “heart, humour, hope, heroics, and optimism” as keywords for the franchise moving forward. The “Suicide Squad” villain team-up film sold well but was received poorly, but the “Wonder Woman” solo film, directed by Patty Jenkins and very in tune with those messages, was massively successfully critically and commercially. Snyder’s role in producing, developing and writing it was arguably downplayed. Ben Affleck appeared to take the critical failure of “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” badly, went back and forth on directing and co-writing a solo Batman film alone (he would eventually relinquish control and choose to only star in the film, which still seems in developmental limbo). There were rumours of Snyder and Terrio handling further rewrites of the film, some circling around the idea the film originally would have featured an evil Superman for a time, as hinted by a sequence in “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice”.
“Justice League” entered production. Jeremy Irons, who played Alfred in the preceding film, said in an interview “[Batman v Superman] was very muddled. I think [Justice League] will be simpler. The script is certainly a lot smaller, it’s more linear”. Snyder’s longtime director of photography, Larry Fong (a massive, massive part of Snyder’s distinctive style) couldn’t work on the film due to scheduling conflicts. The replacement cinematographer was Fabian Wagner, known for his television work. The film was shot in 1.85:1 aspect ratio, instead of the arguably more “cinematic” 2.39:1 ratio used for the previous films in the series. This more square aspect ratio resembles television in some ways (positioning the subject closer to the centre of the frame by necessity, having less headroom in the frame, the general more square-ish shape), and was more in line with Joss Whedon’s 2012 “The Avengers”, and was apparently easier to frame multiple superheroes in at once. Wager has said “Zack wanted to get away from the stylised, desaturated, super-high contrast looks of other films in the franchise”.
Snyder storyboards all of his movies by hand himself. He draws how he envisions every moving frame of his films, more or less. Wagner says “As the film was storyboarded, Zack had a good idea of every single frame we would shoot, but as I come from a background of shooting with two cameras, I suggested that I show him every shot that would look interesting with two cameras. We agreed that if he liked the idea, we would we do it, if not we’d leave it. I fully expected that we might do one or two shots a day with two cameras…in the end, we shot around 95% of the movie with two cameras”. Snyder typically uses one camera, to highlight the frame as planned in his storyboards. Multiple cameras would seemingly interfere with the specific compositions as he plans them. Producers typically like as much camera coverage as possible, to empower more choice and freedom in the editing bay to shape a film as desired. This year, directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller were fired from directing a “Star Wars” film in part because they would only cover shots from three camera setups, when the producers wanted fifteen, to empower the producers as much as possible in postproduction. These changes in the visual production of the film seem part of the trend of Warner Bros asserting more control over the franchise moving forward and Snyder losing some amount of authority and creative control (for better or for worse).
Principal photography wrapped in October 2016. In March 2017, one of Zack Snyder’s daughters passed away tragically. In May 2017, Snyder stepped down from the film. Initially he had tried to return to work after the family tragedy – “In my mind, I thought it was a cathartic thing to go back to work, to just bury myself and see if that was the way through it. The demands of this job are pretty intense. It is all-consuming. And in the last two months, I’ve come to the realisation…I’ve decided to take a step back from the movie to be with my family, be with my kids, who really need me. They are all having a hard time. I’m having a hard time”.
Snyder continued “I never planned to make this public. I thought it would just be in the family, a private matter, our private sorrow that we would deal with. When it became obvious that I need to take a break, I knew there would be narratives created on the Internet. They’ll do what they do. The truth is…I’m past caring about that kind of thing now. I want the movie to be amazing, and I’m a fan, but that all pales pretty quickly in comparison. I know the fans are going to be worried about the movie, but there are seven other kids that need me. In the end, it’s just a movie. It’s a great movie. But it’s just a movie”.
The Hollywood Reporter reported that Warner Bros apparently floated pushing back the release date of the movie, but the Snyders declined. In that same article, The Hollywood Reported reported that Snyder enlisted Joss Whedon, writer-director of the competitor series Marvel’s flagship “Avengers” team-up films, to write planned reshoot scenes. Warner Bros Pictures president Toby Emmerich said of these scenes “The directing is minimal and it has to adhere to the style and tone and the template that Zack set. We’re not introducing any new characters. It’s the same characters in some new scenes. He’s handing the baton to Joss, but the course has really been set by Zack. I still believe that despite this tragedy, we’ll still end up with a great movie”.
Yet Geoff Johns would later say “Everyone was excited about Joss being a part of DC, and we thought he’d be great to write the [Justice League] scenes, the additional-photography scenes that we wanted to get”, in a Vulture article reporting that “Right after BvS’s backlash hit, the fact that Snyder would also be in charge of Justice League cast a pall over the latter effort among the movie commentariat. There were internal discussions about how to revamp parts of the movie. Johns and Berg mulled the idea of having someone other than Snyder write new scenes for the film. By coincidence, the writer-director of Marvel’s The Avengers, Joss Whedon, met with Johns and Berg to discuss creating a movie with them. The pair were game for that (they eventually chose one about Batman ally Batgirl), but later realised they could accomplish another goal”.
Ben Affleck, along with a lot of the rest of the cast, downplayed Whedon’s role in shaping the film. He’d state “[Snyder] cast the movie, he designed the movie. There’s something that people, I think, who don’t work on movies don’t actually understand, which is how much of the work is done in prep. You know the casting; the sets get built; the story is written; the ship is in essence sailing. I found as a director you can maybe change 10 per cent, 15 per cent or something on the day. So Zack’s ship set sail for us, and we were fortunate that, when Zack was not able to continue, we got really lucky that we got a guy [Whedon] who was very accomplished in his own right, and particularly in this genre. He kind of sprinkled on some of his fairy dust on our movie and finished it”. Indeed, Snyder had spent eight years developing what would turn out to be the DC Extended Universe, considering when he started working on “Man of Steel”.
But Snyder didn’t oversee the postproduction of the film, the extensive reshoots, the editing, the colour grading, and on and on, particularly notable since the film was less director-driven in the first place (such as with the multiple camera setups). For a director so focused on CGI and music, that’s notable. With many scenes, it’s screamingly clear what portions were reshot. Affleck’s face looks considerably difference from principal to reshot photography. The CGI noticeably differs in quality. The framing and lighting look strikingly different, doubtlessly in no small part because of how different a director Whedon is to Snyder, and the reshoot cinematographer Philippe Glossart is to Fabian Wagner.
The Whedon reshoots clearly weren’t just adding new character-focused scenes (like the “the world needs Superman” scene with Batman and Alfred), but adjusting many scenes already completed in principal photography (like Batman trying to recruit Aquaman, or Batman trying to recruit the Flash, and so on – Ezra Miller’s haircut as the Flash changes noticeably in his recruitment scene, among others). Reports of extensive CGI work being needed to digitally erase a contractually-obligated moustache Superman actor Henry Cavill had for filming another film while doing the “Justice League” reshoots seem absurd, but they’re the case. If you don’t go looking for it I think it can slide by you, but actually looking at Superman’s lower face in most of his scenes in the film hits the uncanny valley offputtingly. Many of the reshoots break continuity in odd ways, like when Batman is walking with Aquaman along the shore of an Icelandic village, and the location of the villagers and Batman’s walking forward twice while delivering different lines is repeated.
It’s debatable how much was always-planned CGI development and how much was creative differences in the Snyder to Whedon changeover, but you can chart a great deal of visual changes over the different trailers for the film.
Ezra Miller, who plays the Flash in the series, says of the two directors “You can ask [Snyder] what’s going on in a scene and he can show it to you….[Whedon] was really challenged and had to employ a lot of his craft and mastery in order to complete this vision left in his hands”. Producer Deborah Snyder, Zack’s wife, said of the changeover in directors “or us, this whole thing is so bittersweet because we had been working on this franchise for the past almost eight years, when we started developing the script for ‘Man of Steel’, ‘Batman v Superman’, and also Zack developed the story for ‘Wonder Woman’, which was leading up to the point of ‘Justice League’, where these characters were finally going to come together. This was a really great hero’s journey…a journey for these characters to be the characters they are today. So not being able to complete his vision was extremely difficult”.
Snyder also had no say in what ended up being the music for the film. Initially, Junkie XL (who was involved in the music for “Man of Steel” and was co-composer for “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice”) scored the film, under Snyder. He continued to use the leitmotifs established by Zimmer and himself in the earlier films in the series. Zimmer had actually written specific leitmotifs for “Justice League” characters, that hadn’t been in previous films in the series – those motifs go unheard now, because Whedon replaced Junkie XL with Danny Elfman, who he’d worked with on the second Avengers film. Junkie XL was removed the film. His response was “As my mentor Hans Zimmer told me: you haven’t made it in Hollywood as a composer until you get replaced on a project. So I guess I finally graduated this week. It pains me to leave this project, but a big thanks to Zack for asking me to be part of his vision, and I wish Danny, Joss and Warner Bros all the best with Justice League”, as well as “Now that the movie is coming out, it’s a difficult time for Zack because he couldn’t really see his vision all the way through”.
Elfman spurned the Batman theme Zimmer and Junkie XL developed (”Batman has only had one theme” says Elfman, invalidating the iconic 1960s Batman theme that predates him, the Batman Forever theme, the Zimmer “Dark Knight” theme, and the Zimmer and Junkie XL theme for the specific series he was brought in on, that he didn’t use). “You will not hear a new theme for Batman,” says Elfman, “You will hear Batman’s theme for Batman. Batman has only had one theme [his]”.
Elfman’s score for “Justice League” references long past DC films, using Williams’ Superman March and his own 1989 Batman theme. It also references Elfman’s own Spider-Man and Hulk scores, for Marvel films. It even references Brian Tyler’s Marvel’s Avengers theme for the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
It does not reference the actual Superman theme of the series, that Zimmer composed. It does not reference any of the many themes established in the series, except Wonder Woman’s briefly. The score predominantly revolves around his 1989 Batman motif. The short motif for the Flash actually works rather well, the high strings sound wondrous and it’s sufficiently different from the rest of the soundtrack to make Flash’s slow-motion scenes stand out, which makes sense for the character, but it doesn’t occur often. The most resounding demonstration of the 1989 Batman motif in the soundtrack is oddly drowned out in the actual film, sound effects swallowing up a fully-fledged rendition of the old motif in a cheesy style. Nolan’s desires for a discrete series of films may have evaporated long ago, but the series stood out from its peers in having consistent music and musical themes, transcending even the main series and Zimmer and Junkie XL themselves, with Rupert Gregoson-Williams’ score for “Wonder Woman” building off those established motifs, maintaining musical continuity and unity.
Elfman subsumes the new iteration of the characters into just referencing older successful versions instead of giving them the chance to become iconic in their own right. There would be no iconic 1989 Batman motif if Elfman had just referenced an earlier score and not developed something new. Taken in a vacuum, the score is an interesting if weightless exploration of the 1989 motif in a modern context, but revolving a 2017 “Justice League” score around a twenty-eight years old motif based around a singular character (there are two team themes in the film but both are used less than the 1989 motif) seems a poor way to “launch this franchise as a unique franchise”, in Elfman’s own words. He makes the point that some of the success of “Star Wars” comes from how it using the same musical motifs across relaunches, but that ignores that “Star Wars” is all part of a consistent series in-universe, whereas the DC Extended Universe is a reboot untethered to the earlier Superman and Batman films.
[Spoilers for “Justice League” itself below.]
The film opens with a mobile phone clip of a happy and confident Superman, presumably in happier days before the events of “Batman v Superman”, being interviewed by some children. Portions of his face, especially his upper lip, do not look great – the CGI work digitally erasing the moustache Henry Cavill had for the reshoots of the film does not stand up super well. The film opening with a reshoot reassuring a more traditional take on Superman immediately sets the tone for the film to be more a course correction for the franchise instead of a sequel naturally iterating off a predecessor, the way “Batman v Superman” was to “Man of Steel”. Oh, the plot builds naturally enough off “Batman v Superman”, the Justice League being established because of the absence of Superman is the sort of superhero story justification Snyder likes to develop. But the tone, visual style and music are so completely adrift from the earlier films in the series, and the characterisation is so inconsistent it approaches incomprehensibility at times.
Batman turning rabidly fanatical over Superman’s place in the world feels like a natural place for the character to go, in keeping with his development in his last film and his obsessive nature in general, but how familiar he is with him (”the team needs Clark”) almost feels at times like it’s gesturing to some different relationship he had with Superman in a preceding film not quite the one we actually got. Wonder Woman is in an awkward state where “Batman v Superman” and to an extent “Justice League” clearly intended a more cynical history for the character, “turning away from mankind” and all that, but where her own film and comments from the actress and that film’s director contradict that. Superman inspiring a new wave of superheroes in his absence makes sense, and is the premise of the film really, but her acting freely as a superhero in opening scenes of the movie feels like an unearned moment brushed over, and her character in general feels like a cipher at times because of such gaps in her characterisation. She’s also sexualised oddly in the film, the camera lingers and leers on her in a way it didn’t in “Batman v Superman” or “Wonder Woman”, and a gag of another superhero (here the Flash) landing on her breasts is played for laughs. That moment felt odd since Joss Whedon staged that same scene in “Avengers: Age of Ultron”.
Aquaman works well but is thinly sketched. The Flash is set up well in scenes well-performed by Billy Crudup as his father, but his role as the comic relief of the team is pushed too far in the third act, where it was already losing power because inexplicably the rest of the team became quipsters as well. This was particularly noticeable with Cyborg, who Ray Fisher was doing quietly strong work with for most of the film, especially in interactions with his father, Silas Stone (a canny bit of meta-casting saw Joe Morton play Cyborg’s father, overseeing the development of a strange and dangerous AI system, when he played the character doing just that in developing Skynet in “Terminator 2: Judgement Day” many years ago). Then Cyborg becomes a quipster as well in the third act. If Superman’s resurrection had elated the characters, it would be one thing (though them sharing the exact same quippy style of humour would still grate), but it had begun in the film before that, and there was no indication of such a motivation anyway. The little work the film did in setting up parallels and connections between the Justice League members interestingly (Cyborg and the Flash as “accidents”, Wonder Woman and Aquaman as members of dwindling ancient races they’d spurned, Batman and Cyborg as superheroes in the wake of parental trauma, the Flash as yet another protege for Batman, and so on) faded away as their personalities blended together into the same irreverent jokester.
The film, especially in the first act, feels like a “previously on” of a past movie, or a clip show, an abbreviated fanedit, anything besides an actual movie. The lack of Larry Fong’s distinctive cinematography that melds with Snyder’s sensibilities, the squarer aspect ratio, the choppy editing, the lack of consistent tone and visual style, it all makes the film feel a lot less commandingly cinematic than earlier films in the series. In fact, the choppy and strange editing make it feel more like “Suicide Squad”, which shared similar issues. Scenes are short and feel strangely edited, the lack of sense behind scene transitions recalling some of the incoherence in the theatrical cut of “Batman v Superman”, and the film never really sets out its worldbuilding, even for all its montage of a world without Superman. That montage doesn’t approach the brilliant, inspired montage that opens “Watchmen”, but still screams Snyder, right down to being set to a moody pop cover of a Leonard Cohen song. For all the added quips, the film barely ever stops and breathes, to let its tone settle, or worldbuilding make sense, or characters come across strongly. Batman barely even gets his hero poses, as the film zips along to anticlimactically rush exposition with a newly-cast Jim Gordon by way of J. K. Simmons.
Still, the first act trucks along sensibly enough, although the ancient sequence of Steppenwolf invading feels hilariously chopped up and cut down. Hell, the film could have opened with an extended version of that to lay out its stakes immediately, instead of introducing its villain offhandedly and never really clarifying his motivations satisfactorily. I was disappointed to see his design changed from his demonic, otherworldly appearance at the end of “Batman v Superman” to a more awkwardly animated CGI character, and also disappointed that his voice actor Ciarán Hinds’ comments about his motivations (”He’s old, tired, still trying to get out of his own enslavement to Darkseid, [but] he has to keep on this line to try and take over worlds”) irrelevant in this, the actual cut of the film. Methinks many story beats and a lot of connective story tissue was lost when overlord villain Darkseid and the connection to the originally planned “Justice League: Part Two” were scrapped.
Perhaps even more tangible than the change in aspect ratio, the production design and environments of the film are less inventive and expansive than the earlier Snyder films, and arguably “Suicide Squad” and “Wonder Woman” as well. Cramped sets and less stylised CGI backdrops probably helped mask the reshoots, but also demonstrate how much of what made Snyder’s particular sensibilities work in earlier films were the talented individuals he surrounded himself with. To his credit, the casting is spot-on here, and the characters and their set-ups are strong enough to sustain future films and leave a good impression of the Justice League itself (if perhaps not the film of the same name) at least.
Superman’s resurrection is strange. The Codex MacGuffin, a repository of Kryptonian DNA and bloodlines implanted into Superman’s cells at birth in the opening scenes of “Man of Steel”, never amounted into anything. Superman is shown emaciated and corpse-like in space in “Batman v Superman” before being revived by sunlight. The “Knightmare” sequence in “Batman v Superman” seemed to show the Flash from the future warning Batman about an evil, fascist version of Superman in a world filled with parademons and the symbol of their leader, Darkseid. That film ends with dirt floating above Superman’s coffin, the same way dirt does around him before he flies, perhaps indicating some presence of life within him still. “Batman v Superman” framed the character so religiously, never moreso than in his death, that some kind of mythic or religiously framed resurrection seemed appropriate. Perhaps a temptation of Christ type sequence for Superman, or Satan a la Steppenwolf resurrecting him through demonic powers, or even anything slightly surreal or mythic at all would have fitted better tonally. But in “Justice League” he’s brought back through a technobabble loophole framed with a joke about a Stephen King novel.
I don’t know if any of the rumours that Snyder originally planned more focus on an evil Superman, or a Superman revived differently or in his post-death black suit from the comics are true, but I do know that they sound like they had more story potential and tonal unity than what we got – a sequence of him attacking fellow superheroes scored to a discordant take on John Williams’ “Superman March” followed by him snapping into a much more traditional take on Superman without really joining the dots on his characterisation. This didn’t feel like a character evolving over a trilogy centred around him to me, it felt almost like a soft reboot of a character who was being characterised differently than usual and taken on a specific character arc perhaps audiences weren’t enthralled by. It’s strange because the sequence starts with the one time the film outright uses Hans Zimmer’s music for the series, in a brief Kryptonian cue from “Man of Steel”, but ends with Batman irreverently quipping. That quip, riffing off “do you bleed” from “Batman v Superman”, completely in tune with the themes of that movie (trying to bring a god down to humanity) is played for laughs when Superman bizarrely states it in a tone deaf way to a human, Batman, like he’s bullying him. Batman has nought to say but a quip about definitely bleeding in return.
If the film was trying to make some point about hope, as the marketing kept pushing, it feels off that the resurrection was driven out of desperation, and Wonder Woman and Aquaman actively resisted it. I didn’t feel much hope watching the CGI work in the scene either, the lack of environmental reactivity to the action was painful, the superimposition too obvious, the fountain next to Wonder Woman when Superman headbutts her doesn’t even ripple…I get the feeling the visual effects team (of which I saw many, many brave souls credited) was overworked and didn’t have enough time to do their best work. The reshoots can’t have helped. The CGI on Superman using his x-ray vision on the Justice League was good at least, I just wish that had tied back into the x-ray scene from “Man of Steel” (”the world’s too big mum / then make it small, just focus on my voice, pretend it’s an island out in the ocean, can you see it / I see it / Then swim towards it”) since it would be so applicable.
One interesting thing to note is, while I highly doubt this was the original plan, Batman bringing Lois to calm down Superman after his demented behaviour post-resurrection perhaps adverts the Knightmare future glimpsed in “Batman v Superman”…perhaps Superman stayed evil, Lois died in Steppenwolf’s invasion and that drove him even madder, the parademons ruled the Earth, Darkseid’s mark was laid upon the land and so on, and the Flash managed to send a message back to Batman (”Lois is the key!”) to avert that. That doesn’t track with most of the Flash’s warning dialogue in that scene (”You were right about [Superman], you’ve always been right about him, fear him! Fear him!”) but kind of vaguely works, in the same way most of the movie kind of vaguely works plot-wise as a sequel, but not really tonally or upon close inspection of the characters.
But, Superman comes back, complete with an uncanny CGI upper lip. Lois is there, he becomes a traditional Superman that so easily deals with the villain that the sudden lowering of the stakes almost feels like a joke, and he inexplicably returns to being Clark Kent despite having had a funeral and obituary and already dying at the exact same time as Superman. The film ends with Superman ripping off his shirt and flying into the sky Christopher Reeve style, but not even scored to John Williams’ Superman theme, or Hans Zimmer’s, but a bit of forgettable musical fluff. The film moved well enough for its first act, and its second to an extent too, but the inconsistent tone just kept mounting up and up and when a post-resurrection Superman was joking about wanting to die and previously depressed Cyborg was laughing about lacking human body parts, I felt like the movie was ridiculing itself.
Snyder understandably didn’t talk of “Justice League” much after leaving the film, but has stated “It would be unfair in a lot of ways for me to get involved in the film now. I’m at a place where I feel excited about it and I’m happy for my guys and I love these people that are working on it, and they’re my family and I think they’re doing an amazing job. But I’ve kind of just let them do their thing”. After the release of the film, he’s stated “I will be honest, I have not seen the film since I stepped away. You know I love these characters. I wish only I could have finished it for you and the others who love [‘Man of Steel’ and ‘Batman v Superman’]”. Snyder went on to create the short film “Snow Steam Iron” as a cathartic exercise with friends and family. The short film featured his distinctive style in spades.
In “Batman v Superman”, Martha Kent tells her son Superman that “You don’t owe this world a thing, you never did”. Warner Bros does not owe anyone some pre-Whedon version of the film. They are the studio, and this is their film. There is no peculiar alchemy like was present with “Batman v Superman” and the strange circumstances that led to it being unusually director-driven. This is not like “Batman v Superman”, where the “ultimate” extended version was the director’s original cut, and the director himself oversaw a shorter cut for theatrical release in the editing bay. Snyder was not present for the film’s ultimate postproduction and editing. The CGI work was finished after he departed the project.
For as much as the situation echoes Richard Donner and “Superman II”, right down to the director having finished around 75% of the film and being replaced by a comedy-action director, there just isn’t a “Snyder cut” hidden away. Perhaps one day his earlier footage and versions of scenes will see the light, and I’m sure there will be many fanedits excising reshoots (these literally already exist for certain scenes, on YouTube) and replacing the Danny Elfman score with Hans Zimmer and Junkie XL tracks from the earlier films, but the film is what it is – “Justice League”. Not “Zack Snyder’s Justice League”, much as I might have preferred that. I’m sure I’ll enjoy parts of this series in future, but the peculiar history of this film has made me realise I was more of a fan of Snyder’s direction than anything inherent about the series itself.
I question how much this film, even the hypothetical version fully directed by Snyder, would have really felt like a story necessity after “Batman v Superman”. The roadmap for the series certainly seemed to make a lot of sense and justify certain story beats and characterisations in a very Snyder way (”It’s all about the ‘why’ of superheroes: the political why, the religious why, the philosophical why”), but “Batman v Superman” was such a peculiarly comprehensive story under an oddly singular vision that I think it wrapped around itself cohesively already, its apparent franchise-building and sequel-baiting beats arguably justified and standalone in the film in and of itself.
The franchise-building in “Justice League” was loose enough that much of it was dropped in editing (scenes setting up a solo Flash film that’s struggled in development, scenes setting up a would-be Batman solo film directed by Ben Affleck that’s since been retooled, and reportedly more). Whereas in “Batman v Superman”, the focus on metahumans and other superheroes ties into Lex’s scheme and motivations in that film, and plays into the tonal shifts it goes through. The suggestions of demonic figures plays into Lex’s religious focus and the theme of projection revolving around Superman. The film already ends suggesting Superman will mantle his godly nature, emulating Christ in a pretty explicit way. The angel and devil symbolism to me works for that film’s own thematics and suggesting future stories not just in a way to logistically set them up, but to comment on the film’s own themes.
Did we really need to actually see Superman resurrected in a sequel to understand his commitment to Earth and his selfless sacrifice demonstrated he was a force for good? Doesn’t the end of “Batman v Superman”, suggesting he will be resurrected, hit the note the whole film had been revolving around, how people project themselves onto Superman and those in power, but repositioned in that reconstructed way through Superman’s religiously framed sacrifice? Didn’t the film already say what it had to say?
Like Jeremy Irons said, “Justice League” is a much more linear film than “Batman v Superman”, and while it in many ways flows on naturally from its predecessors, for these reasons it feels inescapably perfunctory to me. Parts of it are enjoyable, but it’s tonally adrift from its predecessors to such a great extent that it feels frustratingly jarring. There’s no unity in vision from the original concept of the series – Snyder’s “longing I have to make [superhero] mythology mean something”, “I wanted to get to a Superman that had a reason to be Superman”, “Tone has always been the main thing that I go after with a movie”, it’s all lost in the changeover to a director with a very different style and vision (Whedon’s ”Make it dark, make it grim, make it tough, but then, for the love of God, tell a joke”, “One of the things I like about the X-Men is they’re not killing people. I miss the idea of…heroes who stop that kind of thing from happening. Here’s why I’m not running Marvel: If I was, I would kill the Punisher. I don’t believe in what he does. The Punisher just shoots up places. And if you’re telling me he’s never hit an innocent, then I’m telling you, that’s fascist crap”).
Whedon is a skilled writer and I look forward to his upcoming “Batgirl” film in this series, but visually alone, his and Snyder’s styles clash horribly and jarringly. When Warner Bros hire a director famous for making the most successful films in their series’ most direct competitor, then drop a composer and hire a new one who literally quotes the motifs from that competitor series, there’s clearly a loss in unique vision and ambition at play. A good quote of Whedon’s is “All worthy work is open to interpretations the author did not intend. Art isn’t your pet – it’s your kid. It grows up and talks back to you”. I can’t parse what this film is saying because it’s the product of so many different authors and visions and interests and retooling.
The film is of course a massive mess, one whose cast, characters and general set-up is strong enough that it generally hangs together when you don’t peer too hard at the strings. But it’s not a particularly striking or interesting mess. It’s often literally an ugly one, given the state of some of the CGI and how jarring the reshot additions are. There’s no great vision here beyond scrambling to contort a film into the most successful and popular shape it can possibly take. It is certainly a DC film, one with a history just as slapdash as the film itself. That history is more engaging than the film too, and certainly provokes more of an emotional response, namely frustration. I give it one and a half mother boxes, and a parademon.