Zack Snyder's Justice League
An unprecedented time. An unprecedented opportunity. An army of persuasive fans.
And one very colourful, newly-shot scene.
After four years, director Zack Snyder returns to the DCEU to complete his vision. It’s a new era. Superman (Henry Cavill) is dead and a new villain channeling a very old evil has arrived. Honoring Superman’s sacrifice, Batman (Ben Affleck) and Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) must not only work together, but also unite an unlikely group of heroes – Cyborg (Ray Fisher), Aquaman (Jason Momoa), and The Flash (Ezra Miller) — to fight Steppenwolf, an eight-foot-tall warrior from the nightmare world of Apokolips who wants to conquer not only the Earth’s population but the planet’s entire existence. In his 4-hour epic, Snyder not only assembles our heroes, but he and writer Chris Terrio explore the breadth of their backstories, diving into the complexities of their lives introducing us to Victor Stone’s mother Elinore and Iris West, Barry Allen’s potential love interest. Lois Lane (Amy Adams) gets an emotional story arc, deepening her connection to Superman and his eventual resurrection. Vulko (Willem Dafoe) gives us context for Aquaman’s story. Alongside Cyborg, we experience the full range of Silas Stone’s love for his son.
An extended Justice League allows for extended world building. Never before seen, existing-footage scenes with Deathstroke (Joe Manganiello), Calvin Swanwick/Martian Manhunter (Harry Lennix), and Ryan Choi (Zheng Kai) round out the mythology. We get the opportunity to watch our heroes join forces to eliminate Steppenwolf, much to the chagrin of New God Darkseid, making his first appearance. And at the end of it all, a chilling, freshly-shot finale with some of our heroes – and one smiling villain. For Zack Snyder, this project is about a sense of closure, for himself, for his producing partner and wife Deborah, for the fans, for all of the cast, crew, and artisans who worked on his initial vision.
But none of this would have been possible if it hadn’t been for the fans. Even before the 2017 version of the movie was released, there were rumblings from the fans. First it was quiet. Give us the Snyder Cut. After the movie hit theaters in November 2017, it only got louder. #ReleaseTheSnyderCut, people demanded, circulating petitions and pleading with the studio. Once fans learned an actual Snyder Cut existed, they were overjoyed and doubled down on their efforts.
Around the time of Comic-con 2019 and 2nd anniversary of Justice League that November, fans began to bombard Warner Bros. with grand gestures – billboards, social media campaigns, even sending airplanes to fly over the studio. Stars Ben Affleck and Gal Gadot publicized their endorsements with #ReleaseTheSnyderCut tweets.
“Never in our wildest imaginations did we think we would finish it. We just had this version for ourselves,” Deborah says.
But, she continues: “We knew the money it was going to take to complete the production – there was no music done, over 2500 VFX shots needed to be finished. So, we put together a big presentation: who’s the fan base, what numbers are we looking at, what are numbers in comparison to other hit films for streamers. We felt like if we could make the case that these numbers would translate into subscribers, it would make sense to do it.”
The Snyders made their presentation to HBO Max. And then Covid hit. Everyone said it was now too difficult to get it done, but Deborah saw things differently: “I said, now is the time to do this. Because lot of movies are shutting down. A lot of companies had capacity now, companies that maybe wouldn’t have been able to keep their doors open. It was great to be able to support vendors that we and Warner Bros. had worked with for a long time.”
Just like the alternate universes that comic fans are keenly familiar with, this iteration of creating the Snyderverse was an amalgamation of the past and the present. They would use all existing footage from Snyder’s initial shoot, except for one after credits scene that had lived in Snyder’s mind for years. (More on that later…) Junkie XL aka Tom Holkenborg, Snyder’s original Justice League composer, came back on to write an entirely new, 4-hour-long score. VFX teams got to work on thousands of shots that had to be done or redone.
“The tricky part was figuring out the plan without it leaking. We didn’t want it to get out there before there was an agreement or before we could make our own announcement,” Deborah says. “A lot of the vendors went out of their way to make this happen, because for them also it was completing a journey. Their work got reimagined and so to be able to put it back to what we originally planned… it was as fulfilling for them as it was for us.”
With traditional theatrical venues out of the equation, the Snyders and HBO Max worked together to create a deeply cinematic television experience for subscribers. The streamer even went so far as to work with the Snyders on an interactive series of “Chapters” for the film, which is divided into six parts:
Part 1 - "Don't Count On It, Batman"
Part 2 - "Age of Heroes"
Part 3 - "Beloved Mother, Beloved Son"
Part 4 - "Change Machine"
Part 5 - "All The King's Horses"
Part 6 - "Something Darker."
Sky have announced that the Warner Bros. Pictures and DC full-length film, Zack Snyder’s Justice League, will be available on Sky Cinema and NOW TV from 18 March. If you look at the time stamp slider on the bottom of the screen, you’ll see distinctions for each Chapter. That way, if you only have time to watch one part, it will be easy to return to where you left off. Of course, hardened fans will be stocking up on drinks, snacks and take-outs in order to watch in one sitting.
“Working with HBO Max is the best possible situation, because you can really take a deep dive into the characters in a way you couldn’t do in a theatrical version of it,” Deborah says. “There are hard core fans that are going to sit through the movie and people who will sit through a little at a time. It was important to us to make sure that people have options in how they want to view it.”
RedHanded Magazine: As someone who has not seen the previous version, your concept remains pristine. How would you describe the Justice League story you set out to tell?
Zack Snyder: Justice League is a story of a group of misfits. They’re superheroes but they’re all kind of wayward, and each of them has a certain skill sets needed to save the world. It’s the story of the coming together of those lost souls into a family. They form a relationship and become partners so that they can do good, save the world, what have you. But in it, they’re able to go through a catharsis with themselves and their own demons -- and of be better in the end.
RH: Have you always been into comic books?
ZS: I was always a fan of illustrated media. Growing up, I was a big fan of Heavy Metal Magazine, which is an adult illustrated fantasy magazine that I got ahold of at a very young age… Too young. It really shaped my aesthetic. So yes, I have been a fan of that way of illustrated storytelling for a long time. It has informed the cinematic language of the way I like to tell stories with pictures as much as possible.
RH: Four hours allows for a lot of world building. What was your process for choosing what gets more focus and screen time?
ZS: When we started off, Chris Terrio and I knew there might be other films: there was a Flash film in production with a big role for Cyborg, and the Wonder Woman movie had not come out yet. We worked with the Flash writers and I was deeply involved in the Wonder Woman storyline. Also, we were planning a 2nd and 3rd Justice League movie where we would be also able to complete the arcs we had fully fleshed out. The idea was to meet Cyborg, who was set to be the heart of this movie. At the time we hadn’t come up with a Cyborg standalone, but that was our plan. So, we did the deepest dive of the movie into Cyborg’s backstory and what makes him tick.
RH: There is so much source material, and canon can mean something different to everyone. How did you decide what to mine and what to create?
ZS: Chris and I knew where we wanted the story to go. A lot of what I use as canon is more classic and well-established, but we also look to writers we really liked. In addition to Jack Kirby's classic work on the New Gods, we looked at Grant Morrison's and Alex Ross's takes on the Justice League. I like to look at these movies like a comic book writer who’s taking a run at a character in a comic book series. A lot of times they’ll do original stuff, come up with a new twist. That’s how we approach it a lot of time, too. We have our time with these characters, and someone will come along after us, and they’ll have their time -- and it will be different. I think that’s really healthy for comics and for the mythology, and I hope it continues.
RH: Even for superheroes, some of these backstories are unusually lengthy.
ZS: In order for the Justice League to have any gravitas, you really have to understand who they were and what made it difficult for them to come together. In the comics, the origin stories of all these heroes are well known. We took a lot from canon. When you introduce a superhero, it’s important to understand what makes him tick, where his powers came from. Mythologically speaking, those things are often intertwined: your origin stories and where your powers lie. We were very interested in understanding where these characters came from. Then we painted, with a detailed brush, who they are when we meet them to join the Justice League.
RH: I know you mostly mined your original footage, but the movie is four hours… What additional scenes did you shoot?
ZS: The only new scene is the Batman/Joker scene. The rest of it was the original movie.
RH: Wow. So, although most of this was in the editing – hence “The Snyder CUT” – the Joker/Batman scene must have required a lot of work, especially trying to pull it off during a pandemic. Was this a completely new idea?
ZS: After I realized there would be no more Zack Snyder DC movies, my biggest regret was that there was no Batman/Joker confrontation scene. It’s the key relationship for both of them. They both went through a series of films and never ran into each other. It didn’t make sense to me. So, I thought maybe I could remedy that. The idea was that we would do it without telling anybody. I talked to Jared and said we’d get him and Ben and shoot it in my backyard just sneak it into the movie. Then I just wrote the scene and it turned out we could shoot it.
RH: When they reference Robin and Harley Quinn… Did you see this scene as a way of tying things up or opening things up?
ZS: It does open doors, I know. The main notion is that Joker killed Robin. The revelation of the scene is that Harley is dead, and Batman was there in that moment. As well as that somehow Joker has to help Batman fix the world. Which is all part of this post-apocalyptic nightmare reality we were gunning toward in the second and third movies.
RH: Martian Manhunter also has a pivotal scene with Batman and anchors an enhanced Lois Lane storyline and. Why give him so much visibility (or invisibility, in the case of Martha Kent)?
ZS: Traditionally, in genre, the coda takes you to the next film or into the next universe. Also, it just ties up what’s happened in the movie in a way. I’ve always been a fan of Martian Manhunter. As a character, he intrigues me. I don’t know what his reluctance to engage in humanity is about, but he has all these incredible powers. For years, I have been thinking about having Swanwick’s alter ego be Martian Manhunter. I really saw him as a springboard. So, we thought: Let’s have Martian Manhunter take on the shape of Martha Kent to get Lois to reengage with the world. And at the end, I’ll bring him back to launch a dark side war. It’s a way to talk about what Bruce Wayne’s role really was. Also, if the Darkseid comes, you’re going to need all hands on deck to face that.
RH: Has your vision changed at all between when you were going to make it and when you were finally able to?
ZS: I think it’s very close. I’m sure there have been some emotional shifts that have gone on that have put a different prism for the light to shine through. It’s the same story, but there’s more water under the bridge.
What are some elements that you’re glad you got to put into this cut?
I love seeing a little bit of a day in the life of Barry Allen. I love the sequence where Flash runs time back, it’s super psychedelic. I think the movie is pretty psychedelic overall. Even just all the stuff with Cyborg inside his mindscape.
I like seeing Bruce starting to turn toward a less dark, calculated character, one that’s inspired by faith that the world will turn correctly as opposed to a character who believes the world will always turn toward the dark. That’s a big move for Bruce in the movie.
RH: The themes of faith really echo in the film. Is that a more recent development?
ZS: It has always been there, that notion. Of course, we underline it a little harder now than we have in the past. Moving into the light seemed important for these guys. Out of all the characters in this film/universe, which do you identify with most? It’s hard to say. I look at the Justice League like they are personality traits of a single being more than individuals. Barry is your humor and boyish charm and naiveté, Bruce is the sort of father figure who is a little bit jaded by the life he has lived, Superman is
the best of us. Cyborg is our best self that has been held back. It’s a fun game to play.
(Says Deborah: “For a long time, there wasn’t anyone I could relate to, so it was super
important when we were working on BVS to find the right Wonder Woman. Gal
embodies all the characteristics and amazing qualities. To bring her to the screen and
be a producer on WW was so exciting for me. My daughter and my son will never know
that there isn’t this strong woman out there because she is in their world.”)
RH: What is it about this project that inspires such a steadfast commitment from the
fan community toward something they’ve never even seen?
ZS: I think that people want this version of the movie, because I take it seriously. And I take
it personally. And I love the characters like they do. I feel like that resonates with fans
with regards to how they see the DC universe and how they see these characters. And
that relationship fuels a lot of the deep dives people take into the Snyderverse version
of the DCEU.
RH: To be able to tell this story unencumbered, is that freeing or more stressful?
ZS: The movie itself is one of those few times I wasn’t making it for anyone, I was just
making it. Whether it’s superfans or the uninitiated or whoever watching it. It has
nothing to do with it. It’s more like reading someone’s journal than it is reading someone’s novel. I think that’s part of the unique experience of the film. I’ll be honest. It’s kind of the way I work anyway. I’ve always been slightly embattled throughout my career. I think it makes for good rewatching.
RH: Finally, what’s the most fun moment you remember having on set?
ZS: When we were shooting Jason (Momoa) on his walk down the jetty, we had built these massive water cannons that fire water at him. BOOM, BOOM, BOOM. It was hilarious, because he just had to stand up there and we had no idea what would happen. It wasn’t pleasant but it looked cool, so he was down. He goes: how many times do I have to do this? And I go: I don’t know, a few times. I think he thought he had to only do it the one time. And it was more like, 30 times. I just remember this one time, we blasted him with water, he literally disappeared. Then the water subsided, and he’s just standing there, like: WOOOOOOOO!
PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER
Bringing a film to life is always a team effort, but the original team members behind Zack Snyder’s Justice League were ecstatic to jump back on board. For some, it was a much-needed culmination of their artistry. Others, struggling from a lack of work due to the pandemic, could put their available time and resources to good use.
From a technical standpoint, a lot of elements that require in-person collaboration (like shooting the movie) were already finished. Most of the visual effects vendors are international, so they work remotely anyway. Snyder was able to work from his home office via an AVID that his editor could control remotely. And when something absolutely needed to be done in person, all safety precautions were taken. Like say, for example… a totally new scene involving Batman, The Joker, and various other heroes.
“The idea was that we would do it without telling anybody. I talked to Jared and said we’d get him and Ben and shoot it in my backyard…just sneak it into the movie,” Zack says. “Then I just wrote the scene and it turned out we could shoot it.”
But it wasn’t as easy as it sounds. (Honestly, who wouldn’t want to see a Batman/Joker scene with Affleck and Leto in the Snyders’ backyard?) For one thing, it was the height of the pandemic. Actors have notoriously difficult schedules – especially when they’re all over the world and there’s not a lot of travel happening. Ezra Miller was shooting Fantastic Beasts in the UK and couldn’t make it back. AND of course there was a looming deadline. But they were determined to make it work.
“We wanted one brand new thing,” Deborah says. “All of this was very complicated, but we figured it out. Graciously Ezra’s film crew agreed to shoot it, and Zack directed on Zoom. The unions and studios did a great job of coming up with parameters of how to shoot during COVID. We really had a guidebook – we followed them which kept everyone safe.”
Since everyone thought this was pie in the sky, no one thought about things like latex costumes, which are apparently not as durable as one might think. Deborah recalls a moment where Affleck went to put on Batman’s cowl and it just sort of crumbled. “We didn’t have time to recreate another set of costumes. Luckily it’s post-apocalyptic,” Deborah says, laughing. “They’re supposed to be in not good shape.”
The movie’s score is probably the only element that had to be completely recreated from scratch. So, Zack called Dutch composer Junkie XL, aka Thomas Holkenborg, who had written the score for the movie’s 2017 iteration -- and gave him a blank slate.
“Junkie has been a big collaborator of mine for a while. He and Hans Zimmer worked together, and he’s done a couple of movies for me,” Zack says. “When I left Justice League, for whatever reason they decided not to use Junkie. And I think he had a similar experience with the movie when I told him we were going to do it again, finish it the way I intended. He was excited to dig back in.”
And Junkie did. Despite the fact that he had to create an unprecedented 4-hour score in almost total isolation because of the pandemic – “my Mountain of Everest,” he calls it -- the massive project felt like a true labor of love. With less traditional constrictions, Junkie infused each main character’s theme with the lyrical depth of a backstory.
“The Justice League theme had to feel like an anthem of some country. When you hear it you feel like, I want to be part of that – singing it in the stadium with your favourite team playing, a sense of being one,” Junkie says. Collaborating with Hans Zimmer on Man of Steel, Batman vs. Steel, and Wonder Woman, Junkie had developed some of the earlier themes, which he says brings back great memories of working together on these movies with Zack.
“Individually, these characters have one thing in common – a tormented past. A lot of darkness and pain and melancholy and sorrow are speaking through their music and I have to find all these different approaches to establish that with each character,” Junkie says. “With Batman – it always turned into anger and darker look at the world. Superman – everything comes from a place of nobility and seeing the good in people. It’s similar with Wonder Woman, but I wanted to rework her theme with world music elements, because the Amazon tribe felt like a clan. Aquaman deserved his own very heroic theme with some cool solo features. Cyborg has a very troubled past - for him I was able to do almost like a classical musical adagio. There’s a massive scene called Cyborg’s where we see his past and what he became. To write a scene like that is a composer’s dream, like, Wow I can write 15 minutes of music with no sound effects and barely any dialogue? Oh YES.”
Junkie worked with musicians all over the world in nontraditional ways on a nontraditional timeline. While a typical film score is one of the last components of a project that gets completed with hundreds of musicians on one room, this process took many months with Zack – a huge music fan himself – encouraging the composer to go big. The director himself had a hand in song choices that Junkie didn’t compose, from Nick Cave to “Song to the Siren” to the gorgeous cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”
“I had been playing around with different needle drops for years,” Zack says. “You can tell as you watch the movie, that it comes from a very particular kind of place. it’s all very personal.”
So, what does it feel like to get closure on such an epic project?
“I think the fans are going to like seeing what we’ve done: more of who the characters are, the arcs more completed. Showing this on HBO Max allows us to do this deep dive that otherwise we wouldn’t have been able to do,” says Deborah. “I keep pinching myself, it doesn’t feel real. I think when the world sees it, it will finally feel real. We have been working on it in isolation for so long, and it’s been this incredible journey. To be able to finally bring Zack’s vision to the world is just amazing.
For Zack and me, it’s not just work. When you’re filmmakers, you’re living and breathing what you’re doing. To really be able to have this out there when you never thought it would is just…. It’s remarkable.”