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Why Zack Snyder’s Justice League plays in 4:3 with black boxes on the sides

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What’s up with the pillarboxing? Do not adjust your TV

The differences between Zack Snyder’s Justice League and the 2017 theatrical version of the film are mostly additive — Cyborg gets his backstory back, Steppenwolf has a minor facelift, and Darkseid’s grumbling subplot is threaded throughout. But the most dramatic change to the HBO Max presentation of the “Snyder Cut” is how it looks on a television. Justice League was presented in multiplexes in a traditional widescreen format; Zack Snyder’s Justice League unfolds in a 4:3 box, like a lost TV movie from the 1980s finally getting its due. Albeit with state-of-the-art special effects and pristine picture quality.

Why does the movie have black bars — or pillarboxing, as aspect ratio techies would say — around the edges? It’s by design. As an HBO Max warning indicates at the start of the film, the 4:3 (1.33:1) dimensions were part of Snyder’s creative vision for Justice League, which he saw as an IMAX experience worthy of DC’s titans. The film wasn’t actually shot with IMAX cameras, nor was it originally framed for the boxy aspect ratio, but this is Zack Snyder’s Justice League, and everything we thought we knew about the movie is off the table.

“When we were working on Batman v Superman, we shot a ton of the sequences in IMAX,” Snyder said at a 2020 JusticeCon panel. “I was obsessed with the science center theaters where they show the 1.43 aspect ratio. IMAX, outside of that, is a bigger version of your TV, but in its gigantic, full-film, 10-story screen, it’s a different experience. And watching BvS and those sequences came on, I was like, This is fucking crazy! It got me obsessed with the big square.”

Justice League 2017 in 1.85:1 and Justice League 2021 in 4:3
Justice League (2017) vs. Zack Snyder’s Justice League (2021)
Composite: Matt Patches/Polygon | Source images: Warner Bros. Pictures/HBO Max

Snyder and his director of photography, Fabian Wagner (Game of Thrones, Overlord), originally framed Justice League in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio. While wider than the “big square,” the framing still gave the director more room for vertical information than the typical wide-widescreen anamorphic look. “I was a little concerned as to how we would get half a dozen superheroes on screen in the same frame,” Wagner said in an interview with British Cinematographer at the time, “but having scrutinised the storyboarded scenes with Zack, 1.85:1 was a perfect fit with the way the characters are visualised.”

What wasn’t as clear at the time of the theatrical release was that, while Snyder and Wagner had framed Justice League for 1.85:1, they had captured full-frame footage. This gave Snyder, in theory, the ability to open up sequences to the taller IMAX aspect ratio.

“A lot of the restoration [was] to put a lot of the big squares back,” Snyder said at JusticeCon. “Superheroes tend to be, as figures, they tend to be less horizontal. Maybe Superman when he’s flying. But when he’s standing, he’s more of a vertical. Everything is composed and shot that way, and a lot of the restoration is sort of trying to put that back.”

Most of us will never see Zack Snyder’s Justice League on the giant IMAX screen it’s intended for. (Publicists for the film confirmed to Polygon that there are no theaters currently showing the four-hour film, nor are there plans to roll it out in the future.) And depending on your preferred movie-viewing device — be it a big-screen TV, a laptop, a tablet, or your phone — the enjoyment of Snyder’s unique aspect ratio choice may vary. Here’s Dan Seifert of The Verge with examples of how the pillarboxing (and, in some cases, automatic horizontal letterboxing as well) display the film on different setups.

Zack Snyder’s Justice League in 4:3 on HBO Max with pillarboxing and letterboxing
Zack Snyder’s Justice League playing on a 12.9” iPad Pro Screencaps: Dan Seifert/Twitter

In a recent New York Times interview, Snyder self-reflected on his choice to play Justice League in 4:3, reminding people that his film and First Cow are the most recent, yet diametrically opposed examples in recent memory. “Am I a provocateur?” Snyder asked out loud. “A little bit.”