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Superman (Henry Cavill) surrounded by worshipful people in face paint in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice Photo: Warner Bros.

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All of Zack Snyder’s director’s cuts are windows into his obsessions

Watching all of them together, #SnyderCut included, a clear pattern emerges

Sometime between the 1992 re-release of Blade Runner and the 2007 debut of its “final” version, director’s cuts made the transition from cult item to marketing tool. The question of “Which version should I watch?” barely existed in the early days of home video; now inveterate tinkerers like Ridley Scott (who has director’s cuts of Kingdom of Heaven and The Counselor in addition to Blade Runner), Michael Mann, and Oliver Stone can adjust their movies after the fact, in some cases producing multiple “director’s” versions of the same film. But the old guard of director’s-cut aficionados look like amateurs compared to Zack Snyder. More than any other filmmaker, his various expanded cuts are a window into his methods and fixations.

Snyder hasn’t released a new movie since his work on 2017’s Justice League, but during that time his fans have rallied and agitated against Warner Bros. to “release the Snyder Cut” of the film, which Joss Whedon rewrote and reshot after Snyder left the project. Eventually, against considerable odds, Warner Bros. gave Snyder the money to finish his version of Justice League, which is premiering on HBO Max. To the #SnyderCut faithful, Snyder’s version of Justice League isn’t just a curiosity or a footnote. It’s the very picture of unfettered artistic freedom, the work of a visionary finally freed from cowardly compromise, as demanded by his most dedicated acolytes.

It’s probably especially easy to feel this way from within the cloistered, insular world of comics fans. Superhero diehards love artistic expression like they love few other things, as long as it’s related to stuff they know from comic books. The expectations for this particular four-hour opus feel a bit outsized because Justice League is far from unprecedented in its director’s career. As he told the New York Times in a recent interview: “Almost every movie I’ve ever made has a director’s cut.”

Superman, Wonder Woman, and Batman standing in front of fires together in Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice Photo: Warner Bros.

In terms of what’s commercially available, Justice League is Snyder’s fifth movie (out of nine, if you include the upcoming Army of the Dead) to publicly receive some kind of revised or expanded treatment. Justice League’s predecessor, Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, gained an extra 30 minutes for its Blu-ray release. Snyder’s Watchmen, another comics-based epic, has both a director’s cut with 24 additional minutes and an “ultimate cut” that adds in the animated “Tales of the Black Freighter” footage for maximum comic-book fidelity. Sucker Punch’s extended edition, available on Blu-ray, runs 18 minutes longer than the theatrical version. Even Dawn of the Dead, Snyder’s 2004 debut that remade the George Romero classic, has an unrated director’s cut with nine extra minutes.

These all pale in comparison to Justice League’s 100 percent increase in running time, revamped aspect ratio, and $70 million worth of finished visual effects and newly shot footage. But these past extended editions are worth examining alongside the Snyder Cut du jour.

The primary feature of a Snyder Cut is some degree of increased narrative clarity. Some of them do include major full-scene additions, but most of the extra minutes come from accumulating small moments, not reinstating gigantic missing pieces. While the Watchmen re-edits add one prominent scene showing the death of Hollis Mason, a former superhero humbled by old age, most of the other added footage just lets scenes play out for an additional 10 or 20 seconds. Shots linger, conversations last an extra few lines, and the unhinged vigilante Rorschach gets a little more time to monologue, in ways that fill in some of the details of the characters’ relationships and motivations.

That’s also true of Batman v. Superman, where an entire subplot of setup makes considerably more sense in the longer version. It’s possible to watch the theatrical cut and have no real idea that an early sequence in Africa is about Lex Luthor framing Superman for a series of deaths, rather than simply coaxing him into a volatile international incident, or that the death of a criminal in prison after Batman brands him with a bat-symbol is engineered by Luthor to stoke animosity between Batman and Superman.

The more straightforward narrative in Dawn of the Dead is different — it doesn’t have any plot points that require further clarification. Nonetheless, the director’s cut alternates the obligatory “unrated” additional-gore shots with a more metaphorical fleshing-out of some characters’ backgrounds. This is all well within the realm of the traditional director’s cut, typically made free of studio pressures to keep the running time manageable. It’s worth asking, though, whether these additions truly add up to a greater whole.

The bloodied cast of Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead stands behind a chain-link fence Photo: Universal Pictures

Certainly none of the Snyder director’s cuts are worse than their theatrical versions, and many of them are arguably better. Batman v. Superman makes more sense in its expanded edition. Watchmen tells more of its beloved story. Sucker Punch, in particular, is much improved in its extended version. It’s Snyder’s only movie without source material; it sprung fully formed from his weird brain, though it’s certainly influenced by the comics, video games, and genre films that inform his other work. The longer Sucker Punch doesn’t eliminate its terrible voiceover philosophizing or the uneasy feeling that Snyder is toying with issues (the male gaze) and themes (empowerment through traumatic situations) he hasn’t formed complete thoughts about. But it does give the audience more opportunity to understand its bizarre layers of reality.

The movie is about a young woman (Emily Browning) unjustly committed to a mental institution, which she imagines as a Moulin Rouge-esque performance brothel where she beguiles patrons with her seductive dances — which in turn she privately visualizes as a series of elaborate fantastical action sequences. The most prominent addition to the extended cut is a musical sequence where Oscar Isaac and Carla Gugino, as the brothel’s managers, perform a cover of Roxy Music’s “Love Is the Drug,” yet another of Snyder’s favored ostentatious cover tunes.

This sequence, chopped up as a credits song for the theatrical version, more clearly establishes the movie’s heightened, presentational style before it dives into its second layer of dreamlike hallucinations. The longer version of the movie also gives Jon Hamm’s character an actual scene to play, elevating his performance beyond random-cameo status — and, as with the other Snyder Cuts, clarifying some murky plot points along the way.

Sometimes, though, even the splashier additions don’t enhance Snyder’s movies so much as supersize them. The added Hollis Mason death scene, for example, represents Snyder’s adaptation of Watchmen perfectly. It’s clearly, strikingly shot, with effective stylish flourishes — in this case, micro-flashbacks to Hollis’ past fights as Nite Owl, as he mounts a futile defense against a group of attackers. It also suffocates its actors with slow-motion splash-panel reverence for its own form. In spite of the extra room to stretch out, the actors don’t have any additional space to loosen up and make the characters their own. They’re mostly just doing graphic-novel re-enactments.

Comparing Watchmen to Snyder’s later director’s cuts does make him look like an artist who has evolved, at least to the point where he doesn’t constrain his actors so tightly. The expanded Batman v. Superman actually gives Henry Cavill (as Superman) and Amy Adams (as Lois Lane) significantly more to work with as actors. Yet this longer and more winding road still winds up at the same underwhelming destination: a noisy battle royale with a poorly designed last-minute mega-villain, enlivened only by the sudden appearance of Wonder Woman, who was a tangential character for most of the preceding 150 minutes.

The cast of Watchmen stands on the street together in a promo image for Zack Snyder’s Watchmen Image: Warner Bros.

The expanded version of the plot makes more sense, but its ideas about warped ideals and the pitfalls of heroism still swirl, half-formed, around a lot of derivative spectacle. A director’s cut like Cameron Crowe’s “Untitled” version of Almost Famous gives the original work additional grace notes and textures. Snyder’s director’s cuts tend to give his movies more of the same texture. Where studio executives seem to believe any problem can be mitigated by cutting a movie down, Snyder simply appears to believe the opposite: “This would all be better if there was more of it.”

Snyder’s fans, especially of his DC Comics adaptations, have adopted a religious fervor about “more,” which casts his director’s cuts in a new light. They’re devotional acts that typically don’t offer a fundamentally altered experience, unlike the more brooding Blade Runner director’s cut, or the more expansive, tour-like Almost Famous recuts. Snyder’s re-edits seem like he’s afraid he’ll break the spell that enraptured him and his fans to begin with.

This leaves the various Snyder cuts feeling somehow both purer than their theatrical versions, and still unsatisfying — or sometimes downright unfinished, like rambling sermons that don’t quite come together. And if the tinkering doesn’t create a new masterpiece, well, there’s always another recutting to obsess over. One of his best salvage jobs, the much-improved Sucker Punch, isn’t technically his director’s cut at all. It’s a longer cut of the movie that is, per Snyder himself, preferable to the theatrical cut without being his definitive version. It’s a little baffling at first to think of anyone approving a significantly longer home-video version of Sucker Punch while still refusing to make it to Snyder’s final specifications, unless the project’s compromises started long before the post-production process, or were too vast to be polished up for release on a limited budget.

It’s especially easy to believe those options now that a four-hour version of Justice League is out in the world. Whatever you think of that project, it clearly wasn’t Snyder’s original intent, in the sense that he most likely did not embark on this project thinking he would release a four-hour assembly-style version of a superhero movie on 4,000 screens nationwide. In that same recent New York Times interview, he mentions having put together half a dozen different cuts of Justice League, all at least an hour shorter than the one now on HBO Max. This kind of iterative approach isn’t unusual in big-budget filmmaking, and given that, there’s something thrilling about getting to see a filmmaker’s pie-in-the-sky, no-restrictions version of the kind of billion-dollar intellectual property that comes with built-in restrictions. Why not actually make a finished assembly cut for the kind of movies that already feel serialized anyway?

Three of the women of Sucker Punch in “superhero landing” pose, crouched in a wrecked building full of fires Photo: Warner Bros.

Zack Snyder’s Justice League certainly inspires plenty of “Why not?” questions, along with the obvious “Why?” True to form, it becomes hard to discern the optimistic and skeptical forms of those questions. For all of its unprecedented size and clamor, it’s a fairly standard director’s cut of the “original” Justice League: It’s the same story, told in greater detail, with some alterations that don’t drastically recontextualize the movie. As with Batman v. Superman, the plot makes more sense in this cut — it’s probably the least obtuse movie Snyder has made since his animated children’s movie about owls — and the godlike characters have more humanity.

Much of the extra material may be technically superfluous, but Snyder seems to understand the fact that with so many superhero formulas, sometimes it’s the superfluous stuff that stands out. Cyborg (Ray Fisher) and The Flash (Ezra Miller) in particular get new sequences that pop with style and personality. As a result, the new Justice League is engaging and sometimes unpredictable, even though it hits the same major story beats as its cut-down, bantered-up predecessor. It’s also unpredictable because of its bizarre shapelessness — it’s a director’s cut that’s been allowed to grow wild and tangled with weeds.

Yet even this no-rules movie ends with traditional franchise-baiting, elaborately setting up an ambitious sequel that may well never happen. Somehow, four hours of superhero action, backstories, mythology, and dream sequences winds up feeling like it exists to prompt another three or four more hours to come. Is the movie’s protracted epilogue included to accurately reflect what Snyder thought he was making at the time, or is it there to tease fans with more of what they were denied by the foolish studio?

My guess is that Justice League lacks a real ending in its four-hour form because there’s something inherently incomplete about Snyder’s work. Filmmakers like Steven Spielberg, Tim Burton, and Christopher Nolan have become mainstream brand names; Snyder has gone further and turned himself into a genuine franchise, and his endless director’s cuts are just more entries in that roll. Like any modern superhero saga, it never truly ends.