This week Zack Snyder’s four-hour director’s cut of Justice League comes out, and is already being anticipated in both positive and negative fashions. It ostensibly replaces the theatrical version that was supervised by writer/director Joss Whedon after a family tragedy saw Snyder retire from the film before production was complete. Before checking out his new version, however, I felt it was worth covering its predecessor: 2016’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. It too is a superhero epic in which a truncated theatrical edition was replaced by subsequent extended edit. This review is going to look at both, and comes mainly cribbed from reviews I published back in 2016 when both versions were released. My opinions back then pretty much hold up now.
Eighteen months after his devastating battle against General Zod, Superman (Henry Cavill) remains a polarising figure to the people of Earth. After a north African rescue winds up killing innocent people, he comes under the scrutiny of a United States senate hearing – and in the cross-hairs of Gotham City’s legendary vigilante the Batman (Ben Affleck).
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice came to cinemas with possibly the silliest title of any superhero movie released to date, not to mention hopelessly overloaded with set-ups and previews for a whole combined universe of future DC Comics-inspired action movies. It is a bloated two-and-a-half hour juggernaut, packed with ominous portent, growling confrontations between heroes, flashbacks and dream sequences. Intended as an equivalent event to Marvel Studios’ The Avengers, it misfired and wound up essentially being an equivalent to Age of Ultron instead. It was met with pretty negative reviews from critics upon release, and to a large extent I still agree with their complaints. The film is too long, too messily constructed, and definitely too bleak and humourless.
At the same time there is something genuinely exciting about seeing Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) lined up ready to combat an angry giant monster, and for a certain viewer that sort of excitement is going to trump a lot of the film’s faults. It certainly did for me: I enjoyed Batman v Superman in the cinema, on a near-Pavlovian level. Show me Batman terrorising criminals or Superman doing the “Christopher Reeves flying over the horizon” shot and I enter a particular comfort zone only otherwise reached by lightsaber fights and the Hulk throwing tanks.
Zack Snyder has always been a somewhat troublesome director. His 2004 debut, Dawn of the Dead, was actually pretty entertaining stuff. He followed it up with a very direct adaptation of Frank Miller’s graphic novel 300, copying its highly stylised aesthetic but also its fairly repellent characters and values. From there he’s followed a generally downhill trajectory, from a Watchmen adaptation that copied the art without understanding the story to the over-the-top and generally incoherent Sucker Punch – to date his only wholly original work. In 2013 he directed the Superman reboot Man of Steel, which betrayed a much-improved visual sense but also a strange inability to understand it’s central character. Three years later he returned with this – his first sequel – and it’s as a sequel that Batman v Superman faces its first major drawback.
It is the kind of sequel one has when they do not particularly want to make one. The narrative follows on from Man of Steel, certainly, and to be fair much of it is elaborated upon in innovative and interesting ways. On the other hand the film has been tailored to introduce an entire suite of DC Comics-inspired action films, including Wonder Woman, Suicide Squad, Justice League, The Batman, The Flash, Aquaman and Cyborg. There is a pronounced sense that Snyder is much more interested in those new elements – particularly Batman – than he is in Superman. Batman’s bleak, darkened aesthetic certainly fits Snyder well, and here we get what is easily the darkest iteration of the character yet. When it comes to Superman it feels that not only does Snyder still not fully understand the tone of the character he lacks any impetus to work it out. The end result is an odd situation where Superman feels like a supporting character in his own movie. Even his classic arch-nemesis Lex Luthor, played here with a love-it-or-hate-it exuberance by Jesse Eisenberg, comes across mostly as Batman’s enemy rather than as Superman’s.
When you ignore the film’s ham-fisted Superman elements – including underused supporting characters and a genuinely bizarre writing-off of Jimmy Olsen – there is actually a lot of entertaining stuff. Ben Affleck is a remarkably strong Batman, and he’s supported by Jeremy Irons as a great Alfred. The design is great, the hand-to-hand combat is great, and the new Batmobile and Batplane look wonderful. Along the same lines Gal Gadot gives an extraordinarily strong impression as Wonder Woman, and is given just the right amount of screen time to excite the audience and whet the appetite for her subsequent solo film. Hard-core DC enthusiasts get even more value, with some excellent cameos and foreshadowing.
The other major problem with the film is conceptual: why did we need to see Batman and Superman fight each other at all? It is a well-staged sequence, perhaps paying a little too enthusiastic a tribute to Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, but as with every superhero-versus-superhero narrative it is poorly shoe-horned in and forces the writer to warp at least one character out of shape to make the thing work. Here it’s Superman: he is sent to kill Batman to save his mother’s life, but after one half-hearted attempt to explain the situation to Batman he simply starts pummelling him for all he’s worth. Visually dynamic, and at times imaginatively played, but ultimately just silly.
Altogether this is not a great film. It would not be incorrect to consider it a poor one. It is a poor film, however, with outstanding pieces in it. Individual action scenes, or character moments, or well-conceived visual images, keep popping out at the viewer. It does not all add up to a good movie, but there is a lot here to enjoy.
A few months later Warner Bros released a so-called “ultimate edition” onto home video. Adding an additional 30 minutes of footage, it purported to better resemble Snyder’s original intentions. The extra footage increased its running time to a gargantuan three hours. I assume people who found the film too bloated and long in theatres were running for the hills already.
There are basically three kinds of extended editions. The first is the simple cash-grab: a studio re-releases a film on home video with a couple of minutes of trimmed footage thrown back in and hopes all of the fans re-purchase it. The second is a more creative extended cut, as typified by Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings movies, or James Cameron’s Aliens. The film released in cinemas was in effect the director’s cut, and the additional footage is inserted purely to give the fans a lengthier and oftentimes more satisfying alternative experience. The third kind, which is the one that interests me the most, is the genuine director’s cut: the version of the film that the director wanted to release into cinemas the first time around, but which was nixed by the studio. Batman v Superman: Ultimate Edition is that kind of extended cut.
While it seems unlikely that the extended version of the film will convert anybody who hated its shorter edition, it is definitely a vastly improved movie. Snyder does not add too many new scenes – although there are a few. What he does instead is add back dialogue and plot developments to scenes that were already there. The effect is to make Batman v Superman a much more intelligible film. Aspects of Lex Luthor’s (Jesse Eisenberg) master plan to turn the public against Superman (Henry Cavill) seem a lot clearer, and make a lot more sense.
The film also develops and enhances the supporting cast, and in doing so creates a wider environment within which Superman and Batman can circle one another. Altogether it achieves a weird effect of being more interesting to watch, and therefore a quicker watch. It may take an extra 30 minutes to get to the end, but if feels at least 15 minutes shorter. I really prefer the film in this extended incarnation: I have watched it more than once and it felt ever better the second time. There is an intriguing and dramatic plot behind it now.
This strong uplift in quality is what has led me to eagerly anticipate Snyder’s reworking of Justice League. I have warmed to his two DC films over time. They do not present the characters that I grew up with very well, but they do present a consistent and visually interesting variation of them. Man of Steel did not quite articulate Snyder’s vision, but in its full form Batman v Superman showcases a grand operatic picture: superheroes as gods, mass destruction, and an aggressive bleakness. Batman is a nihilistic, murderous obsessive. Superman’s boy scout goodness is compromised by a world that simply does not work that way. With Justice League finally free of Joss Whedon’s rewrites and reshoots, this unique trilogy can finally stand as a discrete set of works. Your appreciation may vary, but surely we have to appreciate Snyder’s dedication to a vision.