How 'Zack Snyder's Justice League' differs from Joss Whedon's 2017 version — and why Zack Snyder never watched it (spoilers!)

Ethan Alter and Kevin Polowy
·17-min read

WARNING: Zack Snyder's Justice League spoilers ahead!

Zack Snyder has never seen Justice League, the 2017 superhero team-up that he’s credited to this day as directing. Snyder stepped down from the film during post-production, following the death of his 20-year-old daughter, and Warner Bros. enlisted the now-embattled Buffy, the Vampire Slayer creator and Avengers director Joss Whedon to finish the film, which included extensive reshoots.

Whedon's finished product was a patchwork mess, so much so that after executive producer Christopher Nolan and producer Deborah Snyder (who is also Zack’s wife) attended a screening of the Whedon-finished version, they told Zack, “You can never see this movie.”

“When you’ve worked so many years developing these characters, and really formulating a vision for this franchise, and then you have to leave it take it over and it’s not that vision, it’s just a very difficult thing,” Deborah explained to Yahoo Entertainment recently in a joint interview with her husband (watch above).

Asked if he has ever been morbidly curious to see the critically reviled box-office failure, Zack replied: “It would be that, wouldn’t it? Morbidly curious. Of course I’m morbidly curious but I just feel like, for me, right now, I don’t see any reason to see it.”

Four years and one shockingly successful fan movement to #ReleasetheSnyderCut later,” the filmmaker’s original vision — now called Zack Snyder’s Justice League — is now streaming on HBO Max, and there’s no doubt the movie is a much different, much improved version. It’s also much longer: While Warner Bros. forced Whedon to cap Justice League at two hours (which probably caused some of its issues), Snyder’s director’s cut runs a whopping 242 minutes, just over four hours.

Obviously, there are many differences, including entire storylines that were cut from the theatrical version. Snyder helped us break down some of the biggest changes — and even some ideas that he didn’t even get a chance to shoot (paging Green Lantern!).

Cyborg gets an origin story

Ray Fisher in 'Zack Snyder's Justice League' (HBO Max)
Ray Fisher in 'Zack Snyder's Justice League' (HBO Max)

Beyond Ray Fisher’s allegations of a toxic environment behind the scenes on Whedon’s Justice League, the Snyder Cut reveals that the actor had good reason to be upset about what ended up onscreen. In the theatrical version of the film, his alter ego, Victor Stone, aka Cyborg, was little more than a glorified sidekick to the rest of the League. But in Synder’s version of events, Cyborg is absolutely central to all of the action… and the drama. Introduced briefly in Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice — where we see how Victor acquires his new cybernetic body when his father, S.T.A.R. Labs scientist Silas (Joe Morton), uses alien tech to heal him after a car accident — Cyborg has a wealth of screen time in the Snyder Cut, starting with his pre-hero days as a college football star with a loving mother (Karen Bryson) and largely absentee father. Driving home from yet another game that Silas missed, Victor and his mom are involved in a collision that proves fatal for her and near-fatal for him.

Unable to save his son through normal medical means, Silas uses a Mother Box — one of three alien energy cubes — that brings him back to a radically different life. Silas keeps this personal mission from his S.T.A.R. colleagues, including nanotechnology specialist Ryan Choi (Zheng Kai), a character who was almost completely cut from the theatrical version. As DC Comics fans know, Ryan is one of the heroes who has worn the size-changing suit sported by the Atom — DC’s answer to Marvel’s Ant-Man, played on the big screen by Paul Rudd.

Victor’s attempts to understand and harness his new powers provide some of the Snyder Cut’s most memorable moments. In one never-before-seen sequence, we get to see how Cyborg views the world thanks to his ability to directly interface with technology. After noticing that a woman in his neighborhood is struggling with financial issues, Victor pays a virtual visit to her bank and transfers $100,000 into her account. (Coincidentally, the actress who played that role recently asked on Twitter if the sequence had been restored in the Snyder Cut after being deleted from the theatrical version.)

Because of his Mother Box origins, Cyborg is also the only Justice League member who can directly communicate with alien technology — a skill that comes in handy when Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds) arrives on Earth with the intention of laying the groundwork for his despotic master, Darkseid (Ray Porter). That makes Cyborg a key player in the final battle, where he taps directly into the three united Mother Boxes that herald Darkseid’s arrival on terra firma. The only person who can match his strength in that moment is the Man of Steel himself.

Zack cited Cyborg’s emergence in the new cut as perhaps the single biggest aspect he was excited about re-introducing. “Cyborg for me is the heart of the movie,” he says. “He’s the ‘why’ of it in a lot of ways. It’s his origin story, and that’s a really satisfying piece to see all the way through.”

The Flash gets a love interest

In the theatrical cut of Justice League, Barry Allen (Ezra Miller) had brunch on the brain. But in the Snyder Cut, he’s all about hot dogs. Whedon’s version deleted Barry’s first big action sequence, when he races to save a young woman from a sure-to-be fatal collision with a giant truck and a hot dog cart. (If you look closely, you’ll notice that the truck bears the name of Gardener Fox, a DC Comics icon who created the original version of the Flash, Jay Garrick, among other heroes.) While saving the woman, Barry also takes the time to grab some hot dogs out of mid-air at his lightning-fast speed. By the way, that woman is none other than Barry’s longtime comics love interest, Iris West, played here by Antebellum and Dope star Kiersey Clemons. And she’ll be back for the long-in-the-works Flash solo movie directed by Andy Muschietti and putting Michael Keaton back in the Bat-suit for the first time since 1992’s Batman Returns.

While the Snyder Cut restores that big Barry moment, it cuts another storyline that Whedon introduced — the competition between Flash and Superman over who is faster than light, let alone a speeding bullet. The theatrical cut of Justice League featured the two of them showing off their speed during the final battle, where Superman soars past Flash warring a giant building, while Flash races a family out of danger by pushing their truck. A mid-credits scene, meanwhile, features the two heroes about to start a race to the Pacific Ocean. If Barry wins, he gets bragging rights. And if Superman wins the whole team gets… brunch.

Henry Cavill in 'Zack Snyder's Justice League' (HBO Max)
Henry Cavill in 'Zack Snyder's Justice League' (HBO Max)

Superman gets a new suit

Superman is back… in black? Following the classic “Death of Superman” comic book storyline from the early ’90s, the Snyder Cut puts Henry Cavill’s resurrected Man of Steel in an all-black version of his signature costume. It’s an outfit that Cavill himself first teased in 2016 when Justice League originally went before cameras, but was conspicuously absent from Whedon’s theatrical version. It did, however, appear in a deleted scene that was included on the Justice League DVD — one of the first hints that there was a wealth of Snyder-shot material that had hit the cutting-room floor. In the Snyder Cut, we actually get to see the black suit in action, with Superman flying in to help save the day in the final battle against Steppenwolf.

Batman doesn’t suit up until midway through the movie

Whedon’s changes to Snyder’s Justice League started with the very first scene. The Snyder Cut opens with an out-of-costume Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) making the perilous trek to Aquaman’s snowy Icelandic hideaway in his quest to assemble the Justice League. In fact, it’s a full two-hours before Bruce puts on the Batsuit for the League’s first face-off against Steppenwolf’s army of Parademons. That leisurely pace explains why Whedon felt audiences needed to see the Dark Knight upfront. His version of Justice League opens with an entirely different sequence where Batman tussles with a Gotham City hood (played by Holt McCallany) before a lone Parademon scout shows up, signaling to the Caped Crusader that an alien invasion is imminent.

Aquaman has frosty relations with his Atlantean allies

Aquaman’s underwater home was glimpsed briefly in Whedon’s theatrical cut, but the Snyder Cut spends more time… uh, under the sea. Atlantis is home to one of the three Mother Boxes that Steppenwolf is hunting, forcing Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa) to pay a visit to a place, and a people, he has turned his back on. He’s wooed back home by two warriors who play bigger roles in James Wan’s solo Aquaman feature, which became a box-office hit when it arrived in theaters a year after Justice League in 2018. The first is his childhood mentor, Nuidis Vulko, played by Willem Dafoe, whose scenes were completely shorn from the theatrical version. The other is Amber Heard’s Mera, who fights alongside him in Aquaman. But at this point in their relationship, they’re barely on speaking terms, largely because Mera is eager to defend the Atlantean mother that Arthur believes abandoned him. You might notice that Mera also sounds a little different than she does in Aquaman: that’s because Heard’s first take on the character included a British accent that was notably dropped between movies.

Wonder Woman is no longer the Justice League den mother

Ezra Miller, Ben Affleck and Gal Gadot in 'Zack Snyder's Justice League'
Ezra Miller, Ben Affleck and Gal Gadot in 'Zack Snyder's Justice League'

Once upon a time, Joss Whedon came very close to directing a standalone Wonder Woman movie, which excited fans of his trendsetting shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly. But then they actually read his problematic screenplay and that excitement was extinguished. Whedon got a second chance to write and direct Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) when he took over Justice League, but his contributions weren’t exactly appreciated by the star or the audience. According to reports, Gadot refused to shoot a scene where the Flash falls on top of her, so the director used a body double in her place. Meanwhile, viewers cringed at Whedon-written moments like Aquaman hitting on Diana while sitting on her truth-telling lasso, and her overall role as the den mother for a group of bickering male superheroes.

Fortunately, the Snyder Cut restores the powerful warrior that fans know and love from Patty Jenkins’s solo Wonder Woman movies. And instead of hitting on her, Aquaman regards her with suspicion and distrust — part of the millennia-old fallout between Atlantean and Amazons that happened in the wake of Earth’s first battle with Darkseid. Diana gets an up close and personal view of that history when she retrieves the Arrow of Artemis fired by her mother, Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), and discovers a secret chamber where that epic battle is told in paintings.

The God(s) of War

Speaking of that ancient epic battle, the united armies of humans, gods, Atlantean, Amazons and even a Green Lantern face off against a very different foe in the Snyder Cut. In the theatrical version, Steppenwolf led the charge, only to be beaten back by Earth’s many champions. But Snyder intended that sequence to showcase what his big bad — Darkseid — could do. Created by Jack Kirby in 1970, the despotic overlord of Apokolips gets his kicks by conquering other worlds and terraforming them into the same desolate wasteland as his home planet. In the Snyder Cut, it’s Darkseid who commands the battlefield, and he’s a one-alien wrecking crew.

One of his victims is a Green Lantern — though not the Green Lantern that Ryan Reynolds played in his infamous 2011 box-office bomb. This unnamed power ring-bearer lived and died centuries before hot-shot test pilot Hal Jordan, who inherited his ring from Abin Sur. (The Green Lantern seen in the Snyder Cut is never named, but many assume him to be Yalan Gur, who patrolled our sector of the galaxy 2,000 years ago.) Flying into battle, he heads directly for Darkseid, only to be torn to literal pieces. At the moment of his death, his ring rises from his corpse and flies away to find its next bearer. It gets away just in time, too, because Darkseid makes a move to grab it before getting distracted by another challenger. If you think he’s a formidable foe now, just imagine the destruction he’d cause with a power ring.

Speaking of Reynolds, we asked Zack if there was any truth to the rumors that he pursued the actor who also moonlights as Deadpool to dust-off his greens for a cameo. “I never reached out to Ryan. I love him. If we were ever gonna have a Green Lantern, he would be the second choice, or at least partnering…” Those vague comments, and Zack’s refusal to explain whom he had in mind for his first choice, may be explained by comments he made to The Hollywood Reporter recently: “There was another idea I had for the Green Lantern that wasn’t Ryan, and so I thought that if we had gone down this path of Green Lantern, I would have had to have Ryan as the additional Lantern," he told the trade. "Filling out the Lantern Corps a little bit more than, say, just one Green Lantern."

What a Knight…mare

At four hours, the Snyder Cut is plenty of movie. But the filmmaker had a much grander — and longer — master plan, one that was teased in Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. That film included a scene where the Dark Knight dreams of a terrifying future where Earth is a smoldering ruin policed by a tyrannical Superman. Not long after that, he’s visited by a flickering version of Flash who warns him against the inciting incident of that darker future: the death of Lois Lane. It’s a sequence that always seemed directly inspired by the popular alternate-reality 2013 DC video game Injustice: Gods Among Us, which spawned a sequel and its own spin-off comic book series. It also set the stage for the second entry in Snyder’s planned two-part Justice League series, where Darkseid triumphed in his hostile takeover of Earth, Superman joined his side and Batman took over the Resistance.

That future is teased again in the Snyder Cut, first when the League go through with their plan to resurrect Superman. Moments before the Mother Box touches the fluid in that Kryptonian genesis chamber, Cyborg has a disturbing vision that reveals the far-reaching consequences of their actions. In his mind’s eye, he sees a triumphant Darkseid presiding over Wonder Woman’s funeral and using his dreaded Omega Beams on the last few Atlanteans — including Aquaman — standing in his way. “No,” Victor says in shock — although Barry mis-hears that as “go,” and proceeds to race at lightning-fast speed to activate the Mother Box. His efforts bring Superman’s back, but he also makes that dark future a possible reality again.

Jared Leto in 'Zack Snyder's Justice League' (HBO Max)
Jared Leto in 'Zack Snyder's Justice League' (HBO Max)

We return to the Knightmare one more time in the Snyder Cut’s epilogue for an extended sequence where a weary Batman heads up a small band of super-powered survivors, including Flash, Cyborg and Mera. He’s also got two ex-enemies on his side: the assassin Deathstroke (Joe Manganiello) and, of course, the Joker, played by Jared Leto. It’s the first — and probably last — time that Affleck’s Batman and Leto’s Joker share a scene together, although it has already been revealed that the two actors weren’t on set at the same time. And the scene does provide some closure to their relationship, with the Joker alluding to his role in the death of Batman’s partner, Robin — another thread left over from Batman v. Superman.

“I just felt like I owed to myself and to the fans to realize that character,” Snyder says in explaining why he re-enlisted the Suicide Squad star diminished by 2019’s Joker starring Joaquin Phoenix and left out of 2020’s Harley Quinn adventure Birds of Prey. “And his interactions with Batman is so central to the mythology to the DC Universe, [I thought] if this is the last time we’re gonna be in the DCU, we better get a Batman-Joker scene. They complete each other.”

Time to play The Game

In an interview with Yahoo Entertainment last December, Joe Manganiello spilled some serious tea about Affleck’s abandoned solo Batman movie. “There were similarities to The Game,” he said at the time, referring to David Fincher’s 1997 thriller. “It was a really dark story in which Deathstroke was like a shark or a horror movie villain that was dismantling Bruce’s life from the inside out. It was this systemic thing: He killed everyone close to Bruce and destroyed his life to try and make him suffer because he felt that Bruce was responsible for something that happened to him.”

That Fincher-esque Batman story was supposed to be set up in a Justice League post-credits scene that featured a conversation between Deathstroke and Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg). But Whedon’s version rewrote Luthor’s portion of the conversation, setting up a different Justice League sequel that would have involved the Injustice League — an all-star group of villains. The Snyder Cut restores the scene that was originally shot, with Luthor revealing Batman’s true identity to Deathstroke, and the assassin making immediate plans to act on that intel.

The last son of Mars

It may have taken eight years, but the Snyder Cut pays off a storyline that began in Snyder’s very first DCEU feature, 2013’s Man of Steel. That film introduced Harry Lennix as Lt. Gen. Calvin Swanwick, a military man who takes a special interest in Krypton’s last son, Kal-El. Now, we finally find out why: it turns out that Swanwick is actually the shape-shifting J’onn J’onzz, aka Martian Manhunter — the last surviving Martian in the cosmos. He’s been hiding out on Earth all this time, taking care to keep his true identity a secret from those he’s closest to, including Lois Lane (Amy Adams). Visiting a grief-stricken Lois in the wake of Superman’s death, he adopts the face and form of Martha Kent (Diane Lane) and encourages her to re-enter the world again.

J’onn adopts his true Martian form for the film’s final scene, where he visits Bruce at home to thank him for assembling the League and preventing Darkseid’s return to Earth. But he’s also there with a warning: the leader of Apokolips doesn’t give up easily. In fact, Darkseid is making plans to bring an armada to Earth, suggesting that a second confrontation is inevitable. And this time, the Martian Manhunter is ready to join the fight. With Snyder having moved on to other films — including Netflix’s upcoming zombie movie Army of the Dead— it’s unlikely that we’ll ever see that fight come to pass. But it never hurts to have a Martian in your corner.

Zack Snyder’s Justice League is now streaming.

Watch Zack and Deborah Snyder talk about how fans drove the release:

-Videos produced by Jon San and edited by John Santo

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