Even now, north of a year after its theatrical release, ‘Justice League’ is the conversation topic that just won’t die. Though probably not for the reasons Warner would have liked. Much of that discussion has centered around two things, namely the impact the film’s box office performance (or lack thereof) had on Warner’s planned DC slate, and the changes that were made in the course of production, particularly after ‘Batman v Superman‘ (which released while ‘Justice League’ was in pre-production) blew up in their face and later after Joss Whedon took the reins following Snyder’s exit.
In particular, that preoccupation with Snyder’s original vision has captivated a certain subset of DC fans, with some of the more fringe-y elements conducting loosely organized social media campaigns hoping to convince Warner to release the Snyder cut, a mythical version of the film that (to hear them tell it) would win awards and cure cancer. In reality, while there are likely workprint versions in the studio’s possession, Snyder’s version of the movie almost certainly doesn’t exist as anything resembling a finished film (reshoots were planned even before Whedon took over), and the best that could be expected from such a release would be a cobbled together approximation of what Snyder intended, akin to the Richard Donner cut of ‘Superman II’.
That, however, doesn’t mean we’ll never know what Snyder had planned. While the director himself has been fairly coy on the subject for the past year, mainly dropping vague hints in response to questions and speculation on social media. But by far the latest and most extensive glimpse into Synder’s plans for his ‘Justice League’ trilogy comes from, of all places, Kevin Smith.
Yes, I said “trilogy.” While it’s hardly a surprise to learn that there were plans for more ‘Justice League’ movies, it’s worth remembering that ‘Justice League’ was only ever discussed in public as being a two-part film (which itself was often framed as part of a trilogy or saga that included both ‘Man of Steel’ and ‘Batman v Superman’). That, of course, was before the move toward massive, on the fly course corrections in the wake of ‘Batman v Superman’ and ‘Suicide Squad’ and Snyder’s exit from the production of ‘Justice League’ itself. So it seems that Warner and/or Snyder were playing an even longer game than they cared to admit (and if you remember the release slate that was announced ahead of ‘Batman v Superman’, it was already a pretty long game).
But as for the more substantial revelations, they came courtesy of Smith’s recent visit to the set of ‘Star Wars: Episode IX’. Specifically, he learned all of what we’re about to share through conversations with members of the film’s crew, some of whom previously worked on ‘Justice League’ (or as Smith puts it, “on both versions of ‘Justice League’).
I’ll pause for a moment to remind you all that this all amounts to hearsay. It may well be accurate, but it could just as easily be misremembered or based on incomplete information. Best case scenario, we’re still playing a game of telephone a year after the fact. Having said that, let’s break this down.
As related by Smith on the latest installment of ‘Fatman Beyond’, ‘Justice League’ was, it now seems, intended to be the first act of a story that would play out over the course of a planned trilogy. The first film was more or less what we saw in theaters a year ago, with the League coming together to fight and defeat Steppenwolf. The biggest differences described are the film’s ending – which would have seen Darkseid emerge from a boom tube to retrieve Steppenwolf before departing, leaving the League with the unsettling awareness of a bigger threat on the horizon – and a reveal tied to a scene included in the trailer but not in the film. That scene, in which Alfred is seen speaking to an off-camera figure (“They said you’d come. Now let’s hope you’re not too late.”) was widely taken to be a reference to Superman’s return from the grave, but according to Smith’s sources, the figure in question would actually have been Green Lantern. Admittedly, that seems a bit suspect, in that even when Snyder was working on the film, there was no talk of casting a Lantern, and GL’s solo film was and is years down the road. The rumor mill at the time indicated that Green Lantern would sit ‘Justice League’ out in favor of a proper introduction in the sequel. But as I said before, we’re playing telephone here. It could well be that Green Lantern was meant to appear in an earlier draft of the script, with his introduction being delayed in rewrites, for example.
That’s all well and good, but the real meat is in what Smith has to say about the sequels. ‘Justice League 2’ would have seen them take the fight to Darkseid. In addition to the Justice League proper, the film’s story would also have included the Green Lantern Corps and, “presumably,” New Genesis, incorporating more of the cosmic side of the DC Universe, with an obvious emphasis on concepts and characters introduced in Jack Kirby’s ‘Fourth World’ material.
That brings us to the third movie. Apparently, taking the fight to Apokolips would not have worked out in the League’s favor (true to form, Smith compared the planned ending of ‘Justice League 2’ to that of ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ or ‘Avengers: Infinity War’). Following his defeat of the League, Darkseid “goes to Earth and levels it.” And if you think you see where this is going, you’re exactly right. ‘Justice League 3’ is where we would have finally cycled back around to the so-called Knightmare sequence in ‘Batman v Superman’, finally providing (one imagines) some explanation and payoff for one of that movie’s more bizarre digressions.
There are a few more details in the full ‘Fatman Beyond’ segment, which you can see here. The relevant portion begins at the 32:00 mark.
That’s all undeniably ambitious, and as harshly critical as I tend to be of Snyder’s DC work, I nonetheless respect the man as a filmmaker. Frankly, I wouldn’t mind spending a weekend binge-watching the five film epic we could have had. But there nonetheless remains the question of whether or not Snyder could have actually pulled it off. And maybe he could have, but his track record with the DC Universe is spotty enough to give one pause. More troublingly, while he has an undeniable gift for action and visual spectacle, his best films have always been the more narratively straightforward. Compare ‘300’ to ‘Sucker Punch’ if you want a sense of what I’m talking about there. (‘Watchmen’, a notable exception, likely benefits from its often slavish devotion to the source text.) The theatrical cut of ‘Batman v Superman’ saw Snyder take a relatively simple story (Lex Luthor manipulates an older, crazier Batman into trying to take down Dr. Manhatt.. – er, “Superman” – while secretly creating Doomsday just in case. And also Wonder Woman is there.), pepper in a bit of cryptic foreshadowing, and struggle to convey it coherently in two and a half hours. Even the three hour ‘Ultimate Cut’ leaves something to be desired on that front.
And that’s not the only issue. As Smith’s co-host Marc Bernardin notes, “It sounds big and it sounds interesting. It also sounds bleak as fuck.” And whether you agree with the criticism or not, the fact remains that one thing Snyder took a lot of heat for – in fact, perhaps the single most persistent criticism of his DC work – is the tone. From the word “go” there was an off-putting joylessness to both the world and the characters in it. Frankly, one of the most welcome changes between ‘Batman v Superman’ and ‘Justice League’ (and one that, thanks to the infamous mustache, we can safely credit to Whedon) was the portrayal of Superman as a more cheerful and inspirational figure. I jokingly compared Snyder’s Superman to Dr. Manhattan earlier, but that’s exactly the sort of detached, sullen figure his Last Son of Krypton presents. It’s rendered all the more frustrating because not only is it arguably the exact wrong approach to Superman, but Henry Cavil proved in the first two minutes of ‘Justice League’ that he is more than capable of playing a “proper” Superman. But I digress. Bottom line, if ‘Batman v Superman’ is the sort of drab, maudlin affair that Snyder turns in when he’s making establishing the sort of world these heroes live in, do we really want to see what we’d be left with if he were to go full apocalyptic?
But enough from me. What do you think of the ‘Justice League’ saga that could have been? Do you think Snyder could have pulled it off? Would you rather see that story handled by a different filmmaker? Or are you relieved to see that Warner took their DC films in a different direction after ‘Batman v Superman’? Let us know in the comments and be sure to check back with ScienceFiction.com for the latest on all the upcoming DC movies, including ‘Shazam’, ‘Wonder Woman 1984’, and ‘Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)’.