Every other Tuesday in Storied, K. B. Hoyle explores the ways our cultural narratives act on us individually and in society as a whole.
Back in 2017, those of us following the Zack Snyder–directed trilogy of DC Universe films that began with a new Superman origin in Man of Steel were saddened to learn that Snyder was stepping away from the Justice League movie in post-production. Tragically, Snyder’s daughter Autumn had died by suicide, and he left the project to spend more time with his family. Warner Bros brought on director Joss Whedon to finish Justice League, and promises were made that the film—so close to completion—would resemble Snyder’s vision in content, theme, and overall storytelling consistency. But when the movie hit theaters (after extensive reshoots), it did not.
What was murky about the Snyder/Whedon hand-off in 2017 and has since become clear is the nature of the conflict between Zack Snyder and Warner Bros, and how much Whedon replaced parts of an essentially finished film to make it a story that was his and not Snyder’s. I won’t go into all the sordid details of the demands Warner Bros made of Snyder and the tensions it placed on him (independent of Autumn’s death). I also won’t discuss the disrespect Joss Whedon paid to the material he was handed at the end of a trilogy of stories and the conclusion and introduction of character arcs laid out by people ahead of him (you can read about all that in this excellent Vanity Fair story). What I am most interested in after having now seen the newly released Zack Snyder’s Justice League (aka The Snyder Cut) is a “Ship of Theseus”–type question: Will the real Justice League please stand up?
For those of you who weren’t introduced to the philosophical paradox called the “Ship of Theseus” via Marvel and Disney+’s WandaVision this year—and for those of you who otherwise have no clue what I’m talking about—let me provide a quick summation. In ancient Athens, there was a legendary ship preserved to honor the hero Theseus. Over time, boards rotted away and were replaced with new boards until eventually the entire ship was made of new boards. Is the ship still, then, the Ship of Theseus? If not, at what point did it cease to be the Ship of Theseus? And if another ship was constructed with the rotted boards that were taken away, would that be the Ship of Theseus?If a character or a story is the Ship of Theseus, how much needs to be reshot, re-edited, cut, arranged, and composed before the original story no longer exists?
The story raises a laundry list of scenarios and questions, but the thought experiment is worth philosophical consideration because it’s not, of course, really about the ship itself, but rather about essence, meaning, identity, and more. At what point do ever-changing, renewing, constantly replacing things cease to be what they are? Who determines essence and meaning when the original construct remains as only an idea? Or part of an idea?
I could dig deep into human philosophy here (we are beings with constant cellular regeneration, after all, and matter is neither created nor destroyed…), but this isn’t that sort of column. Instead I’d like to look at how the Ship of Theseus paradox plays out sometimes in stories. WandaVision may have temporarily popularized the Ship of Theseus, but the Snyder Cut made me think about the question in a whole new way.
We hear things like “competing visions” sometimes when two writers or directors work together (or one after another, as was the case with J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson in the most recent Star Wars releases). But when two or more creative minds are working on the same material—are writing, directing, manipulating characters and worlds that were created by other people long before them—at what point does “creative vision” change a story into an entirely different story? When is Superman no longer Superman—the Justice League no longer the Justice League? If a character or a story is the Ship of Theseus, how much needs to be reshot, re-edited, cut, arranged, and composed before the original story no longer exists?
In the case of Justice League, the same actors are in both films, playing the same characters in the same manners with the same origin stories in roughly the same plot. But Snyder achieved something important Whedon did not manage: he made a movie that is good.
Well, mostly good. The Snyder Cut suffers from the usual malady of directors cuts—meaning that it’s bloated (in this case, really bloated at four hours), self-indulgent in places, and sometimes puzzlingly nonsensical. But considering what seemed to be enormous studio demands put on Snyder to set up far too much within a single movie, I’m willing to overlook a bit of bloat and some clunky dialogue for what is good—actually true, good, and beautiful—in his film.
And the Snyder Cut is beautiful, but it’s also slow—mostly because the pacing is signature-Snyder. Don’t watch a Zack Snyder film if you don’t want to see a lot of slow motion shots. So much slow motion. All the slow motion. About an hour in, my husband said, “I genuinely did not expect there to be this much slow motion in this movie.” And that about sums up the aesthetic of Justice League: If Snyder has a really beautiful shot lined up, he’s going to slow it way down and just sit and gaze at it for a while. He wants the audience to see Barry Allen’s euphoria while running as The Flash, Wonder Woman’s perfect athletic form, Superman’s awesome smirk. And it all does make for a pretty film; it’s actually one of my favorite things about Snyder as a filmmaker—that so many of his frames look like paintings. But he’s overindulgent with his use of this technique, especially this time. Zack, it’s a four-hour movie. Let’s move things along.
Zack Snyder’s Justice League is a sweeping story of how, when Superman died at the end of Batman v Superman, his death cry awoke three living machines called the Mother Boxes that in turn alerted dark forces in the universe that Earth was no longer defended. A lackey of universe-destroyer Darkseid, Steppenwolf, arrives on Earth to begin his conquest by uniting the Mother Boxes—a convergence of which will transform all living people on Earth into creatures called parademons. Meanwhile, Bruce Wayne/Batman races against time to unite a team of defenders, uncertain what the nature of the threat against Earth even is until Diana/Wonder Woman arrives to tell him.
Does it sound like a lot of story yet? It is. And here’s one of the biggest problems Zack Snyder faced in filming this behemoth: Prior to Justice League, only Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman had been introduced to his audience. Warner Bros had not filmed or released origin films for the other members of the Justice League, so Snyder had to introduce Cyborg, Aquaman, and the Flash—not to mention the cast of villains. He also had to resurrect Superman, flesh out the character arcs of Batman and Wonder Woman, get the whole team together, and present a cohesive story to an audience that would be a mix of hardcore DC-loving fans, people completely unfamiliar with the characters, and everyone in between.
What Snyder put together is something that surprisingly works, and despite all the Very Big and Epic Story Things that have to happen, the story revolves around a core theme of parental relationships. Each main hero is formed and driven by their relationship with their mother or father—by a desire to please and love, or by a need to heal and forgive. And no one of them needs to do so more than Victor Stone/Cyborg.
Victor Stone is the perfect lynchpin character for this particular story because Victor is himself struggling with a Ship of Theseus paradox of self. (Wheels within wheels!) When Victor’s body is mangled in a terrible car accident, his father brings his scant remains back to life—without his knowledge or permission—reanimating him with the alien Mother Box technology no one really understands. Victor is alive, but he struggles to know how much of himself is left—who and what he is. Is he a “monster,” (as he calls himself) or human? Alien or machine? When the story opens, Victor’s angry and hiding, and his anger toward his father consumes him. But if Victor can’t forgive his father and remember his humanity, the world is doomed. The heart of this story, in the end, is contained in the Snyder Cut’s “Tin Man”—Cyborg, who has to (re)find his heart to destroy the Mother Boxes and save the world.
But this core—Cyborg, the shared theme of the formative nature of parental relationships—the goodness and beauty, even the epic feel of the film was stripped away board by board when Whedon took over the helm. (I don’t apologize for that ship pun.) When Whedon stepped in and reshot, replaced, recomposed, and generally removed elements, his Justice League lost so much that (we now know) not only held Snyder’s original vision together, but made the story any good at all.
I think it must be stated that—with the proper creative licenses and permissions, of course—people are allowed to change stories. And there’s no rule about variations having to be good. We are allowed to take the Ship of Theseus apart piece by piece, make an airplane out of the rotting wood and dub it the Airship of Theseus, if we want to. Seth Grahame-Smith can write a book called Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. I don’t have to read it or like that it exists, but he’s allowed to, and… good for him, I guess. And although Whedon undid nearly everything Snyder shot and built his own ship on the side, Snyder technically did it first. Snyder’s grimdark approach to the DC Universe was a vision that clashed with the way many fans had long viewed beloved characters like Clark Kent/Superman. Vocal and vehement critics of the “Snyderverse” take on the DCEU would happily disavow any of Snyder’s films as not the “real” versions of the beloved characters. And this cycle just goes on. Will the real Justice League please stand up?
But I would say with superhero stories especially due to the nature of comic book runs and changing writers, some characters and stories will always be taken apart and put back together—whether it’s via changing mediums, story continuation when books enter the public domain, or simple fan fiction. We obviously don’t have to embrace every iteration of our favorite characters and stories (some of them are just bad), or accept them as canon—no matter what publishers and studios say. When it comes to Joss Whedon’s Justice League and Zack Snyder’s Justice League, however, is it really worth it to watch the four-hour Snyder Cut? Does it matter which is the “real” Ship of Theseus? I would say the “real” ship was left at the docks in a comic book long ago. But if you want to see a good movie, watch the Snyder Cut.