It may have taken five years, but Zack Snyder’s original vision for Justice League is preserved for posterity in the just-released Snyder Cut, now streaming on HBO Max. But turning the 2017 version of Justice League, which was completed by Joss Whedon, into Zack Snyder’s Justice League wasn’t Snyder’s task alone. An army of special effects wizards worked alongside the director and his wife and producing partner, Deborah Snyder, in resurrecting what he describes to Yahoo Entertainment as a “weird space opera” that pits DC Comics’s Earth-bound titans — Batman (Ben Affleck), Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), Superman (Henry Cavill), Flash (Ezra Miller) and Cyborg (Ray Fisher) — against an invading alien force fighting in the name of the despotic Darkseid (Ray Porter).
“As a filmmaker, I like to be able to say, ‘It’d be cool to have this monster talk to another monster, and I want a close-up of that monster and a dolly to push in on the other monster,’” Snyder explains. “Thank god I had the VFX crews to make sense out of those directions. I can think of a lot of those things, but they help tremendously in telling the story.”
Two voices that were instrumental in interpreting and translating Snyder’s directions are Kevin Andrew Smith and Anders Langlands, visual effects supervisors at Weta Digital in New Zealand. Having previously collaborated with Snyder on Man of Steel and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, the studio contributed more than 1,000 visual effects shots in the new version of Justice League, which cumulatively account for roughly 60 minutes of the Snyder Cut’s four-hour runtime. (Weta also worked on the theatrical version of Justice League after Snyder departed the film.)
Weta Digital’s work is featured in such key sequences as the Age of Heroes battle early on in the film — when Darkseid first tries and fails to conquer Earth — to the climactic battle where the Justice League just barely manages to save Earth from being remade in the image of Apokolips. “Part of our job as VFX supervisors is to insulate the director from the technology, and let him or her focus on making the film,” Smith notes. “We can take those filmmaking ideas and turn them into actionable things that technology teams can understand and act on.”
In an extended conversation with Yahoo Entertainment, Smith, Langlands and Snyder shared spoilery secrets from the (re)making of Justice League, from reimagining the film’s two Big Bads to the Knightmare epilogue that teases the dark future that Batman and his super friends prevented… for now, at least.
Steppenwolf the Space Knight
Darkseid isn’t the one who makes first contact with the DCEU: Instead, that honor falls to one of his foot soldiers, Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds), who was first glimpsed in Batman v Superman communing with Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor. It’s Steppenwolf who takes the initiative to bring the forces of Apokolips back to Earth, hunting for the three missing Mother Boxes that, when united, will devastate the planet and herald Darkseid’s arrival. In Whedon’s 2017 cut, Darkseid’s role was almost entirely eliminated from the narrative leaving Steppenwolf as the Justice League’s primary antagonist. But Snyder always saw the character as having a different motivation: In his telling, Steppenwolf is a fallen-angel figure, trying to get back into his lord’s good graces by rewriting Darkseid’s greatest failure into his greatest conquest.
“He’s a legit space knight,” Snyder says enthusiastically of Steppenwolf, and that description became the guiding principle behind his Snyder Cut makeover, which heavily revises the armor that he sported in the theatrical version. “We essentially went back to the original design that you saw at the end of Batman v Superman, and worked from that same concept art” explains Langlands, adding that Snyder suggested one major addition. “Zack had the idea that his armor would react to his mood and be part of his performance, as if it was some kind of alien technology that’s symbiotic with him.” That’s why the spikes that adorn Steppenwolf’s exterior are always glimpsed shifting and rippling within scenes. “We built the armor as a bunch of interlocking scale pieces, with individual metal scales laid on top of his surfaces. Our animators were able to develop a system where they could go from a dormant state to an angry state.”
For obvious reasons, Steppenwolf’s “angry states” frequently occur during battle, and Weta Digital animators took care to illustrate how the armor becomes part of his fighting style. “When he’s fighting in various scenes you can see how the ripples almost augment his strength, like he’s boosting a punch or a jump,” Langlands says. “We hit upon a kind of iridescent silver metal, and then played around with different ideas for how colorful it would be. Normally you’d show the director a calmed-down version and an extreme version and end up somewhere in the middle, but with Zack it was like, ‘Let’s go with the extreme one.’ And that was great because it made him a really compelling character to work on. He was so much fun to light, because his armor reacts in this beautiful way with all sorts of color shifting over the surface and pinging off the shiny metal.”
Snyder was particular fond of Steppenwolf’s “horn shine” — the light that bounced off his oversized headpiece, which covers his natural horns. “I’d get a shot back, and go, ‘Holy s***, the horn shine is insane!’ That was literally a thing I said almost everyday. The other conversation we always had was about his axe: He’s always sticking his axe in the ground whenever he gets mad. We decided that’s what he would do as part of his mood. Whenever he needed to emote, he’d just stick his axe in pretty much anything: steel, concrete, whatever. That was fun. He’s a space knight in his weird armor just stomping heads.”
Speaking of heads, Steppenwolf loses his in the climactic battle with the Justice League and those pesky horns play a role in his demise. Speared by Aquaman’s trident after the battle is lost, the twice-fallen knight is super-punched back to Apokolips via an open Boom Tube, and Wonder Woman delivers the killing blow, decapitating him just as he enters the portal. According to Smith, Weta Digital referred to this unfortunate series of events as “Steppenwolf’s no good, very bad day,” after a certain classic children’s book.
“We always knew that we wanted Steppenwolf’s head to roll right under Darkseid’s foot, and he was going to catch it like a soccer ball,” Smith continues. “But we realized his head wouldn’t roll correctly because he had horns. So that was the birth of the idea that Superman would cut one of his horns off with his heat vision. Once we did that, people were like, ‘You might as well break the other one as well just to add insult to injury.’ Some people have expressed to me that they felt sad when his head gets crushed, but I’m like, ‘He was trying to destroy the Earth with Parademons! He’s hard to defend in a court of law.’”
The two faces of Darkseid
When Whedon took over Justice League and scrapped Darkseid’s storyline, Weta Digital’s initial plans for the Jack Kirby-created character went in the dustbin. But Smith and Langlands team dusted those early tests off once Snyder got the go-ahead to bring the big guy back for the Snyder Cut. “There was already a pallet and a canvas in place for Darkseid, so we didn’t have to do any grunt work,” Smith says. “We had gotten the character up to a certain level, so when we brought all of that back online, we got to go: ‘Let’s do all the cool stuff we wanted to do before.’”
There are actually two versions of Darkseid glimpsed in the movie: the galactic warrior who storms Earth in the prehistoric days, and the veteran leader who watches the action from afar in the present. “It was fun to have these two different sides to that character and explore how he behaves in each of those situations,” Langlands remarks. “During the flashback to the Age of Heroes battle, you see his youthful phase where he’s just full of testosterone — bashing heads and going crazy. And then we have the more elderly statesman version toward the end of the movie where he’s this big imperious force to be reckoned with.” One big key to the difference between the warrior and the statesman? The latter fights bare-chested, whereas the other wears more regal armor.
Snyder was particularly enamored of the more testosterone-fueled Darkseid and pushed the Weta Digital team to really show off his mettle in the Age of Heroes battle, where he takes down Amazons, Atlanteans, Greek gods… and even a Green Lantern. “He’s kind of a brawler,” the director notes. “He’s just reaping the harvest: grabbing people by their necks and holding them up and doing his thing. He’s probably done this on a thousand worlds — it’s just what he does. He lands and whatever comes his way, he’s ready to kill it.”
Interestingly, the battle featured in the Snyder Cut is actually longer than the version Snyder had planned for back in 2016, and he left the beats of many of the specific one-on-one fights — including Darkseid’s Green Lantern beatdown — up to Weta Digital. “We’d get a call, and they’d be like, ‘OK, this is what they want to pitch: Darkseid grabs a guy, and then gets shot and the guy falls down and kicks him,’” Snyder recalls. “And I’d say: ‘Yes absolutely. I’m happy to go nuts, so you guys go as nuts as you want to go.’ When you tell your VFX team, ‘I’d love to get Darkseid over here, but he’s going to have to kick some ass along the way,’ that’s just what happens.”
Langlands says that whenever the Weta Digital team hit a wall with Darkseid’s ass-kicking, they hit the motion-capture soundstage where stunt performers could try out various moves for the animation team to replicate. “They’d film things on their phones and try ideas out, and then actually get in the mo-cap suits and perform so we could get shots that could build the scene out. It was a really experimental and intuitive process to try things out like that. It was also great because the version of the scene that ended up in theaters in 2017 was very cut down. Now the whole battle is much more satisfying, because you get to see the power of Darkseid and how the old heroes have to come together to fend him off.” Adds Snyder: “I always say, ‘Show me something I didn’t think of,’ and that’s what happened here. For me, it just helped make the movie bigger.”
Race for your life, Barry Allen
It’s a series of panels that DC fans know all too well: In 1985, artist George Pérez illustrated Barry Allen’s final run as the Flash in the eight issues of the mega-crossover event, Crisis on Infinite Earths. The lightning-fast hero raced to his final resting place (well… temporarily anyway) knowing that his speed was all that stood between him and the deaths of millions across the Multiverse.
At the end of the Snyder Cut, the fate of the Earth also rests upon Barry’s speedy shoulders. Despite the League’s best efforts, Steppenwolf’s quest to unite the three Mother Boxes has succeeded and not even the combined might of Cyborg and Superman can wrench them apart. The resulting explosion wipes out our heroes for good — unless the Flash can turn back the clock by using the Speed Force. So Barry runs faster than he ever has before, willing himself forward as time warps and reshapes around him, and his atomized teammates are reconstituted. Unlike his comic book counterpart, this Flash lives to run another day.
Asked whether those specific Crisis splash pages inspired Barry’s Justice League marathon, the director says that they may have been an unconscious influence. “It’s one of those things that when you start to dig into it, you go down a rabbit hole. It absolutely could have started there, because we do love the comics and often go, ‘Hey, it should look like that.’”
For his part, Smith says that the Weta Digital artists were looking to bring a “supernatural” feel to the entire sequence. “We focused on the fact that everybody dies after the Mother Box explodes, and played into a kind of super-detailed destruction. Then the Flash comes through the door and you’ve got to make it feel like time is running appropriately slow in reverse, as the whole world comes back together again. There’s so much going on in that sequence: Cyborg is by the Mother Boxes, Superman’s on the other side and Darkseid is visible through the portal. You’ve got to tell the story of each shot and string all those stories together for a sequence while all these big simulations are also happening. It can be really easy to lose track of the story you’re trying to tell and not lose the thread for that kind of sequence.”
Maybe because of the high potential for confusion, Snyder says that Warner Bros. was always leery of Flash’s time-rewinding run. “That was always a bone of contention with the studio: They didn’t want him running back through time there.” (No surprise, then, that Whedon eliminated the sequence entirely when Warner Bros. brought him in to complete the film, and the Justice League triumphed without the help of the Speed Force.) But Snyder confirms that’s always the way he intended to end his first Justice League installment. The second movie he had planned would have picked up with Darkseid bringing an alien armada to Earth and… well, read on below.
Welcome to the Knightmare
In the “Epilogue” portion of the Snyder Cut, Batman revisits a nightmare that he first had back in Batman v Superman. At some point in the not-too-distant future, Earth is a dystopian wasteland ruled over by a tyrannical Man of Steel still mourning the death of Lois Lane. Meanwhile, the Dark Knight has assembled an unlikely team of resistance fighters that includes the Flash, Cyborg and… the Joker? Fortunately, it turns out it was all just a really, really bad dream, but it would have become the new reality had Snyder gotten to make the second half of his planned two-part Justice League epic. “Darkseid would have come to Earth, and Lex would have figured out the Anti-Life Equation and given it to him upon his arrival,” the director reveals. “He also gives Darkseid the knowledge that if he kills Lois, Superman will succumb to Anti-Life. The Earth falls, and Flash has to go back in time to stop Lois being killed. That’s really the linchpin of the whole thing.” (Flash’s second trip back through time was teased in a scene from Batman v Superman.)
Since that second movie is likely to remain unmade, Snyder wanted to leave viewers with one last glimpse of Batman’s Knightmare future, and give Affleck the chance to share a scene with Jared Leto’s Clown Prince of Crime. (Although it’s since been confirmed that the two actors weren’t on set together for the reshoots.) “The Batman and Joker relationship is so element to both character, and if I never make another DC film, I felt it was rude not to have done a scene with the two of them,” Snyder explains, adding that Warner Bros. wasn’t keen on the idea. “Originally the studio said, ‘Now we don’t want that,’ but I was like, ‘I’m going to do it anyway.’ I was going to put up some green screens and shoot it in my backyard, but we didn’t have to do that in the end.”
Because he shot each actor individually, the entire sequence largely consists of close-ups, allowing Weta Digital to hint at the devastation that lurks in the background. “It’s a very intimate sequence with a lot of shallow depth of field and lens flares,” Smith says. “So for us it was about leaning into that look: Once we established in the wide shots that we were in a desert, we put a little bit of dust and grime in the foreground digitally. Once you tell the audience where you are, you don’t have to oversell it.”
One of the plot points revealed in Batman and the Joker’s conversation is that Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn apparently didn’t survive Darkseid’s arrival. After the Joker taunts his nemesis about Robin’s death, the Dark Knight responds that he was present for Harley’s demise, and it was her wish that he kill her ex-boyfriend slowly and painfully. Far from being concerned about the legions of Harley Quinn fans bemoaning her off-screen death, Snyder says that he’s “excited” for them to mourn her passing. “Hopefully in the next movie, we can run time back and get her back to life,” he jokes, before quickly adding, “Which we’re not making!” Having already moved on to the upcoming Netflix zombie movie Army of the Dead, Snyder’s DCEU duties are ending with the Snyder Cut, which he characterizes as a “cul-de-sac” in continuity. “They can always go watch Suicide Squad — she doesn’t die in that movie, I don’t think!”
Zack Snyder’s Justice League is currently streaming on HBO Max.
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