NB: The following contains spoilers for Justice League and Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice.
If the opening shot of Justice League wrong-footed you, then rest assured: it wasn’t only regular audiences who were left startled by Superman’s uncanny valley face. A brief scene designed to reintroduce a gentler, kinder First Son of Krypton, the superhero epic’s opening instead sparked widespread discussions about Henry Cavill’s top lip.
As was commonly reported before Justice League’s release, the cast of DC-Warner’s movie were recalled for extensive reshoots during post-production, during which time Cavill had already signed up for a role in Mission: Impossible 6 – a part that required him to grow a moustache. When Warner asked Paramount whether Cavill could shave off the facial hair, Paramount refused; the Justice League studio therefore had no option but to use digital trickery to remove the offending fuzz from Cavill’s face.
Even armed with this information, the film’s opening scene looked jarringly strange – and, according to an anonymous VFX artist who worked on Justice League, the CGI work sparked a similar reaction behind the scenes. In an Ask Me Anything session on Reddit, the VFX artist – who’s a legitimate source, according to the site’s moderators – spoke with unusual candour about working on the film and its difficulties. That first sequence, he or she says, was outsourced to another effects studio, and the resulting shot provoked a fair bit of consternation during an internal screening.
“I’m not sure which other studio did that opening shot on the cell phone but its dreadful,” the artist wrote. “It shouldn’t have been approved internally let alone gone all the way to make it into the film. That shocked me a bit. We were all looking at each other when the film started like ‘wtf is this?!’”
Whether you’re among Justice League’s detractors or defenders, you’ll likely agree that the past twelve months or so haven’t been great for what should have been the DC Expanded Universe’s most triumphant moment to date. Its post-production was marred by news stories of Zack Snyder’s terrible personal tragedy, which resulted in the director stepping aside earlier this year, and word that its replacement director, Joss Whedon, was overseeing the writing and filming of a number of new scenes.
Now, with the film reviewed and in cinemas, discussion has turned not to the various fights and dramatic turns of fortune in the film itself, but the nature of Whedon’s additional scenes, how they differed from what Snyder originally intended, and yes, those sequences with Henry Cavill’s top lip from the uncanny valley.
Audiences appear to have taken to Justice League more kindly than its harshest critics, but Warner Bros is unlikely to be throwing any parties over its box office to date. According to Box Office Mojo, Justice League had made a total of $481 million globally by its second weekend – a decent-sounding amount, at least until you factor in its huge initial budget, reckoned to be as much as $300 million. Given that Justice League also offers the lure of DC’s three biggest heroes all sharing the same screen (let’s face it, Superman’s return was a given from the off), and the movie should have been looking at an unstoppable success approaching Avengers magnitude; instead, it got bumped off the US top spot by Pixar’s animated film, Coco.
In the wake of its wobbly release, the DC universe’s most vocal fans have rallied round Justice League. One social media campaign asks the DCEU faithful to go and see the superhero sequel six times at the cinema. A petition on Change.org asks that Warner Bros release a Zack Snyder-approved director’s cut on DVD, which also uses Junkie XL’s soundtrack rather than the later one written by Danny Elfman. So far, some 145,000 signatories have put their names to this.
The thinking behind these campaigns might be well-meaning, but they merely serve to underline how troubled Justice League’s launch has been. Had Justice League been greeted with a groundswell of popular support, the behind-the-scenes reports and even the more barbed reviews would have been quickly forgotten. Instead, the talk of alternate cuts, rushed VFX and moustaches have only grown.
As well as the effects artist mentioned earlier, other people close to the film have spoken up about Justice League. Zack Snyder’s son, Jett, wrote on a social media site that, although he liked the movie overall, said it was “clearly not what it could have been”, and cited “studio meddling” and “forced comedy” as two of its faults. Jett also mentioned Justice League’s glaringly brief 120-minute duration – a run time handed down by Warner Bros boss Kevin Tsujihara, and something that evidently curtailed some of the character arcs established in earlier parts of the movie.
Last week, Snyder’s regular cinematographer Fabian Wagner also picked up on Justice League’s heavily compressed edit, and expressed hopes that a director’s cut might someday emerge.
“This one was even shorter than I expected, so there are scenes that aren’t in there,” Wagner told the Hollywood Reporter. “I really hope we get to see a director’s cut, which will give us everything that we shot that didn’t make it in. What I love about his [Snyder’s] director’s cuts is they are long, but he takes his time to tell the story.”
Interestingly, the same interview reveals that Wagner wasn’t present for Joss Whedon’s reshoots – second unit photographer Jean-Philippe Gossart replaced him, which might partly explain why so many of the inserts and other sequences look so markedly different. Before release, one producer reckoned that Justice League’s reshoots amounted to around 15 to 20 percent of the final cut; from an outsider’s perspective, the percentage of new footage looks considerably higher.
We know just from looking at the various trailers that some sequences were dropped from the final cut – among them flashbacks to Cyborg’s civilian life when he was still playing football. According to the effects artist on Reddit, Cyborg would’ve appeared in other sequences, too, including a “whole hacking sequence with a hologram bull fighting a hologram bear”, and “more stuff with Silas and Star Labs”. The same person also admits that some of Justice League’s less convincing effects sequences had to be rushed to completion; when asked whether a delayed release date would’ve helped the look of the finished product, the artist simply replied, “It would’ve been seamless.”
For those hoping for some kind of Snyder-approved extended cut, however, the VFX artist’s opinion appears to be: don’t hold your breath:
“There is no Snyder cut. Directors constantly change the edit as they’re going along, hence why some shots get half-finished then scrapped, like some of the leaked ones.”
One leaked shot in particular might put an extended cut under threat, according to the same poster.
One scene in Justice League would have introduced actress Kiersey Clemons as Iris West, wife of Barry Allen/The Flash. The sequence would have shown The Flash rescuing West from a car accident, and would have served as a teaser for her character’s larger appearance in The Flash’s solo movie. According to the VFX artist’s account, Clemons was dropped from the role when the Flash film’s original director dropped out; the effects studio was therefore given the task of erasing Clemons from the scene and adding in a new digital female character for the hero to rescue. This scene, we’re told, was going to appear in Justice League’s home release, perhaps as a deleted scene, but then someone anonymously released footage of Clemons as Iris West on the web; that leak may, the artist says, mean the finished sequence will remain hidden in the archives.
If an extended cut of Justice League does emerge, it’ll be many months away – and as the poster on Reddit points out, would require a considerable sum of money to complete, given how effects heavy the added footage is likely to be. Until then, the fallout from Justice League is still being felt; it’s telling that, even though Zack Snyder and Joss Whedon have kept a dignified silence over the film so far, even the tweets they’ve liked have come under scrutiny. Not long after its release, Whedon clicked the ‘like’ button on several posts criticising Justice League’s villain, Steppenwolf – something DCEU fans didn’t particularly appreciate. More recently, Snyder clicked ‘like’ on a post regarding the petition for a Justice League Snyder cut – most likely as a mark of appreciation for his supporters.
In a wider sense, the future’s currently uncertain for Warner’s DC superhero movies. Wonder Woman’s undoubtedly in a safe place, thanks to the happy response to her debut outing earlier this year. Aquaman has his debut film scheduled for 2018, and little’s likely to change there, barring some behind-the-scenes retooling. But with Ben Affleck admitting that he’s looking for a graceful exit from the Batman role, and Warner being rather quiet about the proposed Flash solo movie, which has already lost two directors (Seth Grahame-Smith and Rick Fumiyama) – actor Ezra Miller says a Flashpoint movie’s happening “really soon” – and we still don’t know whether the Cyborg movie, starring Ray Fisher, will come out in 2020.
Last March, Bruce Wayne was poring through folders on his computer, each one confidently branded with the logo of a DC superhero. It marked the beginnings of Warner’s long-planned expanded universe – one expected to stretch out for years into the future. Over the past 18 months, however, we’ve seen the studio repeatedly course-correct and change its plans; now, at a moment where it should seem invincible, the DC cinematic universe’s future suddenly looks clouded.
Movies like the Dark Knight trilogy, Wonder Woman and even the better parts of Batman V Superman showed what these stories can do at their best. Here’s hoping the next films find the franchise on a surer footing.