After years of anticipation, “Zack Snyder’s Justice League” will finally premiere on HBO Max Thursday, May 18. Like the 2017 theatrical release of the film, the director’s cut chronicles the titular superhero team’s battle against an alien invader called Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds). However, the newer edit is a 4-hour, R-rated saga that fleshes out the conflict and its participants.
In addition, “Justice League” concludes the epic story Snyder began with “Man of Steel” in 2013.
While the filmmaker did not adapt any specific comic books in his past DC Extended Universe movies, he did take inspiration from stories originating in that medium. “Justice League” continues that tradition and borrows key plot points and concepts from several DC Comics publications. It also parallels other famous series that cover the same topics and themes.
Here’s a look at four collections viewers should check out before seeing the movie later this week. Plus, these works are more or less stand-alone, so no extra homework is required.
Justice League, Vol. 1: Origin
In 2011, DC Comics rebooted its decades-spanning narrative continuity to make its titles more accessible to the general public. The initiative failed, but it did produce several interesting stories, including Justice League, Vol. 1: Origin.
Although “Justice League” is not an adaptation of this collection, their narratives overlap in many places. For example, both stories detail how the world’s greatest superheroes came together to deal with an interstellar invasion. They also examine the difficulties in a group of incredibly powerful people with equally mighty egos working together.
Plus, the two present very similar origin stories for Cyborg, a teenager who is unwillingly transformed into a human-machine hybrid.
Origin is also a decidedly cinematic story. In fact, DC turned the six-part story into an animated movie called “Justice League: War.”
Writer Geoff Johns, who moonlights as a screenwriter, reimagines the Justice League’s first adventure as a Hollywood blockbuster. He gives each member of the cast a clear personality and defining moment. Johns makes the alien invasion feel overwhelming enough to present a real challenge for the superhero team.
Artist Jim Lee gives Origin a visual dynamism that is immediately engaging and pairs very well with Johns’s style. Lee’s work is like a frenetic fusion of “Batman: Arkham Asylum” and an action manga. Plus, his updates of decades-old superhero costumes and settings make them all feel sleek and modern.
Though Origin and “Justice League” share many connections, they ultimately tell two different stories, so the comic is not a spoiler for the movie. However, reading the former is a great way to prepare to see the latter.
Injustice: Gods Among Us Year One
DC Comics began serializing a prequel to the “Injustice: Gods Among Us” video game developed by NetherRealm Studios in 2013. It detailed the circumstances that led to the Justice League fracturing over the course of five years. The story’s first arc shows Superman’s fall from grace and the effects that transition has on the wider world.
Like “Justice League,” Injustice is focused on exploring the inner lives and complex motivations of iconic superheroes. It examines how Superman’s powers, though incredible, do not make him infallible. It also shows what happens when a character defined by his selflessness and optimism suffers a devastating loss.
In another parallel, Injustice is fundamentally a story about finding hope in a desperate situation. Creators Tom Taylor, Jheremy Raapack, and Mike S. Miller underline that theme by highlighting the aftermath of superhuman violence. The world it depicts is one where big-name heroes, villains, and supporting characters feel the impact of every earth-shattering blow.
The complete five-year Injustice story is worth checking out because it’s an emotional and often darkly hilarious series. But its “Year One” arc will resonate most strongly with Snyderverse devotees.
Batman: Last Knight on Earth
One of the most compelling elements of Zack Snyder’s DCEU is Bruce Wayne’s visions of the “Knightmare” reality. In “Dawn of Justice,” Batman dreamed of a world where Superman (Henry Cavil) dominated a post-apocalyptic Earth. He also saw an apparition of a battle-hardened Flash (Ezra Miller) warning him about something connected to that bleak setting.
Without getting into spoiler-heavy territory, “Justice League” provides a follow-up to that nightmare.
Batman: Last Knight on Earth plays out like an extended visit to that dark alternate reality. It follows a partially amnesiac Batman as he wanders through a futuristic wasteland with an inexplicable traveling companion. Over time, he pieces together what happened in the period of time he cannot remember.
The series is created by Scott Snyder (no relation) and Greg Capullo, a team that anchored the monthly Batman comic for several years.
Last Knight is like an extension of that run, with the volume turned all the way up. Snyder used the three-parter to examine his wildest ideas, like a time-twisting tornado made of famous speedsters. Simultaneously, Capullo got a chance to redesign Batman’s allies and enemies as Mad Max-style gladiators and old-school comic book ghouls.
Most importantly, Last Knight has the same shameless maximalism and vulnerability that makes Zack Snyder’s DC films so enjoyable.
In the late 1980s, DC Comics founded an imprint called Elseworlds that enabled its writers and artists to craft stories placing its characters in new settings and time periods. For instance, Gotham by Gaslight pitted Batman against Jack the Ripper in a late 19th-century version of Gotham City. The line produced dozens of compelling stories over two decades, the most successful being Kingdom Come.
The series is set in a version of the DC universe where Superman is retired, and most other superheroes have followed his lead. However, the Man of Steel returns after a fight involving the reckless next generation of heroes devastates Kansas. Though initially inspiring, the character’s reemergence kicks off a massive conflict that threatens to engulf the entire planet.
On a narrative level, “Justice League” and Kingdom Come do not have a lot in common. But both works grapple with the same theme of traditional values clashing with changing societal priorities. Superman confronting his anxieties about shaping humanity’s destiny also plays out in each story.
Writer Mark Waid packed the four-parter with the same kind of biblical allegories that fascinate Snyder. And painter Alex Ross depicts Superman and company with the weight and grandeur they carry in “Justice League.”
Another parallel between the film and comic book series is uniqueness. “Justice League’s” runtime and explicitness make it an unprecedented entry in superhero movie history. “Kingdom Come is a visually dense, thought-provoking marvel that stands alone in DC’s print catalog.
“Zack Snyder’s Justice League” comes to HBO Max on May 18.