A city photographed with a filter Zack Snyder might approve of. (Photo by Dima Shishkov on Unsplash.)

The Snyder Cut’s homage to Jack Kirby’s “Fourth World” mythos

A conversation with literary scholar David Ting

I wanted to write about the Snyder Cut, but I realized I didn’t have the necessary level of DC Comics expertise. So I reached out to David Ting, a literary scholar and avid reader of DC Comics. We talked about how Zack Snyder’s Justice League (ZSJL) points to the wider DC comics mythology constructed by influential comics creator Jack Kirby in the 1970s. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

HARRISON BLACKMAN: It’s been a couple of weeks since Zack Snyder’s Justice League (ZSJL) came out on HBO Max. How do you compare it with the 2017 version of Justice League, under Joss Whedon’s supervision? How has your reaction evolved from first watching it to reviewing it again?

DAVID TING: I remember turning to my brother while watching Whedon’s Justice League in November 2017. Shaking my head, and saying, “No way this was Zack Snyder’s original plan” — because of the altered framing, color grading, lines of dialogue. The tone was changed entirely. So many changes were evident — even in the trailers that led up to the release! These have all been very well-documented on YouTube, Reddit posts, even more so now that the two finished films can be compared side-by-side. Each character gets more of a chance to shine. ZSJL really is Cyborg’s origin story.

It’s hard to talk about a four-hour film. I mean, in the face of all the stuff that’s come out examining the differences, there’s not much I can add! I’d point people to Sean O’Connell and Hannah Saulic’s video commentary at CinemaBlend. Also, Sean’s book chronicling the #ReleasetheSnyderCut movement. And over to Chris Wong-Swenson, NQ Cole & Nana … keep going, and you’ll find legions of passionate fans devoted to examining the film, raising funds for suicide prevention, speculating on what future DC projects could happen on HBO Max.

HB: But I mean, but if a movie is 17 minutes longer than Ben-Hur, don’t you think there’s enough time to include a joke about brunch?

DT: Hah! Well … For people invested in the story, the mutilation of Zack Snyder’s vision was deeply saddening. We’d started to feel the threads of a more hopeful story coming together. Justice League was supposed to be a triumphant team-up film. A multiethnic, superhero version of Seven Samurai. That’s far from what we got in 2017.

HB: To be fair, Zack Snyder is not the first filmmaker to have to bow to studio interference. But it is an interesting example of someone who is then later given the money and resources and backing to fulfill his original intent.

DT: Absolutely. It’s unprecedented. And I think the Snyderverse itself is a huge boon to all the creators — the scribes and artists who’ve told interesting stories with unique versions of the characters we already know. Snyder pulls from all these diverse iterations and composites them. As someone who grew up reading graphic novels, I’m excited to see people want to pick up new material. Alan Moore’s Watchmen got me in. I also love Moore’s Promethea, which I feel is an equal masterpiece. Plenty of good stories have never made it to the silver screen, and I appreciate for Snyder taking us to unusual places in the comics universe, while borrowing dialogue and imagery directly from the canon. In Man of Steel, Jor-El’s lines are from Grant Morrison’s All-Star Superman. In Batman v. Superman, we get the Batman from Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns.

HB: Yeah, well I think the attention to detail is something in these movies that has always been a priority, A couple of years ago I had the chance to meet a linguist at the University of British Columbia who was tasked with generating Kryptonian script for Man of Steel. Similarly, in the Snyder cut, you see Wonder Woman walk into an Amazonian temple and finding a Byzantine icon of Darkseid on the wall, which is very specific in terms of art design. It doesn’t make sense, because it’s a classical temple on the outside, then inside it’s Byzantine, which is a like a thousand-year difference, but…

DT: Great eye! Haha — it’s playful. Darkseid is one of Jack Kirby’s most famous creations. He’s the ruler of Apokalips.

HB: He’s got a really subtle name.

DT: Mmm … as the “dark side” of humanity. Towards the end of ZSJL, you see into the massive sanctuary hall of the planet Apokalips. You get a glimpse of what this other world is: a mental state of permanent war, insanity and madness. Jack Kirby even named a district “Armagetto.” Also really subtle. As Darkseid’s loyal followers say: “Darkseid is.”

HB: So he’s Hades from Greek Mythology, and Apokalips is also Hades, the place.

DT: But it’s also different from Hades in that Kirby, a World War II veteran, is imagining the earthly violence of war, ongoing, scorching this planet. Apokalips has a sister planet called New Genesis. It’s a heaven-and-hell contrast. New Genesis is where Highfather (Izaya), the lord of the New Gods, resides.

All of this mythos came to be, sheerly because Jack Kirby left Marvel for DC. After he broke with Stan Lee, Kirby was eager to prove his powers as a solo writer/artist. DC told Kirby that he could do anything he wanted, although this wasn’t completely true — they needed Kirby to begin by pumping up an existing series.

The first series that Jack Kirby adopted was the comedic Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen, featuring the super-powered mishaps of the eponymous Daily Planet reporter, and his friend Superman. It’s in this series that Kirby debuts Darkseid, who masterminds the evil plots that mire Superman and Olsen. Kirby shows us more about Darkseid in his accompanying series, The Forever People, which is Kirby’s take on the hippie commune.

The Forever People are basically intergalactic hippies on a cosmic tour, until threatened by Darkseid. In the first issue, Superman teams up with the Forever People to square off against Darkseid. After their victory, a portal opens up to New Genesis. As the Forever People zoom back home through an intergalactic Boom Tube, Superman chases after them out of curiosity — then hesitates. He gets tossed out of the Boom Tube. Before the portal closes, in the far distance, for a moment he sees the glistening emerald towers of New Genesis.

In just a handful of issues, Jack Kirby completely blew the doors off the established DC comics universe of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman. His creativity astounds me.

The next issue in the reading order is The New Gods #1. It’s unbelievable: it’s essentially a smash cut from Superman in the present, straight into the ancient war that kickstarts Kirby’s new mythology. Kirby tells us: “There came a time when the old gods died!” Massive wars were fought, civilizations destroyed, but: “Then — there was new light!” From that light emerges Darkseid’s son, Orion! His eyes are bold, and his helmet gleams. Orion’s first words to us are, “I have heard the word — it is battle!” So that’s Kirby’s retelling of the Genesis story, the Gospel of John, and Revelations all at once. After apocalypse, we enter into an entirely new cycle of history.

HB: So it’s like the War of the Titans in Greek mythology.

DT: Or Ragnarök in Norse myth. Kirby says of The New Gods #1 that if you look closely enough at the opening war scene, you can spot Thor’s fallen hammer. As a veteran, that’s the violence of World War II for Kirby. He’s still reeling from the war, he’s desperate to fight fascism, the allure of cults, the mass control that can lead good people astray. Despite the Allied victory, those ideological threats are far from defeated. So Kirby begins telling an epic story of resistance. He’s trying to educate the population where he believes it’s most malleable: with kids who are picking up comic books. His ambitions were immense — it’s a moving, remarkable, and even spiritually compelling story Jack Kirby wanted to tell. The “Fourth World” — that’s what he calls this interconnected web of stories — is Jack Kirby firing on all cylinders.

HB: That’s extremely ambitious! How much of Kirby’s influence is present in ZSJL?

Not enough! Kirby literalized the idea of mass control in “the Anti-Life Equation” — the ultimate weapon in the galaxy, and Darkseid’s most sought object. We hear a bit about this in ZSJL, but we’d definitely learn more if there’s ever a follow-up. They’re not for everybody, but the post-apocalyptic, Knightmare visions of Earth in BvS and ZSJL have really blown me away.

A point of reference for anyone looking to learn more about Fourth World mythology is The New Gods #7: The Pact, which chronicles the ancient war between Highfather (Izaya) and Darkseid. Izaya, the leader of New Genesis, and Darkseid agree to exchange their firstborn sons as a peace offering. Highfather offers his son, Scott Free, to Darkseid, while Orion of Apokalips grows up in the heavenly palaces of New Genesis. Orion is obsessed with the thought of facing Darkseid in mortal combat. Scott Free remains good at heart, despite a torturous upbringing. So much of the philosophical conflict in the Fourth World boils down to: can nurture overcome nature?

HB: That seems to evoke the story of Moses growing up in the court of Pharaoh.

DT: Kirby is indeed pulling from all these world religions and principles. But his ambition didn’t translate to sales. DC cancelled all of his Fourth World titles! Thankfully, other artists and writers picked up the mantle in the decades after, and continued to tell amazing stories with his characters. I’ve a few favorites. Jim Starlin and Mike Mignola, with Cosmic Odyssey. Walt Simonson, with Orion. Most recently, Tom King and Mitch Gerads’ spectacular work on Mister Miracle. All of these creators are deeply in touch with the source of Kirby’s dazzling vision.

Like Kirby’s Fourth World, Justice League similarly suffered from creative compromise, and also out of anxieties about the profits. It was in my wait for ZSJL, trying to piece together what could’ve been, that I began exploring the wider world of DC Comics. I’m very happy with the film we finally have in 2021. Although, if not for my desire to find out what Zack Snyder’s original vision was, I wouldn’t have encountered Jack Kirby, or many, many others!

HB: Any last remarks on the strange saga of #ReleasetheSnyderCut?

DT: Our imaginations can lead us to believe in things that are better than what exists. Yearning for better stories can also invite us to tell our own. When things don’t go right, I always hope that somebody out there is ready to pick up the torch.

David Ting is an independent scholar. After completing a senior thesis on William Gaddis, his poetry has been published on Literary Hub, and his translations of Paul Celan have appeared in DoubleSpeak Magazine. He also writes on film. His Letterboxd page can be found at https://letterboxd.com/lichtzwang/.

Essays on film, politics, and storytelling. Learn more at www.harrisonblackman.com/ and https://harrisonblackman.substack.com/.

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