It doesn’t matter which era you grew up watching TV in, there’s a universal plague that haunts watch parties, ruins classic movies and sparks passionate, frustrating debate with no satisfying victor: the dreaded eyesore of “black bars.”
If you’re watching an older film, you might find large black bars sandwiching the film on the top and bottom of your screen. If you’re watching TV from before the turn of the century, they might squeeze the picture in from the sides. It’s a common curse of aspect ratios of bygone eras not quite lining up with the size of the screens we keep in our homes. At least we can expect some conformity from contemporary TV and movies made for modern televisions, right?
Maybe not. Meet, a that originally debuted in a wide-screen aspect ratio three years ago, but has been reborn on HBO Max with new scenes, more characters and two intimidating black bars flanking either side of a square-framed picture.
Do not adjust your TV. This is exactly what Zack Snyder intended.
So what’s going on here?
Zack Snyder’s Justice League is bucking an industry trend, presenting itself in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio as opposed to a more standard widescreen format. It’s absolutely weird, and it feels “wrong” because we’re not used to it, but it’s not actually all that strange. The Snyder Cut’s square framing is essentially the same 4:3 framing that dominated television programming from the 1920s until the late 1990s. Most importantly, it’s framed this way to better fit IMAX formatting.
Why would he do that?
The short answer? Artistic vision. While working on Batman v. Superman, Zack Snyder grew enamored with how its IMAX scenes looked on the oversized format’s screen. Speaking at a JusticeCon digital panel last year, Snyder said watching those sequences on the extra-large format made him “obsessed with the big square.” When it came to film Justice League, he kept that larger aspect ratio in mind.
“I really started just, compositionally, really falling in love with that concept.” Snyder said during the same JusticeCon panel. “Superheroes tend to be, as figures, they tend to be less horizontal. Maybe Superman when he’s flying. But when he’s standing, he’s more of a vertical. Everything is composed and shot that way, and a lot of the restoration is sort of trying to put that back. Put these big squares back.”
But the 2017 version of the film doesn’t look like this.
It does not, but that’s not exactly Zack Snyder’s fault. Although he started production on that version of the film, he had to step away in 2017 following a family tragedy. Joss Whedon stepped in to, but the change in direction left viewers with a film that strayed pretty far from Snyder’s original vision. Fans called for Warner Brothers to #ReleaseTheSnydercut, and here we are — new aspect ratio and all.
The good news is that this means you’re actually seeing more of the picture than you would have in the original film: Snyder shot most of the footage with the larger, square frame in mind. Technically, the widescreen crop on the 2017 version of the film cuts off key parts of scenes Snyder shot before Whedon took over for reshoots and the final cut. The new framing is the difference between each director’s final vision for the film.
Snyder even drew a picture to illustrate the issue: without the black bars on the side, you wouldn’t be able to see the Bat-signal.
It still feels weird to watch this on my TV. Why is that?
Because it’s not designed for your TV. Zack Snyder is right, in an IMAX presentation, on a giant 70-foot screen, 1:43:1 can look pretty amazing — but with most movie theaters closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, you’re probably watching it on a TV. Even though there’s technically more image to see, it looks smaller because your TV isn’t designed for the more square image. It doesn’t use the full display. That’s a little less amazing.
Is there anything I can do about it?
Yes, but you probably won’t want to. Most TVs these days include aspect ratio settings that allow you to change how the picture displays. You can zoom it in, or stretch the image to fill the entire screen. You’ll get rid of the black bars, but you’ll probably cut off part of the picture in the process.
Alternatively, you could watch it on an iPad. The tablet’s screen has a 4:3 aspect ratio by default, making the film a perfect fit. It honestly looks great on an iPad, but putting the film on a smaller tablet display kind of flies in the face of Snyder’s “big square” vision.
Is there anything else I should know?
Only that aspect ratios are a trend, and trends change. For the first 30 years of film, a 1.33:1 frame very similar to the Snyder Cut was the standard, but that changed over time. In the 1950s, film studios started shooting movies in widescreen Cinerama and CinemaScope format to boost ticket sales. In the 1970s, IMAX debuted as a “tall” answer to widescreen films. Today’s common format of 16:9 was a compromise made by TV manufacturers to reduce how many letterboxed black bars viewers had to put up when watching movies shot on all those other aspect ratios.
And these days, the framing argument is more complicated than ever. Shows like, , and Westworld sometimes change aspect ratios halfway through an episode. It’s a little jarring, but it’s clear that filmmakers don’t subscribe to any single standard anymore.
Zack Snyder’s Justice League absolutely looks weird, particularly on your TV, but love it or hate it, there’s nothing you can do about it. With a 4-hour runtime, you’ll have plenty of time to decide how you feel about it.
And you might even see more films like it in the future.