This week, after years of fan demand, internet crusading, and overwhelming amounts of baseless speculation and theorizing, Zack Snyder’s near-deified cut of 2018’s Justice League was released to streaming services. Zack Snyder’s Justice League, otherwise known as “The Snyder Cut,” is a 4-hour, massively ambitious, and extremely anticipated operatic epic that takes the same basic plot and structure of the officially released theatrical cut, and expands it dramatically to more align with Snyder’s original dream of how the film should have been from the start.
The road to the film’s release is long and convoluted, and if you want an on-depth and personal account of what happened, read Vanity Fair’s excellent overview here. I’ll quickly sum up the highlights:
- After the negative critical and financial response to Snyder’s previous DC Comics/Warner Bros. film, Batman v Superman, the studio began to have doubts about Snyder’s particular style and vision for what should be extremely profitable properties.
- In the midst of shooting Justice League, Warner Bros. installed several watchdogs on set, including comic writer Geoff Johns, to make sure that the film did not veer too far into the oversaturated, moody, and melodramatic tone of Snyder’s previous films.
- Reports vary, and I doubt we’ll ever know for sure the exact timeline of events, but either one of two things happened next: Snyder was fired, or Snyder’s daughter, Autumn, tragically took her own life, causing Snyder and his wife/producer, Deborah, to step away from the project in their grief. Either way, the end result was the same: Snyder was no longer directing.
- The studio brought in writer/director Joss Whedon, of The Avengers fame, to finish post-production and reshoot nearly the entire film, altering the script and tone in the process.
- Justice League is released, and is nearly universally reviled.
- Fans online, encouraged by Snyder himself as well as many members of the film’s cast, start the #releasethesnydercut movement, hoping to sway Warner Bros into, obviously, releasing Snyder’s version of the film.
- After nearly 3 years of campaigning, Warner Bros. finally announces that it will be allowing Snyder to finish and polish his version of the film, which will be released to their new streaming service, HBOMax.
- On March 18th, 2021, the Snyder Cut is finally released to the public, to predictably explosive fanfare.
Although I’m not exactly the biggest fan of Snyder’s work (I’ve pretty much hated everything he’s done except Dawn of the Dead, which is excellent, and maybe 60% of Watchmen), I do genuinely respect him as a creative entity. He’s got a clear vision and style, and is an absolutely masterful director when it comes to action and visual flair. His aesthetic is always distinct and well-defined, and his films are gorgeous to look at. He’s also, by all accounts, just a legitimately great guy, so I’m incredibly happy that, in light of the tragedies that prevented his version of Justice League from seeing the light of day for so long, he finally got to see his vision through to the end.
And to be perfectly honest, the “Snyder Cut” actually is a marked improvement over the original, Whedon-helmed theatrical edit. The characters are more fleshed out, the tone is far more even, and the scale feels much more epic and mythic in scope. The story doesn’t feel nearly as rushed, and can take its time to breathe a bit, which is necessary for Snyder’s often slow, deliberate pace in between grandiose and energetic action sequences. Granted, a four hour runtime will tend to allow a lot of room for new material, and it does tend to drag in places, but still. It’s not great, maybe not even “good” by most objective standards, but it’s certainly entertaining and has a consistent, cohesive plot, which is more than can be said of Batman v Superman.
But I don’t actually want to talk about the quality of the film itself. Whether or not the end result of Snyder’s vision merited the amount of effort that went into getting it completed and released is neither here nor there. What I think is far more interesting, and is going to have much farther-reaching implications, is the role that fan outcry and campaigning played in getting The Snyder Cut to its current state.
Zack Snyder, for reasons I’ve never been 100% clear on, has perhaps one of the most loyal, dedicated, and, frankly, borderline-rabid fanbases of any filmmaker alive today. I’m not sure if they’ve always been that way (I certainly didn’t see this amount of dogma around The Owls of Ga’Hoole, for instance), but certainly following Man of Steel and Batman v Superman, Snyder developed an extremely fanatical following that seemed to believe he was some sort of messiah. Likening him to the Warner Bros. equivalent of Marvel’s Kevin Feige, his unflinching believers preached Snyder’s interpretation of these iconic DC Comics characters with religious fervor, to the point that they would reflexively denounce anything that didn’t align with their savior’s “vision.”
When Batman v Superman received fairly abysmal reviews from critics (and non-obsessive fans alike), these Snyderverse crusaders responded in outrage. They spammed review aggregate sites like Rotten Tomatoes in an effort to sway public opinion, and even tried a negative review bomb of Marvel’s Captain America: Civil War, which was the film’s main competitor at the time. When the box office returns for “their” film were eventually dwarfed by Marvel’s own superhero showdown, the excuses came flying: It was a deliberate hist by critics, who were all “Marvel Shills,” it was some conspiracy by Warner Bros to get rid of Snyder for nonsensical political reasons, or the movie was simply unappreciated genius that the general viewing public was too simple to understand. Either way, their inability to accept that the film’s lack of success was likely due to nothing more than poor quality and reception was just a small preview of what was to come.
During the production and lead-up to Justice League, these sentiments continued to escalate exponentially, especially as word of the film’s troubled production began to hit gossip sites and movies forums. This came to a head when fans got word of Snyder’s departure from the project, in the wake of a serious personal tragedy combined with Warner Bros.’s general dissatisfaction with the production thus far. Fans were outraged, demanding the studio reinstate Snyder as director, even after he himself denied any desire to return. They were, naturally, equally displeased when Joss Whedon was announced as Snyder’s replacement, especially considering that, to many, Whedon’s tonal style was essentially Snyder’s polar opposite. Snyder’s devotees feared that the studio was trying to turn Justice League into essentially, a Marvel Studios film, which, of course, they were absolutely doing. After all, if you can’t beat your competition outright, you might as well copy them.
After Joss Whedon’s cut of Justice League released to overwhelmingly negative reviews from both casual movie-goers and hardcore fanboys alike, the campaign to see Zack Snyder’s version of the film began almost immediately. The #releasethesnydercut tag began to spread virally like wildfire all over Twitter and Instagram, demanding that Snyder’s original cut of the film, before Whedon’s reshoots and rewrites “ruined it,” be released to the public, either theatrically or through streaming.
The problem with this is that it displays a fundamental lack of understanding as to how movies are made: There was no Snyder Cut. It didn’t exist. Snyder left the project while it was still in development. He may have had a rough assembly cut of raw footage (which would later be revealed to be the case), but he in no way had a finished product that could simply be released like any other director’s cut. No, the version of Justice League that fans wanted to see was essentially a completely different film altogether. But they were absolutely unprepared to listen to reason. Massive debates erupted at even the tiniest mention of the Snyder Cut all over the internet, particularly on social media like Twitter and Reddit, where Snyder’s fans would mercilessly attack anyone who dared even suggest that the film likely either wasn’t real, or that it would never see any sort of official release.
This was further spurred on by several actors from the film, including Jason Mamoa, who crusaded for the Snyder cut almost as fervently as the fans themselves. Soon, nearly every member of the cast had voiced their desire to see Snyder’s version completed, which of course only encouraged Snyder’s followers to campaign even harder. Of course the Snyder Cut must be real, who else would know better than Aquaman? Snyder himself eventually joined in the fun, actively supporting the movement online.
So, naturally, when it was announced that HBO Max would be releasing the Snyder Cut to its streaming service in 2021, these fans immediately felt vindicated. It does exist! They were right all along! If we complain loud enough and long enough, we can get the studios to do whatever we want!
What Snyder’s fans fail to realize is that yes, while this absolutely would not have happened without their vocal outcry online, it’s more of a perfect storm of factors than it is evidence that studios genuinely listen to fans. For one, the circumstances surrounding Snyder’s departure were, again, genuinely tragic. This garnered the director, rightfully so, a fair amount of sympathy within the studio, which gave him an edge when it came time for discussions to take place for the possibility of completing the Snyder Cut. Secondly, Warner Bros. desperately needed new content for their new streaming service, especially in the face of Disney+’s ever-expanding library of original Marvel and Star Wars programming. The Snyder Cut would be a fairly cheap and easy way to both garner new subscribers and general goodwill towards the studio. Snyder also agreed to complete the project for free, stating that the project was largely more about the catharsis of completing it than any potential monetary gain. While incredibly admirable, this was likely a crucial factor in getting the project greenlit. All of this is to say, the Snyder Cut did not come to fruition simply because fans signed a few petitions: It was a complex, highly delicate process, that only worked out because of coincidences and sheer luck.
All of this makes me extremely concerned that the internet, particularly those rapid fandoms of various franchises, are ultimately going to learn the wrong lesson from this saga. They aren’t going to know the numerous nuances and variables that went into the Snyder Cut being released, nor are they going to realize just how rare something like this is. Again, the Snyder Cut only exists because of a very specific, very fortuitous (depending on your point of view, I suppose) series of events that would be nearly impossible to replicate, even intentionally. But the internet will ignore all of this, and take away one very simple conclusion: We can make anything happen if we yell into the internet ether with sufficient volume and intensity. And that’s just not how things work.
It doesn’t help that Snyder’s cut of Justice League us left open-ended, teasing a number of story developments and potential sequels that will never happen. They can’t. It’s just not feasible. And I can hear the arguments now: “Well, people thought the Snyder Cut was impossible too, and that happened!” Yes, but only because the film was mostly already done. Snyder was given roughly $70 million to complete the visual effects for footage that he had already shot, as well as some small reshoots. $70 million may sound like a lot, but it’s nothing compared to the likely $200 million+ that would be needed for just one of the films that would need to be made to complete the story set up by this film. That’s Avengers level money. And while I agree that the properties are worth that, the studio absolutely will not allow that, at least in Snyder’s hands. Especially given his box-office records. So expect to see something like #releasejusticeleague2 trending in the coming weeks, as fans continue to deny reality.
And I’m not saying that there’s nothing wrong with the passion that fans have for these films. Their dedication is commendable, especially considering that they, technically speaking, accomplished their goal: They got the Snyder cut released. It happens more and more in our increasingly streaming-centric world, with viewing numbers on platforms like Netflix getting shows and franchises revived seemingly every day. But fan outcry isn’t magic. It won’t work on everything, and likely nothing this large again anytime soon. The Hollywood system operates on one thing and one thing only: Profit. Fans can want something as much as they want, scream their desires from the digital rooftops. Sign petitions, harass studio heads, and engage in endless debates on social media. But at the end of the day, if the project they’re advocating for isn’t profitable, it’s not going to happen unless under very special circumstances.
Fan’s of Snyder’s’ work should, of course, take the time to celebrate this victory. Enjoy the film, take pride in the fact that your support it was helped it take shape and emerge as a finished project. It’s undeniably a better product than the previous version, and for that alone, like many other director’s cuts of films before it, that alone justifies its existence. But please, internet, don’t walk away from this thinking that, every time a film you’re excited for ends up being terrible, you can just tweet at the studio until they give the director another shot at it. Because I promise you, it won’t happen again. Not like this, anyway.