“Well, I believe in truth,” says Henry Cavill as Superman, crashing the calamitous final battle of the woebegone 2017 film Justice League. “But I’m also a big fan of justice.” Then he punches the crap out of a guy named Steppenwolf.
The line likewise lands with a thud, with a palpable full-audience groan; one’s eyes, meanwhile, are inevitably drawn to Cavill’s visibly CGI’d upper lip. Most if not all of Superman’s scenes in this, the fifth and most controversial entry in the ever-calamitous DC Comics Extended Universe, were harried last-minute reshoots, and Cavill had by that point grown a quite voluminous mustache for his imminent role in 2018’s Mission: Impossible — Fallout, whose producers would not permit him to shave it.
For DCEU loyalists, this was but one more absurd indignity among thousands. Superman’s triumphant appearance in Justice League qualifies as a spoiler: For much of its suspiciously tidy two-hour runtime, he is, technically, dead. But for those superfans who’d most eagerly awaited this movie—devotees of spectacularly polarizing writer-director Zack Snyder—everything about this accursed project was spoiled long ago.
This is the story of #ReleaseTheSnyderCut, the most bizarre sustained fan campaign in modern superhero-movie history, arbitrary and fearsomely dedicated, fascinating and bewildering, possibly hopeless and legitimately inspiring. It is led by people who wish Justice League were more than three and a half hours long, but also, in their defense, an entirely different movie.
Via Change.org, and YouTube, and Twitter, and Instagram, and most recently an ambitious GoFundMe campaign to fly a plane banner over San Diego’s Comic-Con in July (for starters), the #ReleaseTheSnyderCut movement hopes to convince the DCEU’s parent company, Warner Bros., to surrender this superior and as-yet-unfinished cut of the film, as Snyder himself first conceived it. Maybe as is, maybe with Snyder’s further revisions. Maybe released in movie theaters, maybe on Blu-ray and DVD, maybe via a streaming service. That’s the short version of the story. But the whole point of this crusade is that the short version could never suffice.
The DCEU launched with the moody Snyder double feature of 2013’s Man of Steel (introducing Cavill as Superman) and 2016’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (adding Ben Affleck, of course, as Batman). Both films were long, dense, loud, dour, gritty, ultraviolent, grimly ludicrous, and even longer. That’s Snyder’s M.O., as honed earlier on blockbusters like the 2006 bro hymn 300 and lofty failures like 2011’s lurid psychodrama Sucker Punch. (He also did the 2009 film adaptation of Alan Moore’s Watchmen, which handled the ultraviolence better than the, uh, eroticism.) He makes comic book movies for adults, is the point, stretching the adult part to the point of childlike silliness in the eyes of critics who routinely savage his hits and his bombs alike.
Snyder kept that same energy for Man of Steel (notorious for its final battle’s outlandish civilian death toll) and Batman v Superman (notorious for the ultragoofy reason Batman and Superman finally stop fighting). Both films made lots of money; both fared poorly on Rotten Tomatoes. The DCEU rumbled on with David Ayer’s lucrative 2016 turkey Suicide Squad and mid-2017’s triumphant Wonder Woman, directed by Patty Jenkins, starring Gal Gadot, and easily this universe’s highest-grossing and most beloved installment yet. The future was bright, and primed for another bracing shot of Synder’s trademark darkness.
The stage was set, in short, for November 2017’s Justice League, with Snyder returning as writer-director, closing his ambitious arcs for Batman and Superman, furthering Wonder Woman’s burgeoning legend, and introducing new heroes the Flash (Ezra Miller), Cyborg (Ray Fisher), and most consequentially, future DCEU solo star Aquaman (Jason Momoa). This film, the culmination of Snyder’s ambitious and misunderstood trilogy within the larger DCEU, would amaze devotees and detractors alike. Every odd narrative bet would pay off. It would all, finally, make sense.
That is not what happened. The big idea behind #ReleaseTheSnyderCut is that it somehow still might.
In March 2017, Snyder’s 20-year-old daughter, Autumn Snyder, died by suicide, prompting Zack to leave Justice League late in the movie’s production. “I’ve decided to take a step back from the movie to be with my family, be with my kids, who really need me,” he told The Hollywood Reporter that May, deputizing Joss Whedon to finish the film. Toby Emmerich, now chairman of Warner Bros. Pictures Group, explained the situation this way:
Snyder, after screening a rough cut of Justice League for fellow filmmakers and friends, wanted to add additional scenes, so he brought Whedon on board to write them. But as he prepared to shoot the scenes in England, Snyder realized it was not the time to leave home. “The directing is minimal and it has to adhere to the style and tone and the template that Zack set,” says Emmerich. “We’re not introducing any new characters. It’s the same characters in some new scenes. He’s handing the baton to Joss, but the course has really been set by Zack. I still believe that despite this tragedy, we’ll still end up with a great movie.”
And with that first sentence, both the myth and the reality of the Snyder Cut was born.
Justice League came out as scheduled in November 2017, credited to Zack Snyder despite not looking or feeling or behaving like a Zack Snyder film at all. The course he’d set had manifestly been abandoned; the DCEU had taken the opportunity afforded by his absence to dramatically rebrand. The curt two-hour runtime. The brightness. The relative bubbliness. The distinctly Whedonesque quippiness. “Itchy,” quips Superman, when asked by Amy Adams’s Lois Lane how it felt to come back from the dead; the Flash, meanwhile, awkwardly rambles on about brunch and pratfalls face-first onto Wonder Woman’s chest.
The resulting film grossed more than $650 million worldwide but still qualified, via superhero-film pretzel logic, as a bomb. (All those reshoots got awfully pricey.) But this isn’t about money; it’s about, among many other things, phantom facial hair. The vexing issue of Cavill’s not-mustache is introduced in the opening scene, via deliberately janky smartphone video of Superman that nods to the production’s inadvertent jankiness overall. Justice League’s style and tone and template were, in a word, Marvelized, bathed in (relative) sweetness and light, a deferential nod to the ungodly-dominant MCU. (Whedon wrote and directed both 2012’s The Avengers and 2015’s Avengers: Age of Ultron; like Snyder, he is a known quantity and a strong spice, albeit a jokier and more broadly palatable one.)
“I was actually happy with Justice League, at first,” says Chris Wong-Swenson, a 36-year-old YouTuber from Hawaii who first joined the platform in 2016 specifically to defend Batman v Superman. “And I was like, ‘Oh, OK, well, they kind of made a cartoon-y, live-action cartoon film with Justice League.’ And a lot of my friends actually enjoyed it because they had those elements, aside from what happened to Henry Cavill’s face. Which was glaringly obvious. Glaringly obvious.”
But Wong-Swenson and other loyalists—to Snyder, to the darker and more realistic portrayal of Superman first introduced in the late-’80s and early-’90s comics, to the DCEU in its far grittier original form—quickly realized they hadn’t gotten the movie they’d been promised. The #ReleaseTheSnyderCut movement aims to rectify that. The Snyder cut of Justice League, whose precise nature and completeness is fundamentally unknown and thus a matter of much fierce debate, is, reportedly, yes, more than three and a half hours long. Is it 70 percent done, or 80 percent, or 90 percent, or far less? What does done mean, exactly? Is there any precedent for an unfinished product like this—with technical aspects from sound editing to CGI likely incomplete, and some scenes possibly existing in only storyboard form—getting even a low-key drop on a streaming service? How many people really want this? And how many people, from a major studio’s perspective, is enough?
The first major Change.org petition to release Snyder’s director’s cut of Justice League launched in early 2018 and closed with nearly 180,000 signatures, but is now, due to the hostile behavior of its original author, somewhat of a cursed document. Early press for #ReleaseTheSnyderCut, including a deeply skeptical July 2018 Wall Street Journal piece that questioned whether a workable Snyder Cut existed at all, proved divisive and dispiriting to the movement’s loose leadership. (All of the people I interviewed wanted to first talk about my intentions and my feelings about Snyder in general; one person politely asked to make a second recording of our phone call as a safeguard against being misquoted.)
But in 2019, there are new social media accounts (including a raucous Instagram run by 21-year-old Jason Maher, who lives in Australia), and a deluxe website (founded by a woman in China named Fiona Zheng), and the GoFundMe (run by an actor in London named Will Rowlands) that has raised more than $20,000 to bombard Comic-Con with a #ReleaseTheSynderCut plane banner, bus stop wraps, a Hollywood Reporter ad, and more. (Half the money, in honor of Autumn Snyder, will be donated to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.) The revelation, in early June, that Warners will not make a major presentation at San Diego Comic-Con this year is a setback with a silver lining. “If anything,” Rowlands tells me, “them announcing they’re not gonna be there is a bigger spotlight on us.”
This is a movement, in short, that has grown used to industry skepticism and online negativity, including the occasional discouraging word on Twitter.
"Golden State fans are demanding they release the Snyder Cut of the NBA finals" lol— John Campea (@johncampea) June 8, 2019
There is reason to be skeptical. “It’s sad, because there’s zero chance that Warner will ever—there’s zero chance this will ever happen, and part of the reason involves money, and part of the reason involves ego,” says Brooks Barnes, a longtime Hollywood reporter for The New York Times. “It’s a very well-meaning effort that, sadly, I hope people haven’t contributed a whole lot of their rent money to.”
The financial aspect is easy to grasp: It would likely take tens of millions of dollars to finish the Snyder Cut even in its most idealized current form. (Snyder himself, who declined an interview request through a publicist, has long since moved on to other projects, including the Netflix zombie movie Army of the Dead and an adaptation of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead.) But Warners (which did not respond to interview requests) has other factors to consider. “The ego kind of comes in where, like, no studio will ever put itself in a position of looking like they made the wrong decision,” Barnes says. “Let’s just say it was finished, they put it out, everyone loves it, ‘Oh my God, this should have been the movie.’ That puts jobs at risk at the high level. Right? And so right there, it’s not happening.”
But this battle, Snyder Cut enthusiasts insist, has just begun. They are prepared to outlast any egocentric studio executives altogether. “Is it happening in the next two, three years?” asks Sheraz Farooqi, a 25-year-old New Yorker and editor in chief of the site ComicBook Debate. “No. Maybe in five, 10 years? Maybe. I’m optimistic. History can repeat itself. Richard Donner, Superman II. He got fired midway through the movie itself. It took him 30 years, but in 30 years, he got his director’s cut.”
It took only 26 years, actually. Superman II hit theaters in 1980; Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut came out on DVD in 2006. That, for better or worse, is the blueprint. “I don’t think tomorrow, Warner Bros. is saying, ‘Hey, you guys, here’s the Snyder Cut,’” Farooqi tells me. “It’s going to be a long game.”
You might be disinclined to take this movement literally, but you’d best take it seriously. “I don’t even know what to say to that,” Barnes says, when I outline #ReleaseTheSnyderCut’s 10-plus-year game plan. “That’s energy I don’t have.”
Joseph Todd, a 34-year-old PSN Radio host who lives in Illinois and goes by the name ZodWriter, still remembers when he first caught the Whedonized Justice League in theaters and realized he’d been had. “I was very active on Facebook at the time,” he says, “and I remember going home that night after seeing it with my father and my nephew, and I remember coming home to my apartment after seeing that movie, and logging on to Facebook, and posting, ‘Justice League was just fine.’”
He still sounds incredulous as to how unmoved he was: “That was really all I could say about it. I couldn’t wrap my brain around what I had watched.” Zack Snyder movies simply do not inspire such indifference, especially among his biggest fans. “I must’ve seen Batman v Superman in the theaters about four or five times,” Todd says. “I believe I’d seen Man of Steel seven times in theaters.” He recalls the #ReleaseTheSnyderCut hashtag popping up on social media almost immediately, and wholeheartedly agreeing with the sentiment as a means of feeling something, anything. “That’s how it stands out in my mind, that Facebook post. A black background with white letters: ‘Justice League was just fine.’”
Love him or hate him, it is a genuine accomplishment that you definitely love or hate Zack Snyder. “It’s not just the fact that Zack Snyder is a very genuine, down-to-earth, and humble guy, but he’s also an extremely rare and unique filmmaker,” Maher explains to me in an email. “The level of depth and complexity that he puts into his films always draws me in, and always gets me to feel emotion, all kinds of emotion. Zack’s movies get me thinking in new ways and perspectives—they inspire me to do better. Especially his D.C. films, but Justice League is certainly not one of them, as that was not his true film, not his original work.”
Here I will gently note that I stand by my super-crabby 2016 writeup of Batman v Superman, and in particular its headline, which I always knew would get me into trouble one day, and that day, friends, is today. “I know you didn’t quite care for it, as well—I read your review,” Wong-Swenson tells me. “And that’s fine. No, no, no, that’s fine. I have many friends around me who don’t care for that. We’re still friends. They respect my opinion. I respect their opinion. We’ll hang out. It’s cool. It’s fine.”
Part of the devotion here, of course, is to Batman and Superman themselves. Chris Wong-Swenson says he’s named after ’70s and ’80s Superman Christopher Reeve, and he watched 2006’s Superman Returns, a failed reboot starring Brandon Routh and directed by Bryan Singer, nine times in the theater. “The Returns one was interesting, because I was kind of trying to help the box office, even though it’s only just one guy,” he says. “But I was kind of depressed, because I was like, ‘They’re not going to make another Superman movie, are they? So I better watch this one over and over.’”
Times changed. Man of Steel debuted Snyder’s classical take on Superman—in line, Wong-Swenson tells me, with the ’90s comic book version—as a frail, volatile, painfully human character living, crucially, in a grittier and more realistic world that would rightly view an all-powerful being as more of a threat than a salvation. The larger DCEU is animated, theoretically, by the idea that Superman could probably punch the crap out of literally everyone at any time. As for Snyder’s Batman, well, Affleck certainly has the sad-handsome gravitas, but many critics (guilty) balked at yet another ultramelodramatic depiction of the death of Bruce Wayne’s parents, his mother’s pearls wrapped lovingly around the gun.
But as they say on the internet, that, at least, is a choice, and it is arguably truest to Batman’s historic penchant for wanton ultradarkness. I still remember my 9-year-old brother tearing ass out of a screening of Tim Burton’s 1992 sequel Batman Returns after the Penguin nearly bit a dude’s nose off; a kid about that age ran crying from the theater 10 minutes into my showing of Batman v Superman, nearly 25 years later. That’s the gig; that’s the legacy. It is in line with the DCEU’s vague conception as a blacker-hearted alternative to the MCU, not to mention its explicit role as a huge underdog.
Every decision any other comic book franchise makes in 2019 should be read, in other words, as a direct response to the Marvel juggernaut. “It’s a well-oiled machine,” Farooqi tells me. “You can love it or hate it, but you can’t hate the game. They got the game, and they’re running with it. They’re the Golden State Warriors. WB’s more like the New York Knicks.” He laughs. I laugh. “We’ve had our moments. We haven’t won our championship yet.”
The original Justice League was unlikely to be a championship-level event, but a gloomy, vicious, queasily stylized, and distinctly Snyderized version is undoubtedly preferable to the version we got. As released, the movie is bland superhero boilerplate—Steppenwolf, your wan villain, is on the usual tired fill-in-the-blanks quest to collect [Mother Boxes] so as to amass enough power to achieve [the Unity], which will [destroy the earth as we know it]—with lousy jokes. Justice League as it exists is interesting now solely for the hints of what might’ve existed. Steppenwolf, for example, makes one offhand reference to Darkseid, a far gnarlier D.C. villain, in what amounts to yet another multiple-reshoot non sequitur.
Most of what we know about the Snyder Cut is what Snyder himself, via various sly social media posts and expertly cryptic comments at public appearances, is willing to tell us. He signs a guy’s poster but also circles the number 214; ergo, 214 minutes, or just over three and a half hours. That’s the runtime. On the social media site Vero, Snyder lets it slip that he’d eyed an actor named Ray Porter for the role of Darkseid, or shares a cryptic graphic detailing his larger and long-abandoned DCEU plan, in which (maybe) Batman would’ve died in (maybe) Justice League 2.
That’s a better villain, then, and a darker (and even longer) hero arc necessitating a whole other movie. Snyder’s original plan, in fact, involved him personally doing five DCEU movies. “We know, we understand, we’re not going to get that five-part work,” Wong-Swenson says. “He has compromised enough.”
Fans likewise now reinterpret earlier images from before Snyder left Justice League, like this January 2017 shot of Gadot doing automated dialogue replacement, or ADR, typically done late in production. The #ReleaseTheSnyderCut movement thrives on this sort of detective work and informed but necessarily incomplete speculation. (ForSnyderCut.com has a thorough timeline of who has said what, when, and what it might mean.) Jay Oliva, a storyboard artist who worked on Justice League—including, he says, parts that never made the movie—has also spoken publicly about a possible Snyder Cut, though he’s loath to get much more specific in interviews than “stranger things have happened” in terms of either WB’s releasing an unfinished version or Snyder’s circling back around to actually finish it.
Choose your own adventure, and imagine your own movie, and create your own path to convincing Warners to release it. “I think this is, by far, the most asked-for or most intriguing cut to ever be talked about since Blade Runner,” Wong-Swenson says. “And that came out. That made money. Kingdom of Heaven [Ridley Scott, 2005, don’t get involved] came out with a director’s cut, and that had, like, nobody asked for that. And it still came out.” Batman v Superman even got a home-release Ultimate Edition with 30 extra minutes of footage, for those of you who couldn’t live without a Steppenwolf cameo. The Snyder Cut’s audience is there, as the Snyder Cut’s audience has long insisted. It’s all down now to dollars and percentages.
“We’ve got a movie here that’s, from what people are saying, 80 to 90 percent complete,” Wong-Swenson says. “That’s money on a table. They’re leaving money on a table. And, in sales, you never leave money on a table.”
The original 2018 Change.org petition was conceived by a fan in Puerto Rico named Roberto Mata who later launched a $4,000 fundraiser to shoot his own documentary about the Snyder Cut. But in May of that year, Mata was formally disavowed by the larger movement in a joint ForSnyderCut.com statement, citing his treatment of fellow organizers in emails and other correspondence. “Simply put,” the statement read in part, “he is racist, sexist, and Islamophobic.” (Farooqi tells me that he rewrote that first petition to soften it and help it go viral; Mata, who called out his critics in another Change.org dispatch that also referenced “ignorant and irrational agendas and beliefs like Feminism, Social Justice War, Black Lives Matter, Political Correctness, Religion, etc,” could not be reached for an interview.)
Such is the nature of herding passionate comic book and superhero movie fans on the internet in 2019: There is always the threat of total Culture War de-evolution. (The pinned tweet on the @RTSnyderCut account is a detailed Code of Conduct.) Another brief crisis point came in April when right-wing provocateur Ben Shapiro tweeted “Release the Snyder Cut” in the midst of a conversation about the 2018 Natalie Portman film Vox Lux. “In my camp,” Farooqi says now, “I was publicly saying that putting him as the poster child, you’re never going to get the Snyder Cut out.”
There are larger ongoing disagreements as to how to approach Warners—namely, whether to play Good Cop (by convincing them that the Snyder Cut is profitable) or Bad Cop (demanding the Snyder Cut, or else). The question is which approach will work, or work faster. “You have to look at a pressure point,” Barnes explains, using the 2019 film Shazam—a modest hit when compared with late 2018’s blockbuster Aquaman, but solid evidence of the DCEU’s expanding range—as an example. “So let’s say Shazam was enormously important for them for a lot of reasons,” he says of Warners. “They had to show they could do that with another character, and blah, blah, blah. So if there was like a coordinated boycott campaign—I don’t want to give people ideas—but you know, ‘We’re holding this new movie hostage until you give us what we want.’ That is going to matter more to them than whatever else they’re doing.”
The #ReleaseTheSnyderCut movement has its prominent figures, but not a centralized, monolithic leadership: This level of passion is uncommon among fans also willing to march in lockstep. Which partially explains why you can find random folks on Twitter spamming entirely unrelated Warners posts—for example, a trailer for the upcoming Melissa McCarthy–Tiffany Haddish–Elisabeth Moss crime drama The Kitchen—with #ReleaseTheSnyderCut replies.
This is not officially sanctioned activity, though Wong-Swenson understands the motivation. “They have a lot of emotions, and they’re bringing out their emotions,” he says. “And I don’t really fault them for that. They don’t know how to express themselves to Warner Bros. They did the phone call thing as well. But they don’t know how to get more of us to talk about it. And I understand, as a human-level frustration, the easiest way is to tweet about it.”
A coordinated late-2018 campaign to direct a specific number of phone calls to executives at Warner Bros. gave way, a few months later, to a disorganized bombardment of the company’s switchboard, but the latter sort of anarchic approach might backfire. “I think they’re just counterproductive, because if you think about it, no Warner Bros. brass is monitoring the Warner Bros. Twitter account,” says Kate Erbland, the deputy editor for film at IndieWire. “They’re not even seeing it. It just annoys some social media coordinator.” The phone calls are even more disruptive. “The operator of Warner Bros.’ main line, or the receptionist at Warner Bros., they’re not going to be able to do anything to help your cause,” she continues. “And you’re just bothering them.”
Erbland, likewise, is skeptical as to the #ReleaseTheSnyderCut movement’s ultimate chances of success: “There’s no modern precedent for this sort of thing panning out the way that they would want.” Part of that modern precedent involves streaming services, and the tantalizing prospect that a flustered Warners would just dump the Snyder Cut, in whatever liminal form it exists, on Netflix or the like with no promotion, where the people clamoring for it could get it, and nobody else would even see it.
“First of all, Netflix has to agree to take it,” Barnes says. “They’ve been increasingly—what’s the right word—sensitive about being viewed as the dumping ground for studio movies, or whatever studios don’t want.” Warners is, of course, readying its own gala streaming service for later this year with new parent company AT&T, and is furthermore already operating a streaming site called DC Universe that is, unfortunately, in the news this week for launching and then immediately canceling a new Swamp Thing show. The Knicks are still the Knicks.
The battleground shifts, then, to San Diego Comic-Con in July; Warners might not be there, but thanks to Rowlands’s GoFundMe, #ReleaseTheSnyderCut will be. That campaign has, to repeat, raised $10,000 and counting for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, which immediately makes this enterprise more worthwhile than plenty of other fan campaigns.
Rowlands speaks earnestly of the larger crusade to avenge the studio’s “immoral” treatment of the Snyder family and Zack’s movie: “It’s the worst thing that could happen to anybody. It appears that the studio took advantage of the situation and really dishonored his work.”
Unfortunately, because this is the internet, Rowlands also occasionally finds himself arguing with people on Twitter more inclined to mock his mission than even attempt to understand it.
“I didn’t want to leave it as a non-reply or a block,” Rowlands tells me of one recent extended spat, because the user had nearly 500 followers, which is “500 potential people who may be misinformed—informed about that wrong opinion. And that’s the problem these days, is people get the wrong opinion on things, and take it as a fact. So that’s the only reason I engaged.” The most devout members of the #ReleaseTheSnyderCut movement know that their cause is a bit abnormal, and their chosen filmmaker is rather an acquired taste, and their chances for total vindication are slim, at best, in the short term. But they know what they want. And they’re ready, if necessary, to fight block by block, follower by follower, year by year.