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The Sound and Fury of ‘The Snyder Cut’

Next week, Zack Snyder’s unfiltered version of ‘Justice League’ hits HBO Max. The road to this moment has been long, strange, and unexpected.

DC Films/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

While the Marvel Cinematic Universe chugs along with plans to release four movies and as many as five Disney+ shows in 2021 after a largely positive response to WandaVision, the DC Extended Universe is turning back the clock. On March 18, HBO Max will unleash upon the world Zack Snyder’s Justice League—or as it’s more commonly known, the Snyder Cut.

Wherever you stand on Snyder as a filmmaker, the five-year journey of this project—from the director leaving the Justice League production over a family tragedy to the fan-driven social media campaigns to Warner Bros. forking over as much as $70 million to get the Snyder Cut completed—has few, if any, precedents in Hollywood. It took nearly three decades for Richard Donner’s cut of Superman II to be released; meanwhile, the Snyder Cut is arriving before the studio releases its latest iterations of the Suicide Squad and Batman.

March 18 will be a vindicating moment for Snyder zealots, whose yearslong efforts to restore the filmmaker’s original vision appeared rather quixotic, to be polite about it. For everyone else who isn’t as plugged into the discourse, the Snyder Cut’s [deep breath] four-hour running time will hopefully ensure nobody complains about The Irishman ever again. (True story: I sat through an excellent Bollywood movie about cricket in college and firmly accepted I would never watch anything longer; it is 15 minutes shorter than the Snyder Cut.) But given how long the movie is going to be—it will be broken into chapters for the non-masochists of the world—it’s only fitting that the origins of the Snyder Cut are just as dense, strange, and overwrought.

The same year the MCU launched with Jon Favreau’s Iron Man, Warner Bros. was riding a wave of plaudits for The Dark Knight—the Christopher Nolan Batman movie that was so beloved that its exclusion from the Oscars’ Best Picture race led to the Academy changing its rules. Nolan completed his trilogy in 2012 with The Dark Knight Rises, the same year Marvel dropped The Avengers and firmly established its sweeping, ambitious cinematic universe as a serious moneymaker. (At its release, The Avengers became the third highest-grossing movie of all time; Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame have since surpassed it.) With Nolan off to—and I’m just spitballing here—make googly eyes at a grandfather clock, Warner Bros. wanted to make a superhero cinematic universe of its own. Enter Zack Snyder.

By 2012, Snyder had made a name for himself helming epic, dour, ultraviolent spectacles. Snyder’s movies could be polarizing—personally, I admired his Watchmen adaptation and was ferociously entertained by 300, but the less said about Sucker Punch, the better—but there’s no denying the filmmaker had his own distinct vision. By electing Snyder to be the creative force behind the DCEU, starting in 2013 with Man of Steel, Warner Bros. opted for a tonal counterweight to the cheerier MCU: one with grim, weighty, biblical undertones featuring superheroes who almost seemed to hate their own existence and godlike abilities. But Man of Steel and its follow-up, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, leaned too far into Snyder’s worst impulses—the latter was especially reviled, having hinged on its title characters finding common ground over their moms having the same name. Still, the wheels were already in motion for Snyder to wrap up his saga-within-a-cinematic-universe with Justice League, DC’s fast-tracked equivalent of The Avengers.

Before Justice League even came out, however, the studio’s faith in Snyder was clearly wavering. Following Dawn of Justice’s poor critical reception, Justice League went from being a planned two-parter to being a stand-alone movie. What’s more, Warner Bros. assigned watchdogs to oversee the Justice League shoot. “My job was to try to mediate between a creator whose vision is instinctually dark and a studio that perceived, rightly or wrong, that the fans wanted something lighter,” former Warner Bros. co-production head Jon Berg told Vanity Fair in a February profile of Snyder. Having launched the DCEU as an attempt to differentiate itself from Marvel, Warner Bros. was looking to distance itself from the architect of its own alternately dreary cinematic universe.

But any infighting over creative control of Justice League became a secondary concern for Snyder after a family tragedy. In March 2017, Snyder’s daughter Autumn died by suicide. The filmmaker continued to work on the movie for a short period but officially stepped down from Justice League in May. For his replacement, Warner Bros. hired Joss Whedon—who was working with the studio on a stand-alone Batgirl movie, a project he would later exit—following his stint with the MCU as the director of The Avengers and its sequel, Age of Ultron. At the time, Justice League was already in postproduction, but Whedon wasn’t just there to bring the movie to the finish line. Instead, at the studio’s insistence, the film was extensively reshot and rewritten; given Whedon’s own sensibilities, which tend to be quippier and more palatable, the motivation was evidently to “be more like Marvel.” And, well, the results of that mandate didn’t exactly pan out.

Whedon’s Justice League was a critical, and more importantly, commercial failure, the kind of project that looked and felt like an anxious assemblage of studio notes turned into a bland facsimile of the MCU. (Love or hate Snyder movies, at least he sticks to his principles.) The film’s roughly two-hour running time struggled to both introduce new heroes in Cyborg, the Flash, and Aquaman and also set up the villain Steppenwolf and have all the heroes team up for the customary Generic Third-Act Battle. (This Third Act was Especially Generic.) Because Henry Cavill was in the middle of working on Mission: Impossible - Fallout—in which his character sported a gloriously thicc mustache—during the reshoots, Superman’s upper lip was CGI’d in such a bizarre way that it looked like the actor was somehow deep-faking himself. Justice League might have successfully moved away from the Snyder ethos, but what remained was an unquestionably inferior product that was universally derided—most of all by the filmmaker’s biggest supporters.

It was fairly obvious to anybody with eyeballs that the Justice League movie that arrived in theaters was not what Snyder had envisioned. Snyder’s ardent fans clung to the idea that Justice League only went off the rails once Whedon got involved. Up to a point, that was certainly true. Ray Fisher, who plays Cyborg, said that Whedon was “gross, abusive, and unprofessional” on the set of the movie, and that his behavior was enabled by higher-ups at the studio. While Fisher’s public complaints initially didn’t dissuade the larger corporate entity of WarnerMedia from continuing to collaborate with Whedon—after Justice League, he was working on the sci-fi series The Nevers for HBO—other actors have since shared their experiences of his abusive on-set behavior. In February, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel alum Charisma Carpenter opened up about Whedon fostering a toxic work environment on the set of both shows, including calling her fat when she was pregnant and asking if she was going to keep the baby, which led to several of the actresses’ costars voicing their support. (“While I am proud to have my name associated with Buffy Summers, I don’t want to be forever associated with the name Joss Whedon,” Buffy star Sarah Michelle Gellar posted on Instagram.) While Whedon and HBO had already parted ways on The Nevers in November, his reputation—and indeed, his future in Hollywood—is circling the drain.

Meanwhile, the Snyderdom didn’t waste time airing out their grievances over Justice League’s terrible final product and the prospect of the filmmaker’s truer vision being kept at bay. An online petition requesting Warner Bros. to sanction a director’s cut of the movie—along with the scrapped original score from Junkie XL—drew nearly 180,000 signatures in 2017. Elsewhere, the fandom devoured every breadcrumb confirming their suspicions: Justice League storyboard artist Jay Oliva posited on Twitter that Snyder’s version of the film was close to completion, barring some reshoots and unfinished VFX; the Wall Street Journal, citing unnamed sources from the production, confirmed that Snyder did assemble a rough cut of the movie. When Snyder shared an picture on Thanksgiving 2018 of a turkey thermometer hitting 120 degrees in the oven, some fans ran with the idea that the filmmaker was stealthily trolling Warner Bros. over Justice League’s running time. This is what we in the industry call opening your third eye.

Like the identity of D.B. Cooper or what really happened to the lost colony of Roanoke Island, we may never know whether Zack Snyder’s Thanksgiving turkey was in on the conspiracy. But the movement was lent more credibility in 2019 when someone recorded Snyder talking to fans at a fundraiser event, seemingly confirming that his own cut of Justice League existed, and that it would be up to Warner Bros. whether it was released or not. Aquaman star Jason Momoa stoked the flames further when he posted on Instagram in August 2019 that he’d seen the Snyder Cut for himself and that it was, and I quote, “ssssiiicccckkkkkk.” I don’t doubt the sincerity of Aquaman, but seeing as Momoa seems like the type of dude who’d have the exact same reaction to the sunrise every morning, his Snyder Cut flex still needed to be taken with a grain of salt (from the deepest depths of the Kingdom of the Trench).

Even with Aquaman’s hearty endorsement, fan hype didn’t translate into meaningful progress, despite #ReleaseTheSnyderCut becoming a rallying cry on Twitter. It wasn’t until November 2019 that the whispers would become full-on roars: On the two-year anniversary of Justice League’s release, stars Ben Affleck, Gal Gadot, and Fisher tweeted out that hashtag, a move that put even more pressure onto Warner Bros. to give the fandom what they want. As if there were any further doubt that a director’s cut existed in some form, Snyder shared a photo on his Instagram in December 2019 of film canisters labeled “Justice League Director’s Cut” with a simple message: “Is it real? Does it exist? Of course it does.”

At this point, it felt like it was only a matter of when, not if, the Snyder Cut would come to fruition. But even much-hyped directors’ cuts for well-received movies can take awhile to materialize: Ridley Scott’s preferred cut of the sci-fi classic Blade Runner, which omits the Harrison Ford voiceovers, wasn’t released for a decade. And as recently as November 2019, Warner Bros. insiders were insisting that the Snyder Cut was a “pipe dream.”

Then the pandemic happened.

As the coronavirus spread in March 2020, Hollywood productions shut down and theatrical releases for the entire year were left in a state of limbo. The entertainment industry was flung into a state of uncertainty. As Quibi found out the hard way, the pandemic—and more pointedly, the environment it created in which millions of Americans are financially strained—is a tough time to launch a streaming service. The same held true for HBO Max, which would arrive in May with a plethora of programming from WarnerMedia, including titles from HBO, Cartoon Network, Studio Ghibli, Turner Classic Movies, and more. And so, in what appeared to be an effort to draw more buzz to the nascent streaming service, a week before launch the parent company turned a pipe dream into reality: The Snyder Cut was going forward, and it would hit HBO Max in 2021. “It will be an entirely new thing, and, especially talking to those who have seen the released movie, a new experience apart from that movie,” Snyder told The Hollywood Reporter. “You probably saw one-fourth of what I did.”

It was originally reported that Warner Bros. was looking to fork over $20-30 million to bring the Snyder Cut to the finish line—LOL—and the director told Vanity Fair that the studio wanted to release the rough cut, which he refused. (Thankfully he stood his ground—speaking from the experience of occasionally receiving screeners with unfinished special effects and unmixed audio, it never plays well.) Now that Snyder had the green light to execute his original vision, information on how the Snyder Cut differed from the original Justice League began to trickle in. The villain Darkseid, the DCEU’s equivalent to Thanos, would be featured; in an unintentionally heavy-handed metaphor, Superman would don a black suit; Cyborg and The Flash would have their backstories further developed, including the appearance of Iris West, Barry Allen’s love interest; and not only would Jared Leto’s Joker show up, he’d literally get to say “we live in a society.”

Basically, Snyder is getting close to everything he could’ve ever wanted—sans a romantic subplot between Lois Lane and Bruce Wayne, which Warner Bros. refused when he was originally planning out the movie. “We had this beautiful speech where [Bruce] said to Alfred: ‘I never had a life outside the cave. I never imagined a world for me beyond this. But this woman makes me think that if I can get this group of gods together, then my job is done. I can quit. I can stop.’ And of course that doesn’t work out for him,” Snyder told Vanity Fair. That idea being left on the cutting room floor is, uh, probably for the best.

But no matter how the Snyder Cut pans out as an on-screen product, it will always be inextricably linked to the online movement that advocated for its release—for better or worse. That Warner Bros. ultimately catered to the demands of a vocal sect of fans brings to mind the Skywalker Saga making troubling and awkward concessions, like sidelining Kelly Marie Tran’s Rose Tico and reversing course on Rey’s parentage in The Rise of Skywalker—especially knowing that the Snyder acolytes once verbally abused a former DC Entertainment executive until she deleted her Twitter account. (When this is published, I expect to receive some claims that I have an agenda against the filmmaker or that I was paid off by Marvel, despite repeatedly criticizing the studio and going to bat for Snyder’s Watchmen adaptation so many times that I’ve lost the respect of some peers.) At the same time, the Snyder Cut movement has done some genuine good, with various fundraising efforts totaling $500,000 for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. As always, the immense power of an online fan base can be used for good just as easily as it can turn into a hotbed of toxicity.

In any case, one of the strangest sagas of Hollywood’s superhero era is about to come to a close—though not before another ridiculous footnote, courtesy of the Snyder Cut accidentally leaking on HBO Max on Monday. (People trying to watch the new Tom & Jerry movie instead got a sneak peek at what Cyborg now looks like. You can’t make this stuff up.) Barring another streaming mishap, the four-hour Snyder Cut is only a week away, and with it another exhausting cycle of discourse for a contentious filmmaker and his equally contentious fandom. But once everyone gets the Snyder Cut hot takes out of their system, this should be the last hurrah for the movement—if only because Snyder seems more than happy to move on from the DCEU, starting with his Netflix zombie heist film Army of the Dead. (The movie, it must be said, looks pretty rad.)

Since there’s no precedent for the Snyder Cut narrative—from Thanksgiving turkey conspiracy theories to Warner Bros. investing $70 million within the span of a couple years—it’s not yet possible to know what the true implications are of this chaotic, tumultuous, and ultimately triumphant journey. But perhaps Jared Leto’s Joker said it best: We live in a society—one where the Snyder Cut actually exists.