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The Extended Universe: What the Snyder Cut Means for the Future of Fandom

The campaign demanding the release of Zack Snyder’s ‘Justice League’ got its payoff with the release of the four-hour movie last weekend. Does it mean anything for similar movements for ‘Suicide Squad’ and ‘Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker’?

Warner Bros./Disney/Ringer illustration

After watching Zack Snyder’s Justice League six times in the 242-minute movie’s first six days in the wild, Darren Hackett was elated, but not sated. Hackett, a DC diehard (clearly) in Sheffield, England, felt partially empowered by the knowledge that the “Snyder Cut” of the comparatively compact but narratively and tonally mangled theatrical version of Justice League wouldn’t have been born without the three-year labor of hashtags, tweets, and petitions that fans like him undertook not long after the original’s 2017 release. “Knowing that fans do have a voice is one thing, but also knowing that they get listened to is another,” Hackett, who posts on social media as “YorkshireBatfan,” says via email. But his next sentence hints at lingering gripes: “Some studio execs need to realize that if fans don’t pay to see their films, there simply won’t be films or the need for those same execs.”

As that anti-studio sentiment suggests, the #ReleaseTheSnyderCut saga, like the Snyder Cut itself, has a messy epilogue, which has complicated what initially looked like a neatly-tied-up narrative. At the end of ZSJL’s sixth act (yes, six acts), all is well with the world: Snyder’s golden, glowed-up Steppenwolf has been beheaded by Wonder Woman, the fledgling Justice League is leasing space at the former Wayne Manor, and its individual members are experiencing varying degrees of professional growth and emotional maturation. Snyder doubles down on the good vibes in the first part of the epilogue, in which the Martian Manhunter shows up to say hi and that he’s happy to help if he’s needed. But then there’s an newly shot scene set in an apocalyptic alternate timeline: the Knightmare world first seen in Snyder’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, in which a mind-controlled Supes is literally caping for Darkseid on an invasion-ravaged Earth, Lois Lane and multiple Justice Leaguers are dead, and Joker is working with Batman. The scene was conceived as a setup for the last two parts of what Snyder innumerately described as a “five-part trilogy,” thereby undoing the closure that Justice League could have delivered.

Hackett had experienced a “sense of fulfilment from finally seeing Zack’s true vision for his Justice League on screen” (albeit a small screen, and in pillarboxed, creative-vision-preserving 4:3). But there remained the small matter of a sequel—or maybe multiple sequels, or perhaps a full-blown resurrection of Snyder’s plans for the grimdark DCEU. That expansion seemed plausible in the immediate afterglow of the epilogue, but it was quickly tossed into the portal to Apokolips by WarnerMedia Studios CEO Ann Sarnoff—from the Snyderverse supporters’ perspective, the Darkseid to Snyder’s Superman. In an interview published a few days after the Snyder Cut came out, Sarnoff used her own Anti-Life Equation to destroy the incipient Snyderverse, telling Variety that “This world will fall, like all the others.” Wait, sorry—my sources are saying that that quote came from Steppenwolf. But Sarnoff’s statements amounted to much the same thing. The CEO called Justice League “the completion of [Snyder’s] trilogy” and acknowledged that “for certain fans that want singular voices, they may be disappointed.”

Spoiler: They were. “What Warner has done is hit those fans while they were at the top of their Everest and pushed them to the bottom without a parachute,” Hackett says. But Hackett is hopeful—and why wouldn’t he be, given that the thousands of fans who fired their desires into the internet ether pulled off a feat that was widely believed to be an impossibility, at least on a short-term timeline? “The current viewing figures, and critic and viewer reviews, could really help turn the tide for Zack to be given the green light to complete his Justice League saga,” he says. “The new hashtag #RestoreTheSnyderverse could help highlight that there is a worldwide audience that are ready to chuck their cash at cinemas and home release, as well as merch that will go with it.”

Yes, there’s a new hashtag (and a petition, too). No sooner did #ReleaseTheSnyderCut achieve its goal and seemingly expire than #RestoreTheSnyderverse arose to take its place, like John Stewart succeeding Hal Jordan as Green Lantern. Or maybe it’s more accurate to liken #ReleaseTheSnyderCut to Alan Scott, the original Green Lantern; in that scenario, #RestoreTheSnyderverse is still Jordan, but Stewart is #ReleaseTheAyerCut, the parallel fan campaign to pressure DC into giving director David Ayer a do-over on the lucrative but critically panned 2016 film Suicide Squad, which was also reworked by the studio. (Asked to address that complementary movement, Sarnoff said, “We won’t be developing David Ayer’s cut.”)

“I don’t think one fan campaign is replaced by another,” Prajakta, a DC fan in Mumbai, says via Twitter DM. “It’s the same. All the fans are resisting and fighting against WB’s decisions regarding the Snyderverse since it was known to them that suits are taking away artistic freedom from creators. I feel AyerCut and RestoreTheSnyderverse is just the next step.”

Fans of superheroes understand this struggle: In the comics, no evil is ever vanquished for good, and the battle between heroes and adversaries has an infinite number of phases (and Earths). And so the social media imperatives multiply: Release the Snyder Cut. Restore the Snyderverse. Release the Ayer Cut. Release the hounds. Is this the future of fandom? Flawed, franchise-driven releases, followed by fan outrage that eventually leads to studios being cowed or convinced by social media’s demands?

Perhaps from time to time. But that doesn’t mean DC, Snyder, and his loyal online acolytes have opened up Pandora’s Mother Box. This ever-escalating DC discontent—and the partial payoff in the form of a finished and widely well-received Snyder Cut—is probably more singular than a sign of many more epic cuts to come. And it’s not necessarily a Knightmare.

Before we consider the possible ripple effects from both the successful and (so far) unsuccessful Snyder-related movements, let’s make like Barry Allen and briefly rewind time. The Snyder Cut came out of a confluence of tragedy and dysfunction that set up the original Justice League for failure. On a creative level, the film suffered from a clash of conflicting visions: In the wake of the poor receptions to Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad, DC essentially sought to pivot to Marvel by making the movie more uplifting and (in theory) more comedic. Its script and aesthetics were brightened both before and during production, most notably as a byproduct of DC’s decision to tap Joss Whedon to rewrite the script. Snyder was supposed to shoot Whedon’s new scenes, but Snyder’s daughter (to whom he dedicated ZSJL) died by suicide during postproduction. Two months later, he left the film, and Whedon completed the project, which Warner decreed could not exceed two hours. The end result resembled the movie Snyder set out to make in the broadest strokes, but omitted entire characters, crucial character arcs, and much of the connective narrative tissue that might have made it cohesive and coherent.

Studio meddling, rewrites and reshoots, a handoff between two directors with almost diametrically different sensibilities—Justice League had all the ingredients of an embarrassing debacle. The theatrical release felt a lot like what it was: a narrative and visual vivisection. Not long after its release, in early 2018, fans started lobbying WB to release “the Snyder Cut,” the existence of which they inferred from the fact that Snyder had departed the production when it was in an advanced state, and also from the fact that the finished product was, well, Whedon-y. Snyder confirmed the cut’s existence in March 2019, and momentum built until last May, when the Print That Was Promised was announced as a streaming release on HBO Max. Although the movie was mostly complete, putting the finishing touches on the special effects, score, and more reportedly cost roughly $70 million.

Whether out of low expectations, selective sampling, fear of fan backlash, or genuine appreciation for Snyder’s commitment to making the most movie he could, critics warmed to the rerelease; its Tomatometer score sits at 73 percent, up from 40 for the original. And out of some combination of heartfelt fan euphoria, psyops designed to sway WB, and preemptive action to counter anticipated review bombing, ZSJL’s Rotten Tomatoes audience score stands at a hyperinflated 96 percent—higher than the scores for any of Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies, Iron Man, Avengers: Endgame, or Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. Although Rotten Tomatoes introduced a verified user ratings system in 2019, which limited the displayed score to users who had provided proof of purchased tickets, that system doesn’t work with streaming content. Rotten Tomatoes has had conversations with streaming services about developing a verified rating/review system, but for now, Snyderverse supporters are seemingly free to make Zack Snyder’s Justice League look like a universally acclaimed cinematic masterpiece.

The Snyder Cut doesn’t deserve a 96, but fans aren’t wrong about it being an upgrade. “Everyone sees what a vast improvement it was on the Whedon film,” says YouTuber and self-described “DC and Star Wars stan” Brooks. “Some folks even think it is the best DCEU movie. That’s vindication for all the hard work the movement has done for several years.” Hackett concurs. “As a DC fan, I loved it,” he says, praising “both the individual and group character arcs” and asserting that the Snyder Cut transformed the film from “a disjointed mismatch … to a story that ran seamlessly from start to epic finish.”

As a non-DC devotee, I’d quibble with the word “seamlessly.” (I haven’t seen the Snyder Cut six times, so it’s all a bit of a blur, but I know I saw some seams.) However, it was way more intelligible than the jumbled, jury-rigged mess of a movie that was released in 2017. And it was watchable, which is no small feat for a four-hour epic. It’s hard to imagine that many people who hated or had no interest in Justice League would be won over by a version that’s twice as long, but for fans of Snyder’s slow-mo-centric style and those with an investment in the DC IP, the deep dive was just what the Doctor Fate ordered.

In the rosiest retelling of the Snyder Cut tale, everyone won. Snyder got to show his audience the movie he wanted to make, and his cast and crew’s work didn’t go to waste. Future film scholars gained another window through which to ponder the performance of a wild-eyed Willem Dafoe as Vulko. Everyone ogled Jason Momoa. Warners probably benefited, too. Although we don’t, and probably won’t, know with certainty how many people paid HBO Max for the privilege of watching the Snyder Cut, the service benefits in a few ways besides subscriptions: As Vulture’s Josef Adalian observed, the Snyder Cut gave HBO Max weeks of positive publicity that stood out despite the constant static of releases from more established rival streaming services; signaled to fans that the service would be a destination for future DCEU IP; and furthered the streamer’s strategy of shattering the theatrical release window.

Of course, the biggest win was that the hardcore DC fans—the true target audience for a four-hour version of Justice League—liked what they saw. “Justice League comics and cartoons introduced me to the world of other great characters, and to see them in live action was a dream come true that was broken back in 2017,” Prajakta says. “But now, after ZSJL, I can say with confidence that childhood me is happy, really happy.”

Prajakta’s happiness doesn’t hurt anyone. Concerns surrounding the Snyder Cut center less on the outcome of this specific campaign than on the precedent it sets. Consider an example from the Season 3 premiere of dearly departed Comedy Central sitcom Corporate, which aired last July. (While we’re running campaigns to rescue stuff, can we bring back Corporate too?) The episode revolved round the divisive series finale of show-within-a-show Society Tomorrow, a satirical prestige sci-fi series that fans follow and obsessively speculate about. “I heard the finale is four hours long,” one character says. “I hope to god that’s enough time to tie up all the loose ends.”

Naturally, nobody likes the finale (except for one fully satisfied person, who pretends to be dissatisfied to blend in with the mob). Sensing an opportunity to bolster its flagging streaming service, the sitcom’s titular conglomerate buys the rights to the series and sets out to remake the ending based on fan feedback collected by one poor sap assigned to read Reddit and Twitter until his eyes seep blood. As one exec explains, “The fans vomit, we eat the vomit, then we simply vomit that vomit back into the fans’ mouths.”

But the fans don’t like the ending they seemed to say they want. “Any ending we put out, the fans will hate just as much as the original,” the evil CEO concludes. The only solution is not to end at all. Society Tomorrow, he announces, will “live on forever. There will be sequels, prequels, reboots, remakes, and ill-advised spinoffs with side characters that cannot possibly carry their own series. We’ll give the fans everything they want and much, much more. … We’re going to milk that creative IP until the udder runs dry.”

It all sounds somewhat familiar. In the case of the Snyder Cut, the fans do like the revamped version—so much so, in fact, that they want it to be a beginning, which makes them mad that at least some within Warners wants it to be an end. And thus the cycle continues.

Granted, director’s cuts are nothing new, because creative differences and studio intervention is nothing new; Snyder could have commiserated with the ghost of Orson Welles about RKO’s hostile takeover of The Magnificent Ambersons. Director’s cuts of films featuring Superman are nothing new, either; Richard Donner’s cut of Superman II, another movie marred by a midstream director change, was finally finished in 2006. Zack Snyder’s Justice League isn’t even a first for director’s cuts of films featuring Superman that were directed by Zack Snyder; Batman v Superman is available via a director’s cut and an “ultimate edition.” What set the #ReleaseTheSnyderCut movement apart from most of its spiritual predecessors are the particulars of its release, including its streaming-enabled accessibility and the internet-aided amplification of fans who demanded a redo. Magnificent Ambersons stans couldn’t tweet at RKO to #ReleasestheWellesCut.

Corporate’s riff on fan outrage could have been based on any number of recent sources of Sturm und Drang—not just the DCEU outrage, but also the Star Wars sequel trilogy and Game of Thrones Season 8. The sitcom’s implication that creators are basing decisions on catering to the most vocal fans’ wishes isn’t completely fictitious, however heightened for comedic effect; Lucasfilm, for instance, seemed to reverse course between The Last Jedi and The Rise of Skywalker in response to complaints by some subset of fans (though appeasing those fans only angered others more).

Still, the idea that creators are taking too many cues from fans—and that the Snyder Cut represents some fundamental reversal of traditional fan-creator relations—may stem from a misunderstanding of the power dynamics at work, aggravated by coverage that magnifies fan indignation and distorts its scope. “The way this conversation is getting framed, the dangerous precedent is that fans will hold studios and Hollywood hostage until they get what they want, which I don’t think actually connects to reality,” says journalist and fan culture commentator Elizabeth Minkel, who cohosts the Fansplaining podcast. “I think that the studios are making business decisions, and the decision they made here was whether it was worth the $70 million they paid Zack Snyder to make this [movie] that they already shot.” The fear that fan movements will wag the dog, Minkel says, tends to “be a little bit overstated, because they aren’t actually holding these studios hostage.” DC, she continues, “could have just continued to ignore the hashtag … because that’s what studios do all the time with fan petitions and demands.”

The Snyder Cut campaign was louder and longer than most. But it also succeeded partly thanks to special circumstances. A pandemic that postponed or limited the reach of other potential tentpoles. The advent of the streaming wars, which gave Warners incentive to make a splash and a place to put a four-hour movie. An extremely online director, who stoked the flames of fan grievance and continues to boost his online army’s flagging faith by mapping out where he wanted to take the DCEU, saying, “Never say never,” and telling them to keep up the fight.

Most movements don’t check the same boxes that #ReleaseTheSnyderCut did. And so the real risk may be not that this could keep happening, but that it’s less likely than fans think to happen again. “The more dangerous precedent in the fact that they actually did do this is for fans believing that there’s a kind of cause and effect here—that if you actually do this, if you employ these methods, then you will get what you want,” Minkel says, adding, “I think that it sets a precedent for fans that this will always happen, and I don’t think that the calculation from the studios will work out in fans’ favor, probably, most of the time.” In the case of Justice League, Warners decided that the math would work out—up to a point, though perhaps no further than this if Sarnoff sticks to her line in the sand. In most other cases, the bean counters will harden their hearts to the pleas. “Everyone who is not getting their secret cut for their thing is obviously going to think, ‘Well, don’t you think that we’re valuable?’” Minkel says. “And the answer is probably ‘No.’ And that sucks. And I think that’s going to cause a lot of inadvertent harm.”

The creators of the website and self-designated “official” Twitter account of the #ReleaseTheAyerCut movement are aware that they could be wasting their time. Although Ayer—who’s just as online and as likely to goad fans into action as Snyder—tweeted “Why?” in response to Sarnoff’s proclamation, Warners’ disinclination to revisit Suicide Squad isn’t as much of a mystery as why Aquaman strips off his tops when he swims but always wears his wet jeans. For one thing, Suicide Squad made money. For another, James Gunn’s soft reboot, The Suicide Squad, is due out in August, and revisiting Ayer’s take could create confusion.

The leadership of the Ayer Cut Twitter account, which is followed and sometimes acknowledged by Ayer, consists of a group slightly larger than Ayer’s Suicide Squad. They answer anonymously and collectively via Twitter DM, claiming to be 12 members strong. Although they like Suicide Squad as is, they’re intrigued by the Joker scenes that were shot but dropped from the film, and they wonder what it was like before the darkness was toned down. “Whenever people are disappointed by a film, there’s always going to be a thought of, ‘What went wrong?’” they say. “What’s different about films like Justice League and Suicide Squad is that there is a lot of information about what exactly went on behind the scenes.”

#ReleaseTheSnyderCut “really opened up a door, for better and for worse,” the #ReleaseTheAyerCut tweeters say, though Sarnoff’s comments could close it. The Ayer Cutters are trying to replicate #ReleaseTheSnyderCut’s results, but they don’t want to emulate the toxic side of the movement. Although the movement raised considerable sums for charity, some Snyder Cutters resorted to harassment and threats, which Sarnoff called “disappointing,” “unacceptable,” and “reprehensible.” One of the worst potential takeaways from the Snyder Cut’s release would be that toxic fandom is more effective than wholesome but fruitless campaigns such as #SaveTheOA.

“We honestly don’t believe it is possible to do anything without having bad actors,” the Ayer Cut account operators say, but they “strongly rebuke bullying of any kind” and add that they have “gone so far as to speak to the most toxic of the fan base in private about their actions and how they could negatively impact the lives of others,” in hopes of “inspiring them to become kind.”

For their part, they say, “Our tactic is simply passion. If more Suicide Squad is what people desire, this is what we engage with them on. We express why we agree with them and why we need to stick together as a Squad.”

Their efforts may not come to fruition, but at least the Ayer Cut does or could exist. An even more salient symptom of the harm that could be caused by buying into the Snyder Cut as a revolutionary landmark is the recent revival of #ReleasetheJJCut, the venerable hashtag that trended again in the heady days after the Snyder Cut came out. The belief in a J.J. Abrams version of The Rise of Skywalker that Disney sliced and diced like Darth Vader’s saber severing Luke’s hand stems from a still-unsubstantiated (and sometimes-contradicted) Reddit rumor. The persistence of the rumor more than 15 months after The Rise of Skywalker premiered is the latest in a line of conspiracies that fly in the face of the truth that sometimes, the people entrusted to tell cherished stories simply screw up. “It’s this insistence that, ‘If I love it, it can’t actually be bad, and so there must be a better version that they’re just hiding from us,’” Minkel says.

Even if some amount of unused Rise of Skywalker footage exists, it’s unlikely that restoring those scraps could address the deep-seated objections of most of the movie’s critics. Minkel says, “A lot of the things I see about a J.J. Cut are actually about plot choices. And it’s like, ‘You think they have a totally different story line that could exist if you were to recut this movie together?’ And I think some of that just seems like wild speculation.”

What’s more, the stewards of a franchise as tightly constrained and scripted as Star Wars is in the post-Lucas era are unlikely to tamper with canon in a way that a recut Rise of Skywalker would. All in all, the J.J. Cut is probably a pipe dream, and dredging up hopes of a fix may only ensure that fans’ Rise of Skywalker scabs can’t heal. “Alternate cuts do not always exist,” the Ayers Cut dozen say. “And sometimes the cut released in theaters is the best one, despite what fans may think.” The sooner fans abandon baseless hopes of a Snyder-style, deus ex machina cut, the sooner they can end their denial, anger, and bargaining and reach the acceptance stage of grief.

A few other ramifications could come from the searing of the Snyder Cut onto studios’ minds. For one thing, they may be more mindful of avoiding this kind of quagmire. “I do think the studios are trying to avoid press like this,” Minkel says. “This didn’t look great when it seemed like they had screwed up so much that people started a campaign to get them to fix it.” In some cases, studios allowing more leeway to creators could be a good thing; in retrospect, Snyder seems to have been right about what would appeal to the comic converts. But it’s difficult to predict when a bold vision will resonate and when it will backfire. Audiences probably wouldn’t be better off if studios always deferred to directors’ whims when they wanted to make comic book movies longer. “I rewatched the first X-Men from 2000 within the last year, and they hit the third act, and it wasn’t even 90 minutes in,” Minkel recalls. “And I was like, ‘Holy shit. I forgot it used to be like this.’ And I clicked pause and I looked at the time left, and I was like, ‘This thing is under two hours and I’m completely satisfied.’ I did not need any more, and I love the X-Men.”

The other issue with giving every director their head like a horse in the homestretch is that developing blockbusters within a larger fictional framework is a collaborative enterprise that requires creators to pull in tandem. “Franchise media, so much of it just feels like it’s being made by massive, large committees,” Minkel says. “And I feel like this auteur-ish, like, ‘Let him do his four-hour vision,’ I don’t see that really scaling.” Perhaps there’s a world in which studios set out to make multiple cuts—one for the casuals, and one for the Reddit readers who want to see it six times to catch every Easter egg (though that would mean much more trouble and expense on the front end). There’s also a dark timeline in which quality control declines because studios know that they can always double-dip by re-releasing an edited dud later, like a buggy video game that gets patched post-release. “I don’t think, in general, it’s a good artistic precedent,” Minkel says. “Figure out ways to make these movies more coherent before you put it out.”

The irony of the Snyderverse controversy, Minkel notes, is that the “signal that you can send to a studio that you don’t like their decision is to completely ignore and never engage with their things going forward.” A coordinated campaign to ask for more movies is the opposite of that. From the studio perspective, a lack of fan campaigns might be a bigger worry. If so, that doesn’t seem like a challenge DC will face soon. Some Snyder partisans are still spoiling for future fights, or at least resigned to them. “If execs keep interfering with the productions and do not leave the directors to do the jobs they are paid to do, I fear more Josstice Leagues will occur in future,” says Hackett.

It’s tough for fans to let go of a cause that they feel is righteous, and that may have supplied some sense of purpose and community. Some fans and stans align themselves with fictional universes and the corporations that control them the way others pull for sports franchises. At that point, it’s personal, and it seems as if the fan’s fortunes are tied to the brand’s. Even with sub-billion-dollar series such as Supernatural and Sherlock, many fans feel ownership over fictional worlds that matter to them, and they bridle when creators breach their implicit pledge to take care with their work. Moving on, Minkel says, “is especially hard for younger viewers … especially if you feel like your identity is tied up in it.” But speaking from fan experience, she adds, “You’ll learn to love again. You’ll find another show.”

If the DC-Snyder breakup is real, DC stans should have plenty of projects to embrace as rebounds, including many more movies and TV series starring Justice League staples. And it’s not only more Wonder Woman, Batman, and Aquaman ahead: Just this week, DC hired Promising Young Woman director Emerald Fennell to make a movie about Zatanna, and Pierce Brosnan was cast to play Doctor Fate opposite Dwayne Johnson in an upcoming Black Adam movie. Many Snyder stans are excited about DC’s new direction, too; they just don’t believe that the theoretical next Snyderverse installments are mutually exclusive with the rest of the slate. “I think they can coexist with whatever other DCEU movies WB wants to make,” Brooks says. “It’s a multiverse, after all.” But maybe those movies and series will capture comic fans’ hearts and help fill the hole that the Snyder Cut hasn’t. After all, George Miller was supposed to direct a Justice League movie in the mid-2000s, when Snyder was still tied up with Watchmen. The Snyderverse, such as it was, came about because Miller’s movie wasn’t made. Maybe something even more to fans’ liking will come to be because the Snyderverse stops here.

For now, many Snyder stans are trying to channel Bruce Wayne when Alfred asks how he knows Superman will make it to the movie’s boss battle: “Faith, Alfred. Faith.” But in this case, demonstrating faith might mean letting go of a prior plan. Being happy with what you have beats turning one hundred thousand worlds to dust looking for those who robbed you of your glory, even if Darkseid would disagree.

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