“Everyone knew it. It was so awkward because nobody wanted to admit what a piece of shit it was.”
Those were the words of an anonymous Warner Bros. executive in an interview with Vanity Fair back in February about the 2017 Justice League film, which was directed by veteran filmmaker Zack Snyder — except, not really.
Sure, Snyder’s name appears in the credits, but what DC fans saw in theaters three-and-a-half years ago was not his movie. After all, he never even saw it.
The story behind Justice League’s production is a long and messy one. The higher-ups at Warner Bros. were already iffy on the idea of Snyder continuing with his five-movie plan after the lukewarm critical reception of 2013’s Man of Steel and 2016’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, but production of Justice League had nonetheless been well underway by 2017.
However, everything changed in May of that year when Snyder’s daughter Autumn tragically took her own life at 20 years old. It was at that point when he and his wife Deborah decided to step away from their respective roles as director and producer in order to spend as much time as possible with their family.
Instead of selecting a director with a similar style to pick up where Snyder left off, Warner Bros. decided to use his departure as an opportunity to re-tool Justice League into something it was never designed to be. Joss Whedon of Avengers fame was brought on to oversee extensive rewrites and reshoots — so extensive, in fact, that only about a fourth of what was initially filmed would end up making it into the version that premiered in theaters on November 17, 2017.
The end result was an incoherent mishmash of two completely different visions that felt less like a movie and more like a haphazardly cobbled-together corporate product. Huge swaths of characters and plot points were scrapped in service of whittling the runtime down to a studio-mandated hour and 59 minutes, the redone CGI wouldn’t have looked out of place in a PS2 game, and the abundance of forced jokes and campy one-liners was a painfully obvious (and unsuccessful) attempt to mimic the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Any original footage that remained stuck out like a sore thumb. The cast in the reshot scenes looked entirely checked out and, in the case of Ben Affleck and Henry Cavill, physically different — need I even mention the laughably awful digital removal of Cavill's mustache?
Justice League was a failure on every level: a critical flop, a box office bomb and a disappointment to just about any DC fan who had been looking forward to seeing the iconic superhero team on the big screen.
This is why fans spent the next two-and-a-half years campaigning for Warner Bros. to “#ReleaseTheSnyderCut,” and they finally got their wish in May of 2020 when it was announced that the original version of the movie, dubbed Zack Snyder’s Justice League, would drop on HBO Max on March 18, 2021. The film’s runtime clocks in at a whopping four hours. It features the original musical score composed by Thomas Holkenborg — which was replaced in the theatrical release with a far more forgettable score from Danny Elfman — and it contains not as a much as a frame from Whedon’s reshoots (or “Josstice League” as many have called it).
If there’s one lesson Hollywood should’ve learned by this point, it’s that excessive studio meddling has never resulted in a better product. Just look at 2007’s Spider-Man 3, which is unanimously considered the worst of the Sam Rami trilogy. Rami was urged by Sony to include Venom despite having had no intention of doing so, and even fans of the movie will tell you that its cringe-inducing incarnation of Eddie Brock was easily the worst part of it. And how about the Star Wars spin-off Solo? It was originally directed by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller of Lego Movie and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse fame, only for them to be replaced with Ron Howard and have the majority of their original shooting cut. It’s impossible to say exactly how Solo would have turned out had they stayed on, but given its underwhelming box office returns, it’s safe to say that the last-minute course corrections from Disney and Lucasfilm did not pay off.
Extended director’s cuts get released on DVD all the time. But Zack Snyder’s Justice League is far from a typical director’s cut with a few added bells and whistles. It’s a restoration of a creator’s vision that had been mangled into something completely unrecognizable. Joss Whedon was the worst possible choice to fill Snyder’s shoes (and that’s before you even look at the ever-growing number of workplace harassment allegations from actors he’s worked with).
The situation becomes even more gross when you realize that Warner Bros. essentially took advantage of a man’s personal tragedy.
“Their daughter’s death was the reason the Snyders walked away from Justice League,” wrote Anthony Brezican, author of that same February Vanity Fair article. “Their fight and spirit was needed at home, with their other children, and with each other, rather than in a losing battle with a powerful studio.”
In the realm of show business, compromises are inevitable (in fact, the earliest version of Snyder’s script never even saw the light of day). But if you’re going to bring on a creator, you need to let them, you know, create.
The guy has always had a very distinct style of filmmaking: glossy cinematography, larger-than-life action sequences, less-than-subtle mythological and philosophical overtones, and a whole lot of slow motion. His work is the textbook definition of an acquired taste. Some look at his movies and see avant-garde masterpieces, while others see pretentious, overproduced garbage.
However, it’s crucial to remember that the ones who truly turned Zack Snyder’s Justice League from a wish into a reality were not the studio execs, but the fans. The online era has given fanbases a platform to make a genuine impact on the kind of content they see. Something similar actually happened with last year’s Sonic the Hedgehog movie. Enough people raised complaints about Sonic’s nightmarish design that Paramount delayed the film in order to redesign him with a look far more faithful to how he appears in the games. The situation with Justice League suggests that what happened with Sonic wasn’t a fluke, but rather the start of a trend of media companies more frequently taking fan feedback to heart.
“The combination of the proliferation of social media and the desire of Warner Bros. to develop original content for their streaming service made for the perfect storm for Zack to get the opportunity to remake this film,” says Seth Everett, host of the Hall of Justice podcast.
The #ReleaseTheSnyderCut movement started off niche, with many dismissing it as the pipe dream of a group of rabid loyalists just unable to move on. But the fan campaign only continued to grow over the years (from a billboard in Times Square to a banner being flown over the San Diego Convention Center), and by the tail end of it, the Justice League cast members themselves were proudly posting #ReleaseTheSnyderCut on their Twitter accounts.
What allowed this movement to gain so much traction was the truly commendable behavior practiced by Zack Snyder himself. He regularly interacts with fans on the social platform Vero (which might as well be renamed the Zack Snyder Network ), answering questions and giving insight into his creative process. While some might have tried to profit off such a loyal following, Snyder has instead used his platform for something far more meaningful: suicide awareness. Between merchandise sales, a sweepstakes for tickets to an exclusive IMAX screening of the film and other events, he has inspired fans to raise more than $500,000 for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
“I’ll be honest, what the fandom has done, and the amount of money they’ve raised for suicide awareness and everything they’ve done as far as being this force for good, you can’t really put into words how amazing that is,” Snyder tells the hosts of the podcast TheNiceCast, “... and for me it’s humbling and amazing that all of this was around this movie. It’s just a great thing.”
Only time will tell if the Snyder Cut will end up being enough of a hit for Warner Bros. to revive the two sequels that had originally been planned. But for the time being, justice has finally been served.