Movies

The Snyder Cut of Justice League Is an Internet Fan Theory Come to Life

It’s a victory for fans made possible by the evolution of streaming technology.

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One way to look at the emergence of the so-called Snyder Cut—director Zack Snyder's personally approved four-hour version of his superhero epic Justice League, which hit HBO Max last week—is as a victory for fans and fan culture. 

The film, which initially hit theaters (remember those) in 2016, had reportedly been bogged down by production trouble, with studio executives apparently worried by the reported three-hour length and the grim, grandiose aesthetic of director Zack Snyder. Justice League was the first movie to feature a full-fledged team-up between five members of the DC Comics universe, and was, in theory, DC's answer to the success of Marvel's comic book–derived movies, in particular the studio's Avengers franchise. But Marvel was scoring hit after hit with a light, quippy, almost sitcom-like approach to superheroes. So after Snyder departed the production due to a personal tragedy, it wasn't much of a surprise when the studio brought on none other than Joss Whedon, the writer and director of the first two Avengers films, to rework the DC team-up film—with a mandate to make it lighter, more self-aware, and shorter. 

What emerged was certainly shorter, coming in at just under two hours. But it was also derided—rightly, in my view—by fans and critics alike as slapdash and hectic, an aesthetic travesty marred by shoddy effects work and pedestrian production values. It was, in internet parlance, a dumpster fire. 

Typically, the only response to this sort of blockbuster disaster would have been to move on and accept that the damage had been done. Once a movie has been made, it cannot be unmade, or remade.

But word spread that Snyder had saved a version of his own, far longer cut on his laptop—and over time, fans began to clamor to see what the director had intended, backing the #ReleaseTheSnyderCut hashtag on Twitter and elsewhere. 

Snyder, it's worth noting, is not exactly beloved by the film and culture writing establishment, and so there were social media clashes and think pieces and mean tweets and more think pieces and then even more tweets and probably some more think pieces, because that's how this sort of flame war tends to proceed. The whole thing ended up being coded as a kind of struggle between supposedly toxic implicitly right-wing fans who adore Snyder's simple-minded brutality and more enlightened critics who, in this narrative, don't.

More often than not, this debate was tiresome, as these sorts of internet skirmishes tend to be, a debate about political symbols that too often overlooked the actual film and filmmaker in question. (Admittedly, this was somewhat inevitable since until last week no one in the public could actually see Snyder's film.) But eventually, Snyder himself joined the campaign, and the studio agreed to give the director—who had apparently been shielded from ever seeing the theatrical version—a reported $70 million to rework the film according to his own specifications. The decision was part fan service, part streaming platform stunt, a bid to draw in viewers to a new platform that needed signature content. 

Snyder's fans had spent years clamoring for the release of an alternate cut of a movie, but in many ways their movement resembled a modern political activist cause: They had waged a ground-up, internet-era activist campaign, built on a hashtag, intended to force those in power to reverse course on what they perceived as a terrible decision. In this way, at least, there was something deeply political, or at least politics-adjacent, about the Snyder Cut drive. And somewhat improbably, the fans won. 

One reason why they won is because of the shifting dynamic between fans and studios, in which studios, inundated by online feedback from highly motivated fan factions, shift plans accordingly; the internet has become a kind of always-on focus group that, for better and for worse, allows both politicians and purveyors of popular culture to constantly test and tweak their messages accordingly.

Another reason, however, is that the medium itself has changed. The original Justice League was intended primarily as a theatrical experience, and thus it was made to conform to the expectations and traditions of theatrically exhibited features—which is one of the reasons it was cut so short. 

But Zack Snyder's Justice League, in all of its four-hour glory, is a streaming experience through and through, one that partakes in the opportunities for expanded length and episodic, serial storytelling that work best on streaming. 

In its own way, it is perhaps the ultimate example of the streaming experience, the most fully realized product of the streaming era: While it's at least possible to imagine even the most niche, specialized streaming series running on traditional cable networks, something like the Snyder Cut would have been unthinkable anywhere in the TV landscape of 10 years ago. Perhaps it would have found a release on DVD, where director's cuts and extended editions were released for a while, but otherwise there simply would have been no home for it. There was no format that would make space for its unwieldy excess. 

And that's why I think it's not enough to call the release of Zack Snyder's Justice League a victory for fans. It is, but it's also a product of a shifting format, a medium in flux, that is evolving not only to give us more material—via what we have come to know as Peak TV—but different kinds of material, blending the features of TV and feature filmmaking and miniseries into something that, in the case of the Snyder Cut, doesn't quite fit neatly into any category. 

Snyder's Justice League transforms the truly awful two-hour superhero movie that Whedon slapped together after Snyder's departure into something that is maybe not quite good—or at least not to my personal taste—but is nonetheless quite fascinating. Because what you get to see is the sprawl and scale of a director's vision for a big-budget blockbuster in a maximalist way that just doesn't ever make it to the big screen, and that the traditional feature format couldn't really contain. It's basically an internet fan theory come to life. The internet, and the economics of streaming, birthed a collective online fantasy into watchable reality.

Two years ago, I wrote an essay about the evolution of TV formats and platforms titled, "Nobody Knows What Television Is Anymore." But maybe—just maybe—this is it?

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  1. I actually liked the original Justice League. Flawed, sure. But nice departure for the comic Avengers. Yeah I guess die hard comics nerds can’t live without stupid quips a minute, but DC was never about stupid quips. Marvel liked to delve into shallow social issues (gosh, a gay superhero, gosh) but DC liked to delve into complex moral quandaries.

    Yes, the original was flawed. So what? The original Hulk was the worst goddamn movie ever made. The corpse of Ed Wood stoop to decomposing on it. Jeepers, a bad recording of Green Lantern is miles ahead of any Fantastic Four movie ever made. What the fuck is wrong with fans and their worhip of Marvel?

    Okay, Steppenwolf was an awful villain. But other than the utter uselessness of Aquaman in Siberia (WTF?), the characters were solid and meaningful. I’m not going to shit all over the DC franchise just because Snyder was forced to leave the production. Not an AAA movie, but definitely not the D- haters pretend it is. It’s more like a B-, definitely a step up from the subsequent Aquaman movie. WTF is up with Aquaman anyway? The whole idea is just weird. Thought so since a kid. He’s in the movie so ladies can go see a shirtless Jason Momoa. Basically he’s DCs version of Chris Hemsworth.

    More background was needed for the new characters. And the Snyder cut gives us that. But enough was given that no one really needed the whole origin story of Cyborg and Flash. We got enough to get the context.

    Just stop it with the shitfest.

    1. Marvel liked to delve into shallow social issues (gosh, a gay superhero, gosh) but DC liked to delve into complex moral quandaries.

      WTF? *What* moral quandry? The most morally ambiguous DC movie was The Suicide Squad.

      Steppenwolf was a terrible villain but, worse than that, the recurring moral “quandry” *among the heroes* was “Save humanity or give up my life of seclusion?” A far cry from the moral quandry of giving up power to authority or employing greater aggression/sacrifice to preserve greater peace.

      The most impressive part of the DC film universe is how Affleck manages to play the part of Batman without ever coming close to playing the part of Bruce Wayne.

      1. The most impressive part of the DC film universe is how Affleck manages to play the part of Batman without ever coming close to playing the part of Bruce Wayne.

        It’s like watching The Accountant in a bat suit.

        1. One of the great things about Bale’s portrayal is that he actually understood that “multi-millionaire playboy” was just as important to Batman’s character as “vigilante who gets dressed up in a bat suit at night to beat the shit out of people.”

    2. Yeah I guess die hard comics nerds can’t live without stupid quips a minute

      What? It was almost entirely comic nerds who jawboned Warner into allowing Snyder to finish up and release this version. The people bitching on social media about it have mostly been the usual suspect, Anita Sarkeesian/tranny-type anti-fans.

  2. It’s a big improvement on the original, if you have 4 hours to spare.
    Snyder could have cut it down to 3:30 with a little less Icelandic chanting and fewer Batman fever dreams though.

    1. That appears to be the consensus at some other sites I’ve read. That it’s not a masterpiece and needed some editing to improve the pacing, but did a lot better in establishing characters that didn’t get origin movies or set-ups in other films, like Marvel did prior to the big team get-together for Avengers. Clearing the ridiculously low bar that Whedon set wasn’t going to be difficult, anyway.

      I suspect this would have worked better as a two-part miniseries. The only four-hour movie I’ve ever been able to sit through end-to-end has been “Gettysburg.”

  3. We went through this with Superman 2 years ago. The new cut didn’t make it better.

    1. We went through this with The Fantastic Four. The new reboot didn’t make it better.

      1. Fantastic Four is honestly just a terrible franchise which has long lacked cultural relevance. Probably most importantly: Reed Richards has gotten creepy as social mores changed. (He’s at least 10 years older than Sue, and likely 15+, and he first met her when she was an adolescent and he was renting a room at her parents’ house while in grad school).

        But if you make him a young man, he’s no longer really Reed Richards. And if you make Sue older, you can’t cast a hot young woman as Sue. And since the heart of FF is Reed as father figure to the group, this means basically all film adaptations start as garbage. (Not to even get into whether you could make a movie today which extolled the virtues of a father figure).

        (Fwiw, Sue in the comics is in her mid-30s or so these days, and Reed is probably mid 40s or older. I forget the exact count, but its something like 10-12 years in universe since FF#1 to the present, and the first 5 years of publication history happened in “real time”).

        OTOH, I haven’t seen a Snyder film which wasn’t awful cinema.

  4. And I hear that while original release sucked, the Snyder Cut sucks in slow motion.

  5. Let me guess, the good guys win.

  6. “What you get to see is the sprawl and scale of a director’s vision for a big-budget blockbuster in a maximalist way that just doesn’t ever make it to the big screen, and that the traditional feature format couldn’t really contain.”

    If you’re somebody that likes to sit up close and stare skyward at a gigantic screen, the home theater will never replicate the experience. For a lot of people who used to sit in the middle of the theater or further back, 65″ TVs are getting to be downright affordable (you can find a TCL for around $450). I’m not sure the experience of a typical home theater, with a sound bar attached, is necessarily so limited compared to sitting in a theater. Try it with the lights off and no distractions.

    1. Plus the popcorn isn’t 8 bucks, there’s no kid kicking the back of your chair, and you can hit pause for bathroom breaks (which you’ll need with a 4-hour runtime.)

    2. I have a giant-ass TV, and one of the things I’ve missed in this stupid pandemic is going to the movie theater. There’s just no way to replicate the experience at home, other than you can pause the movie to go take a piss, or not deal with some idiot single mother who brought her infant child to an R-rated movie, or the douchebag who can’t put his stupid smartphone away for 2.5 hours.

      Stuff like that is on the margins, though–the excitement of getting an available ticket to a new release, the overpriced popcorn/coke that you buy anyway, the buzz and energy, 10 minutes of trailers so you can Get Excited For Next Product after you Consume This Product, maybe hitting the theater arcade–going to the movies is as much a community event and avenue for family bonding as it is a personal entertainment experience. These places help mitigate the social atomization that’s increasingly taken place since the debut of the iPhone, and has been exacerbated by the pandemic.

      And it enhances the viewing experience, too–I’ve never replicated the same feeling of being completely emotionally drained after watching the opening act of Saving Private Ryan, or the sheer awe when I first saw The Empire Strikes Back, for example, while seeing these things on TV as opposed to the movies. It’s like going to a library or concert, or visiting a national park, in that going to a movie theater for a film is very much a visceral experience, leaving strong emotional impressions that can last years, if not whole lifetimes.

  7. a big-budget blockbuster in a maximalist way that just doesn’t ever make it to the big screen, and that the traditional feature format couldn’t really contain.

    You could just break it up into two films. Not like that hasn’t been done before successfully.

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