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Why these #ReleaseTheCut campaigns need to stop

Contributed by
Aug 29, 2020, 4:41 PM EDT (Updated)

"Failing upwards."

It's a phrase I've been thinking about quite a bit recently, though I didn't understand my fascination with the term until Twitter began circulating #ReleaseTheCut campaigns.

I started wondering, "Why?" Why, when I saw DCEU fans, clamoring for unreleased versions of critically panned films like those alt-movies were some kind of holy grail, did I inwardly cringe — and, let's be honest, publicly retweet my simmering rage? Why did the thought of giving these male creatives a second chance to make a decent superhero film send me on a pilgrimage of my own to the promised land of Reddit's comments section, armed with a glass of wine and a low capacity for patriarchal bullsh*t? Was I, as one lovely patron once dubbed me, a "feminazi"? Or worse, an MCU groupie who couldn't appreciate the artistic achievements of these male directors who gave us poorly lit battle sequences and clunky dialogue in the name of provocation and "darker" subject matter?

The truth? Probably "yes" to both, but my aversion to these #ReleaseTheCut campaigns — a view that's not solely my own — has less to do with the tone and style of storytelling I find enjoyable in a superhero film and more to do with my utter exhaustion at what men, particularly male creatives in Hollywood, are given ... and what their female counterparts are all too often denied: a second chance.

Now, there's a long history that pairs with the successful #ReleaseTheSnyderCut campaign — one mired in tragedy and reshoots and heavy-handedness by Warner Bros. execs. The short version of the story is this: Zack Snyder, who delivered the mixed bag that was Batman v Superman, shot an incredibly long (think three to four hours long) draft of his vision of Justice League, the studio's long-awaited franchise team-up. It wasn't well received by those in charge, it needed to be drastically shortened, and there were rumors that Joss Whedon was considered to help with that task. Then Snyder had to take a step back from filming due to the loss of his daughter, meaning Whedon oversaw all the reshoots necessary to cut the film to under two hours while still maintaining narrative integrity. That job, in and of itself, sounds nightmarish.

You'll never hear me defending Whedon, whose alleged behavior to some of the cast and crew was appalling. You also won't hear me critiquing his attempt to deliver a finished movie on such a tight deadline. Any editor in the game knows the struggle of paring down someone else's work, and for Whedon, trying to make sense of Snyder's vision while following conflicting directives from executives with their hands in the pie was like editing a 20,000-word draft about cultural appropriation at Coachella with one hand behind your back while fighting off a rabid pack of lifestyle "influencers."

My interpretation of the mess is this: Snyder sadly had to leave Whedon with a ton of work to do and WB used his absence to exert more control over the reshoots. It's a missed opportunity for the fandom, to be sure, but it's not a wagon to hitch your crusading horse to. It doesn't help that both Snyder and WB have given fans mixed messaging on exactly what went down. Executives maintained that the film followed Snyder's manual, and though he asserts it differs drastically from what we all witnessed in theaters, he's also said he's never seen the full movie as it is. He also initially supported Whedon's on-boarding, admitting the cut he initially produced did not work for the studio, only advocating for the #ReleaseTheCut campaign after stars like Gal Gadot and Ben Affleck started tweeting with the hashtag.

Which brings us to where we currently are in this cluttered superhero saga — with a promise from HBO Max to air Snyder's intended vision. That vision has morphed over the years. Now it seems the director hopes to hold onto the four-hour runtime, possibly even lengthen it, and present the story in chapters. Effectively, he's giving us a sci-fi mini-series. Maybe it will be brilliant, maybe it will be much of the same, an excuse for Snyder to avoid self-editing — a crucial part of the creative process. It won't be made for me, and so it won't be up to me to decide. Plus, it's Warner Bros.' money and they can do what they want with it.

If they want to jump onto another emerging hashtag petition, the #ReleaseTheAyerCut campaign, that's their prerogative as well. Unlike Snyder's movie, which was plagued by all sorts of unexpected problems, Ayer's Suicide Squad seemed to have a (manageable?) conflict with the studio over the tone of his film. He wanted to channel the dark, chaotic origins of the comics while Warner Bros. wanted to lighten things up with comedy in an attempt to replicate the success of the MCU. What fans got was a mixed bag filled with problematic character development, bizarre storylines, so-so action sequences, and Margot Robbie — the film's lone bright spot.

Again, this idea of studios exerting creative control over movies is nothing new. It's not fair to directors, writers, and the crews of said movies, but it's a system that's been in place for a while, especially when it comes to big-budget, expectation-burdened blockbusters. Unlike Snyder, who looks to have some workable ideas for improving his story, Ayer seems to be focused on Jared Leto's Joker, mainly his lack of screentime and how that snowballed into the film's villain problem.

From a fan's perspective, the Joker was the most off-putting thing about that movie, right up there with a Latino anti-hero portrayed as a gang-banger who massacres his family. If anyone deserved more screentime it was Robbie, or Karen Fukuhara's Katana, or even Jai Courtney's Boomerang (if only for the laughs and his weird obsession with a plush pink unicorn). But the issue is less about what "changes" these dudes want to make and more about the fact that they'll most likely get to make them — or at least make a big enough stink about them to rally fans into signing petitions and praising their "unfinished" work, effectively removing the blame from creating a poorly made movie from their shoulders.

Because as visionary as Cathy Yan's Birds of Prey was, as crucial as Patty Jenkins' Wonder Woman was to DC's revival hopes, there is a massive overlap in those demanding their male heroes' purportedly superior cuts while denigrating the female-focused, female-helmed counterparts. The expectations are impossibly high, and impossible to meet.

Female superhero auteurs carry with them the baggage left by other female-led and female-helmed movies that came before them. When Yan's Birds of Prey was preparing to launch, there were numerous think pieces exaggerating the pressure she was under to deliver a believable feminist anti-hero. When the trailer for Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck's Captain Marvel landed, amongst the cheers from young female fans were pessimistic predictions about the film's feminist pandering and doomed chances. Even Wonder Woman, one of DC's best origin story entries in its superhero verse, faced criticism — from James Cameron and others — for, ironically, not being feminist enough. There were knocks on the storytelling, the costume designing, and the fight scenes, sure, but each of these female superheroes also seemed to inherit a responsibility their male peers never had: the burden of justifying a woman's place in comic book lore.

When these films and these directors failed (subjectively), the entire history of bad female-led comic book movies was thrown at them. Catwoman in 2004. Elektra in 2005. Supergirl in 1984. Grenades waiting to be hurled.

These movies, and the women behind them, don't get to fail upward.

When Snyder, Ayer, and other "auteurs" make a sh*tty film, they get a multimillion-dollar do-over, or at the very least, a fandom ready to excuse away their mistakes. When women dare to make even a passable superhero film, their vision, ability to execute, even their understanding of the material is questioned — and sometimes disparaged. That's a problem, a prejudice we probably need to address on multiple fronts: the fandoms who prop up that model with these campaigns and the studios and the bigger Hollywood machine that makes that practice commonplace. But of the two, it's the industry that has the power.

It's Warner Bros. forking over truckloads of cash to give a director who's arguably made two questionable, if not downright bad superhero films, $30 million for a streaming deal that rehashes the same plot, just with more scenes and maybe a new villain. It's Marvel too, who didn't feel ready to take a chance on Black Widow until they'd made dozens of films with male superheroes and tested their female audience with a less familiar (to the general audience) character in Captain Marvel.

It's the willingness to take a risk on men, and take that risk again and again ... on the same men, instead of putting a different gender in the driver's seat. That's the real problem with these campaigns.

I hope that Snyder's vision is everything he and the fans want it to be. If Ayer gets his do-over, that wish extends to his film as well. But I also hope these #ReleaseTheCut campaigns teach us something about our quickness to forgive and forget when it comes to the "male auteurs" who fail and why, if we're going to give them a second, or third, or fifth chance, that same grace needs to be given to women behind the camera, who are undoubtedly grappling with more oversight, distrust from studio execs, and negative expectations from fans.

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