Zack Snyder's Justice League — the polarizing director's original vision for the live-action film debut of DC's mightiest superhero team — is now streaming on HBO Max. It's been a long, long journey, one marred by tragedy, fan devotion, controversy, and, ultimately, vindication. The general consensus seems to be that Zack Snyder's Justice League is significantly better than the theatrical release, a two-hour Frankenstein's monster of a movie that's an awkward clash of Snyder's darker aesthetic with Joss Whedon's quip-heavy lightness. Snyder's might even be legitimately good!
However, given that this is a four-hour movie that's partially about Greek gods and powerful boxes, one can't help but wonder about another box from antiquity. The Snyder Cut has been released, but is it also opening a Pandora's Box?
Let's just get this out of the way: I personally liked the Snyder Cut. I would not call myself a fan of Zack Snyder's work, but I'm not a hater, either. I admire that he's the rare director who still manages to make his personality and style come through even when he's working with such massive IPs such as the DC Universe and Watchmen. He has a distinct vision, and there's a lot to be said for that. At the same time, his tendency to self-congratulate for being "darker and edgier" than the competition makes me roll my eyes. The secret of Zack Snyder's Justice League is that it works, in part, because Snyder fundamentally misunderstands his own strengths. In his recent interview with The New York Times, the director goes on about how he wants to challenge viewers. He comes off like an edgelord, but, in reality, he's painfully earnest and sincere in just about everything he does. The Snyder Cut, especially due to its lengthy runtime, really makes that clear.
**Spoiler Warning: There are some spoilers for Zack Snyder's Justice League ahead.**
Look at what happens with Cyborg's (Ray Fisher) father, Silas Stone (Joe Morton), in the Snyder Cut compared to what happens in the theatrical release. In the version Whedon got over the finish line, Silas and Victor make up, and we last see them happily tinkering together as Cyborg reformats his mechanical body to be sleeker. In Snyder's version? Silas dies in a pretty horrible and graphic way, sacrificing himself before his son's eyes so that the heroes will be able to track Steppenwolf. It's the type of difference that could be written off as simply being the darker option, but in practice, it feels much more sincere than Whedon's happy ending. Having spent much more time with Cyborg on his journey to self-acceptance (and having seen the worst of it in a way the other version didn't show) Snyder lets audiences empathize with the hero.
Far from being dark, edgy, and off-putting, the Snyder Cut is actually the warmer, more inviting of the two films. It may be a little much at times, sure, but it's genuine.
OK, so the Snyder Cut is better — good, even — than what we were first offered in theaters back in 2017, but is it worth it?
It's certainly worth it for Snyder personally, who got to finish what he started with the backing of thousands of fans and supporters after a devastating family tragedy when his daughter Autumn died by suicide saw him leave the 2017 movie. It's worth it for those fans who campaigned to make this pipe dream a reality, and it's even worth it, probably, for skeptics who might be pleasantly surprised by how the movie surpasses their low expectations. (Is it worth the four-hour runtime? Yes, barely, in part because Zack Snyder's Justice League spends most of the extra time on character development, and because you can easily pause it or break it up into a two-night event, perhaps even using the helpful chapter breaks as stopping points. That said, movies should not be four hours long. Please, we can't make a habit out of this.)
Was the Snyder Cut worth the often-toxic aspects of the campaign to release it? Harder to say. Of course, the vast majority of people who were pushing to release the Snyder Cut were harmless. These are people who really like what Snyder was doing, or who were at least curious to see what his original vision would have been. They created a community together, pulled fun stunts like hiring a plane to tow a banner supporting the cause over San Diego Comic-Con, and they donated more than $150,000 to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention in honor of Snyder's late daughter.
Yet at the same time, the #ReleaseTheSnyderCut movement got a bad reputation for itself that wasn't entirely unearned. Aspects of the campaign bordered on harassment, even going so far as to drive the former president of DC Entertainment off of Twitter after she said something they perceived as a knock against Snyder. (It should be noted that Snyder and his wife/producing partner Deborah have spoken out against such behavior.)
Even beyond the clear-cut abusive behavior the worst minority of the Snyder Cut movement participated in, the fandom around the project has a tendency to be a little prickly. To a certain extent, this makes sense. Zack Snyder has lots of fans who really like his style. Critics, generally, are cooler on his work. It can't be easy to be a fan of something only to see so many published voices say it sucks, actually. (That said, it's not like most critics are coming from a place of spite or, as is frequently and baselessly argued, "in the tank for Marvel." For the most part, they're professional critics with well-reasoned opinions.) Regardless of how persecuted a Snyder fan might feel, though, the last time I tweeted something about the Snyder Cut that made the cardinal sin of not being completely positive, only mostly positive, I got a handful of snarky responses from people who were apparently searching for the phrase "Snyder Cut" and looking to defend Snyder — and in a sense, their identity. So much about modern fandom is about making the things you love part of your personality, which often leads to taking any subtle knock or perceived slight as a deeply personal insult.
The Snyder Cut is perhaps the highest-profile example we have of modern fandom feeling it has investment and ownership of a giant franchise — because in this case, it does. Zack Snyder's Justice League would not exist without the fans who championed for its release. The end credits thank those fans, specifically. It's a victory for fans who wanted something and got it.
In this instance, that's all fine and dandy, but what about the fans who are badgering Lucasfilm to fire Kathleen Kennedy? What about the fans who still want Disney to erase The Last Jedi from canon because they're mad about Luke Skywalker? What about the fans who bullied Kelly Marie Tran off of social media and who just might have had something to do with her character's seriously reduced role in Rise of Skywalker? That the examples that first come to mind are all Star Wars related is certainly telling of the state of that fandom, but where does it end? Will emboldened fans demand the release of an "Ayer" cut of Suicide Squad? Will #ReleaseTheSnyderCut seamlessly transition to #RestoreTheSnyderVerse?
It's not as if fan influence of pop culture is a new phenomenon. People kept Chuck on the air because they bought a lot of sandwiches, and Community made it to six seasons (for better or worse) because there was a clear, dedicated fanbase. Mass Effect III essentially got a new ending because gamers hated the original one. The Snyder Cut feels like a new benchmark, however. It was such a prolonged campaign — starting essentially as soon as the theatrical release came out in 2017 — and such a heated one that its eventual success proved a landmark event. (This seems as good a place as any to note that the campaign technically got the Snyder Cut made, not released, because anything that costs $70 million to complete isn't really something that originally existed in a releasable state.)
One shouldn't overlook the role HBO Max, Warner Bros.' new streaming service, has in all of this, either. Warner Bros., which AT&T acquired in 2018, wants to be a major player in the streaming game, as does pretty much every other entertainment and communications company. To that end, there's a lot of incentive for these streamers to "listen to the fans" because getting (and keeping) subscribers is hugely important. Zack Snyder's Justice League feels as if it was an easy (if expensive) call for HBO Max because it wanted something that would draw in dedicated fans after the service's bumpy launch. Perhaps now more than ever, due to a combination of social media campaigns and the entertainment industry's new reliance on harnessing the power of fandoms, viewers call the shots.
That's not always a good thing. In recent years, franchises, reboots, remakes, and other sorts of IP mining are increasingly becoming the only game in town because they're presumed to be the most profitable bets. Why risk making something original — something that doesn't have that inherent nostalgic appeal — when you could just revive or remake something you assume will be a surefire hit? With the success of the Snyder Cut, time and money that could be spent on original ideas that nobody knows to stan for because they don't yet exist might instead be spent on another literal remake or some sort of re-do to appease fans. Modern fandom knows what it wants and it will let you know, very loudly, what that is. This knowledge might be coming at the expense of fandom's imagination and willingness to discover something new to want.
All this doom and gloom is admittedly very hypothetical. This is a recent pattern, and not yet the rule. If Zack Snyder's Justice League proves to be an exception — not the new playbook — for how entertainment and fandom operate going forward, then, sure, it was worth it. This was a specific movement that arose from specific circumstances, driven by dedicated fans, and it resulted in a final product that was pretty good. If, however, #ReleaseTheSnyderCut becomes the norm, and fans feel entitled to call the shots and get results, then the implications of what that means for pop culture certainly aren't worth two additional hours of getting to better know some DC superheroes before they fight a redesigned bad guy.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBCUniversal.