After Wednesday’s titanic news that The Snyder Cut would be released, at least one man was happy.
— ReleaseTheSnyderCut (@RTSnyderCut) May 22, 2020
Indeed, the Justice League cast rallied around the good news, showing evident affection for director Zack Snyder and respect for his vision. It was a respect that executives at Warner Bros. certainly didn’t share back in the day of 2017 — and indeed this wholly unlikely storyline has given us a chance to yet again look at the tortured, muddled history of superhero films at WB — the tortured muddled history of fandom of such films, as Greg Silber wrote this morning.
Among the compelling storylines I’ve been covering since I started this website, the MCU vs DCEU storyline has got to be the one most deserving of a tell-all book, Barbarians at the Gate style. On the one hand you have a pretty clear narrative with Avi Arad and Kevin Feige and Bob Iger, leading to billions and billions of dollars and millions and millions of Tumblr posts. On the other, you have a messy intergenerational corporate saga that’s part Succession and part Game of Thrones as only Jackie Collins could tell it.
Piecing together the story of The Snyder Cut would be one of the juiciest episodes of this book, for sure.
For instance, yesterday, I wondered if the Justice League stars tweeting about The Snyder Cut was part of a WB marketing campaign, but examining the timeline, it seems to have been these megastars adding their weight to the cries of the fans — on the second anniversary of the film’s release — that made WB head Toby Emmerich realize this was a real thing that could be exploited for a new streaming service. Indeed, the direct evidence that Gadot, Affleck and Momoa would be willing to stump for the new version must have set visions of marketing campaigns dancing in Emmerich’s head. And given that JLTSC can be fashioned from existing footage, this is, indeed, the perfect project for the socially distanced era.
But there is another, darker layer to this and I don’t mean Darkseid. The film pundit/cultural commentator sphere has expressed much dismay that this will just embolden obnoxious, intolerant fans with more demands. Abraham Riesman returns to Vulture for an excellent piece, The Snyder Cut: What Does HBO Max’s Release Really Mean? that gives the bird’s eye view of all of this.
No, the dangerous thing at work here is a multibillion-dollar corporation’s concession to its worst online critics. Under Snyder’s guidance, the DC movie universe (unofficially known, thanks to a 2015 joke by an Entertainment Weekly writer, as the DC Extended Universe) was initially envisioned as a tonal counterweight to the far-more-successful Marvel Cinematic Universe, one that would be weighty, philosophical, and dark — or at least dimly lit. The Snyder-helmed films that launched the effort were critically derided, both on aesthetic grounds (overabundant slo-mo, barely visible set pieces, even-less-comprehensible plots) and thematic ones (Superman, an 80-year-old beacon of humanity’s better angels, is portrayed as kind of a dick). Although the DC movie enterprise was probably doomed from the start — a flagrant attempt at making movies in service of building a commercially viable franchise — and although the general public had already received Man of Steel and Batman v Superman with shrugs, Snyder Cut partisans became convinced that their preferred auteur’s removal from Justice League is where the endeavor went wrong. The finished movie didn’t do justice to Superman’s terrifying grandeur, they say; it hewed too closely to the Marvel/Disney model of superhero movie-making and was thus filled with comedy bits so bad that they’re “an indictment on where we are as a society,” as it’s put on a Change.org petition for the Snyder Cut that drew an alleged 179,260 signatories.
I have to admit, I haven’t paid that much attention to the fervid stacks of web space devoted to Snyder Cut Cultists…but there is a lot of it. And a lot of excellent analysis of it.
Would Releasing The Snyder Cut Just Be Rewarding Bad Behavior? by J.M. Carter (founder of something called The Geek League of America) is an excellent overview:
And they aren’t talking about people who packed cineplexes to revel in the vibrant underwater spectacle of Aquaman or the glitter-dusted girl power of Birds of Prey. No, they’re referring to a particularly hostile group of superhero movie zealots who, in the disastrous aftermath of the release of Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, developed the world’s biggest persecution complex when film critics collectively panned the pseudo-sequel to 2013’s Man of Steel as a bleak, dark, ponderous slog — resulting in a dismal aggregate Rotten Tomatoes score of 27%. This perceived slight ultimately led to the near-deification of Zack Snyder and his filmography, with his fan collective displaying all the earmarks of a quasi-religious sect — following him blindly, hinging on his every word, trying desperately to convert others to their ideology, firmly believing Snyder was a cinematic prophet who could do wrong, thus earning them the nickname “The Snyder Cult.”
Among the Snyder Cultists, Geoff Johns, for one shining moment the co-head of an entire film unit called DC Films, is the dark mastermind behind this particular Court of Owls, secretly muddying up everything from Man of Steel to Suicide Squad. On an obscure website, a long summary called The Troublesome History: Zack Snyder, Geoff Johns, and the Fall of the DCEU lays out all the beats of this theory, but is light on sources. Ironically, one of the foundational texts of the anti-Johns faction is a previous piece by Riesman, DC Is Rethinking Its Cinematic Superhero Universe.
So what accounts for the contrasting reputations? Perhaps part of the problem is that the movies, until recently, had very little influence from the core DC Entertainment team, who had done so well elsewhere. “It took some work for us to earn our stripes, I think, with the rest of the studio and filmmakers,” says the company’s boyish chief creative officer, Geoff Johns, sitting at a long table alongside a clutch of DC executives in a San Diego Marriott on the first day of this July’s San Diego Comic-Con. But in the past 16 months, they’ve gained significantly more influence on the movie operation, and that change is already bearing fruit. “It’s not chaos,” DC Entertainment president Diane Nelson assures me, seated near Johns. “It’s intentional.”
And indeed, the piece did place Johns at the center of the movement to Lighten up the DCEU:
Nelson and Johns faced further cinematic frustration: During the development of Man of Steel, they were marginalized creatively. It was a decidedly gritty take on Superman, and its final battle featured him remorselessly destroying skyscrapers and ultimately executing his foe, General Zod. This didn’t sit right with Johns. “Geoff Johns and Diane were reading scripts, and Geoff Johns, to his credit, was concerned that there was not enough lightness or humor, given who the character is,” recalls one person with knowledge of the making of Man of Steel. “Geoff definitely raised that point, but that current administration didn’t care that much about what Geoff Johns thought.” The movie came out in June 2013 with the DC Entertainment branding, but largely without its fingerprints.
Unspoken in the “silencing” is that perhaps some forgot that an example of Johns’s lightheartedness was the previous bomb, Green Lantern — a movie SO LEADEN that it managed to star two of the funniest, most charming humans on earth (Taika Waititi and Ryan Reynolds) without anyone noticing!
DC Films, a unit assigned to keeping all the DC eggs in one story conference, was announced in 2016, with Johns and John Berg heading it up. The move was spun as a reaction to the dismal critical response to Batman v Superman, and a form of this regime was reportedly behind the reshoots on Suicide Squad. Justice League was to be their triumphant debut.
Well, nobody knows anything. As we now can state, Justice League, another movie starring several of the most charming, lovable humans on earth, was to be deemed a hellacious flopparoonie — even though it did make money — and DC Films was soon recast, with Walter Hamada taking over all the various projects. Along the way, the Johns/Nelson team-up would also end, and Nelson would leave WB entirely. Johns would move on to his own shingle and Doomsday Clock and Stargirl.
Ironically, even as the initially dour Justice League went through an unsuccessful humor transplant, Wonder Woman, Aquaman and Shazam — all projects birthed in an atmosphere tolerant of smiles — went on to be critical AND box office successes, although not always in a blockbuster-sized manner.
But then a big pile of sad like Joker comes along and is the most successful “DC Movie” of them all….so go figure.
Someone explained to me years ago that all of the confusion and uneven quality in WB/DC’s film output could be attributed to the fact that many bigwigs at the studio just didn’t like or understand superheroes and were forced to make the movies by Marvel’s success. If you apply this theory, Occam’s razor style, to things like Superman Returns and Green Lantern, it certainly fits. But even after the arrival of superhero-friendly studio head Kevin Tsijihara, the search for a savior who could make it all work continued. And there just isn’t one.
Here mid-pandemic, with Joker a huge success and people still anxiously (in every sense of the word) awaiting the eventual arrival of Wonder Woman 1984, it’s clear that WB’s instinctive strategy of just letting movie makers make movies they are enthusiastic about, seems to yield better results than trying to set up a “cape czar” at the studio.
Some say that Johns’s tenure at DC Films was as controversial within the studio as it was to fan conspiracy theorists; however, his impact on the endless, much liked and good-natured DC television empire seems to be a positive one for all concerned. There’s a happy ending in there somewhere, and Stargirl seems to be the evidence.
In the chaotic, high stakes pre-pandemic world of Hollywood studios vs streaming content, the pressure to make successful films in beloved franchises that can compete with Feige’s MCU led to smart people making bad choices. Exhibit A: pretty much everything Kathleen Kennedy has done for the last decade, I’m sorry to say. Firing directors just never seems to result in a movie that anyone wants to see: Solo, Justice League. (I know that Snyder left the film because of his family tragedy and wasn’t fired, but the effect was the same.) Once again, the surest road to success has been proven time and time again: let people tell the stories that they want to tell — Nolan with Batman, Johns with Stargirl, Jenkins with Wonder Woman. Snyder’s Justice League cut won’t be a great movie/miniseries, but at least it will be the original vision, flaws and all.
And yes, meanwhile, outraged, entitled fandom is taking a victory lap. Kayleigh Donaldson’s excellent Why Does the DCEU Have Such a Toxic Fanbase? lays out the specifics of this particular pocket of nasty.
[Suicide Squad] signalled Warner Bros. having doubts about their Snyder-driven model, and for better or worse, they decided to change paths. That wasn’t an inherently bad idea but it’s seldom advised for studios working with billions of dollars to lay down a new path while the vehicle is hurtling down the highway at a hundred miles an hour. For the fans who loved that style – and there are plenty of them – it felt like Warner Bros. were letting them down. They had lost faith not only in their concept but their guiding force. Snyder was clearly wholeheartedly dedicated to this franchise and for those fans it seemed like Warner Bros. were leaving him on the outskirts, an issue exacerbated by the fact that people seemed to like the director’s cut of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice a lot more than the theatrical cut. All of these threads – the underdog sensation, the support of a seemingly beleaguered visionary, the opposition to a seemingly united critical condemnation, residual geek anger – combined in an explosive way. It wasn’t just that they had to be fans of the DCEU: They had to be defenders to the very end.
Re: The Snyder Cut. On one hand, I am happy an artist gets to see his work completed, especially after a tragedy. On the other hand, a lot of horrible, toxic assholes who have abused people for years were rewarded, setting a dangerous precedent. Difficult to reconcile.
— The Carter (@TheCarter_GLA) May 20, 2020
From my bird’s-eye view born of age and experience, I will tell you: fans have ALWAYS been intolerant and demanding. But it was just harder to write a physical letter and mail it off with a death threat to your least favorite editor than to fire off a 280-character tweet. And fan demands unbound from reality are found everywhere. (Sorry, Marvel fans, your well-meaning demands for gay content in the MCU without acknowledging that China will just edit it out ignore a huge part of the story.) Social media’s amplification of humanity’s every bad impulse is the lethal burden we live under every minute of the day and fandom is a big part of it.
I mean, I’m sure there were several people in 1986 who wanted to see the Donner Cut of Superman 2; they just didn’t have Twitter to beat the drum. And guess what — they eventually got their wish. IP wants to be free! Especially in the era of home entertainment/streaming.
At any rate, this story is huge and sloppy and I’m just skimming the highlights. Why does no one talk about Superman Returns in all this? Why does no one talk about Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole? Truly, we’re just getting started.