With last week's announcement that the "Snyder Cut" of Justice League will be released as Zack Snyder's Justice League on HBO Max next year, supporters and detractors are both already lining up to claim that Warner Bros.' decision to reward the persistence of a group of vocal fans will have ramifications moving forward. It is admittedly difficult to know just what kind of impact the #ReleaseTheSnyderCut movement will have on similar fan demands going forward, because there were vanishingly few people who believed the Snyder supporters would be successful in their protests. But what does it mean for movements like attempts to save the Marvel/Netflix Daredevil series, or those fans who have turned their attention to David Ayer's Suicide Squad cut? Well, let's dig in a little bit.
First of all, while some such efforts are bound to succeed, and studios may hedge their bets in the future by not being quite so openly disdainful of passionate fan campaigns as Warner seemed to be at certain points during the last couple of years, there is not much evidence yet to support the idea that the release of the Snyder Cut will set a new standard. Warner Bros. is responding to a situation that is unique in a number of ways, not least of which is the nature of Justice League itself.
Zack Snyder is a director with a bold and striking visual style, who turned 300 -- a graphic novel with little mainstream awareness outside of comics -- into a box office smash that spawned a sequel the original comic didn't even have. Not long after that, he turned his attention to revitalizing the Superman film franchise, which had struggled for decades. While the character had headlined some wildly popular TV shows, Superman Returns had been a disappointment both critically and financially, and the franchise it was intended to spawn never happened, with Brandon Routh only getting to don the cape again in last year's "Crisis on Infinite Earths" TV mega-event.
Snyder's Man of Steel may not have lived up to studio expectations, but strong box office and a solid CinemaScore from the audience told them it was worth moving forward with him -- something they were likely already inclined to do unless Man of Steel had been a disaster, since Marvel was basically printing money with a series of box office hits based on characters far less well known than Superman. Batman v Superman was more of the same, with a passionate fanbase lauding it as a masterpiece while critics at large hated it and it made good money, but not Iron Man or The Dark Knight kind of money. Warners moved forward with Justice League anyway, and Snyder was expected originally to make at least two films. It didn't happen, obviously, as he was reportedly being rewritten and shadowed by management throughout filming, a result of Warner Bros. panicking that the massively-expensive Justice League might be more like Batman v Superman than Marvel's The Avengers.
They couldn't even begin to guess that, after Snyder departed the project and his die-hard fans didn't turn out for the shorter, lighter version assembled by Warner Bros. and filmmaker Joss Whedon, the movie would turn into a box office disaser far more humiliating than Batman v Superman, and a persistent, years-long headache as Snyder fans demanded to see his version of the movie.
The number of movies that have that level of expectation on them -- Justice League was supposed to outgross The Dark Knight and become DC's Avengers -- are vanishingly small. That the movie underperformed so wildly, becoming a historic bomb overnight, is also a pretty rare scenario. Again, compare it to Batman v Superman and you can see how much better even a poorly-received blockbuster tentpole usually does.
Ultimately, Justice League was a Frankenstein's monster of a movie, with clashing tones and dueling themes, becuase Snyder and Whedon are such dissimilar films that when Snyder left the production and Whedon was appointed to finish it, fans could easily sit in theaters and point out which scenes likely belonged to whom. It opened at less than $100 million, about half of what Marvel's The Avengers had made in its opening frame and significantly less than Batman v Superman had done.
The fact that the movie was plagued with behind-the-scenes drama that was leaking out long before Snyder left to attend to his family following the death of his daughter, meant that fans already knew the movie was in trouble. For those who had been lambasting Snyder since Man of Steel or earlier, it was easy to blame him. For his fans, it was easy to blame management at Warner Bros., which seemed to be in a constant state of flux. Whether or not you liked Snyder's work, he and the people he worked closely with (cast, crew, David Ayer) were the only people who seemed to have a real sense of direction for the films, and when control was wrested from Snyder, there was no clear voice stepping in to replace his.
Instead, there was a lot of conflicting noise coming out of Warners. Geoff Johns promised fans that the movie was still very much Snyder's vision, while studio executives (likely including Johns) reportedly asked Whedon to slash the movie's runtime dramatically. This, along with reshoots that were costly but yielded poor results when the visual effects used to remove Henry Cavill's Mission: Impossible mustache were laugh-worthy, sent fans an unmistakable message: the movie was going to be significantly shortened, but Whedon was still adding stuff. It validated rumors of bad blood between Warners and Snyder, and solidified a narrative that he was an artist struggling against an unjust Hollywood machine, allowing his fans to feel like underdogs who were fighting a good fight.
That sense of the mythological and heroic, the idea that Snyder's fans were facing down some kind of censorship or, at minimum, defacement, of Snyder's art was a powerful agent that allowed a few things to happen.
First of all, it gave them an anger that would define certain corners of the #ReleaseTheSnyderCut movement, and which would deepen and further incense them when they were dismissed and ridiculed by the same fans and critics who never liked the Snyder movies to begin with.
This creatted a narrative for many of Snyder's fans that he had been wronged, and they were standing up for him. It gave them a sense of purpose and the belief that they had the moral high ground. From the very beginning, this was bolstered by the official explanation for Snyder's departure; the death by suicide of his young daughter.
This helped the Snyder Cut supporters to quickly coalesce into a movement -- terminology they would favor right up to the end.
If #ReleaseTheSnyderCut had become a social or political movement, the methords by which they spread their message -- often and aggressively -- matched that perfectly.
Like Black Lives Matter, Gamergate, or PETA, Snyder stans quickly became very good at identifying likely candidates for recruitment, places where they could make the biggest splash, and methods that would get the attention of the media and other tastemakers. Like U.S. President Donald Trump's supporters during the 2016 election, it did not much matter to Snyder Cut fans whether the coverage of what they were doing was positive or negative, just that they were dominating the narrative.
They also created an internal echo chamber to share positive stories, driving up traffic for sites that covered their efforts favorably and encouraging more coverage.
On the flipside, some supporters made it their business to seek out critics and fans who didn't like Snyder, or who mocked the movement, and to "expose" or harass them, ideally into silence but failing that, just enough to remind everyone they were there.
When the trolls and abusive members of the Snyder Cut community became the focus of most of the narrative, both in the press and on social media, around #ReleaseTheSnyderCut, the movement either instinctively or deliberately began embracing Snyder's own pet causes -- mental health and suicide prevention. It was clear that Snyder had a heartfelt commitment to those causes, and fans began to come up with creative ways to generate funds for charity while also generating attention for the Snyder Cut community.
A feel-good story about fans raising thousands of dollars for charity in the name of a grieving father is hard for reporters to resist, and equally hard for critics to attack without sounding out of touch. It was another success for Snyder supporters in keeping control of the narrative.
This feels like a good place to note that we aren't saying that this was necessarily done deliberately. It is just as likely that these acts were genuine acts of charity and compassion that happened to benefit their movement in the longer term. Either way, the charitable aspect of #ReleaseTheSnyderCut helped to change the way Snyder's fans were perceived and discussed. It's a lot harder to paint a group negatively with a broad brush when they just gave $40,000 to an objectively good cause.
Frustration with Snyder, and blaming him for the way his films performed, was necessary for upper management at Warner Bros., who needed to have an explanation as to why they were coming nowhere close to Marvel's level of success with their superhero movies -- again, in spite of having three of the most iconic characters in all of the superhero genre.
The DC failures, though, weren't the only hits Warner was taking over the last few years, and over the course of the last two and a half years since the release of Justice League, a lot of the people at or near the top of WB, who were emotionally and financially invested in reinforcing the narrative that Snyder was the sole, or at least main, problem with the films, are gone.
Through resignations, firings, restructurings and a corporate buyout, Warner -- and in particular DC's film division -- could not seem to develop a coherent mission statement or strategy. Meanwhile, the #ReleaseTheSnyderCut folks had a clear and simple message, repeated over and over again. They brought their mission to every forum and every conversation that was even remotely related to DC's film slate. Eventually, it seems, their clear message, determination, and consistency began to resonate with management.
Snyder knows how to play all of this. As soon as the #ReleaseTheSnyderCut movement started to really gain steam, he started sharing enticing little tidbits on social media, helping to keep fans excited and helping to give reporters a reason to talk about it again.
He is also, by all accounts, a genuinely kind and passionate man who is a good collaborator on set. Actors and crew have talked about Snyder like they would take a bullet for him, and people like Ray Fisher and Jason Momoa have absolutely imperiled their relationships with Warner Bros. in order to be vocal supporters of Snyder's vision.
The Snyder Cut (Mostly) Exists
That's all history -- albeit history that we have infused with a lot of loaded language to give you a sense of exactly how singular the Snyder Cut situation is. Let's get into some similarities and differences between the Snyder Cut mission and similar fan-protest movements.
The biggest difference between #ReleaseTheSnyderCut and something like #SaveDaredevil is simple: The Snyder Cut pretty much exists. Yes, it was never a finished film and will require somewhere between $20 and $40 million (reportedly) to complete, but the film's budget before publicity and marketing was over $200 million, meaning that the value Warner is getting relative to the cost is very high. They are essentially planning on getting a blockbuster movie -- the kind of attraction Netflix and Amazon routinely spend $100 million on -- for around $50 million including marketing.
In that way, it is very similar to things like the "Ayer Cut" of Suicide Squad, which is supposedly even farther along than Snyder's Justice League cut. But the number of filmmakers whose fan bases are going to go out and start a fight over their right to final cut is pretty limited, so it isn't long before folks start trying to draw parallels to campaigns to save shows on the bubble or revive shows that have been cancelled.
While such campaigns are certainly not impossible -- everything from Arrested Development and Chuck to Family Guy and Tuca and Bertie have been revived thanks to fan support -- they are a different conversation than Justice League. Once sets have been taken down and contracts have been allowed to expire, the idea of getting the cast back together to record another season of something becomes really hard to swing. This is part of why the most recent reports indicate that there will be no reshoots of Justice League that include the primary cast. In all likelihood the new content we get will feature Darkseid, Martian Manhunter, and maybe more from the "history lesson" sequence. That's a lot different from calling back several in-demand actors to leave other jobs and save a dead show.
The Snyder Cut Will Drive Subscriptions And More
The Snyder Cut also has an incredibly high floor for its value to HBO Max. Not only will the fledgling streaming service, which is using the Snyder Cut to entice new subscribers, benefit from the highly visible PR campaign around the film's release, but the odds are very good that whatever physical media release it eventually gets will make a good deal of money, too. Even in an era where physical media is essentially dead, cult filmmakers who pack their discs full of bonus features can charge a premium and sell a ton.
On top of all of that is the strength and resilience of DC as a brand. Even after the movies were declared "failures" streaming services lined up around the corner to stream Batman v Superman and Justice League. HBO Max used Justice League and Joker as significant parts of their ad campaigns and, during their upfront presentation, dedicated a not-insignificant amount of time to just talking about DC's offerings on the platform.
That sets the bar pretty high; in order to be comparable to the Snyder Cut, a project has to be guaranteed to "open" big (bring in new customers who are there just for that thing) as well as having legs (continuing to attract interest once it's no longer a new release).
Back to the physical media comparison, it used to take a very specfic kind of film to continue renting regularly once it was off the new release wall at the video store. Once removed from that "prestige" placement in the retail space, most movies would essentially fade from the consciousness of a huge number of customers. DC properties generally, and the Snyder Cut in particular, seem likely to be evergreen properties that always generate at least some level of fan interest, kicked off by a huge surge of interest in the early going.
So -- What does it mean?
The Snyder Cut will certainly change the narrative around fan petitions and other kinds of demands placed on studios and networks. Something that seemed impossible has become a reality -- and something that a major studio seemed desperate to bury and leave forgotten just two years ago was a huge announcement tied to the launch of the company's biggest priority. You can't fully ignore that kind of shift in the firmament.3comments
That said, the high expectations, spectacular failure, and behind-the-scenes chaos and drama made Justice League especially susceptible to a passionate, vocal group of fans who manipulated reporters and social media to help deliver their message on a regular basis, and used charitable work to redirect criticism of their goals, methods, or shortcomings. An unstable studio with no clear view for the future of one of their biggest IPs contributed hugely, as well as new management coming in with no particular agenda to let sleeping dogs lie. Snyder's personal charisma and the passionate support of his cast and crew, as well as the relatively minimal investment it will take for a potentially huge upside, all play a role in the unlikely decision to save Zack Snyder's vision for Justice League. Is it replicable? Yes, but it would be an incredibly difficult thing for almost any other project, and people who are talking about it like this puts a bull's eye on the studio's back or opens the door to dozens more, similar campaigns is likely fooling themselves. There has not been any reason for the Snyder Cut movement to be so much more active, so much more aggressive, and so much more noticeable than other, similar movements in the last two and a half years, but the #ReleaseTheSnyderCut hashtag has weathered a number of storms and seen potenital successors come and go.
This is an outlier, not a new normal, and any fans who hope to use the Snyder Cut blueprint to help resurrect their favorite thing should know going in that it took a huge, vocal number of passionate people more than two years to stop being mocked relentlessly and start making people think their cause was even a possibility. The success of the Snyder Cut movement may be some kind of road map, but it's one that relatively few people will be able to follow.
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