In retrospect, it was inevitable. It’s like Brexit or Donald Trump’s clinching of the presidency: first, you hear that it happened; then, even if you wanted it to happen, you’re shocked. These people aren’t supposed to be calling the shots. They’re déclassé outsiders, drunk on atavistic rage and viciously abusive toward their foes — such people are destined to be at the fringe, not the hub of power. And yet, when you stop mumbling your disbelief, you’re stuck with the reality that it happened, that an ancient seal has been broken, and you start to see all the forces that broke it. Soon, you’re kicking yourself for not seeing this certainty sooner.
Jesus, you think. It really happened. They really released the Snyder Cut.
That’s right, folks: at some point next year, Warner Bros will unveil a new edition of its 2017 flop Justice League, one that promises to be guided creatively by the first of the two directors who sequentially helmed the flick, Zack Snyder. For someone who doesn’t spend an exorbitant amount of time on social media, this news means nothing. But ask anyone on Film Twitter or Geek Twitter about the Snyder Cut and they’ll know all too well of what you speak.
The short backstory: Snyder was hired by WB to make Justice League as a sequel to his DC superhero pictures Man of Steel and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. He allegedly completed a rough skeleton of Justice League, featuring Batman and Superman and Wonder Woman and Aquaman and a host of other DC characters, but was taken off of the film, ostensibly to grieve after the death of his daughter. Joss Whedon was then brought on to finish Justice League, and the resulting movie landed with a thud at the box office. Outraged Snyder fans subsequently spent an astonishing two and a half years lobbying on social media for the release of Snyder’s aforementioned skeleton version, using the hashtag #ReleaseTheSnyderCut. The campaign advanced to massive ads at San Diego Comic-Con and a digital billboard in Times Square, among other venues, prompting Snyder and the film’s jilted stars to lend their vocal support to the initiative. Then, bada-bing, WB announces yesterday that the rabble-rousers had won. HBO Max will debut the film sometime in 2021.
And, just like that, something dangerous has been let loose in the world. Not the cut, itself, really — whatever product ends up on WarnerMedia’s HBO Max service under the subheading “The Snyder Cut” is secondary in importance to the idea of the Snyder Cut being released. Indeed, anyone who reads between the lines of Borys Kit’s cleverly restrained report on these new developments in The Hollywood Reporter will notice that there basically is no such thing as the Snyder Cut just yet; one will have to be glued together using a heap of broken images left on scattered hard drives. It might be broken up into a kind of epic miniseries for streaming digestibility, a la Olivier Assayas’s Carlos or that oft-retweeted amateur divvying of The Irishman. It’ll probably be terrible, but whatever; that’s not the point.
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.
The reason this conflagration has burned so bright is that it came at an inflection point in a massive culture war in geekdom. Throughout the early 2010s, nerdy products ranging from video games and comic books to, yes, movies, started to evince a greater degree of inclusion for marginalized identities both in the content and behind-the-scenes. These moves were, all told, tiny steps, but steps, nonetheless. The industry leader in this regard (though it is still woefully behind where it should be) was zippy, quippy, friendshippy Disney. What followed in the latter half of the decade was a violent reaction to that changing status quo, and #ReleaseTheSnyderCut was no insignificant part of it.
Its backers saw themselves not just as demanding access to a work they wanted to see, but as soldiers on the front lines of the battle against Disney-owned Marvel’s predominance and approach, as well as all the ideas those things entail. It’s difficult to prove anything about a decentralized movement in the ephemeral world of digital media, but geek writers can confidently report to you that many of the Snyder Cut advocates are the same sorts of people who call out entertainment firms for “forced diversity” and capitulating to the “social justice warriors.” There is probably more than a little overlap between those haranguing a female #ReleaseTheSnyderCut critic and those doing so to a female Star Wars actor. Just imagine how emboldened and vindicated that sort of troll will now feel in their efforts to, say, reduce the flow of queer, nonwhite, or female characters into their favorite franchises.
Which brings us to the other harsh truth here about where we are as a body politic: the ways Snyder Cut advocates have pushed for their version of choice are ultimately being rewarded. To put it bluntly, although they’re not quite as abusive and bloodthirsty as Gamergate, their campaign has led to a tremendous amount of online bullying of critics, executives, and average schmoes who don’t agree with them.
Just ask Diane Nelson. She used to be the president of DC Entertainment, the WB brand responsible for managing superhero content, and when she tweeted that last year’s DC/WB film Joker was “What DC should have been doing since Nolan” (referring to director Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, which concluded in 2012, right before Snyder rebooted everything), she faced a torrent of written abuse that drove her to delete her Twitter account. Ask former DC chief creative officer and movie exec Geoff Johns, who has been held up as the scapegoat for the loss of Snyder’s vision and is regularly excoriated by conspiracy-minded YouTubers and bloggers. Ask any critic, big or small, who has dared to speak ill of Snyder and his work — they’ll likely tell you about all the angry tweets accusing them of being biased and receiving Marvel payola. If you want a larger accounting of all the ways in which these people can be shitty to other humans online, peruse this excellent roundup by J.M. Carter and you’ll get a sense of what we’re talking about.
All of that said, an online fight about the Snyder Cut typically isn’t going to lead to as much digital bloodshed as, say, one about Trump (or BTS). What’s at issue is the precedent that’s being set. WB and parent conglomerate WarnerMedia are, in essence, telling the world, “If you attack a multibillion-dollar corporation often enough and make it clear that you’ll harass anyone who stands in your way, that corporation will eventually give up and throw you what you want.” In fact, WB has, in its way, institutionalized this kind of behavior and dubbed it “enthusiasm” rather than “abuse,” whether they meant to or not. It’s hard to escape the feeling that WB has unleashed something beyond their control.
And yet, the more I ponder this grim situation, the more I find myself seeing it as foreordained. For one thing, there’s the COVID-19 factor: with production on hold across the film industry, WB and its ilk are panicking over their impending lack of new content to push. (Ergo Disney’s decision to release Hamilton direct to Disney+, although the failings of Hamilton fandom are another story entirely.) The Snyder Cut is the rare piece of content that can, in theory, be assembled and pushed as a major event without requiring new filming. With HBO Max on the way and in need of flashy initial offerings, such content is worth its weight in gold — even if the long-term price paid in the relationship between fans and creators is far more exorbitant. Then there’s the narrowcasting factor: in our fragmented media landscape, entertainment firms long ago realized that your best bet is to cater to your most devoted and vocal fans, who will show up no matter what, rather than try to satisfy a broad or ideal audience. Add in the support of WB tentpole-holders like Gal Gadot and the brew gets ever more heady.
But the most important thing to consider is the fact that, although this is a fateful decision that enshrines and extends the bullying-gets-results mindset, that mindset has been an integral part of the geek economy since the inception of the Superhero Boom with the release of Blade in 1998. Indeed, there’s an argument to be made that online bullying is what even made that boom possible.
After the critical and commercial failure of Joel Schumacher’s campy (and truly wonderful) Batman & Robin in 1997, critic Harry Knowles — back then, an icon among online nerds for his running of website Ain’t It Cool News — inaugurated a campaign of hatred and letter-writing against Schumacher. And, in due course, Schumacher was booted from the franchise — we’ll never know exactly how much that was due to the abuse of Knowles and company, but the industry certainly perceived them as the victors and a new force to be reckoned with. This notion was reinforced when Knowles told readers in his review of Blade that they had to buy as many tickets for the movie as they could if they wanted to see more quality comic-book movies. When the flick was a surprise smash, conventional wisdom held that online geekdom’s enthusiasm was the operative factor. As Lauren Shuler Donner, producer of 2000’s X-Men, once told me, “If we had gotten a bad review” on AICN, “it would have killed the whole franchise.”
As it turned out, Knowles showered praise on X-Men and the tidal wave of supermovies really started to grow. What allowed its success was corporations’ swift adjustment toward giving fans that they identify as lucrative what they demand while subtly nudging them toward demanding what the corporations want to give them. It’s a delicate dance, one executed best by Marvel Studios, and which has been taken up in non-superhero realms of nerdy filmmaking, as well. This evolution has led to lots of thrills, but has, overall, been deeply detrimental to the overall film industry, with such fan-servicing franchises crowding out virtually everything else in the pipeline and generally lowering our expectations of what movies can try to do. What seems to be happening with the Snyder Cut’s release is merely the next step for the food chain: online bullies can now see themselves not just as a powerful influence, but as the apex predator, even more potent than the C-suite executives who once derided them. God help us all.
The one cause for hope here is that maybe, just maybe, if the Snyder Cut succeeds next year, studios will start listening to other kinds of marginal-but-passionate fans. I can’t help but think back to another hashtag insurgency, #GiveCaptainAmericaABoyfriend. Launched in 2016 by fans of Marvel’s star-spangled Avenger, the campaign did what it said on the tin: it called for a canonization of the long-cherished fandom belief that Captain America is a queer man, prone to falling in love with companions like Tony Stark and Bucky. Among progressive nerds, Cap’s queerness is passionately argued for, and honestly, it would be a great leap forward for Marvel and pop culture in general if they were to, indeed, #GiveCaptainAmericaABoyfriend. Perhaps I’m biased (full disclosure: I, too, am a queer man), but that’s the kind of capitulation we should see more of. Maybe the next time a Twitter mob emerges, they’ll bully the bullies and get a concession from the higher-ups that expands the playing field and offers new visions of what geek fiction can be.
But who am I kidding? It’s far more likely that this will be an enormous step backward for the stuff of our public dreams. That’s because, in essence, the release of the Snyder Cut was also inevitable due to the fact that it reinforces the power structures that dominate and brutalize the world these days. Sure, #ReleaseTheSnyderCut has a lot of grassroots support, but so does the movement to end quarantine restrictions — and, in both cases, the proponents are ultimately just pushing for a return to the way things used to be and the validation of (if you’ll forgive my naked identity politics, and no offense to Snyder) a straight, cis, and white man. They’re both co-opting radicals’ methods in order to achieve reactionary aims. They’re both trying to drag us into the awful past at a time when we should be recklessly dreaming of a better future. Maybe our nightmarish society will finally collapse before the Snyder Cut can see the light of day. As another embittered male troll once said: ‘Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished.