For the most part, director’s cuts are just another one of those things that we don’t actually need, yet film fans regularly anticipate their arrival and embrace them wholeheartedly. For many fans, they’re curiosity traps, offering a glimpse of something secret to which we maybe shouldn’t be privy. Diehard viewers have long been fascinated by the concept of the director’s cut as a direct patch into a filmmaker’s mind. They clue us in to our favorite auteurs’ truest, most innermost and unfiltered visions, offering us mere mortals access to what they’re capable of without a studio’s reins pulling them back down to earth. Without a studio’s restrictions, the best of these cuts also see directors’ most blind, fence-swinging ambitions. For better or worse, director’s cuts are an unparalleled exercise in excess and self-indulgence.
Zack Snyder’s Justice League is certainly not the first of its kind, but Snyder’s long-anticipated cut of the maligned 2017 DC crossover event is a special anomaly in the lineage of the director’s cut. It’s the culmination of what the director’s cut label has come to entail in recent years as it’s strayed from its origins. For one, it has the sort of prebaked narrative that will inevitably go down as internet folklore: Zack Snyder’s Justice League is the result of a two-and-a-half-year crusade of passionate (and often overly passionate) fans to see the film as Snyder intended, after the director departed the project following the tragic passing of his daughter and overwhelming pushback from a studio that had lost faith in him. The now-disgraced Avengers director Joss Whedon came in to complete the film and rewrite the story to mixed results and accusations of abusive behavior. His attempts to lighten the mood with his trademark ironic humor were decidedly un-Snyder-like. No matter how you feel about the Snyder Cut, Whedon’s version reads like the world’s blandest sitcom in comparison.
In response, #ReleaseTheSnyderCut trended on Twitter, and just never really stopped trending until HBO Max succumbed last spring, announcing a four-hour version of Zack Snyder’s Justice League that was released last week. For all of the desperate pleas to let this elusive cut out of the proverbial vault, an actual director’s cut seemingly didn’t exist — just an array of scenes left on the cutting-room floor. Reshoots happened ($70 million worth of them, in fact). The team (well, some of them) donned their capes once again. This is the redemption arc in the third act.
With the revisions usually associated with studio films, they often work to legitimize a movie’s artistic worth. The “director’s cut” label is essentially auteurism run rampant. It’s in the name, after all — this film belongs to the director and the director only. It’s part of why I think there’s a worrying assumption that the director always knows best, as if filmmaking isn’t a team effort. (Sometimes they do need quality control! I feel like someone should’ve told Patty Jenkins at some point that Wonder Woman 1984 is unhinged!)
Of course, Snyder himself isn’t new to the director’s cut, having previously created generally well-liked “Ultimate Cuts” for Watchmen and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Considering both revisions were better received than their theatrical counterparts, you can understand perhaps why his cult of fans has such high hopes. It’s still early for Justice League, but critics largely seem to agree that Snyder’s version marks an improvement from its Whedon-ified predecessor.
Ultimately, what most fans hoped for from the Snyder Cut was a proper reassessment of Justice League. Really, Snyder is the perfect director for the comic-book nerds among us. He reveres superheroes in the same way he does ancient mythology. He takes them seriously. Considering that he compared Justice League to The Irishman, The Godfather and, somehow, First Cow in a single interview, he also sees his films as auteur-driven projects. The Snyder Cut brings gravitas to a film that once suggested thatBarry Allen is a Blink.
An indulgent epic like Zack Snyder’s Justice League operates with the same barely hidden aim as previous commercial director’s cuts: It validates blockbusters as proper works of art for those fans who only ever wanted everyone else to see them that way. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with that mind-set, but let’s be real — you just need to take one step back to realize we’re still watching a bunch of dudes (and Wonder Woman) pummel CGI enemies in front of a green screen. All I’m saying is Martin Scorsese made points.
But Justice League also marks a turning point. The story of how this film came to be is a far more dramatic narrative than all the director’s cuts before it, in part because the fight between director and studio is no longer so lopsided. After half a century of director’s cuts luring viewers into treasuring the filmmaker above all, the Snyder Cut campaign put that idea into action. Can dissatisfied fans demand any ratification of a movie as long as they are loud and persistent enough? HBO Max’s concession has only given more ammunition for fans to defend their beloved filmmaker. In a way, Justice League’s director’s cut has become immune to negative feedback. After all, how can you criticize him if this film is everything he intended?
(It’s worth saying at this point that director’s cuts are almost wholly limited to big name, white, cisgender male filmmakers — rarely, if ever, are women and people of color offered the luxury of a second chance.)
Before Zack Snyder’s Justice League redefined what a director’s cut could be, they were rarely more than fun curios. But beyond the traditional fan service they offer to those looking for more (qualitatively or quantitatively), they usually exist to serve one of two goals: to right the wrongs of the theatrical version, or to capitalize on box-office and critical success by promising an even better iteration, as if to say, “Oh, you liked that? Here’s two more hours of it!”
As for the former, films running the gamut from Blade Runner (beloved) to Daredevil (… less so) have found themselves reappraised after their respective director’s cuts. It’s probably why director’s cuts are so often received more rapturously than their theatrical counterparts, even when they’re not always necessary: Version two implies improvement, marked or minuscule. More cynically, though, capitalizing on box-office glory feels like the cash-grab option, with studios hoping to shake their money trees for any remaining fruit after a successful theatrical release. Though not technically director’s cuts, the black-and-white rereleases of Parasite, Mad Max: Fury Road, and Logan fall into that category, driven by a similar hope to make the most of their devoted followings.
More than just an alternative version, each director’s cut is indicative of a sprawling narrative from behind the scenes that led to its existence. Certainly, independent films have been given the revisionist treatment (take Midsommar and Kenneth Lonergen’s Margaret for example, which both got extended cuts after their respective studios insisted on shorter run times), but cinema’s most famous director’s cuts are built upon commercially driven films that suffered from studio interference. Unless you’re Christopher Nolan getting free rein on any project, no matter how nonsensical (yeah, we’re looking at you, Tenet), the director’s voice gets diminished by the bureaucratic process of studio filmmaking. We’ve seen it happen with major blockbusters like Alien 3, Josh Trank’s Fantastic Four reboot and, well, every other superhero movie that flopped. The director’s cut, then, is their opportunity to fulfill their vision — and it certainly can’t hurt the studio’s bottom line when the fans come flocking accordingly.
That’s not to say the director and the studio are always so opposed — after all, we can’t really consider the directors who book these enormous jobs as “artistic underdogs.” But the director’s cut narrative can be even more compelling than the end product itself. This is David’s victory lap (albeit a well-paid one) after vanquishing Goliath. Apocalypse Now and Almost Famous’s cuts, for example, feel like “told you so” moments by cleaning up the cutting-room floor. Then again, blind faith in directors has only further incentivized studios to cash in on the money-making potential of big names and massive fandoms with director’s cuts. As was the case with a hit like Alien, you could slap the director’s cut label on an extended version without the filmmaker’s approval. David may have won the battle, but Goliath always wins the war.
And now we’re in the post–Justice League era, in which millions of viewers got to witness a sesame seed fly off a burger bun in excruciatingly meticulous slow motion — just as Zack Snyder intended. What this means for the future of the form — whether any film can be given a do-over if enough people bully the studio — remains to be seen. For me, there’s a small, naïve glimmer of hope that, now, nervous executives might give directors enough freedom to not warrant a do-over in the first place. But then I remember that we’ve seen the financial potential of repackaging over and over again, and to abandon it now would be counterintuitive. It’s only reinforced the idea that the director’s cut is not as revolutionary as once believed. But who are we kidding? We’ll all tune in for the next one.
Because ultimately there’s something invariably thrilling about watching a director’s cut. The last one I can recall seeing in theaters was the extended edition of The Handmaiden, which, in a precursor to Justice League, director Park Chan-wook conceded to release after fans demanded more, proving that you can launch a successful grassroots fan campaign without harassing anyone. As much as I love to see a pair of conniving lesbians fall in love, the longer scenes and adjusted timeline added very little to my enjoyment of a movie that’s about as close to perfect as it gets. Then again, I still loved it. Who am I to turn down an extra 20 minutes?