It Happened: What the Legacy of ‘Zack Snyder’s Justice League’ Means for the Future of Film

With the Snyder Cut finally available for the world to see, four IndieWire writers debate if it could possibly leave behind a silver lining.
Zack Snyder with Ben Affleck and Gal Gadot on the set of "Justice League"
Zack Snyder with Ben Affleck and Gal Gadot on the set of "Justice League"
Warner Bros. Pictures/courtesy Everett Collection

DAVID EHRLICH (Senior Film Critic): Well, it actually happened. Just when it seemed like America was done capitulating to the will of its most toxic online communities, a massive telecom — potentially throwing good money after bad in a desperate bid to feed its insatiable new streaming platform — has decided to validate the movie world’s very own QAnon and #ReleaseTheSnyderCut. Congratulations to all of the keyboard warriors out there who recommitted their adult lives to tweeting death threats at film critics, you guys have truly proven yourselves worthy stewards of Superman’s legacy.

Of course, the DCEU fandom isn’t all bad, and the story of how we got here isn’t quite that simple. Unless you’ve been lucky enough to spend the last four years living in a tiny Scandinavian fishing village so remote that it takes Bruce Wayne six days to get there (exactly how big does Zack Snyder think Iceland is?), you probably know the gist of it by now: Personal tragedy implored Snyder to step away from his epic “Justice League” in the months leading up to its late 2017 release, the two-hour version that Joss Whedon then Frankensteined together was cooly received by the masses, and the most impassioned members of the DCEU fandom — who deified Snyder as the only director capable of treating Batman with the Wagnerian seriousness that a billionaire who drives a rocket-powered car demands — began campaigning for Warner Bros. to release the movie they’d been promised. And now the studio has complied. Kind of.

The story of Snyder absconding from the project, with the assembly cut stored on his personal laptop, has been told many times over. Yet it’s still hard to say whether the Snyder Cut was always real, or if the worst people on Twitter simply pressured HBO Max into making it so. A $70 million spend was required to patch the footage into an unwieldy four-hour behemoth, and a recent interview confirmed that social media support was key to the success of Snyder’s pitch. After a short eternity of being neither real nor imagined, Schrödinger’s blockbuster is at long last available for the world to see in its glory.

But they won’t. That much is already clear. It’s like the old saying goes: Give a mouse a Snyder Cut, and he’ll demand a SnyderVerse (#RestoreTheSnyderVerse was trending more than a week before the Snyder Cut even came out). In this case, that might be understandable. For one thing, the lack of closure is something that comic book readers tend to regard as more of a feature than a bug, and any story that ends with a string of cliffhangers and teases of an intergalactic war to come is bound to leave people hungry for more. For another, the mere existence of the Snyder Cut is hard proof that anything is possible amid the stock-driven chaos of the streaming age, and Superman’s resurrection is a mighty apt metaphor for what social excitement can achieve in a content ecosystem where death has become as reversible for superhero films as it always has been for the superheroes in them.

As IndieWire’s Eric Kohn put it in his respectfully exasperated review of the Snyder Cut: “When the Justice Leaguers conclude that one of the mother boxes can resurrect the Man of Steel, it comes from the realization that the technology ‘turns smoke back into a house.’ That’s essentially what Snyder has done here.” In enabling him to accomplish that goal, HBO Max has inflamed online fandoms the world over, and given them good reason to burn down everything that gets in their way no matter how many civil fans and casual passersby are caught up in the blaze. Hope is a powerful thing, but recent history reminds us that it can also dangerously uncouple from reality and backfire against the people who try to wield it to their advantage.

As incredible as it is that the Snyder Cut is actually a movie, it’s still also just a movie (or at least a vaguely movie-like piece of content). Many of us might argue that it’s not a particularly good one: Snyder’s version takes self-parody to sludgy new heights, and underscores how misguided it was for the DCEU to assemble the Justice League without first introducing Aquaman, Cyborg, and the Flash in films of their own. However, it’s hard to hate a mega-massive superhero orgy that was so clearly hatched from the mind of a single auteur (least of all one who was searching for a poignant closure of his own). Putting Snyder’s name in the title almost feels like a redundant touch, as no one who watches even a few minutes of this thing will have any doubt as to who directed it.

The Snyder Cut is a unique phenomenon, but if HBO Max’s gambit further solidifies expensive niche content as a subscriber-baiting norm, what’s to stop the deep-pocketed streamer and others like it from restoring a measure of artistic creativity to Hollywood’s biggest canvases? If “Zack Snyder’s Justice League” is deemed a success by the squidgy metrics of new Hollywood math, is there a chance that studios will be emboldened to make blockbuster-sized streaming content that risks alienating some fans? Is there any scenario in which this whole thing paves the way towards a future that errs closer to “The Last Jedi” than it does “The Rise of Skywalker”?

In other words, is there any way that some good might come from this whole mess, or is that the one thing that still isn’t possible in our post-Snyder Cut world?

Ezra Miller in "Justice League"
“Justice League”Warner Bros.

BEN TRAVERS (Deputy Editor, TV): David, to answer your last question first, no, nothing good can come from any perceived “success” related to the Snyder Cut. I’m sorry to be blunt, and it unnerves me to make any kind of categorical claim about the future of anything, but it takes a Herculean (Superman-ian?) effort just to see past the toxicity that the mere rumor of the cut’s existence unleashed on the world (as you outlined already). Rewarding that behavior is terrifying and, quite frankly, wrong. But even taking the hashtag out of “Zack Snyder’s Justice League” and viewing it only as a four-hour superhero movie still elicits huge concerns for the future of entertainment, as shaped by streaming.

For one, a studio already made blockbuster-sized streaming content that risks alienating some fans — Marvel did, it was called “WandaVision,” and yeah, its own perceived success is likely to shape plenty of future IP-adaptations. There are obvious differences between the Snyder Cut and the MCU’s first foray onto Disney+ — central to this conversation, that the latter was very much shaped by committee — but having just seen the first episode of Marvel’s second Disney+ series, “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier,” it’s clear that the latter is dictated by formula and the former aching to break from it. Just look at their titles: “WandaVision” is a clever play on the show’s TV themes, while also a sweet coupling of its central characters. “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” reads like a computer spat out the two most-used names in a desperate attempt to elevate C-grade superheroes to A-list status.

So why am I not celebrating the unlikely infiltration of divergent artistry into the rigid studio system — twice, in a matter of months? Because both projects suffer the same central problem that has been plaguing streaming since the beginning: There’s no structure to their stories. While the far better option of the two, “WandaVision” still dressed itself up with sitcom homages to delineate episodes, hiding that its story could have been told in half the time with twice the impact. And “Zack Snyder’s Justice League” breaks its four-hour runtime into arbitrary chapters to provide the illusion of structure. They’re both bloated movies hiding behind TV aesthetics.

But TV is more than one long story chopped up into more palatable parts, just like movies aren’t merely long episodes of television (as so many have posited about the MCU’s ever-extending timeline). In an ideal world, length, form, and distribution are all built to serve the story, but with streaming, they’re manipulated to serve the ravenous demand for content. The Snyder Cut is just another example of a filmmaker given free rein, which is partly why we were cursed with a decade (or more) of “10-hour movies.”  Streaming encourages “auteurs” to work without restrictions: Snyder has said he didn’t get many notes from HBO Max, and those that he did, he disregarded. But sometimes those notes are good — not from execs, necessarily, but from someone! Sometimes, you don’t need a slow-motion shot of Batman taking the stairs, or a full rendition of the Icelandic goodbye song for Aquaman. Sometimes you need help preserving the clearest version of your vision as you’re in the weeds, trying to get each detail just right.

Indulgence is not the key to great art. Collaboration, trust, and, yes, a shared vision are far more important, but understanding how to best tell your story should be among the first decisions agreed upon — not four years later at the behest of fans who don’t know what they’re asking for. All those keyboard warriors will be happy with such unchecked fan service, but if the Snyder Cut’s success expands beyond that group, watch out. We could just be in for more overstuffed movies, shows, and weird in-betweeners that, in the end, could really just use a good edit.

But I’ve gone on long enough to need a good edit myself. Chris, word is you enjoyed the new cut more than most, so please help me make peace with a movie that not only excluded my beloved Green Lantern from the Justice League, but still found a way to contemptuously kill off two members of the Corps.

“Justice League”Warner Bros.

CHRIS O’FALT (Deputy Editor, Crafts): Ben, I don’t know if streaming has led to an era of “bloated movies hiding behind TV aesthetics,” or if movie directors have just become glorified showrunners – manage the character development, leave the action to our spectacle specialists in stunts and VFX – but it’s all the same thing, no? It’s the franchise-as-auteur era, and serialization is king.

Disney’s dominance is based on the fact it has more people hooked on its endless storylines. Tonight I watched Episodes 3 and 4 of “WandaVision” with my son, who is hooked on the Marvel spectacle. Not surprisingly, I’m getting lost as the series starts to reference Wanda and Vision’s backstory, and here’s my eight-year-old unloading 20 minutes of exposition on me at a “His Girl Friday”-like pace. His passion and excitement is palpable as he recounts the plot lines of 12 different films in the hope that I might be able to understand one 34-minute episode of TV.

And that’s what I find so fascinating about the Snyder Cut.

Snyder’s DC films were attracting a fraction of Marvel’s viewership, but that’s still millions of fans. Yes, some are toxic online bullies — and yes, some rather beautifully channeled their Snyder allegiance towards fundraising efforts in support of suicide prevention — but I’m guessing the bulk fall somewhere between evil and altruistic. That’s true of just about any group. These fans were invested in DC’s anti-Marvel branding: They bought into the darker and more adult-themed superhero stories and were supportive of the studio’s decision to enable stylistically bold directors. The found depth in what I saw as silly bro-seriousness. To each his own.

The Snyders’ tragedy did not lead to WB/DC taking away his vision. It was the excuse they hid behind after some version of this film was already in the can. Snyder not only had the famed four-hour cut on his laptop; he was pretty much done with his two-and-half hour cut (studios contractually grant a standard 10-week directors cut period). I interviewed four of Snyder’s collaborators this week — all highly skilled pros who spent years working closely with Snyder to articulate his vision, and have a tremendous warmth towards him as an artist and a person. Snyder’s intention and aesthetics were not a mystery, least of all to these crafts people, and while he no doubt is the captain of the ship, the idea this team couldn’t have delivered his film, at this stage, does not hold water.

It’s not a surprise to anyone that DC/WB felt it was time to abandon the serious-as-a-heart-attack bleakness of Nolan’s post-9/11 “Dark Knight” trilogy, which was then taken to extremes by Snyder’s particular approach. That they tried to do that on this film, and at this moment – after principal photography and five months before release – is comical, cowardly, and criminally dumb.

Bringing in the punchy, gooey-nougat-centered Marvel guy to do a seven-week reshoot and a hyper-saturated color grade is Hollywood fear and loathing at its peak. Everybody is focused on the $70 million they gave Snyder to pick up the ball where he left it in May 2017, but how about the stunning insanity of letting Whedon try to Marvel-ize an entire franchise in four months?

And predictably, those hooked on the Snyder serialization noticed. Everyone tried to hide it, but the fans noticed. And while I don’t excuse the behavior that #ReleasetheSnyderCut unleashed, it was never as far-fetched as the spin that was put on the theatrical cut. And just because some of us were never enamored of Snyder’s DCEU, I take comfort in that moviegoers still believe their eyes over PR spin and media stenographers. And frankly, creator-centric advocates such as ourselves shouldn’t have been so dismissive.

Warner Bros. is my favorite Hollywood studio. I’ve always loved its approach to story and genre. But for the better part of a decade, its movie division has been lost at sea. You read about how the studio shepherded “King Arthur” to the screen and realize just how directionless it had become. WB/DC deserved the delirious Snyder Cut as much as the fans do, but for very different reasons. I still found this serial requiem of a film to be silly in its seriousness, but also intoxicating in its indulgence and choreography. I started to realize that part of the reason Snyder’s movies always feel so choppy is because on set he’s apparently directing with the four-hour version in mind.

But most of all, “Zack Snyder’s Justice League” is a document I’m glad exists. It’s a visual piece of history that will be the perfect companion to Ben Fritz’s “The Big Picture: The Fight for the Future of Movies.” I don’t know where streaming, serialization, and franchises will lead us, but this is unsustainable and the “Justice League” crack-up playing out publicly could be healthy, most of all for my favorite studio currently caught in a tailspin.

"Zack Snyder's Justice League"
“Zack Snyder’s Justice League”HBO MAX

KATE ERBLAND (Deputy Editor, Film): Full confession time: I never saw Whedon’s “Justice League” until about two days ago. I like Marvel movies, but I’m not wild about Whedon; I didn’t like “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” (dawn of what now?) and wasn’t on the hook to write about it; I got off unscathed until, well, the last few years played out. And here’s what happened: I watched the Snyder Cut in its entirety over the course of two days (those chapters might scream of episodic inclinations, but they are handy when one needs a soothing pause and a good nap), marinated on it, and then watched the Whedon cut. And within five minutes, clarity hit me, much like a bat-shaped tool flung at anyone who happens to be in spitting distance. Zack Snyder, I get it.

Watching Whedon’s two hours of candy-colored nonsense after sitting through Snyder’s four hours of murky drama was revelatory. Snyder’s cut may be way too long and far too generous with scenes and concepts that don’t engender such attention, but at least it’s coherent. I can’t imagine what it felt like for Snyder to see his vision — and, yes, let’s be honest here, even this vision is the product of decades of other creators’ work and a rigid overarching corporate scaffolding — reduced to an imitation that’s not just pale, but lacking in understanding the basic tenets of storytelling and character development. Snyder’s version of the DCEU might not be for me, but as one of those people Chris deemed a “creator-centric advocate,” I can’t help but be happy that Snyder managed to excise his film from Warner Bros. to make what he wanted. That’s what this should be all about.

But that’s not what this is all about, because forever entangled in the story of the Snyder Cut are years of fan toxicity, corporate doublespeak, and flat out lying from many parties. A creator should be able to see their vision through to the end, but like this? That’s where I pause. Sure, Snyder’s fans have done some good, but when I think about the fan campaign to make this happen, I think about the stories of random Twitter jockeys calling the Warner Bros. main switchboard and screaming at receptionists to “RELEASE THE SNYDER CUT!!!” and nothing about that seems right (or, honestly, sane?).

In short: I’m happy for Snyder, but I hate how this all happened. We may never know precisely how this all happened, but anyone with eyes and an Internet connection can tell you that it wasn’t just because some nice fans called out for justice or Snyder had a great chat with the Warner Bros. brass. A lot more went down, and while I can’t help but want to know more, that’s mostly because I don’t think it will happen again. At least, that’s the hope.

“Zack Snyder’s Justice League” is now streaming on HBO Max.

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