‘Zack Snyder’s Justice League’ was made possible by fans, for fans

What else can online communities will into existence?

Zack Snyder's Justice League (HBO Max)

Where does the power of fandom go from here? For years, devoted followers of Zack Snyder, the director behind Man of Steel and Batman vs. Superman, have been clamoring to see his version of 2017's Justice League. That film, which united DC's major superheroes, was meant to be just as significant for comic book fans as Marvel's Avengers. But, following the tragic death of his daughter, Snyder announced that he would be leaving the film in the middle of production to tend to his family. Joss Whedon, who spearheaded the Avengers films, was brought onboard to finish the project. The theatrical version of Justice League, a Frankenstein's monster born from two very different artists, flopped with critics and fans alike.

That brings us to Zack Snyder's Justice League, a four-hour-long recut meant to capture the director's full vision. Depending on how you look at the film, which premiered on HBO Max last week, it's either a miracle or a warning. It exists primarily because fans demanded it. That led Snyder and his cast to join the call, and made WarnerMedia take notice when it desperately needed new streaming content. The Snyder cut didn't actually exist when the campaign began, so WarnerMedia agreed to pay for completed VFX and a few reshoots. That ended up costing the company an estimated $70 million.

What started as a long-shot campaign from some devoted fans ended up being one of the linchpins in HBO Max's content strategy. And judging from the conversation online over the weekend, it seems to have paid off. It's all some pop culture fanatics are talking about, and in a world where grabbing consumer attention is all that matters, that's the best a streaming company can hope for. (HBO has yet to release any stats on how well the movie performed.)

There were plenty of Snyder fans who genuinely just wanted to see his take on the film, and some who helped raise over $156,000 for suicide prevention. But the road to the Snyder Cut's release was also paved with abusive social media posts and death threats against film critics and Warner Media employees. As Vanity Fair Hollywood reporter Joanna Robinson (and my occasional podcast co-host) points out, "Former DC Film chief Geoff Johns left the platform entirely after receiving endless Twitter attacks, and director James Gunn, who was hired to write and direct a Suicide Squad sequel for the studio, discovered that his new gig came with at least one death threat from a user with a Batman avatar."

Fans managed to will the Snyder cut into existence, but the director and WarnerMedia haven't done much to acknowledge the toxic side of the community. The film's release could be seen as a validation of the worst elements of fandom. The situation reminds me of when Bioware decided to alter Mass Effect 3's ending after a vocal fan uprising. But that was 2012, and the online response was relatively tame compared to what the #ReleasetheSnyderCut campaign unleashed. There was also the near-complete rejection of the original Sonic design from the recent live-action film, which was delayed by several months for a retooling.

Zack Snyder's Justice League

At a minimum, the response to Sonic the Hedgehog wasn't born out of toxicity. And it's yet another example of how online fan communities can influence creative work. We saw a more extreme example with the release of The Last Jedi, which was also reviled by a vocal group of Star Wars fans who directed their online hate toward director Rian Johnson and co-star Kelly Mary Tran. As Vanity Fair's Robinson notes, it's hard not to draw a line between those responses and the way director J.J. Abrams completely changed Johnson's narrative with his follow-up, The Rise of Skywalker, and pushed Tran's character out of the main plot.

The initial critical response to Zack Snyder's Justice League was almost universally positive. (It now sits at 73 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, compared to 40 percent for the Whedon cut.) Many reviewers said the film was a vast improvement from Whedon's take, but there was little mention of the toxicity that made this cut possible. I won't deny that there's more to like, especially with the additional footage featuring Ray Fisher's Cyborg, but I wouldn't call it a great film. It certainly wasn't one that deserved to be over four hours long. (Personally I'd love to see a shorter cut of the Snyder cut, henceforth known as the Snyder buzzcut.) I could write an entirely separate piece on the baffling decision to present the film in an almost square 4:3 aspect ratio, which is meant for enormous IMAX screens, not the wide TVs we've all got at home. But I fear this film has sapped up too much of my energy already.

Justice League won't be the last creative work dramatically influenced by fandom demands — fans are already clamoring to "Release the Ayer Cut" of the reviled Suicide Squad, though WarnerMedia was quick to say that won't happen. Moving forward, I hope creators, the studios supporting them, and the critics looking at the final work consider the totality of those conversations. There are positive ways to influence change for any piece of pop culture, but shouting at each other on social media, not to mention sending death threats, shouldn't be normalized.

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