New York's ComicCon has a huge influence on Film production (Photo by John Lamparski/Getty Images)
Artillery Row

The geek shall inherit the earth

How a studio was bullied into releasing the first cut of an unsuccessful film

You may, or may not, have heard of something known as ‘the Snyder Cut’. This is not some form of ritual circumcision, or an especially avant-garde hairdo, but instead it is something that has dominated a certain sector of online conversation for several years. It refers to the existence of a near-mythic alternate version of the superhero film Justice League, which was released in its present form in 2017, to dreadful reviews and mediocre box office receipts. To live in an age where a film can make $650 million and be considered a financial disappointment is, indeed, a strange one, but such are the gargantuan budgets of the tentpole special-effects behemoths that they need, on average, to make a billion dollars to be considered a financial success.

The story behind the production of Justice League is a fascinating encapsulation of Hollywood hubris, spiked with personal tragedy. After the critical and commercial success of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, the studio that financed the films, Warner Bros, believed that they had a similarly visionary filmmaker in the form of Zack Snyder, whose films 300 and Watchmen had exhibited a striking visual style and had been profitable. Unfortunately, it soon became clear that Snyder was no Christopher Nolan. After the mixed reception afforded to his Superman film Man of Steel, his subsequent picture Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice was intended to launch a new franchise of DC superhero films in the vein of the hugely successful Marvel Avengers series. Unfortunately, Batman vs Superman ended up becoming an example of Critics vs Filmmakers, and the terrible reviews that it received led to it suffering a historic drop in box office revenue as soon as people realised that it was a dismally weak and deeply boring film. 

Third time lucky, thought the indefatigable Mr Snyder, even as it seemed increasingly clear that he and his studio had wasted a vast amount of money and time on a misconceived belief that he was able to bring a Nolan-esque level of intellectual and cinematic skill to comic-book movies. Depending on which account you believe, Snyder either filmed the vast majority of Justice League before his daughter committed suicide, necessitating his replacement by Avengers director Joss Whedon for extensive reports, or he was all but fired by a panicking studio who hoped that Whedon would be able to bring the mixture of wit and invention that he had so lucratively finessed for DC’s rival studio Marvel. Unfortunately, as is so often the case, a rushed and tense period of post-production led to the finished result being a notably poor piece of cinema. There seems unlikely to be a Justice League 2: More Justice. 

Under normal circumstances, the matter would have rested there. But, fanned by comments from a disappointed Snyder, rumours swiftly began that a far superior version of the film existed, the so-called ‘Snyder Cut’, which had a different storyline, new antagonist and, as is so often the case, ‘a darker tone’. It is not uncommon for mainstream franchise films to be substantially altered in post-production. In recent years, the Star Wars pictures Rogue One and Solo both replaced their original directors, and the superhero film Fantastic Four was taken away from its inexperienced filmmaker Josh Trank and forcibly re-edited by its studio. Even the Oscar-winning Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody underwent a change of director during its chaotic creation. Yet none of these films have had a fanbase ardently clamouring for the director’s original vision to be released to the public. Justice League, however, did.

What initially began simply as the boasts of a modern-day carnival barker (‘You would have loved my film, but you’ll never see how it really was, which is too bad’) gained credibility as the years went by, helped by an active and vocal group of supporters who seldom missed an opportunity to extol the obvious brilliance of this unseen masterpiece. Last year, its popular stars Ben Affleck and Gal Gadot simultaneously tweeted the hashtag #ReleasetheSnyderCut, which led to its trending on social media. Finally, it was announced a couple of weeks ago that the Snyder Cut would be finished, at a cost of around $30 million or more, and released on Warner Brothers’ premium TV service HBO Max in 2021, either as a four-hour film (four hour) or as a six-part, hour-long series. Those whose giddiest dreams were realised by the announcement promptly celebrated by disseminating videos of themselves burning the DVD releases of the theatrically released version. Any parallel with any other community engaging in mass conflagration of artistic products was not remarked upon.

It is possible, of course, that Zack Snyder’s Justice League, as it will reportedly be titled, could be a masterpiece and will justify the years of hype and anticipation that have been devoted to it. If so, then the ardent and loud fanbase who have spent so long shouting from the rooftops about it will have been vindicated. While the precedents in Snyder’s previous career are not promising, one has to hope that a director with his ‘vision’ will produce something that is, at the very least, more interesting and distinctive than the grubby Frankenstein’s monster that crawled into cinemas a few years ago. Yet even if it is a superb piece of cinema, there is something deeply unsettling about the way in which a studio has, essentially, been bullied into releasing the first cut of an unsuccessful film. Such is the power and influence of the so-called ‘geek community’. 

If anyone has been to Comic-Con in San Diego, it is an experience that they are not likely to forget. It has existed for half a century, and began its existence as an opportunity for a group of fans of comic books to meet, swap stories and comics, and to encounter some of the artists and creators behind their favourite stories. As it evolved, and Hollywood became involved, it became a far more important and lavish spectacle.  By 2010, over 130,000 people were attending it. They could expect, after they had queued for hours, to watch preview footage of much-anticipated superhero and comic-book films, complete with guest appearances by filmmakers and stars. Many of those who attended chose to do so in full costume, to varying degrees of ridiculousness.

It is possible to draw a sketch of the average self-described geek, whose voice is now so influential in contemporary Hollywood

It has long been seen as a means for studios to build hype and excitement about their forthcoming films years in advance, and is regarded as a litmus test for investment in sales and marketing budgets. A mediocre reception at Comic-Con usually spells financial disaster for a film, or necessitates the replacement of a director by another, more pliant, filmmaker. These appearances at various San Diego conference centres and hotels in July are taken extremely seriously by the film industry, far more so than any awards ceremony or film festival. The audiences who they are serving have the power of the expectant mob at the Colosseum. Should they reward a panel or preview screening with a thumbs up, word of mouth will be glowing, and vehement. But should a thumbs down be returned, then tens, if not hundreds, of millions of dollars will have gone to waste. The films will then either be released quietly onto a streaming service such as Netflix as the studios attempt to recoup what they can of their budgets, or reshot and re-edited in order to give the audiences what they want. Whether one regards this as ruthlessly effective feedback, or panicked pandering, this is now the reality of big-budget filmmaking and its reception.

It is possible to draw a sketch of the average self-described geek, whose voice is now so influential in contemporary Hollywood. They are usually male, with a reasonable degree of education, and work in an industry that gives them a sufficient level of affluence to be able to afford visits to Comic-Con, large collections of comic and film memorabilia and the kind of super-speed broadband connection that allows them untrammelled access to the internet, where they share their views on pop culture with friends and nemeses alike. Their politics are usually (but not exclusively) left wing, their social attitudes ‘woke’ and their social skills limited. They are ardent in their enthusiasms for certain figures and equally vocal in their dislikes, and regard the fights that they enter into in their virtual spheres as an everyday form of interaction. They are keen to ‘call out’ and ‘cancel’, just as they are equally happy to pay lip service to spheres that they barely understand: feminism, for instance. If any of them were to read this description of them, they would probably be offended, and describe me, with many creative obscenities, as a troll. Such, alas, is the price that one has to pay for holding the mirror up to nature when it comes to these excitable figures. 

Last year, Martin Scorsese became the most high-profile filmmaker to sigh in disbelieving contempt about the cult of comic-book movies. He described them, accurately, as ‘closer to theme parks than cinemas’, and, in a coruscating opinion piece for the New York Times, wrote of them as being bereft of ‘revelation, mystery or genuine emotional danger. Nothing is at risk. The pictures are made to satisfy a specific set of demands, and they are designed as variations on a finite number of themes.’ Warming to his theme, he bemoaned the intellectual bankruptcy of the modern film industry. ‘They are sequels in name but they are remakes in spirit, and everything in them is officially sanctioned because it can’t really be any other way. That’s the nature of modern film franchises: market-researched, vetted, modified, revetted and remodified until they’re ready for consumption.’ 

What Scorsese could only hint at in his excoriation were the market forces that have dictated this. While he wrote that ‘If people are given only one kind of thing and endlessly sold only one kind of thing, of course they’re going to want more of that one kind of thing’, it is an unfortunate result of decades of pandering to the widest and lowest-common-denominator demographic that the more interesting examples of cinema that Scorsese, his peers and admirers have made will never enjoy anything like the commercial success that a Marvel or DC film is routinely expected to have. I would very much like to see the director’s cut of Gangs of New York that Scorsese reputedly circulated privately amongst his friends as his preferred version of the film, but I cannot see any similar social media outcry appearing, or the hashtag #freethescorsesecut trending on Twitter. 

I hope, for everyone’s sake, that Zach Snyder’s Justice League lives up to expectations, and that it does set a precedent for unfairly maligned or misunderstood projects to have a second lease of life decades after their initial release, just as Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate eventually did. Yet I fear that, instead, it will contribute to an endless process of fan service, which began with the ridiculousness of the 2006 film Snakes on a Plane containing dialogue demanded by anonymous aficionados on the internet and now has culminated in disused cuts of films being resurrected, at enormous cost and effort, so the most vocal of fans can be satisfied. It is hard for any true film lover not to agree with Scorsese’s mournful conclusion: ‘For anyone who dreams of making movies or who is just starting out, the situation at this moment is brutal and inhospitable to art. And the act of simply writing those words fills me with terrible sadness.’

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