Editor’s Note: Sheraz Farooqi is a New York-based journalist, editor and film critic. He is also a graduate student at Columbia University. His writing has been published by Forbes, Newsweek, The Hollywood Reporter and Rotten Tomatoes. The views expressed here are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
“Zack Snyder’s Justice League” – which some refer to as the “Snyder Cut” – has achieved a historic victory for artistic integrity.
At face value, the film, releasing this week on HBO Max (with whom CNN shares its parent company, WarnerMedia), gives audiences a brand-new movie about their favorite DC superheroes. Dig a little deeper, and you find a testament to directorial freedom. That said, what is artistic integrity in an industry fueled by the bottom line? When does a film turn from director-friendly to committee-driven?
The story of “Justice League” sheds new light on these questions, changing the way we understand filmmaking freedom.
A director’s cut is the version of a movie that best matches the filmmaker’s original vision. This cut is one of many created by a studio before a final cut is released for public consumption. On rare occasions, the director’s cut is also released to the public, usually several years after the original. Outside of a handful of popular directors’ cuts like “Blade Runner” or “Kingdom of Heaven,” most fall by the wayside in terms of consumer interest. “Justice League” stands apart here. The film sparked a worldwide movement to release the director’s original vision, changing the way audiences interact with film.
It is the antithesis of artistic integrity and director freedom. The highly-publicized behind-the-scenes stories of the film’s production, something rarely available to general audiences, was now a click away.
Coming off of 2016’s “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice,” director Zack Snyder immediately began shooting “Justice League.” Poor critical reception and mixed responses from the general audience had the studio on its heels at the time. After wrapping principal photography, Snyder says he showed executives a rough cut of his film, where it was reported that WB brass disliked his “Justice League.” Re-shoots were ordered by the studio and director Joss Whedon was brought in reportedly to add humor to a script written by Academy Award-winning screenwriter, Chris Terrio.
Tragedy struck, with the death of Snyder’s daughter, Autumn; he and his wife, producer Deborah Snyder, left the project to grieve. After Snyder’s exit, the studio handed Whedon the reins to complete the mandated-reshoots. Composer Tom Holkenborg (“Mad Max: Fury Road”), also known as Junkie XL, was removed from the film in favor of composer Danny Elfman (“Batman,” “Men in Black”). The film, released in November of 2017 flopped at the box office, did poorly with critics, and inspired fans to petition for a director’s cut within the first week.
Snyder is not new to releasing a director’s cut. From 2004’s “Dawn Of The Dead,” 2009’s “Watchmen,” and 2016’s “Batman v Superman,” Snyder says he makes sure to shoot his vision, even if it means it does not release as the first cut.
“I’ve never made a movie except for ‘Man of Steel’ that didn’t have a director’s cut. There was always a notion that my films challenged the audience too much or, in other cases, had to do with length,” Snyder said. “I trusted the director’s cut. I knew the opportunity for a director’s version of the movie was out there for me. It allowed me to feel a bit kinder in studio negotiations because I was like, ‘at least I’ll get my cut of the movie, afterward.’”
While most director’s cuts will be longer than the theatrical version, “Zack Snyder’s Justice League” makes run-time a key selling point. With the film clocking in at over four hours long, fans will be treated to a lot of DC Comics lore. This was a far cry from the theatrical cut of the film: 2017’s Justice, where the Wall Street Journal reported that Warner Bros requested that Justice League be less than two hours long. With four hours of the original footage hammered into a two-hour film, and more than half being a result of re-shoots, the film released in 2017 was anything but an indication of Snyder’s work. Last year, WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar congratulated the director on Twitter, highlighting that “storytellers matter.” A strong sign of change for the studio from its reported actions in 2017.
While there is always a give-and-take between creatives when creating a blockbuster that costs millions of dollars, it is hard to find a singular point in cinematic history where a line was drawn in the sand quite like ‘Justice League.’ Despite Snyder saying that he left before the theatrical cut was finished with only a fraction of his original footage used, the film still released with the director’s name at the helm. For Snyder, even calling his Justice League a cut of the 2017 movie was not good enough. The other version simply does not exist for him.
“I think both Director’s Cut and Snyder Cut implied by proxy that there was another cut of the movie. I just don’t acknowledge that other version,” Snyder explained. “That Justice League was so changed and so diluted. When you’re a director, you only have one skill set, and that’s your point of view. Your perspective is the only currency that you deal in. If someone takes the thing you’ve made and alters that perspective, the work is void.”
“Getting my name [in the title] was a way to transcend the expectations of this just being a version of the movie that they’ve already seen or a version of what was already created,” Snyder said.
In Snyder’s telling (and I agree), to call this film a director’s cut of 2017’s “Justice League” is inaccurate because 2017’s movie did not belong to Snyder. The conversation does not stop at the director’s chair, however. Multiple cast members were vocal about releasing Snyder’s original vision to the public. Actors Ben Affleck, Gal Gadot, Jason Momoa, and Ray Fisher all supported the #ReleaseTheSnyderCut efforts. For Fisher, the film represents redemption.
“The release of ‘Zack Snyder’s Justice League’ is a righting of so many wrongs, and a testament to anything being possible,” Fisher told me. “I would absolutely say that my artistic integrity was hindered during reshoots — and I feel that most other people’s were too.”
Does artistic integrity stop with the director’s vision? For “Justice League,” actors had chunks of their performance taken out of the film, others removed entirely. “Zack Snyder’s Justice League” is more than a traditional director’s cut, and it changes the standard that studios must hold themselves to moving forward. Filmmaking and artistic integrity go hand-in-hand. Every director, writer, actor, cinematographer, composer, photographer, and production member is an artist.
There will always be a natural tug-of-war between artist and corporation, a mixture of ideas in the final product. The inequity arises when that tug-of-war becomes too one-sided. Enter the Snyder Cut movement to redeem the sense of balance so many have been yearning for.
The Snyder Cut is exceedingly rare, in that – thanks in large part to the #ReleaseTheSnyderCut hashtag – it’s a film that went viral before it was ever released.
No, this was not the result of bots. On the contrary, the movement was a worldwide group of consumers, essentially picking up the rope of a tug-of-war game the studio felt they won in 2017. In May of 2020, HBO Max announced it will release “Zack Snyder’s Justice League” on its streaming platform.
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Fans will now be treated to four hours of “Zack Snyder’s Justice League,” complete with sequences featuring DC characters like Darkseid, Jared Leto’s Joker, and Martian Manhunter. All of that, plus Junkie XL’s complete 54-track score to set the tone.
The figurative rope from that tug-of-war game is now being held by paying customers, fans, actors, directors, reporters, and even curious onlookers. Through a collective stand, Justice League could lead to a culture where film audiences care for artistic integrity.
The conversation around the director’s cuts will go on. The tug-of-war between artist and corporation will continue. But, the power of the consumer might be found in future negotiating rooms as the balance of artistic integrity. An ending that can rival any superhero movie.