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“Release the JJ cut”: the Star Wars conspiracy that offers fans an impossible fantasy

Rumors about fake films can reveal a lot about the fans who believe them.

Film director J.J. Abrams speaking onstage.
J.J. Abrams, spinning an adorable yarn.
Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

Is there a special secret cut of the new Star Wars film that Disney doesn’t want you to see?

Probably not. But the increasingly popular idea that there could be says a lot about where media fandom is heading in the 2020s.

Many critics and fans found Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (TROS) deeply disappointing as a finale to the much-vaunted third Star Wars trilogy. In its wake, fans have launched a crusade on behalf of what they think is another, better version of the film.

#ReleaseTheJJCut” has emerged as a call among frustrated Star Wars fans in response to what they believe to be interference by Disney over the creative direction of TROS. Since the film’s release on December 20, these fans have read into what they think are peculiar statements by TROS director J.J. Abrams as Abrams’s and Disney’s desire to negate controversial aspects of the previous film in the trilogy, Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi. But this week, a post by a moderator of a Star Wars subreddit, who claims to have gotten behind-the-scenes info from malcontent studio insiders, elevated a different belief. Abrams was in Johnson’s corner all along, and wanted to expand upon several story aspects of Last Jedi, they allege; it’s Disney itself that didn’t play along, leading to the messy final product that fans feel they were left with.

The supposed leak also makes the bombshell — but familiar — claim that a different, three-hour cut of the final sequel-trilogy film exists, one that would have helped make sense of many of the creative decisions that struck filmgoers as odd or wrong. But that film, the Reddit poster asserts, will never see daylight unless a studio insider leaks it to the rest of the world.

Cue the rallying hashtag.

As appealing as the idea of a better, three-hour version of the new film is, fandoms have gotten paranoid over and carried away before by a vision of an alternate story that doesn’t exist. These kinds of fandom conspiracies and theories can definitely be entertaining, but it’s a good idea to approach them with caution — especially in a world where reality is increasingly hard to differentiate from fiction.

The new “leak” offers convenient answers for anyone who may have been disappointed with Rise of Skywalker

The rumor first surfaced on January 2 in a post on Reddit’s Star Wars subreddit SaltierThanCrait. Made by a forum moderator with the handle egoshoppe, it includes several eye-catching claims, including the assertion that the popular fan-invented queer relationship between Poe and Finn, two of the trilogy’s main characters, was intended to become canonical before Disney interfered. By contrast, a controversial heterosexual romantic relationship between Rey and Kylo Ren was reportedly added into the film purely to appease fans of the pairing. Among many other details, the gossip also alleges that Kelly Marie Tran’s character Rose Tico, whose part was controversially shrunk to nearly nothing, originally had a much larger part before it, too, was cut at the behest of meddling studio executives.

All this gossip has made for very juicy, alarmist cries for justice from fans:

These viewers have been trying to make sense of TROS since the day it premiered, thanks to a comment Abrams made at a panel in LA following a December 20 screening. When asked how he’d respond to Star Wars fans who were disappointed about any elements of the larger franchise story that had been left out of the current film, he responded, “They’re right. The people who love it more than anything are also right.”

In context, Abrams’s answer was about the need to let multiple viewpoints about the movie exist; he seemed to be referencing cancel culture, as well as calls for nuance and kindness within fandom discourse, which is itself set within an increasingly polarized society.

But that’s not how everyone interpreted it. In light of the new comments from the alleged leaker, some are taking that interview as a sign that Abrams was somehow signaling to fans that he agreed with them all along, that the film he made was bad.

The post provides fans plenty of other fodder for confirmation bias. For instance, the film’s editor, Maryann Brandon, has discussed how intense the film’s editing process was, in ways that the Reddit post appears to echo. “While the scenes [Abrams wanted] were shot,” the post claims, “a lot of the changes were made in post-production and the audio was rerecorded and altered. My source said they’ve never seen anything like this happen before. He’s the director and he wasn’t in the know about what they were doing behind his back.”

And did you come away from TROS thinking the film felt too crowded, too full of moments of fanservice without much connective tissue? That’s because, according to the alleged source, “Disney insisted on more fan service, less controversy.”

Fans of the prequel trilogy have particular reason to be outraged; the post claims that Anakin Skywalker, a.k.a. Darth Vader himself, originally appeared along with several other legendary Star Wars figures as a Force Ghost (the ghosts of former Jedi who show up to protect Jedi) in a big finale — all of which was supposedly cut. Of course, the post also assures any unsatisfied fans of the new trilogy’s main characters that they also had many more scenes in the missing 40 minutes of “the JJ cut” which would have given them each more time to shine — and, crucially, strengthened the narrative’s continuity for anyone who felt it lacked time to develop.

There’s just one problem with all of this, even if there were any proof it was real: The reasoning behind all this studio interference is pure nonsense.

Upon closer inspection, this theory starts to seem like empty conspiracy

The story of studio executives wrecking a project is as old as Hollywood itself, but in this telling, it doesn’t really make sense. After all, Disney gave both Abrams and Johnson ample creative control on both of the previous films in the trilogy. So what changed? Was it the vitriolic backlash from a subset of the fandom over The Last Jedi, combined with studio pressure to swing in a different direction following that film, that would encourage the studio to be more strict with Rise of Skywalker?

Well, no. According to the post, Disney studio executives were annoyed at JJ Abrams for signing a multi-project production deal with aforementioned competitor, DC Comics franchise-owner Warner Bros., last year — so they decided to fuck with him.

No, really:

My source said that ... [Disney wants] to keep DC in the limbo that they’re in right now. Abrams jumpstarting that franchise with something like a successful, audience-pleasing Superman movie makes them nervous. Their goal is to make JJ look bad to potential investors/shareholders.

This is a confusing statement for several reasons. For starters, the contract Abrams inked was for his production company and appears to be focused mainly on producing content for the WB’s new entry into the streaming wars, HBO Max. There’s nothing in the contract suggesting Abrams would be brought in to direct a new DC film, especially given that Abrams, thus far, has seemed content to steer clear of comics films, and only just recently co-wrote (with his son) an incendiary comic series for DC’s competitor Marvel. In fact, the contract actually incentivizes Abrams to create an entirely original feature franchise rather than focusing on other pre-existing properties.

Then there’s the part where it seems like a mind-bogglingly bad business decision to sabotage a $4 billion franchise — much less the hopes and dreams of millions of fans — all in the unlikely possibility that it might make one of the most successful filmmakers in Hollywood seem less successful. Apart from how far-fetched this idea is, how exactly would sacrificing the quality of Disney’s own franchise help “keep DC in limbo”?

This purported “leak” reads more like a classic fandom conspiracy theory, the kind that’s become increasingly common of late.

There’s already a lot of precedent for this kind of fandom conspiracy

Star Wars isn’t the first fandom to pull this kind of stunt. Disgruntled DC Comics fans have been calling for Warner Bros. to “release the Snyder cut” of the lackluster movie Justice League since the moment the movie was released in November 2017. It spread so far that by its two-year anniversary in November 2019, Justice League director Zack Snyder, as well as the movie’s stars Ben Affleck and Gal Gadot, had joined in the hashtag. And while they were very well just teasing fans, their social media spurred a flurry of new insistence that the cut must exist.

This current “release the X” trend unites two separate but linked fandom phenomena: fans seeking “insider” info about their canon, usually from a source pertaining to be an insider, and the classic fandom conspiracy theory.

Fans have been spreading alleged “insider information” for as long as spoilers have existed. As Vox’s own Constance Grady recalls, members of the Gossip Girl creative team once formed alliances with fans to try to smoke out set leakers who shared information about upcoming plot points. Game of Thrones and Walking Dead fans engaged in elaborate cat-and-mouse games with their respective networks to suss out spoilers by any means necessary, including relying on anonymous sources claiming to have the goods. Similarly, conspiracies have always run amok in fandom, from insular TV show conspiracies to vast and multi-layered conspiracies about band members.

Increasingly, fandom conspiracy theories have taken a turn for the truly bizarre — and one of them paved the way for the current trend. In the fandom for BBC’s Sherlock, a theory emerged within fandom that rapidly became known officially as “the Johnlock conspiracy,” or TJLC. The conspiracy, largely built around a real leaked 2009 internal BBC memo about increasing queer representation, argued that Sherlock showrunners Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss intended to make John Watson and Sherlock Holmes a canonically queer couple by the end of the show.

So entrenched did TJLC become within the fandom that, in 2017, something truly extraordinary occurred: After the show’s final episode aired without making a queer relationship canon, the conspiracists immediately came up with the truly strange scenario that Moffat and Gatiss had filmed an entirely different alternate version of Sherlock’s final episode. This “lost special” would, they believed, air the week following Sherlock’s end, in Sherlock’s same time slot.

The problem was that there was already a television show scheduled to air in that slot, the BBC miniseries Apple Tree Yard. So Sherlock fans, like cultists pushing back the date of a predicted apocalypse after it fails to arrive, used intricate close reading to devise a theory that Apple Tree Yard was an elaborate hoax — a code for the secret Sherlock episode that would air the next week.

Apple Tree Yard was a real show based on a real book, and it had a widely viewed trailer prominently featuring its lead actress, British star Emily Watson. Its production team was delighted to tease Sherlock fans, however, while insisting patiently that their show was not a hoax. But Sherlock fans who were disappointed in Sherlock’s actual finale rejected all of this obvious evidence for the reality of the other show in favor of believing that another, better version of the Sherlock finale existed. And that collective delusion lasted for a whole week until Apple Tree Yard aired in its allotted time slot, to both shock and chagrin from Sherlock fans.

Real or fake, such “leaks” help foster an increasingly common — and increasingly discomfiting — distortion of reality

As utterly surreal as it was to witness, this moment in Sherlock fandom has some pretty obvious things in common with the current cries from fans to release alternate film cuts. All of the theories they’re based on involve heavy speculation that invokes “insider” information through leaks. All of them involve an element of veneration for the directors of the show or films that attempts to disassociate them from their actual creative work.

Sherlock’s conspiracy ran into an immutable, definitive end date — the final episode — but the current conspiracies have built-in fail-safes. You can’t prove a negative; therefore, you can never prove definitively that “the Snyder cut” or “the JJ cut” don’t exist. And the way these kinds of conspiracy theories work is that even if Snyder or Abrams were to rebut their existence, fans who are invested in the narratives would see their statements as evidence of a management or studio clampdown. After that, the fans would find more evidence in the creators’ subsequent statements that they were being held hostage by their studios and forced to pretend like the fabled cut isn’t real.

The system of belief is all structured to feed an alternate narrative of the franchise that allows fans to continue to feel invested in them rather than contend with their own disillusionment. The possibility, fed by the anonymous sources, that the alternate film cuts exist fosters that narrative. And though the “alternate cut” theory may be the biggest conspiracy going right now, it’s not the only conspiracy — and the way these conspiracies interact really starts to bend reality.

On fan forums like Reddit’s Star Wars subreddits, many fans immerse themselves in spreading or debunking every new supposed leak that appears. Some fans work with studio insiders, or people pretending to be insiders, to leak studio info — but often those purported leaks contain selective information intended to prop up different fan theories or views about the franchise. For example, a Reylo shipper might “leak” news, true or false, that the studio intended to include more romantic development, while a Kylux shipper might “leak” news that, actually, Kylo and Hux had more scenes together, to prop up their ship. And if you disagree with the narrative one leaker is peddling, you can accuse that “insider” of having planted a false leak.

This all gets very confusing very fast, but it’s important to understand, because all this back and forth ties into something larger: the ideological polarization that’s been happening with increasing fervor regarding various media franchises, from Ghostbusters to Star Wars itself. The leaks aren’t just propping up in-story narratives about things like romance. They’re also propping up narratives around Star Wars’ politics: for example, the viral Reddit “leak”’s argument that J.J. Abrams was planning to queer Star Wars canon but was prevented by Disney from doing so.

If you’re against diversifying Star Wars, you might not like those details much at all. You might react accordingly by arguing the leaks are fake, or planting fake leaks of your own. All of this works to further various political agendas while also skewing and distorting the reality around the film’s production. It’s a new layer of the geek culture war — now with an extra “fake news” component.

It’s no wonder that BuzzFeed’s Ryan Broderick pointed out on Twitter Thursday that the forum debates over leaks contain shades of both QAnon and Gamergate.

“The Star Wars community is so polarized and so old that they’ve evolved past the idea of ‘post-truth’ or whatever into something even weirder,” he wrote. “It’s like one meta level up from even QAnon ... I think what’s happening in the Star Wars (and other) fandoms in regards to mass disinformation becoming literal information wars will hit an inflection point pretty soon and, like Gamergate before it, probably have huge sociopolitical ramifications.”

It’s probably premature to go that far — though we’ve seen what happens when we ignore the signs of a countercultural shift at work. At the very least, it’s clear that this kind of conspiracy has the potential to become highly disruptive, even to the point of obfuscating reality itself. Imagine another Apple Tree Yard scenario, but one that happens routinely on social media, with advocates and detractors all motivated by political agendas and committed to destroying their opponent’s version of the narrative. It’s hard to imagine that anyone is ready for that level of reality distortion.

But unless someone actually shows up with a three-hour TROS cut — or, even more mystical, the Justice League Snyder cut — we may indeed be headed toward that new era of disinformation, like it or not.

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