Justice League’s Snyder Cut saga reminds us which fans’ voices get heard

HBO Max

It’s hard to overstate just how giddy many geeks are about the long-awaited HBO Max release of the once-mythical Snyder Cut.

It’s true that fans have spent four years demanding that director Zack Snyder’s vision of the 2017 DC Extended Universe film Justice League see the light of day. But as the film itself became available to the public, so, too, did breathless over-the-top accolades.

“A lifetime’s worth of iconography. Operatic, synesthesia intensity a to z,” director and actor Jay Baruchel declared.

“This four-hour cut is the kind of brazen auteurist vision that Martin Scorsese was calling for when he complained (rightly) that most modern superhero movies don’t resemble cinema as he’s always understood and valued it,” wrote critic Matthew Zoller Seitz in his review of the film, referring to Scorsese’s inadvertent feud with the Marvel fan base.

“Snyder’s Justice League is more, more, more in a way that most films wouldn’t dare,” wrote Slate’s Karen Han of the film’s epic scope. “It’s impossible not to be swept away.”

Setting aside the argument that the Snyder Cut is mostly just pretty good — as Vox critic Alex Abad-Santos sagely notes, “improving on something as horrendous as the original Justice League isn’t difficult” — it’s important to understand what’s on the other side of so much of the film’s praise. Namely, four years of toxic harassment and a parade of troubling online behavior from male fans that has far more in common with abusive right-wing campaigns like Gamergate than with most of mainstream geek culture in 2021.

The new film has undeniably brought joy to a lot of people. But the entire process by which the Snyder Cut came to exist also reveals how distorted a major cultural narrative can be.

The Snyder Cut is a toxic conspiracy theory that’s somehow been triumphantly reframed as a glorious myth

Zack Snyder’s Justice League, a.k.a. the Snyder Cut, did not exist in any sort of finished form when rumors of it began to spread. When director Zack Snyder, who was originally at the helm of the 2017 superhero film Justice League, stepped away from the project for personal reasons, he did not complete a personal director’s cut first; as he would later recall to Vanity Fair, the fabled cut existed nowhere except as footage stored on his own laptop, and it “was devoid of visual effects, music, and all the fine-tuning that make a movie a movie.”

Director Joss Whedon took over Justice League after Snyder’s departure, and the results were widely panned as a patched-together mess that, as Vox’s Abad-Santos argued at the time, “fails to deliver anything beyond the primal fun of smashing action figures together.” Since the movie was meant to be the pinnacle of Snyder’s superhero filmmaking and the culmination of years of solo superhero movies in the DCEU, uniting fans’ favorite characters at last, the film’s phoned-in quality outraged many of them.

In 2017, a relatively small group of these fans channeled the anger they felt toward Whedon and the film’s studio, Warner Bros., into the belief that the unreleased Snyder cut would have fixed everything they didn’t like about the movie. That a finished director’s cut didn’t actually exist was abundantly clear at the time from set reports. yet against all rational objections, many fans became convinced the cut did exist. A #ReleaseTheSnyderCut hashtag campaign was born.

Over the next two years, Snyder himself picked up the theme, using the hashtag and posting clips from the film he would have made. By 2019, what had been a niche subset of the fandom had grown into a major fan crusade. After Justice League actors Ben Affleck and Gal Gadot both tweeted the hashtag, it gained major media attention and escalated in intensity.

The fans’ demands frequently came with violent threats that drove creators and producers off social media. As Joanna Robinson summed up for Vanity Fair, the social media campaign that arose around the #ReleaseTheSnyderCut hashtag was rife with violent language:

Plenty of earnest pleas came with [the hashtag], but also vitriol that was extreme even for Twitter, including harassment campaigns targeted at critics, HBO Max, Warner Bros, and its employees. 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.

Not only did the crusade stand out in terms of volume of harassment, but frequently in terms of its tone; as detailed in a Medium post by culture writer J.M. Carter, the key figures of the movement included one YouTuber who posted a meme in which Marvel head Kevin Feige was murdered by Nazis, and a blogger who attacked everyone even peripherally related to Justice League with “vulgarity and racially charged histrionics.”

So when we discuss the Snyder Cut, then, we’re not only discussing the film’s long journey to release; we’re also discussing a sustained harassment campaign rooted in fans’ loyalty to and love of Zack Snyder himself.

Snyder is a straight white male creator known for making movies that showcased grim-dark, violent, testosterone-fueled fantasies of hypermasculinity.

Given that this is the type of film Snyder is beloved by his fans for making, it’s not surprising that the #ReleaseTheSnyderCut social media campaign was pockmarked with violence. What is surprising is that so many people bought into it as a kind of exciting, important movement, instead of what it more practically was: an empty vehicle for harassment. But then again, the phenomenon of media and corporations misconstruing the aims of online harassment campaigns is part of an ongoing trend that began with Gamergate and shows no signs of stopping.

“I’ve had terrible experiences with Snyder Cut fandom, but they’re really just the loudest and most well-organized example of a much deeper rot,” one entertainment journalist told me; they spoke on condition of anonymity due to previous instances in which Snyder fans harassed them.

“We’ve seen over the past few years what happened when industries essentially ignored barrages of hate disguised as fan enthusiasm: Gamergate, the Hugo Award Sad Puppies, the Ghostbusters reboot, everything related to The Last Jedi, and, of course, the Snyder Cut,” they continued. They pointed out that even as creators, journalists, and other fans often experience intense harassment from these kinds of fan campaigns, the media has a tendency to reframe that behavior as “some sort of enthusiasm, which is clearly very troubling.”

To be fair to some Snyder fans, one contingent of the #ReleaseTheSnyderCut campaign raised $15,000 for charity — but that moment of altruism arguably served to validate the movement’s more troubling aspects, and it led to outright glorification of the fans. Writing for the Ringer in 2019, Rob Harvilla described the Snyder Cut campaign as “arbitrary and fearsomely dedicated, fascinating and bewildering, possibly hopeless and legitimately inspiring.”

This kind of media coverage likely helped fuel the cultural reputation of the Snyder Cut campaign as one of overwhelming enthusiasm (albeit with a few bad apples). That framing, in turn, ultimately led to a victory for the fans. Despite the sheer level of absurdity surrounding the clamor, Warner Bros. ultimately decided to acquiesce to fans’ demands and cater to the hype: The Snyder Cut got made.

Warner Bros. spent a reported $70 million to produce and release the film as a much-vaunted part of the studio’s partnership with HBO Max. Combining that total with Justice League’s original $300 million production budget, that makes the completed Snyder Cut revamp one of the most expensive in cinematic history.

It’s unsurprising, then, that countless media outlets (including Vox) have described the film, both before and after its literal creation, as the stuff of myth and mythmaking — but I would argue that it’s far more accurate to describe it as a conspiracy theory that fans brought to the studio’s attention through toxic online harassment. Warner Bros.’ decision to ask Snyder to edit a version of the film he was originally slated to direct arose as a response to demand from an entitled, male-dominated fandom.

And this brings us to yet another layer of absurdity: the chasm of dissonance between the blatant glory received by a fan-driven social media campaign like #ReleaseTheSnyderCut when compared to — oh, basically any more constructive kind of fan crusade.

The Snyder Cut shows how certain voices in fandom are valorized above others — and teaches a dangerous lesson

In the lead-up to the release of the Snyder Cut, many critics observed that the film succeeded due to a group of fans who represent a regressively traditional version of what fandom is. It’s difficult to find a similar level of hype and breathless anticipation attaching to a campaign for a movie that explicitly catered to women in fandom, for instance. Imagine if the 50 Shades of Grey fandom, full of older, female romance fans, suddenly began demanding a new 60 Shades of Grey with all their consumerist might. Would the media’s reaction be one of breathless excitement? Or would it be one of condescending disbelief tinged with mockery?

Can you even conceive of a journalist writing in 2021 that a campaign to, I don’t know, release a secret ending of Twilight where Bella ends up with Jacob is “arbitrary and fearsomely dedicated, fascinating and bewildering, possibly hopeless and legitimately inspiring”?

I sure can’t, and this dichotomy is a big part of the problem with the Snyder Cut. Consistently, still, in 2021, the most toxic voices in fandom are the voices that get heard, the voices that dominate geek culture, and the voices that get recognized as legitimate, even when they’re peddling bullshit by way of sustained harassment.

That’s also why it’s significant that the level of hoopla, attention, and ultimate vindication of #ReleaseTheSnyderCut is attached to a social media campaign that’s built around valorizing a Zack Snyder film. Snyder himself tried to distance the campaign from its most toxic elements, telling Vanity Fair that “I 100 percent think it’s wrong. I don’t think that anyone should be calling anyone anything. I’ve always tried to give people in the fandom attention who do good things.” Still, the release of the Snyder Cut is a victory not just for Snyder’s vision of Justice League, but for a Snyder-esque view of the world, and the toxic male entitlement that such a worldview seems to invite.

If that seems like an unfair judgment, consider the question of whether a similar level of hyperbolic anticipation has ever attached to, say, a fan campaign bent toward constructive change.

Consider the #BuryYourGays hashtag, which erupted on social media in 2016 in response to the death of a major lesbian character on the post-apocalyptic CW series The 100. The campaign, which called attention to Hollywood’s longstanding tendency to kill off queer characters, gained national media attention and prompted a Writers Guild panel to discuss fans’ concerns.

But compared to the massive media attention garnered by fans’ calls to release the Snyder Cut the #BuryYourGays campaign received a pittance of cultural attention. And it arguably achieved a negative result: At the Writers Guild panel, several writers actively resisted the call to stop killing queer characters and pushed back against the idea that fans should fixate on characters’ sexuality at all. So much for effecting positive change.

Or consider another comics fandom controversy: the justifiable outrage over Marvel’s decision to make Captain America a Nazi in its 2016 Secret Empire story arc. The move generated widespread backlash — but in the media, the dominant angle, which perhaps should have been “Why the hell did Marvel think this was okay?,” rapidly shifted as journalists focused on death threats issued to creators by a handful of fans. The cultural narrative subsequently became mired in a debate about whether the social media backlash, which alternately called for Marvel to end the storyline and for fans to boycott the series through the hashtag #SayNoToHydraCap, was an example of toxic fan entitlement.

As with the #ReleaseTheSnyderCut campaign, death threats and death wishes were real, ranging from the frighteningly specific and serious to the more generalized. But there was a vast difference in the way the media covered the two campaigns. With the Nazi Captain America backlash, coverage of the death threats frequently overshadowed coverage of the instigating action, even in headlines. And instead of attaching criticism to Marvel, it frequently attached criticism to fans for reacting with anger. In numerous cases, an onslaught of fans who were clearly angry and appalled were lumped together with the lone fan who just reacted with “die,” even though these are vastly different reactions, and even though the former was far more common than the latter.

And while the media’s coverage of the Snyder Cut campaign framed it as a “movement,” or as a “bombard[ment of] requests,” the Marvel fandom’s request for Marvel to undo its Nazi Captain America storyline was instead framed as “online chaos,” “fandom gone wrong,” and “extreme overreactions.” Keeping in mind that there were only ever a handful of documented death threats amid the onslaught of anger, it’s really difficult to understand why this level of discomfort among fans was widely seen as somehow unjustified — especially given the turbulent 2016 political climate amid which the series was released.

As for Marvel glorifying and commodifying Nazis, not only did it not scrap its Nazi Cap storyline, but in 2017, it tripled down on the move, first pulling a similar stunt with X-Men’s Magneto and then rolling out a publicity campaign featuring real-world stories and merch adorned with the logo of its fictional Nazi analogue, Hydra. Clearly, the social media backlash failed to either compel Marvel to stop teasing Nazi storylines for its characters or to compel other fans to stop consuming them.

The intense online dust clouds generated by these two fan campaigns had the effect of altering the narrative around them. Fans were asking creators to be less harmful but were instead themselves branded as troublemakers. Meanwhile, the sustained months of harassment that accompanied the #ReleaseTheSnyderCut campaign saw fans actively harassing creators off social media — only to have their dedication and determination lauded by comics journalists and ultimately validated by the release of the film.

The fundamental difference between these three campaigns is that queer fans, Jewish fans, and their allies were not really heard in the same way the Snyder Cut fans were. Their voices were overshadowed by much louder voices that were quick to chide them for their tone, their lack of calm. In the case of the Snyder Cut, the reverse happened: The harassment, bullying, and death threats were largely overshadowed by ongoing overtures of intrigue, excitement, anticipation, and now — with the advent of the film at last — what seems to be something approaching rapture.

While Warner Bros. obviously saw an opportunity to generate buzz and capitalize on the manufactured hype surrounding the Snyder Cut, the number of people who were deeply invested in the film’s creation and release probably didn’t justify the leap of faith that the studio took. As my journalist source notes, “The Snyder Cut fandom really isn’t big enough to [comprise the number] of paying HBO Max customers needed to make investing tens of millions in a $300 million movie that flopped worthwhile.”

And that brings us to the final layer of absurdity surrounding this film. A certain kind of online fan is learning that if they’re simply loud enough, angry enough, and persistent enough, they can usually get what they want. The problem with that, as my source observed to me, “is that it never ends there. They’ll always want more.”

Even as one type of fan seeks out more and more intense forms of gratification, others struggle to receive a fair hearing for their own visions of fandom — a vision that’s often far more inclusive, diverse, and progressive than the louder cohort will accept. We’ve seen, in moments like the backlash against the (women-centric) Ghostbusters reboot, and the backlash against The Last Jedi (which centered female characters and characters of color), what happens when a knee-jerk tendency to act as a gatekeeper combines with the bullying of entitled fans. The two factors foster a regressive politic within fandom, one that Hollywood has shown time and again it’s eager to indulge.

When we valorize the Snyder Cut, then, it’s possible that what we’re valorizing is really a patriarchal, cultlike view of geek culture that rewards fans who behave badly and ignores fans who just want to be heard and included. Again, all this attention originated around a film that effectively was just a pipe dream. The Snyder Cut campaign became, in essence, a quest to create reality.

If only Hollywood responded to other, more meaningful attempts with similar deference.

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