Over the weekend, a grassroots campaign saw its cause gain a huge spike in validity thanks to Gal Gadot and Ben Affleck. That cause: The release of director Zack Snyder’s original cut of Justice League. Since the release of the theatrical version of the DC film in November of 2017, a group of Snyder’s dedicated fans – and at least a few websites – have used the hashtag #ReleaseTheSnyderCut as their rallying cry. It was also this hashtag that Gadot, Affleck, and co-star Ray Fisher used over the weekend. Snyder himself retweeted the Gadot and Affleck’s posts, suggesting to some there may be an effort within WarnerMedia to bring this version of the film to an audience clearly craving it.
But does it really exist in a form the company can share? And why would a major release like Justice League have two completely different edits? Let’s go back a few years to uncover the reality of the Snyder Cut and what would make its release possible.
When it was first announced, Justice League was intended to be a two-part film with Snyder and stars Henry Cavill, Gadot, Affleck, Jason Momoa, Fisher, and Ezra Miller convening to film the bulk of the first film and portions of the second at Leavesden Studios in London. Much like the efforts of Warner Bros. Pictures’ cross-town superhero competition, the plan was for these two films to serve as a culmination of storylines began in Man of Steel and through Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Wonder Woman, and Suicide Squad. Although, once the scripts were developed, Snyder said the two films would tell distinct stories.
Then, as filming commenced on Justice League in April of 2016, Batman v Superman was released to the derision of critics (it is at 27% on the Tomatometer) and, seemingly, the industry deciding en mass that the film was a creative disaster. In London, this meant the quiet cancellation of the second Justice League film and a hasty rewrite of the first film’s script to bring its story to a true conclusion. As we now understand it, the first Justice League movie was meant to end with the resurrection of Superman with the second film seeing the League assembling to fight cosmic-level bad guy Darkseid. In the years since it dissolved, Snyder offered fans glimpses of design art and storyboards from the abandoned second film thanks to his social media accounts.
But even as the film soldiered on in production, it was clear to Snyder and his partners at the studio that a period of reshoots would be required. Most big-budget tentpole releases schedule some additional photography these days, but the high-profile nature of Justice League – and the growing bad buzz around Warners’ attempts to bring the DC Comics heroes to the screen – meant the work was regarded with suspicion. Of course, no one would know just how extensive these reshoots would be until Snyder delivered his first cut.
As with the myth of the six-hour version of David Lynch’s Dune, the notion of the Snyder Cut begins with an assembly of the film – a compilation of the best takes chosen by editors David Brenner, Richard Pearson, Martin Walsh, and Snyder himself representing the scenes as written in the script. This version of the film definitely exists, but it is not meant for public consumption. Lacking complete special effects, utilizing a temporary soundtrack, and featuring the background studio noise of the scenes as they were filmed, an assembly is meant more to reveal what to cut from the script once the actors, technicians, and filmmakers fill in the gutters left behind by the screenplay. An actor’s expression may more effectively convey a piece of written dialogue, for example. But an assembly will give a director of a multi-million-dollar film the first inkling of what he may need to reshoot to massage the story into shape. For Dune, Lynch went back and reshot the scene in which Paul Atreides (Kyle MacLachlan) drinks the Water of Life to unite ideas and clarify ideas from a number of scenes in the assembly which were ultimately cut from the theatrical release.
And while assemblies are not typically released to the public, 20th Century Fox Home Video did release an “assembly cut” of Alien3 in its Alien Quadrilogy DVD box set and the subsequent Alien Anthology Blu-ray set. Roughly 30 minutes longer than the release version, it is a surprisingly finished product which more closely reflects director David Fincher’s vision of the film before the studio took it out of his hands and removed the religious overtones and an entire chase sequence. In fact, we’re inclined to believe it is more a fine assembly or early director’s cut than a true early assemblage of material.
It is the hope of those looking for a Snyder Cut that they will eventually receive something like this: a mostly completed version of the film taken from Snyder. But in reality, the film was never taken from Snyder. Instead, something far more devastating happened.
Even before Snyder announced his departure from the film in May of 2017, rumors around town indicated footage from London had failed to wow Warner executives. At this point, reshoots were scheduled and Joss Whedon entered the story. At the time, he was reportedly working on a Batgirl film, but was also assisting Snyder and Warner Bros. with writing new Justice League material. Around this time, February of 2016, rumors circulated indicating Snyder had been fired, but both he and the studio quickly shot this down.
But then Snyder’s family experienced an unimaginable tragedy when his daughter Autumn took her own life on March 20, 2017. Snyder subsequently said he continued to work on the film for nearly six weeks after her death in the hopes it would mitigate his grief, but it proved to be no comfort at all. He willingly handed the reins off to Whedon for the reshoots and the post-production phase.
In that moment, Snyder’s cut was characterized as unfinished – and considering the realities of major Hollywood filmmaking, that is reasonable to believe. Any extensive visual effects would still be in process for months to come. Color grading, sound mixing, and other stages of the final post-production efforts would not occur until the reshoots were completed.
Nonetheless, members of the production like storyboard artist Jay Oliva (who also directed many of the DC Universe Animated direct-to-video titles), Momoa, and composer Junkie XL (who was replaced by Danny Elfman for the theatrical version) all claim the film was in a much more finished state than was suggested at the moment Snyder walked away. Earlier this year, Snyder finally admitted a cut exists, but it is still unclear how finished his version might be. That ambiguity may present the biggest hurdle in getting the Snyder Cut into release.
Turning the Snyder Cut from a file on a hard drive somewhere to a marketable product is a specialty of the home video market. The business may be in an era of change, but the Snyder Cut faithful hope there is enough life in home video to make this the venue in which Snyder’s version of the film can thrive. A 2006 DVD release of Dune offered fans a widescreen version of the film’s television cut, supervised by the same Universal employees who prepared the infamous “Love Conquers All” version of Brazil. Both cuts of that film emerged on a celebrated Criterion Collection laserdisc set which was later released on DVD and Blu-ray.
Like Alien3, Alien and Aliens also came to DVD and Blu-ray with alternate director’s cuts representing versions of the films those directors felt more aligned with their original visions.
And it was out of this ethos that Alien director Ridley Scott and Warner Bros. Home Entertainment assembled its fabulous DVD and Blu-ray releases of Blade Runner. Its high-end collector’s edition came complete with five cuts of the film and a 45-minute deleted scene compilation which almost counts as a sixth cut. As with Alien, Scott wanted fans to experience every extant version in addition to his preferred “Final Cut.” It was the sort of philosophy perfect from home video at the time and one we wish more directors would subscribe to.
But in all of these cases, the films are in finished states. Has there ever been a case in which a director walked away from a film, saw it completed by someone else, only to find his vision restored many years later? As it happens, yes – and in an odd twist of fate, it is a film featuring Superman.
In 1979, Richard Donner was fired from the two-part Superman production after butting heads with producers Ilya Salkind and Pierre Spengler throughout an arduous 18-month shoot. According to multiple sources, Donner managed to shoot around 70% of Superman II before it was decided to concentrate on making Superman the best it could be – which included moving Superman II’s intended ending to the first film. The suggestion may have come from A Hard Day’s Night director Richard Lester, who was on set as a consultant and would go on to finish Superman II after Donner’s departure. As Director’s Guild rules require the credited director shoot over 50% of a finished film, Lester remounted a number of scenes completed by Donner.
And like Whedon’s changes to Justice League, Lester infused Superman II with a broader sense of humor. An off-screen voice shouts “I know some judo!” when the citizens of Metropolis threaten the Kryptonian criminals. A minute later, sight gags dominate while Ursa (Sarah Douglas) “blows them a kiss.” But unlike the theatrical release of Justice League, Superman II was considered the more creatively and financially successful of the two original Superman films until a critical reappraisal some years later.
In 2001, editor Michal Thau approached Warner Home Video and Donner about reassembling his version of Superman II from extant material. A few years later, footage of Marlon Brando shot for the film but later deleted became available, making the Donner Cut a possibility. Working with Donner, Thau produced “The Donner Cut,” which accurately depicts the director’s plans for the film – right down to the original ending he later co-opted for Superman. It is a noble effort which cuts down on the broad humor and ups the drama, but also underscores the missed opportunity. Donner never had the chance to find a new ending for Superman II, leaving his “cut” of the film feeling strangely repetitive.
Nevertheless, it proves a Snyder Cut could be finished and released.
Presuming Snyder’s Justice League is in relatively the same shape as Donner’s Superman II – 70-to-80% of a complete film – then there is still a rough road ahead for the Snyder Cut. Even if it used effects shots from the theatrical version, it would still require a new post-production phase for its own final grading and mixing, parts of the process Thau undertook for the Donner Cut. At that time, Warner Bros. Home Entertainment saw it could make a profit – if even a modest one – from allowing Thau to produce an alternate Superman II. Unfortunately, the market forces allowing Warner to take a chance on the Donner Cut do not exist today.
Nevertheless, Gadot, Affleck, Momoa, various members of the production, and thousands of fans all calling for the cut’s release proves there is a market for an alternate Justice League. At this point, it would just take a profit calculation to move the Snyder Cut from that hard drive to an active home video project or even a special HBO Max release sometime in 2020.
In fact, this is part of why Gadot and Affleck’s endorsement of the hashtag feels so pivotal. Both still have working relationships with the studio – Gadot is still playing a character featured in Justice League – and a certain clout to make someone look at the books and see if those thousands of fans will translate into HBO Max subscribers or enough of base to release it on traditional home video. For all we know, the numbers may be crunching at the moment and The Snyder Cut may soon be an active project.