Sunday, May 31, 2020

The Dawn of the Dawn of Justice... Again! Release the Snyder Cut with a Side of Mayhem

Every once in a while, the story of the making of a film can rival or even eclipse the actual film itself. Movies like Apocalypse Now and The Man Who Killed Don Quixote are examples of films that faced such legendarily troubled productions that they each spawned their own documentary films chronicling the sheer, nearly inhuman struggles that they faced and the Herculean efforts it took to overcome them. Now, Justice League of all movies will be joining that list, though its journey is far different, and truly a product of an age of unprecedented information and communication. It's also clearly the sign of an obvious glitch in whatever software that the universe is running for 2020, because it seems weirdly appropriate that the year of a global pandemic that has turned our little world completely on its head is the year that a seemingly impossible cut of a movie that was technically a financial flop was announced as not only existing but also being released after a second studio was dumping tens of millions more dollars into finishing up post-production just so the damn thing can be released. We bought the ticket, so now all that's left is to take the ride.

The Myth

Two and a half years ago, Justice League was released to an eager audience of movie and comic book fans alike, and the ultimate response was a resounding "Meh." Almost immediately upon the movie's release, rumours began circulating among a jaded fandom about a legendary, not-so-secret, nearly completed alternate cut of the film that was much better than the theatrical cut. By now, the myth of the making of the film itself is nearly as epic as the superpowered heroes around whom the film centres. The director, Zack Snyder, was forced to step away from the film because of a death in his family, and Joss Whedon was hired by Warner Bros. to step in and finish the film in his stead. No doubt, the studio had visions of dollar signs dancing through their minds as Snyder's first two entries into the struggling DC Extended Universe (DCEU), Man of Steel and Batman V Superman, had each, to varying degrees, divided critics and audiences, and Whedon at the time was still the darling of the far more successful Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), having struck a chord and near universal acclaim with his vision of a superhero team up with The Avengers

The result ended up being a sort of Frankenstein's monster of a film, seemingly stitched together from the corpses of visions of two directors. The reshoots and additions to the movie were made all the more jarring by the fact that because of a disagreement between Warner Bros. and Paramount, the former ended up having to use CGI to digitally remove the mustache from Henry Cavill, who played Clark Kent / Superman due to the filming of the reshoots overlapping with the shooting of Paramount's Mission Impossible: Fallout, a movie for which the actor had grown the contentious facial hair. Whether because of budget or time constraints, the special effects removing the mustache were not, as they say, up to par, and Cavill's digitally distorted face served not just as a glaring reminder of the convoluted production, but also as clear distinctions between the scenes shot by Zack and Whedon.

The (at the time) final version of Justice League that wound up in theatres was nearly immediately friend-zoned by the general movie-going public, hotly debated by large swaths of the fandom, and nearly completely disowned in some smaller, more vitriolic circles of devotees. Reactions ranging from mild curiosity to nervous desperation were united in purpose by whispers of a cut of Justice League that Zack Snyder had nearly completed before he was forced to step aside. A cut of the film that, by all reports, was much better than the theatrical release, and at least, to the heavenward wails of some, couldn't be any worse, even if for the very fact that it would at least have the cohering force of a singular vision. Thus was born the Release the Snyder Cut campaign.

What started off as a rumour was fuelled by curiosity, hope, endless speculation, and a tantalizing trail of clues planted online by those involved in the film into a Hollywood myth of epic proportions, where the seemingly impossible became possible: the Snyder Cut of Justice League was real, and it was the movie we both deserved and needed right now. It also served as a stark reminder of the dark underbelly of fandom, and how small groups of entitled assholes poison the very wells they're trying to drink from, and generally tainting every social group they're a part of, leaving the foul aftertastes of narcissism and hatred in the metaphorical mouths of everyone involved, from the fans to the filmmakers themselves.

The Players

It was almost immediately obvious once Zack Snyder stepped aside to deal with a personal tragedy that this ride was going to be a bumpy one. Not only did Snyder have to cope with an almost unimaginable personal loss, he also had to deal with outrage from a toxic corner of the fanbase, with vitriol ranging from accusations of being fired by Warner Bros. and using his personal tribulations as a "cover story," to ad hominem attacks against himself and his family. In was an ugly scene: the very assholes who desperately wanted Zack Snyder to release his vision of Justice League were also the ones actively trying to make his life a living hell. It was a level of douchebaggery nearly unmatched in modern history; a bunch of random Internet trolls were so distraught because a movie was released that they didn't like, that they resorted to personally attacking another human being in the midst of a family tragedy.

To the credit of Zack Snyder, he has shown amazing amounts of patience and class, and in response, helped turn the dialogue around the Justice League into a positive force, using the opportunity to raise money for charity. To the credit of the fandom as well, large swaths of fans who are also not assholes used the Release the Snyder Cut movement to help drive charitable contributions. No matter what one may think of Snyder's abilities as a filmmaker (Full disclosure, I happen to be a big fan of his work.), through this whole ordeal, he's acted with the kind of grace and poise that many of us could only hope to aspire to. Despite the toxicity out there, he's also taken every opportunity to interact positively with fans and dropping what seemed like, until recently, playful hints about the so-called Snyder Cut of Justice League with pictures and cryptic tweets and responses to fan questions. Also to his credit, it seemed evident that he inspired respect and admiration among those he worked with. Notably, Jason Momoa, who portrays Aquaman in the DCEU (and somehow managed to make the character seem cool), was one of the main champions of the Snyder Cut, constantly pushing for its release at a time when most people weren't sure it existed.

The other major figure in the whole Justice League debacle is Joss Whedon, who firmly made his mark on pop culture with shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the cult classic Firefly. He also became the darling of the comic book movie scene as the director of The Avengers, which helped to solidify the MCU as the box office powerhouse that we know and love (?) today and serve as an example that superhero team-up movies were logistically and narratively feasible. Whedon rode that wave of goodwill all the way to the second Avengers movie, Age of Ultron, to a much different fan reaction, demonstrating how truly fickle, unreasonable, and vitriolic some fans could be, which is, unfortunately, a common thread through this whole tale. Though commercially successful, Age of Ultron proved divisive among fans (Full disclosure, I actually prefer Age of Ultron over The Avengers.), to the point where Whedon felt the need to completely disengage from social media for the sake of his own mental health.

There was something about the whole fan reaction that made clear that there was an element of rot in the online discourse, a clear sign of a malevolent undercurrent that was rising to the surface. When Zack Snyder was forced to step aside before Justice League was completed,  Joss Whedon still seemed like an obvious pick for Warner Bros. to step in and finish the film, because as the studio backing the film, they were most concerned with the business side of show business, and Whedon had proven with the two Avengers films that, despite criticisms, he was still bankable. They also unwittingly employed the perfect fall guy for when Justice League flopped, an eventuality the studio had clearly never anticipated. 

After seeing how profitable the MCU had been, Warner Bros. wanted to capture that same lightning in a bottle for their DCEU, which was struggling to find a foothold and was, quite frankly, nowhere near as profitable as its rival movie universe. Unfortunately, history has a knack for repeating itself, and it seems that movie studio executives are destined to have their fingers far from the pulse, and instead straight up their asses. They saw the lighter tone of The Avengers, with the MCU's now trademark humour and quippy dialogue, and how successful it was in comparison to Snyder's darker, grittier tone, and they must have had that desperately epiphanic moment that only those lost in the desert seeing what had to be an oasis off on the horizon can truly understand. Of course they wanted Whedon to inject his sensibilities into Justice League through reshoots, adding his trademark Whedon-isms into the strange brew, not once considering that maybe, just maybe, oil and water never mix, and that audiences are able to tell the difference.

In what turned out to be a bit of a silver lining for the public relations team at Warner Bros., when the fallout from Justice League hit, most of the ire was directed not at the studio who had so clearly dropped several balls, but at the man they had hired to try and clean up a mess of their own making. Joss Whedon, formerly geek royalty, had his name dragged through the digital mud by a hardcore fanbase who didn't get the movie they felt they deserved, and were looking for an easy target. Whedon seemed like a prime target, as his fingerprints could readily be seen on the film, both in terms of the obvious tonal shift from scene to scene, but also quite literally with the aforementioned obvious CGI used to digitally remove Henry Cavill's mustache, which helped to clearly delineate reshot scenes.

People were so upset, that they looked for the easiest, largest target they could find, and Joss Whedon was a name that they knew, and who had stepped in as director, essentially captain of the ship. (Full disclosure, I do not hate Justice League.) Of course he was the one responsible for driving the ship into the iceberg. In their rage, they never stopped to consider that Whedon had been brought in to command a sinking ship, and that he had actually done his best to save as many from drowning as possible.

To be clear, any issues that Justice League suffers from are not Joss Whedon's fault. He did the best he could under an incredibly difficult set of parameters. The blame in any tonal and narrative inconsistencies lies squarely at the feet of Warner Bros., who clearly didn't have confidence in their movie, and were thinking more about the number of zeroes in their bank accounts than about the quality of the movie they were putting out. Quite simply, in that game of box office chicken, they had blinked first. With a budget somewhere in the range of $300 million, the Warner Bros. executives had clearly paid a greater cost, as their risk tolerance plummeted to zero, and they became desperate for a "sure thing," committing one of the cardinal sins of Hollywood: Never believe in your own hype.

The Consequences

Despite all of the circumstances that converged to create the perfect storm, here we are two and a half years later, on the verge of having the Snyder Cut of the Justice League completed and released to a completely suspecting public. There are several ramifications of this truly unprecedented journey to the release of this version of the movie. This is the first time that a cultural movement outside of the Hollywood circle has been the driving force for the re-release of a a new cut of a film, which by all accounts features substantial changes to content, considering that the runtime could potentially double the theatrical runtime of two hours. This isn't the same as director's cuts of films that have been released by major studios previously; this was a campaign driven almost entirely by the voices of fans.

The clear beneficiary in this case is Zack Snyder, who essentially gets a do-over to present his artistic vision to the world. Yes, Snyder is a big-budget director working in Hollywood studio system, but it seems pretty clear that he considers himself to be an artist with something to say. Whether you agree with or enjoy his contribution to the cultural dialogue is of course up for debate, but there's a purity to Snyder's approach to filmmaking in that sense that he has a vision for his movies, and a clear cinematic voice that drives any production he's involved with. I wouldn't necessarily argue that he's the next Scorsese or Spielberg, but like those now-legendary director's, he has developed a signature style that has become a genre unto itself. If you talk about a Zack Snyder film these days, people have a pretty good idea of the kind of tropes, ideas, themes, and style that they can expect in that production. I'm happy to see the Snyder Cut come to light, not just as a fan of Snyder's filmography, but as a fan of movies in general. It's always gratifying to see a filmmaker's vision come to fruition, whether or not the end product is something I personally enjoy.

Unfortunately, the whole dialogue around the Release the Snyder Cut movement was tainted by what these days seems like the inevitable interjection of a small yet vocal portion of the fan base who, either knowingly or unknowingly, end up dragging the proceedings down to their level. It's gotten to the point that online, I hesitate to mention that I'm a Star Wars fan or a fan of Zack Snyder's work, or at least, feel compelled to include some kind of qualifying statement. The unfortunate side effect for those of us who find meaning and joy in certain stories have to constantly reassure the people around us that we're also not assholes by association. 

The sad truth is that while many people were disappointed by a film and would have been able to live long, full lives without seeing Snyder's vision for Justice League come to light, there's a level of toxicity that can never truly be filtered out from the best of intentions of those involved. For as much as people just wanted the characters and narratives that mean so much to them be explored in the best way possible, there were some who were clearly driven because they felt entitled to the much better version of film that they had imagined inside their own heads.

And that's the fucked up thing; for as much as the release of the Snyder Cut was driven by passion and love, it was also propelled by a sense of outrage and entitlement. That's part of the Snyder Cut legacy now, through no fault of Zack Snyder or anyone else involved. There remain a bunch of total dickheads out there, spurred on by a sense of anonymity that is as intoxicating and emboldening to them as it is freeing and necessary for others, who cried like a bunch of babies, and who are now getting exactly what they want. And let's be clear, that what they wanted wasn't the release of the Snyder Cut of Justice League, though that's what the surface level dialogue seemed to indicate:

What they wanted was control.

Not control in the sense of just being masters of their own fate, but in forcing other people to do something they wanted through fear, manipulation, and bullying. For this toxic segment of the fandom, the motivation to complain, harass, threaten, argue, and berate is the same base motivation that compels people to fly planes into buildings or drive trucks into crowds of unsuspecting people. I am not in any way equating Internet trolls to terrorists; I am merely pointing out an ugly, underlying human motivation, which is to manipulate the actions of others through fear and hate.

At the end of the day, I think that these toxic fans care less about Zack Snyder's final product than the ultimate result of all of their complaining and arguing: they got other people to do exactly what they wanted. Even if that's not entirely true - we can't discount the agency of Zack Snyder, Warner Bros., and the vast majority of the fan base who aren't complete assholes - you know that's the message that they've taken away from the whole thing. There's a whole subculture of adults with the emotional maturity of small children celebrating somewhere because after throwing their tantrum, in the end they're getting exactly what they wanted. It's not the whole truth, of course, because there are a lot of decent people who are also getting something they want, but it's a dirty part of the truth, and the only part that the Internet trolls care about.

The real kicker is that when the Snyder Cut is finally released in 2021, I'd be willing to bet that the same fans that complained about the theatrical release will be back online, spewing even more vitriol about this new version, and how it still didn't align with the imaginary, perfect film they had in their heads. So the circle of bullshit will continue, with that minority, having had their sense of entitlement fed and validated, growing emboldened with their next demands. If history has taught us anything, it's that threats of violence or even death are not only rare, but aren't even reserved for things that really matter (not that matters of societal importance could ever excuse that sort of behaviour, but might at least help to explain it in part). What's concerning is that, incrementally, that toxicity may not just intensify in the quarters to which it is currently brewing, but also spread to others.

I'm not suggesting that Snyder and his crew should have decided to not release their version of Justice League simply to spite a bunch of entitled jackasses. I do think that we have to be careful going forward. Justice League was a unique instance of a film's production being interrupted by a personal tragedy of the driving force behind its development. I think that studios have to recognize that this was a unique case, and not start giving in to the no doubt countless demands and petitions that will start cropping up to test the waters. In the case of Justice League, it just so happened that the bad guys were fighting for the same thing the good guys were fighting for, that is Zack Snyder being able to release his definitive version of a film he - and countless others - gave years of their lives to making possible. What happens when fans invariably start demanding not that a director release their version of a film, but that they change a film to meet the demands of the fandom? 

As a fan of Zack Snyder's work, I'm looking forward to seeing the Snyder Cut, but in this case, I feel like Snyder was at least a driving force, using the passion from fans as leverage to release his vision. That may not be the case with the next campaign, which may employ the same tactics of vitriol and bullying to try and force filmmakers to give certain fans the version of the movie that they feel that they're entitled to. The responsibility to make sure this doesn't snowball rests with all of us. It rests with filmmakers, to not give in to every whim and demand of every segment of fandom, no matter how loud or belligerent, and to make clear when changes are made, that they are not being made in response to these virulent groups of individuals. It rests with the moderators of online forums and social media to step in and make a clear delineation between heated disagreements and truly harmful behaviour. It rests with all of us not to get caught up in - or pulled into - petty arguments and shouting matches with random strangers on the Internet, to demonstrate and engage in respectful dialogue (even if that means politely disagreeing with somebody), and to stop feeding the fucking trolls.

At the end of the day, I guess it's pretty appropriate that this dialogue is revolving around a movie about superheroes. If nothing else, we can take a page out of Justice League's (comic) book about people willing to do the right thing in the face of unrelenting evil and do our part to engage in respectful, constructive dialogue, and stem the spread of more more toxic elements both online and off.  


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