The Snyder Cut's Confusing Legacy
The tragedy of Zack Snyder’s Justice League was chronicled in gossip columns and interviews for more than four years. The public got a front row seat to the show. Director Zack Snyder, after the death of his daughter, stepped away from his film. Joss Whedon, a goofy sci-fi director now marred by an abuse scandal, was brought in by heartless studio heads to fix a film they had lost faith in. The mess that hit theatres in 2017 was a disaster so here is Snyder, four years on, to clean it up. It genuinely is a testament to the strength of Snyder and his family that he has managed to wrestle control away from the Hollywood machine to create a version of his film that will raise money for suicide prevention. Speaking to Variety, Snyder remarks that-
When you think about the catharsis of it, if I was a potter, I would’ve made some pottery to look for some way through this… But I’m a filmmaker, so you get this giant movie.
The use of art to express pain and raise money for mental health awareness is not something I will criticise. I’m not even going to criticise the Snyder fans who intimidated their way into getting what they wanted, though writer Joanna Robinson’s piece for Variety more than warrants it-
I have been told to kill myself on countless occasions by Twitter accounts with either Superman or Batman logos. When fandom becomes identity, every negative review seems like a personal attack.
However, this whole affair has given bystanders permission to imagine the creative and financial process of filmmaking as a battle between artists and big business. It’s entertaining to think of this film as a battle between Zack Snyder, a tragic visionary pushing his style into the mainstream, and Joss Whedon, a callous buffoon with an anger problem. It’s entertaining, if not natural, to think of the studio as villainous capitalists bent on destroying art in the name of fortune. It is as fun as any game of make-believe, but for me the Snyder Cut presents a unique dramaturgical challenge. The problem is not that this film is bad- the problem is that this film’s relationship to its audience makes no sense.
Zack Snyder's Justice League is almost four hours long. When we watched it, I found it very difficult to keep a straight face or stay seated for that long. I know others have had to watch the film in parts because they couldn’t watch in one endless sitting. According to Luiz Fernando, who interpreted the findings of audience aggregator Samba TV, only 36% of the 2.2 million American households that tuned in to watch Snyder’s film finished it. It’s a monstrous work to behold, even if you enjoy every second of it. Aside from the physical challenges, I found it to be a hard audience experience to understand. I didn’t feel like I was watching a new film- mostly, I found myself looking for changes. If you have never seen the original film, there is a good chance that the director’s version will make no sense whatsoever.
I have been down this road before. It all started when I sat down to watch Blade Runner: The Final Cut with my family.
There are four versions of Blade Runner floating around on home release- the US cut, the International Cut, the Director's Cut, and the Final Cut. I was curious about this legendary sci-fi masterpiece, so on family movie night I was excited to watch the original film. However, my parents insisted that the best version was the Final Cut. So we started to watch, and I remember the burning confusion I felt. I was floored by the plot. I had never felt that actively slighted by a movie. I had been lost in a text before, when I was reading Samuel Beckett or watching 2001: A Space Odyssey, but then I knew either I had missed something or that was the artist’s intention. At around the halfway point we paused the movie and argued about the precise number of replicants Deckard was after. After pushing through, my parents told me this version of the film had no voiceover.
So that's what I was missing.
I tried, over the course of the whole movie, to grasp at the plot of Scott’s film only to be told by a more experienced viewer that what I was missing had actually been removed from the film. There would have been no way for me to solve the puzzle, because I had not been given the right pieces.
Director's cuts have an air of prestige about them. Only the most successful filmmakers are given the means to create them, often with the understanding that a new release is a more authentic version of the existing text. With every rerelease, Blade Runner accrues more cultural (and financial) capital, but it also becomes more impenetrable. Greg Solman's 1993 article for Film Comment documents the canonisation that occured with the release of the Director's cut a year earlier. He argues that-
...rather than artistic deliverance, the [director's cut] trend represents a significant disturbance of film history and - equally important- the popular cultural memory of the original audience... the market valorises the new to the point that it supplants the old version.
Solman's warning held up for a world without DVD or Binge, where a movie existed for audiences at the cinema, and then only as a memory. Since then, with the rise of home cinema options, the director’s cut has become an expected part of a film’s release. Though studios may try, as with the disappearing versions of various Star Wars films, it is now quite normal for a film to exist in pieces- theatrically, extendedly, directorially. This leaves a modern audience with a unique problem. Do you watch the original and then later cuts, or are the later cuts a more authentic version of the director’s vision? At least George Lucas’s meddling makes it clear that the re-released films are the ones that should be consumed (for better or for worse). But in most cases, the rules of engagement are completely unclear.
This method of consuming media is also plagued by a simple dramaturgical fact- an artist can’t control an audience’s interaction with a work, and especially not when the work turns from a film into an amorphous mass. In a process that is often touted as being a form of creative control, a director’s cut dramaturgically cedes audience control. In fact, they create a privileged audience. A small group get the experience of watching an original film and then any subsequent versions. This group views these works as they are released, and so their experience is one of building- an original exists completely, and a director’s cut fills in any gaps. My parents fall into this category- my stepfather, for instance, first watched Blade Runner on TV, then the Director's and Final Cuts. Any audience not part of this group are cast adrift. An audience born too late, without access to an original or with too many choices is forced to construct an experience of one story without authorial guidance.
Sometimes the director’s cut is the better film, but often it requires knowledge of an original. Some audiences in 2021 have had the privilege of watching Justice League in 2017, then again this year with two extended editions (one in black and white for some reason). Today's privileged audience are also aware of the battle between Snyder and studio. We don’t know how audiences in 2031 will view this work. What if streaming platforms change? What if critical opinion of Snyder or Whedon changes? What if black and white films become all the rage? Future audiences will only be able to look back on whatever historical record exists to decide how to consume this work. Snyder’s vision will probably look like a cobbled mess not because he is a poor filmmaker, or because of studio interference. It will be cobbled because that is exactly what a future audience will have to do- they will be forced to sift through the debris and pull together art by themselves.
This cobbling isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Some artists want to create an experience of inconsistent discovery where audiences feel like they are viewing a sculpture from certain angles, the whole story never realised. But this effect is so complex and uncomfortable that I doubt that this was Snyder’s intention. We have already seen Solman's concerns come to life in ways he could not have anticipated in 1993. At the end of his article, he predicts that "...original versions will soon exist as fragments in our collective memory." as "...the theatrical release is fast becoming a work-in-progress." But now, almost 30 years later, we know that these fragments do not disappear. The pieces are all there, but their assembly is not clear. As this trend undoubtedly continues, for hugely successful filmmakers looking to wring more money out of their most successful ventures, audiences will have to face a reality where their money and patience will not buy them a completed experience.
Right now, the fans are happy. But the legacy of Zack Snyder's Justice League may, unfortunately, be the requirement for audiences to research films like ancient artefacts. Because, no matter how many releases a film gets, the first impression is still the most important one.
What do you think about the Snyder Cut, or the legacy of director's cuts? Leave you musings in the comments...
Breznican, A 2021, 'Justice League: The Shocking, Exhilarating, Heartbreaking True Story of #TheSnyderCut', Vanity Fair, 22 Feb, <https://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2021/02/the-true-story-of-justice-league-snyder-cut>.
Wolinsky, D 2021, 'Less Than Half Of Snyder Cut Justice League Viewers Finished The Movie', Gamespot, 8 April, <https://www.gamespot.com/articles/less-than-half-of-snyder-cut-justice-league-viewers-actually-finished/1100-6489799/>.
Robinson, J 2020, 'Is Releasing the Snyder Cut of Justice League a Victory for Toxic Fandoms?', Vanity Fair, 22 May, <https://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2020/05/is-releasing-the-snyder-cut-a-victory-for-toxic-fandoms>.
Solman, G 1993, “Uncektain Glory: Director's Cut Editions: the Redemption of an Art or the First Step on a Slippery Slope?” Film Comment, vol. 29, no. 3, 1993, pp. 19–27. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/43454953. Accessed 8 Apr. 2021.
Hood, C 2020, 'Blade Runner's Multiple Cuts (& Differences) Explained,' Screen Rant, 8 June, <https://screenrant.com/blade-runner-movie-multiple-versions-cuts-differences-explained/>.
Justice League production still © Clay Enos
Blade Runner still © Warner Bros.
Justice League still © HBO Max