Snyder Cuts, Ayer Cuts and the Danger of Fandoms Drunk on Power

Image: DC/WB

This post originally appeared on Gizmodo UK, which is gobbling up the news in a different timezone.

It’s a great time to be a fan. This year, aside from making everyone very familiar with walking routes in their local area and the restocking times for the Tesco loo roll aisle, has shown the world that fans have power.

In May, Warner Bros announced that the heavily mythologised “Snyder Cut” of Justice League will see the light of day next year via HBO Max. The background of this discussion centres on the fact that original director Zack Snyder stepped away in the final months of post-production on Justice League following the death of his daughter, with The Avengers filmmaker Joss Whedon hired to shepherd a series of reshoots and complete the movie before its release. Whedon, unsurprisingly, injected a hefty dose of his trademark comedy into those reshoots and, according to Snyder’s advocates, ripped out the heart of the movie. They blame its disappointing box office – and critical drubbing – on the fact that Snyder’s true vision was lost as a result of Whedon’s influence.

After a fan campaign spanning several years, laudable charity fundraising campaigns, less laudable online toxicity and dozens of conspiracy theories both credible and insane, the ardent supporters of the director’s vision are now set to get their wish. Warner Bros has allocated a figure of around $30m for Snyder to carry out the necessary work to complete the work he started years ago, ensuring that a new version of Justice League can be made which best reflects his original ideas – whether that’s as a mammoth, four-hour epic movie or a six-part miniseries.

The campaign to #ReleaseTheSnyderCut, then, has ended in success for the people power of devoted fans using their combined influence to keep the pressure on Warner Bros until the studio opened its wallet to shower some money on Snyder and give him a platform.

This is far from the only time that fans have had a material impact on popular culture in the last few years. Most notably, Sonic the Hedgehog was delayed by three months after almost universally negative reaction to the title character’s appearance in the first trailer. Visual effects artists were sent back to the drawing board for a costly revamp to bring the blue speedster closer to his classic video game look. The reaction to the redesign was broadly positive and the film received solid reviews, as well as becoming the second biggest box office hit of 2020 so far.

Fans also exerted their influence on the final entries in two blockbuster franchises last year – Game of Thrones and Star Wars. The climactic season of Thrones was largely savaged by fans for its approach, but there’s no denying that many of its big moments – the famed “Cleganebowl” for example, as well as the final Small Council packed with fan favourite characters – were designed to appeal to fan theories and online sleuths, rather than organic story progressions. In the case of The Rise of Skywalker, meanwhile, the decision to move away from the divisive elements of Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi – broom boy, the character of Rose – felt like a sop to the most toxic of fans.

In this landscape, and particularly in the wake of the Snyder Cut announcement, numerous fan campaigns have sprung up, demanding that studios and creatives do what they ask. It seems that the end of the #ReleaseTheSnyderCut movement was like cutting off the head of a Hydra, with more campaigns and fan protests multiplying in its wake. The weeks since Warner Bros made its announcement have seen fans clamouring for extended cuts of, to name but a few, David Ayer’s Suicide Squad, Josh Trank’s Fantastic Four and George Lucas’s Star Wars prequel Revenge of the Sith.

Some of these campaigns have more validity behind them than others. In the case of Suicide Squad, for example, Ayer has been increasingly vocal about how the film that received mostly negative reviews in 2016 was considerably different to his original vision. He has specifically spoken of his sadness that Jared Leto’s performance as the Joker was largely consigned to the cutting room floor and critically demonised as a result. Ayer has given his support to the movement to #ReleaseTheAyerCut and James Gunn – director of the upcoming soft reboot The Suicide Squad – has said he’d also be keen to see a more faithful take on Ayer’s original approach.

Meanwhile, Josh Trank has dismissed the campaign for him to get a second crack at Fantastic Four. The filmmaker famously tweeted a day before the film’s 2015 release that “a year ago” he had a much better version of the movie that would’ve received “great reviews”. It seems, though, that Trank has firmly moved on, telling a fan on Twitter that there was “no need” to campaign for a revised cut of Fantastic Four. Even he’s not that bothered any more and has moved on to making weird crime biopics in which Tom Hardy does one of his many funny voices. Notably, Trank has said he has made peace with the negative reviews for Capone, as the movie is exactly the one he wanted to make.

Even more mind-boggling than the Trank uprising is the campaign for Revenge of the Sith, with a petition appearing online demanding a four-hour cut of the Star Wars prequel. Almost 30,000 people have put their name to the petition at the time of writing. The whole notion of this campaign – the existence of a studio-buried four-hour edit – seems to be based on a tidbit gleaned from the IMDb trivia page for the movie rather than any other evidence of such a hefty cut existing.

If ever there was a prime example of a fandom drunk on power, that’s it. Revenge of the Sith was directed, written, and financed by George Lucas himself. If he ever intended the film to be four hours long, that’s what would have ended up in cinemas.

There is currently an arms race at play, with different groups of fans launching their own campaigns in the hope of rescuing beloved properties that fell short on the big screen. No one yet knows whether Zack Snyder’s Justice League will be an improvement on the original version, or even if anybody will watch it, but there’s definitely a sense that fans can make a difference. With this discussion point in mind, HBO Max boss Tony Goncalves told The Verge that there is “definitely not a precedent” being set with the release of the Snyder Cut. Jim Carrey, meanwhile, had a similar concern about the Sonic changes, saying: “Sometimes, you find the collective consciousness finds it wants something and then when it gets it: ‘I just wanted it, I didn’t care about it. I just jumped on the bandwagon.’ Ownership of anything is going out the window for all of us.”

This is an interesting wrinkle in the ongoing discussion between fans and filmmakers. Social media has torn down the barriers between fans and creators, with globalisation and democratisation of these fan communities allowing those supporters to form a deafening collective voice either in favour of something they want or against something they’ve decided is bad. For years, Warner Bros has been unable to post anything at all on social media without a raft of replies about the Snyder Cut.

It’s certainly positive that fans are able to have their say. Just about every creator will tell you that there’s enormous value in listening to fans and in incorporating what people want to see in their stories. Filmmakers, and particularly those working in established franchises, are almost always fans themselves and so will inevitably enjoy and appreciate hearing from those who share their fandom.

The problem, however, arises when it comes to the dichotomy between what fans think they want and what they actually need. The Rise of Skywalker was, on paper, almost everything that fans – and particularly those who spoke out against The Last Jedi – were looking for from the conclusion to the Skywalker Saga. However, the reaction to J.J. Abrams’s final instalment was decidedly mixed. The same was true of Game of Thrones, with many taking strongly against the eighth season, even as it walked many of the paths fans had been setting in Reddit threads for years.

Another issue is the deification of the director in the filmmaking process. The journey from script to screen is one that only works because of collaboration between all of the people who work on a movie, from the director to the actors to the editors to the visual effects team to the producers to the studio executives. No film is the result of a single, unfiltered vision – and nor should it be. The issue with so many of these campaigns is the implication that studio notes inherently make a movie worse by diluting the vision of the director. Actually, the viewpoint of a studio can be vital in ensuring that the occasionally indulgent whims of filmmakers are reined in to create the best finished work. It’s also not true that longer cuts are inherently better. The quasi-mythology of three and four hour edits – most blockbusters have early assembly edits of around that length – is bizarre, given most of these cuts would be unwieldy and unwatchable.

The increasing influence and perceived power of online fandom is a double-edged sword for the movie world. On the one hand, the most passionate advocates for artistic works are able to shout about it as loudly as they want but, on the other, they’re also occasionally able to bully studios and filmmakers into making changes in their name. Sometimes, this will turn out well – a decent-looking big screen version of a video game icon, for example – but other times, we end up with Emperor Palpatine yelling nonsensical exposition and Bran Stark as king of Westeros, for some reason. Nobody wants that.