Updated: Jan 5
Warner Bros and Zack Snyder Start the DCEU
After reeling from an incredibly successful billion-dollar run with The Dark Knight in 2008, while sitting on just a ton of IP from their DC catalog, Warner Bros was ready to dive in head-first to enjoy the spoils of their success. Since, I presume, the studio didn’t have faith in a full length feature about “Elongated Man”, they figured it’s high time, after the success of Batman, to give Clark Kent/Superman a modern go of it on the big screen: Man of Steel. Plus, I’m sure the studio executives were happy to greenlight a project knowing the legendary Christopher Nolan (Writer/Director of The Dark Knight Trilogy) and David S. Goyer (Writer/Story for The Dark Knight Trilogy) were the ones pitching the story.
Followed by a long and complicated rights agreement with the Siegel and Shuster family (creators of Superman) rushing the studio into production by 2011, Warner Bros began its search for a director. The fact that Nolan was presumably done with superhero projects after Batman, led to the hiring of Zack Snyder. Snyder had made Warner Brothers a s***load of money on their film 300, and saw some success with Watchmen (both great films in their own respect). However, Snyder did not, in fact, duplicate that success for the studio, and lost money on their animated feature, Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’hoole and Sucker Punch (both films received as an obvious step backward). Regardless, Zack Snyder was now the guy!
Jumping ahead to June 2013: Picture it; you’re home from college for the summer, the golden age of Netflix streaming has begun, shared cinematic universes have proven to be a lucrative undertaking for movie studios, and life is all kinds of good. Man of Steel has now made Warner Bros a lot of money (a little less than a year after another billion-dollar run with the studio’s The Dark Knight Rises). As for first solo outings for superheroes, Man of Steel makes even more money than Batman Begins, Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Thor, and Captain America: The First Avenger. Warner Bros is ready to capitalize on this. However, there is one caveat we all need to remember here: while I think Man of Steel is a masterpiece from start to finish, audiences and critics remain, to this day, SPLIT on their reviews of the film. Controversy does breed publicity, but it remains a mixed response. (I’m not here to write a MoS review, if I was, it would GLOW).
Regardless of the critical split, this film was getting a sequel, and it was announced at San Diego Comic-Con in July 2013 that the sequel would feature Batman and Superman meeting on the big screen for the first time in Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. Big news, right?!?! This time, Snyder and Goyer pitched a story, Goyer would once again pen the screenplay, and Chris Terrio was brought in to rewrite the script (who had previously worked with Ben Affleck and was fresh off an Oscar win for Argo). There was some fan backlash on the casting of Affleck, Gal Gadot, and Jesse Eisenberg in the roles of Batman, Wonder Woman, and Lex Luthor respectively. Ultimately, just a bunch of whiners on the internet; nothing we haven’t heard before.
Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Tension
So, the film was now completed but yet to be released and we started to hear rumblings of tension from within Warner Bros (mostly outlier reports with questionable sources regarding the studio’s response to the completed film). We heard all kinds of things from: “the studio members gave it a standing ovation in a private screening”, to “studio not happy with length of film”. Regardless, the first trailer dropped and became the 2nd most viewed trailer of the year 2015 (behind Star Wars: The Force Awakens).
Batman v. Superman came out on March 25th, 2016 and I was first in line to see this film; a life-long fan of the characters, anticipating an epic fight between Batman & Superman (and boy did we get one!), excited for Wonder Woman (about time she gets her live-action debut), and, knowing that Justice League is coming, wondering where this “shared universe” is going to go. I came out of the movie enjoying most of it, but I had a very unique experience: it was the first time, while watching a film, where I can FEEL the missing pieces. Standing at 2 hours and 30 minutes, this film feels like parts are missing, connections are made off-screen, and plot-lines are rushed (considering the studio is trying to jam pack a Justice League intro in here, on top of everything else going on).
The film opens to $166 million dollars during its opening weekend, big money in its own right, but just mere days later it experiences the largest Friday-Sunday “drop-off” and the largest first-second week “drop-off” for a Superhero film in the post-X-Men era (2000 onward). This was attributed to negative or mixed critic reviews/word-of-mouth from audience members to potential audience members. Ultimately, the film grosses $873 million worldwide, a stellar achievement any way you slice it, and any studio would want to capitalize on this financial prosperity.
Reports later claimed that Greg Silverman, Warner Bros’ President of creative development, was not a fan of Zack’s movie; and rumors indicated that he wasn’t happy with its original 3 hour run time. So in an effort to prevent loss, based on his personal distaste for the film, he pushed to cut the runtime. Any film needs to play on screens to make money. So, in theory, longer length = less screenings per day = less money. By that reasoning, the film was shortened by a half hour. Greg Silverman was later reported to be urging then Warner’s CEO Kevin Tsiujihara to fire Zack Snyder as blame for the “underperformance” of the film. Regardless if the matter was given any clout, or if they were gung-ho to blame Zack for the movie, there was already a major problem: Justice League was ready to start production and had a release date to meet (November 17, 2017).
Zack Snyder + Joss Whedon = A Justice League Mess
So at this point, there was obvious drama with the studio and Zack, the extent of which we may never know. We also began to hear rumblings of Ben Affleck directing/writing/starring in a solo Batman film, so far as to see test footage “leaked”. Following some personal problems regarding Ben’s alcoholism and divorce, the studio seemed to quietly part ways with him on the project citing “creative differences”. In March of 2017, upon completion of principal photography, for Justice League, we heard the sad news that Zack Snyder’s daughter had committed suicide and that he was stepping down from post-production to be with his family. Joss Whedon (write/director of both The Avengers and Avengers: Age of Ultron) had been brought in to do the rewrites, supposedly by request of Snyder, and was going to be the guy to finish post-production in Zack’s place.
Warner Bros now had a few options on how to handle this. Option ‘A’: they could take some time and delay the release in order to fully flesh out their vision, Option ‘B’: they could release the film as Zack had completed it with Joss Whedon at the helm of post-production and special effects. They decided to go with Option ‘C’: have Joss Whedon finish post-production, re-write, and shoot more footage to replace the majority of Zack’s work. Whether or not this was Creative Development (Silverman), Warner’s CEO Tsiujihara, or just a committee decision by the studio, it was made to please shareholders who were expecting big money in the last quarter of the year (a billion-dollar film can do that for you). The typical “re-shoots” budget of a big-budget superhero flick can range anywhere from $6-10 million. The production spent upwards of $30 million. As a result, the film turned out to be a painfully obvious scrapped together vision of two directors competing for our attention. The biggest evidence of obvious re-tooling could be found in Henry Cavill’s CGI mustache job. While Henry Cavill was also shooting Mission Impossible: Fallout, and had grown a mustache for the role. Due to his contract with Paramount for the film, they were not okay with him shaving the mustache. This was most apparent in Superman’s resurrection scene. Cavill’s mouth seemingly glued together with CGI glue did not do it for me, and I freakin love the guy!
Justice League went on to gross $657 million dollars. One of the most expensive films ever made, the film had to make well over $700 million just to BREAK EVEN. It was a financial plunder that was ultimately plagued by the aforementioned behind-the-scenes drama, a rushed shared universe, narrative shortcomings, and tragedy that struck the family of Director/Producer couple Zack Snyder and his wife Deborah. Justice League had the initial faith of the studio as part of a release slate that consisted of a Confirmed “Justice League Part 2” film due out 2 years after (2019). The story seemed to suggest, for sure, that there were greater threats beyond the scope of the film, setting up an inevitable series of sequels to make easy money for the studio, or so one would think. Nonetheless, the lack of profitability of this film had now put the series’ future in question, and effectively wiped clean a slate of release dates that included solo spin-offs of this film’s characters (Flash & Cyborg), not to mention “Justice League Part 2” (and perhaps, beyond).
The Precedent to #ReleasetheSnyderCut
Almost immediately after the film’s release “#ReleaseTheSnyderCut” was trending on social media. This PRECEDED reports that such a thing, in fact, existed (an edited “rough cut” of the film Snyder wanted to make, albeit with incomplete CGI or audio fixes). Fans just assumed that, since Snyder left, Whedon had to have made an inferior film. The precedent for directors cuts was seemingly set by Richard Donner, who also was replaced in the director’s chair prior to completion of Superman II in 1980. The film “Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut” was released in 2006, more than 25 years after the film’s theatrical run. The other precedent for a “director’s cut” from Snyder was his history of releasing director’s cuts after an initial theatrical release. These were often considered a lot better than the theatrical cut: Watchmen (which stands at 3+ hours long and I happen to be a huge fan of) and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (the predecessor to this Justice League film). Remember earlier, when I was talking about the stuff I could “feel” was missing from that film. Well, the 3 Hour long “Batfleck v Cavill” flick filled in gaps with the “Superman Incident”, Clark’s journalism career, Bruce’s motivation, and much more. Ultimately, it is widely considered by many in the fan community to be a better, more fleshed out film. One of those people is me, I’ll admit, but the last 40 minutes are exactly the same (almost), so If you weren’t all that excited about the third act, the director’s cut of Batman v. Superman won’t solve that for you.
Now that we’ve established precedent in superhero films, Superman films, Snyder films, and Warner Brothers films, let’s get to the announcement of a director's cut of Justice League. Members of the cast and crew began to be asked about it in interviews in the 2 years following the release, and a lot of people wholeheartedly supported this movement such as: Jason Momoa (Aquaman), Ciaran Hinds (Steppenwolf), Ray Fisher (Cyborg), Jay Oliva (storyboard artist), and many more. Other filmmakers like Kevin Smith also made a point to support the chance for Zack to bring his vision to life. Even people in the comic book world like writer Rob Leifeld showed tremendous vocal support. This fan movement had been making its way to prominence in the industry, meaning it should have at least been a thought in someone at Warner Bros’ head, right?
From Fanboy Pipe Dream to Reality
In the immediate aftermath of workplace misconduct that eventually led to Kevin Tsiujihara’s resignation, fans sent letters, started a massive campaign aimed at CEO Ann Sarnoff, and launched another campaign aimed at Warner Media the following the month after the announcement of their new streaming service, HBOMAX. One fan even launched a crowd funded campaign aimed at advertising support for the movement, with half the proceeds being donated to suicide prevention groups. While there are some great fans out there, toxic voices on the internet came through loud and clear and muddled the waters of the movement. Regardless of opinion about the film, or the fan community, I think most of us can agree that no one in the fan community or entertainment business deserves to be labeled, bullied, or harassed. Needless to say, for some of us, we thought it was over because of toxic fans or the studio’s lack of interest in spending more money to revive a film that didn’t do them wonders in the first place.
But, there still seemed to be hope for those who believed in the #ReleaseTheSnyderCut movement. Chairman of Warner Brothers’ Pictures, Toby Emmerich, reached out to Snyder in late 2019 after having acknowledged the movement. By February 2020, Warner Bros was committed to releasing the cut after Zack Snyder apparently pitched some ideas along with a home screening of his “rough edit”. Warner Media CEO Bob Greenblatt wanted to get this news out as close to the launch date of HBOMAX as possible to entice people to subscribe. Announcement plans were slightly halted by the COVID-19 pandemic, but on May 20, 2021, during a virtual watch party of Man of Steel, it was revealed that Warner Bros would, in fact, be releasing his intended cut direct-to-HBO MAX in 2021. Although the release timetable is still unclear, it has been confirmed that, in addition to the feature film format, we will be able to watch this as a 4-Part Mini series. This would not be the first time a Director has “re-configured” a movie to be viewed on a streaming platform. Quentin Tarantino released the Extended version of his critically acclaimed mystery-western as both, a feature film, and as a 4-Part Mini Series for Netflix, in 2019, almost 4 years after it’s initial release.
Snyder, who has not seen the theatrical cut at this point (shocking, I know), has described his cut as "an entirely new thing, and (especially talking to those who have seen the released movie) a new experience apart from that movie." The Hollywood Reporter wrote that it was expected to cost $20 - 30 million to complete the visual effects, score, and editing. Greenblatt has since indicated that the release would cost more than the reported $30 million to complete.
What Can We Really Expect Going Forward?
So It looks like Warner Bros is all in on this. It is unclear the cost control measures this new production is undergoing. Will the actors be re-negotiating their salaries? Will royalties be paid out differently? Will crew members need to be paid a second time? Many questions we still don’t have clear answers to. The most important question being: Will the success or failure of this movie determine sequel or new franchise potential?
Over the course of the past few months, since the announcement, we’ve gotten a trailer, confirming a seemingly new(ish) story. A marketing campaign now well underway, we’ve also gotten confirmation of a larger role for Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor, the appearance of Darkseid, the return of Jared Leto’s Joker, and the inclusion of Superman’s Black Suit. Following the “Death of Superman” comic book, this alternative black suit look was first introduced during the “Reign of Superman” as a recovery suit that absorbs solar energy to revitalize the wearer. The look has been a fan favorite since the 90’s, and a black suit appearance has been teased since Man of Steel. Zack Snyder’s Justice League has hit the ground running in regards to its marketing campaign, and they’re going to need to keep up the momentum if they want to release this in mid-2021, the “not so distant future”.
On September 23rd, it was also revealed that the main cast would come together again to shoot additional footage for the film. Among that main cast, a previously ousted Ben Affleck, returning despite a very public “break up” from the character of Batman, and the effective killing of a solo “Batfleck” film. Affleck’s initial departure from the role, and the financial “failure” of Justice League, left a gaping hole in plans for the future of the DC Extended Universe. So his “return” to the role can signify a possible change in trajectory for DC films. In the current trajectory, Warner Brothers has placed a heavier focus on solo characters as opposed to “Team up” films.
Two of the films released, post-Justice League, were met with praise and success (Shazam, Aquaman), with another (Birds of Prey: Harley Quinn) not so much. In the pipeline for the DCEU: Wonder Woman 1984, The Suicide Squad, an inevitable Aquaman Sequel, Shazam Sequel, Black Adam (a film The Rock has been attached to star in long before there was even a Man of Steel Film), and a FLASH film. While the Flash film has the Geek Squad all riled up for a multiverse explaining, timeline merging, problem solving, time traveling, plot fixer, universe combining sweaty nerdfest, there is definitely an argument to be made that any DC comics IP that Warner Brothers owns can be done as a separate entity, or a shared universe. Look at two recent examples; Joker, a critical and smashing Box office success, is not a part of the DCEU continuity. Director Matt Reeves’ The Batman starring Robert Pattinson, also taking the approach of a different continuity. While no one here in the fan community is sure of what the DCEU future is with a “multiverse” of different franchises, at least Warner Brothers has a path forward with options. Creative teams may have good reason to have a “Batfleck” franchise running concurrently with a “Battinson” franchise following the potential success of Zack Snyder’s Justice League. With the unexpected Return of Ben Affleck as Batman, Jared Leto as Joker, and reports now circulating (according to The Wrap) of Joe Manganiello returning to play Deathstroke, one can’t help but wonder what the future holds for this franchise, considering Warner Brothers is letting Zack Snyder open doors that were previously (presumed to be) closed.
With the future of entertainment moving towards streaming, I wonder how the success of this film (or 4 Part mini-series) on HBOMAX will be measured. Viewership, subscriptions, critical acclaim, Oscar/Emmy buzz, fan service, the ability to make us forget the year 2020…?
Yes, I’m excited for this, a lot of people are. I’m going in with an open mind, but we have to remember: this film is unlikely to please everyone. Namely the Snyder enthusiasts, Whedon lovers, Man of Steel lovers, BvS defenders, comic book purists, and general audience members alike, will NOT all be pleased. We can accept the fleshed out developed vision Snyder had from the start when he took on Man of Steel and garnered all that franchise potential from the ridiculous amounts of money he made for the studio. Love it or hate it, we’ll at least have one, hopefully agreed upon, vision at the end of the day. One thing we can agree on… HBO Max wins the day, even if you subscribe out of curiosity. #ReleaseTheSnyderCut.
Written by Phil Bianco
Edited by Jake Zall & Nick Mandala