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How the Snyder cut of 'Justice League' was powered by fans

The 'Justice League' Zack Snyder cut was released by Warner Bros. on HBO Max after an unprecedented fan campaign called to #ReleasetheSnyderCut.
Zack Snyder directing Justice League.
Zack Snyder on the set of "Justice League" in 2016.Clay Enos

In the movies, a superhero like Superman or the Flash can move faster than the speed of light, reversing time and giving him a second chance to undo mistakes.

That's not exactly the kind of thing, however, that's supposed to happen off screen.

Yet, nearly four years after he was displaced from the director's chair on "Justice League," Zack Snyder is about to show his four-hour cut of the 2017 film, which was widely considered a disappointment after it was finished by another filmmaker. To get this second chance, Snyder, 55, tapped into the power of an unprecedented fan campaign — one that hurled the hashtag #ReleasetheSnyderCut across social media like Batarangs at Warner Bros., the studio behind the film.

Warner Bros. capitulated on May 20 — almost three years to the day since Snyder's exit. He told the Los Angeles Times recently that he and his wife, the producer Deborah Snyder, left the project because they had lost the energy to fight the studio over creative differences two months after their 20-year-old daughter, Autumn, died by suicide.

The studio didn't just commit to release "The Snyder Cut" of the movie Thursday on HBO Max. The director's cut of the superhero team-up — which joins Superman (Henry Cavill), Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), Batman (Ben Affleck), Cyborg (Ray Fisher), Aquaman (Jason Momoa) and the Flash (Ezra Miller) — also was reported to have gotten a $70 million infusion to allow Snyder to get the unfinished effects shots into fighting shape for its streaming service debut, according to The Wrap.

"If you would have asked me to bet four years ago, I would say there's no chance," Snyder said. "So yeah, it's pretty amazing."

This isn't a sequel or a reboot. It's a redo — a major victory for artistic expression or a dangerous precedent of appeasing belligerence, depending on whom you ask.

Either way, it's unprecedented in the history of cinema.

It's the direct result of a fan movement launched over disgust with the theatrical release, which was the disjointed result of the studio's handing over control of the movie to replacement director Joss Whedon just six months before it was due in theaters.

"Fans really bought into the lie that the studio told that [Whedon] is just completing Zack's vision. He's literally just coming on board to carry the film across the finish line," said Sean O'Connell, author of "Release the Snyder Cut" and managing director of CineBlend. "We know now that was not the case.

"If things broke Warner Bros.' way, we wouldn't be here right now. If the theatrical cut was OK and fans were like 'Well, that wasn't Zack's version, but at least there is a decent "Justice League" movie,' we probably wouldn't be here."

IMAGE: Ray Fisher as cyborg in 'Justice League'
Ray Fisher as Cyborg in "Justice League."HBO Max

In hindsight, the directorial switch looks like an attempt to match the box office muscle of Whedon's "Avengers" movies for Marvel Studios. It's hard to argue with Warner Bros.' reasoning on a business level: Snyder's second entry in the fledgling DC shared cinematic universe, "Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice," earned $873.6 million worldwide at the box office, below the $1.2 billion notched by "Captain America: Civil War" two months later. There were concerns that Snyder's mature vision for Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman was boxing out younger audiences.

"The box office results that 'Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice' generated would be the envy of almost any other film," said Paul Dergarabedian, senior box office analyst for Comscore, "yet given the iconic characters at its core and the lofty expectations for the genre, the film was considered a financial and creative disappointment at the time."

That was nothing compared to the disappointment among fans when Whedon's version of "Justice League" hit theaters. crammed into a studio-mandated two-hour cut and full of reshoots different in tone from Snyder's completed footage. Except they weren't content to just gripe. They were egged on by Snyder, who regularly teased the existence of his finished cut, and a coordinated campaign was born.

"From very early on, leaders got the movement organized to start doing forward-facing marketing campaigns to raise awareness to the possibility of this cut," O'Connell said.

It wasn't just on social media: A plane was rented to tow a #ReleasetheSnyderCut banner over the Warner Bros. lot; a billboard was rented in Times Square.

"I think what makes the #ReleasetheSnyderCut movement so unique is the fact that we never lost focus of who and what we were fighting for," said a member of the campaign, Devin Fuerte, 20, a student from Orange County, California. "So many different people from all across the world, yet we all shared the same passion for Snyder and his films.

"In the end, it was all of our love and dedication that got Zack Snyder's 'Justice League' to be seen by the world," he added.

Snyder pegged the tipping point as Nov. 17, 2019, on the second anniversary of the theatrical release, when fans got #ReleasetheSnyderCut to be the No. 1 trending topic in several countries. Gadot and Affleck joined in the retweeting blitz.

"That's when the studio called the next day and said: 'What would it take just theoretically? We're not doing it, but what would it take?'" Snyder said. "It was a call to my agent, and he called me. That was interesting."

In the process, fans have raised more than $600,000 for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, according to the charity, a gesture of support in the wake of the Snyders' family tragedy.

The highlight "for me is the money they were able to raise for suicide prevention," Snyder said. "People's lives have been saved by the money they raised. That's just a fact."

But there has also been a more insidious subplot to this hero's journey saga: a subset of the movement that has aggressively trolled critics who don't regard Snyder's films as reverentially as they do.

"Any fandom can be unhealthily obsessed from time to time, and almost all fandoms have at least a small toxic contingent in them," said Alisha Grauso, a veteran movies journalist. "The difference with the Snyder fandom is that that toxic contingent tends to be louder, more stringent and less forgiving than other fandoms."

Comic book editor Heather Antos has occasionally been hit hard on Twitter by that contingent — most recently over a joke she tweeted about Snyder's next big project, a retelling of the King Arthur mythos.

"I have gotten messages saying 'Someone should put you out of out of your misery' and 'You should go kill yourself,' which to me is so ironic considering they're championing suicide prevention," Antos said.

"I think what makes me so uncomfortable about everything is that Warner Bros. caved. They gave into this harassment," she said. "So what's going to happen the next time? The precedent has been set."

Snyder isn't tagged in the social media attacks — which makes it easier to view the entirety of the movement through a softer lens.

"I don't see it, so I don't know," Snyder said. "I know it exists, and it's bad, and I'm against it. I don't want toxic fandom.

"But they are literally raising $500,000 to $600,000 now of their own money to give to mental health awareness and suicide prevention," he said. "It's hard for me to say that's not awesome."

IMAGE: Zack Snyder's 'Justice League'
Darkseid is ... restored in the new cut after being edited out of the 2017 theatrical release.HBO Max

Aside from the money raised for an important cause, Snyder is most proud that his cut restores the longer origin story of Cyborg. In Whedon's version, the lone Black superhero on the team is reduced to a supporting character. The lack of screen time is glaring when combined with Fisher's allegations of abusive behavior by Whedon during reshoots.

"When [screenwriter] Chris Terrio and I sat down to talk about this movie, we always wanted it to be a Cyborg origin film — we felt that Cyborg was the movie," Snyder said. "And frankly, I really, in my heart, knew when I hired Ray that he could take it all the way, because he's a great actor.

"I wasn't there during the time he had during those reshoots, and I'm sorry for that, because if I had been there, I hope there wouldn't be" the same experience.

Snyder reunited with Fisher on a soundstage last summer for a reshoot, along with Affleck, back in the Bat cowl, and Jared Leto, reprising his turn as The Joker from 2016's "Suicide Squad." Filming a scene set in a post-apocalyptic future as the cast and crew were in the middle of pandemic felt like paradise to the director at the time.

The sequence also suggests a potential alternative future in which Snyder might get the chance to make another Justice League movie, this time pitting the team against the popular DC villain Darkseid, back to menace the heroes after having been cut out of the theatrical release.

"The movie has got a crazy cliffhanger ending," Snyder said. "And before I left the movie, we were about to shoot two more, I thought. But Warner Bros., it's their [intellectual property], and it's their world. I don't dispute that. They told me that they consider the theatrical version of 'Justice League' canon for their DC Universe. And so as far as I know, there's no plan.

"But of course, we're talking about a movie that shouldn't exist anyway, so ...," Snyder added, his voice trailing off in another cliffhanger.