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‘Zach Snyder’s Justice League’: How It Got to HBO Max

Zach Snyder's Justice League
(Image credit: WarnerMedia)

On Thursday HBO Max will begin streaming Zack Snyder’s Justice League. The new four-hour version of the 2017 DC Comics superhero film, which had only middling box office success by super-hero tentpole movie standards, is happening for three reasons: Director Zack Snyder’s loyal fan base; a studio in need of content for its new streaming service – HBO Max; and a family tragedy.

In 2016, Snyder began filming Justice League, which focused on Batman (Ben Affleck) and Wonder Woman’s (Gal Gadot) recruitment of Aquaman (Jason Momoa), the Flash (Ezra Miller) and Cyborg (Ray Fisher) to form a group of heroes to save the world from the catastrophic threat of Darkseid, Steppenwolf & DeSaad. The film grossed $658 million in global box office receipts, according to BoxOfficeMojo—a solid but not spectacular performance by the lofty standards of super-hero tentpole releases. Notably, however, it had a disappointing 40% rating on critics aggregation platform Rotten Tomatoes

Snyder had previously directed a string of successful Warner films, including 300Man of Steel and Watchmen. But the studio began doubting the director when negative reviews surfaced for 2016’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, which grossed nearly $874 million in global box office, but garnered a miserable Rotten Tomatoes score of 28%.

There were also unfortunate comparison’s to DC’s arch nemesis, Disney’s Marvel. While Marvel’s mega-successful movies told stories about “relatable, everyday people grappling with sudden phenomenal powers,” Snyder’s immortals had a hard time being human. According to Vanity Fair, Warner Bros. wanted a little less brooding and a bit more humor. So to show their deep appreciation and trust for Snyder, Warner Bros.’ then chairman and CEO, Kevin Tsujihara, sent former DC Entertainment creative chief Geoff Johns and former Warner Bros. co-production head Jon Berg to babysit the director on set.

“It was really tricky and not a position that I loved, to be honest,” Berg told Vanity Fair. “I tried to be forthright about what I thought creatively. My job was to try to mediate between a creator whose vision is instinctually dark and a studio that perceived, rightly or wrong, that the fans wanted something lighter. I was respectful of the director and didn’t pursue things that were coming at me from the corporate side that I thought weren’t in line with what would make the best movie.”

After a screening for Tsujihara in January 2017, it became clear to Snyder that he had to make a two-hour film and not the longer movie he had imagined.

“How am I supposed to introduce six characters and an alien with potential for world domination in two hours?” Snyder told Vanity Fair. “I mean, I can do it, it can be done. Clearly it was done. But I didn’t see it.”

Initially, Warner Bros. brought Avengers director Joss Whedon onto Justice League to help with rewrites, but he eventually began directing scenes. (Whedon is only credited for co-writing the film.) That stab in the back, combined with losing his 20-year-old daughter, Autumn, to suicide in March 2017 convinced Snyder and his wife/producing partner Deborah Snyder to walk away from the project.

“All of us, the whole family, we’re just so broken by [losing Autumn] that having those conversations in the middle of it really became…I was like, ‘Really?’ Snyder told Vanity Fair. “Frankly, I think we did the right thing because I think it would’ve been either incredibly belligerent or we just rolled over.”

Snyder said he never saw Whedon’s version of Justice League, which debuted in November 2017. But he told Vanity Fair that he did let “random people who stopped by, like our friends” watch a raw, four-hour director’s cut of the film.

Quickly after the release of Whedon’s Justice League, a Snyder fan base emerged and urged Warner Bros. to release the “Snyder Cut.” Fueled in part, of course, by the internet, that fan base grew. And in November 2019,  #thesnydercut emerged on Twitter, a hashtag movement supported by Snyder, Gadot and Affleck.

Eventually, Toby Emmerich, chairman of Warner Bros. Picture Group, made Snyder an offer to bring the film to WarnerMedia’s HBO Max—an unusual occurrence in the annals of a Hollywood history chock full of unresolved creative tiffs between filmmakers and studios over final edits.

“A lot of the people at the company, myself included, always felt badly that Zack didn’t get to finish his vision of this film because of the circumstances,” Emmerich said to Vanity Fair. “And so if there was a way to make it logistically and financially possible, which HBO Max did, and Zack had a willingness to do it, it seemed like a win for everybody.”

Emmerich was undoubtedly influenced by the online movement.

Sean O’Connell, Managing Director of Next TV sibling publication CinemaBlend, began reporting on the so-called "Release the Snyder Cut" movement when it began in 2017. He believes that his continuous reporting “helped to keep the story on the radars of other press outlets, and of (Warner Bros.)”

In 2019, after hearing about the Release the Snyder Cut movement’s purchase of digital billboards in Times Square to promote the release of Snyder’s cut, as well as movement members flooding downtown San Diego with grassroots marketing materials during San Diego’s Comic-Con, O’Connell decided to write a book about the lost film and the movement supporting it.

“I started to think to myself, ‘I need to learn the story of these fans,’" O’Connell recalls. “The more I researched, the more I realized there was a worthy story for a compelling book, and I hopped on for a wild ride.”

The result is Release The Snyder Cut: The Crazy True Story Behind the Fight That Saved Zack Snyder’s Justice League, which was released earlier this month.

While O’Connell isn’t sure if the book, which takes readers on a behind the scenes journey into the film’s demise, put pressure on Warner Bros. to release Snyder’s four-hour cut, he is sure that the movement worked.

“Warner Bros. admits that the calls for the Snyder Cut got too loud for them to ignore,” O’Connell says. “And after a massive Twitter trending event on November 17, 2019 generated more than 1 million uses of the #ReleaseTheSnyderCut hashtag, the studio couldn't ignore the fans any longer. “

For Snyder's part, he noted that Emmerich, presumably to keep costs low, was prepared to release the director’s rough cut. “I was like, ‘That’s a no, that’s a hard no,’” Snyder told Vanity Fair. “And they’re like, ‘But why? You can just put up the rough cut. I go, ‘Here’s why. Three reasons: One, you get the internet off your back, which is probably your main reason for wanting to do this. Two, you get to feel vindicated for making things right, I guess, on some level. And then three, you get a shitty version of the movie that you can point at and go, ‘See? It’s not that good anyway. So maybe I was right.’ I was like, No chance. I would rather just have the Snyder cut be a mythical unicorn for all time.” 

In Zack Snyder’s Justice League ,fans can expect a new ending, the addition of Joker played by Jared Leto, a new suit for Superman, a possible romance between Affleck’s Bruce Wayne and Adams’s Lois Lane, and a movie in 4:3 format that eventually will screen on IMAX screens. 

Interestingly, Snyder said that he didn’t get paid for the re-shoots in exchange for creative control over the project.  

“I didn’t want to be beholden to anyone, and it allowed me to keep my negotiating powers with these people pretty strong,” he said.

The director credits his daughter for his return Justice League. The film is dedicated to Autumn and closes with her favorite song Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah

“Without her, this absolutely would not have happened,” he added.

For WarnerMedia, which is looking for any way to grow HBO Max it can find, the timing isn’t too bad.