After watching six hours of footage expanded from what was previously one two-hour movie, I can say that “Zack Snyder’s Justice League” is vastly better than the original theatrical release of “Justice League.” A film that was meant to make millions was fumbled so badly by those involved that it took four years before the intended cut was seen by fans. Although the dramatic saga to get the director’s cut made resulted in a celebratory fan-base, it should serve as a warning to creators and studios alike. Going forward, director’s cuts should become a relic of the past.
Zack Snyder wrote “Justice League” with Chris Terrio and Will Beal, intending for it to be a four-hour, R-rated epic. Warner Brothers, however, was not impressed with Snyder’s vision, especially after the performance of his other two films: “Man of Steel” and “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice.” The studio already wanted a change in tone—one that would make its films less serious—and also a trim in the length to fit more audiences into theaters. In response, Snyder stepped away from the project, and Warner Brothers put “The Avengers” director Joss Whedon in charge of reshoots. Whedon completely altered the film and its story, and when it was released in 2017, “Justice League” was an enormous disappointment, costing the studio millions of dollars and stalling plans in the DC Extended Universe. However, fans heard about Snyder’s movie that could have been and begged to see the cut one day—even in its unfinished form. At this point, the #ReleaseTheSnyderCut debacle is Hollywood history. Last year, the studio decided to release Snyder’s new, uncut version on HBO Max after giving $70 million to the project. In the end, I can say that Snyder’s director’s cut is worth watching, but its creation and release should not be the blueprint for director’s cuts going forward. This process was a terrible situation that cost all parties involved time and money that could have been avoided in the first place.
Director’s cuts have been around for decades, but they have often been released as a means to make more money from one feature film. These versions of films are typically 20 to 30 minutes longer than the theatrical release and have the tendency to be more violent, vulgar or sexual. When people still bought DVDs, this was an easy way to market films and ensure that people would effectively buy the same product twice, as they were seen as “unrated versions.” Adam McKay’s “Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues” is a perfect example. I saw both the original version and the R-rated version that was released months later, since it was advertised to be something totally different. Was it? Not very, but I still enjoyed it, mostly because I was a fan of the original cut. In most scenarios, director’s cuts don’t deviate drastically from the version shown to the wider audience. Milos Forman’s “Amadeus” won Best Picture in 1985 with a PG rating, but in 2002, an R-rated director’s cut with 20 minutes of extra footage was released on video. The film had already won dozens of awards, and the new version was simply released as a way to target existing fans nearly two decades after it first hit theaters.
“Zack Snyder’s Justice League” is a different beast. Two hours of new footage is much different from twenty minutes. During post-production of the original “Justice League,” editors may have left some solid scenes on the cutting room floor to make the film more concise, but “Zack Snyder’s Justice League” experienced an entire restructuring. The only other analogous director’s cut is Sergio Leone’s “Once Upon A Time in America.” In the early 80s, Leone shot eight to 10 hours of footage for his mob epic, then trimmed it down to six hours. He then hoped to release it as two three-hour films, but the producers did not want that to happen. Instead, Leone trimmed the film down once again to a three hour and 49-minute cut. By the time it was released, however, “Once Upon A Time in America” was only 2 hours and 24 minutes long. It was also edited to tell the story in chronological order, rather than having interwoven timelines, since it was believed American audiences would not enjoy a nonlinear storytelling method. The 1984 theatrical version has been criticized for its brevity, but the release of Leone’s nearly four-hour cut is hailed as a classic. “Once Upon A Time in America” and “Zack Snyder’s Justice League” were both films that deserved to be shown in a specific way, but editing and a lack of communication led to worse versions. Audiences have the ability to see the differences between the two versions and the mistakes that were made, but these films should be considered outliers. The finished version that is shown to audiences needs to be the director’s cut.
For a studio to release a director’s cut after “Zack Snyder’s Justice League” would be a disgrace. There are director’s cuts that are fun and do no harm, but they are often framed as altered “versions.” To have a completely different cut indicates that studios have not learned the lesson of hiring creators and trusting their work. Directors should not have their process stopped by studio heads that want a different tone and consequently shift the entire project. “Zack Snyder’s Justice League” cost Warner Brothers millions of dollars, and it was all related to one film. On the other hand, audiences should not beg for director’s cuts for movies they find mediocre or disappointing. Not every film went through a tumultuous shoot like “Justice League,” and sometimes a bad movie is always going to be bad, no matter how much you try to edit it. Asking for director’s cuts can be demeaning to those who put in the work to create something that might not have been satisfactory to some audiences. The finished, theatrical version should be the best product it can be. Director’s cuts should only be given as gifts to commemorate films that are already loved, rather than as offerings to appease angry audiences.