***Disclaimer: In this piece, I poke fun at Zack Snyder, his body of work, and his most aggressive fans. Its all meant in good spirits and if you read till the end, you’ll know my real feelings on the situation.***
You may be familiar with the Warner Bros. HBOMax project known interchangeably as “Zack Snyder’s Justice League” and “The Snyder Cut of Justice League”. Its a unique case and a compelling story of a filmmaker’s vision being compromised by a confluence of unfortunate events and decisions that resulted in a film which was fundamentally flawed and enjoyed by very few people altogether.
Snyder began production on his third DC outing mere weeks after the release of Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, a film which, regardless of any individual’s response, was met with lukewarm (at best) reception and troubled WB greatly, allegedly pushing the executives to meddle heavily with the tone and messaging of Snyder’s production of its sequel.
Then, mid-shoot, Snyder’s family was struck with unimaginable tragedy and he left the production. Warner made the…interesting… call to replace him for the remainder of the shoot with well-known Avengers writer/director Joss Whedon. Whedon is his own can of Hollywood worms and brings a lot of baggage into every conversation he enters, but its nigh inarguable that he was not the man for this particular job. His penchant for one-liners, lowered stakes, and levity did not exactly mesh well with Snyder’s existing Ayn Rand-soaked hellscape of rain-covered human pavement.
All of this resulted in the aforementioned disaster of a film that everyone (Snyder-fan or adult person) agreed was really just not worth the trouble of sitting through. So, when a loud and often disconcerting fan campaign actually put in the work (and gave a lot of money to charity in the process), it made some sense that WB actually handed Snyder a chunk of change and a year or so to assemble the fabled “Snyder Cut”, an ephemeral and mysterious version of the originally planned Justice League filled to the brim with grimdark references to a larger DC universe, big pointy scary bad guys, and a cliffhanger ending which is likely to never actually be resolved in any meaningful way. This “cut” was teased and theorized about on social media for years and (as detailed in an excellent video by Dan Olson of Folding Ideas: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8pGlYF3xLrM) largely did not exist.
A key point here is that films are never truly set as complete “cuts” until they are theatrically released, and even then can receive alterations and edits well into that release. Tellingly, Snyder had to be given tens of millions of dollars to create new VFX shots, alter and add to his existing footage, and potentially shoot all-new scenes. It is important to remember here that the Snyder Cut die-hards insisted for three years that they were campaigning for WB to simply assemble and release a cut that was already sitting in their metaphorical basement gathering dust. The Snyder Cut does not and has not existed, but it will. And this should be celebrated.
Often, artists in Hollywood are made slaves to trends and market research, not able to fully realize the vision they have for their work unless it falls in line with what the marketing department has come up with. Snyder being handed the reins to really assemble his vision is not only a great idea, its a great story. I just hope the documentaries that get made about it remember to clarify that it is Snyder’s victory and it does not belong to the mobs of (largely) hateful (largely) men who screamed and shouted about this for years in ways that some should be ashamed of.
So there’s the precedent. Now, as always happens on the internet, some are taking this Snyder Cut victory as a sign of fan empowerment. After all, if a few thousand Snyder-heads could spend three years talking about exactly one thing and actually (seemingly) move a massive Hollywood studio to action, why can’t any group of loud fans do the same with a different project? Especially a project from the same studio and executives. And so, a new “movement”, #ReleaseTheAyerCut.
Yes, we are now getting to the actual subject. And if you thought there was too much background on the Snyder Cut, you’re in luck, because the Suicide Squad story will be given a good amount less attention.
The other thing that happened in the midst of the 2016 production of Justice League was the release of David Ayer’s Suicide Squad. Ayer is a filmmaker well-known for a gritty and violent tone paired with complicated, realistic adult drama. Or, he was. It made sense for him to write and direct Suicide Squad, a film about lower-level DC super-villains being forced to work for the government as an expendable anti-super-threat unit. Some kind of suicide squad. What made less sense was WB giving Ayer about six weeks to write the entire script and begin production, a time table that almost never results in a watchable film.
Then, later in production, BvS: DofJ happened. And suddenly, WB wanted nothing to do with the words “dark” and “gritty”. So, when a trailer cutting company assembled a fun, fast-paced trailer for the film set to “Bohemian Rhapsody” and the trailer was well-received, they also allowed that trailer company to assemble their own cut of the entire film, with a bent toward making it quicker, lighter, and more fun. The studio then tested both Ayer’s original and the trailer company cuts against each other, received mixed reactions to both, and then assembled something of a “frankenstein” cut mixing both versions. This is ultimately what was released.
The film was a decently sized success at the box office but was generally received with a sort of dour apathy. It felt half-baked, chopped to hell, and utterly confused about its own tonal identity. People caught on quickly to the too-many-cooks nature of the final edit and found the knowledge of the mashed together cuts unsurprising (this is also detailed masterfully in a video by Dan Olson). Ayer was apparently not asked back for a sequel and the film seemed to be disavowed by Warner Bros., with the exception of Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn being pulled hither and thither for various spinoffs and cameos.
Fast forward to the summer of 2020, the Snyder Cut news has broken, and almost immediately, fans of that movement and of the earlier more self-serious DC movies are on to the next big hashtag, the “Ayer Cut”. Ayer himself gets in on this, having spent four years badmouthing the executive meddling in his film, delivering the worst Netflix original ever made, and convincing extremely online dudes that his version of the Joker was actually really, really cool. Now, a few months later (at time of writing), he continues to take a page out of Snyder’s book: never confirming anything, acting cagey about the production woes he faced, and posting blurry screenshots of VFX shots that are slightly different from those in the theatrical release. Only time will tell if WB throws Ayer a bone (to the tune of $20 million) and lets him cobble together some ever-so-slightly new version of his 2016…film. But its important to recognize the difference in these situations.
Snyder is not, as I’m sure you can tell, a filmmaker whose work I personally enjoy or find meaningful. But, to me, its obvious that he deserves this shot at redeeming Justice League, if not in the eyes of his critics, at least in the eyes of his fans. From his perspective, the production of Justice League was obviously a nightmare and a total corruption of his original vision for the film. There are also reports of Joss Whedon literally abusing the cast and crew on set and being enabled to do so by studio higher-ups. Its clear that WB has culpability in cynically taking advantage of Snyder’s personal tragedy to try to milk more money out of an already doomed production, and Snyder deserves compensation for that. But Ayer?
By all accounts, setting aside the rushed time table and editing snafu near the finish line, Suicide Squad’s production was straightforward and uneventful. Ayer wasn’t fired or pushed around or influenced to change his creative process any more than any other director working in the studio system. Sure, compromises were likely made that any normal person would find unfair to Ayer, but that is what it is to produce a hundred-million dollar movie using the intellectual property of Time Warner. There is no evidence that the trailer company mash-up cut of Suicide Squad fundamentally alters Ayer’s vision, no new scenes were shot without him, he never left the production. And really, what chance is there that paying Ayer to return to the editing bay and add forty minutes of Jared Leto’s awkward Joker and Cara Delevigne trying her best to salvage an indecipherable take on the Enchantress would improve the existing film whatsoever?
The real difference here is motive. By all appearances, Snyder simply wants to finish a movie he wasn’t capable of finishing. Do I think that movie will end up being better than the version that was released? No. But do the facts of the original production and the abuse suffered at the hands of Whedon and enabling execs compel me to believe that Snyder is entitled to the opportunity? Yes. The “Ayer Cut” of Suicide Squad, to me, feels like a bad faith capitalization on the inertia of the Snyder Cut, turning a genuine Hollywood story of re-compensation into a cynical grab for attention. On one side, there is Ayer, who is understandably (seemingly) jealous of Snyder’s restitution and wants another crack at something he fumbled loudly. On the other, there are extremely online fans, fresh off the glorious “victory” of the Snyder Cut campaign and already hungry to bully the studio into another bank-breaking venture.
There’s an angle to “restore” the original Snyder-set direction of the DC films, which pivoted to lighter tonal material in films like Wonder Woman (2017) and Shazam! (2019) following the double trouble of BvS and Suicide Squad. However, not only has the embrace of levity and, God forbid, fun yielded a more reactive box office (see: Aquaman was well-liked and made a billion dollars), but the darker tone still exists in more interesting ways (i.e. Joker).
In conclusion, there really is no reason to die on the “Ayer Cut” hill, even if very loud people on the internet would have you believe in some terrible injustice that was carried out upon a filmmaker who continues to be not only fabulously wealthy but also apparently eminently hire-able even after releasing Suicide Squad and Bright back-to-back.