As I write these words, the mass-media landscape is at the precipice of a new frontier.
On 18 March 2021, as more than 100 million vaccine doses have been administered in the United States alone to defeat a global pandemic that is assuming variant forms, Warner Bros. released Zack Snyder’s Justice League. For those living under a proverbial rock that protects humans from all forms of social media and mass-media advertisement, I will offer a recapitulation that will unfold faster than you can say “Barry Allen”.
While working on Justice League, Snyder had to abruptly leave the film due to a familial tragedy. (To Google this tragedy would commit an ethical violation that would place you on the opposite side of the Justice League.) To finish this multi-million dollar project, Warner Bros. hastily hired Joss Whedon. Initially, Whedon was tasked with reshoots and some rewrites, but eventually, he directed the film, replacing Snyder.
When Whedon’s version of Justice League landed in theaters in 2017, a mounting chorus of fans expressed their disdain for the film. A new movement was born due to fan culture: a demand to “Release the Zack Snyder Cut”. This movement started at the digital grassroots and swelled into an international movement. Eventually, even the actors in the Justice League’s theatrical release became part of this call to action. Ben Affleck, Ray Fisher, Gal Gadot, and Jason Momoa all used their star power and social media to promote the message #ReleasetheSnyderCut.
Fast forward four years, and what initially may seem like a futile call for action from a growing legion of fans became a material reality: On 18 March 2021, Warner Bros. released a brand new version of the film entitled Zack Snyder’s Justice League. The film was released on Warner Bros.’s digital platform of profit, HBO Max—a model that disrupts the decades-long ritual of new Hollywood films being distributed theatrically before trickling down to other distribution modes, such as home viewing and digital ownership.
But the real revolution is not the means of distribution, but the power of fan culture.
Since media companies have morphed into superpower transmedia behemoths, enfolding more of the world into its worldview and world-making, numerous scholars have theorized and analyzed “fan culture”, including perhaps most famously, Henry Jenkins. Yet while scholars such as Jenkins have analyzed fandom and studied various forms of participatory culture, including how fans revise, rewrite, and expand upon corporate culture’s IP, the release of Zack Snyder’s Justice League is unprecedented.
To risk a generalization: before this film’s release, there remained an aesthetic hierarchy. Fan-produced content remained subservient to what the owners of the cultural industry produced and distributed. Even if fans didn’t like the theatrical release of Justice League, the 2017 version was, or so it seemed, here to stay. Fans could use all the energy they wished launching online critiques and making hashtags trend, but at the end of the day, Warner Bros. was in control, not the fans.
However, this hierarchical view of popular culture collapsed. Fans insisted they wanted to experience Zack Snyder’s original version, and the fans won. Due to fan pressure, Warner Bros. gave Snyder $70 million to make his version into a reality.
The release of Zack Snyder’s Justice League illustrates that power does not always flow from the top down—as Adorno and Horkheimer famously theorized in their conception of the “culture industry”. Rather, power flows in all directions, including from the bottom up.
Conservative critics were quick to point out the “dangerous precedent” of Zack Snyder’s Justice League. Time magazine, for example, declared: “A group of fans operating under the banner #ReleaseTheSnyderCut bullied Warner Bros. into giving Snyder $70 million to remake the film.” The article continues: “While some fans innocently used the hashtag in hopes of getting a better film, a toxic contingent spammed producers, critics, and fans of the rival Marvel Cinematic Universe with angry comments and threats. By capitulating to fans who employ dubious tactics to get what they want, Warner Bros. may have set a dangerous precedent. If this is the future of filmmaking, who’s really in control?” As we see time and time again, the powerful few fear any form of democracy—even when it’s about something as seemingly innocuous as a superhero film.
I want to emphasize, because I don’t think gets enough credit, is that fans weren’t simply unhappy with the theatrical release of Justice League. Rather, they specifically wanted Snyder’s version of the film. What is it about Zack Snyder?
Professional critics detest Snyder. Snyder’s previous film before Zack Snyder’s Justice League was Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016). On the popular site Rotten Tomatoes, which aggregates reviews, the film has an abysmal 28% rating.
What do fans see that critics don’t? Although critics panned the film, Batman v Superman developed a strong cult following, and on 28 June 2016, an extended cut of the film was released digitally, with an additional 31 minutes of footage. Whereas the theatrical Batman v Superman clocks in at 152 minutes, the extended cut, dubbed Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice: Ultimate Edition clocks in at over three hours. The latter is closest to a Snyder cut, and it’s a much better, richer film.
Snyder’s films are big, bombastic, spectacle-heavy, and personal. In an age when big-budget films are produced by profit-focused committees seeking to be risk-averse to capture the largest possible global audience, Snyder’s films fly in the face of all conventions—including the convention to make films under two hours to maximize the number of theatrical showings per day.
While Batman v Superman has been universally panned by critics, I want to argue that the people are right. While Snyder’s films are flawed (and which filmmaker is not?), they are also brilliant both in form and content. Books and dissertations can be written on the visual brilliance of Snyder’s spectacles, but I want to focus on his theoretical brilliance.
The title Batman v Superman promises a binary. Two of the most iconic superheroes in the DC pantheon will battle it out. But Snyder’s film—and dare I say his vision—is antithetical to binaries. One of the primary reasons fans the world over desired a Snyder Cut is because Snyder pushes beyond the lazy, easy thinking that defines the worst of the “culture industry”. Rather than produce a world of clear binaries with conspicuous good guys on one side and conspicuous bad guys on the other, Snyder creates ambiguity and plurality. In short, he creates tragedy.
In her essay “The Sublime and the Good”, philosopher and novelist Iris Murdoch reminds us of Hegel’s definition of tragedy: tragedy is the “conflict between two incompatible goods. Not a conflict between good and evil but between two goods, which are seen to be such because they incarnate different real social forces with real claims in society” (213). This definition of tragedy both applies and becomes complicated by Batman v Superman.
Batman v Superman offers not just “two incompatible goods”, but multiple incompatible goods. Despite the film’s title which suggests a binary, Batman v Superman shatters binary paradigms.
The film’s brilliance is seen in how it offers multiple theories of justice, and each theory, articulated from a specific material position, is an “incompatible good” with other theories of justice articulated and embodied in the film. For example, Superman critiques Batman for acting outside of the law, serving as “judge, jury, and executioner”, and Batman critiques Superman for allowing the means to justify the ends. While Superman is explicitly committed to bringing hope and goodness into the world, as the beginning of Batman v Superman reminds us, hundreds of thousands if not millions are killed while Superman wrestles fellow Kryptonians throughout the city of Metropolis as they burst through buildings and create damage and carnage that exceeds the imagery of New York on 9/11. (The film’s beginning becomes an implicit critique of the end of Snyder’s previous film, Man of Steel ).
Each of these critiques is rooted in a theory of justice (a social good) and each theory is incompatible with the other. If Batman is right, then Superman cannot be allowed to exist; if Superman is correct, then Batman cannot be allowed to exist.
But Snyder’s film moves beyond binaries. Multiple other characters also have their own view and version of justice. The United States government critiques Superman for being a form of unilateral power that is above the law and above the state. Moreover, a prominent senator in the film, Senator Finch (Holly Hunt), articulates: “How do we determine what’s good? In a democracy, good is a conversation, not a unilateral decision”. In popular form, Senator Finch is giving voice to a theory of democracy shared by Jürgen Habermas.
Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner) shares with his adopted superhero son an ecological vision of justice while standing on top of a mountain: “It’s somethin’, innit? One minute in Kansas livin’ on a pancake so we come to the mountains. All downhill from here; down to the floodplain, arm at the bottom of the world. I remember one season the water came bad. I couldn’t’ve been twelve. Dad had out the shovels and we went at it all night. We worked ’til I think I fainted, but we managed to stop the water. We saved the farm. Your grandma baked me a cake, said I was a hero. Later that day we found out we blocked the water alright – we sent it upstream. A whole Lange farm washed away. While I ate my hero cake, their horses were drowning. I used to hear them wailing in my sleep.”
This monologue critiques myopic, human-centric conceptions of heroism and insists that we think of our actions in greater and grander scales both geographically and temporally. As this parable illustrates, even if we think we’re the hero of a story, a larger scale and scope may prove the opposite. While a young Jonathan Kent may have saved his family farm by artificially reengineering the flow of water, such a thoughtless human intervention destroyed another farm and led to the death of myriad non-human animals that haunted Jonathan Kent for years.
Moreover, in Batman v Superman, Snyder introduces Victor Stone/Cyborg (Ray Fisher), one of the few Black superheroes in the DC Universe. He sets the stage for the complex history of Blackness, technology, and surveillance. Snyder also cast Jason Momoa as Aquaman, intentionally creating not only the first explicit mixed-race superhero in Hollywood, but moreover, intentionally transforming Aquaman from a blond, blue-eyed superhero into an Indigenous superhero, and seeding the themes of Indigenous justice and water justice. (For more on this theme, see my forthcoming book Aquaman and the Anthropocene’s War Against Oceans.)
Moreover, Snyder radically rethought Lex Luthor and anchored his character in a theory of justice. In Snyder’s version, Luthor is a tech mogul, similar in appearance and mannerisms to the co-founder of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg. This analogy is reinforced by Snyder casting Jesse Eisenberg to play the role of Luthor; Eisenberg, of course, played Zuckerberg in The Social Network (2010). Luthor’s vision of justice is that power inherently corrupts and no single individual should amass so much power. This libertarian view of justice, however, is undercut by the film’s dialectics of tragedy. What is more powerful than a few individuals deciding and directing the flow of digital information on the Internet, whether it be Facebook or Twitter?
The people love Snyder’s complex aesthetics and the people wanted a more complex version of Justice League. Although the name of the 2021 film highlights a single individual, Zack Snyder’s Justice League, the film is the product of the people, and the people mandated a more complicated, nuanced view of justice than what the studios initially bestowed from atop their money mountain.
Democracy comes in myriad forms, and with the release of Zack Snyder’s Justice League, the people wanted complexity. There’s a powerful allegory in this movement of mass culture working from the bottom up that can and should extend to multiple institutions.
Adorno, Theodor, and Max Horkheimer. “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception”. 1944. In Dialectic of Enlightenment. Translator John Cumming. New York: Continuum, 1989.
Anderson, Jenna. “Batman v Superman Fans Are Celebrating the Movie’s Fourth Anniversary”. Comicbook.com, 25 March 2020.
Dockterman, Eliana. “The Snyder Cut Is a Better Version of Justice League. But It Sets a Dangerous Precedent.” Time. 15 March 2021.
Murdoch, Iris. “The Sublime and the Good”. In Existentialists and Mystics: Writings on Philosophy and Literature. Editor Peter Conradi. 205-220. Penguin Books. 1997.
Poll, Ryan. Aquaman and the Anthropocene’s War Against Oceans: Comics Allegory, Ecofeminism, and the Black Atlantic. Lincoln: Nebraska University Press. Forthcoming.
Redkar, Surabhi. “Justice League Snyder Cut: The history of how Zack Snyder’s magnanimous vision suffered & eventually triumphed”. Pinkvilla. 17 March 2021.
Slaughter, Melissa (in collaboration with Lauren Hardie). “The ‘Aquaman’ Movie is Hapa AF”. Hapa. 23 December 2018.