Interview: Zack and Deborah Snyder discuss the influence of Rotten Tomatoes and toxic fandom

A demanding fanbase and the COVID-19 lockdowns on new productions made the Snyder Cut possible


Whether you love Zack Snyder movies or not, the one thing you can’t deny while watching his restored cut of Justice League is that the director just fucking goes for it.

Sure, the infamously dubbed Snyder cut, which drops on Crave on March 18, probably could have been better at three or three-and-a-half hours tops, instead of four-plus. The DC superhero team-up movie has all the usual bombast, earnestness and groan-worthy moments you would expect from man behind 300 and Sucker Punch.

But it’s also a coherent piece of popcorn movie making-meets-Greek mythology that reveres its god-like characters, from Wonder Woman to Cyborg. And the movie is often just satisfied bowing down to them as they move slowly and operatically through spaces carrying their emotional burdens.

The restored Justice League displays all of Snyder’s strength as a visual filmmaker who stages scenes for comic book-style tableaus, while also reaching for Tolkien epicness; even when the scene is simply Cyborg (Ray Fisher) roaming the streets in a hoodie, now imbued with the messianic power to survey all the social injustices of the world, or an impressionable Flash (Ezra Miller) who makes time stand still for just a little bit longer when he sees his future romantic partner and savours that earth-shattering, life-saving moment.

Snyder’s ambition is key to why I also prefer the much derided Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice (BvS) over most of the stuff that comes out of the Marvel factory. I’ll take Snyder’s failed stabs at a grandiose vision over the monotonously coherent product from the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) any day.

Most critics pulverized BvS, giving it a 28 per cent rating on the review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes. That response is the reason why Warner Bros executives panicked on both Suicide Squad and Justice League, unleashing a hack job version of the latter (which was reshot by Avengers director Joss Whedon) onto theatres in 2017.

In a virtual roundtable interview, Zack Snyder doesn’t hold back on his disdain for the 2017 Justice League, telling gathered press how much he would love to have it expunged from the record.

“If there was some sort of virus,” Snyder fantasizes, “you could push a button and it would just go and find all [the copies] and delete.”

The director is seated beside his wife and producing partner Deborah Snyder in what appears to be their office. Behind them is a book shelf with framed family photos alongside props like a samurai sword, a helmet and a musket. There’s also stacks of books containing Snyder’s precise storyboard drawings for his movies.

During the interview, Deborah Snyder does a lot of the talking, as if to protect Zack from saying something that could get him in trouble. The passionate and slighted filmmaker doesn’t have the most reliable filter. He looks antsy, as if he’s trying to be on his best behaviour, but he can’t resist chiming in, whether we’re discussing the savage Rotten Tomatoes score for BvS and its implications, the drama those reviews started with Warner Bros execs, or how that tension gave way to the 2017 version of Justice League, where only a fraction of original footage was used.

In the latter film, Whedon’s emphasis on deadpan and snappy humour clashed with Snyder’s grim and operatic aesthetic. The final product felt like committee-made torture that came from the depths of franchise moviemaking hell. That led to the fan movement (toxic or not) that demanded a resurrection of the Snyder cut.

I’m like the thousandth person to say this, but the Snyder cut is a completely different and vastly superior movie. (NOW’s senior film writer Norm Wilner disagrees. We hash out the differences in the upcoming NOW What podcast.)

Courtesy of Bell Media

Tomato problems

In Batman v Superman, Snyder delivered an alternately beautiful and frustrating behemoth title match that also subbed as an early Trump allegory. Bruce Wayne was the rich brat weaponizing 9/11-grade trauma against Superman: an immigrant who brought his alien war to the U.S. Wayne also didn’t care much for Clark Kent’s fake news.

The movie, which was meant to set up Justice League, wasn’t subtle or consistent. It swung hard and got a black eye from that 28 per cent Rotten Tomatoes score.

“There was a preconceived notion of what the film should be,” says Deborah Snyder, lamenting how critics seemed to expect BvS to conform to the assembly-line style of the MCU. “‘It should be funnier.’ ‘It was too dark.’ That to me was hard to read and take. Are you looking at the film or are you just disappointed it’s not the film [you] thought it was going to be?”

The troubling thing about the Rotten Tomatoes (RT) influence is how much stock movie studios and audiences put in a Tomatometer score that rewards mediocrity over ambition. To get close to 100 per cent on Rotten Tomatoes, a movie only needs to be likeable enough for all the critics to give it a passing grade. Marvel has set a benchmark for likeable, regularly batting 80 to 90 per cent on RT. Even the biggest turds in the franchise like Iron Man 2 and Thor: The Dark World still score 72 and 66 per cent.

Movie studios aggressively monitor the RT score. Their publicists even reach out to remind critics with positive takes to post their reviews. And in the case of Justice League, we saw how much they cared about achieving RT-rated mediocrity, pulling the plug on Snyder’s more polarizing vision in order to aim for something more Marvel-like. Perhaps this is unsurprising. Creating a DC extended universe is already an attempt to be more Marvel-like, so it makes sense that they would ape the aesthetic and style along with the business model.

“I do think there’s this tendency to keep it all rounded and less pokey,” says Deborah Snyder.

“I only know how to make movies one way and I’m going to do my damnedest to do that,” says Zack Snyder who calls his films “boutique” despite budgets of hundreds of millions. “Damn the torpedoes. I’m just going to keep trying. And the studio, they’re a little bit more reactive. They’re squeamish. Where I’m like, ‘look, I made this movie for myself. It’s like a small film.’ They’re like, ‘No, no, it’s not. It’s a giant film. We’re demanding a worldwide audience.’”

“I don’t mean to be a provocateur,” Snyder adds, acknowledging that his big risky swings require a lot of faith and that sometimes he just has to play along with the studio concerns. “I tend to just say yes and then do whatever the fuck I want on this side. I hope that in the end, I will convince you that my idea was right to begin with and that you should have just let me do it that way from the start. And that’s gotten me in trouble, I admit. But I think in the end, we’re here and that’s the good news.”

Courtesy of Bell Media

The cult of Snyder

However, the only reason we’re here with the fully restored Snyder cut is because of a fanbase who demanded the director’s vision and the pandemic that forced a move from the studio. COVID-19 lockdowns left WarnerMedia unable to produce content for their new stateside streaming service HBO Max. That circumstance made repackaging old material appealing for the first time, especially since there was a very vocal built-in audience.

Fans have been petitioning Warner Bros. to #ReleaseTheSnyderCut pretty much since the hack job Whedon-version was unleashed onto theatres. Snyder’s fans became a movement. They raised money for a campaign that included flying a plane over San Diego Comic-Con in 2019 carrying a banner with their rallying cry: #ReleaseTheSnyderCut. They also rented out a billboard in Times Square during New York Comic-Con that year.

That WarnerMedia gave into entitled fans has raised some concerns, which are summed up in the headline for the Daily Beast review of the film: “‘Zack Snyder’s Justice League’ Will Delight DC’s Toxic Fans.”

Online fan culture has built a reputation for being toxic and bullying. Look at those who attacked Leslie Jones for taking part in the all-female Ghostbusters reboot, or Kelly Marie Tran for whatever their aversion was to Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Pop culture writers have noticed that the toxic online bullying is especially strong with fans of the DC Extended Universe and Zack Snyder.

“The DCEU and Snyder fandom has such large swaths of us on tenterhooks,” wrote Kayleigh Donaldson in a Pajiba article on the matter.

“I don’t think attacking someone is appropriate in any way,” says Deborah Snyder. “It’s interesting because it’s not something you would say to someone’s face, but there’s a certain anonymity to being online… We don’t think that that is a good thing at all.

“What I would say about the Snyder movement is, yes, there might have been a small group that have been toxic. But I think the majority of fans have done something amazing. Not only did they have a studio pay attention to them and allow this movie to be made, but they have raised so much awareness for mental health and for suicide prevention.”

To date the #ReleaseTheSnyderCut campaign has raised over $500,000 for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, honouring the memory of Zack and Deborah’s daughter Autumn.

In her article, Donaldson also writes that the toxic fanbase that rallies around Snyder feels incongruent with the filmmaker himself. Snyder has never fanned the toxic fandom’s flames and is generally regarded as being one of the nicest guys in Hollywood.

Courtesy of Bell Media

Good humour

Canada’s Sarah Polley, who has been very outspoken about the toxic way filmmakers behave on set, is a fan of how Snyder works. “His politics couldn’t be stupider,” says Polley, who starred in Snyder’s debut feature, the remake of George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. Polley, the activist and actor-turned-filmmaker, and Snyder, the director associated with “alpha-male” storytelling, couldn’t have less in common. “But fast-moving zombies distracted us from coming to blows,” Polley jokes.

She adds that Snyder took her jabs with good humour. He was also among the rare directors who remembered the names of his crew members and made everyone feel respected, happy and supported on set.

“I look back on it as the most fun I’ve had making a movie. He showed me it could be a joy. He was gracious and kind in a time when no one required that of a male director.”

Snyder’s Justice League cast have similar praise for the director’s work ethic, particularly Ray Fisher. The actor who plays Cyborg has since gone on to call out the toxic behaviour of Snyder’s replacement, Joss Whedon.

In a recent Vanity Fair interview, Fisher said Whedon was belittling and engaging in gaslighting and abusive behaviour on set. Fisher’s accusations have since been followed up by others from women who worked with Whedon on Buffy The Vampire Slayer. Whedon has not publicly commented on the accusations.

Fisher also pointed out that Whedon, who was once hailed as a feminist who creates strong female roles, repeats a lewd gag from Avengers: Age Of Ultron in his Justice League reshoots. In an action scene from Age Of Ultron, Mark Ruffalo’s face ends up in Scarlett Johansson’s chest for comic relief. In the 2017 Justice League, Ezra Miller’s Flash ends up with his face in Wonder Woman’s chest (they likely used a body double for Gal Gadot). That scene, thankfully, is not a part of Zack Snyder’s Justice League.

The finest attribute to the Snyder cut is the restoration of Fisher’s performance as Cyborg, which was done the greatest disservice in the 2017 version. In the earlier release, he was a metallic trinket decorating the space between Batman and Wonder Woman. In Zack Snyder’s Justice League, both the Flash and Cyborg’s origin stories are fleshed out. The latter especially becomes the movie’s centre, his trauma, vulnerability and humanity anchoring Snyder’s vision.

“I think you end up caring about them more because you’ve seen their struggles,” says Deborah Snyder.

“I love these actors,” adds Zack Snyder. “I love this material.”

So too do a lot more critics. The weirdest development is that as of this writing, Zack Snyder’s Justice League has a 77 per cent score on Rotten Tomatoes.

@justsayrad

NOW critics Radheyan Simonpillai and Norman Wilner discuss their differing takes on Zack Snyder’s Justice League on the latest episode of the NOW What podcast, available on Apple Podcasts or Spotify or playable directly below:

NOW What is a twice-weekly podcast that explores the ways Torontonians are coping with life in the time of coronavirus. New episodes are available Tuesdays and Fridays.

Comments (2)

  • Morty March 18, 2021 09:38 AM

    “To date the #ReleaseTheSnyderCut campaign has raised over $500 million for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention”?! They have indeed raised an impressive amount of money for a very worthwhile charity, but I believe you may have misplaced a decimal point. Other than that, great article. Wasn’t too one-sided and made some great points and observations. I am a big (non-toxic) fan of Snyder’s films an storytelling style and yes, Man of Steel and Batman V Superman definitely have their issues but the goosebump/nerd-ppealing moments more than make up for them. I can’t wait to watch Justice League as he intended it to be, tonight with my wife and kids. Hopefully this second chance Zack has been given leads to another chance to play in the DC sandbox.

  • Kristina March 18, 2021 10:34 AM

    Just say you’re a Zack Snyder fanboy and walk away. Also don’t knock his fans as being “toxic” when instead they’re actually rallying for this 4 hour film that essentially does nothing to change the DCU, but just provide some fan fare. There was no need to start trash talking Marvel here, the article is supposed to be about Zack and his Snyder Cut. I can’t believe I wasted my time reading half of this garbage. The interview was good but it was poorly written. Too much interjections from the writer, I don’t have the slightest clue as to how this slid past the editor.

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