It starts with an aphorism that speaks volumes.
Upon the February 2021 release of Zack Snyder’s Justice League, the director told Vanity Fair “We would just show it [the unreleased director’s version of the 2017 picture] to random people who stopped by, like our friends or whatever.”
Snyder, who had seen the climactic picture of his superhero trilogy recut by Warner Bros. in a familiar story of studio-versus-auteur that was later reversed thanks to a fan petition campaign, was playing coy with reporter Anthony Breznican. Eileen Jones was apt to deliver the finest quip about such a scenario:
It gave me a thrill of tender pity for any visitor to the Snyder home in that scenario. You can picture it, can’t you? Some unsuspecting pal, or a relative, perhaps — or, even more poignantly, a delivery person or someone cleaning the pool — minding their own business, just trying to get through the day, and suddenly they’re corralled into watching the four-hour Zack Snyder’s Justice League on his laptop, probably with him leaning over their shoulder, pointing out the “cool” parts.
But as is the case with these sagas, the plot thickens…
A recent report from Tatiana Siegel at Rolling Stone titled ‘Exclusive: Fake Accounts Fueled the ‘Snyder Cut’ Online Army’ amplifies what has already been a quite sinister story arc meriting deeper concern. For contained within the subtext of this Director’s Cut production history is the disturbing reality of a socio-political nexus that can rapidly become a pipeline into the insurgent internet white nationalist project.
As a preliminary note, it bears mentioning that film fandom crusades advocating for the release of the Director’s Cut of a picture have been going on for decades, sometimes yielding spectacular results, case and point Terry Gilliam’s Brazil as well as Blade Runner and Kingdom of Heaven, both directed by Ridley Scott. At the dawn of the new century, when the internet was still in its infancy and its users were only beginning to understand digital petitions, fans successfully lobbied Warners to allow the late Richard Donner to digitally rebuild his proposed version of Superman II, which he had been fired from in 1979 due to a feud with producers Ilya and Alexander Salkind. The Donner Cut’s history offers a viable counterexample. Why did that project, requiring a comparable budget for completion (besides needing to complete special effects, Donner had to restore and digitize six tons of raw celluloid footage that had been improperly archived for two decades), entail far less antisocial behavior from both the director and fans? What has taken place in the fan communities since then that can turn these Quixotic adventures into fascist Petri dishes?
Does part of the blame lay with Snyder, the Ayn Randian Objectivist who aspires to one day remake The Fountainhead, a veritable shrine to megalomania our auteur never shies away from exhibiting? Siegel makes clear in her report that the director behaved with a Mafioso bravado, at one point telling the reporter “I’m just telling you what the fans are going to do. Trust me, they are pretty, pretty, pretty rough” when she refused to nix a few lines of copy from a story he disagreed with. He furthermore absconded from the Warners lot with studio property, refusing to return the hard drives containing all of the Justice League footage he had shot.
Then there’s Siegel’s major revelation, that the seemingly-grassroots hashtag campaign, #ReleaseTheSnyderCut, was helped along by online bot accounts. Was Snyder instigating things from the beginning or merely latching onto something that had an organic genesis? Either way, Snyder failed to confront and shut down the toxic elements of the campaign, which repeatedly crossed the line into making safety threats against Warners executives and their families. Siegel encapsulates this perfectly by writing:
Whatever role he may or may not have played in the Snyder Cut publicity blitz, at the close of 2019, Snyder sent his disciples into overdrive when he posted a picture of a set of film canisters labeled “JL Director’s Cut Running Time 214 [minutes].” Running over the picture were the words: “Is it real? Does it exist? Of course it does.” One insider scoffed at the post: “He refused to return the hard drives, which were studio property. This was just more orchestrated bullshit from Zack.”
British film critic Mark Kermode, himself a veteran of 1980s horror film fandom, offered a useful judgment in his BBC Radio review, saying “As someone over the years who has campaigned for Director’s Cut releases of films I care passionately about (for example, Ken Russell’s The Devils or, perhaps more esoterically, William Peter Blatty’s Legion: Exorcist III), I do understand the desire to see a movie as it was intended rather than some focus group botch. Having spent four hours watching the Snyder Cut, I can say that it is an improvement on the disastrously disjointed theatrical cut… I’m glad that the fans have what they’re asking for and that’s good… It is a film that critics have been bracing themselves for [owing to predictions about] the fan response online and I think that is never a healthy circumstance… If you disagree with a critic about a film, that’s fine. If you attack them for thinking differently than you, then you don’t deserve cinema in any form!” In a follow-up hour-long conversation with his colleague Jack Howard, Kermode added “I always feel like I don’t want to prove my credentials with fans. When I get fans who are being assy, I’m sorry, I was fighting these battles before you were born, so fuck off! I have no problem with fan culture because I have always been a part of it. But I think there is a toxic end to fan culture that has grown with the internet.”
What has changed with fandom to create such an antisocial paradigm?
First, it has been ruthlessly commercialized and turned into a runaway market. Consider just two examples of this.
In the twentieth century, fan conventions were rather slapdash, bubblegum-and-popsicle sticks productions, knocked together by fans and small business vendors in musty anterooms at run-down venues, such as a Shriners hall or maybe a public library. The “celebrities” making appearances at these events were themselves well past their prime and looking for a few extra bucks to augment a meager income of royalty payments alongside the monthly Social Security check. Abraham Reisman, author of a 2021 biography of Marvel Comics editor Stan Lee, included in his book’s publicity tour a parable about personally encountering the comic book eminence grisé at one such pathetic event as a boy. By contrast, the past two decades have seen these gatherings turned into high-budget spectacles that fill local convention center halls, bringing together the production values of Disney World, the ethos of a political convention, and the excitement of a rave. When one considers the most detestable and antisocial behaviors which occur within these three antecedents, serious concern is merited.
Another example is the shameless proliferation by comic publishers of variant covers. Once upon a time and on rare occasions, comic publishers would accidently produce multiple versions of the same periodical featuring different covers, oftentimes owing to the cheap printing presses commissioned for production of these texts. These accidents of the four-ink process would mature in age and value over the years, sometimes birthing a high-value price tag for the lucky owner. But today, publishers intentionally produce multiple variant covers of titles every month. The multiple Star Wars titles by Marvel Comics produce hundreds of variants per year and the publisher knows that there are gullible suckers out there who gobble every single one up. Not a hint of irony is further evinced by either the publishers or the vendors about how barmy this occurrence is owing to media consolidation. In the elder days of the rare variant cover, comic publishers were operating upon razor-thin budgets, with one foot in bankruptcy court and the other on a banana peel. By contrast, today the major publishers are owned by the largest media conglomerates on earth, with Marvel being an arm of Disney and DC Comics a subsidiary of Warner Bros. Discovery!
Second, the internet has itself introduced antisocial behavior through the atomization of fandom. In old fan conventions at those musty halls, stinking of drunken vomit from the high school prom held the previous evening, there was a communal gathering that brought together those who experienced marginalization. The geeks and nerds who cowered in the cafeteria after outpacing the gym class bully were given an afternoon to be themselves and express feelings they needed to hide under a bushel. Nowadays, these experiences are granted instantaneously by websites and social media. The lack of the interpersonal dynamic, as well as other disturbing forms of psychological manipulation that we are only now beginning to truly grasp as scholarship on these platforms emerges, removes filters that would normally inhibit such faux pas. And when one further introduces into the stew the distinct forms of misogyny and racism that fester without check on social media platforms, we begin to see the shadow of a ticking time bomb emerge.
In all cases and examples, there is a profit motive dependent upon social isolation and exploitation of the most regressive personality instincts. While fandom does have a social component, at its core lies an experience that is fundamentally personal. Unlike sport, the consumption of a text is an individualist one. Even when we watch movies at a theater, a major social taboo is talking during the film. This is decidedly contra the experience of broadcast sports, which can be experienced in loud bars where nobody can hear the television announcer. Furthermore, contra the consumption of complex literature, be it the poetry of Whitman or the novels of Pynchon or the plays of Shakespeare, these are texts that intentionally tarry with some of the most uncomplicated, one-dimensional, and visceral impulses in the human psyche. With the exception of (perhaps) Ray Fisher’s character Cyborg, Zack Snyder’s Justice League is a penny dreadful disguised as a Wagnerian opera. Each character is a one-dimensional archetype that tarries with some of the most regressive psychological traits known to man, valorizing a cis-hetero-normative vision of carceral white supremacy with high estimation of extra-judicial vigilantism. (This is due in no small part to the fact that the original Justice League comic books were born of nothing more than cynical, mobbed-up publishers ordering hyper-exploited authors and artists to create a magazine after enough five year olds sent them epistles, inscribed using Crayolas, begging for them to “Go do make Superman fight Batman BOOM!!”)
Returning to our opening aphorism, there’s a frightening cynicism to contemplate. In the original winter 2021 publicity blitz for the film, a rather disarming narrative of the production emerged. In the story Zack Snyder told Breznican and several other reporters, his Justice League production was going smoothly until a professional setback and a personal tragedy compounded in a way compelling his graceful exit from the film. First, the second film in his trilogy, Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (as lugubrious as its tortious title suggests), bombed at the box office. Several months later, one of his daughters unexpectedly passed away. The studio was already anxious, they were slowly taking control of production, and so this tragedy pushed the director over the threshold of the stage’s exit. The director’s chair was then delivered to Joss Whedon, who followed studio dictates and delivered a complete mess of a picture.
But now, if it is true that Snyder was carrying on like a bit of a sociopath and a thief, one must question this whole story, which denuded many critics of their analytic faculties in winter 2021. What kind of lunatic invokes the death of their child in the press whilst simultaneously fanning the flames of such an antisocial mob?
There is something disturbingly reminiscent of a Nazi propaganda narrative in all this. The studio, run by malevolent, devious executives (and historically founded by Jews), did the noble, Romantic alpha male dirty at the moment when he was most vulnerable, following the death of a female child. Is it possible to envision the passion of the artist, driven by the grief of a child’s death, leading him to extreme behaviors? While one can feel a certain impulse towards such sympathy, this ultimately fails to account for just how prolonged the behavior was. And rather than being an individual behavior, instead the collective mob reality of this bears the striking whiff of demagoguery that the US body politic has been shown to be far too susceptible to in the past decade. Vox even called the hashtag campaign “four years of toxic harassment and a parade of troubling online behavior from male fans that has far more in common with abusive right-wing campaigns like Gamergate than with most of mainstream geek culture in 2021.”
Truth be told, the unfinished film “We would just show it to random people who stopped by” never existed. If it is true that Snyder stole hard drives (plural!) containing his footage, he did not have in his possession a completed picture, he had perhaps thousands of individual clips and sequences, hodged-podged together here and there, that required thousands of hours of work from an editor and a visual effects team, not to mention sound, music, and color correction techs. Anyone who has one whit about film production in their head understood this automatically when the #ReleaseTheSnyderCut campaign emerged. (And indeed, anyone with such whit who said so aloud was instantly besieged by the hashtag mob!) Film production is one of the few remaining assembly line processes in America today and it is governed by the same Fordist norms used a century ago. Almost every single contributor to the production is a member of one of the most powerful unions in the entire AFL-CIO (though others, such as visual effects programmers, are ruthlessly exploited via an outsourced bidding paradigm). Snyder’s narrative might bear striking resemblance to the plight of Orson Welles but, well, F is for Fake! Instead, we’re talking about a high-priced director, operating with a mega-budget, who fumbled with the delivery of a summer tentpole franchise picture, Batman v. Superman, and then threw a very public, toxic, and creepy tantrum when his employer tried to reel in his Riefenstahl-like excesses.
The Weimar literary critic Walter Benjamin, in witnessing Hitler’s ascendancy, argued that fascism is the substitution of aesthetics for politics. It is in the spectacle that the masses would experience the visceral gratification of their aspirations while simultaneously not seeing a redress of the underlying causes of their grievances, which in turn were caused by capitalist alienation. The online trolling campaign Snyder dallied with clearly conforms with what Benjamin described. Given the white nationalist online recruitment strategy, using engagement strategies like “red-pilling,” it is possible to see fertile ground being sown.
The emergence of the alt-right was in fact a convergence of several disparate political impulses that developed in the US over the past two decades and which were networked via the web. One of these was the previously-marginalized white nationalist movement, which migrated from digital nether-regions like Stormfront(dot)org into 4chan and Brietbart with the help of hedge funder Robert Mercer. Another component was the remainders of the Ron Paul presidential campaigns and other digital Libertarian outlets. A third was the militia movement that began to blossom in the wake of the Ruby Ridge and Waco confrontations in the early years of the Clinton administration. And another was the particular section of internet fandom that had engaged in trolling campaigns like Gamergate and the Sad Puppies, both of which were predicated upon ginned-up grievances about diversity emerging in the video game and science fiction literature communities.
Snyder was playing with fire, he knew it, and he should be held accountable for this.
But furthermore, and more disturbingly, this occasions realization that we require a serious level of introspection and national dialogue about the nature of the web and social media (*SPOILER ALERT* THIS WILL NEVER HAPPEN).
In October 1958, Edward R. Murrow was saluted by the Radio and Television News Directors Association. Rather than play ball, he instead chastised his colleagues for what he deemed their negligence:
…If there are any historians about fifty or a hundred years from now, and there should be preserved the kinescopes for one week of all three networks, they will there find recorded in black and white, or color, evidence of decadence, escapism and insulation from the realities of the world in which we live. I invite your attention to the television schedules of all networks between the hours of 8 and 11 p.m., Eastern Time. Here you will find only fleeting and spasmodic reference to the fact that this nation is in mortal danger. There are, it is true, occasional informative programs presented in that intellectual ghetto on Sunday afternoons. But during the daily peak viewing periods, television in the main insulates us from the realities of the world in which we live. If this state of affairs continues, we may alter an advertising slogan to read: LOOK NOW, PAY LATER… When [Secretary of State] John Foster Dulles, by personal decree, banned American journalists from going to Communist China [in August 1956], and subsequently offered contradictory explanations, for his fiat the networks entered only a mild protest. Then they apparently forgot the unpleasantness. Can it be that this national industry is content to serve the public interest only with the trickle of news that comes out of Hong Kong, to leave its viewers in ignorance of the cataclysmic changes that are occurring in a nation of six hundred million people? I have no illusions about the difficulties reporting from a dictatorship, but our British and French allies have been better served–in their public interest–with some very useful information from their reporters in Communist China.
Murrow’s words were a Cassandra-like prophecy that materialized in the cataclysm of the Vietnam War, as was made clear in The Best and the Brightest by David Halberstam. In 1948-50, there occurred a series of events that created the criminally mistaken Southeast Asian foreign policy. First, the imperialist China lobby in the US, caught off guard by Mao’s victory, proliferated the conspiracy theory that “we had lost China” due to Communist espionage in the State Department’s Asia bureau. Second, the Republican Party was astonished that President Truman was reelected by the skin of his teeth and, in light of that upset, needed an issue to mobilize voters around. Third, the Russians detonated their first atomic bomb. Fourth, a Roosevelt administration official, Alger Hiss, was convicted of perjuring himself with regards to allegations of Communist espionage. From these four events is born the Republican accusation of espionage and national betrayal by the Democratic Party, McCarthyism, and the witch hunts that excommunicate from the halls of government all competent experts on Vietnam, all of which was aided and abetted by Murrow’s colleagues. By allowing Dulles and his heirs to dictate the margins wherein the national discourse regarding Asian politics could occur, the three major networks enabled a propaganda behemoth that did not implode until the 1968 Tet Offensive caught this entire self-perpetuating and automated lying machine completely off-guard.
We face similiar circumstances right now and our straits are far more dire than during the Cold War. Climate catastrophe, the slow-moving effort of the Republican Party to dismantle liberal democracy itself, increasingly-militant white nationalist nativism, and the ever-increasing precarity of the economy are each complex social phenomena that should individually be addressed with massive goverment mobilizations on par with the New Deal.
And regrettably, we have no Justice League to fix these problems. The distraction of the Snyder Cut campaign itself is lamentable. Its intentional dalliance with internet fascism is damnable. But our inability to adequately address this as a Left is a travesty.