The Snyder Cut’s Origins Lie In The Phantom Edit

Disgruntled fans aren’t new, they’re just more vocal. Thanks, internet.

Ever since it was released, Justice League has been the subject of commentary, criticism and speculation. When director Zack Snyder stepped away from the film citing personal issues, Warner Bros. brought Joss Whedon in to quickly rewrite parts of the movie and finish filming what was left. It should have been a non-issue, the kind of thing that happens from time to time, especially with a production as complicated and drawn out as this.

Except it didn’t turn out like that. Instead, fans who were unhappy with the selection of Whedon almost immediately demanded WB release what came to be known as The Snyder Cut, a version of the movie they believed existed that contained Snyder’s true vision of the story. The movement was fueled by two parties:

  1. Those who believe Snyder is a true visionary, a filmmaker of unqualified genius whose grimdark, desaturated style is exactly what they want in their movies, especially comic adaptations.
  2. Entertainment press desperate for content to fill ad-loading pages who feverishly wrote up every instance of the movement popping up on Twitter.

Of late there has been a lot to write about. Snyder himself has been posting vague pictures that has fueled speculation that the mythical beast exists in some form, and actors from the movie including Ben Affleck, Gal Gadot and Jason Momoa have all commented in various ways seeming to support that theory.

The idea that a finished film that represents Snyder’s vision alone is one that’s been refuted in the past. A number of people have made it clear it’s not anything resembling a finished film, just a workprint of the footage Snyder shot before leaving the project, without color correction, sound editing or anything else. It’s not even complete, something corroborated recently by composer Danny Elfman, who came on board at the same time as Whedon, replacing original composer Junkie XL.

Recently a number of revelations have been made about the movie, including that Whedon wrote 80 new pages for the reshots he oversaw and cut or altered a number of Snyder’s initial storylines. Cinematographer Fabian Wagner claims the theatrical release only retained about 10 percent of what he and Snyder shot, with a whole new team handling what came next.

With WB on the cusp of launching the HBO Max streaming service, there’s been renewed hope in this crowd that The Snyder Cut could finally see the light of day there, though the studio has reiterated there are no plans to do so and there isn’t even a finished film to work with if they wanted to.

Filmmakers themselves have fueled this kind of thinking by touting versions of their movies that existed before studio interference and releasing “Director’s Cut” home video editions that are promoted as more fully representing the story they wanted to tell.

But the true origins of The Snyder Cut lie in The Phantom Edit.

If you’re not familiar with The Phantom Edit, odds are good you weren’t online heavily in 2000, a year after George Lucas brought Star Wars back to theaters with Episode I: The Phantom Menace. Created by a private citizen Mike J. Nichols, who channeled fan displeasure with Lucas’ movie into what he billed as a tighter, stronger version of the story. In particular, it edits out almost completely Jar Jar Binks, the much-reviled digital character whose primary role (at least at first) is simply slapstick comedy.

That version circulated online for a long while and was even released on VHS and DVD back in the day. You can likely still find a copy in the bin of sketchy bootlegs at your local comic shop and that one vendor at comic and entertainment conventions.

The Phantom Edit came to life at the same moment there was a larger embrace of consumer generated content online in general. Blogs were beginning to go mainstream and while YouTube was still a few years in the future, video sharing online was gaining popularity as people started to create video blogs and other media. Brands caught on and launched campaigns that utilized submissions from customers and fans, or got over initial concerns and advertised more heavily on blogs. Influencer marketing was conceived as a concept as some of those blogs gained popularity and accrued substantial followings.

So there was an appetite for fan-generated media, especially since it was tied to disappointment in The Phantom Menace, something itself fueled by the popularity of message boards and early blog platforms. Those who didn’t like a movie that included fart jokes and lengthy treatises on trade negotiations found like-minded fellow travelers who shared their feelings, and a movement was born.

Who knows how many people were inspired by The Phantom Edit to make their own movies, empowered by a palpable example of how someone outside the industry used the tools at their disposal to create something new, albeit derivative.

A large difference exists in the mindset that has developed over the last nearly 20 years, though. The Phantom Edit represented a culture that was ready to do it themselves because the big companies had failed them in some manner. After all, blogs rose to prominence as not only a form of personal self-expression but also as a way to add context and expertise that was missing from mainstream media. Niche topics could be covered in depth for the handful of interested people and obscure fandoms could find common cause without the limits of geography.

In contrast, The Snyder Cut is a communal pining for someone already in the halls of power to simply reclaim what people feel should have been his. Snyder is a successful director who will certainly work again and who wasn’t pushed off Justice League but left of his own accord. Cult members feel he’s been wronged and, instead of trying to edit the theatrical release into something they think might be closer to what he intended, just want Snyder to have a do over.

(Side note: I’m willing to bet a Venn Diagram of 1) people angry at Zack Snyder being silenced, and 2) people angry anytime a black woman, Hispanic man or other creator from a historically marginalized group becomes involved in a high-profile project is a circle)

That shift – from Do It Yourself to Let Him Do It – illustrates how online culture has evolved in the last 20 years. Blogging and the open standards they initially embraced have fallen out of favor thanks to massive social networks whose owners want to keep you on their platform exclusively. Media consolidations means there are fewer original voices out there as international conglomerates make safe bets managing their intellectual property instead of taking risks on untested ideas.

You even see a similar change in the business world. Young people aren’t starting their own companies at the same rate previous generations did, in part because the debt incurred during their education allows them less flexibility to try something and fail. Those that do seem more interested in building something designed to be acquired by Google, Facebook, Amazon or Apple than in creating a sustainable business. Founders have become lifestyle gurus who share tips on intermittent fasting while retaining power thanks to convoluted stock ownership structures.

The goal now isn’t to create your own thing and take a new path to success. It’s to feed the success of someone already at the top by “fighting” for them to retain control. That philosophy exposes an empty fandom, one that feels starting a petition represents some form of power instead of using the tools and resources, which are not only more pervasive but cheaper and easier to use than they were 20 years ago, available to them to do it themselves.

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