Zack Snyder, the director of Justice League, has never seen Justice League. His name is in the credits as the film-maker, but he’s never sat through the version released to the world more than three years ago. His wife, Deborah, who produced the movie, advised him not to.
In late 2017 – months after the couple cut ties with the superhero epic amid an increasingly demoralising battle with Warner Bros – Deborah Snyder sat in a screening room on the studio lot alongside Christopher Nolan, one of the movie’s executive producers, as well as the director of The Dark Knight trilogy. She braced herself as the lights went down. “It was just… It’s a weird experience,” she says now. “I don’t know how many people have that experience. You’ve worked on something for a long time, and then you leave, and then you see what happened to it.”
What happened to Justice League was a crisis of infinite doubt: A team of executives who lost faith in the architect of their faltering comic book movie empire, and a director in the midst of a family tragedy that sapped him of the will to fight. Joss Whedon, a director from another universe, the Marvel Cinematic one, left The Avengers after two movies and crossed over to comics rival DC, picking up Justice League not where Snyder left off, but remaking it significantly with extensive rewrites and hurried reshoots, just as the studio demanded.
On November 17, 2017, the team-up between Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Cyborg, Aquaman and The Flash didn’t so much debut in theatres as crash into them. It was sneered at by critics, shrugged at by baffled moviegoers, and all but disowned by those who created it. Whedon has since been accused of unprofessional and abusive behaviour on set. (The director declined repeated requests for a comment.) He left his name off the movie except to claim a shared writing credit with Chris Terrio, who had written Snyder’s previous installment, 2016’s Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice.
Publicly, everyone close to the movie practised their smiles and rehearsed their talking points in the hopes of doing no further damage to the project, not that it helped much. The movie earned $657 million globally, which sounds like a lot of money until you consider the nearly $300 million budget, including the reported $25 million for Whedon’s reworking, plus a conservative estimate of $100 million to $150 million in marketing costs. Factor in the sizeable cut theatres take from the box office, and a return of only $657 million is a clear money loser. Six months later, Justice League’s box office was dwarfed by Marvel's own all-star showcase Avengers: Infinity War, which flexed its muscles at $2 billion.
After their private screening of the Whedon cut, Nolan and Deborah Snyder emerged into the light with a shared mission. “They came and they just said, ‘You can never see that movie,’” Zack Snyder says during lunch at his Pasadena office, a modernist series of cubes jutting from a hillside that overlooks the Rose Bowl.
“Because I knew it would break his heart,” his wife adds.
That might seem overly dramatic. It’s just show business, after all. But the Snyders’ hearts had already been through a lot. The battle over Justice League was agonising, but it wasn’t the worst thing to happen to their family that year. Not even close.
Professionally at least, things have vastly improved. For years, DC fans and Snyder enthusiasts – who worshipped his high-octane brawn-fests like his Dawn Of The Dead remake, his ancient Greek battle saga 300, and his twisted Watchmen adaptation – beat a drum on social media demanding, demanding, demanding that Warner Bros return Justice League to its original film-maker and allow him to share his version of the movie. They dubbed it the #SnyderCut. The fans could be clever, but many were horrifically toxic. All of them were relentless, and they grew more numerous over time. Last May, they finally got their wish when Warner Bros saw the potential to leverage all the free publicity and do something unprecedented on its upstart streaming service, HBO Max.
It’s not uncommon for directors to lose creative control of big-budget studio spectacles, or for other film-makers to step in. But it’s unheard of for a studio to return to an exiled film-maker and offer back the power and creative freedom it has yanked away, especially when some of the most beloved and lucrative characters in pop culture history are involved. The #SnyderCut landed on March 18.
For the director’s devotees, it’s a Hollywood ending for a Hollywood story, but for the truly devastating thing that happened to Zack Snyder and his loved ones in 2017, there can be no fix, no do-over. In the throes of the conflict with Warner Bros, the Snyders’ 20-year-old daughter, home from college and in the middle of a long struggle with depression, took her own life.
After two years spent largely focused on their other children and extended family, Zack and Deborah went back to work, a difficult but vital part of the healing process. When they spoke to Vanity Fair for this story, they were completing Army Of The Dead – a zombie-filled heist extravaganza that will launch a new, multipronged franchise for Netflix – as well as restoring Zack's original vision for Justice League. The latter will be a four-hour event for HBO Max that will raise money for suicide prevention programmes that could help spare others the grief that shook his family.
Their daughter’s death was the reason the Snyders walked away from Justice League, realising their fight and spirit was needed at home, with their other children, and with each other, rather than in a losing battle with a powerful studio. Now she is the main reason he decided to come back.
“At the end of the movie, it says ‘For Autumn,’” Snyder says, sitting in the shadows of a darkened editing suite, frames from the movie frozen on the screens around him. When he talks about his daughter, the otherwise scrappy, ebullient 54-year-old filmmaker always looks away. “Without her, this absolutely would not have happened.”
Zack and his then-wife Denise Weber adopted Autumn when she was one. “A little over one,” he says, smiling at the memory of her wild energy. “Still an infant, but crazy.” Autumn was slightly older than the couple’s son, Eli. They had two more children before they divorced. Snyder had two sons with line producer Kirsten Elin before marrying Deborah, his longtime producing partner, in 2004, with whom he adopted two more children. The film-maker has often said being an adoptive father is one of the reasons he was so invested in the story of Kal-El, a powerful being who became Superman thanks to the love and care of Jonathan and Martha Kent.
More than three years after Autumn’s death, Snyder still slips between the past and present tense when talking about her. “She’s the only dork,” he says of his family. “She was the only fan. The rest of them…” He shrugs. Today, Eli is interested in film-making, but Autumn was the only one of his children who matched her dad’s kidlike enthusiasm for gods, monsters, aliens and superheroes. “She’s super creative,” he says. “She was a writer. She was at Sarah Lawrence to be a writer.”
Snyder swipes through his phone to show a selfie Autumn took in the letterman jacket worn by Ray Fisher’s character in Justice League, a football star horrendously wounded in a car accident and rebuilt by his scientist father into the half robot warrior Cyborg.
Autumn had been in therapy and on medications, but the depression remained brutal. “She was always wondering about her worth. ‘What is my worth? What am I supposed to do? What am I about?’” Snyder stumbles on his words, his eyes glassy. “The conversation was like, ‘Of course you’re amazing! What do you mean your worth? You’re worth more than anything in the world!’ And she would just be like, ‘…Yeah.’”
Snyder says Autumn used writing to vent her pain, to channel it into words that might contain it, or explain it. She adored sci-fi. “Her main characters are always in this battle with things from another dimension that no one can see,” says Snyder. “But it’s a serious war. And that war was happening to her every day. I think so many people are in that battle, and they smile and nod at you.”
The fact that a studio had lost faith in Snyder’s ability to make Justice League seemed mundane and pointless after Autumn’s death. “It’s such a lightning strike in the centre of this whole saga,” says Snyder. “And in a lot of ways it has informed everything we’ve done since.”
The Snyders tried to keep going for two months after Autumn’s death, finding solace in finishing Justice League. But by then the situation with Warner Bros had imploded. The official story was that the Snyders were voluntarily leaving the movie due to their family tragedy, and that Zack had handpicked Whedon to complete the movie he had planned. Only half of that was true.
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