It didn’t work out for Snyder either. The studio said no.
The downside of making epics is the studios’ financial expectations. For Justice League, Warner Bros. wanted a big, round billion dollars in global box office, which Snyder’s movies had never reached. In January 2017, the director showed his first cut to Tsujihara. It did not go well, according to Snyder and others. (Tsujihara, who resigned from Warner Bros. in 2019 amid a sexual misconduct scandal involving the aspiring actress Charlotte Kirk, declined an interview request.)
Among the issues was the length of the film. “There was a mandate from Tsujihara that the movie be two hours long,” says Snyder. That order had a paradoxical impact, because it meant eliminating much of the heart and humor the studio also wanted, like a comical romantic subplot between Ezra Miller’s Flash and Kiersey Clemons’s Iris, the latter of whom was absent entirely from the Whedon film. (On the day Vanity Fair visited his office, Snyder was working on finalizing the music for the restored scene in which The Flash rescues her from a car crash.)
Snyder also saw a bigger structural problem with the “make it shorter” order: “How am I supposed to introduce six characters and an alien with potential for world domination in two hours? I mean, I can do it, it can be done. Clearly it was done,” he says, referring to Whedon’s version. “But I didn’t see it.”
Reports that Snyder himself asked Whedon for help were false. Johns, one of the studio-appointed babysitters, had been planning a Batgirl movie with Whedon, and Snyder and others say Johns recruited him to do rewrites for Justice League. (Johns’s representatives didn’t respond to a request for comment.) Once again, Snyder was gracious and even hopeful: “I thought maybe he could write some cool scenes. I thought that would be fun.”
Soon, it became clear that Warner Bros. was giving Whedon more and more power. He would not just advise during reshoots, but also do some directing himself. Snyder says he only had one conversation with Whedon, about the studio’s notes. Reeling from Autumn’s death—and finding anguish in their work rather than relief—Zack and Deborah quit. “We just lost the will to fight that fight in a lot of ways,” says Zack. “All of us, the whole family, we’re just so broken by [losing Autumn] that having those conversations in the middle of it really became…I was like, ‘Really?’ Frankly I think we did the right thing because I think it would’ve been either incredibly belligerent or we just rolled over.”
One by one, he called members of his cast and crew. “I remember I was in a movie theater, coincidentally enough,” Ray Fisher said on the set of Snyder’s reshoots last fall. “I was walking into the AMC right in Times Square. And I got the call from Zack and he was saying that he had to deal with stuff with the fam and he was having to step away. I had a trillion questions. My heart sank.”
Whedon rewrote and reshot about three quarters of Justice League, from what Snyder can gather. When fans ask him about details of the movie that bears his name, he usually has no idea what they are talking about. Worst of all, for Warner Bros., Whedon didn’t exactly save the movie. “When we got to see what Joss actually did, it was stupefying,” says a studio executive, who requested anonymity. “The robber on the rooftop—so goofy and awful. The Russian family—so useless and pointless. Everyone knew it. It was so awkward because nobody wanted to admit what a piece of shit it was.”
Justice League opened on November 17, 2017, and cratered. Because Cavill had been making Mission: Impossible Fallout during the reshoots, Whedon’s team had to digitally erase his mustache in Justice League, which led to a bizarre warping of his face. The jokes fell flat. And behind the scenes, some of the cast had revolted.
Fisher has publicly claimed Whedon was abusive on set, and that Warner Bros. executives “enabled” his actions. Gadot told the Los Angeles Times that she also had a negative experience with Whedon, which she reported to higher-ups. After concluding its investigation, Warner Bros. announced that “remedial action” had been taken, though the studio didn’t offer specifics. Days before that announcement, HBO, a division of WarnerMedia, parted ways with Whedon on the sci-fi series The Nevers. Fisher continues to clash with the studio and has expressed dismay at the outcome of its investigation.
“[The cast] were very loyal to Zack, and they were hurting for him,” says Nelson, the former DC president. “It would have been a difficult environment for any new director to walk into—I have no doubt about that. But then how Joss chose to handle that is Joss’s to live with.”
In the aftermath of Whedon’s version, a new narrative arose on social media: #ReleaseTheSnyderCut. Snyder gradually began to encourage the movement, but it was hardly the first thing on his mind.
“From the time we left,” says Snyder, “it was not a great year, but we did a lot of stuff with family. It was really important. An important year.”
That year together became two. After grieving Autumn and starting to heal with his family, he began work on Army of the Dead, a visceral, funny, and exceedingly dark smash-and-grab story about an elite strike team that goes into a zombie-overrun Las Vegas to retrieve a hidden fortune before the hot zone is nuked. (The zombie virus emerges from Area 51, so aliens may be involved too.) During a day-long interview, Snyder giddily scans through concept art for an accompanying animated series, approving vehicles, otherworldly weapons, and supernatural beings. He makes suggestions for changes to his team of artists, all working remotely via Zoom. Behind him on the wall-length bookshelf, there is a frame with two photos: Autumn and Eli in their bathing suits as toddlers, beaming with the same smiles as their dad as he assesses his monsters.
The Army of the Dead movie is a lot to tackle, and the related prequel and animated series even more all-consuming. Scott Stuber, head of original films at Netflix, says it’s a chance to build a world with a filmmaker who’s hungry to return: “Zack went through something very difficult, and I think he probably realized, like we all do, it’s okay to be vulnerable. For those of us lucky enough to know him and Deborah, he’s a very soulful, kind, thoughtful human being. He’s got this façade of big action movies and all these bravado things, but there’s a sweet kindness to him.”