Who’s your favorite Batman?
Upon reading that question, I bet you vividly imagined one of the batsuits. Or perhaps you visualized one of the actors who played the character: Lewis Wilson, Robert Lowery, Adam West, Michael Keaton, Val Kilmer, George Clooney, Christian Bale, or Ben Affleck. There’s even another version in production right now: director Matt Reeves’s The Batman starring Robert Pattinson.
Bruce Wayne and his crime-fighting alter ego are like an American version of James Bond—an icon portrayed and interpreted differently across generations by each actor, writer, director, and producer who tells his story. Other comic book icons are not viewed as adaptively, often treated as singular and immutable.
The most prominent example of a hero being chiseled in stone is another member of the DC Comics universe. Originating in Action Comics #1 (1938), Superman is mainly associated with Christopher Reeve’s live-action portrayal in four movies throughout the 1970s and 80s. In fact, most people are probably unaware that, prior to Reeve, two actors played the Big Blue Boy Scout, and after Reeve’s fourth movie, there were two television series featuring different actors. Some may be aware of Warner Bros. Pictures’ attempt to piggyback off the enduring legacy of Reeve’s Superman in 2006 when the company released a fifth film in the series with Brandon Routh in the title role. However, Routh’s performance didn’t reverberate through pop culture the way Reeve’s did, and only one view of Superman endured—until 2013.
That summer, Warner Bros. released Man of Steel in which director Zack Snyder very consciously and explicitly presented a different interpretation of the hero—one rooted in Snyder’s view of man and existence. All artists who interpret and present heroes bring their vision of man and the world into existence, either consciously or subconsciously, explicitly or implicitly—a fact that is impossible to ignore with superheroes, especially when that hero is named Superman. Unlike Batman, Superman’s name itself invites reflection on man and existence: What does it mean for man to be super?
In a much different way than Reeve’s Superman does, Snyder’s answer to that question, as embodied by Henry Cavill, still echoes through pop culture today. It ignited a cultural firestorm and propelled the director from the fringes of the mainstream to a household name with the release of his third Superman story, Zack Snyder’s Justice League. The movie’s eponymous title hints at why it and its director are worth admiring, especially considering the circumstances of its release.
Director’s cuts are common in modern Hollywood, especially in the era of blockbuster franchises where studio notes from executives and audience reactions from test screenings can shape a story more than a director’s creative vision. Take, for example, the 2020 movie adaptation of video game franchise Sonic the Hedgehog. The design of the lead character in the first trailer drew such a negative reaction that Paramount pushed the movie’s release date back three months to redesign him. David Ayer, the director of Suicide Squad (2016), another DC Comics adaptation from Warner Bros., tweeted a multi-page statement beginning with, “The studio cut is not my movie” years after the movie’s release. An extreme case is the Star Wars expanded universe film, Solo: A Star Wars Story. Directing duo Phil Lord and Christopher Miller were fired with “several weeks left to shoot” to which “both [LucasFilm President Kathleen] Kennedy and [they] alluded to differing visions for the project.” Industry veteran Ron Howard took over the director’s chair and was credited as the movie’s sole director.
Even with these examples in mind, Snyder’s experience on Justice League (2017) still sounds like a work of fiction. Similar to Lord and Miller, Snyder left during the production phase and was replaced by an industry veteran: television producer and director of Avengers and Avengers: Age of Ultron Joss Whedon. Whedon delivered a two-hour Justice League movie to Warner Bros. that featured about eighty minutes of entirely new footage alongside a repurposed forty minutes of the 240-minute movie Snyder shot. The studio released Whedon’s version in theaters on November 17, 2017. Snyder had no involvement with it, even though he is the credited director. In fact, after Snyder’s loved ones and confidants saw it, they told him, “You can never see that movie.” This distance from the theatrical cut differentiates Snyder from Ayer who directed the studio-mandated reshoots of Suicide Squad and participated in the movie’s promotional tour. Perhaps this difference in approach between the two directors was due to everything Snyder went through before and during the production of Justice League.
The chain of events leading to Snyder’s departure from the movie began during post-production on the second film in the trilogy, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. The version released in theaters on March 25, 2016 was thirty-two minutes shorter than Snyder’s cut, which was eventually released on home media as Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Ultimate Edition. This process strained Snyder’s relationship with Warners Bros. During production, “the studio gave Snyder the power to go anywhere he chose with its most valuable characters, and he always went somewhere other. . . ‘than what they wanted.’” (Note: The quote within the quote is Snyder’s.) After its release, “harsh reviews for Batman v Superman demolished [the studio’s] confidence in [him].” Snyder and writer Chris Terrio rewrote Justice League with a strict two-hour run time. Rumors of discord and tension persisted throughout principal photography. Then, during post-production, Snyder’s daughter Autumn committed suicide.
Snyder stepped down from Justice League because he and his wife/long-time production partner, Deborah, “realiz[ed] 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.” It was a battle Snyder had grown weary over the years even before his Superman story. Like Dawn of Justice, his cut of his adaptation of Watchmen (2009) was only released on home media. He received greater pushback for his first original movie, Sucker Punch (2011). “That was the first time where I really faced. . . a true radical restructuring of a film for it to be more commercial,” Snyder reflected before adding, “And there is a director’s cut of that movie. . . yet to be released.” The reviews for Sucker Punch were harsh, and, unlike Justice League, it hasn’t yet accumulated enough audience support to entice Warner Bros. to release Snyder’s cut.
Almost immediately upon the theatrical release of Justice League, fans drafted a Change.org petition, asking for Snyder’s version. It was signed by nearly 180,000 people. Soon, ForSnyderCut.com, a website containing fan testimonials and analyses about the importance of Snyder’s Superman stories, went live. A fan campaign was born, self-dubbed “#ReleaseTheSnyderCut,” after a hashtag that @MoviesThatMaher tweeted only four days after the release of the theatrical cut. The campaign eventually developed from hashtags to word-of-mouth activism, a plane banner at San Diego Comic-Con, and supportive tweets from Hollywood A-Listers and stars of Dawn of Justice and Justice League, Gal Gadot and Ben Affleck. Three years later, on May 20, 2020, Snyder and Cavill announced that Zack Snyder’s Justice League would stream on Warner Media’s upcoming platform HBOMax.
A little less than a year later, the movie was released with the following sentence prefacing the opening credits: “This film is presented in a 4:3 format to preserve the integrity of Zack Snyder’s creative vision.” Rarely, if ever, is the artist’s vision the focus of modern movie production. It certainly hadn’t been the focus of Snyder’s career, especially with his DC Comics adaptations. In fact, any attempt to stick to his vision with his Superman story was met with extreme cultural pushback.
Yet, in spite of the rejection Snyder received from the studio and many members of the media, fans still willed his movie into mainstream existence. What did these fans find so inspiring in movies that others snubbed their noses at and mocked? The triumph of the release of Zack Snyder’s Justice League can only be truly appreciated by answering that question and examining the philosophical roots of Snyder’s Superman.
Novelist Ayn Rand wrote:
I write—and read—for the sake of the story. . . .“The Goal of My Writing,” The Romantic Manifesto
What kind of men do I want to see in real life—and why? What kind of events, that is, human actions, do I want to see taking place—and why? What kind of experience do I want to live through, that is, what are my goals—and why?
Her purpose when writing was to create people and a world she wanted to see. Snyder uses a similar approach when making his art: “I aim my movies, as much as I can, at myself.” He thinks about the kinds of movies he wants to see and why. The “why” is fundamental to understanding his stories and his version of Superman.
In the introduction of the behind-the-scenes book about Man of Steel’s production process, Snyder explained why he wanted to see a Superman movie:
The single point at which everything we know and everything we question exist[s] in one place; the ultimate crossroads in the journey of discovering the true meaning of “self”; the collision point of science and religion, tangible and ethereal, physical and philosophical; the place where a question that may never truly have an answer can be embodied in a singular character—in many ways, that is the why of Superman.“Introduction,” Man of Steel: Inside the Legendary World of Superman
Snyder’s Superman is intentionally the embodiment of the abstract ideas at the root of man’s existence. Those concepts are at the core of the character’s arc within Snyder’s trilogy, and Snyder addresses them earnestly and authentically.
In Man of Steel, Clark Kent becomes Superman because he discovers his potential and actively chooses to make Earth his home instead of trying to revive his birthworld of Krypton. The title’s emphasis is important: Clark is not the Steel Man; he is the Man of Steel. The story explores what it means to be a man, especially one with uncommon abilities. Clark meets his biological father Jor-El, who explains the meaning of their family crest, the symbol on Superman’s chest: “The symbol of the House of El means ‘Hope.’ Embodied within that hope is the fundamental belief in the potential of every person to be a force for good. That’s what you can bring them.” Jor-El wants to help his son find his place in the world. In doing so, he passes down his worldview—one which is based on seeing people as individuals, not as members of a group. Notice the use of the word potential. He believes that every person can be or do good, but he can only make that choice on his own.
In Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Snyder inverts the conflict of Man of Steel. The people of Earth (mostly personified through Batman) grapple with the existence of Superman while Superman grapples with their treatment of him. A montage of news coverage frames the story’s central questions and provides hypothetical answers. One response in particular resonates loudly. Superman emerges from the flames of a failed rocket launch, hoisting the capsule above his head like the Greek Titan Atlas. Over this visual, a voice opines, completing the scene, “The fact is, maybe he’s not some sort of devil or Jesus character. Maybe he’s just a guy trying to do the right thing.” Humanity is learning to see Superman the way Jor-El taught Superman to see humanity—not as an individual defined by his abilities, but as an individual defined by what he chooses to do with his abilities. The emphasis is on the constant process of choosing and taking action.
Clark eventually defines and internalizes why he chooses to be Superman. Even though he possesses immense ability, he is still only one man; despite the overwhelming amount of cries for help in the world, he has to decide who to save. Before attempting to destroy the apocalyptic monster Doomsday in the film’s climax, he calmly and warmly tells his love, Lois Lane, “This is my world. You are my world.” Clark has decided to be Superman to protect his values, and he fights to the death doing so. Batman and the people of Earth consequently begin to admire him for his ideals and actions.
Two key scenes in Zack Snyder’s Justice League show this fully self-actualized Superman. Near the middle of the story, the other superheroes try to reincarnate and recruit Superman for the team they are building in order to repel an alien conqueror. Batman yells to a disoriented post-resurrection Superman, “The world needs you.” The appeal falls on deaf ears. Only the sight of Lois, and subsequent time spent with her, fully revives Clark so that he is able and willing to help save the world. He later joins the team by swooping in right as the alien conqueror is about to deliver the decisive blow, uttering only two words: “Not impressed.” He then smashes the villain’s weapon with a single movement. Superman, the ultimate hero in this universe, acts swiftly and confidently to protect his world because it holds who and what he loves.
Snyder’s Superman is the artistic embodiment of the kind of hero and man Snyder wants to see exist—a man who embraces his own abilities, believes it’s possible to be or do good, and fights to protect his values. In Zack Snyder’s Justice League in particular, this vision inspires other humans, particularly the members of the Justice League—and by extension, the viewer. That inspiration is what helped ignite the passion of the members of the #ReleaseTheSnyderCut campaign, despite the cacophony of voices decrying the director’s work as dark and dour. It’s what helped them reject arguments from detractors such as that Snyder was “systematically destroying Superman not because he doesn’t understand the character but because he profoundly dislikes the character.”
In this light, it is curious that this amount and kind of vitriol is hurled at Snyder. Inspiring people to embrace their abilities and fight for their values doesn’t seem like a controversial idea. Except for many people it is.
Snyder once described the beginnings of his Superman, “Maybe my first brush with the idea of the renaissance Superman came from [Ayn Rand].” Both before and after that statement, Snyder has made countless references to the controversial writer who crafted two of the twentieth century’s most popular American novels, one of which Snyder has expressed the desire to adapt.
The Fountainhead is a novel that tells the story of Howard Roark’s struggle to maintain his spiritual independence. In 2016, Snyder announced that he had begun crafting his adaptation: “I’ve always felt like The Fountainhead was such a thesis on the creative process and what it is to create something.” Years later, after leaving Justice League and completing an unrelated four-minute short, Snyder turned his creative energy to the book and stated in 2020 that he had completed more than 700 pages of storyboards. Likewise, references to Roark and the novel’s climatic housing project appear in Zack Snyder’s Justice League.
Still, Snyder’s understanding of Rand’s ideas is deeper than his appreciation of a novel that is sometimes name-dropped by Hollywood “freethinkers.” Early in his career, he discussed the relationship between his love for bodybuilding and his art. The discipline and seriousness with which he approaches both demonstrates his reverence for them. “I’ve always been influenced by the human form,” he explained and then referenced a Shakespeare quote:
What (a) piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable: in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god: the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals!Hamlet
This excerpt from Hamlet has clear parallels to Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism, as it explicitly mentions the virtue of human existence and the nobility of man’s reasoning mind, two concepts Rand considered to be of utmost importance. Snyder is aware of this connection: “I’m a big fan of that Shakespeare quote. . .because I have this sort of Ayn Rand aesthetic.” Over a decade later, Snyder detailed his thoughts on aesthetics in a podcast discussion:
I think when you find. . . what makes you do your best work, it’s okay to be rude, and I don’t mean this in a bad way, about wanting it, about pursuing it. . . . I think sometimes people are bashful about wanting it. They’re bashful about the pursuit of it. They feel self-conscious. ‘Am I being rude? Am I being selfish?’ And I think that’s the thing that’s okay to let go of. . .The NonProphet Podcast
The approach to work and art that Snyder described echoes Rand’s ideas, especially when he said on the same podcast that the term “selfishness” got a “bad name” by being associated with “at the expense of others.” Rand labeled this concept of false association as a “package-deal,” an error in thinking in which someone puts two unique concepts into one concept or “package” because he fails to properly delineate the essential differences between the two. Whether or not Snyder has read Rand’s nonfiction is unknown, but he has clearly internalized some of her ideas, even if just by intensely studying The Fountainhead. Likewise, other important parts of her philosophy can be found in the director’s work.
Snyder’s Superman is an embodiment of Rand’s benevolent universe premise. Rand wrote, “One feels certain that somewhere on earth—even if not anywhere in one’s surroundings or within one’s reach—a proper, human way of life is possible to human beings, and justice matters.” After Superman actualizes himself in the second movie, he acts upon justice properly understood—treating each individual as that individual is. This heroism brings about the titular “Dawn of Justice” and inspires the creation of the Justice League in the third movie.
Moreover, the concept of hope that Jor-El teaches Superman in the first film is what Superman models for the other characters in the third movie. This lesson is reminiscent of Rand’s idea that a person should “properly grant to strangers. . . . [t]he generalized respect and good will which one should grant to a human being in the name of the potential value he represents.” If Snyder is unfamiliar with Rand’s nonfiction, these parallels are especially remarkable.
Because of these similarities, many of Snyder’s critics have been quick to call him a devout Rand follower. Some have even labeled him an Objectivist, a person who agrees with Rand’s philosophy, going as far as to say that, when you know what he believes, “a lot of things snap into place. Especially things about Man of Steel and Pa Kent’s absolutely baffling worldview.”
Snyder, though, has been critical of Rand on a few occasions. On one podcast, he remarked, “There is a naivety to her philosophy.” On another, he agreed when the host characterized her as “a pretty mediocre writer.” He then stated that “She wanted to be Tolstoy.” His most critical comments came in 2019: “I think she’s incredible and insane and she’s always said story first. . . But it was easy for her to fall victim to her own popularity, and she drank her own Kool-Aid.” This comment is particularly interesting, as Snyder is able to pull positive inspiration from her despite these criticisms.
Clearly, Snyder’s relationship with Rand’s ideas is complex, more so than his critics may accept or lead others to believe. Ultimately, the agreements he has with her philosophy are likely best described as “sense of life” agreements, which Rand described as “the psychological mechanism which enables man to create a realm such as art.” She further outlined how an artist’s sense of life operates:
It is the artist’s sense of life that controls and integrates his work, directing the innumerable choices he has to make, from the choice of subject to the subtlest details of style. It is the viewer’s or reader’s sense of life that responds to a work of art by a complex, yet automatic reaction of acceptance and approval, or rejection and condemnation.“Art and Sense of Life,” The Romantic Manifesto
Snyder’s work, particularly Zack Snyder’s Justice League, is controlled and integrated by a mind that operates based on individualism and the benevolent universe premise. Snyder created a Superman who acts confidently and independently according to his values, and when the world learns to treat him justly, its people are inspired by his heroism (just as viewers are inspired by Snyder’s movies). This intellectual foundation is what makes Snyder’s art worth admiring, especially in a world where victimhood, suffering, and self-abdication are celebrated.
The view of man and the world that Snyder creates clashes violently with these destructive ideas and, likely, the sense of life of the critics and artists who champion them. It’s clear why such people would fight so vehemently against someone who causes them such turmoil. It’s also clear how important it is that Snyder was able to overcome them, and personal tragedy, to release his cut of Justice League with the help of others who share, appreciate, or are inspired by his sense of life.
The falling action of Zack Snyder’s Justice League embodies how Snyder impacts his audience with his worldview. Cyborg, a member of the Justice League, listens to an audio recording from his deceased father who urges him to “Take your place among the brave ones. The ones that were, that are, that have yet to be. It’s time you stand, fight, discover, heal, love, win. The time is now.” This fatherly advice that is delivered via voiceover speaks directly to the audience, encouraging them to choose and take action, fight for their world, let go of being self-conscious about pursuing their best work, and be and do good. The speech plays even more intensely given that the movie is dedicated to Snyder’s deceased daughter Autumn.
It also harkens back to Batman’s forming of the Justice League in the first act of the film. Snyder shapes the movie around the general culture’s affinity for Batman, illustrating how Bruce Wayne convinces each member of the team to fight for their world. Thus, the characters become a surrogate for the audience as Wayne helps them understand the importance of Superman. With this central idea, Snyder created a piece of art that extends beyond the comic book movie genre. The movie and its release following a three-year-long campaign are a testament to artistic integrity, individualism, and justice in a world that sorely needs these ideas—and if you share Snyder’s sense of life, in our world, it means hope.