The unusual and messy development history that led to Zack Snyder's Justice League being made and getting a release warrants its own page. Some additional details about the changes the film underwent can be seen on the already copious Trivia section of Justice League.
A Creative Shift
Warner Bros. initially placed a substantial amount of faith in Zack Snyder (who also had support from Christopher Nolan) to develop a Shared Universe of DC movies, with a planned four-movie Myth Arc (later extended to a five-movie arc) serving as a foundation for the franchise known as DC Extended Universe. Even though Man of Steel underperformed relative to financial expectations, the movie still brought a lot of money in, and Snyder's proposed sequel — Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice — seemed like a surefire way to course-correct. But following the split audience response to the test screenings of Batman v Superman, a particularly harsh critical reception to the film, and a significant drop-off in viewership after the film's opening weekend, Warner Bros. got cold feet at the thought of giving Zack Snyder carte blanche to do whatever he wanted with his planned Justice League film, initially proposed as a two-parter. Nonetheless, they agreed to allow him to make the film, since it was already deep into pre-production, as long as some of the darker elements were excised and the story was told in a single installment, with potential options for sequels exploring his original plan open in the event that the film did well. Ultimately, Snyder still got to film the vast majority of his original vision in a relatively Lighter and Softer narrative, albeit with some on-set revisions mandated by the studio (overseen by prominent DC Comics writer and publisher Geoff Johns, reportedly to the frustration of writer Chris Terrio).
Snyder and Johns managed to overhaul the entire script in seventeen days, due to the very short time between the release of Batman v Superman and the start of filming on Justice League, although Johns remained aboard to write additional material during principal photography. The general story structure was retained in these rewrites, with some dialogue added to bring in some comic relief to the story, although a planned Cliffhanger ending setting up the second part was scrapped (Snyder reworked the idea into the ending of a planned second installment of a trilogy, saving the intended second half of the two-part Justice League movie for a trilogy-capper instead). Filming otherwise went as planned, and Snyder's assembly cut was nearly five hours, but the plan was to lower that to something more manageable for theaters (presumably something just under three hours) with the hope of releasing an extended version on Blu-ray. However, an executive mandate arrived suggesting that Snyder had to cut his movie down to approximately two hours (credits included), leading to a highly-abbreviated version of the much longer film that was made being screened to executives. There was indications that the executives were anxious over the film still having several of the same elements that made the previous installment so controversial, and they assembled a team of writers to work on additional material for Snyder to film in the reshoots (which included the likes of Joss Whedon, Allan Heinberg, Seth Grahame-Smith, and Andrea Berloff).
Early on into the planned period of additional photography meant to address some of these concerns, Snyder's daughter Autumn committed suicide, leading to his willing departure from the project during post-production in order to take time to grieve with his family (most likely coupled with a lack of motivation to film executive-enforced reshoots). Likewise, Terrio and Johns also stepped away from writing for the film in favor of working on other projects (and though Johns remained involved with the movie as a producer due to his position at DC Films and spoke with the cast during the reshoots, his focus shifted toward writing and developing an abundance of DC projects like Doomsday Clock, Titans, Doom Patrol, Stargirl, Aquaman, SHAZAM!, and Wonder Woman 1984... the guy knows how to keep busy). Before he left, Snyder took a copy of his three hour and thirty-four minute cut of the film for safekeeping — a move which would prove to be instrumental down the road — while the studio kept his much longer assembly cut, which clocked in at nearly five hours. Sometime after exiting the film, Snyder repurposed his production company Cruel and Unusual Films into The Stone Quarry, which would make projects away from Warner Bros. for the first time since he directed Universal's Dawn of the Dead, as Snyder developed a new film, Army of the Dead (along with developing a franchise around it) and a currently-untitled Norse Mythology anime, all for Netflix. As it stood, it seemed like Snyder had moved on from DC movies and WarnerMedia altogether.
The Theatrical Cut
From here, the Warner Bros. executives gathered a committee of people within the DC Films circle to further rework Justice League to the studio's specifications to get the film ready by its already-scheduled November 17, 2017 release date. (Some executives were unsure of the stability of their positions after AT&T's acquisition of WarnerMedia, and were hoping that releasing the film on time would lead to larger end-of-year bonuses in the event of a smash hit, so they refused to delay the movie, and by extension keep Snyder from finishing that version of the film.) It was here where the Executive Meddling, already present in the inception of the project, really took off.
The studio selected Joss Whedon, who intended to write and direct a Batgirl spin-off film at the time and was already part of the team working on the rewrites, most likely due to his experience in directing superhero ensemble films. Though Whedon was initially hired to film a few scenes, the producers on the film decided to extend the period of reshoots to completely overhaul Justice League, and with no plans to delay the film, Whedon was given the herculean and unenviable task of completely retooling an expensive blockbuster in the span of a few months. The end result was that he essentially remade the bulk of the film using the general structure of Snyder's movie as a template, but mixed elements of principal photography with an abundance of new scenes that he wrote and directed. Much of Snyder's footage and intended story ended up on the cutting room floor, and the theatrical film was heavily altered from what Snyder and Terrio intended. The high-stress environment would lead to Hostility on the Set during the reshoots later alluded to by the cast and crew years after the fact.
In November 2017, the long-awaited Justice League film came out. Overall reception to the film, while relatively warmer than Batman v Superman for featuring a lighter tone and a more fun atmosphere, was still worse than Man of Steel (with criticism aimed at several scenes with poor special effects due to Warner Bros. rushing them to meet the film's release date, an unremarkable villain, a generic story, and tonal inconsistencies), and the movie's global box office ultimately fell short of the standalone Superman film in spite of studio aspirations for it to perform similarly to — if not substantially better than — the Justice League predecessor. A handful of Whedon's filmed scenes were taken out of the film to keep the runtime at exactly two hours, and Whedon himself seemed unhappy with the final product. He did no promotion for the film and has not spoken of it since its release, later announcing that he would leave his planned Batgirl movie. Snyder remained the sole credited director on the film per Directors' Guild of America rules despite the released film having little to do with what he shot. DC Films, meanwhile, was completely overhauled, with several key executives either taking demotions, moving to other positions in the WarnerMedia empire (as it was the case for Geoff Johns), or outright being fired from the company, with the studio going away from their aspirations to have a super-interconnected franchise close to the Marvel Studios model in favor of having more director-driven standalone films with less exorbitant budgets.
Just before the film was released, fans were quick to realize that the movie that they got was not what Snyder had planned to release, in spite of several key creatives at Warner Bros.' insistence that the finished film was based entirely on Snyder's vision, that he selected Whedon to take over, and that Whedon only filmed a handful of new scenes. (That the stark contrast between Snyder's and Whedon's tones and styles were blatantly obvious to even the most casual viewer, making it easy to see which scenes where Whedon's and which were Snyder's, didn't help.) To say that people didn't take that well was an understatement. A grassroots fan-driven campaign using the hashtag #ReleaseTheSnyderCut ensued, with the aim of getting Snyder's original work (nicknamed the "Snyder Cut", after "The Richard Donner Cut" of Superman II, a movie that also had executive meddling and a second director take over to make heavy changes in the midst of production) released in some capacity.
Initially, this push fell on deaf ears, as only a pair of connected deleted scenes from the film — involving Superman getting into his costume for the first time since his resurrection and meeting Alfred Pennyworth to learn the whereabouts of the team — were included on the Blu-ray. Shortly after the release of the film, Snyder started using the social media platform Vero to showcase several greyscale images (film stills, behind-the-scenes shots, unfinished VFX and storyboards alike) of the three hour and thirty-four minute (or two-hundred and fourteen minute) iteration of the movie that he worked on, while others involved with the film began to speak openly about the large amounts of content excised from the film in the months that followed. While Snyder had no real hope that his version of the movie would be released at the time he started sharing this information, he kept dropping pictures, and fans campaigning for a release used the newly-revealed information and media to amplify their voices.
The fan campaign was largely ignored by Warner Bros. and DC Films for over two years, given that Justice League lost upwards of $60 million at the box office and there was little financial incentive to commit to spending more on a Blu-ray release for a new iteration of his film, not to mention that their focus was on getting DC Films to rebound — which it did with the blockbuster successes of Aquaman and Joker, both of which cleared $1 billion globally. Part of Warner Bros.'s insistence on ignoring the fan campaign stemmed from misinformation about how finished Snyder's version of the film was at the time of his departure, with some mistakenly believing that the movie (which was locked in sequence) was 100% completed and sitting in a vault, which was absolutely not the case since several visual effects shots were far from finalized. It was later estimated that finishing that version of the film, with no substantive post-production changes, would cost up to $40 million, which was a tall order for direct-to-video release of a movie that already lost a pretty big chunk of change. As such, the company line was that Zack Snyder's Justice League did not exist, which was Metaphorically True since finishing the film would require much more money than they were willing to spend at the time. In spite of this, the campaign persisted with various fan-funded actions (and endorsements from the cast and crew, along with other celebrites) to give mainstream visibility to the unreleased movie and gathered numerous supporters, including cast and crew.
The turning point came on the second anniversary of the theatrical release of the movie, in which Ben Affleck, Jason Momoa, Gal Gadot, and Ray Fisher shared images from the production to social media platforms, all tagged with #ReleaseTheSnyderCut, pushing for the completion and release of the film. While this generated renewed interest in the movie, Warner Bros. continued to state that there were no plans to finish and release the movie at that time. However, all was not as it appeared.
HBO Max Presents Zack Snyder's Justice League
Shortly after the campaign's second anniversary and following a call by executive Toby Emmerich, Snyder met with WarnerMedia and AT&T (the new parent companies of Warner Bros.), who were in the process of developing an all-encompassing streaming service in HBO Max, which was in need of new, exclusive content to entice new subscribers, especially since the COVID-19 Pandemic wrecked the theatrical industry and caused a surge in demand for content on streaming services. This played to Snyder's advantage, given that the footage of his movie was largely finished but was only visually incomplete; new footage, aside from some additional photography that could (mostly) be completed remotely, was not needed, as visual effects companies could handle the completion of the movie. HBO Max provided Snyder with a platform to release a completed version of his movie where a standard Direct to Video format would not suffice.
Snyder showcased his two-hundred-fourteen-minute cut of Justice League to interested executives early in 2020. Several weeks later, they would come to a decision to finish this version of the film for allegedly $20 million to $30 million. On May 20, 2020, following a watch party of Man of Steel, Snyder officially announced to his fanbase and the world at large that he would finally get to complete and release his version of the movie by 2021, with a press release from HBO Max arriving shortly afterward. In spite of their involvement with the original production, it was later confirmed that Geoff Johns and Jon Berg, who were no longer executives at DC Films at the time of the new cut's announcement, would not be credited on this version of the film at their own request (a symbolic move to support Snyder's creative freedom on this revised take on Justice League, even though a vast majority of the footage in Zack Snyder's Justice League was shot under their tenure at DC Films). June 18 saw the first teaser for the movie, showcasing Wonder Woman looking through some ancient ruins and featuring the first glimpse at Darkseid.
At the first DC FanDome event, the first full trailer was released, set to Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah". At the dedicated panel, it was also revealed that the finished film would be approximately four hours — give or take a few minutes — in length, approximately twenty-six minutes longer than the version that he had initially planned. The movie was revealed to first be released as a miniseries before later being converted into a single film. The footage included in the extended edition is a mix of content that was excised from the previous Director's Cut and additional photography. At the second DC FanDome event, Junkie XL shared a preview of his musical score, which included a snippet of the main theme of the film.
In September, it was confirmed that the movie would get eight days of new filming so that Snyder could put the finishing touches on specific scenes and add a handful of new moments, with Ray Fisher and Ben Affleck confirmed to be involved and Henry Cavill and Gal Gadot expected to return. In the weeks prior to that announcement, word got out that Harry Lennix filmed a brief cameo as Calvin Swanwick. Later, it would be reported that Amber Heard and Joe Manganiello would be among the cast members that filmed new material, alongside Jared Leto, who was not involved with the original production. Zack Snyder would eventually confirm that he was able to film pick-ups with Ezra Miller via Zoom, implying that the same was — or could be — done with actors who weren't available for the short period of filming.
It would later come to light that the budget to finish this version was closer to $70 million when accounting for the filming of new scenes — in addition to completing the visual effects of the new scenes, the scenes that were already in the official director's cut, and the scenes reinstated from the assembly cut. In any event, it appears as though Snyder was able to convince the powers that be allow him to make his movie more ambitious than first planned. On November 17, the third anniversary of the theatrical release of the film, a pair of new takes on the "Hallelujah" trailer were revealed — one in monochrome, and the other in color.
At the start of 2021, Snyder's film neared completion, with only a few scenes needing additional work before the final deadline. Snyder revealed that his movie would ultimately not be a four-part miniseries after all, but a single film of over four hours, divided up into six chapters and an epilogue. Snyder also noted that he expected the film to get an R-rating from the MPAA.