Earlier this week, something funny happened on HBO Max. Some viewers claimed that when they went to stream the new Tom & Jerry movie, they got something very different: Zack Snyder’s Justice League. The goof was resolved quickly; one Twitter user said they only saw an hour of the film before the stream was cut off, and Tom & Jerry stopped being a Snyder Cut speakeasy. The incident was a funny blip 10 days before Zack Snyder’s Justice League was scheduled to hit the streamer for real, a tantalizing tease for a fandom that has incessantly demanded to see this movie more or less since Justice League hit theaters in a disastrous state four years ago. In about a week, Warner Bros. will finally release what, for all those years, has mostly been theoretical, a hashtag and a dream. It might’ve been better for most of us online if it had stayed that way.

The Snyder Cut is difficult to talk about without talking about the people who demanded it. For years, countless social-media posts and forum threads effectively were the Snyder Cut: a vehement rejection of the theatrical cut, and a fervent belief that the real movie — the ür-DC superhero film — was out there somewhere. A Change.org petition demanding access to Snyder’s version went viral, and with a rabid audience demonstrably present, publications from comics blogs to the Ringer gathered around in fascination or outright support.

Any discussion about internet fandom is difficult. Online groups are often characterized by their loudest voices, and when a fandom is founded over something as extreme as rejecting a $300 million, widely panned blockbuster while insisting they’re being denied access to the secret, hidden good version, it’s hard to imagine the fans being chill about that. What’s more, online movements are often inchoate and leaderless, so while the vast majority of fans who want a Snyder Cut may very well be reasonable people interested in some extracurricular online camaraderie (even raising money for charity), they aren’t necessarily influencing the more toxic members of their cohort, who turn the discourse into a crusade against supposed malicious intent on DC and Warner Bros’ part against the True Fans, who only Zack Snyder understands.

Even the phrase “Snyder Cut” is a bit of a misnomer, because while Zack Snyder has said on-record that he had an assembly cut he took with him and tinkered with after leaving Justice League, it wasn’t a finished film. Turning the pieces into one reportedly cost Warner Bros. $70 million, which Snyder and others say went almost entirely toward post-production costs like finishing visual effects, with very little new footage filmed. None of that really matters; the important thing is that a complete, untampered version of his Justice League will be here, vindicating fans foul and fair alike. And everyone else is along for the ride, as extras in a strange, fraught production no one signed on for.

Zack Snyder’s Justice League is an unusually loaded release. It’s a do-over on a film that essentially killed Warner Brothers’ initial plans for its DC cinematic universe. The new version arguably would not exist if Warner did not have a new streaming platform it desperately wants to succeed. On the one hand, it’s a filmmaker’s attempt to finish a work he had to abandon after a terrible personal tragedy; on the other, some reporting alleges that the film still would not have gone smoothly had fate been less cruel. The film’s existence is a perceived victory for toxic fans, and it legitimizes online harassment. It’s also a reward for fans of a more mundane stripe who just want more of a thing they love.

The film is a cultural minefield, a Jurassic Park situation where a bunch of people decided to clone velociraptors without thinking too hard about why we might be better off now that velociraptors are extinct. Toxic fandoms need oxygen to sustain themselves, and with Zack Snyder’s Justice League, Warner Bros. is eagerly pumping the bellows in the hopes that fans will subscribe to HBO Max in droves to finally get something they feel has been unfairly withheld from them. It’s the sort of cynicism that would make Jurassic Park proprietor John Hammond feel proud.

In the absence of face-to-face interaction, online life has a way of reducing people to a collection of stated opinions. Whether those opinions are sincere or full-on trolling doesn’t matter — everyone is just an avatar and some text looking for people to share opinions with, and build their online identity around. This is, at a very basic level, what online fandom is: people wearing avatars of enthusiasm, superhero alter-egos where they can forget work or school, and just be people who really like, say, Zack Snyder’s DC films. So what happens after they’ve been offered an unimaginable success?

Warner Bros. Pictures

Before Zack Snyder’s Justice League was announced, the vocal Snyder Cut fandom might have burned out on its own, as all fires do with no fuel to sustain them. Now that there’s a real, concrete movie, things might not end so neatly. Zack Snyder’s vision of Justice League wasn’t limited to one movie, or even the three DC movies he’s made so far; it was meant to be the definitive cinematic interpretation of the DC Universe, a wellspring from which a dozen other movies would flow. Over the last several years, Warner Bros’ has carefully pivoted from this vision with its subsequent movies. All of them — Aquaman, Shazam!, Birds of Prey, and Wonder Woman 1984 — have been complete tonal departures that also maintain a level of plausible deniability about continuing Snyder’s vision. Other movies — like 2019’s Joker and the forthcoming The Batman — are set in other universes entirely. A year ago, Zack Snyder’s DC universe seemed to be over. The release of Zack Snyder’s Justice League suggests that status is only temporary.

And the fans are now latching onto that suggestion. Most fandom is a state of willful delusion about its own importance: It is generally foolish to think billion-dollar companies care about your opinion of a movie. When it seems like they do, that feels intoxicating and empowering, even if the power is only an illusion. It’s like hearing your crush say they’ll go out with you “When Waluigi is added to Smash” and responding, “So you’re saying there’s a chance.” A taste of power can turn the tiniest glimpse of blue sky into a wide-open universe of possibilities. The #ReleaseTheSnyderCut stans have that blue sky, and they’re responding with another hashtag: #RestoreTheSnyderVerse.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Just before what became known as the DC Extended Universe started to take shape with Man of Steel, there was going to be another Justice League. Mad Max: Fury Road’s George Miller was signed to direct, with actors already cast. But the film fell apart just before shooting was scheduled to begin in 2008. Looking back, it’s a project from a different era, one where The Dark Knight was a monumental success, but also the only one for DC Comics on screen. There was no Arrowverse back in 2008, and there was barely even a Marvel Cinematic Universe yet. Miller hadn’t yet made Fury Road, and did not have the feverish level of fandom he has now — his last movie was Happy Feet. Miller’s Justice League: Mortal, as it was called, would have been amazing, maybe. If it had been a success, maybe fans would be clamoring for a MillerVerse right now. If it hadn’t, maybe they would be writing to WB asking for Christopher Nolan to take it over. Either way, they wouldn’t have anticipated Snyder’s interpretation, and they wouldn’t be calling for it. Fandom exists in the tension between obsessing over previous joys and anticipating new ones, but it can only speak of the future in the language of the past.

Photo: Clay Enos/Warner Brothers

At its most toxic, fandom is restrictive. As people nag creators to focus only on re-creating the things the fans previously loved, they chase away the new visionaries who would make their favorite things more vibrant and lasting. They also chase away the ideas that would expand the worlds they love. The fervor the calls for a Snyder Cut worked up came with a requisite denial of what might eventually replace the failed Justice League at some point in the future. Perhaps it would be something better, perhaps something worse. Again: No one knew the director of Babe: Pig in the City was a few years away from making one of the most acclaimed action movies of the decade. Fandom is terrific at boosting the things it loves. It’s fairly bad at predicting — or for that matter, empowering — the thing it’ll love next.

Zack Snyder’s Justice League is ultimately just a movie. Its release isn’t any sort of catastrophe, but it is disruptive to the way films are discussed and received, distorting the relationship between fandom and pop culture in a way that’s too messy to cleanly parse, and establishing a status quo that can ruin discussions before they even get started. It’s a wrench in the gears of pop-cultural discourse, and a wildly cynical one at that. The only party that truly stands to gain anything real is Warner Brothers, the corporation with a streaming platform to promote, with a ready-made audience of easy marks it could sway with just the right project.

Trouble is, a reactionary fanbase is easy to earn, and hard to keep. Courting one risks giving up the long-term growth and diversification that’s vital for sustaining superhero franchises, in exchange for the short-term gain from visibly rewarding a crowd that won’t ever be truly satisfied.

The best pop culture shows us where we’re at, and hints at what could be. It’s hard to see this movie as anything other than a four-hour refusal to move on, an indulgent invitation for Snyder fans to give HBO Max their money, then stay exactly where they are.