Chris Terrio is not pulling his punches anymore. For five years the Oscar-winning screenwriter of Argo kept his mouth shut about his work on the DC films Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Justice League, even as scorn from critics and fans exacerbated already-painful behind-the-scenes memories. Worst of all, he agreed with many of their complaints.
He described the films that Warner Bros. released to theaters in 2016 and 2017 as incoherent misfires, undermined by corporate meddling, poor franchise planning, and tone-deaf decisions that prioritized costly VFX sequences over coherent storytelling. Terrio believes that Zack Snyder’s director’s cuts of both are much stronger, if still imperfect movies—an overall vindication of their work together.
In an exclusive, wide-ranging interview, the screenwriter said the #SnyderCut of Justice League, recently released as a four-hour-plus event on HBO Max, righted a kind of cinematic wrong perpetrated by studio leadership that has now almost entirely moved on from Warner Bros.
(The studio did not provide any comment on his remarks.)
Terrio first joined the DC Universe to rewrite an existing Batman v Superman script because its Batman actor (the director of Argo) had qualms about the project. “I think the studio brought me in to appease Ben Affleck, because they thought, Okay, well, we have this movie star who is reluctant about doing this, so why don’t we bring in his guy?” Terrio said.
The screenwriter was frank about trying to make sense of the film’s warring heroes, turning their fight into a metaphor for a divided America, while attempting to fix elements he too found nonsensical or offensive. Studio officials then demanded that 30 minutes be removed from the theatrical cut, most likely because shorter run times mean more daily screenings, often resulting in higher box office earnings. Terrio said that act sabotaged the narrative.
“If you took 30 minutes out of Argo, as they were from Batman/Superman, it would make zero sense at all. Critics would say, ‘what a lazy screenplay,’ because the characters don’t have motivations and it’s not coherent,” Terrio said. “And I would agree with them.”
Even the title of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice was a disaster, he said, that primed audiences to roll their eyes at the film well before its release.
Terrio hoped Justice League would be a better experience. He was very wrong.
After watching Joss Whedon’s version of that film, Terrio was so disgusted that he explored taking his name off the movie. Especially galling to him was the sidelining of Ray Fisher’s tragic hero, Cyborg, whose arc the actor himself had helped craft.
Fisher has been outspoken for months about his experience making Justice League, following years of silence. Now Terrio is doing the same. He said he bottled up his feelings about the theatrical cuts to avoid hurting their casts and crews. Now that Snyder and Terrio’s preferred versions of the films are available to the public, the screenwriter is finally opening up about how it all went wrong in the first place.
Vanity Fair: Zack Snyder’s Justice League is now out in the world. How do you feel about it?
Chris Terrio: I am so happy and relieved that all these thousands of artists and craftspeople all over the world finally can have their work seen by the public, and all the work that Zack and the actors put into this can now be seen. It’s sort of a gift that we got from HBO Max, because it wouldn’t have been possible a few years ago.
Can you point at something specific that you are glad gets a showcase in the new version?
Willem Dafoe’s performance in the Aquaman story. Obviously the character Iris West [played by Kiersey Clemons in the Flash rescue sequence] and, most centrally, Ray Fisher’s performance as Cyborg. It was always the heart of the film to me, and just meant so much to me personally, because so much of my heart and life were put into that story. That is the thing about this version of Justice League, that none of it was done cynically or as a money grab, or an attempt to sell Happy Meal toys. It really was personal for me and for Zack and for many of the actors.
Is it true you were banned from the Justice League set?
I wouldn’t say that I was banned. [The studio] attitude was: “We’ll take it from here.” I was frankly shocked when I saw the Snyder Cut and saw how much of the original script was shot. With some small revisions, they shot the script, and I understand that sometimes that was a battle for Zack.
How did you feel about the version that Joss Whedon assembled after Zack left the project?
When those personal touches were removed from the film in the 2017 version, I was silent because I couldn’t really say anything, but of course it hurt. All that remained was a dinosaur skeleton of what had been a great, lumbering beast. It might’ve been a big, unruly beast, and obviously it’s four hours and the movie is maximalist and it’s operatic and, sure, it’s a little crazy, but I think the movie is crazy in the best way.
Can we start at the beginning with Zack? You worked on Batman v Superman. Can I assume that was a good experience, at least with him, since you signed on to another movie?
Ben [Affleck] called me and said that he was working on this film, which was a Superman film in which he was going to play Batman. So he asked if I would read the script and consider doing a rewrite. He asked if I would do some character work. So it was already determined and storyboarded that Batman was going to be trying to kill Superman and that Batman was going to have gone down a dark road. He was branding criminals, and it had certain dark elements that were nonnegotiable and already in the story.
What did Affleck want you to do?
My job was to create a story and a tone, really, in which Batman could be that person, and in which two heroes could get to the point where they’re fighting to the death.
What was your approach?
I came into it thinking the only way that this could work is as a fever dream or as a revenge tragedy. I thought, How do we create a story in which Bruce Wayne is traumatized by the war of Krypton coming to Earth, and in which he enters into this kind of madness? He becomes Captain Ahab, and he won’t listen to saner voices, like Alfred, for example, who are telling him to just see reason. He’s a man possessed.
So the film was dark by its nature. As I worked on the movie, it seemed to me that it was a snapshot of what I was feeling on the ground in the country, which maybe didn’t become apparent until the madness and division that came about from the last presidency. I thought this superhero movie could be about getting into our worst natures, but then coming out of that into a redemption.
What did you want to avoid?
I didn’t want to make it a sitcom joke that Batman and Superman are trying to kill each other. If I’m going to work on this movie, it’s going to be dark and operatic, and it’s going to be uncomfortable. Zack and I come from very different approaches to filmmaking, but I immediately liked him because he isn’t cynical and he wears his heart on his sleeve. I’m cynical enough for any room that I enter into.
How did things develop from there?
I wrote drafts of the Batman/Superman movie, which wasn’t called Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice by me. I did not name the script. In fact, I found out what the movie was called along with the rest of the world on the internet. I was not consulted on the title of the film, and I was as surprised as anyone. I would not have named it Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.
Was that Zack’s choice?
I don’t know exactly who named it, but I suspect it was the studio and I suspect it was marketing, to be honest with you. It might have been the first step toward creating ill will for the film. I suspect that putting the words “Batman” and “Superman” into the title had some marketing component to it.
I think you’re right that that title did rub people the wrong way.
I heard it and I thought, It just sounds self-important and clueless in a way. Tone-deaf. The intention of the film was to do something interesting and dark and complex, not quite as Las Vegas, bust ’em up, WWE match as Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.
How did you feel about the version of BvS that was first released?
I was proud of the script when I completed it, but it turns out that when you remove the 30 minutes that give the characters motivation for the climax, the film just doesn’t work. As we learned from the two versions of Justice League, you can’t skip on the character and think the audience will give a shit about the VFX. That stuff was later restored in the extended version. I guess it’s called the—
The Ultimate Edition, remastered and released on HBO Max this March.
So this house of cards that had been built in order to motivate this clash between America’s two favorite heroes made no sense at all. That was what happened with Batman/Superman. The movie was always was going to be dark. There were always going to be people who just didn’t want to see that version of a comic book world, and I get that. But what hurt was the criticism that the script was not coherent, because when I turned in the script to the studio—which they, by all accounts, were happy with—it made sense.
What was your relationship with Zack?
Good. I have nothing whatsoever bad to say about Zack. He has a skill set that I don’t have, as a visualist. And he has a contagious excitement—that when you describe a scene, he almost can’t contain himself and he just wants to go draw it or paint it. Zack never for a second turned his back on me or doubted my work.
After Batman/Superman, many of my Hollywood friends just stopped talking to me because they sort of thought that somehow I was complicit in this very public failure of a studio film. You learn pretty quickly who your real friends are and who your air-kiss Hollywood friends are. Zack could not have been more supportive and never stopped believing that together, we were going to create this big, epic DC world.
How did you feel when that journey ended prematurely with Justice League’s upheaval?
I went into such depression when the film was taken away and rewritten. But I didn’t even feel entitled to be depressed, because Zack and Debbie [Snyder, his wife and coproducer] were dealing with their family tragedy. Measured against that, losing the film that you wrote seems like nothing at all. But it did hurt. It hurts to think that I cared so much about these characters and worked on nothing else for a very long time.
Do you feel like the title, and the cuts for length, made it harder for people to appreciate things that did work in Batman v Superman?
That’s exactly right. The audience has to know that they’re in good hands. The minute that you lose them from a story point of view, they lose the desire to look at it generously. Once the critics decide a movie is incoherent, it’s just a pile-on. Then they attack everything. There’s a line at the beginning of the film where a warlord says to Lois Lane, “They didn’t tell me the interview was with a lady.” And Lois replies, “I’m not a lady, I’m a journalist.” So one reviewer held up this line as proof positive of my stupidity and my inability to write Lois, or to write at all.
Well, the character of Lois in the movie was inspired by the journalist Marie Colvin, who was of course killed in Syria. She was one of the most intrepid journalists who ever lived, in my opinion. And there’s a story in Vanity Fair, “Marie Colvin’s Private War” [by Marie Brenner], and the line that Lois says is almost exactly the line that was in that article, where a Chechen warlord said he wouldn’t shake her hand because she was a woman. Marie Colvin replied, “There is no woman in this room, only a journalist.” So that line was my tribute to her. But then in the pile-on, a line like that is held as proof positive that I don’t understand either women or journalists or human beings, and that I’m a shitty writer.
Sounds like you feel you lost people before they even saw it.
That was the climate in which the film dropped. Anything and everything was attacked because the reviewers questioned the motives behind the film. And to some extent, I don’t blame them. The marketing promised this mindless fight movie, and any attempt to make something real or complicated was just met with anger and vitriol because [the audience] just didn’t assume good intentions.
Another complaint was that Snyder’s DC films were too grim and heavy. Did you feel blamed for that?
The studio seemed to take this position after BvS that my writing was too dark and that this was their problem. But what they didn’t mention was that, for example, in the draft of the Batman/Superman script that W.B. had developed—[which was] the draft I was handed when I joined the project—Batman was not only branding criminals with a bat brand, he also ended the movie by branding Lex Luthor.
That ending was a point over which I explicitly went to the mat with the studio again and again. I argued that Batman cannot end the movie continuing this behavior, which amounted to torture, because then the movie was endorsing what he did.
What was your argument to them?
It’s one thing if Batman begins the movie as a dark version of himself whom we don’t recognize, but he has to see the error of his ways and remember his better self in the course of the movie. By the end of the movie, he needs to be the Batman we know, and he has to be ready to go and create the Justice League. Otherwise, I said, what was the point?
What else did you push back against?
I’m the one who had been saying that we can’t make a joke out of Superman raining hell upon Black African Muslim characters in the desert, as Lois promises that Superman is not going to go easy on them because they punched her. But somehow I’m the person with the dark sensibility? I wanted to say, “I’ve been saving you from yourselves! I’ve been working with the director to bring a voice of conscience and sanity to the almost perversely dark film you’ve been developing for years, but I’m the problem here?”
Did you feel you were able to significantly change that Africa scene with Superman for the better?
I removed the punch [of Lois], for one thing. Just think about the optics of that. I was able to add material to the film and asked the movie to grapple with what that [battle] meant, so that it didn’t seem like a casual scene of Superman intervening in this way without reckoning with the consequences of intervention. I placed that in context of a moral question. Superman says, “Think of what could have happened,” and Lois says, “Think of what did.”
That sequence takes place in a fictional African country called Nairomi, and there’s manipulation happening with Lex Luthor and his American mercenaries trying to provoke conflict and frame Superman. After Superman rescues Lois, the film shows the people of that region truly suffering in the crossfire.
Without sounding too political, it’s not lost on me that much like a drone, Superman sort of comes from out of nowhere from the sky and vanquishes his enemies and then flies off with no consequences. That may not have been an angle on Superman that people wanted to see and wanted to think about.
Did you also add the scene with the character Kahina Ziri, who was a witness to the battle, testifying about the aftermath in Washington, D.C.? Ultimately, we learn she was coerced by Luthor, but her testimony does make the audience, and Clark Kent himself, reevaluate his actions and how he operates.
Yeah, that was added afterwards. I added that scene. “He came down, and then came fire.” The story that she tells, at least in the script, is that he destabilized the entire region, and then government forces came in and slaughtered the village. Since these were the optics that already were in the movie, I thought that my job was to ask questions and say, “What do we actually mean by this?”
You’re pushing back against some of these scenes, and you’re saying that the studio wanted these things, but you also had to convince Zack, right? So was Zack Snyder open to these kinds of criticisms?
When I would talk to Zack about some of these things, I think he got it. We discovered that we were on the same page and that he loved the idea of a scene in Congress with this African woman describing the consequences in her village. He right away sparked to that and got excited about casting that character [with actor Wunmi Mosaku, now known for Lovecraft Country] and thought she could be a very important character for the movie. So Zack was quite open to all this stuff, and I thought the studio was too.
Why weren’t they?
Later, when I realized that so much of the plot was going to be cut out, I began to think, Well, they didn’t really want this kind of story. The last things to get cut out always are the stunt scenes and the special effects scenes because they cost so much. By the time they’re all in there in the assembly, enormous amounts of money have been spent on every frame. So when you’re looking to cut time, the things that get cut out tend not to be the big effects sequences or the fights or the stunt sequences. The things that get cut are the…
Yeah. The scenes that actually give meaning to those bigger action sequences. I think that’s a problem not only with this film, but I suppose for all tentpole films.
Given your concerns about the BvS structure you inherited, why did you sign on to Justice League?
I agreed to write Justice League because I wanted the chance to write these characters with love and hope after getting through the darkness of Batman v Superman. The end of my version of Batman v Superman includes Bruce seeing the error of his ways and promising to change. It’s the return of conscience after an ethical nightmare. And in Justice League, Bruce does do better.
After Batman v Superman came out, the critical reaction was negative, and the box office was underwhelming. Justice League was about to begin shooting. What was the atmosphere like then?
There was a mood of fear at the studio. No doubt. My impression was that people in boardrooms started making the decisions. And they were decisions based on arbitrary metrics that had nothing to do with the stories that were being told.
What gave you that sense?
Right before the time of Batman/Superman, I was asked to attend an event in New York where the cast and filmmakers were paraded in front of a room of investors at the Time Warner Center, I guess to convince them that their money was in good hands.
What happened there?
These guys were in charge because they controlled the money at the very top of the pyramid. They were making big decisions—not the film executives we’re talking about, but Wall Street guys. One guy, who I can only describe as the man who Central Casting sends you when you’re trying to cast Douchebag #1, pulled me aside and started telling me how to write Batman.
I’m not naive. I know that if you don’t want to have any back-and-forth with the money people, then you should write poetry because you don’t need hundreds of millions of dollars. But something about the distribution of power at that time just seemed off to me. It was removing even the pretense that capital wasn’t calling the shots.
What impact did these studio tensions have on your writing?
I rewrote Justice League to lighten the mood a little bit—which became the Zack Snyder Justice League. That’s a slightly lighter, less dense version of the script, which I was fine with. I’m sane, and I will play ball with those kinds of notes.
So Zack Snyder shot your version of the script. What happened after his family crisis led him to leave the project and Warner Bros. brought in Joss Whedon to rewrite and reshoot?
When the movie was taken away, that felt like it was some directive that had come from people who are neither filmmakers nor film-friendly—the directive to make the movie under two hours, regardless of what the movie needed to do, and to make the colors brighter, and to have funny sitcom jokes in it.
Zack told me it was then Warner Bros. chairman Kevin Tsujihara’s mandate that it be under two hours and more comedic.
Yeah, that’s what I heard also. I never had anything direct with him. Tsujihara, as far as I can tell, and the brass at the very top, decided the order of the films. I was not consulted on the order of the films, even though I was the person writing Justice League. They just determined that it was going to be Batman/Superman, and then Wonder Woman, then Justice League, and then Aquaman. So there was never any thought to how the world was constructed before they issued this edict. They said, “Conform to this schedule.”
Explain how that complicated things.
The Wonder Woman script wasn’t even finished when I wrote Justice League. So I had no basis to write Wonder Woman other than Batman/Superman. Themyscira didn’t even exist. I was never shown anything on the page for it. I didn’t know whether people could talk underwater. That was a thing that I had to ask, because I didn’t know if I could do underwater scenes with Aquaman and Atlanteans. It was all just from scratch because there had been no [solo] character films.
So Justice League needed to establish three of the characters; it had to create a long game mythology for the DC Universe. It had to resurrect Superman because he was dead at the end of the last movie. I just don’t know how you could do all that in under two hours. Maybe the 2017 release proved that you couldn’t.
Studio copresidents Jon Berg and Geoff Johns were on the Justice League set every day, which was a mandate from Tsujihara, to “babysit” Snyder, as he put it. What was your relationship with them?
Look, I admire Geoff as a writer of DC comics. He’s been nice to me, and it’s a perfectly cordial relationship. As an executive, you get into very thorny territory when you have a person who’s a writer who also is making executive decisions and sitting in the chair where on other films the writer would have been.
So I think it’s miraculous that Zack shot as much of [my] script as he did, because I know that there was constant pressure to simplify, to change, to do whatever it is that the studio wanted because there were rumblings that they didn’t want this version.
Did you have many interactions with the actors?
I wasn’t invited to the set, but obviously I know Ben, and I got to know Ray Fisher. We developed Cyborg together. Ray came to my apartment in the East Village, and he and I just would take long walks and talk about Cyborg and the responsibility of putting the first Black DC superhero in a movie onscreen. That was a big responsibility that we both understood and took very seriously. Remember, this was before Black Panther. There obviously have been some Black superheroes over the years, but none depicted with such a budget and such scale and in such a mainstream way.
Cyborg is the one character who can’t disguise himself. He lives in his skin. His otherness is a constant fact of his life. And that to me—and Ray and I discussed this—speaks about being a Black man in America. You cannot remove the otherness that people force upon you. And therefore Cyborg—when he becomes the hero that he always should have been and was meant to be, that felt like something really strong that we wanted the world to see.
What about any of the other performers? Did you consult with any of them?
I talked to Jeremy Irons on the phone. I had a correspondence with Gal Gadot where she would write to me and say, “This doesn’t seem quite right for the character. What do you think?” And it was all a really good relationship where all the roles would be bespoke to the actors.
When the Snyders left the project, that was effectively the end of your involvement. Is that right?
That’s right. I would only hear occasional reports about the reshoot. I didn’t realize how much of the film was going to be changed—or vandalized, in my opinion. It became clear as I spoke to various actors that it was a wholesale dismantling of what had been there before. I did not hear from anyone who said it was a pleasant experience.
Were you hearing anything about Joss Whedon and his management of the set?
I probably shouldn’t get into that. I’ve never met Joss. I don’t know him. I did reach out to him at the beginning of the process, through the executives, but I didn’t hear back, which is not unusual.
When did you watch his version of Justice League?
I was in L.A. at the time working on Star Wars [The Rise of Skywalker]. I was on the west side of Los Angeles working with J.J. [Abrams] at the time, and I drove to the studio and I sat down and watched it a couple of weeks before release. I immediately called my lawyer and said, “I want to take my name off the film.” [The lawyer] then called Warner Bros. and told them that I wanted to do that.
Why didn’t you?
Prints had already been struck or hard drives burned or however they deliver movies these days. The elements were on their way, and to remove my name they would have had to restrike the prints or redo the digital copies, and the film could be delayed. It would be an international scandal and news story. So I shut up and I said nothing publicly. I’ve never said anything about Justice League since then, but the movie doesn’t represent my work.
What happened after that?
As far as I know, I wasn’t invited to the premiere, and I never watched the film again.
So why not follow through and remove your name?
I think it would have created a whole wave of negative publicity that I think would’ve made the situation even worse for the actors, and for all the craftspeople who had worked on it, for all kinds of people. But I’m awfully happy that Zack Snyder’s cut of Justice League is the one that is higher on my IMDb page.
Something that was this big and prominent and then so widely derided, it kind of poisons your reputation, doesn’t it?
Yeah. It hurts your reputation, but more importantly, it poisons your soul and your confidence, especially when this other version of the film wasn’t seen.
And now that it has been seen?
People do have problems with this version of the film, and they’ll quibble with the length, and they’ll quibble with the way that certain characters are written. But that I can take, because that is actual critique of my work. That’s fair game, and that I’ll engage with any day. People can quarrel with the movie, but at least they’re quarreling with my version and with Zack’s version of the film.
Did you ever feel like they deliberately made you the scapegoat, the studio?
I am a deeply paranoid person, so I’m always assuming that everyone has it in for me. Justice League, the Zack Snyder version, is the only script other than Argo that I have a sole writer credit on. I really did develop this. So I can stand by this version, love it or hate it.
What are you working on right now? What’s on the horizon?
I won’t talk about it quite yet, but it’s a small film that I am doing with Amazon. I’m getting back to smaller, character-driven worlds where I don’t have any of the franchise issues that have been difficult to grapple with in the past. That’s really helped me to reground myself and to remind myself of why I like to write a film.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity, with some questions added or expanded for context.
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