Last week, Batman v Superman director Zack Snyder offhandedly gave an interview to Entertainment Weekly that perfectly encapsulated why he's one of the most controversial directors working in Hollywood today.
Fittingly for these franchise-stuffed times, the interview was about Superman supporting player Jimmy Olsen.
Olsen is discussed when Snyder reveals that a character who appears for all of a few minutes in Batman v Superman — before being identified as a CIA plant and shot in the head — is meant to be the DC cinematic universe's version of the plucky photographer who's Superman's best pal in the classic comics.
"We don’t have room for Jimmy Olsen in our big pantheon of characters, but we can have fun with him, right?" says Snyder, blithely glossing over the fact that "have fun with" involves recasting a beloved character as a liar and then murdering him.
In and of itself, this change isn't particularly remarkable. Directors tweak their source material all the time, and Jimmy Olsen would indeed be a poor fit for Snyder's vision of the DC Comics universe. But Snyder's quote still rubbed plenty of fans the wrong way, precisely because it tapped into what makes him so beloved by some and so hated by others.
In short, Snyder is a director with a genuine visual aesthetic and hugely ambitious dreams of turning pop iconography into a new myth for our times. But too often, his visuals and his themes work at cross purposes, resulting in deeply confused films. He's an enormously gifted filmmaker, but one whose every project (save a single animated oddity) has been a little worse than the one that preceded it.
More specifically, he's a director who creates brilliant text but seems largely unaware of the subtext he's introducing alongside that text.
All of Snyder's films share a very specific look
Snyder's career actually began in controversy, with the 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead. The original Dawn of the Dead is perhaps the greatest zombie movie ever made, a shambling attack on American consumption that shows zombies staggering around a mall, winking at the way many of us anesthetize our deeper feelings and thoughts through buying crap.
It seemed an odd fit for a director whose previous credits were all commercials and music videos. And it's fair to say that Snyder's version largely eschews nuance in favor of being awesome. Instead of stumbling and shuffling, his zombies sprint. Instead of a not-so-veiled attack on consumerism, his movie would be more of a take on post-tragedy community building. It was a horror flick, sure, but without any of the psychological tension that propped up the original.
Above all, it was a flat-out thrill ride. In Snyder's Dawn of the Dead, the zombies didn't have to mean anything, because they could run, headlong, after their prey. Somewhat fittingly for the diminishing returns Snyder has yielded throughout his career, the best thing he's ever directed are the first 10 minutes of Dawn of the Dead. I've embedded a portion of them below, as well as the film's terrific opening credits.
Watching those two clips will give you a good sense of some of Snyder's strengths. For one thing, he's terrific at casting strong actors. (In Dawn of the Dead, that distinction belongs to Sarah Polley, as a young woman watching her world go to hell.) For another, he's a master of montage editing, where seemingly disconnected moments bump up against each other in ways that create new connections and contrasts. (Those opening credits are a tremendous example.)
The clips (particularly the first one) also hint at some key elements of Snyder's aesthetic. For one thing, he uses far fewer medium shots than most directors. He likes alternating between wide shots (as when the protagonist observes the chaos devouring her neighborhood) and shots that zoom in close on his actors, to a variety of different degrees (as when we see her worried expression as she takes it all in).
When Snyder does use medium shots, he uses them in weird ways. Take the short moment where our hero talks to the man across the street who's holding a gun. Both characters are filmed in mid-shot, but Snyder puts them both in the same frame exactly once (when we see the man across the street over her shoulder, as if we're standing behind her).
Blink and you'd miss this shot. Most directors would give us at least a few lines of dialogue while the two shared the same frame, but not Snyder. They're never in the same frame while talking to each other.
The medium shot is the cinema's version of normalcy. Certainly, there are several where something huge happens, but a lot of the time, cinema uses the medium shot to break up the "pay attention to me!" panoramas of the wide shot and the forced intimacy of the close-up.
That Snyder doesn't really use them in the first place, let alone typically, gives his work a heightened feel — everything subconsciously feels bigger than it otherwise might.
Indeed, you'll note that the scene from Dawn of the Dead I've described above mimics the look of another visual medium: comic books.
The director exhausts most of his filmmaking energy on imagery and visuals, often at the expense of pretty much everything else
Now, granted, if you look at any random comic book page you won't see an endless succession of wide shots alternating with close-ups. But often, the panels with the most emotional impact are the big splash pages — where one major image dominates the proceedings — or the ultra-tight crops that focus on a character's eyes, or weapon, or bulging muscles.
Such is Snyder's aesthetic. He often seems to be trying to recreate the experience of reading comics as a teenager and feeling intense waves of emotion at pivotal moments. But he latches, too easily, onto the awesome exuberance of the visuals, frequently forgetting whatever thematic depth they might've had. (This is particularly true in his film adaptation of the seminal comic Watchmen, which … we'll get to.)
Snyder has directed seven films. Six of them are adaptations, and four of those adaptations are of comics — his breakthrough hit 300, Watchmen, Man of Steel, and Batman v Superman. (The other two are Dawn of the Dead and Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'hoole, an animated film based on a children's fantasy novel series.) Snyder's one original film and biggest flop, Sucker Punch, might as well be based on a comic, given how Snyder shoots and frames the action.
In fact, let's take a look at a clip from it:
Every shot in this sequence could fairly easily stand in as a panel on a comic book page, without too much effort. The frequent transitions into slow motion suggest the way that comic artists often elongate action to fill more space on the page and within the narrative.
And, of course, there's the way protagonist Babydoll (played by Emily Browning) is dressed, and the way Snyder frames her, as if he's attempting to become a living embodiment of the male gaze. Put another way, for a movie ostensibly about women struggling to free themselves from the oppressions of the patriarchy, Sucker Punch sure features a lot of upskirt shots.
Sucker Punch is actually one of the more divisive movies in Snyder's already divisive canon — and in really instructive ways. The Washington Post's Alyssa Rosenberg, for instance, has written frequently about the film as a kind of advance herald of the current wave of feminist-centered genre films we live in now (see recent Oscar winners Mad Max: Fury Road and Ex Machina).
And on some level, Sucker Punch — about a woman retreating further and further into a dream world where she can throw off the male-induced shackles that hold her down — is exactly that. It really does want to engage with its subject matter beyond the surface level. It just utterly fails at that task.
Writes Uproxx's Charles Bramesco:
Snyder and co-writer Steve Shibuya have lots of opinions about feminism, but they repeatedly contradict, muddle, or undermine them with their slavish devotion to the aesthetic of adolescent badassery. Sucker Punch is, essentially, the cinematic equivalent of a high-schooler taking the stage during a public-speaking class for an oration about feminism, but getting distracted by his own erection.
Snyder's problem is always that his filmmaking is obsessed with bright and shiny surfaces — he can't help but fetishize the scenery, so when he's shooting beautiful young women for his movie about how fetishization (among other things) strips women of their agency, well … he can't help but fetishize them as well.
Snyder's films might hold some interesting ideas, but his images always get in the way, because they're obsessed with how cool and tough and intimidating everything is. While his work occasionally considers deeper political and philosophical ideas, it ultimately has all the depth of adding a rainbow overlay to your Facebook profile picture to celebrate marriage equality.
It's a true shame that Snyder fails to balance his unique aesthetic with deeper meaning and insight
This is the tragedy of Zack Snyder. He's the kind of bold, distinctive filmmaker who could really put his stamp on the superhero movie — a genre that feels increasingly formulaic. But he also completely misunderstands the appeal of the various characters he's been asked to shepherd to the big screen, then overcorrects in subsequent projects for any criticism he receives — as when Batman v Superman seemed obsessed with winning over those who thought Man of Steel featured too much wanton destruction.
Some of this is likely a result of being overburdened by working for a movie studio — Warner Bros. — that would dearly love to have its very own superhero franchise, the better to compete against the cultural behemoth that is Marvel. And any time any film has to serve as many corporate masters as both of Snyder's Superman pictures have, the storytelling will suffer.
But Snyder's two other comic book adaptations have similarly struggled with the divide between the ironclad awesomeness of the source material and any deeper ideas it might contain.
For example, 300 might be the most artistically successful film Snyder has made entirely because the comic it's based on doesn't really have much to say beyond, "Awesome men are awesome." It's no wonder that Snyder has connected so readily with 300's author, Frank Miller, who seems fond of the "one great man can change everything" trope.
Just look at this thing. The images are painterly — all color stripped out save for billowing reds — and Snyder's habit of shooting everything like a comic panel really works for what 300 is going for. Historical accuracy falls by the wayside in favor of being cool.
But this approach didn't work as well on Watchmen, where the divide between text and subtext was the whole point. The text of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons's game-changing comic was, "Watch these over-the-hill heroes get back in the game to save the world. Isn't it cool?" The subtext was, "How messed up do you have to be to become a costumed vigilante? What's the point of humanity anyway?"
It's a massive understatement to say that Snyder's slavish Watchmen — which recreates a few sequences from the source material so that nearly every panel in the comic equals a shot in the film — missed the subtext. The movie's gruesome ultraviolence is shot through with an assumed fist pump, and its handful of attempts at emotion beyond, "Fuck yeah!" largely fall flat (including in a much-derided love scene).
This fight scene nicely encapsulates what I'm talking about:
On the page, Watchmen has made a number of "best books of the 20th century" lists. But on screen, it's a curiosity — a film with several riveting sequences (including, again, the opening credits) but a hollow core. Moore and Gibbons's tale of a world slowly turning to ruin has been replaced by a high schooler's doodling.
Here's why Zack Snyder is such a poor choice for Superman movies
Hopefully all of the above makes clear why Snyder has always been an odd choice to adapt Superman, who is perhaps the most sincere, least cynical superhero of them all. This disconnect is best expressed by this comic meme, turning a Superman sequence from the classic All-Star Superman (where Superman comforts a suicidal kid) into an excuse for intense action and gigantic explosions when filtered through Snyder vision.
In other words, if Snyder is primarily interested in superheroes — and/or historical figures he can present as superheroes — as paragons of masculine hyperviolence, then Superman, by default, seems unlikely to ever fit within his stylistic wheelhouse. Snyder has even said as much to BuzzFeed News's Adam B. Vary: "Even when we were working on Man of Steel, I was like, Gosh, what are we going to do with this guy? He’s a pretty tough cookie."
But there were times when that film seemed as if he might reconcile the hero's earnestness with his penchant for blowing stuff up. The early trailer for Man of Steel promised something like a Terrence Malick film, all natural light and beautiful landscapes — a good match for the inherent corniness of Clark Kent's Kansas upbringing. (Somewhat fittingly, given Snyder's roots, the trailer also looked a bit like a Levi's commercial.)
And the film itself has its good qualities. Snyder's gift for casting serves him well, particularly in choosing Kevin Costner to play Clark's earthbound father. And the very end of the movie — in which Clark settles in at the Daily Planet for banter with Lois and occasional superhero hijinks — captures some of the appeal of the Superman mythos as ably as Snyder possibly can.
But the rest of Man of Steel is a boring slog of titanic struggles and epic battles, pitched at such a volume that there's no room to feel anything other than numb.
In both Man of Steel and Batman v Superman, Snyder's intention is to inspire awe, but he fails to offer up anything that would capture the emotions he must have felt reading comics long ago. He forgets that even superhero comics have moments of levity or sorrow or something else in between their masculine brooding and their even-more-masculine punching.
The trend of prioritizing strength over substance has reached its nadir in Batman v Superman, his worst film to date, and one that suggests, once again, that he can copy the surfaces of beloved comics — in this case, Miller's The Dark Knight Returns — but can't quite figure out why so many comics fans hold it as a sacred truth that Batman never kills anyone.
Zack Snyder knows what something with depth looks like, but he's too distracted by shiny exteriors to find the messy humanity inside. And the more he picks up beloved characters to play with, the more their fandom will revolt.