A requiem for Zack Snyder’s vision

In the ever-escalating competition for the hearts and minds of fanboys, the summer blockbuster season has now extended well into the winter. First, Disney decided that Star Wars needed to be an annual Christmas tradition. And now, the DC Cinematic Universe is getting into the act with the release this weekend of Justice League.

About that.

I haven’t had much to say about the DC Cinematic Universe, mostly because, unlike the Star Wars and Marvel movies, I didn’t really see them in the theater. Which was mostly because I didn’t have any great desire to see them. Why would I? They looked way too serious and dark to be enjoyable. Plus, unlike the Marvel movies, I had very little faith in the personalities behind the works. Say what you will about the Marvel movies, but Joss Whedon at least knows how to write a good yarn. I can’t say the same about David S. Goyer.

And apparently, Warner Bros. and DC are beginning to agree with me.

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First, let’s look at the two trailers for the movie:

Wow, the feelings of those two trailers could not be more different, huh? There was the foreboding cover of “Come Together” and the slow motion and intense visuals of the first, and then in the second we get a cover of David Bowie’s “Heroes” and the quipping and it actually looks like fun. So apparently DC wants to lighten up a bit.

And this brings us to Zack Snyder…

Full disclosure, I’ve never liked Zack Snyder. But I don’t hate him. I don’t think hating people I don’t know personally whose only sin is making art/entertainment I don’t like is worth it. His movies aren’t for me, but he’s no Harvey Weinstein (hoo-boy, there’s a whole column all by itself). Basically, I’ve just never had much use for the guy. And now, neither does DC.

In case you haven’t heard, there have been a slew of articles posted on hacky nerd websites that are way less reputable than the Agony Booth (hi, boss!) regarding a change of personnel on the DC films. I wanted to write about Snyder for awhile, but the man apparently had to take a break from directing due to a family tragedy, so I sat on it, because as much of a snarky asshole as I can be, I do have limits. But with Justice League finally about to be released, I figured it’s about time.

Anyway, these sites which are nowhere as good as the Agony Booth have been covering the changing of the guard with the DC Cinematic Universe. First, Justice League had to be finished (alas), so none other than Joss Whedon, golden idol of the fanboys and Mr. Avengers himself, was brought in to complete the film. He was originally only supposed to write a few extra scenes to tie the movie in with what DC has coming up. But then Snyder’s daughter died (the aforementioned tragedy), so Whedon took over the film as it went into post-production. Then came the rumors that Whedon reshot as much as half of the film, which probably explains the whiplash-inducing tonal shifts between the two main trailers. Then Geoff Johns, comic book writer best known for his DC work, especially Green Lantern, and new head of DC’s movie department, admitted that a lot of top brass didn’t much care for Zack Snyder’s “vision”, but the movies made enough money that they didn’t think they could justify parting ways with him.

Which means Snyder, who was once looked at by some as the main creative voice in the DC Cinematic Universe, is about to see some distance grow between his vision and the direction of the franchise. What gives?

I’ll get my opinion as to why out of the way. It’s because Man of Steel and Batman V. Superman were both bad films. These films have their moments, and I know they also have their fans and admirers, but the movies are really not very good. They suffer from the same problems as most of Snyder’s films: The visuals are beautiful but so over the top that they border on sensory overload, and they feature incomprehensible plotting, as well as a tendency to play around with intellectual ideas that they don’t have the smarts to back up.

The fans who like these movies usually resort to ad hominem attacks on critics and float conspiracy theories about Disney paying off people to criticize the films, leaving me convinced that my judgment of the DC Cinematic Universe is accurate, or at least, well-founded. And Snyder and his filmmaking style have been extremely polarizing, with ardent defenders and detractors. So, to understand this dynamic, one needs to look at Zack Snyder’s two main influences: Michael Bay and Christopher Nolan.

Let’s start with Michael Bay. Snyder’s career, or at least his approach to his career, has been very similar to Bay. Bay started with commercials and music videos, as did Snyder. Both are capable visual stylists but aren’t quite the best storytellers. Both started with some fluke hits, be it Bad Boys or the remake of Dawn of the Dead. Both hitched their wagons to big franchises that they have become indelibly attached to in the minds of the movie-going public.

But they do have one very specific thing in common: I hate their work for the exact same reason. Snyder is very much like Bay in that neither of them are untalented. I daresay that both Bay and Snyder are very talented. That’s what makes their filmmaking careers so damned frustrating: they waste their talents on garbage. I don’t care how many people say that they enjoy their work; nobody can seriously convince me that the Transformers movies will ever be seen as classics, popcorn or otherwise. Snyder attaches himself to projects where he can overdo his shtick, to his own detriment. Like Michael Bay’s penchant to never let the camera be still, no matter how well it would serve the moment, Snyder can’t film a fight scene that doesn’t get dialed up to eleven. In fact, this is one of the big problems I have with both of them; be it the Transformers movies or 300, there are always several action scenes that are visually intense, but are filmed so stylistically and in such an overblown way that I have no idea what’s going on, what the stakes are, or even if the good guys are winning or progress is being made. The two men are actually quite gifted, in my opinion, but they’re content to make movies that are loud and dumb—emphasis on dumb.

So where does Christopher Nolan fit into all of this? And how many of you are coming up from the comment section after furiously typing, “How dare you slander the good name of Nolan by equating him with Snyder?!?!” without reading my point? Well, here we go. Christopher Nolan is probably Snyder’s biggest influence, whether he’s aware of it or not. In fact, the reason many of you who hate Snyder can’t stand him, is a big reason why many people ardently defend him.

The biggest problem Zack Snyder has as a filmmaker is that he desperately wants to be Christopher Nolan, and he just sucks at it.

Let’s back up. Nolan can be a bit polarizing as a filmmaker, but one can’t deny that he’s been influential in the world of fandom. His three Dark Knight films, even with some flaws (most of them in the third movie), were a monumental series in comic book films, accomplishing the dual feat of getting superhero movies to be accepted as films and setting them up to be their own distinct genre. This is especially true of  The Dark Knight, which really put the superhero movie over with audiences and critics alike. Nolan made a film that was both faithful to the source material, and yet included a lot of Nolan’s own outside influences, such as European art thrillers, action cinema, and film noir. I have yet to hear a sustained backlash or reconsideration of The Dark Knight, and it remains highly regarded almost ten years later.

The Dark Knight was a smart action film that had deeper themes to it. The Joker, as embodied by the late Heath Ledger, is used as a counterpoint to Batman’s worldview, and the movie explores a lot of subjects that recur in our troubled new millennium. What trade offs do we make for security? How much surveillance is too much? Who has the right to control it? Where is the line between heroism and villainy? And is the Joker correct, in that “civilized” people are ready to tear each other apart the moment their security is threatened and the stakes are raised?

Nolan made a film that was both smart and entertaining. It was art, it was entertainment, and it said something about the world we live in. Zack Snyder, thoroughly modern man that he is, has always endeavored to make films like that. He hasn’t yet.

Not that he hasn’t tried. This is one of the more frustrating aspects of Snyder’s style; He tries to have his popcorn films ask big questions and confront the troubling issues of our times, but his need for bombast always overcomes his good judgment. His adaptation of Watchmen first demonstrated this. Watchmen was one of the first comic books to explore the psychological motivations of superheroes. But like the Wachowskis’ take on V for Vendetta, Snyder got it all wrong. One of the points of Watchmen in regards to everyone’s favorite character Rorschach, like V from V for Vendetta, is that he’s incurably insane. The fact that these men are both the good guys of their respective stories is a comment on how messed up the societies they inhabit are. But the movie versions can only focus on how cool their speeches and fight moves are. Snyder gets the visual panache of Dave Gibbons’ art, but totally misses the probing analysis of Alan Moore’s writing, leaving us with a visually stunning but ultimately empty story about how messed up in the head you’d have to be to want to be a superhero, which doesn’t actually explore the subject at all.

The two Superman movies that Snyder has made are beholden to the greater problem of Snyder. I don’t think he’s stupid, but he comes across as not terribly bright. He’s certainly capable of being smart, like his explanation as to why he decided to get rid of Superman’s red briefs (they were originally based on circus strongmen, and there’s no way they won’t look silly in a 21st century world). But then comes his explanation as to why Batman kills in his movies:

In the clip above, at around 1:40, Snyder’s excuse—sorry, reasoning—is that Batman kills in an “indirect” way, as in he shoots at the bad guy, and if the bad guy happens to crash his car or drop his grenade, it’s not Batman’s fault or problem. Which only makes the chase scene in the middle of Batman V. Superman more horrifying. So Batman is either a murderer, or he somehow accidentally killed a dozen henchmen. I leave you to contemplate which, dear reader, is worse: The idea of Batman as a murderous Judge Dredd, appointing himself judge, jury and executioner, or the idea that Batman cares so little for human life that he could kill a dozen people without even trying. Let that bit of existential despair set in during your fun time this weekend at the multiplex.

(Side note: Snyder tries to point to a YouTube video that counts how many times Batman killed in the Nolan movies, and yes, I will admit, there was some collateral damage there that could have resulted in injuries or death. The difference is that Snyder’s Batman uses guns. The weapon used to kill his parents, and which is specifically designed to kill. Argue semantics all you like, but there’s a big difference between someone who fights with a gun, and one who chooses not to.)

But the big problem is present in the climax of his Superman movies. There are several major themes to be explored in the two films: Destiny, honoring the wishes of your elders, the mystique of power, humanity’s reaction to the appearance of a godlike savior, and what society would do if that savior goes bad. It’s not like the themes aren’t there. But by the big climactic fight scene (which is cool to look at, but rife with senseless destruction), it’s easy to forget all about theme, isn’t it?

I found myself screaming at my TV as I watched the climax of Batman V. Superman. I yelled, “You almost had it Zack! You almost did it!” It was the most Zack Snyder moment of Zack Snyder’s career. He wants to explore deep themes, and the themes are present in his movies, but he can’t help himself. He has to squeeze just one more bombastic action scene in there, even if it’s detrimental to the issues he wants to explore.

300 has some themes, with a few too right-wing for my taste (if any of my fellow Agony Booth writers are looking to contribute to Movies that Predicted Trump, I nominate 300 as an entry), but it all gets lost when the tail end of the second act becomes one action scene after another, none of which change the stakes, with a few homefront scenes with Cersei Lannister and the guy from The Wire thrown in to change it up. Man of Steel is supposed to be about Superman rising to become a hero, but it’s hard to take that seriously when the hero levels an entire American city in what’s the Kryptonian version of a fistfight.

But, oh dear, does he lose it at the end of Batman V. Superman. The worst part is, he had it. Sure, the movie had its problems. Yes, there were several plot elements that weren’t explained very well or didn’t do much. But Snyder successfully set up the two heroes as opposing outlooks on justice, and set up a confrontation between them as the climax of the film.

Except, it wasn’t the climax at all. Batman and Superman decide to be friends because their moms have the same name, and then they team up with Wonder Woman to fight a giant monster for twenty minutes. The introduction of Wonder Woman was bad enough, with her character and motivations having nothing to do with either of the main characters’ stories, and with her just being there to set up Justice League. But then, the motivations of those main characters and their conflicts, which are the whole point of the movie, are tossed aside so all three of DC’s holy trinity can have one more action scene involving a giant monster (and a poorly designed one at that. It looks like the Hulk had a child with a cave troll).

Snyder strikes me as a lot like the writing team of Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci before they broke up. Not terribly bright guys who desperately want to make smart movies. Snyder tries, which is what makes his films so frustrating. He tries, but he doesn’t succeed, because the Nolan side of his vision is always overcome by the Bay side of his vision, and any themes he wants to explore get bogged down in loud noises and uninvolving fight scenes.

And it looks like the industry is finally catching up with me. DC seems to have taken the opportunity to move away from Snyder’s “vision”. Like I said, I don’t hate the guy, and I hope he and his family recover from this terrible tragedy. In fact, I feel terrible for having said all this. But it’s how I feel. I hope it’s not too late for him, and he can learn some discretion when it comes to creative choices and not go with the most visceral option for every film he makes.

However, I will admit, I was excited to see how a “gritty and realistic” Aquaman was going to turn out. Guess I’ll never know.

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