The Films of Zack Snyder: Genius

Deconstruction, God, and American Politics: The Art of Zack Snyder

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Zack Snyder's Justice League

A shot of Superman in a Jesus-like pose from Zack Snyder’s Justice League (2021), symbolizing the resurrection of God.

‘Three-hundred men, whose bodies may well have been crafted by Zeus himself, stand alone at last light to fight against the invading forces of Xerxes, ruler of an empire built upon fanatic cultism and debauchery. The United States wins the Vietnam War with the aid of a being who manipulates the very fabric of reality at will, while a billionaire turned anti-hero plots to destroy the cities of Earth in a twisted attempt to save it.  This is not a pleasant world, it is a world of lost youthful idealism and the consequences of a life without responsibility.  A guardian of a wretched city sees demons from the sky tear apart his world, and he falls from the light.  

The name ‘Zack Snyder’ in any film, cinema, or comic-book movie community is enough to stir up a hurricane. His fans will defend him at any cost, being responsible for the release of the long-awaited Zack Snyder’s Justice League. 

Some view Snyder as one of the most visionary filmmakers of our time, particularly in the superhero genre in mainstream Hollywood. Others, however, view his films as contrived — generic blockbusters with poor writing and a fundamental misunderstanding of the character source material.  

I personally fall into the former camp. Snyder’s films, while no Scorsese or Spielberg films are grandiose in their thematic elements and visuals, deconstructions of characters in the modern world, and exploring themes other mainstream superhero blockbusters would never dare to touch upon. Yet reception to Snyder’s work has been polarized, often highly negative, and one can only wonder why it is so.

I believe that any review of Snyder’s work should first focus on his cinematography, a unique style in Hollywood and one that I feel fits perfectly within the superhero/fantasy genre.  Characterized by his unique usage of slow motion and speed-ramping, a 35mm lens which makes every shot almost unrealistically crisp, and his dark, high contrast tone, Snyder makes his films feel as epic and dramatic as they can be. His characters dominating every inch and pixel of the screen. His comic book films, 300, Watchmen, Man of Steel, Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, and Zack Snyder’s Justice League, are some of the most visually stunning films in modern cinema. Every frame of an action sequence, or the entire film, as a matter of fact is peeled straight off comic-book strips. Shots of glorious Greek warriors hurling the barbaric hordes of Xerxes into the ocean below, two former vigilantes kissing as the force of a nuclear explosion renders them to skeletons, or of an arisen Superman embracing his role as Protector of Earth. Snyder’s visualization of his characters is nothing short of immortalization. His characters are barely human, they are men of uncompromising vision, strength, and glory.  

His use of slow-motion cinematography is particularly appealing, emphasizing the moment and gravitas of the scene.  Some may wonder why a shot of a falling smiley face pin with a drop of blood is important, or why we need a 90-second shot of Aquaman (Jason Momoa) taking off his shirt and showing off his glorious muscles amidst crashing waves.  Of course, they are visually stunning in an era of flat-looking superhero movies that otherwise lack deeper themes, but symbolism is as much a part of movies as the leitmotifs and quotes.  From the stone in Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite, to roses in Sam Mendes’ 1999 American Beauty, symbolism drives the themes of its films into the audience’s mind.  Snyder makes them clear and striking, and his use of symbolism is unparalleled in the superhero genre.

Snyder’s early work immediately defined his style of filmmaking, with three films in particular: Dawn of the Dead, 300, and WatchmenDawn of the Dead was a wildly successful remake of George A. Romeo’s 1978 film.  Considered by many to be one of the best films in the zombie genre, Dawn of the Dead exhibited many traits that would come to define Snyder’s film style: snap-zooms and of course, slow-motion.  It was 300, however, that put Snyder onto the scene.  Starring Gerard Butler (Angel has Fallen), Lena Headey (Game of Thrones), Michael Fassbender (12 Years a Slave), and David Wenham (Lord of the Rings), 300 adapted Frank Miller’s widely popular 300 comic-book series, creating a visually stunning 2-hour historical epic filled with drawn-out, immaculately choreographed fight scenes and shots taken right off the pages of a comic book.  

While 300 and Watchmen were undeniable hits in their own right, Snyder’s claim to fame would not truly manifest until the release of Man of Steel in 2013. Since the failure of Superman Returns (2006), movie studios had been longing for a modern-day version of Superman that would create a cinematic universe to rival the MCU. The incredible success of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy demonstrated the potential of a Superman movie, and Nolan himself, along with writer David Goyer would pen the script for Man of Steel. Riding off the success of his previous two comic-book adaptations, Snyder, a friend of Nolan, was selected to direct. A massive, 225 million-dollar budget and a casting of Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, Christopher Meloni, and of course, Henry Cavill later and Man of Steel was primed to displace Marvel as the superhero movie franchise.

Yet Man of Steel failed to live up to its expectations. While it certainly is a commercial failure, grossing well over 600 million, it did not perform as well as Marvel’s Iron Man or The Avengers. And while not a critical failure, holding a 56% on Rotten Tomatoes, it certainly was not the smash-hit that Warner Brothers had wanted. Critics derided Snyder’s take on Superman calling him ‘bland,’ ‘overtly dark,’ and ‘generic.’ 

Fan reception was mixed as well.  Some saw Snyder’s version of Superman as total character assassination, a light-hearted superhero turned to a dreary, depressing parody of their favorite hero. Others saw Snyder’s interpretation as novel, deep, and modern. 

While I understand disliking the movie, I must simply ask, “why?”  I believe the critics here are in the wrong about one fundamental thing: Man of Steel is not a Superman movie. Rather, it is a movie about Clark Kent, the human behind the red cape and blue suit. Man of Steel creates a Clark Kent that is more realistic and more torn than any incarnation prior. In the film, Clark feels a longing for reason and purpose. His father comforts him, but only through a journey of self-discovery is he able to discover the ‘why’ of his existence and his identity as both a son of Man and son of Krypton.  

If Man of Steel is about how a godlike figure would live on Earth, then Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (BvS) is about a human’s reaction to God and perception.  Bashed by critics and failing to live up to box-office expectations, BvS was a film created too early, and a film that few understood.  Its thesis can be grasped, and the ramifications of it are more relevant than ever.  BvS poses the question of God and evil, which states, “If God is all-powerful, he cannot be all good.  If he is all good, he cannot be all-powerful.”  In the film, Bruce Wayne who has lost faith in humanity and God (represented by Superman), resorts to breaking his one sacred rule: his oath to never take a human life.  Lex Luthor, Superman’s archnemesis, cannot resolve the contradiction between the existence of God and his personal worldview, thus he resorts too, to the act of killing Superman, or at least, demonstrating to the world that Superman is morally flawed, destroying his image as a savior.  The film is littered with references to classical works of art and Biblical themes, from shots inspired by Michelangelo’s ‘The Entombment of Christ’ to a reversed frame of Gustav Dore’s painting of ‘Paradise Lost.’  

Many other themes lay scattered throughout the film, far more than one article could ever explain.  Batman v. Superman touches upon perception, exploring how false assumptions and conclusions based on singular experiences can lead to drastic and terrible consequences.  The political divide in America, too, is explored.  Superman is seen as an immigrant, someone who does not belong on America, let alone Earth.  Mass media leads to mass outrage, and his actions, no matter how good, are questioned with the framework of a rigid legal system not meant to account for such beings.

Despite the flaws in his movies, Zack Snyder has created a trilogy of superhero movies that have defied the trends and conformity of modern-day superhero films, bringing something truly unique to the genre.  With the release of his director’s cut of Justice League, setting up an expansive, modern mythos, and his solo film Army of the Dead, we only wait to see what Snyder will create next.

Zack Snyder has created a trilogy of superhero movies that have defied the trends and conformity of modern-day superhero films, bringing something truly unique to the genre. 

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