The Green-Light | An attempt to understand the cinema of Zack Snyder

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Welcome to The Green-Light, a regular column from Gary Green. Find within spittle-flecked passion and encyclopaedic insight on everything to do with the movies.


I’ll be honest with you: I haven’t seen Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice yet. But no matter how many negative reviews I’ve read from fellow critics – and they are ominously heaping up like that skull mountain from The Revenant – I’m still going to go see it. Why should I bother? Because of Zack Snyder. But not for the reasons you might think.

Snyder is, at the very least, a hugely impressive visual artist – a fact that has been touted many times before me. The images he conjures up need to be seen on the big screen, and sometimes those images serve his story perfectly; take the intro sequence in 2009’s Watchmen, in which the entire alternative history of the movie is laid out in a thought-provoking montage, shot in glorious Snyder-Slo-Mo©, and we learn all we need to know about that film’s world without a single word of dialogue. Empirically, Snyder’s a more than capable storyteller – but those instances are, sadly, few and far between.

Even Watchmen is more like a respectful translation, smoothed onto the screen by careful hands, rather than the barnstorming, formally challenging work that was Alan Moore’s original comic. Let’s go back even further; 300, the one where Gerard Butler fights off hordes of enemies armed with only sandals and quotable shout-quips, was the hit that got Snyder noticed in 2007. This, I suspect, was a fluke; Snyder’s visual innovation was a perfect cinematic fit for Frank Miller’s source. It was the correct marriage of material and vision – and that’s why he got pegged for bigger things. If you look at his previous film, his 2004 debut Dawn of the Dead – a remake of the classic horror – there’s very little, if any, of the style you would use to recognise it as A Film by Zachary Edward Snyder. There’s the argument that it was only his first movie; of course there’s not going to be much of what would make him stand out that early in his career. And that may be true – but his Dawn of the Dead is totally anonymous, unlike other contemporary director’s debuts (Christopher Nolan’s Following comes to mind). It’s well-crafted and more than functional – but his mark is simply not there.

This leads me to believe that perhaps that distinct style we all associate with Snyder nowadays is actually a mistake. You know what I’m talking about: those wide angles, vivid hues, blackest blacks, and detail-packed slow-motion shots – except they’re all plucked from the pages of Miller’s 300. On a visual level, much of what you see in the ink ends up on the celluloid in Snyder’s 300: it’s a hugely direct adaptation, and that particular style totally worked for that film. Whether you like 300 or not (I’m a fan, myself), it is a good adaptation – and its success in that respect, I can only assume, informed Snyder that those particular visual tropes were what he was good at, and therefore, that was his thing. The style soon became his thing: he went on to apply it to everything since. It may feel like second nature to Snyder by now, and to us too – but in reality, it’s empty. I think we all have the same deep-down feeling that this is true.

So, what’s my point? My point is that I don’t believe Snyder has a style of his own. Yes, you can recognise a Snyder film from a mile away – but come up close, and in all but two of his films, the actual storytelling leaves a lot to be desired. Even Watchmen, which I mentioned above, features that single scene of almost virtuoso excellence in world-building – but following that, the rest of the movie is merely a decent (though endlessly interesting) exercise in comic-to-film adaptation. Hell, I’ve actually purchased an import of the 3.5 hour ‘Ultimate Cut’ Blu-ray, such is my apparently never-ending curiosity toward the film. But that sequence was an anomalous moment of genuine vision, and every mediocre director is capable of achieving the same a few times in their career. But mediocre they stay.

You can see this misguided approach extend into every film he’s done since; in essence, the misappropriation of 300’s style gives Snyder a veneer of, shall we say, directorial authenticity. It’s a delusion of having a vision that, I dread to think, Snyder himself entertains – not only us. (Even though that vision belonged to one movie from 2007.) Even when he applies that style to his own material, like 2011’s Sucker Punch, or even a departure from his usual sort of thing, like 2010’s Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole, the storytelling is all over the place, but those visuals are on point. His images come as if from a dream – and I think that’s what pulls audiences back to the cinemas, and keeps critics partially interested. And you can read it in almost every current review of Batman v Superman so far – that the visuals are, at the least, interesting. So do I have a second point to make? I sure do: I believe that Zack Snyder shouldn’t be a director.

I know it might be rich to tell a huge blockbuster director to, well, not direct movies anymore – and I’m sure this single think-piece won’t do much in scrubbing Snyder’s name off the clapperboard. But I honestly don’t mean it in a negative way: while I don’t think he should be a director, he almost certainly should become a cinematographer instead. Imagine a much-beloved director working with Snyder as his DP; it would be the genuine vision of an artist through the lens of a master craftsman of visual style (there’s that word again), a combination that would be cinematic gold. And I’m sure that Snyder – an alleged pragmatist on set – has learned enough tools of the trade to make such a transition smoothly.

Of course, that won’t happen. The director’s ham-fisted defence of Man of Steel’s much-derided ending is proof that he can’t carry a story, or at least build an in-movie logic wherein Superman’s actions are explained.  Now, Man of Steel is a film I actually rather like – it feels like a space opera in which Earth is only a coincidental part – although I basically hold the same reservations as many about Superman simply not acting like Superman in the final third.  If Snyder stuck to a single line of argument, rather than changing perspective like a nervously self-decapitating Hydra, then maybe people – myself included – would have more respect for him, and would believe he’s a legit architect of his own story – otherwise known as, y’know, a director. But right now, Zack Snyder is heading into the realm of being remembered as a vulgar auteur; much like Michael Bay, we’ll be able to recognise one of his films from a mile off, thanks to – and here’s that magical word again – style. But they won’t be good films. And at least Michael Bay understands, and more importantly, believes in what he’s doing.

I’ve a nasty feeling that, when I see Batman v Superman, my views will be confirmed once and for all.

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is released this Friday.

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