From the homoerotic 300 to the queer coding of the Justice League, Zack Snyder hardwires his movies with LGBTQI+ subtext.
Even at a time when franchise brands are the star, the auteur still holds some weight in film. Fans still flock to cinemas to see the latest work of Christopher Nolan or Quentin Tarantino, while streaming platforms like Netflix have relied on the prestige of Spike Lee and Martin Scorsese to elevate their status as a studio.
One filmmaker who has undoubtedly made his mark on Hollywood is Zack Snyder, one of the leading figures in 21st-century mainstream cinema who inspires a number of opinions but can certainly be relied upon to deliver a particular style. Among the many stylistic hallmarks of his films lies an unexpected trait: Queerness.
Homoeroticism, and themes consistent with the LGBTQI+ community, appear in a lot of his work from very on in his career, which began at a time when studios were even more resistant to LGBTQI+ representation than they are now. Far from being a case of a straight artist being unaware of subtext, these themes are so consistent it’s likely that the vocal liberal weaves them in as part of his storytelling, delivering the message he wants even if the audience isn’t ready to hear it.
Zack Snyder’s steampunk fantasy finds power in the female gaze.
Queer Themes: Intentional Rather than Accidental
Some may dismiss this reading as completely at odds with their perception of Zack Snyder, but then again there are few directors whose work invites such passionate debate. There are many posts, reviews, and comment pages dedicated to the argument that his work is all surface, offering action and rock soundtracks so overwhelming that you’ll barely notice the lack of plot.
Looking at his worst-reviewed efforts, it would be easy to call this another case of critics clashing with fans. For example 2016’s Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice remains at a lowly 29% among professional critics on Rotten Tomatoes, but made $850million at the box office and was beloved enough to inspire the committed #ReleaseTheSnyderCut movement, which unlike many fan petitions actually succeeded in making his version of 2017’s Justice League after the poorly received Joss Whedon version (with Warner Bros paying $70million to make it happen).
However, if you look down his list of releases, even the critics seem to be divided. 300 (2006), Watchmen (2009), and the recent Army of The Dead (2021) all hover between 61-67%, with reviews that vary wildly from raves to disgust. The late, great godfather of popular criticism, Robert Ebert, veered from calling 300 “a comic book brought to life and pumped with steroids”, to being so impressed with Watchmen that he labeled it “a powerful experience” and vowed to see it again.
Simply put, Zack Snyder promotes strong reactions in an audience, regardless of their station, and that’s not something that happens by accident, it just comes from a source we might not have expected. Paul Ridd wrote for the BFI that Snyder’s “unique blend of ‘low’ cultural references has made it hard to elevate him to the status of acclaimed auteur. Yet his style is among the most distinctive and instantly recognizable in contemporary cinema. Snyder’s films certainly indulge in sensory overload and cathartic bloodlust. Yet his deconstruction of warrior mythology has unfortunately gone rather unexplored.”
So, if it’s true that the themes and messages of Snyder’s work are present despite the loud delivery, it’s possible, even likely, that the Queer themes many see in the stories are also intentional. Far from being a punchline thrown to cut through the perceived right-wing sensibilities, it is at the very heart of what makes these films work.
“To Die At Your Side…” Homoeroticism in 300
Snyder’s adaptation of the Frank Miller graphic novel is the most obvious and yet also the most complex to unpick. Many jokes have been made of the film, which is seen to have homophobic leanings while also unwittingly being a very homoerotic film. Certainly, some surface points would support this idea doesn’t have the more liberal view of sexuality. In an early scene when King Leonidas (Gerard Butler) is approached by a Persian envoy looking for submission, the Spartan leader jokes about the Athenians being “philosophers and boy lovers”. Equally, the Persians and their leader Xerses (Rodrigo Santoro) are portrayed as sexually promiscuous, androgynous, and covered in jewelry, an effeminate counter to the hyper-masculine 300 they would soon fight in the Battle of Thermopylae.
However, the portrayal of the Spartans speaks to something a bit different. Visually, the movie is a celebration of an idealized image of the male form. Every sinew is flexed in slow-motion fight scenes as the shirtless Spartans assert their dominance in battle, displaying their prowess as they penetrate their foes face to face (by contrast, the Persians are eventually victorious through fighting at a distance).
A more intense example comes from the interactions between characters, particularly the Spartans. Leonidas is seen to have very deep bonds with his men, that subvert the masculine avoidance of open emotion one might see in Western cinema. In one scene, Leonidas consoles his friend, Captain Artemis (Vincent Regan). Whereas a typical action film may see two men struggling to find the words, Butler’s character eloquently says “my heart is broken for your loss.” At the end of the film, when the Spartans realize they have been beaten, an impaled and bloody Stelios (Michael Fassbender) reaches to his leader and gasps “it’s an honor to die at your side.” Holding his hand, and staring deeply into his eyes, Leonidas replies “it’s an honor to have lived at yours.” This exchange wouldn’t have been out of place in a love song.
This unspoken intensity is in keeping with the generally accepted interpretations of Ancient Greece, where Homosexuality was an accepted part of society and, moreover, used in military strategy. Sparta’s military tradition, as well as troops such as the Sacred Band of Thebes, were either made up of same-sex lovers or encouraged a deep emotional bond between the men who would have to fight side by side. This gives a different meaning to an early scene, where Leonidas teaches his son an important lesson: “In the end, a Spartan’s true strength is the warrior next to him” he instructs. “First, you fight with your head…” before his Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey) finishes: “Then you fight with your heart.”
While 300 is one of the more famous examples of a film that isn’t historically accurate, Snyder may have drawn on this homoerotic tone precisely because he was pursuing something that spoke to history. It’s certainly not consciously present in Miller’s original text. When called to task about the “boy lovers” line in the comic book’s original run, Miller himself replied in the letter page of a later issue that “the Spartans almost certainly did practice homosexuality. There’s also evidence they tended to lie about it. It’s not a big leap to postulate that they ridiculed their hedonistic Athenian rivals for something they themselves did. ‘Hypocrisy’ is, after all, a word we got from the Greeks.”
It seems a convenient explanation for someone looking to directly avoid the realities of history. Miller has, after all, been accused of homophobia and misogyny in his work by contemporaries such as Alan Moore. However, a cinematic adaptation often strays from its source material, and while Snyder certainly stayed true to the visual style of the comics, he may have had other ideas regarding the homoerotic subtext. The filmmaker was certainly aware of the undertones, laughing off accusations of the film being homophobic and clumsily explaining the themes of male domination. “What’s more scary to a 20-year-old [straight] boy than a giant god-king who wants to have his way with you?” he told Entertainment Weekly while promoting the film, a remark perhaps designed to be flippant during the less inclusive mid-2000s.
Were that his last word on the topic, the idea of the film being accidentally homoerotic would be academic. But time and society move forward, and it would appear that Snyder’s idea for a third 300 movie suggests that same-sex romance is at the core of his vision. “Over the pandemic, I had a deal with Warner Brothers and I wrote what was essentially going to be the final chapter in 300,” he told The Fourth Wall podcast.
“I was writing this thing about Alexander the Great, and it just turned into a movie about the relationship between Hephaestion and Alexander. It’s called Blood and Ashes, and it’s a beautiful love story, really, with warfare. I would love to do it, [Warner Bros] said no… you know, they’re not huge fans of mine. It is what it is”.Zack Snyder
A generous interpretation may be that Snyder always had Queerness at the heart of 300, but at the time the director was charged with selling his second film to a traditionally conservative American audience and made light of it. He would not be the first artist to compromise or disguise his own views in the name of box office success. Alternatively, the 56-year-old may have grown in his opinions. Regardless of his intentions 15 years ago, in 2021 he clearly saw Queer romance as integral to the conclusion of this saga.
Queer Coding in Watchmen
Following Dawn of The Dead (2004) and 300, 2009’s Watchmen is a film that could only have happened at that moment in time. The previous year had seen The Dark Knight’s success create a peak in the demand for even darker takes on superheroes. As the Marvel Cinematic Universe took shape a few years later, Watchmen’s adult themes may have been deemed too risky for the big screen and perhaps moved to television (as HBO did in 2019 with the sequel series of the same name).
Once again, the film polarised fans and critics. To some it was a stunning and thoughtful antidote to the commercialism that surrounded big-budget blockbusters; to others, it was another case of Snyder echoing the style of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ story, but not the substance. Looking closely, however, we see a lot more nuance than expected, with Snyder willing to suggest a little bit more about his characters.
In the film’s opening credits, a series of slow-motion cinematic dioramas portray the downfall of the Minutemen, the ascent of the Watchmen, and the unrest that reigns in this alternative, Nixon-ruled 1980s. As with the comic, we see the character of Silhouette openly kiss another woman as they celebrate the end of World War II (a knowing twist on the famous VJ Day in Times Square photograph in popular culture). Moments later, however, she and the nurse she kisses are seen in another shot murdered, next to a newspaper with the headline “Sex Scandal Outs Silhouette from Minutemen.” It’s an unfortunate trope in mainstream cinema that LGBTQI+ characters often meet tragic ends, but combined with the foreboding tones of Bob Dylan’s ‘The Times They Are A-Changin’, this is perhaps more a comment on the authoritarian tone of the characters’ society, and a possible explanation as to why a story that has no issue portraying gay characters would also have key players whose sexuality would be ambiguous.
The best example of this is Adrian Veidt/Ozymandias (Matthew Goode). While he is one of the few superheroes whose true identity is known, his personal attractions are less clear in the comics. He has an obsession with Alexander the Great, who was believed by historians to be either gay or bisexual. Following his meeting with Rorschach, the masked investigator who narrates much of the story comments about Veidt: “Possibly homosexual? Must remember to investigate further.”
He doesn’t get the chance, as the comics rightly focus on his emergence as the eventual villain of the piece, and his personal life is kept as an intentional mystery. Perhaps the secretive nature of the relationship between two of the Minutemen in the comic, Hooded Justice and Captain Metropolis, goes some way to suggest why a superhero who had made himself a brand might conceal his homosexuality in this alternative 1980s (or the real one, for that matter).
With about 20 years of societal progress and a cinematic canvas, Snyder gets to go a little bit further. As with the comics, Ozymandias has the aesthetic of a Greek god, with a costume somewhat reminiscent of the Joel Schumacher Batman films, famous for their campness and fetishizing of the male form through costumes. In that same opening sequence, however, two big visual clues are given. One is a shot where Veidt is immortalized by Andy Warhol, who talks about his painting with Truman Capote. Both were infamously gay and served as shorthand for the community during that period.
The second scene is more protracted but no less suggestive. Goode stands on the red carpet at Studio 54, in full costume greeting the paparazzi. Also posing behind him in the center of the frame are The Village People, another totem for homosexuality that on its own would be a blunt connection. However, an interesting motion happens in Ozymandias’ movements following his photocall: to his right are women staring at him amorously, and to the left are Mick Jagger and David Bowie, the latter reclined almost seductively on a car staring at him in full Ziggy Stardust attire. As he walks through the crowd, his focus draws to Bowie as he reaches out for his hand. The late singer was known for being open about his bisexuality during this time in particular, and according to his former wife, Angie, had a relationship with Mick Jagger. To walk towards this pair, in particular, can certainly be construed as Queer coding of the character, even if Snyder didn’t want to remove that ambiguity outright. That subtlety slips somewhat later in the film when Veidt’s computer is searched and his desktop shows a file titled “BOYS.”
Whatever the delivery, it’s the sign of a director abundantly aware of the subtext of these characters, and willing to include it in his work. Hollywood comic book adaptations have many noted cases of “straightwashing” over the years, where canonically LGBTQI+ characters’ sexuality is either not mentioned or shown as heteronormative.
A full decade before Joe Russo’s “Grieving Man” cameo in Avengers: Endgame (2019) gave the MCU its first openly gay character, Snyder embraced Watchmen’s characters’ passions or lack thereof. Rorschach, played by Jackie Earle Haley in the film, is the subject of much speculation in terms of his sexuality. Many have read his closeness to Daniel Dreiberg/Nite Owl II (Patrick Wilson) as romantic affection; others point to his misogyny as traumatic childhood, arguing that he is too emotionally broken to explore who he is. This asexual or aromantic perspective is preserved by Snyder, eschewing the temptation to make him a self-hating gay man and letting his mask remain.
Homoeroticism in the DC Universe
The second half of Snyder’s career began as the curator of the planned DC Universe, somewhat parallel to Joss Whedon’s role in the early Avengers films. Bringing Superman to a new generation in 2013’s Man of Steel, a prelude to 2016’s blockbuster crossover, Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice. Such films rarely allow for openly LGBTQ+ characters, yet the homoerotic imagery continued. Much was made at the time of General Zod’s (Michael Shannon) queer coding, traveling in phallic pods, comparing it to the representation of Xerses in 300, where the character had orgies and an androgynous aesthetic.
However, his heroes themselves are not short on homoeroticism. Henry Cavill’s Superman continues Snyder’s celebration of the male form, in a suit that accentuates his physique in a way that wasn’t present for his predecessors. Also, during all three of his appearances, Cavill is quite often shirtless, with his muscularity emphasized in the early rescues in Man of Steel, watching the news in Batman V Superman, and resurrected in both versions of Justice League (although each time his lower half is covered).
This combines with the tension that builds between Batman and Superman, with the 2016 film skewering elements of real-world moral panic in the way Superman is viewed as a danger. The build-up to their fight is filled with undertones of dominance, and more male imagery as Ben Affleck’s Bruce Wayne trains for his encounter in an equally suggestive manner: shirtless in a basement, with water running in the foreground, the Billionaire does pull-ups as the camera runs down his torso to reveal chains wrapped around his waist.
Male sexuality looms over Wayne throughout, with Snyder himself pointing to a shot in Batman V Superman where the character leaves his bed with an anonymous female partner still sleeping, looked over by a Robert Mapplethorpe picture that hangs above the bed. The director stated on the social media site Vero that it represents “the erotic as a drug that Bruce uses.” A valid comment, but also an interesting choice of artist: Mapplethorpe is most widely known for his portrayal of gay BDSM and homoerotic imagery prior to his death in the late 80s.
In the same film, several references are made to The Wizard of Oz (1939), long associated with the LGBTQ+ community with phrases such as “a friend of Dorothy” being an allusion to being gay, and Judy Garland being held as an icon for a generation of Queer fans. Perry White (Laurence Fishburne) asks where Clark Kent is, before quipping “Where does he go? Clicks his heels three times and goes back to Kansas I suppose.” Jesse Eisenberg’s manic and camp villain, Lex Luthor, makes a couple of references – describing Superman’s homeworld Krypton as “The Emerald City”, then whimpering “ding dong, the god is dead” in the film’s closing scenes.
Linking canvas once might have been innocuous, but all these allusions to Clark Kent/Superman and The Wizard of Oz (Superman’s red boots are seen pointing out of the rubble in one shot) arguably speak to the innate homoeroticism of the superhero genre, as well as the isolation and dual identities that many in the LGBTQI+ community experience to this day.
Zack Snyder is the Real Rorschach Test
Publicly, Zack Snyder is a director who tries his best to evade definition. In one article for The Guardian, he was asked by his Dawn of the Dead cast member Sarah Polley about the perceived “right-wing undercurrent” in his films, Snyder replies “I vote Democrat! I’m a true lover of individual rights” before saying “I want to make sure everyone’s heard and everyone feels included. I don’t have a right-wing political agenda. People see what they want to see.”
This would seem like the appropriate response for someone whose work inspires such differing views, a kind of cinematic Rorschach Test in which you imprint your own sensibilities. However, later in the piece, he says he would wish for his legacy to be convincing some people that genre movies can be “smart”. Perhaps the man accused by his detractors of storytelling that is only surface deep in fact fills the frame with detail that while missed by many, is always intentionally placed.
“The bad reviews are so fun. Stuff they say, like, ‘Zack Snyder has made homoeroticism safe for homophobes,’ is priceless. As soon as I hear ‘neocon’ or ‘homophobic’ in the review, I laugh to myself and say, ‘Okay, this person has lost their inner child somewhere along the way, too much time in film school.’”Zack Snyder, to MTV
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James Victoria Luxford is a film journalist who has been covering the industry since 2007. In that time, they have written about cinema for the likes of The Guardian, Reader’s Digest, Radio Times, The Hollywood Reporter, Empire Magazine, and more. They are also a regular on TV and radio, having appeared on BBC TV and radio, as well as networks across the world.