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Zack Snyder | The Momentous Staying Power of Zack Snyder's Films

For all critics sneer, Zack Snyder creates powerful films that leave a lasting impact thanks to a simple mantra: “Have fun but don’t make fun.”

Since his beloved zombie debut in 2004, Dawn of the Dead, which I had the pleasure of viewing in a communal hall space in a dormitory of Nigerian boys and girls from the age of 12-25 in boarding school, I’ve been watching Zack Snyder’s movies. Even then, at a sprite age when largely nothing interested me, Dawn of the Dead and his subsequent films left an incredible impression on my senses.

They were momentous, big, and undoubtedly flawed and in all the right ways. While I was re-watching Sucker Punch, Snyder’s feminine pixie-dream girl action bonanza from 2011 for this essay, I felt like I was watching a cutscene for a highly anticipated PlayStation 2 game that would never be released, or the best music video from a band I would never think to listen to. The film has big statements, much to show and little to say. I won’t be delving into much depth on Sucker Punch in this essay however returning to its many, many, flaws and unadulterated “Synder-ness” became imperative to be able to write an honest and well-contextualized piece on what things the former painter turned blockbuster filmmaker does do right. Moreover, it birthed a thesis. 

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Does Zack Synder make adult films for children? The sensation of such an idea becomes apparent in this film more than any other in his filmography and once you realize it, everything starts to make sense. He’s been described many times by journalists and his collaborators to have child-like awe and excitement during the filmmaking process. I don’t want this to be defamation of his intelligence. Synder is very clearly technically capable, his films incredibly gymnastic. He’s probably the only director in Hollywood who can make greenscreen seem like a genuinely expressionistic choice. A backyard blockbuster wouldn’t be out of the question for someone like himself. So what is childlike about Snyder? I’d argue, his approach to storytelling. It’s apparent in interviews, his scene breakdowns, and commentary. I’ve probably heard Zack Snyder utter the four-letter word “cool” more than anyone in my life. He’s very honest and completely overt about why he does what he does, and how he does it. 

We have many filmmakers who feign a joy from their stylist approach, only to re-contextualize the layers and layers of meaning or non-meaning from why they exposed a frame at a certain aperture. Zack Synder’s answers are always fairly simple.

“Have fun but don’t make fun. Be reverent to the genre but push it,” he exclaims about his view of Dawn of the Dead in his career retrospective for Vanity Fair. It’d make a pretty strong mantra for Synder when I continue to revisit his filmography, my interest in Synder continues because of how public opinion has cycled round and round on his films, they’re still very divisive. Whenever I uttered his name in respect to this article, no one responded with hate, just an unsure “umm, really? The DC guy?” Seems most people know who he is, they commend his style, they don’t like all his films but they don’t hate them either. There is an understanding here between the audience and the artist. It seems off the cuff but it reminds me of Kanye West, albeit on a much smaller scale. They’re only similar in that they’re completely honest about their creative choices, which can cause either backlash and love to either grow or die, again and again, for many years to come. But no one can deny that they’re both good at their jobs. 

Baby Doll sits on a bed, her knees drawn up to her chest. Outside the windows, rain can be seen.
Emily Browning as Baby Doll in Zack Snyder’s Sucker Punch (2011). Browning has most recently been seen in the role of Laura Moon in the Starz TV series American Gods, based on the novel by Neil Gaiman. | Warner Bros, 2011.

Though my entire formative stretch of teenagerhood wasn’t shaped by his films they were heavily informed by them. He has a strong talent for expression through imagery. That is undoubtedly true. In fact, Synder is one of the most talented still photographers I’ve seen. But the philosophical ideas and statements that appear in his films aren’t quite executed with enough depth to create entire stories or strong character arcs over the runtime of two hours. In other words, his films lack quilting points. A stitch to sew the threads of the story with its thematic design or ideologies.

When his protagonist in Sucker Punch, the pale-faced and amiable Baby Doll portrayed by Emily Browning (an orphaned young woman who’s been forced to dance at a club where she must live) expresses that she wants – nay, needs – freedom. Snyder cuts to a “mentor-type” character presenting her with a box that includes a samurai sword and gun. “These are your weapons.” the mentor says. I think this brief back and forth, entirely sums up Zack Snyder’s pension for presenting big social philosophical ideas without quite the tools to tackle them in any other way than, well, something he finds cool. 

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But here’s the thing, is that entirely bad? I don’t think so. Pair what Snyder finds cool with a cerebral text like Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen, which he adapted in 2008. When the super-hero film was still germinating its hooks, the same hooks that would soon be used to latch onto audiences and subsequently the entire box office for years and you’ll find some genuine cinematic sequences. Some of the best of that decade, hey, maybe even this side of the century. There’s a reason why a Christopher Nolan would call him up and offer Snyder directing reins on a Superman film for a new generation – the potential is there, somewhere. It’s just never quite crystalized. With Synder’s legacy growing ever stronger, his pension for stylistic elements becoming ever more obvious, his public perception has morphed and cycled back and forth, between auteur and plain problematic in the last half-decade alone. There’s literally an article titled “Zack Synder – I don’t have a right-wing political agenda” in The Guardian.

Why does this particular blockbuster filmmaker have to defend himself so? One thing is certain, the man is talented and confident enough, to poke at philosophies he finds interesting on the biggest of stages. Whether you like a film by Snyder or not, you can’t deny he has made sequences that have stayed with an entire generation and become well-argued over, respected, lauded, and even comprehensively spat on by others. His philosophy is muddled, yes but his technical prowess? Right up there with the very best. 

300’s Bold, Bare Battles

No film suits Snyder’s style so much as his sculpted, bare and proud 300, his sword and sandals masterpiece is based on Frank Miller’s graphic novel of the same name. Which details the Greek/Persian battle of Thermopylae in 480 BC and was released in 2005. It sort of caught everyone by surprise. His vision of Greece is so unlike another sword and sandals epic from that time, Troy starring Brad Pitt. A much more conventional and golden age Hollywood kind of epic was released in 2004. Snyder’s Greece is specific and abstract. Not to mention, shot almost entirely on a green screen in a studio. An unheard-of vision for a Greek legend, or to any film that wasn’t Star Wars really. It’s dark, as well as a shot-to-shot remake of its source material, which was most unusual. The notion still is now, but Synder doesn’t owe everything to the novel, there are some things a two-dimensional format cannot offer that a film can. 

King Leonidas stands in a field of wheat, mountains in the background, and his helmet in his hand. He is speaking to Queen Gorgo and their son Pleistarchus.
King Leonidas (Gerard Butler) bids farewell to his family, Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey) and Pleistarchus (Giovanni Cimmino) in Zack Snyder’s 300 (2005). Gorgo has a significantly larger role in the movie than she does in Frank Miller’s comic, whilst Pleistarchus doesn’t appear at all. | Warner Bros, 2005.

He pushes the limits of technology and wrings the neck of a new kind of storytelling which is mythological and over-dramatic. Something we’ll see continues in his future work. 300’s themes are simple, conventional and hyper-masculine. It comes with haunting images and mythic tendencies.

When a Persian emissary threatens to blot out the sun with their world’s army of arrows. A budding blood-thirsty Michael Fassbender dowsed in Synder’s beloved six-pack aesthetic, fit for purpose in a Greek melodrama replies, “Then we will fight in the shade.” Which is right up there on the list of badass movie lines. The film is staggered with iconic quotes and images just like this. To my surprise, I remembered all of them with deep nostalgia. Synder briefly discussed the look of the Spartans depicted in the film. “I just like the men and women in my movies to look a certain way” – he whips the director’s hands up to the camera – “it’s just aesthetic, you know?” It may seem an insensitive thing to say about physically representing people on camera but he admits to being a fitness fanatic who builds a gym on every set he works on. 

No sequence in the film encompasses it all like when the Spartans meet the Persians in a battle for the first time. Synder’s abrasive and bold engineering approach comes to the fore. In this sequence, he unsheathes new techniques and makes famous others. I envy the deep dark shadow of contrast that exists between Gerard Butler’s Leonitis and his helmet. The white of his eyes pops as he barks words of terror at the incoming horde. This effect is achieved by a few methods, bleach bypass, and contrast crushing. To emulate the graphics of the book. Jim Bissell, the film’s production designer said so himself, “We take all the digital information in the film and we compress it. The contrast lines where the blocks feather into the mid-range are very smooth like Frank’s drawings.”

Spartans in silhouette force Persian warriors back over a cliff edge.
The 300 Spartans force their enemies off the cliff edge in Zack Snyder’s 300 (2005). The use of bleach bypass gives the film a sepia, washed-out tone that has become indelible to Snyder’s work. | Warner Bros, 2005.

This look has come to define Zack Snyder’s work. “Give them nothing, take from them, everything.” The line itself isn’t fluid but Butler’s confident delivery makes it so. Then comes the king’s oner. For a time every action director fell in love with speed ramping, the fast to slow, slow to fast effect created by manipulating the frame rate in a single shot. Not realizing what makes this moment extremely effective, is its smooth but aggressive snap zooms in and out compositions, dance-like choreography, and revolving sound effects. Oiled muscles vibrate on impact and large cartoon-like blood splashes omnidirectionally. The whole experience is euphorically cinematic. It’s pure inspiration and one of the most famous shots of that decade. A style that would come to have garnered huge praise and still deserves so now, it holds up. 

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Watchmen: Deconstruction of Man

In 2009, a mad kind of unforgettable magic happened in the year of cinema. Its source is one of the most vital literary pieces of the last hundred years. With Marvel’s cinematic universe up and running via Iron Man and Hulk, and Christopher Nolan’s masterclass in a very successful Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, in the years since 300. Warner Bros. and Paramount teamed up and left it all on the table with the release of Zack Snyder’s 162-minute adaptation of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ 20th-century literary classic, Watchmen. As seminal as the Bible when it comes to graphic novels, and as well-read in circles of literature. Watchmen’s original 12-issue run from 1986-87 won centurion prizes and appears on every literary “best ever” list. Watchmen’s a gloomy and nihilistic version of an Avengers team-up movie. Moore’s characters – drawn from the Charlton Comics pantheon, acquired by DC in 1983 – are deployed as archetypes that would be recognizable to the average consumer, Batman/Night Owl, Comedian/Captain America, so on. As audiences were being introduced and re-introduced to these characters at the box office, Snyder made a film that would maximize these similarities and intentionally subvert everything we know about superheroes. Right down to the way he designed the costumes for the film. 

Comedian leans back in his chair with a cigar. He's holding a newspaper that reads "Soviets Call Dr. M. Imperialist Weapon."
Jeffrey Dean Morgan as Comedian in Zack Snyder’s Watchmen (2009), a vicious critique of ultra-nationalist superheroes and US Cold War intrigues. The character was originally the old Charlton Comics superhero Peacemaker, now firmly part of the DC cinematic milieu. | Warner Bros, 2009.

The point is, that what you’re about to read is the hallmark of a gamble from a studio perspective. Over time it seems Synder’s adaptation of Watchmen has a lukewarm embrace of love. More than a cult and of a similar nature, lovers are not as vocal about the film specifically. But it completes some elements the book could not demonstrate on paper. It’s known for its incredible sequences, and naturally, the film is structured episodically. It doesn’t necessarily build from scene to scene or as a whole smoothly. It has long sequences of moods and emotions, sometimes it takes away from the complexity of its story, and other times it imparts exactly the feeling of the impending and radical doomsday atmosphere of the 80s. Which, when you watch the film, plays similarly to Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. The elements are there, the detective. The murder, the mystery. It’s set amidst a dystopian and alternate history after all.

I mean, can you really imagine though? If this film was released exactly as it is today? The opening credits alone would be a source of discussion. It’s made up of a series of photos, flashes, and points of view. It depicts heroes being taken to asylums and being murdered by homophobic citizens. Presidential assassinations, the infamously fatal protests during the Vietnam War, and recreating American history at the same time, all underscored by Bob Dylan’s ‘Times They Are a-Changin.’ Juggling an extensive amount of information and perspectives, graphic novels don’t come with opening credits sequences and these kinds of creative choices are what makes Synder’s film so impressive. The rest of the film’s photography is dark and damp. Its roster of heroes is dusty and grimy, they’re homophobes, racists, rapists, and sociopaths. Even Adrien Veidt a.k.a Ozymandias (A billionaire scientist and superhero of course) describes one of his teammates, the Comedian, as “practically a Nazi.”

I was 14 or 15 years old watching a god intervene in an American war and a beefy rugged man dressed like Captain America torching Vietnamese soldiers. And Snyder does all this with an almost titillating visual style. Remember the mantra? Have fun, don’t make fun.

It was a stark contrast to the costume capers I’d seen. It’s very evident here. When we see superhero landings amongst non-violent civilian protests. Swooping down in style, only to shoot the unarmed with rubber bullets and tear gas. Remind you of something? The point is, we should not idolize these people at all. They’re dangerous. It’s abundantly clear when Synder visually recounts the memories of the other characters at the Comedian’s funeral. When a pregnant Vietnamese woman enters a bar and commands the Comedian to take responsibility for her baby, which she is close to delivering. He snarls and she breaks the glass on his face. In no time at all, the wreckage of his image is enough for him to gun her down without hesitation. All in the midst of the god-like and omnipotent presence of one, Doctor Manhattan. He is surprised that he would kill a pregnant woman but it’s Comedian’s reply which instills emotion, that makes us feel guilty for treating this as entertainment:

“You watched me, you could’ve turned the gun to steam, the bullets into mercury, the bottle into goddamn snowflakes but you didn’t. You don’t give a damn about human beings.”

Comedian, Watchmen (2009)

Synder fashionably presents us with a group of the most toxic Avengers imaginable and the one brandishing the American flag is the worst of them all. 

Billy Crudup as Dr. Manhattan in Zack Snyder’s Watchmen (2009). | Warner Bros, 2009.

In the sequence that explores Doctor Manhattan’s origin story, perception of time, and subsequent departure from Earth, we witness the deconstruction of man and the construction of a God. It’s a haunting sequence that makes us question the celebration of such power, the personal sacrifice as well as the political agendas of our nationalism. Billy Crudup’s incredible monotonal and plain voice-over as the mythic being juxtaposed with classic, colorful and shiny shots of an optimistic 1950s America. When the pronounced dead physicist radically reconstructs himself atom by atom, muscled up and genitals hanging freely. News reporters already have an ideal to spin: “God exists. And he is American.” It would be a bold line of dialogue for a Marvel film in these times. Where everything starts to blend into one ideal tone, one moral standing or opinion. When even a Doctor Strange film directed by Sam Raimi can match the same principles of a Captain America film: “we don’t trade lives.”

There’s nothing wrong with the code, it’s the omission of other ideas and codes which is the problem. Flawed ideals and flawed characters, executed more honestly, more stylishly even if muddled at times can be beneficial for one’s moral navigation. Zack Snyder’s films offer us something different. 

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Man of Steel, Justice League, and the Rest

Maybe that notion of something different was the invisible force behind the drive and successful campaign from fans over four years which led to the release of Zack Snyder’s Justice League on HBO Max in 2021. A seismic shift in the film industry that gave full powers to the fans to force something into existence against all odds and big Warner Bros. egos. An antithesis of the schlocky mess that was forced upon audiences back in 2017 that had been reconstructed into some kind of horror show of what producers demanded as well as the sum of their Marvel fears.

Snyder’s Superman reboot Man of Steel does more in its opening 15 minutes than most blockbuster superhero epics can achieve in two and half hours, and while that film certainly lacks in some departments. The corruption of Krypton, a dying world emptied of resources, and a failed colonial empire is depicted in its opening sequence and contains enough fuel for an entire feature film unto itself. Coupling an impressive use of visual FX and political storytelling focusing on the inclusive idea of an immigrant and refugee, Kal-El trying to find his feet on a foreign planet and amongst foreign people. Snyder mainlines on the most interesting and dramatic aspects of what was quickly being touted as the most “boring” superhero in the sandbox after Bryan Singer and an eager George Miller couldn’t quite fit their whole hand around the big blue boy scout.

Even if we didn’t like it, we somewhat had an understanding of the awe Synder was trying to reinvest into the mythology of the character and one of the most famous symbols on planet Earth, closely attaching his adaptation to the messianic representation of figures in holy books. The S stands for hope in Synder’s film, hope that heroes can be better in a bleak world, and Superman can be the best of them. As Jor-El puts it: “An ideal to strive towards.” And Synder understands, ultimately, that an ideal is not a real thing. It’s fiction, from a perspective. 

Superman walks down a corridor, he is handcuffed and flanked by soldiers.
Henry Cavill as Superman in Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel. Cavill’s was originally cast in Superman in McG‘s unmade 2004 film, Superman: Flyby and was replaced with Brandon Routh when Bryan Singer took over the project. | Warner Bros,

Synder’s intent with his films is thick with contradictions and I think that is the intention. We can follow charismatic figures to our death or to our salvation. But either is possible and both journeys could look and feel the same for us as a society. Well, when they’re directed by Zack Snyder that seems to be so – he cites John Boorman as his favorite film director for his cinematic deals in mythology. The obsession runs strong roots throughout each one of Snyder’s films and momentous action sequences. He tells stories of gods and monsters, Greek tragedies, and hyper-dramatic noir. And he largely does it all the same way, with a child-like element of guilt, honesty, and love towards the original intentions and meanings, while still being aware enough to understand the problematic elements and tendencies of such devices and genres in storytelling. Remember the mantra, have fun but don’t make fun. Primarily in the scope of Hollywood and what they think audiences want. 

Maybe his genuine vision is an amalgamation of what he’s been told to envision by what comes before him and the pieces of art that inspired and challenged him. He encompasses all these things and it’s important that consumers can engage with these contradictions, to engage with something other than the conveyor belt of moral ideologies and narratives. Thus, his sequences engrain themselves in our popular culture because of their relation and interaction with popular culture. In their formation and their existence. Good films are made as conversations, questions, and studies even. So, I don’t see why there’s any reason Zack Snyder’s films should have the answers that others don’t. He’s probably as hopeless as the rest of us when it comes to answering any of the ideologies and questions that he poses in his films.

He simply focuses on delivering the question as awesome and cool as he can… at least he has fun with it. Serious fun. 

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Award-winning screenwriter, director, and writer based in South London, Levi’s known for series and shorts, Visions of a Vivid Life and The Smell of Cut Grass. They write fiction and non-fiction work, essays, short stories and articles for Film Inquiry, Literally Stories, The Independent, Femini Magazine, and Clone Corridor. Levi is also an avid climber and published photographer.

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