Zack Snyder – A defining moment?
Filmmaker Feature by Alexander Halsall
The greatest filmmakers often court controversy by their actions. They buck the trend, swim against the tide and relish the insistence of the majority that what they’re trying to do is wrong so that they may rise above such criticism triumphant. Zack Snyder, whatever you may think of him, is a talented individual who makes films as he wishes, and does not seem to have much time for compromise. A visually flamboyant director, with a lot of creativity, and the desire to be different, it’s no surprise that DC saw fit to select him as the de facto creative leader of their universe, to guide his fellow DC comrades to success on the big screen. His past filmography seemed to suggest as much, his hyper stylised adaptations of graphic novels in the past such as 300 and Watchmen had been highly divisive, especially in the case of the latter, but always interesting and, more importantly, popular. The first long heralded glimpses of Snyder’s Man of Steel caused fans to salivate at the prospect of finally seeing Superman on top of the cinematic landscape now that superhero films are being released at a bi-monthly rate. However once again Man of steel split opinion with critics and at the box office. With the follow up, Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, being released this week I feel that this could define Snyder as a filmmaker, and how successful he can be in the future.
In 2004 Snyder burst onto the cinematic radar with a remake of George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. As thankless tasks go remaking a classic genre film is pretty close to the top. Imagine having to helm a remake of one of the most iconic horror films of all time, and some would argue the finest feature of Romero’s career. The 2000’s saw dozens of horror films being remade, being a famously cheap genre to produce, and most were uninspired repeats of what had come before. Dawn of the Dead however surpassed expectation with a frenetic reimagining which, whilst paying homage to its predecessor, felt like a separate entity. I enjoy both films, and find them so different in style, narrative and theme that I find them fulfilling for different reasons. As a first feature it was a highly promising debut, and it propelled Snyder into the limelight as a visually pragmatic director. Snyder then turned his attention to a long standing ambition of bringing a pair of his favourite graphic novels to the screen, 300 and Watchmen.
This period saw Snyder establish himself as a modern day pioneer of visual effect driven filmmaking. His use of green screen (or blue screen, if you prefer) has heavily influenced how films are made in the 21st century. Others are equally worthy of recognition, James Cameron being one of the obvious mentions, but Snyder’s reliance on digital effects to define the aesthetic of the worlds he creates within his films have made him a catalyst of creativity. That other less adept directors/producers have tried to imitate his highly stylised techniques, and digitally devised backdrops, with less success, has possibly tainted Snyder’s name more than his actual filmography. Much like how the Wachowski’s work on The Matrix led to numerous films attempting to recapture the style and imagination of the action and tone that they were able to produce. Snyder himself utilises slow motion in a manner that owes thanks to what the Wachowski’s were able to accomplish with their technical prowess.
As Snyder’s career has progressed I feel he has attempted to develop his own style to encompass deeper themes and more diverse optical dynamism, with variable results. 300’s narrative was quite simple, but its appeal of a legendary pyrrhic victory told with an almost fantastical relish by a soldier spared from the battle by the protagonist, Leonidas, was entertainingly executed, and emotionally resonant. Watchmen attempted to dig deeper into the complexity of the social historical setting of its period, and the concept of what it means to be a superhero? Anti-hero? God, or vigilante? Aided by the phenomenal source material Watchmen delves into the delicate psychosis of the character of the superhero and at times Snyder’s cinematic adaptation translates to film remarkably well. However Watchmen was long described as impossible to bring to the screen, and despite Snyder’s best efforts he cannot replicate the depth and complexity of Alan Moore’s graphic novel as well as he did with Frank Miller’s 300. With a complicated multi layered narrative, and a complex characterisation of multiple superhero archetypes, it was too much of a challenge to be faithfully realised on screen. His attempt however took great courage. Without pushing boundaries, even without succeeding, how can we ever expect to develop in our crafts? Despite Watchmen’s flaws it posed intriguing questions, and was an admirable attempt, his name was not tarnished and his reputation as a filmmaker continued to be enhanced.
His next two features Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole and Suckerpunch continued to augment Snyder’s reputation as a visual stylist, so much so that he began facing criticism as being all bark and no bite. There was plenty of style, flourishes of colour and impressive digital effects, I consider Ga’hoole to be one of the finest looking computer animated films of modern times. However they lacked in substance, weak unsupported narratives, or confusing, unclear storytelling. Suckerpunch in particular seems to have a lot going on, exactly what that going on is, I cannot say. It raises the issue of whether I, as a viewer, struggled to understand exactly what Snyder’s intent was, or whether his narrative, direction and screenplay, were unclear, over complex, and well, a bit of a tangled mess. I don’t consider myself an expert in film, I’ve seen only so much and have so much more to see, experience and learn, but I have seen more films than the average person, a fair few more, I would hope. So if I find the narrative unclear, I would assume others would too? Suckerpunch is my least favourite Zack Snyder film, in terms of entertainment and aesthetic. However I could see enough ambition within the film to not hate Suckerpunch, or to dismiss Snyder as someone who is untalented, or has no voice of his own. I feel it’s his most personal film, seeing as he wrote, produced and directed, and he clearly has something to express over the representation of gender roles within society and media formats. That he is thwarted by the limitations of the finished project is a disappointment, but not something he should be dismissed for out of hand.
Man of Steel didn’t quite go to plan. It forgoes colour and vibrancy for a harsher, icier tone and, in my opinion, never finds its footing. Even with a lengthy running time and slower pace than most films in the genre, it seems to live in the shadow of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy, but lacking the pace, wit, and tightly co-ordinated direction that keeps the narrative focused and clear. I know Man of Steel has its fans. Its tone contrasts sharply with the Marvel formula that has dominated the superhero genre since a certain Iron Man leapt onto screens, and I’m glad that it has found an audience who find merit within it. However for all the talk of Snyder as a ‘visual director’, something I have continually referred to throughout this feature, the uniqueness of his style is now a thing of the past. Imitators inspired by what he has accomplished have aped his style, with varying success, and, despite my natural inclination to be positive towards his work, I find myself questioning how much of a ‘visual film master craftsmen’ Snyder is? His films have developed little in way of texture over the years, feeling shallow, and the digitally created worlds, colour graded to death, seem to be sapping any filmic extravagance out of the cinematic realms he creates. With every film the palettes feel less spectral, and the experience more dour and lifeless. I don’t think every film should be lit up like Blackpool in November, but even films that encompass darker themes and narratives find a way to use light and colour to emphasise or deconstruct the world they have invented. The Dark Knight embraced the darkness, whereas the Man of Steel embraces the desaturation of colour.
This week Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice opens in the UK. There has been much discussion over whether the perceived failure of Man of Steel prompted Warner Brothers to send out their bat signal and call in the big box office guns of DC’s most historically profitable character. It’s been denied by all involved and explained to us that this was always the plan of action to begin the DC cinematic universe, with Snyder as helmsman. Whether this is true or not I am left hoping that Snyder, by uniting two very different characters, can use the conflict of two such opposing forces to form some kind of resolution in developing his own directorial style into something unique once more, something that will once again define him as a ‘visual storyteller’. The film is billed as God vs Man, Day vs Night, but for me it is Style vs Substance and I hope, as a film fan, that Zack Snyder can emerge victorious.