What is a great director? Is it Stanley Kubrick using the language of film in a way that makes his movies a delight to understand but not-so-great at the box office? Perhaps it’s the anti-Kubrick, Michael Bay, who makes movies that seem motion captured from kids playing with toys but make a billion dollars? Or maybe Spielberg who exists as both a critical and commercial mastermind? The work required to direct a film is not easy, so anyone who completes even one film is a great director in my book. So, on this day of his birth, we look at the films of Zack Snyder, a great director in his own right. What makes him great? The fact that most people reading this either love him or hate him, for starters.
One of our great critics here at MFR, EJ Moreno, sums up Zack Snyder in a way that I completely agree with. Zack Snyder is Michael Bay after a stint at art school. It’s true, Snyder presents all the stunning, visceral visuals of a Bay movie with the slick design and composition of a graphic designer. Even the biggest haters of Snyder’s work have to admit that the man’s movies are beautiful.
Before movies, Snyder was a music video director. One of his early works, “Somebody to Shove” by Soul Asylum is a masterpiece of sight and sound. Snyder’s knack for making viewers feel the physicality of the scene shines. In 2009, Snyder directed his first music video in 15 years for My Chemical Romance’s “Desolation Row.”
Dawn Of The Dead
Zack Snyder made his debut with a remake of Dawn of the Dead, the original sequel to George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. The feeling of pure, visceral filmmaking was rampant in every frame of Snyder’s film. Snyder refined the original pic’s story and hit the ground running with a wild opening ten minutes that made the price of a ticket worth it. I will say it plain and clear: after watching Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead I was crushing hard on the director. I wanted to see what came next. Would he evolve his storytelling to a level closer to his absolute mastery of movement, action, and pacing?
Next from Zack Snyder came 300, an adaptation of Frank Miller’s graphic novel about the complete and utter disregard for historical accuracy. Just kidding, mostly. 300 was, again, beautiful to watch. Like a comic book painted by the hand of Van Gogh and set into motion. Once again, Snyder’s skill with physicality and impact produced a rock solid action film. The ramping (and other) techniques he used, while not new, weren’t as wildly used until 300. As someone dissecting a director’s career in real-time, 300 was fun, but from a storytelling point of view was a lateral move.
We’ve arrived now at Snyder’s third film, Watchmen. Outside of Batman Vs. Superman, the Watchmen, is likely the most polarizing geek movie Snyder has made. Based on the legendary 80s graphic novel from Alan Moore, Watchmen spent decades in development hell. Most people, even adoring fans of the book like me, thought it just wouldn’t make a good film. At best, I figured, it could be an HBO-style limited series. It’s here where I give Snyder his first big pat on the back. Snyder is fearless and most great directors are. It’s all fine and dandy to have the technical know-how that Snyder clearly has, but if you’re not bold enough to challenge what you know, then you’ll never make transcendent movies. Is Watchmen transcendent? Hell and no. Is it the best cinematic version that we’ll likely ever see based on the epically dense graphic novel? I think so.
It’s at this point that the divergence begins. Up until now, Snyder proved to be a visual tour de force, a fearless filmmaker, and a box office champion. Great, right? Eh. Zack Snyder still lacked the complete picture. Dawn of the Dead was a zombie movie and 300 a straightforward action movie. Neither required much in the way of a story. For Watchmen, he wisely stuck to much of the source material and did little with it other than transform the comic pages into a pretty movie.
Legend of the Guardians: The Owls Of Ga’Hoole
In 2010, Snyder made Legend of the Guardians: The Owls Of Ga’Hoole a mostly forgettable animated movie. Of note, it had beautiful visuals and action, but little else. Also, as I said before, Snyder is bold, and this was a confident step outside what he’d done so far. Legend of the Guardians came and went, and will likely be notable as a fun fact in Snyder’s otherwise giant, live-action blockbuster career.
In 2011 came Sucker Punch. The movie with the most appropriate title ever. Why? Because after watching it you feel like someone tapped you on the shoulder and smacked your face with a fist as you turned to look. If I could watch Sucker Punch without dialogue and just music, I would say it’s the most beautiful music video ever. Otherwise, it’s more of Snyder’s slick visuals but devoid of any cohesive narrative. Sucker Punch was panned, and for fans of Rotten Tomato scores, it holds a rating of 24 percent.’Nuff said.
At this point, I disembarked the Snyder train. It was clear where his passions were focused. While I’m not opposed to style over substance, it gets old fast. Joel Schumacher learned how easy it is to go from box office hit maker to forgotten filmmaker when your movies are as memorable as a McDonald’s burger.
Man of Steel, Batman Vs. Superman, and Beyond!
Snyder’s last two films are Man of Steel and Batman Vs. Superman. Man of Steel released in 2013, which I call the year that broke me as a movie fan. It was clear that year that the Save the Cat formula and Michael Bay-esque films were the rule, not the exception. Snyder is another reinforcement of that reality. Like during the late 40s and 50s, Hollywood is back around to going full steam ahead on big, studio sanitized movies.
We’ve reached the most polarizing film of recent memory; Batman vs. Superman features all the best (and worst) of Zack Snyder. As much as I hate that the movie wasted time on Batman’s origin, I also love it because that sequence with the pearls is filmmaking porn to cinephiles. Snyder’s undeniable style exists in every frame. Some scenes bristle with that same level of cinematic porn as the pearls. But, movies aren’t just supposed to be pretty moving pictures. The pictures are supposed to connect for a greater whole. In our modern age of “talkies,” the pictures should connect and dance with dialogue and music, again, for the greater whole. As Snyder’s visuals continue to reach new heights, his desire or ability to make those connections seems unbending.
So, is Snyder a great director? The simple answer is yes. One of the hallmarks of truly great directors is having a style or signature. Like a painter whose works are unmistakable, Snyder’s films are undeniably his. Snyder’s signature is gorgeous and flawless like an airbrushed supermodel. Dominant signatures like Snyder’s or Kubrick’s, or Spielberg’s are also often polarizing which means they’re also unforgettable.
Happy birthday, Zack Snyder!
I love your work, for better and worse. I do enjoy our director/viewer relationship, though, even if it is complicated.