In Defense Of Zack Snyder
There’s a conceit among comic and movie fans that Zack Snyder just isn’t very good. The man has been vilified time and again, in print reviews, in on-line blogs, and the hearts and minds of many geeks. I would like to construct a different view, arguing that in-fact the man is a competent and wonderful director of thought provoking escapism and faithful comic adaptations.
In order to do this, I must first point to another director who IS regarded among comic fans as a competent and wonderful director of thought provoking escapism and faithful comic adaptations: Edgar Wright.
Some would argue Wright isn’t even a fair measuring stick, since the majority of his big screen work (The Cornetto Trilogy) comes hitched to the wagon that is Simon Pegg, but I think a large chunk of the argument can be made with those three films. Edgar Wright understands his genre, whatever genre in which he is working.
Shaun Of The Dead is a hilarious spoof of zombie movies. But it is not just a send up in the same manner that Scary Movie is a spoof of horror films. Shaun Of The Dead is simultaneously a slacker buddy flick and a romantic comedy set in a zombie movie, but is also a zombie movie in it’s own right. What makes a zombie movie? Well, zombies obviously, but also the rules: like shots to the head, biting gets you infected, and the slow, relentless march toward inevitability. What makes the film work is that it plays by the same rules that govern the zombie movie universe. Edgar Wright understands this, and NEVER sacrifices those rules for the sake of a joke or steps out-of-bounds.
He plays by the rules of that genre.
Likewise, Hot Fuzz is a hilarious send up of the action/buddy cop movie that was such a stable of the American film scape of the 80s and 90s. But, it’s not just a spoof of films it references like Lethal Weapon, Bad Boys and Point Break, because it respects the rules of the genre and adheres to them. Think about it, everything that Nick Frost’s Danny asks about (“Ever fired a gun whilst leaping through the air?” “Ever fired two guns whilst leaping through the air?”) is a standard trope of cop action flicks. And every one of them happens by the time Hot Fuzz has unspooled, down to the fact that a cop can’t solve the case until he’s been suspended from the force. The film never steps outside the confines of what it’s emulating, for this is it’s own law.
But it’s Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World that makes the strongest case for Edgar Wright, by following the rules of the video game genre, AND being a faithful adaptation (without the benefits of Simon Pegg’s acting or writing). First off, the movie stays very faithful to the books, in some cases breaking down panel by panel and transforming them into storyboards for scenes. Scott and Ramona’s date is one example, even going so far as to keep character placement and shot selection within the boundaries set by the printed book. The next day, when she skates off and melts snow in her wake, it’s a perfectly realized visual of the original image. And of course there’s motion lines and the onomatopoeias that visually float in the air when they appear and occasionally interact with the characters.
Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World trailer
Fans of the comic are quick to point out that yes, there are some changes here and there, and minor subplots that were left out, but you only have so much time in a movie to tell the “A” plot. Even in the omissions Wright make right by choosing which ones to leave out.
But the film also adheres to video game logic. Scott’s opponents burst into coins when defeated, because that’s the kind of thing that happens in video games. It’s structured like a game with mini-bosses leading up to the big boss fight. And after Scott gains an extra life (and is forced to use it) he doesn’t just pick up where he left off, he has to fight the boss level all over again, (starting outside the club and working his way to Gideon, but in true gamer fashion, correcting the mistakes he’s made along the way). The film is all about the language of video games, and Edgar Wright nails it, for he speaks the dialogue. Note the use of color in all the fight scenes. It looks like a video game. To top it all off, like Video game fights—which never lose the player amidst the action—the well-choreographed fight moves within Scott Pilgrim never leave you confused as to who is who or where they are in relation to anyone else.
It’s many of these same technical elements that define Zach Snyder’s work. Like Edgar Wright, he worked on the small screen first, doing commercials instead of television shows, but burst onto the big screen with his own zombie film, the reimagining of George Romero’s Dawn Of The Dead. When studio heads at Universal complained, “You’re a commercial director. Make it look like a commercial. Why does it look like this?” Snyder replied, “It’s just not appropriate. This is like a cult movie; it should look like a cult movie not like a Hollywood slick freak-out. It should be a love letter to the original movie, not a copy or mock of the original movie.”
But it’s 300 that really begins to showcase what Zack Snyder is capable of. Taking Frank Miller’s dark, violent retelling of the battle of Thermopile and transforming it into a living, breathing film is no small feat, and yet the film perfectly mirrors the style and look of the comic. And again, within the confines of the world that has been created, the rules are obeyed. The Spartans are heroic, the blood is splashy, and in the end, the heroes still die. But despite the epic and chaotic nature of the battles you never loose focus on who is fighting whom. This may be helped that the invading Persian army is pretty much a mass of faceless threats, (just like the book) but the Spartan characters fare much better and are treated with deft diligence.
Watchmen is a masterpiece of filmmaking. Unlike the film version of V For Vendetta (which took great liberties with Alan Moore’s original source work) Watchmen changed only two “major” things. One, the comic within a comic story was excised (becoming a separate motion comic of it’s own), and I do not lament its loss. While a fun story, Tales Of The Black Freighter was more an example of world building than an integral piece of the story, simply a thread of the tapestry that didn’t really make it “A” plot needed.
The second change could be construed as blasphemous: the changing of the ending. Instead of the giant psychic space squid imagined as a threat to the world to band together in the graphic novel, it’s changed to Dr. Manhattan himself. First off, a giant psychic space squid? That’s what Ozymandias came up with? Space Squid?!? Seriously? Wouldn’t that just cause the humans to run to the supers for protection instead of bandying together?
Secondly, with the nuclear countdown clock a repeated theme throughout the novel and film, doesn’t it make more sense for an exploding Dr. Manhattan to be responsible to show our folly? I know a naked blue guy taking out New York would seriously make me rethink my atomic stockpile. With all due respect to Alan Moore for not liking the splashy Hollywood movie process, Snyder perfectly distilled down his very plot dense novel into something digestible, while still keeping it entertaining and entrenched in the world Moore created. Watchmen still feels like its set in alternate universe 1980s where Nixon is still president.
It’s also gloriously brilliant in it’s imagery, like when Dr. Manhattan is on Mars and builds the clockwork machine. Those are images I couldn’t wait to see captured and Snyder did it beautifully. The same hold true for Night Owl and Silk Specter hooking up. Between this and the sex scene in 300, I’d pay to see a Zach Snyder porno.
Manhattan On Mars - Watchmen
Which of Zack Snyder's films is his best?
Sucker Punch is either masterful or vile depending on your take, but I fall on masterful. While an original story, the dream within a dream world is very video game/comic book genre and again abides by the rules that dictate interactions within. The guns are big, the girl’s outfits are not, (in some scenes “scantily clad” doesn’t hold enough weight), and when all else fails, grab a sword. I know people want to jump on the “Zach Snyder is very anti women” bandwagon because of this one. Is he in fact, objectifying them by setting up a scenario that can best be described as a fan boy wet dream? Does it not apply because he has made them strong, masters of their own destiny? Or is it simply a case of playing by the rules of the genre?
Unfortunately, Now I have to try to back up my argument with Man Of Steel. Believe me, I could fill 3 times the space here on what I didn't like about the movie. But I will say that It’s a spectacular achievement in action films, probably last summer’s most eye-popping spectacle. I’ve come to expect no less from Zach Snyder. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem much like a Superman movie to me. For all the hyperbole about hope, there isn’t much on display here. I like my Superman a bit more humanized. Yes, I grew up with Christopher Reeve, who will forever be Superman. But even comparing the film to the comics that inspired it, Sups seems a bit off his game. It’s not the killing of Zod that bothered me as it did so many other fan boys shouting “Superman does not kill!” He does. Look it up. When necessary it has happened before. I have no problem with that. It’s the lack of compassion and concern that lead up to that moment. How many innocent people were wiped out in the fight between Kal-El and Zod because the Man Of Steel refused to take the fight outside?
But despite those faults, Man Of Steel still manages to play by the rules established within the super hero universe and remain faithful to the Superman mythos. In that regard, I submit that Zach Snyder is in fact, a competent director, much like Michael Bay. I know, its en vogue to hate on Michael “Explosions” Bay the same way it’s now cool to hate on George Lucas and Star Wars. And yes, he bastardized the Transformers movies. But before that, he made good solid action films that helped redefine a genre. Bad Boys, The Rock and yes, even Armageddon are masterfully made and very entertaining.
Zach Snyder does no less. I'll hold my breath for Superman/Batman (or whatever we're calling it this week) and see how he does. Maybe I'll need to revise my title to "In Defense Of Zach Snyder's Early Films". Or maybe not.