Where to begin with Zack Snyder

With a new cut of his 2017 film Justice League now streaming, and his zombie horror Army of the Dead arriving in May, we pick a beginner’s path into the hyper-stylised cinematic worlds of Zack Snyder.

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)

Why this might not seem so easy

Zack Snyder’s films have attracted a passionate fanbase as well as a high level of critical disdain. He started out as a music video director, and his hyper-stylised approach draws as much from comic books, video games and commercials as it does from directors like Sam Peckinpah, Ridley Scott and Luc Besson. This 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 recognisable 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. Who other than Snyder, for instance, could take on a kids adventure centred on magnificent CGI owls and turn in a film as visually staggering and disturbing as Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’hoole (2010)? It combines brutal avian battles with a bleak parable of enslavement and fascism, resulting in a consistently thrilling work of contrast and contradictions that are unexpected on such a grand cinematic scale.

Such bizarre extremities are at the heart of the Snyder aesthetic, which is at once naive and insightful, puerile and beautiful. This is what makes his films fascinating, even as they offer baser pleasures of awe, excitement and sentimentality.

The best place to start – 300

Following his feature debut, the Michael Bay-esque remake Dawn of the Dead (2004), Snyder made the box-office smash 300 (2006). Here, Snyder lovingly recreates the look and feel of Frank Miller and Lynn Varley’s ultra-violent comic book in an orgy of stylised combat and heightened emotion. A pared down retelling of the ancient Greeks’ doomed clash with Persians at Thermopylae, the action centres on ultra-macho leader Leonidas (Gerard Butler) and his small army of pumped up Spartans as they set out for battle, ridiculously outnumbered but gung-ho to the point of mania. 

300 (2006)

Tongue-in-cheek narration, strikingly beautiful visuals and a deafening, guitar-shredding soundtrack maintain the momentum as the film moves from one elaborate set-piece skirmish to the next. A fluid camera frequently lingers on violence and gore in slow-motion, while the golds, reds and blacks of the crisp cinematography are saturated to the point of near abstraction. 

Narratively minimalist but visually maximalist, 300 is perhaps the purest expression of Snyder’s aesthetic. Yet there is something unnerving about the spectacle of these god-like beings annihilating puny foes. Unlike contemporaneous riffs on the sword-and-sandals epic, the film centres more on the terrifying power of its heroics than on any sense that physical and moral strength go hand in hand.

What to watch next

This sense of nagging horror carries over into 2009’s Watchmen. This is a sprawling studio oddity in which the superhero deconstruction undertaken by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons in their seminal 1986 comic finds an uneasy but interesting pairing with Snyder’s intensely visual storytelling. Painstakingly recreating the look and panels of the comic, Snyder embraces an elaborate colour palette and vivid layering of narrative strands. His film brings to life densely illustrated worlds – from grim NYC cityscapes to the surface of Mars – and the heroes that populate them with a thrilling mix of practical and CG effects. 

Watchmen (2009)

Garishly violent, Watchmen imagines a world where interpersonal resentments, cooperation with militaristic power and terrifying masterplans drive its superheroes rather than any real sense of moral duty. This nightmarish dystopia marks the development of Snyder as a spectacular stylist. But it also shows the emergence of a fully fleshed out preoccupation with problematising superheroes and presenting raw power(s) as dangers to the mortal world.

Snyder went on to divide audiences, first with his take on the Superman mythos in Man of Steel (2013) and then in its startlingly bleak follow-up Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016). Both films valiantly continue to explore the idea that even all-American heroes and forces for apparent good could present terrifying implications for the mortal world.

Snyder’s Kal-El (Henry Cavill) is a mass of contradictions and past traumas, elegantly played out in Man of Steel’s vivid first hour, which explores Superman’s disorientating adolescence. But Snyder never lets us forget that this is a superhuman character whose powers present the potential for colossal destruction. Witness the calamitous confrontation with nemesis Zod (Michael Shannon) later on in the film, when their duel lays waste to Smallville and Metropolis. 

Man of Steel (2013)

Embracing a more kinetic and edgy visual approach, as well as a far darker, more muted colour scheme and set design, Man of Steel presents probably the grimmest conceivable vision of the hero and the collateral damage he inevitably might cause.

Then in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Snyder takes the risk of revisiting the senseless destruction of that denouement. But this time it’s seen from ground level by Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) as a bleakly realistic vision of urban mayhem.

Wayne then sets out to destroy Superman as a very legitimate threat to mankind, all the while leaving a trail of destruction in his own hi-tech wake. This reflects Snyder’s perspective on these monumental heroes as having the potential for maniacal, obsessive destruction even as they can present a genuine force against threats.

It’s a markedly sombre take on the characters, which leaves us with a delicious sense of ambiguity and uncertainty. Both films are essential viewing ahead of the four-hour behemoth that is Snyder’s director’s cut of Justice League.

Where not to start

While it has its pleasures, Snyder’s Sucker Punch (2011), his first attempt at entirely original material, struggles to maintain energy and momentum, almost sinking under the weight of its influences. These range from grungy exploitation films of the 1960s to The Lord of the Rings and from Lynchian surrealism to manga, fantasy video games and porn. 

A kind of narrative Russian doll, the film centres on Babydoll (Emily Browning), a young woman wrongfully sectioned by an abusive stepfather in a gothic asylum. On the brink of lobotomisation, Babydoll enters various enfolding fantasy worlds with other inmates in which she and her hypersexualised cohorts face up to various challenges akin to video game tasks. These play out in elaborately constructed worlds, ranging from steampunk First World War battlegrounds, and a medieval castle besieged by orcs and dragons, to a bullet train full of sleek robots en route to a futuristic cityscape. 

Although it may sound like terrific fun on paper, the film’s busy visuals and constant barrage of action and noise can become numbing. The characters never really come to life, and the project eventually feels like a rather empty exercise in style. For completists only.

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