The director’s career has been paved with Ayn Rand’s toxic ideology.
This week, firebrand director Zack Snyder announced his next project, an adaptation of Ayn Rand’s formidable objectivist tome “The Fountainhead.” The news was met with a chorus of bewildered moans from film twitter (as well as, somewhat confusingly, “The Force” author Don Winslow). For most, it was a baffling decision: A director coming off of a series of controversial financial bombs deciding to adapt the work of an equally controversial author, best known in Hollywood for a trilogy of increasingly poorly-received Atlas Shrugged movies that recast its leads after every entry.
But Snyder has long been hinting at the idea of a film based on Rand’s seminal work. Back in 2016, in the wake of disappointing box office returns for his Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Snyder told The Hollywood Reporter that he was working on a new adaptation of the book, almost 70 years after King Vidor tried his hand at the notoriously unwieldy text. “I’ve always felt like ‘The Fountainhead’ was such a thesis on the creative process and what it is to create something,” Snyder said at the time.
He’s not entirely wrong: “The Fountainhead” is indeed a thesis on the creative process. It’s also one of the most toxic works of fiction of the 20th century and the exact wrong piece of art for this political moment. It’s a work of fiction that has its hero casually rape its female lead, a violent assault that causes her to develop a romantic fixation with him, ultimately leading to their marriage. It’s hard to explain “The Fountainhead” to someone who hasn’t read it. It’s even harder to explain why anyone finds it powerful or arresting in any way.
But all that aside, Objectivism has continued to play an increasingly large role in Snyder’s films over the course of his career. This isn’t a hit piece; I think Snyder is a genuinely interesting filmmaker, and I find a confusing mess like Man of Steel far more interesting than a paint-by-numbers home run like Avengers: Infinity War. But the announcement of Snyder’s Fountainhead throws a large portion of his work into sharp relief, totally re-contextualizing movies like Watchmen or Batman v Superman.
Objectivism, for those who are unfamiliar with the term, is Ayn Rand’s philosophical system, conceived under the belief that the most powerful and moral purpose of human life is to pursue one’s own happiness above all else, with frequent disregard for the wants and needs of others. There is a reason it remains relatively obscure; most serious philosophical voices totally dismiss Objectivism as a system of thought. It is poorly thought out, openly selfish, and frequently toxic. Yet a certain sect of American political thinking (including our current Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan) worships at the feet of Ayn Rand, largely because her ideology gives them the perfect excuse to casually dismiss the concerns of the impoverished in favor of constantly enriching themselves and those like them.
This is the ideology that Snyder seems to subscribe to, and without making any moral judgments on the man himself, it is an ideology that has totally infected his filmmaking. Just look at a scene like this one in Man of Steel, in which Kevin Costner’s Pa Kent tells his adopted alien son Clark that his powers must be kept secret, even potentially at the cost of others’ lives.
It’s a striking scene, one that met with its share of controversy upon release. And that’s the correct reaction. As an interpretation of Superman, this is hopelessly off-kilter, abandoning the selfless altruism of the character and instead embracing the black-and-white absurdity of Objectivism, in which the so-called Great Man should not lower himself to the pathetic position of helping those in need.
In “The Fountainhead,” lead character and hopelessly pretentious scumbag Howard Roark essentially stops the narrative flat at one point so he can fire off a blistering monologue decrying the concept of housing projects for the poor. At the book’s conclusion, he does consent to serving as the architect on a housing project himself, but when he decides that the ultimate construction compromises his vision, he sets out to destroy it himself, effectively becoming a domestic terrorist who destroys housing for the poor out of simple spite.
This is Objectivism, an ideology defined by the poisonous ideal of the man who knows what’s best for everyone. Snyder’s Superman is the ultimate victim of the Howard Roark archetype, a hopelessly disloyal iteration of the character who seems to care less about saving people than he does about the impossible burden placed on him by his exceptionalism.
Upon release, many Snyder fans came running to Man of Steel‘s aid, claiming that the film was a realistic and arresting depiction of a real-world Superman, an imperfect titan who struggles with his responsibilities. There’s an interesting story to be told about a superhero who doesn’t want to save people, but that isn’t a story that should be told about Superman. Superman is entirely defined by his desire to do good, not by his confusion over the exact definition of “doing good.”
But it isn’t necessarily Snyder’s Objectivist leanings that made him the wrong choice to reboot Superman. Brad Bird, another director long suspected to be a student of Rand’s teachings, has made not one, but two superhero movies worthy of Superman’s legacy. His Iron Giant and The Incredibles both traffic in the same burdened exceptionalism that Snyder taps in something like Watchmen; the difference is that Bird allows his heroes to save the world, joyfully and with gusto.
Mr. Incredible isn’t hassled by the idea of saving people; he can’t help it, even if it’s just helping an old woman out with an insurance form. It’s taking the worthwhile elements of Rand’s teachings (the idea that some people do some things better than others) and jettisoning the toxicity, leaving behind films that step to the conclusion that Rand could never come to: people with gifts have a responsibility to do good.
That’s what Superman means, and that’s what we need today, not the ugly cruelty of “The Fountainhead.” Heroism is bigger than that.