With the release of Batman v Superman imminent, it has now been almost exactly five and a half years of near-constant debate in relevant circles about Zack Snyder’s suitability to direct Superman movies. This is not a subject I have a tremendous amount of emotional investment in, but it is something that concerns me in a more cosmic sense of cinema in general and how it works. In this specific instance, the clear ideal circumstance would be for people who like Superman comics and want to see Superman movies to have Superman movies made that reflect the things they like about Superman comics.
Fan reaction to Man of Steel and the widespread trepidation about the new film indicates that something went awry along the way. The culprit – Zack Snyder – is not the surprise here, but the reason he was hired in the first place speaks to one of the great weaknesses of the current commercial model in the movie industry, whereby a filmmaker with an even remotely tangential skillset is forced to work within the constraints of a form – the superhero film – that is a great deal more specific than is often acknowledged. I submit that, as astonishingly awful as he is an interview, Zack Snyder is a very gifted filmmaker indeed, simply in a way that does not serve the material he works with consistently, or at all.
It may be that he’s a filmmaker existing outside “his” era, as Snyder’s most readily appreciable talent is for arranging physical bodies within the frame, capturing physical movement, and reveling in pure adrenal effect. In the abstract, out of the context of text, I consistently enjoy the pure physicality of Zack Snyder movies. This minute of 300, which has long since passed into the realm of parody and been diminished by endless imitations, was exhilarating the first time. Consider also what might be the high point of Snyder’s career (which is only meant with a fraction of the apparent damning), the opening titles to Watchmen, which pack at least an hour’s worth of backstory into just under six minutes, with no dialogue. With this skill set Snyder could have thrived in the silent era, with no other masters to serve but staging in space and in the frame.
The opening sequence of Sucker Punch, for one example, is presented in just that fashion: with only physical gestures and no dialogue, it establishes that the protagonist Babydoll is being railroaded to an insane asylum by her evil stepfather, concisely and yet fully conveying a considerable amount of information. Using Sucker Punch as an example, though, brings up Snyder’s greatest weakness: a tendency to, once he’s gotten the ball rolling, lose control of its trajectory. The remainder of Sucker Punch (which, in spite of myself, I still quite enjoyed without any desire to subsequently revisit) sees Snyder make an earnest effort at auto-critique with regards to sexism and exploitation, only to end up with something widely interpreted as sexism and exploitation. While that kind of Schrodingerian identity crisis might be fun on an academic level, and provide multiple points of entry for critics, it speaks to Snyder’s lack of textual control over his own movie.
Watchmen’s titles and Sucker Punch’s intro are indications that Snyder is capable of melding image and text for the span of a sequence, but in terms of assembling sequences into a whole he falls short. Man of Steel co-producer Christopher Nolan’s much-celebrated trilogy of Batman movies were so because of Nolan’s ability to successfully adapt the literary properties of comic book structure to the medium of theatrical feature film, yielding three films that felt like five or so consecutive issues of a comic. While they tilted at times into joyless and bleak waters in terms of tone, Nolan’s Batman movies nonetheless had a writer’s sense of text, and cohered successfully as whole films.
That, in a nutshell, is the principal issue with Snyder’s take on Man of Steel (and, indeed, with many of his other films). Its jumping around through time seemed arbitrary in the moment, and self-defeating when taken as a whole, as without a textual foundation to build on, the movie relied entirely on Snyder’s abstract ability to compose and mount physical action. While impressive, that ability is not enough to sustain for two and a half hours. The comic book is a literary art form, the comic book movie is by definition a literary adaptation, and at some point in embarking on one, a filmmaker needs to reckon with literature. The economic vagaries of the motion picture industry are such that any filmmaker with a particular flair for a relevant aspect of popular film is wedged into a particular role, whether or not he (the fact that it’s always a he is its own lengthy lament) has the right shape. Zack Snyder’s great talent at one thing is in considerable danger of being overwhelmed by his shortcomings as another. If not now, then certainly when he tries his hand at The Fountainhead, at which point, God help us all.