Before: the Story So Far
Doug: So here we are again. Five years after Batman v. Superman, we are once again talking about a Zack Snyder superhero movie starring Ben Affleck and Henry Cavill. Time is a flat circle. . .or maybe just a flat Amazonian warrior shield.
Anyway, March is always gonna stick out to me as a time of the year where my thoughts turn to Zack Snyder. After all, the guy’s big breakthrough movie, 300, got launched in March, but on a personal level, it’s also when I saw my first Snyder movie theatrically, Sucker Punch. I remember watching that in the theater and just being awash with this feeling of “Wow, this is not good.” Snyder’s intent here to make a story about how men dehumanize women is noble, but his execution of it is outright terrible. Reducing the lead characters to one-note caricatures, defining the women by trauma, not to mention a barrage of set pieces lifted from other movies.
Sucker Punch isn’t just a movie that crosses my mind whenever March rolls around. It’s also a microcosm of my feelings for Zack Snyder as a filmmaker. His works clearly resonate for a lot of people and the dedicated following he has among the actors he works with makes it apparent that he must be a great guy in real life. But as an artist, I always struggle with the level of dissonance in his projects. Snyder wants to make weighty statements and infuses his films with tones appropriate for bleak meditations on heavy subjects.
Unfortunately, he doesn’t have much to say or offer. Batman v. Superman gestures at larger ideas, but never actually approaches any of them. Ditto Sucker Punch. Even Watchmen became too embroiled in being “cool” than actually dealing with the weighty elements of its source material. The vague sociopolitical and thematic details of Snyder’s works make his heavy tones a chore to sit through. Plus, his films have a bad habit of picking up on the absolute worst stereotypes, like resorting to sexual assault as a go-to crutch for defining women, coding gay people as villain or Batman v. Superman’s decision to reinvent Lex Luthor as an uncomfortable autism stereotype. Snyder’s works clearly aim to be rich and subversive but end up feeling hollow and familiar.
How about you wallflower? What’re your personal feelings about Snyder’s filmography?
wallflower: Sometimes I think Snyder will never do anything better than the first ten minutes of Dawn of the Dead, stripped-down, terrifying, exactly how you want to start a horror/action movie, something that had the classical kineticism of John McTiernan. Since then, you nailed it (never more than in your review of Batman v. Superman where you nuked the movie from orbit. It was the only way to be sure): he wants to make these weighty, epic movies, with big themes and somber tones, and never brings it off, often exposing just how impoverished his imagination is. One more element in a Snyder film that never works (again, excepting that opening of Dawn): the music, where (as Scott Tobias said) he always seems to use whatever breathtakingly obvious song he put on the initial temp track for the final product. The Shostakovich waltz that opened and closed Eyes Wide Shut is jarringly bad for a Diana ‘n’ Bruce meeting in Batman v. Superman, but there it is, because, I dunno, we have a well-dressed man and woman talking here, so what else could he choose?
Snyder may be the filmmaker who, although I don’t like anything he’s done, holds the most fascination for me, because there is a personal vision at work here. 300 has a distinct and defining look to it, and no one to my knowledge has effectively copied it yet. (The music, once again, is another story: Snyder’s composer Tyler Bates so completely ripped off Elliot Goldenthal’s masterful Titus score that a lawsuit was in the works, and a disclaimer was added.) His use of ramp-time in action sequences gives the destruction and damage a unique impact; there’s a real feel for the scale of action that superbeings can do. (The lack of moral reckoning on an equal scale is the problem here.) He’s gone from simply copying the panels of 300 and Watchmen to creating genuinely comic-book effects in movies; watch the moment in Batman v. Superman where Batman (sorry, the Bat of Gotham–it’s really hard to get through an entire sentence about Snyder without finding something fucked up) punches Superman as the latter recovers from a Kryptonite dose: through a series of blows, we can see the lines of Superman’s posture recover and come back to strength, the equivalent of a four narrow-panel comics sequence rendered in film. Snyder does have talent and commitment, but that’s not enough to deliver on his ambitions, and he hasn’t been willing or able to learn or develop. He fascinates me because I’m reminded of another filmmaker who started with a fuck-ton of visual talent and grand thematic ambition, but lacked the skills to combine the two, a guy named Stanley Kubrick. If he never improved after Fear and Desire, he’d be Snyder.
Watching Justice League (the Zoss Snydon cut) made me realize just how specific Snyder’s style is, because hoo boy, say what you will about Snyder’s movies, Dude, at least there’s an aesthetic. This version was about as generic as superhero movies get, with special effects that looked uncomfortably close to The Langoliers, Joss Whedon’s quippy™ dialogue spliced in with no regard for what it does to the characters, and the actors looking like, I dunno, the director was being a real asshole or something, insulting them, demanding sexually demeaning jokes that John Landis would have written out of Animal House for being too cheap, and generally just trying to survive to the end of the shoot. (I’m just guessing here, of course.) The story was barely there, the chemistry among the cast was nonexistent, and CGI and voiceovers were used like rubber cement in an attempt to hold it all together. The clearest indicator of the difference between Snyder’s vision and Whedon’s hackery was Ben Affleck’s performance, which had a real weight and anger in Batman v. Superman and here was just a compilation of whatever lines he had to say. (“Yeah, something’s definitely bleeding”–ha ha ha, Joss.) The Zoss Snydon Justice League would have gotten a D- on Ye Olde AV Club, the grade reserved for bad movies that aren’t interesting enough to earn that F.
That’s why I’m curious about the Snyder Cut of Justice League and ready to set aside four hours (not in a row) to check it out. Snyder’s ambitions have only expanded, and he intended Justice League to be the centerpiece of a five-movie arc about the rise of Superman and the redemption of Batman (ScreenRant has the full details about this) and now that he’s had the best opportunity he’ll ever get to realize that vision–well, this could well be a trainwreck, but a trainwreck of this size is something I gotta see for myself. (I feel the same way about another artist whose ambition vastly overran his talent, and got a similar one-shot chance to do what he wanted, how he wanted: the final season of Kurt Sutter’s Sons of Anarchy, the kind of work where you come away knowing that you’ll never see anything else like it again, and thankful for both aspects of that.) And who knows, it might even be good.
One of the reasons I wanted to talk with you about the Snyder Cut is that where the Zoss Snydon Cut used Steppenwolf as a generic World Destroying Baddie, Snyder intended to bring in a lot of the DC mythos (some of which was glimpsed in Batman v. Superman, to the confusion of nearly everyone) and that’s something which you know a lot more about than I do. (Just about all my knowledge on this point comes from reading Mark Waid and Alex Ross’ Kingdom Come, which we’d probably agree is a much more rigorous and powerful take on the Batman/Superman conflict.) What are your thoughts on the Snyder Cut, from the point of view of not just a moviegoer, but a comic reader?
Doug: I’m not the biggest comic book expert but I’m certainly aware of the New Gods characters (Darkseid, Granny Goodness, etc.) that Snyder wanted to use in his original Justice League cut and will now be using in his new director’s cut. The idea of seeing those characters on-screen is conceptually enticing. . .but in the hands of Snyder, I’m less than stoked. Jack Kirby’s ultra-colorful and ultra-weird characters feel like the total opposite of Snyder’s proclivities as an artist. The radical overhaul of Steppenwolf to a spikey fellow from a green-clad wielder of space dogs already suggests Snyder is taking just the names of these figures and nothing else. Seeing washed-out versions of the Apokolips residents sounds like a chore, especially since Snyder’s version of Superman suggests he won’t replace upbeat escapism with anything interesting.
That’s kind of my view as a whole on the Snyder Cut as both a comic fan and a moviegoer in a nutshell. I’m happy Snyder is getting closure on what sounds like a challenging time in his life, ditto for actors like Ray Fisher that got screwed over (in too many ways to count) in the reshoots process of Justice League. For them, getting this cut off the ground must be extremely cathartic. To that end, it’s hard to complain with its very existence, especially since, as a streaming release, it won’t be taking up valuable movie theater space.
As a piece of art on its own, though, I’m doubtful Snyder’s artistic impulses will be served well by getting to unleash a four-hour Justice League movie on the planet. To date, my favorite Snyder film is Legend of the Guardians, which revealed that Snyder’s tendencies as a filmmaker work best in the confines of a PG-rated kids movie. You can’t just drop F-bombs, blood or weird undercurrents of gay panic into a modern animated kids movie. There, he’s able to use his darkness as a fun garnish rather than the whole meal.
By contrast the Snyder Cut is all Zack Snyder all the time. Four hour runtime. An R-rating. I’m undeniably curious on what this beast will look like but I’m also dubious over this being an environment Snyder will thrive in as an artist. The restrictions in Legend of the Guardians that brought out his creativity aren’t just absent here, they’ve been tossed off the face of the Earth. It’ll certainly make the film more distinctive than, as you effectively put it, the generic theatrical cut of Justice League. But a good movie in its own right? Well, I have my doubts but I’m still hopeful that it can reach that level. After all, it’s got Granny Goodness, that’s gotta account for something.
And so wallflower, what are your further thoughts on this whole Snyder Cut experience?
wallflower: see, without you, I would have thought Granny Goodness was some brand of hard cider or some such. Good point about Kirby too–what could James Gunn have done with that kind of strangeness? And, clearly, I need to see Legend of the Guardians, as your description lines up almost exactly with mine on one of my favorite comedies, Sideways: a work where the director’s instinctive darkness took ordinary, even hackneyed, material and turned it into something indelible.
“Undeniably curious” describes my feelings well, as does “doubtful. . .as to a piece of art on its own.” Since the many-hour director’s cuts of The Thin Red Line or Once Upon a Time in America aren’t happening this week, this is an opportunity to see the work of a distinctive artist operating with the brake lines severed. That something like this could happen at all in the heavily corporate world of superhero movies is an Event, and I wanna be there for it. It may not be good, but it will be something to see.
OK, here I go, wish me luck.
After: I Don’t Know What I Expected
wallflower: well, Doug called it, this is a Zack Snyder joint all right. Although this is four hours long, with proper streaming breaks and chapter titles, there aren’t four hours’ worth of things happening. There’s endless slow motion and scenes that (violating one of the first principles of screenwriting) start too early and end too late, and hey, if you always thought that comic-book movies need more slow sad women’s voices, well get on that HBO Max subscription right now. (Not kidding, the Sad Women are literally onscreen by the fifteen-minute mark.) Snyder has always been at best indifferent to pacing (remember how he stalled the climax of Batman v. Superman to introduce the Justice League?) but this is more like contempt. I can’t imagine what it would be like to sit through all of this in one shot.
The most annoying thing about the length is what Snyder fails to do with it. Four hours and we get one (1) shot of Apokolips, not even over the entire screen? (Snyder shows that it’s another world by inverting his gray/green/blue palette to orange and brown.) One appearance of the Green Lantern? (It’s not like Ryan Reynolds wouldn’t have done it!) Two all-too-brief visits from the Martian Manhunter? (I understood that reference.) Two mentions of the Anti-Life equation? About twenty minutes are given over to an extended epilogue, which is really just a set of post-credit scenes that happen pre-credits, a sizzle reel of Snyder requesting another $70 million. With all this freedom, Snyder still doesn’t grasp what he’s doing; if you’re making an epic, it needs an epic plot, not a time-stretched version of a straightforward team-up story. (Steven Soderbergh could do what he did with Heaven’s Gate here and cut a lean, mean, 100-minute movie out of this bloat.)
That said, this is a coherent work, if not always a logical one (there isn’t any explanation as to why our people don’t just throw the
One Ring Infinity Stones Motherboxes off-Earth, if not into another universe): the characters and their choices make sense, the plot is clear and in fact quite linear from the first scene until about twenty minutes before the end (so there isn’t room for Snyder to indulge his worst tropes), the tone stays unified, and the actors know what to play. This is clearly the movie Snyder wanted to make, and it also looks the movie the actors agreed to join.
There are definitely things to like here. As with Watchmen, the best of this movie is over before the credits are done: the moment of Superman’s death from the previous movie, his final cry echoing sonically and visually in an expanding circle to encompass all the characters and worlds here, just as over-the-top as it should be (with a little grace note of Affleck sighing), Snyder realizing the goal of creating a cinematic equivalent to a comic-book effect; all this and it’s not just for show, it wakes up the Motherboxes and launches the plot. That got my attention.
What held it afterwards was noticing how much this improves on the Snydon version, even if the story doesn’t deviate all that far. Ray Fisher’s Cyborg has more to do here, Fisher has more to play, and he does it well; I’ve enjoyed his work since True Detective’s third season. Ezra Miller’s Flash has the fewest amount of cuts, but they have the most impact; Flash goes from a onionskin-thin Whedon caricature (a third-generation knockoff of Buffy’s Xander) to a soulful young adult, with a moment of admiration for Superman that’s genuinely moving. The scene of Kal-El walking through the Kryptonian ship and hearing the voices of his two fathers does, briefly, hit the epic feel that the story deserves, or maybe I’m just a forever sucker for Russell Crowe reading the Grant Morrison-inspired lines from Man of Steel. (There’s a theme here about parents and the legacy they leave to their children, never fully articulated.) Junkie XL’s score isn’t the best (it’s not on the level of, say, the Dust Brothers’ Fight Club) but at least it’s something different for the superhero genre. (We get way more of Wonder Woman’s objectively awesome theme in this version, too.) I also dug Steppenwolf’s new rippling metal armor and motivation. And every now and then Snyder does something cinematic rather than CGItastic, like Cyborg walking through his own origin story or the camera just holding on Amy Adams and letting her face do the work, the one moment in the Snyderography that feels confident.
Best of all, and the reason to watch maybe fifteen minutes of this, is Joe Morton’s Silas Stone, the “father twice over” of Cyborg. Silas neglected his son growing up; what makes Morton’s performance work so well is that he knows there’s no way to atone for that, and he never tries; he plays a man who’s been through his grief and self-hatred and has come to a peace about it. (Jere Burns did something similar with his role as a counselor in Breaking Bad.) Silas calmly, professionally works his way to sacrificing himself, because he knows he owes it to his son; there’s no hope of redemption in him, only duty. His act of sacrifice is inevitable, but exactly what he was doing honestly caught me by surprise. I’d wondered why an actor of Morton’s talent was reduced to basically a cameo in Batman v. Superman and the Snydon cut; this is the payoff.
When the first scene and a secondary character are the best things about a movie, well, something’s gone wrong. Justice League has all the faults you’d expect from a Snyder movie; the exemplary moment for me was when Steppenwolf gets told he’ll have to destroy another 50,000 worlds to atone to Darkseid and I couldn’t have been the only one who yelled WITH ENDLESS OPTIONS FOR RENEWAL! at the screen; Snyder has never been able to acknowledge, much less embrace, the ridiculousness of his material. The Russo brothers have problems with their approach to the superhero genre, articulated much better by others, but they do get how crazy this stuff is. (Can you imagine the eternally self-amused, eternally entertaining Robert Downey Jr. ever working with Snyder?) They also get that acknowledging the crazy opens up the path to making genuinely moving stories; we in the audience can accept it as part of the suspension of disbelief, and with that out of the way, we can honestly feel for the characters. (Doug and I literally if unintentionally wrote a case study about this in our essays about the original and remake of Point Break.) Snyder never cracks a smile, and I can’t help but do that at some points, and it takes me out of the experience and enjoyment that I want to feel. Probably the only superhero movies in recent memory that have been able to ignore their own ridiculousness and still worked were The Dark Knight and Black Panther, both structured around tight, tragic stories rather than epic scale.
Snyder will most likely never get another chance to go so completely in on his own vision; under these circumstances, that he produced a work that feels so misaligned with the material tells me that he still hasn’t made the thing he wants to, maybe because he can’t see it himself. The way that Dark Superman keeps recurring in his last two movies (never in the narrative proper, always in visions) feels almost like a symptom, a Shoulder Devil whispering “you know you waaaaaaaaaaant it, Zack. . .c’mon, just ooooooonnnnnnnnce.” Earlier, I think Doug nailed the problem: Zack Snyder is a nice guy who wants to make mean movies, and he’s stuck in a genre where mean doesn’t work. He wants to film the destruction, he wants to film the death; when he goes heartwarming, it either succeeds because of the writing or gets to, well, maybe half-heartwarming. (Think of Michael Bay trying to imitate the end of Fargo in Pain and Gain, and how unconvincing that was too.) Having done his children’s film and kept his darkness in check, the best thing might be for him to go all the way in the other direction. Maybe Army of the Dead will do it (mixing up the zombie and heist genres sounds at least interesting, if not exactly plausible), but right now my dream project for Snyder would be the next season of The Boys. That show has always put its meanness first (in a way that’s somewhere below the maturity of South Park) but there’s only rarely anything special about the direction; it’s a show about supervillains and superpowers that never quite gets across the super- part of it. Give that to Snyder and you’d immediately have another layer of meaning and therefore power to it. He said with Frank Miller that 300 was an attempt to tell the story of the Spartans as they saw themselves; whether or not that’s true, Snyder’s The Boys would show us what supervillains who see themselves as superheroes really look like to themselves. (And in a 4:3 frame too.) Let out your inner Verhoeven, Zack; you could make the Showgirls of the superhero genre, and that would be something worth doing.