We’re continuing our look back at the career of Zack Snyder, Ghoulish delves into one of his most divisive movies and the black sheep of his filmography.
Say what you will about the man; Zack Snyder knows how to bring amazing visuals to the screen in such a way that you can instantly tell it’s one of his movies. The next two releases from him certainly proved that and cemented what some call ‘Snyderisms’. So shall we?
Note: We’ll be talking about the Ultimate Edition that was released on home media.
In my aesthetic, I think the violence is designed to provoke thought. It’s my hope that the violence is so extreme that the idea of a superhero can be broken down at every level. We’re so used to PG-13 homogenized violence put in a clean wrap. I find it’s irresponsible — to kids. I wanted to smash the whole concept that violence has no consequence when they run in with bad guys.Zack Snyder, Michigan Daily Interview
When it comes to Alan Moore’s Watchmen, most have only one thing to say about it: it is one of the greatest graphic novels ever written (most say graphic novel due to the fact most come to it as the collected work, not the individual issues). And while this may be true, there are those who find fault in the long-awaited movie adaptation.
When Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ work came out in 1986, Hollywood was already trying to bring Watchmen to the big screen. A lot of high-profile directors came and went; Terry Gilliam, David Hayter, Paul Greengrass, and Darren Aronofsky all tried their hand at adapting it. But in the end, Watchmen was just another IP labeled as being ‘unfilmable’.
And then, just when all was thought lost, Warner Brothers saw 300 and realized that Zack Snyder was the man for the job.
The difference between Watchmen and a normal comic book is this: With Batman’s Gotham City, you are transported to another world where that superhero makes sense; Watchmen comes at it in a different way, it almost superimposes its heroes on your world, which then changes how you view your world through its prism. That’s the genius of this book. That’s what we try and do in the movie. The movie is a challenge — sort of like the book is a challenge — to your icons, your morality, how you perceive pop culture, how you perceive mythology, and for that matter, how you perceive God.Zack Snyder, interview with Entertainment Weekly
The reason I’m going to focus on the Watchmen: Ultimate Edition instead of the theatrical release is for one simple reason. The Ultimate Edition is the most complete version of the movie that Snyder wanted to release. At 165-minutes long, the Theatrical Cut is quite a long movie and certain elements that provided subtext and extra meaning to the characters and the story as a whole.
The Director’s Cut, which was released for home media, came in at 186-minutes and reinstated some of the cut sequences, but it still omitted the comic-within-the comic Tales Of The Black Freighter. But all was not lost, for after the reception to the Director’s Cut, the Ultimate Edition was released and it comes in at 215-minutes long! (This idea of the studio cutting Snyder’s movies down to under 3-hours will be a recurring motive, and this is the first time it happens in his career.)
As previously stated, the Ultimate Edition gives us the definitive version of Snyder’s Watchmen. When watching it, you can see that Snyder truly is a fan of the graphic novel. The opening 5-minutes follows the source material perfectly with the fight and murder of Edward Blake (played perfectly by Jeffrey Dean Morgan), which is followed by a montage designed by Snyder to introduce us to the alternative timeline of Watchmen’s world.
I had read the comic before seeing the movie (and had read the various scripts written by Sam Hamm and David Hayter) and even though I enjoyed it immensely, I never thought it was the masterpiece everyone claimed. The biggest problem I had with the graphic novel was the inclusion of many supplemental pieces that gave us better insight into the psychology of the characters. Admittedly, I was too young to understand what a ‘deconstruction of a genre’ was. After seeing the movie, the comic made sense, and it instantly raced to the top of my favorite comic book movie list.
Everything about Snyder’s Watchmen: Ultimate Edition works to bring Moore’s story to life in all its deconstructive glory. Even though the comic states explicitly that the violence inherent to superheroes is not cool, Snyder does bring his own stylistic flourishes that are his own jab at superhero conventions. In fact, when dealing with Watchmen it is hard to find any part of it that is not ironic or poking fun at all things superhero.
Even the song choices are in on the joke. with Nat King Cole’s Unforgettable playing over the opening death of Blake. Or after saving people from a burning building and feeling alive again, Nite Owl II (Patrick Wilson) and Silk Spectre II (Malin Åkerman) make love to the Leonard Cohen classic Hallelujah. If that’s not understanding the source material, I don’t know what is.
Alan Moore himself is notoriously anti-adaptation and, since the terror that was the adaptation of his Jack The Ripper graphic novel From Hell, he’s refused to have his name in the credits of any movie or TV adaptation of his work. The only time Moore has said anything good in regards to the adaptation was Hayter’s version of the script.
David Hayter’s screenplay was as close as I could imagine anyone getting to Watchmen. That said, I shan’t be going to see it. My book is a comic book. Not a movie, not a novel. A comic book. It’s been made in a certain way, and designed to be read a certain way: in an armchair, nice and cozy next to a fire, with a steaming cup of coffee. Personally, I think that would make for a lovely Saturday night.Alan Moore, Watchmen: An Oral History
This has been one of the major problems with adapting Alan Moore’s works. He is so caught up in his own opinions, that the idea of another person having something to say about his work is, to him, wrong. When approached by Terry Gilliam for help in adapting Watchmen, Moore was less than helpful.
I didn’t design it to show off the similarities between cinema and comics, which are there, but in my opinion are fairly unremarkable. It was designed to show off the things that comics could do that cinema and literature couldn’t.Alan Moore, Who Watches the Watchmen? – How The Greatest Graphic Novel of Them All Confounded Hollywood
But, Zack Snyder persevered and what we got is, at times, a truly faithful, almost to a fault, movie that wears not only the comic book on its sleeves, but also various other references too. This was completely done on purpose to make the world feel even more real.
We tried so hard to ride that wave between satire and reality, and all the things that make you still care about the character, but you don’t miss the commentary about them. Nite-Owl is Batman. The guy has a fricking cave under his house! No doubt a fanboy will look at the movie and not get it. ”He looks just like Batman!”
Precisely. When people saw our version of the Ozymandias costume on the Internet, some were like, ”It’s like a Joel Schumacher Batman movie! The costume has nipples! That’s crazy!” And I’m like, ”Yeah, but that’s the point!” With their comic, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons were saying, ”Superheroes are kinda funky, aren’t they?” We build upon that with a movie that acknowledges that superhero movies have affected pop culture.Zack Snyder, interview with Entertainment Weekly
And for those of you out there who cry that, “He doesn’t understand the characters or what Moore was trying to say!” I’d like to almost finish with a quote from Snyder about the violence he brought to Watchmen and his opinion of the character of Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup):
That’s Superman gone bad. If Superman grabbed your arm and pulled really hard, he’d pull your arm out of your socket. That’s the thing you don’t see in a Superman movie. But in Watchmen, what you get is, like, ”I’m a Superman, and I really want to help mankind — but I just tore this guy in half by accident. People call me a ‘superhero,’ but I don’t even know what that means. I just blew this guy to bits! That’s heroic?”Zack Snyder, interview with Entertainment Weekly
And finally, the reason that there are multiple releases is that the studio had strict rules that it come under 3-hours for its runtime. Unfortunately, to do that a lot needed to be left on the cutting room floor, which was included as various special features on the DVD and Blu-Ray releases. Watchmen: Ultimate Edition is the only version to watch when revisiting this classic.
Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole
This was the only one of Snyder’s movies I had yet to watch. Luckily, writing this retrospective finally gave me the chance to do so.
After watching Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole, something I already knew was reinforced. Snyder has a command over the screen that few other directors can claim. After making three live-action movies, moving to CGI was a natural step for the visually striking director. Having to create everything from scratch allowed Snyder the chance to spread his wings (pun intended).
Based on the first three books in Kathyrn Lasky’s best-selling series Guardians of Ga’Hoole (The Capture, The Journey and The Rescue), this is a strange entry in Snyder’s filmography for a couple of reasons. The first is that Legend Of The Guardians is his only PG-13 rated movie to date. It also has the distinction of being his only family film as well, and finally it is his shortest movie by far, coming in at a paltry 97-minute (which makes sense since this movie is aimed at children).
Naturally, like with any adaptation, changes had to be made, with the biggest being moving the setting from North America to Australia. Apart from being my homeland, setting a fantasy-adventure movie in Australia makes perfect sense. The landscape is varied and beautiful at times, the wildlife is distinctive (as seen in the opening fightscene with a Tasmanian Devil), and it all comes together through Snyder’s distinct eye to create a unique world.
This makes perfect sense when you really think about it:
In the case of this film, because I was interested in this fantasy world, I think the accents and the abilities these actors had to come together to create this perfect storm of support for the fantasy world that we’ve all endeavored to create. That was not by design. The lack of American actors just happened that way.Zack Snyder interview with Collider
And what a world it is. There have been many animated fantasy movies to come and go, but what Snyder gives Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole is the same epic feeling that rivals the classic tales of old. Some would say that this movie is filled to the brim with Fantasy tropes, and yes, to a certain extent, this is true. But what Fantasy story doesn’t have a young boy or girl, setting off on a perilous journey to stop an evil from decimating the lands? Or the forming of the party, where our heroes meet quirky characters?
The two things that set this Fantasy movie apart from the others is that: 1) it has Owls, and 2) the voice cast is made up of British and Australian actors. Just look at this list of amazing actors enjoying themselves; Geoffrey Rush, Abbie Cornish, Richard Roxburgh, Jim Sturgess, Sam Neill, Hugo Weaving, Helen Mirren, Ryan Kwanten, Joel Edgerton, David Wenham, and Leigh Whannell (the list goes on, but that should be enough to convince you to check it out!)
Before we continue, let’s talk about the man and slow motion. Most people can agree that everything looks better in slow motion. Whether it’s an explosion, fist flying or even a downpour, some directors have a keen eye for it; Michael Bay knows how and when to use it (the opening of both Zombieland movies have amazing title sequences that use it perfectly), and then we have Zack Snyder. Some would say that he overuses it, but the reality is that Snyder’s use of slow motion is for one reason and one reason only, to show everyone the glory of his vision.
Everything up on the silver screen comes from Zack’s mind and slow motion amplifies that to the extreme (Yes, I’ll admit that sometimes he goes overboard with it). But one thing we can all agree on is that Snyder’s love of slow motion was made for CGI movies. There are a couple of sequences that show off the glory of the technique perfectly, with every frame bordering on being a work of art. A prime example is the final battle that takes place during the burning of a forest; the way the flames dance about is almost beautiful.
As said above, the only problem I have with Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole, which is the same for all fantasy tales, is the predictability. There is an almost paint by numbers feeling to the genre, especially YA fantasy. This means that if you know the genre, one can begin to count the beats and figure out what is going to happen. Don’t get me wrong, though, there’s a reason people keep writing and reading and watching YA Fantasy, but for me I don’t totally go for it.
But the fact that Snyder’s only kids’ movie is about battling Owls set in a world similar to Australia; it warms the cockles of my heart. But a predictable movie from Snyder is still a cut above the rest. If you haven’t seen it yet, or have and didn’t like it, maybe give it a chance again.
Next time we will look at Snyder’s most personal movie to date and the beginning of his run with DC Comics.