The Rise and Fall and Rise of Zack Snyder: Part 3

After making 2009’s Watchmen, Zack Snyder continued his passion for comic books and video games by tackling his most personal movie to date.

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After making 2009’s Watchmen, Zack Snyder continued his passion for comic books and video games by tackling his most personal movie to date and also teaming up with comic book giant DC Comics for a three-movie run unlike anything seen before. If you’d like to catch up on the past entries in this series, here is Part 1 and Part 2.

Sucker Punch (2011)

Sucker Punch (2011)

Note: We’ll be talking about the Director’s Cut that was released on home media.

Now we come to what used to be my all-time favorite movie from Snyder, and his first not based on a book, comic, or another movie. Sucker Punch is one-hundred percent Snyder through and through and it is one hell of a ride.

For those who haven’t seen it, what you’re getting into when you do (and I highly recommend that you do watch it) is the most perfect definition of a video game movie. Each of the ‘fantasy’ sequences throughout the movie plays as if you’re watching a boss fight or the lead-up to one. The setting is different but certainly plays like a level from a Triple A game: a Japanese Temple, a World War I trench field filled with clockwork zombies, a castle overrun by orcs and dragons and the final, a speeding train with homicidal death robots held within. It’s almost as if Snyder put all his wildest action scenes and ideas into this one move.

Most will say that the setting of the movie is a strange one with a couple of different layers (similar to Christopher Nolan’s 2010 Inception). Everything about Sucker Punch is designed to make you question what is the movie’s reality. It’s a fever dream that not even those who claim to understand Inception can make sense of. It is best to hold on and just enjoy the ride.

A while ago I had written a script for myself and there was a sequence in it that made me think, ‘How can I make a film that can have action sequences in it that aren’t limited by the physical realities that normal people are limited by, but still have the story make sense so it’s not, and I don’t mean to be mean, like a bullshit thing like “Ultraviolet” or something like that?’ And also, I was really inspired by the worlds of movies like ‘Moulin Rouge,’ which is modern but at the same time timeless.

Zack Snyder, Interview

What makes this movie so unique, even for a Snyder film, is how unashamed it is to wear its references and inspiration on its sleeve. With World War I zombies, girls with silenced machine guns fighting orcs, a scene set on a train with cyborgs, and, of course, the stone samurai statues, Sucker Punch holds nothing back from Snyder’s mind. And that is where we run into some problems.

Due to the fact that the main cast are all pretty girls running around in skimpy outfits and are being objectified by the men in the movie (this was my first time seeing Oscar Isaac), many have claimed that Sucker Punch is misogynistic. But here’s the thing, Snyder has been very open about the movie and how he sees it:

On the other hand, though it’s fetishistic and personal, I like to think that my fetishes aren’t that obscure. Who doesn’t want to see girls running down the trenches of World War One wreaking havoc? I’d always had an interest in those worlds — comic books, fantasy art, animated films. I’d like to see this, that’s how I approach everything, and then keep pushing it from there.

Zack Snyder, interview with The Province

And upon rewatching it, something became clear to me. Sucker Punch is also Snyder’s reaction to comic book and movie fandom! Snyder is Babydoll, creating these amazing worlds but feeling trapped because he has to kowtow to whims of the audience/fans.

This includes things like not changing the ending of Watchmen (in the original comic, Ozymandias uses a giant squid monster, Snyder makes it so that Doc Manhattan becomes the perceived villain), or keeping their heroes the same as the ‘original’ movie versions (look at his version of Superman and Batman – in this case, the character Blue played by Isaac), and if he doesn’t deliver what the crowd wants he’ll be given to the High Roller (Jon Hamm), the studio’s stand-in. This line from the High Roller is the perfect example of this principle:

To see in your eye, that simple truth, that you give yourself to me freely. Not because you have to, but because you want to. Now of course, for such a gem, I will give as well. I’m willing to give you freedom. Pure and total freedom. Freedom from the drudgery of everyday life. Freedom as abstract ideal. Freedom from pain. Freedom from responsibility. Freedom from guilt. From regret. Freedom from sadness. Freedom from loss. The freedom to be happy. Don’t close your eyes; I need you to look at me. – The High Roller, Sucker Punch

Doesn’t that sound like what a studio executive would say to a director or what the fans demand when a new movie is announced? Even now, after watching Sucker Punch and the rest of his filmography and all that happened with his Justice League movie, this reading makes sense, and I defy anyone else to see the same.

Now we come to my favorite era of Snyder’s work and the one that has caused the most division between his fans.

Man of Steel (2013)

Zack Snyder Man Of Steel
Man Of Steel (2013)

Before I get into my thoughts about Snyder’s take on Superman and the DC Extended Universe, I’m going to say something that I think is going to be considered a hot take. But I think it bears saying right here and now (and I’ll probably repeat it later on). 

If the most beloved characters from comics history can be reinvented time and time again and nobody has any problems with it, then why don’t fans have the same openness when it comes to movie versions?

There, now that I’ve said it, let’s get into Snyder’s first DC movie, Man of Steel

After making Watchmen, a strange thing happened to Snyder; he became fascinated with deconstructing things. He did it to fandom in Sucker Punch and then the same with his take on Superman. Instead of a hopeful, confident alien with humanity saving the world, we were given a god trying to find his place among us. This version of Superman is lost. He has no idea what he’s doing on Earth or whether his decisions are correct. And Henry Cavill plays it perfectly.

Cavill’s version of Superman has always reminded me of Willem Dafoe’s performance as Jesus in Martin Scorsese’s underrated, The Last Temptation of Christ. And it’s the same for nearly all the characters we know and love from the Superman Universe. Even the world of Krypton is not the shining utopia we’ve been shown before, like in Richard Donner’s classic 1978 movie.

Instead, Snyder shows us a violent, almost-Spartan society with a caste system that has infected all Kryptonians. And not only Donner’s Superman II (1980) was a source of inspiration, but also the comics All-Star Superman, Superman: Secret Origin, and John Byrne’s The Man of Steel run of comics from the mid-80s. In Byrne’s hands, Krypton itself became a cold-dystopia that was teetering not only external destruction but also internal.

Another prime example of the changes to the Superman Universe is with the movie’s villain, General Zod (Michael Shannon). In Superman II, Terrance Stamp’s version was an emotionless leader who was quiet in his evil. Shannon’s version is a zealot who will stop at nothing to save his people, even if that means the mass genocide of another race. This Zod has let the ‘greater good’ mentality take control and gave the movie it’s most talked about moment and what defines this version of Kal-El.

The Battle of Metropolis is at once awe-inspiring and terrifying in the sheer amount of destruction caused by Superman’s fight with Zod. The first time watching this sequence, one can be forgiven for thinking it’s a live-action version of a Dragonball Z fight. The way the combatants fly, throw things at each other, and rarely care about the civilian casualties or mortalities they are causing gives us a bleak look at what actual superheroes fighting would be like. It’s not a pretty sight.

What makes the final battle that much more interesting is how Superman fights. Everyone of his moves is with one goal in mind: to save as many people as he can. The problem, though, is that since this is his first proper battle, Superman is untrained and untested. Each swing of his fist, the burst of his heat vision is without proper thought and direction, which results in much more damage than what is actually required. It’s a fascinating take on the character and one that cements this version in our current reality, one of fear and extreme reactions without thought.

Most people who saw Man of Steel came out with the criticism that this version of Superman doesn’t love or care about humanity, which is why the Battle of Metropolis is so over the top with nary a shot of Superman saving people. His focus is entirely on defeating Zod; nothing else will stop him from doing this task. The question of the destruction and body count he racks up without care is answered in the next movie (which shows that Snyder had a game-plan from the very beginning, as you’ll see). 

The question I pose to everyone reading this is simple: if you were a godlike being first showing yourself to humanity, still developing your own code of conduct, and another god-like being appeared and threatened to kill everyone on the planet, would you be more worried about saving people throughout a fight with a superior strategist or more focused on defeating him? This is not the Superman we know from the comics, past movies, or even animated series. This is a Superman finding his place in the world.

Which brings us to yet another criticism leveled at the boy in blue and Snyder, the tone of the movie. For Snyder, he didn’t want to be involved in a movie about Superman that wouldn’t reinvent him for a new generation, a sentiment that writer David S. Goyer also shared.

If you don’t reinvent these characters…then they become stagnant, and they cease being relevant…hopefully, we’ve redefined Superman.

David S. Goyer IGN interview

As for the second-most discussed moment in Man of Steel, it makes perfect sense when you look at the movie through this same lens of fear and extreme reaction without thought. In the battle’s finale, Superman has Zod in a headlock. The struggle is real as Zod uses his own heat vision to try to kill more innocent bystanders. Using all his might, Superman cannot stop him with Zod crying out, “If you love these people so much, you can mourn for them!” At which point, he forces Superman to do the one thing he hasn’t done yet.

If it’s truly an origin story, his aversion to killing is unexplained. I felt like, if we could find a way of making it impossible for him – Kobayashi Maru, totally no way out – I felt like that could also make you go, ‘This is the why of him never killing again.’ He’s basically obliterated his entire people and his culture, and he is responsible for it, and he’s just, like, ‘How could I ever kill again?’

Zack Snyder IGN interview

All feel the seriousness of Superman snapping Zod’s neck, with Cavill’s scream of pain and anger being palpable. Most people have a problem with this scene, saying, “Superman does not kill!” and this is a valid point. But, the thing is, this version of Superman had a strange upbringing that left him unsure about his place in the world or his own moral code. So what better way for him to establish his ‘do not kill’ rule than to have him kill one of his own kind and learn the sanctity of life?

All the questions raised by Snyder and writer David S. Goyer and more are explored further in his next movie. Unfortunately, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) caused more division in the fandom than ever before. But there is a way to look at the movie and not instantly hate it. We also get to dive into Zack Snyder’s Justice League (2021) and not only look at Snyder’s crowning achievement but also as a true inspiration for all creators out there struggling with their own art.

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