Zack Snyder seems intent on pissing people off. First, he irritates the horror fans by the sheer audacity of remaking Dawn of the Dead, then Iranians and cineastes alike with 300 and, most recently, comic book geeks with Watchmen. This year he’s taken cover behind animation with Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole, but next year he’s going to come out swinging with Sucker Punch, which will probably anger women and some more cinephiles. Most recently, he’s been announced as the director of the next Superman movie, title The Man of Steel — a decision sure to piss off more comic fans.
That Christopher Nolan is shepherding the production with a screenplay by Batman collaborators Jonathan Nolan and David S. Goyer seemed immediately exciting even though there’s no solid proof that these guys (save Goyer, who wrote comics for DC in the early 2000s) really get what Superman is about. But they made The Dark Knight, which for a lot of people alleviates any misgivings. More exciting, however, is that it’s unconnected to previous films The unbridled devotion to Richard Donner’s films made Superman Returns (which I still kind of like) a really expensive homage instead of something that stood on its own. After the cinematic dominance Spider-Man and X-Men, it was supposed to remind us that Superman is still a relevant character, but instead reminded us that the old Superman movies are good. So if anybody’s in dire need of a reboot, it’s Superman.
But, still, the guy who did 300? you cry. Personally, I think Zack Snyder, despite his obvious success, is an underrated talent.
For a mainstream commercial director who was once classmates with Michael Bay, and for all the flack his work gets, Zack Snyder is surprisingly ambitious and deceptively smart. Having walked away from a much more commercial project, S.W.A.T., his debut ended up being the Dawn of the Dead remake — a project darker, much more violent and difficult to sell than a slick Hollywood adaptation of a minor TV series. Yes, it’s a remake, but Snyder does big things with it: he takes the first 15 minutes to depict the chaos of an zombie apocalypse en masse, with crashing cars and a sudden disregard for human live — ‘cause you never know who’s going to want to eat you.
Seemingly aware of the immediate pitfalls in remaking Dawn of the Dead, Snyder opted to make a film that avoids retreading the social commentary of George Romero’s classic. Instead the film runs on adrenaline, not unlike that of someone attempting to escape the zombie apocalypse. While running zombies may betray one’s preconceived notions about a type of creature that doesn’t really exist, Snyder makes no attempt to be anything like the original except that it has zombies and a mall. Dawn of the Dead distances itself from the original to prevent viewers from making any comparisons.
He followed that up with a more intensive production, an adaptation of Frank Miller’s graphic novel 300. While a more conventional filmmaker would have taken a cast and crew to Malta and made another film that looks like Troy, Snyder decided to make film that looked exactly like the comic, an endeavor that involves creating an entire world that does not exist. While Sin City did the same thing two years prior, 300 does it with places that could have been researched and scouted and shot at location. By giving the entire film the air of contrivance, Snyder effectively renders the film as fantasy as opposed to history.
300 spawned accusations of racism, but that criticism assumes that the film fully posits the Spartans’ effort as some noble battle against brown people. But think of it this way: what if the the Spartans aren’t the brave, noble Westerners but the small, brutal, socially conservative country that simply wants to govern itself in the face of a global superpower made up of monstrous, foreign deviants? Don’t let the skin color fool you — Xerxes is an American.
After picking up Watchmen after Paul Greengrass (unfortunately) had to let it go, Snyder answered the two big questions of how the adaptation of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ 12-issue comic book would even work: how do choose what to put in the film, and how do you bring the story into a modern context? Snyder once again surprised: he was going to adapt nearly the whole thing, including keeping its 1980s setting. This, of course, blew everyone away.
As a result, Watchmen is shockingly close to the source material — too close, many say. Which is hilarious considering how many people thought the project would work better as a 12-episode miniseries than as a two- or even three-hour movie. The parts that shine, then, are the elements Snyder and his collaborators changed: making Nite-Owl look more like Batman, adding real-life 1980s figures for the sake of veracity, and that beautiful opening sequence detailing the history of superheroes prior to the events of the film. By doing so, he criticizes his own film and teases us: you wanted the graphic novel on screen and here it is. You got what you wanted. But my version would have been so much better.
But what does this mean for The Man of Steel? Given a solid foundation from Christopher Nolan and company, what the film needs now is someone who can deftly handle action and visuals, and Zack Snyder is just the right fit for that. Dawn of the Dead had lots of zombie horror, 300 was full of Spartans eviscerating people and Watchmen was a faithful adaptation of the graphic novel for the fans peppered with superhero action for the average viewer.
Meanwhile, the last Superman movie was heavy on the pathos but light on what people go to a Superman movie for. Yes, he saves an entire plane in what should to go down as one of the great, exciting sequences in flawed movies, but the film never tops that early sequence. When you hear that Zack Snyder is directing a Superman movie you know he will fly around a lot and punch things very hard — not just lift progressively heavier things.
You see, a project like Superman needs someone like Zack Snyder: someone who’s proven himself with unconventional work in the Hollywood system and isn’t afraid to do the same with one of the biggest properties in Hollywood. And, most importantly, somebody who has the potential to make Superman cool again.