Generally speaking, I really feel like Zack Snyder has been piled on too much by critics and cinephiles. Since 300, Snyder has cultivated a very particular aesthetic, largely defined by things moving in extreme slow motion rendered in color palettes that usually look drained of life. But I’ve always gone to bat for Snyder, even after SUCKER PUNCH and MAN OF STEEL. To me, Snyder is like a next-generation Michael Bay: an auteur working with enormous resources, making films that only he could make. Snyder may be “Hollywood hack,” but he’s a Hollywood hack with a clear authorial voice, for better or worse.
The ultimate expression of this, of course, is SUCKER PUNCH. I will readily admit that it is a pretty awful movie, but it is certainly an interesting one. It’s loud, obnoxious, ridiculous, sexist, and profoundly goofy. I imagine it is what Zack Snyder’s sketchpads looked like when he was 12 years old, fleshed out from the page to live-action (and copious CGI) as meticulously — as slavishly, as lovingly — as he adapted WATCHMEN. Watching it, I was sort of awed by how Snyder was able to make what is clearly an incredibly personal film to him on this kind of scale. I was reminded of Roger Ebert’s review of David Cronenberg’s CRASH, which he concluded by saying: “Afterward, I found myself wishing a major director would lavish this kind of love and attention on a movie about my fetishes.” In SUCKER PUNCH, Snyder put all of his obsessions and fetishes out there on the screen for everybody to see in IMAX. You don’t learn much about anything else watching that film, but you learn an awful lot about Zack Snyder.
MAN OF STEEL signaled a kind of shift for Snyder. It still displayed the drained color palette common to his previous work (specifically in that it looks like a jeans commercial for much of its running time), but he dialed back the slow motion and seemed to instead focus on his concept of Superman as Alien Godzilla Jesus. This must have seemed like a huge gamble to Warner Brothers, especially after Snyder’s previous films underperformed at the box office and their own previous take on the character in Bryan Singer’s SUPERMAN RETURNS was widely regarded as an embarrassing fiasco. But considering that, MAN OF STEEL sort of does make sense. Singer’s approach was to literally make a sequel to an existing Superman movie, attempting to replicate the tone of a huge hit from decades earlier. It didn’t work for any number of reasons, so it is not surprising that Warner Brothers figured going in a totally different direction might be the thing to do. Despite the fact that MAN OF STEEL was a blockbuster hit, many critics reacted very negatively to Snyder’s Superman.
Personally, I enjoyed the film as a unique take on the Superman mythology and the character. I really liked the opening sequences on Krypton, and how Snyder embraced the weird details of the old Superman comics like people riding dragons around. Once on Earth, the character’s moral quandaries seemed to rub a lot of people the wrong way, but most of those I found at least intriguing. The major complaint most detractors had about the film was the huge amount of collateral damage Superman left in his wake, and that was shocking given how previous film versions of the character managed to avoid depicting that sort of thing. But this was Snyder’s baby, and Snyder has come up in an age where mass-scale CGI destruction is de rigueur for tentpole blockbusters. Snyder wasn’t giving us Superman as defender of Truth, Justice, and the American Way. He was giving us Superman as kaiju, and it was the guy’s first day on the job to boot. Sorry, Metropolis.
Now with all that said, I truly feel that BATMAN V. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE is so astonishingly misguided and haphazard that I’m having a tough time finding the words to articulate all the things that are wrong with it. I’m honestly shocked that Warner Brothers actually released it in the form we see in its theatrical cut. There are hints of Snyder’s fingerprints around its ragged edges–mostly in that it still looks like a SAW movie with its muted colors, and there’s some superfluous slow motion–but for the first time in his career, this is a film that feels like it could have been made by just about anybody. I don’t necessarily think that’s Snyder’s fault entirely: DC and Warner Brothers saddled this film with the impossible task of launching a “Cinematic Universe” on par with what Marvel has built over the last decade, and it shows.
This is barely a narrative film. Instead, it presents a series of barely-connected events that lay some very basic groundwork for DC’s upcoming movies. Much of this film serves literally no other purpose. It’s like reading a novel where every other page has been torn out. Characters, locations, motivations, plot points major and minor constantly bombard the audience in nonsensical fashion. Every character seems to be in a completely different movie from all the others. There’s sad Superman, hanging his head and pouting a lot. Sociopath Batman, straight-up murdering dozens of bad guys without a second thought. Jesse Eisenberg plays Lex Luthor as if he was told he was in the old Adam West BATMAN television series. Jeremy Irons and Holly Hunter both do typically great work in small, largely thankless roles. Only Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman makes any real impression here, giving the film its one absolutely perfect moment of characterization when she gets up off the ground with an irresistible smile, excited to be presented with a real fight.
Unfortunately, that fight is with a character that has been translated from the comics as a mindless machine of destruction that looks suspiciously like Weta copied and pasted a cave troll from THE LORD OF THE RINGS directly into this film. This illustrates the biggest failing of all in BATMAN V. SUPERMAN. It’s not that the film presents schizophrenic, unrecognizable chimeras of different versions of its lead characters (although that is obviously a huge issue), but that in its desperate attempt to set up future films, this one has almost no identity of its own. It feels like a faceless amalgamation of the worst aspects of “comic book movies” in particular and modern blockbusters in general, presented as a trailer reel for a bunch of movies that don’t exist yet. It is the film that people who complain about “comic book movies” without actually having seen any of them (or having only seen, say, AVENGERS) have been complaining about all these years. Until now, it was an imaginary construct, a hypothetical. Now it’s finally a reality.
Much has been made of how the film will be 30 minutes longer when it hits home video, but that doesn’t really mean anything to anyone who paid $20 to watch the other approximately 85% of the film in IMAX 3D. Extended cuts and deleted scenes are to be expected, but they’re hardly something an audience member should be expected to go into a film with knowledge of beforehand. Unless that 30 minutes is made up of a lot of connective tissue that help explain some of the legions of missing hows and whys in the film, there’s no reason to assume that the 3-hour version that hits home video will be any more coherent than this one. I’ve been going to bat for Snyder throughout his career, but the version of this film that we’ve gotten in its theatrical release is truly indefensible. It’s Snyder finally giving himself over to a ready-made aesthetic–which happens to be colorless, dour, and incoherent–even though he himself had a hand in creating it. In the past, it always seemed that at least Snyder was having fun in all of his previous work. This time, it’s virtually impossible to imagine any of the people on screen ever having smiled in their lives, let alone anyone behind the camera.
Naturally, just as there is a school of thought that Michael Bay is actually an abstract artist working in the medium of billion-dollar blockbusters, there’s probably a solid argument to be made for BATMAN V. SUPERMAN as some kind of pinnacle of the Hollywood comic book tentpole as avant-garde film. But I’m not ready to make that argument, at least not yet. Mostly I’m just kind of sad I spent $17.50 to see it, and I hope that Zack Snyder is allowed to put a little more of his own personal style into his next film. For better and for worse, I’m really hoping next time we get something only he could make.
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Tags: Batman, Ben Affleck, Diane Lane, Gal Gadot, Hans Zimmer, Henry Cavill, Holly Hunter, Jeremy Irons, Jesse Eisenberg, Junkie XL, Larry Fong, Laurence Fishburne, Scoot McNairy, Superman, wonder woman, Zack Snyder