Zack Snyder's Big, Dumb, Action-Film Career Has Been Smarter Than It Seems

The Man of Steel director's work often gets bashed as high-gloss, carnal pandering, but look closer: His movies provide sly, self-aware commentary on their genre.

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Warner Bros.

Zack Snyder is not a realistic filmmaker. Anyone familiar with the Man of Steel director's films—2004's zombie-classic remake Dawn of the Dead, 2007's Spartan-war epic 300, 2009's graphic-novel adaptation Watchmen, and 2011's videogame-inspired female-warrior actioner Sucker Punch—knows that. Flesh-eating zombie hordes running amok in quiet suburbia. Insanely buff Greek he-men battling mutant giants and towering God-kings. Naked blue cosmic beings who exist out of time and space. Battle-hardened babydoll girls facing off against gargantuan samurai-statue creatures and undead Nazi soldiers.

In short, he likes his movies as far-fetched and fantastic as possible.

That's part of why Snyder is one of the most divisive filmmakers working today. Regarding 300, the AP's Christy Lemire opined, "Snyder's depiction of the ancient Battle of Thermopylae ... is so over-the-top, it's laughable—so self-serious, it's hard to take seriously." About Sucker Punch, Time Out's Nigel Floyd wrote, "Snyder pulverizes our senses with derivative digital images and obvious musical choices."

His critics should take a closer look, though. Snyder's disinterest in realism is exactly what makes his films work. Often maligned as prizing style over substance, Snyder in fact makes movies whose substance is found in style. That style: an expertly manicured blend of slow motion and fast-forwarded imagery coated in digitally enhanced, livelier-than-real-life colors and effects. The substance: commenting on the inherent ridiculousness of the very types of movies he's making.

Calling Snyder's films postmodern auto-critiques might seem like a stretch, since on the face of it, they—at least up until Sucker Punch—play their craziness relatively straight. Avant-garde, these movies aren't. Yet it's that dialed-to-11 embrace of blockbuster conventions that helps give them their meta quality. Speaking at 2010's Comic-Con to SFX Magazine, the director said as much himself: "I have an interest in and a love of movies that are self-aware ... I like movies that are constantly reminding you that they're movies, while immersing you deeper into the story ... I want to feel like in every shot of the movie there's irony ... And it's fun for me to play with the icons and the visual language of movies."

That self-awareness has been there from the start, apparent in the first sequence of Snyder's directorial debut, a redo of George A. Romero's 1978 Dawn of the Dead. In the scene, Sarah Polley's nurse awakens beside her husband to find a zombie at her bedroom door. Snyder's camerawork conveys the dramatic shift from normal domesticity to mayhem, affixing the lens to Polley's car hood as the heroine races through a suburb under undead siege. It's a blistering opening salvo (capped by a schizo news-footage credit sequence scored to Johnny Cash's apocalyptic dirge "When the Man Comes Around") that the rest of the film, which is about as good as horror remakes get, never quite lives up to. But that's beside the point. The scene introduces Snyder's intention to immerse via overt fantasy, to excite and enthrall by calling attention to the proceedings' artifice.

There are many things to dislike about Snyder's aggro-action follow-up, 300. Like, for example, its fetishization of bloodshed, its obvious politics, its homophobia, and its dogged attempts to literally reproduce the static panels of Frank Miller's celebrated graphic-novel source material. But those slams only work if one assumes Snyder is oblivious to them. More likely, he's embracing them ironically to underscore the outlandishness of action films. The genre, after all, roots itself in things like the homoerotic celebration of the male physique, the glorification of brutality, the portrayal of homosexuality as villainous and repugnant, and the codification of East-vs.-West, us-vs.-them dynamics. 300 gives its audience exactly what it wants, in a highly stylized package fit for high-definition drooling—replete with Snyder's signature "speed-ramping" cinematographic gimmick, in which the action's velocity fluctuates wildly within shots. The technique, upon repeated viewings, feels so in-your-face as to be a statement. It's as if every gloriously calibrated pan across battlefields and close-up of warriors' ludicrous 12-pack abs is meant as a wink, to let the audience know that Snyder's also giggling at the proceedings' macho-macho-man silliness.

His next foray was into animation with Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole, a kid-friendly showcase for his trademark CG-ified slow-motion and hyper-real imagery—that also delivered surprisingly canny commentary on the vital power of storytelling. Snyder's subsequent two "live-action" efforts—a somewhat amusing term in this context, given his work's unrealness—further confirms that self-consciousness fuels his directorial approach. Alan Moore's famed graphic novel Watchmen offers a caustic appraisal of traditional superheroes, and Snyder's adaptation slyly doubles down on that. From the look-at-me latex-and-spandex outfits of the film's "heroes," to the Leonard Cohen-scored sex scene, to the ultra-viciousness of the characters' methods, the film's juxtaposition of corniness and cruelty comes off like a critique.

Sucker Punch, his first film based on his own original story, goes even farther. It mashes up exaggerated versions of genre tropes (a robot battle here, a Lord of the Rings warfare clash there) for a story about sex-kitten heroines navigating a cine-dream world. The garishness of everything is precisely the point. "Someone asked me, why did you dress the girls like that? And I said, I didn't dress them that way, you did," he told the Wall Street Journal about his hot-young-thing protagonists. "That's what pop culture demands, not me. And that's fun for me—I love that when confronted with the exact formula that they request, they get all freaked out by it, because they're like, 'Wait a minute—he's right. I do like this, and maybe that's my fault.'"

Which is why Snyder seemed, at least initially, like such an unlikely fit for Man of Steel. There's no irony to Superman's symbolic embodiment of American values and might, and unlike his past three films, the story doesn't operate on a purely fantastical level. Rather, in its superimposition of the otherworldly on an otherwise believable reality, it's the closest project in his catalog to Dawn of the Dead. Still, Snyder's gift for visual storytelling remains his prime asset, and the half-century-plus history of Superman affords him a so-far unrealized opportunity to investigate hallowed pop-culture iconography on a grand summer-extravaganza scale. The film's largely positive early reviews suggest that Snyder may have pulled off his greatest trick yet: working on a big-budget superhero franchise film while simultaneously deconstructing the tropes of big-budget superhero franchise films. If he's successful, the result should be entertaining—and have something to say about entertainment.