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The Movies That Turned Zack Snyder Into the Center of the Internet

‘Zack Snyder’s Justice League’ will finally see the light of day on March 18. From ‘Dawn of the Dead’ to ‘300’ to ‘Watchmen,’ the director has been inadvertently—or advertently—building to this moment.

Ringer illustration

Last month in Vanity Fair, Anthony Breznican sorted through the wreckage of one of the most fascinating and convoluted development-hell clusterfucks of the decade: Zack Snyder’s epic battle against—and within, and from a certain angle, on behalf of—Warner Bros. to reshoot and release a better, truer version of Justice League (which means, apparently, making it more than four hours long). Since then, l’affaire Zack has taken even more bizarre turns, including an apparent, accidental leak of the film on HBO Max on March 8. Suddenly, a project that had become an emblem of studio secrecy and suppression arrived on demand, ahead of schedule and filed under Tom and Jerry. Zack Snyder worked on this thing for years and Warners … just … streamed it out.

A glitch in the matrix? A beta test gone wrong? An act of sabotage? Whether Snyder is a bad filmmaker—or a secretly great one, which is increasingly becoming the cool-kid take—he sits majestically at the center of his own personal YouTube rabbit hole; here, conspiracy theories abound, casting the director as either a fallen angel or a phoenix set to rise and burn the whole corrupt, compromised superhero-movie-industrial complex to the ground. It’s a mythic image in line with the ones Snyder likes to build up in his movies, and it accounts for why, in truth, he’s the only filmmaker (of any talent level) who’s actually inspired a social media revolution. He tweets fondly at his faithful legions as the day of reckoning approaches: March 18, when Zack Snyder’s Justice League officially goes live on HBO Max.

If there seems to be a discrepancy between the passion of Snyder’s supporters—including the inimitable Armond White, who picked Man of Steel as the best film of the decade in The National Review—and the critical mainstream, there’s also a corresponding, and considerably more interesting, symmetry between the director’s cult veneration and the fetishistic depiction of heroism that rules his movies. Snyder’s films are overcranked parables of power, glory, and sacrifice; if the Klingons ever open a cinematheque, he’d get the first retrospective. Snyder’s producer and fellow Warner Bros. roster-mate Christopher Nolan makes the cinematic equivalent of graphic novels (moody and monochrome and why-so-serious), but Snyder strives for something grander. He’s in the business of CGI frescoes. (In a 2007 interview about 300, the director told Deadline that his influences included Caravaggio and the Sistine Chapel.)

I forget which Michelangelo painting featured a guy fighting a wolf the size of an elephant, but Snyder’s belief in his own classicism—a sensibility that’s not simply old-school but ancient and archetypal—is the common denominator between all of the movies he’s signed since 300 made him an auteur brand name. Like Michael Bay and David Fincher, Snyder came to features after making music videos, including clips for ’90s alt-rock royalty like Morrissey and Soul Asylum. His skill for grit and gloss was evident in 2004’s Dawn of the Dead, a hugely superfluous—but not ineffective or unenjoyable—remake of George Romero’s 1978 classic about the survivors of a zombie apocalypse holing up in a shopping mall. The film’s opening sequence, in which a suburban couple wake up after a quiet night in to find that the apocalypse has arrived and is lurking in their hallway, is great, propulsive pulp, with superbly timed scares and an uncanny sense of scope and scale. As Sarah Polley pilots her car barefoot through a sunny, suburban version of Guernica, it really does seem like the end of the world as we know it.

Dawn of the Dead copies its source material’s basic structure, but it has a curiously inverted relationship to Romero’s socially conscious themes; it plays the notes but not the music. While the original Dawn of the Dead critiqued police violence and authoritarian ideology, the remake makes its cop characters into heroes and lovable martyrs; Romero emphasized the buried, tragic humanity of his zombies, but Snyder invites the audience to get off on the spectacle of the walking dead being used for target practice.

What links Dawn of the Dead to 300—and marks a certain nagging tension in Snyder’s work—is a distinctly Bush-era war on terror subtext, and not the reflexive liberalism of most of Hollywood’s output during the period. Dawn of the Dead’s quick-cut, Johnny Cash–scored opening credits owe and pay their debt to Se7en, but the incongruous inserts shots of Muslims at prayer as an overture for global contagion feels, well, queasy. When Stephen King republished Danse Macabre in 2010, he wrote that Snyder’s mindless, fast-moving, unstoppable zombies reminded him of terrorists; he wasn’t wrong. Dawn of the Dead may go out of its way to seem apolitical, but there’s still a germ of reactionary xenophobia that would mutate and flower in 300, with its upstanding, six-packed, hypernationalist Spartans holding the line against the depraved, deformed Middle Eastern barbarians at the gate.

300’s video game–History Channel aesthetic, all side-scrolling camera movements and pornographic, slow-motion carnage, was striking, influential, and, in its way, visionary: Call it GTA: BC. By doubling down on the outmoded machismo of old gladiator movies and yoking it to CGI (even more spectacularly than Ridley Scott in Gladiator), Snyder made something that felt singular and potent while also radiating its own set of bad ideological vibes. In 2017, the hosts of the foundational dirtbag-left podcast Chapo Trap House called the film “Hamilton for neofascists,” while The A.V. Club’s Tom Breihan observed a “serious human ugliness” collecting in the comments sections of 300-adjacent videos on YouTube. “This is a movie that makes a grand, mythic spectacle out of the whole defending-the-white-homeland trope,” wrote Breihan. “It would be a pretty big stretch to blame 300 for Donald Trump or whatever, but the movie really did lionize the heroic white warriors fighting to repel the endless dark-skinned hordes—to, in the gravelly narrator’s words, ‘rescue a world from mysticism and tyranny.’”

Besides the old thought experiment about separating the art from the artist (a difficult procedure that usually results in a lot of blood loss), it’s worth wondering if movies should be held accountable for their fan bases. (See also: S. Craig Zahler, whose wing nut melodramas sometimes make Snyder’s look nice-core by comparison.) At the same time, 300’s macho, martial bloodlust was so carefully calibrated and calculated that you have to figure Snyder knew what he was doing, and that it would play to a certain section of the viewing public—one eager for something unrepentantly incorrect.

“It’s time to take a serious look at Zack Snyder,” wrote Little White Lies’ David Jenkins in 2016, noting that both Dawn of the Dead and 300 told the same story of soldiers of fortune in a futile showdown against the forces of evil. In the same piece, Jenkins even joked that Synder’s needs-of-the-few themes made him an Ayn Randian objectivist; this was a couple of years before the director announced his dream adaptation of the author’s novel The Fountainhead, a study of a vainglorious, nonconformist architect bent on erecting a monument to his own righteous, forward-thinking genius. “People will think it’s hardcore right-wing propaganda,” Snyder told The Playlist in 2019 of his proposed magnum opus, “but I don’t view it like that. I just think the story is super fun and crazy and melodramatic about architecture and sex.”

Super fun and crazy and melodramatic? Welcome to the other side of the argument around Snyder—that the political valence of his work is inadvertent (or irrelevant), and that as a multiplex image-maker he’s in a class of his own. Strangely, the movie that makes the best case for Snyder as a Hollywood fountainhead is his 2010 computer-animated, all-ages fantasy Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole, a weird and vivid kid-lit adaptation whose digitally designed 3D skyscapes achieve real beauty and grandeur; dialogue about honor and loyalty delivered by cartoon owls skirts ridiculousness, but the movie owns its goofiness and transmutes it into something close to grace.

On its own terms, Legend of the Guardians is a better movie than Snyder’s 2009 take on Watchmen, which, once again, plays the notes and not the music. It’s glib, atonal, and mock operatic, a cold and broken “Hallelujah.” For nearly three hours, Snyder and his creative team faithfully replicate Dave Gibbons and John Higgins’s detailed, dynamic comic-book panels, never more so than in the Bob Dylan–scored overture that splits the difference between JFK and Forrest Gump as it sketches an alternate 20th-century timeline in which costumed heroes perch on the grassy knoll and serve in Vietnam. Snyder’s gift for framing carries the movie along but when you get down to it, Watchmen fails Alan Moore’s complex characters and flattens his philosophical ambivalence about the relationship of power to cruelty into a simple, single-minded sadism. (It’s like a blockbuster directed by the Comedian.) For one illustration among many, consider that in the comic the vigilante Rorschach offers a captured child killer a self-mutilating escape route, while the movie has the character burying the hatchet, repeatedly, in the guy’s skull. In close-up.

Snyder’s Sucker Punch is an apt example of this pummeling, punishing style. Released two years after Watchmen, the movie certainly takes a big swing, attempting to thread a feminist manifesto through a pileup of hyperbolically sexualized (and sexist) imagery. Its abused, institutionalized heroine retreats into a fantasy world where her scantily clad alter ego battles mobsters and monsters in a subconscious attempt to reckon with and triumph over her own trauma and exploitation by a patriarchal society bent on female objectification. It’s a movie trying to have its cheesecake and eat it too.

“If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything,” remarks a character in the middle of one of Sucker Punch’s myriad, video-game-style dreamscapes, summing up the interpretive stakes of a movie that tries to fool its audience—and mesmerize itself—into a sense of principled exploitation. Even if you buy the idea that Emily Browning’s pouty, porcelain alter ego Baby Doll is being generated to tease and humiliate her male-gazing oppressors (in the movie and in the audience), it never feels like the steampunk-samurai backdrops belong to her or the film’s other, similarly exotic-erotic heroines. Instead, Sucker Punch’s star attractions are anatomically correct dolls in a puppet show overseen by a director who refuses to own his own leering perspective.

Of all of Snyder’s films to date, Sucker Punch is probably the one that’s inspired the most eloquently defensive rhetoric, and the sliver of ambiguity about whether it’s simple or subversive gets at why it can seem more urgent—and enjoyable—to talk and think about Snyder’s superhero movies than the quality-controlled product being churned out by Marvel. One of the reasons DC hired Nolan and Snyder as their franchise guardians was to ensure that their extended intellectual property universe had a recognizable and distinctive artistic signature—as opposed to Marvel, which has mostly hired reliable hands willing and able to subordinate anything resembling a distinctive personality. (The one clear exception, Ryan Coogler, still mostly drew inside the lines on Black Panther, which never quite broke free of the series template.) Say what you will about Man of Steel—that it’s too long, too solemn, too on-the-nose, and too willing to let Henry Cavill’s Superman straight-up murder Michael Shannon’s Zod after the character’s 80-year vow of nonlethal force—but it feels like a movie bridling against its own genre and legacy, as well as the expectations of its core audience.

That goes double for Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, which would be my own personal pick as the Snyder movie worth defending—not to the death, maybe, but ardently, on the grounds that it’s trying to generate genuine grandeur. It gets there a few times, like in a scene featuring Superman descending on Mexico City during the Day of the Dead. He is a red-white-and-blue messiah surrounded by chalky, skull-faced supplicants, a tableau worth a thousand words about the Man of Steel’s godlike superiority to his mortal peers and the resulting, contradictory tremors of terror and awe. Even if Snyder is often guilty of thinking in #OnePerfectShot-style compositions, when the shots are actually perfect—like that Day of the Dead Pietà, or a vision of Superman hovering calmly over floodwaters backlit as a religious icon—they stay imprinted in the mind’s eye (whereas I cannot remember a single shot from, say, Doctor Strange).

Batman v Superman is choppy, hard to follow, and shameless in the way it tries to set up an ensemble of poorly drawn supporting characters for Justice League; in a moment when shows like WandaVision are canonized for “world-building,” Snyder suffers for a lack of infrastructural savvy. But there is something to be said for its beauty, which was also the saving grace of Snyder’s cinematic hero John Boorman. The awesomely Arthurian Excalibur gets referenced twice in Batman v Superman, first on a movie theatre marquee the night Bruce Wayne becomes an orphan (note to Matt Reeves: Enough with these scenes, leave it out next time, thanks) and again at the end, when an impaled Superman drags himself across the shaft of a spear to finish off Doomsday.

That calibre of pulpy poetry was largely absent in Justice League 1.0, which combined all of Snyder’s worst tendencies—poor storytelling; thin characterizations; suffocatingly overzealous special effects and production design—with the slick, callow shtick of Joss Whedon, whom Snyder purists accused of trying to do an inside job on behalf of his ex-Avengers teammates. The plot of Justice League has to do with Superman rising from the dead to unite DC’s heroes in a common cause, and so Snyder’s return to the project—armed with a blank check from Warner and the undying support of his online armies—comes with a built-in, uncanny allegorical potency … at least until everybody sees the film, at which point its status as a holy grail might disintegrate. (In a charming and far-ranging interview in The New York Times, Snyder downplays the glory of getting the last laugh; on Thursday, when Justice League premieres, he’ll be going to the dentist).

The early reviews of #TheSnyderCut have been positive so far, with critics buying (or playing) into the narrative that an artist’s glorious vision has been restored and enhanced. (Or maybe the Oscar nominations were just that boring.) It’s a reminder of the precedent Zack Snyder has set in concern to his work: Even if we’re all watching the same movie, we won’t be seeing the same things.