Retro Movie Review: The Early Films of Zack Snyder

For lack of something better to do, I decided to watch three of director Zack Snyder’s earlier films. Mr. Snyder’s star has dimmed somewhat. His DC Extended Universe films did relatively poorly, but there’s no question that he has a visual style all his own. I thought it would be interesting to watch the three films which just preceded Man of Steel to really get a feeling for what Mr. Snyder brought to film.

Where it all started

In 2006 Zack Snyder had been around for a few years as a semi-successful Hollywood director. However it was 300 that first propelled him into the ranks of cinema royalty. 300 was an adaptation of a Frank Miller comic, and Frank Miller had recently become very hot thanks to Sin City, a film which truly launched a completely different visual style. Miller’s film-noir style seemed perfectly fit to film but it wasn’t until the dawn of reasonably affordable CGI that it became possible to really put his visions into motion.

300 tells the story of the early days of the war between Greece and the Persian Empire. Historians love to talk about the moment when a band of 300 Spartans stood up against the army of Xerxes. Democracy was a fairly new construct then and they’d love you to feel like it all could have ended before it really began. 300 is a romanticized, almost fetishized, version of that story.

It was hailed at the time for its unique visual style and politcally incorrect views on childrearing and leadership.

Back to 1985 for the second film

As Hollywood’s star-of-the-moment, Mr. Snyder chose Watchmen as his second project. The original graphic novel set the stage for literally every high-end comic after it, and for decades it was thought that it was impossible to commit to film. This didn’t stop Zack Snyder from trying.

Using many of the same techniques as he employed in 300, Mr. Snyder created a film that was often a shot-for-shot reproduction of the original source. He updated the ending to make it more cinematic, which ended up being an unpopular move among fans. While the film was an achievement in many ways, it was not an overwhelming success like 300. Many at the time said that in order to truly enjoy it, you needed to be intimate with the original, and if you were intimate with the original you’d hate the changes made for the film.

In Watchmen, a group of one-time superheroes try to solve a mystery set in the paranoid days of an alternate-reality 1985. In the movie’s world, masked avengers had helped the US win Vietnam and keep Nixon in office for 5 terms, which pushed the world to the moment of nuclear oblivion. Our heroes not only have to deal with their own stories but face the fact that their world could end at any moment.

The best part of the film is undoubtedly the opening montage which gets viewers up to speed on the alternate timeline. Unfortunately it’s at the beginning which makes everything else a bit of a disappointment.

A year too late

By the time Watchmen hit theaters, the world was just awakening to the idea that a superhero movie could have dark and deep themes. It came out a year after The Dark Knight which deals with many of the same themes of power, mental illness, and isolation. Had Watchmen come out first, it might have been hailed as the best superhero movie ever, but it seemed at that moment to have ridden on Dark Knight’s coattails as well as the coattails of The Incredibles, a film which was actually inspired by the original Watchmen comic.

A punch to the gut

Mr. Snyder’s last film before taking on the role of shaping DC’s “Extended Universe” was 2011’s Sucker Punch. This was the first Snyder film to be based on an original script instead of adapted from previous material.

Sucker Punch was considered a misfire when it came out. The story of a heroine who hallucinates herself through a week of horrors by pretending she’s a lap-dancing action hero was not well received, with many considering the plot to be convoluted and confusing. Had the film come out in 2018 it would have been the subject of a lot of “Time’s Up” attention. There’s no question that it fetishizes its female-heavy cast it a way that makes it a bit difficult to watch.

While 300 and Watchmen are easy to find on Prime, it took me a while to find Sucker Punch, which is currently streaming on Vudu’s ad-supported tier. It seems to be a film that everyone would rather forget.

Comparing the three films

Watching all three back to back, I found they are more similar than they are different. All three films certainly look similar, featuring odd camera angles, long takes, and a dim and overly contrasty view of their environments.

I found other similarities. None of the films is particularly kind in their portrayals of women. While 300 and Watchmen are definitely more driven by males than females, even Sucker Punch’s female-heavy cast is more defined by the few males who are in power roles in the film.

All three films look back to the past and romanticize the idea of toughness and steadfastness rather than having characters who truly love or have any affection whatsoever. When you look at them all together, you get a definite sense that Mr. Snyder thinks that the macho ideals of the past are better than the sensitive ideals many people hold today.

Treatment of mental illness

In the same vein, all three films deal with mental illness of one sort or another. In 300 the character of Ephialtes is shown as physically deformed (although there is no evidence this was true.) His physical deformity is a visual representation of his weakness and emotional immaturity, and he betrays his homeland simply because someone is nice to him. This is actually the best portrayal of mental illness of any of the films.

Watchmen’s narrator Rorschach is treated like a mental patient although he is really just a hardened criminal whose point of view was shaped by extreme hardship and stress. Rather than showing this sympathetically, the film chooses instead to show the ineptitude of the system and how Rorschach is capable of transcending it. In reality, a person who showed severely sociopathic and deviant behaviors like Rorschach would have been hospitalized and probably drugged to help with his likely physical imbalances.

Sucker Punch’s outer shell takes place in a mental hospital. That gives the film the opportunity to say a lot about about mental illness. It doesn’t really do that, though. The psychologist character is shown to be weak and ineffective. Instead of dealing with the many opportunities to expose the cruelty of mental hospitals, the film chooses to utterly ignore them.

Use of the narrator

All three films rely on narration in one way or another. 300 is told from the point of view of the last survivor of the 300 Spartans. Watchmen uses Rorschach’s journal to move the story forward. While Sucker Punch has no explicit narrator, Scott Glenn appears from time to time to explain things. For its part, Sucker Punch needs far less narration because there is simply less plot, just a series of tasks.

Lack of character development

In these three films, virtually no character actually has any sort of meaningful arc. We are presented at the beginning with fully-formed characters with fully-formed opinions. There is very little progress to be made. To some extent every step that every character takes is dictated by their moral code. That moral code is already in place at the beginning of each film and does not change. This helped me understand the fundamental flaw of all of these films.

They really should have been video games.

It was while watching Sucker Punch that I realized something. The look and cadence of these films is much more suited to a video game than a movie. In fact Sucker Punch’s visuals are almost video-game-like and far less polished than most films today. All three films boil down to a series of cut scenes interspersed with action sequences with clear goals. This makes me think that had these been video games they would have really been applauded.

The Snyder legacy

After these three films, Zack Snyder went on to help the DC Extended Universe films: Man of Steel, Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, and Justice League. He also had consulting roles in Wonder Woman and Aquaman. The films he directed were panned by critics as being dark and lifeless and DC (whose parent company is AT&T) has said there will be no more “Extended Universe” films.

And so, Mr. Snyder is sort of on the outs right now. His early works receive no affection today. They are even blamed for empowering some of the political movements of our day. I think that’s going a bit far. I do agree that there is a marked lack of subtlety and depth in the final products. This is obvious in his early films as well as his DC superhero work.

This essay was intended to run on a different site. When that fell through I thought I’d try it here. What do you think of “retro movie reviews” at the Solid Signal Blog? Leave a comment and tell me if I should do more.