The Great Disconnect of Zack Snyder: 5 Reasons Why His Powerful Visuals Leave Me Empty
April 14, 2016 \ Movies \ 0 Comments
Every time I watch a Zack Snyder film I feel conflicted and perturbed. It’s not that I disliked the movie, it’s more that I’m unsettled by something and I can’t quite describe precisely what it is. So I decided to take an exhaustive look at his interviews and rewatch all of his works to try and figure it out.
The more interviews I read about him the more I liked him. He speaks about his work enthusiastically and he has a clear idea about his “thesis” for each film. It’s easy to see how he inspires others to join him on his projects.
As I re-watched his films more closely, I was quickly impressed by his framing choices. Like this shot from Dawn of the Dead that moves away from Ana (Sarah Polley) to give us the scope of her world and her place in it in the pending apocalypse:
Or the sequence where Ana’s group first runs in to CJ’s (Michael Kelly) group who are security guards in the mall, and the framing conveys who is in charge and which of the three guards will be the most trustworthy:
But gradually, the more films I saw I began to feel like while I was engaged with what was happening visually, I wasn’t engaged emotionally; it was all passing in front of me and I didn’t feel a part of it. And it finally became clear what was wrong. It’s not any ONE thing, it’s a variety of things that compound to deliver a movie experience that isn’t as satisfying as it should be.
1. Heavy Metal Magazine
Snyder frequently refereces a magazine he read as a kid called Heavy Metal. Heavy Metal magazine started in the late 70’s. Each issue features a series somewhat-pulp-fiction-inspired Science Fiction and Fantasy stories that frequently include violence, nudity, and sexual content. As a kid, Snyder was able to get these because his mother didn’t know what was inside them, and Snyder says it turned him off many other comics because they didn’t feature any violence or death.
The important thing to note about Heavy Metal is that the stories are more visual, conceptual feasts, rather than solid examples of story, character, or dialogue. For example:
Typically when Snyder mentions Heavy Metal as being an influence I assume he means aesthetically and I’m sure his skills as a writer and storyteller have surpassed his ten year-old self, but since he keeps mentioning Heavy Metal I think it’s fair to say some of his preferences or sensibilities lie there. That’s the kind of stuff he likes. Stuff he’s drawn to. Stuff he’s OK with. And this preference is something to consider as we look at his work.
2. Slow Motion
People frequently criticize Snyder for overusing slow motion in his films so I don’t want to talk about this too much, but I’d like to illustrate one example.
In 300, the moment when King Leonidas kicks the Persian messenger into a pit is iconic. It reason it works so well is that it’s a defining moment for the character, Sparta, the film, and it’s preceded by a great line. When we see King Leonidas kick the messenger, we understand with actions how ruthless he is, how ruthless Spartans are. We see their power.
But is this moment as memorable?
Or this one?
Or this one?
The “kick into the pit” scene is early on and is more character defining — it means more. Many of the other sequences look cool and allow you to see the action better and provide a heightened experience, but they’re less impactful, because they aren’t always tied to something defining that action.
3. Human Character Moments
It’s difficult to relate to characters in Snyder’s films. An audience needs a human moment with a character so we feel something for them. Very often these types of scenes involve some kind of dialogue, but they don’t have to. A character might talk about their past and their parents or siblings (because most of us have those and we have strong feelings about them), which reveals something about who they are and how they fit into the world. Here’s an example from Game of Thrones Season Four that actually provides a human moment for two characters in one scene:
Looking at Snyder’s work (where he is one of the writers), there aren’t any solid examples of relatable characterization like this. I think it’s a bit unfair to look at 300 because Snyder is just trying to make a faithful reproduction of the book, but briefly, King Leonidas isn’t really a guy to whom we can relate. He’s extreme: “No retreat, no surrender, that is Spartan law,” and, “Spartans! Ready your breakfast and eat hearty … For tonight, we dine in hell!”
In Sucker Punch there are a couple of moments we’re given to identify with the girls like when Rocket (Jena Malone) is talking about her Sister, Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish).
Rocket: You got family?
Baby Doll: No.
Rocket: Oh, that’s right. I forgot, you’re an orphan. I ran away from mine. I thought I was pretty smart at the time, but… Sweet Pea followed. Which is crazy, because she never even
had a real problem with Mom and Dad.
Baby Doll: She just cares about you a lot.
Rocket: Have you just ever wanted to just take something back? You know, something you said. Something you did.
Baby Doll: All the time.
And an extension on that:
It isn’t quite as powerful as the Game of Thrones scene, is it? There’s simply less there. Less from the script, less for the actors to work with. The panning shot allows us to get the other character’s reactions in the frame, like Amber’s, which heightens the emotion a bit, but I feel like it’s more to serve the idea that the entire film is Sweet Pea’s fantasy (more on this later) because when the camera spins to what should be the back of the mirror, we begin to circle around the girls facing the mirror again. While this is a really cool sequence, its focus isn’t to service the emotion of the scene. To tether us to a story about multi-layered and false realities like Sucker Punch we need strong, clear emotion. If we’re going to follow these characters and care what happens to them, it helps if these moments are there.
4. Character Actions Aren’t Tied to Emotions Properly
While Man of Steel doesn’t list Snyder as a writer, I still think it’s fair to point out that there isn’t any emotional relation between to lot of Superman’s actions, more like logical ones. When Superman (Henry Cavill) heads back to Earth to attack Zod (Michael Shannon) and his crew, there’s a sequence where Jor-El tells his son that he can save Lois (Amy Adams), that he can save all of them. And that’s it. The reason he’s attacking Zod is to save Lois and save Earth. I get it. But what’s the emotional resonance to that action, so I’m invested in what he’s doing so that I feel it myself? There isn’t one.
Similarly (though Snyder didn’t direct it, he’s credited as a writer for the screenplay), look at 300: Rise of an Empire. What is our emotional connection to Themistokles (Sullivan Stapleton) protecting Greece? Xerxes and his massive are coming destroy to the destroy and conquer Greece, Xerxes bad, sure, but where is the sequence that invests me in Themistokles emotionally? It’s the same as Man of Steel, bad guys are bringing this conflict and our heroes must protect their homes.
Or consider the end of the conflict in Batman v Superman (spoilers incoming!). Batman (Ben Affleck) decides not to kill Superman because Superman says, “Martha.” Then we get a flashback sequence to the death of Bruce’s parents reminding us that his Mother’s name is Martha too. But looking at a gravestone of Martha Wayne doesn’t have the same emotional impact as a scene that shows us why Bruce loves his Mother. Meanwhile, what is the scene that shows us the emotional connection between Superman and his Mother? We only get a scene where she tells him that he can choose to be a hero or not choose to be a hero. This scene lacks emotional weight. Here’s what Snyder had to say about the emotional weight of the Martha reveal:
“You know we spend so much time with the Martha-Clark relationship that I think it kind of pays off there … Because we’ve lived on with Clark’s relationship with his mother, so that moment is like, ‘Wow, that’s ringing for me and I feel it.'”
The strongest emotional sequence between Clark and his Mother is in Man of Steel when she’s helping him control his powers. And that was too long ago to carry over the emotional resonance required to impact us in this decisive scene.
Here’s a look at a sequence that expertly works emotion into a character’s action, from Django Unchained:
Why does this work so well? In one sequence we go from investigation, to memory, to bad guys doing bad things, to showing how our character feels about those bad things, to revenge. It also helps the way the sequence is filmed. Watch the way the camera follows Django. As he gets closer to his mark, we get to see his footsteps racing along with the music. Then when he says, “John Brittle!” we get a hero shot that slowly moves into a slightly low angle making Django look powerful. The trees swaying in the background add additional movement making the scene feel bigger. This setup makes us revel in Django’s whips, exacting a vengeance we were given an emotional justification for just seconds earlier.
It would logically be enough to have a sequence where Django kills the Brittle Brothers because they are bad men that did bad things, but the fact that we were given reason to emotionally invest in those actions is what makes the scene so much fun.
5. Ideas More Important than Heart
I get the feeling that Snyder gets these ideas in his head that he wants to carry out to a logical conclusion, regardless of how that idea resonates emotionally with the rest of the story. Consider the following quote regarding Man of Steel.
Snyder: “In the original version of the script Zod just got zapped into the Phantom Zone. David [Goyer] and I had long talks about it, and Chris [Nolan] and I talked a lot about it. I was saying, ‘I really feel we should kill Zod and I feel that Superman should kill him.’ For me, the why of it was: if it’s truly an origin story, his aversion to killing is unexplained. It’s just in his DNA. I thought if we put him in an impossible situation, forced him into it, it would work.
After Superman kills Zod he screams. I understand why, conceptually. It’s made clear Superman likes saving people’s lives and that his race is important to him, but how do we feel when Zod is killed? Personally I feel OK that Zod is dead. It was made clear he was going to keep killing people. But ideally we should feel at least somewhat as torn as Superman does and we don’t. And I think part of the reason why is that Superman’s motive is based in logic, not emotion. Zod tells him, “I’m going to make them suffer, Kal. These humans you’ve adopted, I will take them all from you one by one,” and he makes it clear he never intends to stop. But why don’t we feel as much as we do for this scene in Lord of the Rings?
Because it’s a moment of character redemption. Boromir (Sean Bean) is trying to make up for his attempt to take the ring from Frodo (Elijah Wood) by saving Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd). And Boromir fights so hard to save the two hobbits that even (seemingly) mortal wounds don’t stop him. So when Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) intervenes and wins, we’re elated.
Perhaps the most glaring example of Snyder getting too focused on ideas is Sucker Punch. If this reading of the film is accurate (and it seems reasonable) then Sucker Punch is an entirely fabricated, multi-layered fantasy that eventually (and indirectly) tells women that their sexuality and sexual empowerment is their own choice. I admire the ambition of the project, but since the film is so misunderstood and Snyder couldn’t make the film exactly as he wanted due to the nature of filmmaking and film audiences, we’re left with a complicated idea we struggle to comprehend while feeling very little for the world or the characters.
And this encapsulates my Zack Snyder experience. I’m watching him execute his vision and admiring the stunning visuals, while trying to feel something for what I’m seeing; struggling to reconcile the ideas being presented with relatable emotions that aren’t there. I admire the action and the framing of the images I’m being shown, but I can’t get passed this lingering feeling that something is wrong. And it’s not one problem, it’s a variety that leaves me walking out of Snyder films appreciating a slew of ideas an images, while feeling little for them.