Damn Zack, back at it again with a polarizing comic book adaptation

Unless you’ve been living in a gloomy subterranean cave, you’ve undoubtedly seen the harsh critical response to the director’s most recent release, Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice. Roasting at a 44 on Metacritic and 28% on Rotten Tomatoes, initial Dawn of Justice reviews felt like a blitzkrieg of mean-spirited, cynical vengeance. The most ironic part of it all: The ferociously negative reaction was directed towards what some critics perceived as a mean-spirited, cynical tone of BvS

For example, Crave Online’s Will Bibbiani grumbled, “If anything, Batman v Superman’s action is so adolescent and over the top that you half expect the film to end with Emily Browning opening her eyes, having just finished another off-camera striptease in Sucker Punch.” Adolescent and over the top? Need I remind you that we are discussing a movie with a mentally unstable billionaire dressing up as a bionic bat to battle and a flying alien who has passed as a human journalist by wearing a pair of Warby Parker glasses? And why the pot shot at Sucker Punch? With that movie, Snyder created a Kafkaesque fantasy world of badass steam-punk heroines that doubled as a dressing-down of gross fanboy voyeurism and violence against women. What does that have to do with Dawn of Justice?

Then there was Robbie Collin of The Telegraph who kvetched, “No major blockbuster in years has been this incoherently structured, this seemingly uninterested in telling a story with clarity and purpose.” It’s like Josh Trank’s Fantastic Four, bereft of a second act or anything close to coherence, didn’t come out just months ago.

This pointed malice seems deeper than rap. Why is there such a chasm between the critical response and the fan response? (Peep those record-breaking box office receipts though.) What is it about Zack Snyder’s approach to visual storytelling that always seems to agitate? Has—like our elder statesman Alfred forewarned—a fever, a rage, feeling of powerlessness turned our good [critics] cruel? I’m not saying everyone has to enjoy Snyder’s work or bow in reverence to BvS, but the critical response has just seemed…personal. 

I don’t want to believe the gray area has gone extinct, and I especially don’t believe that Snyder’s DC-affiliation is under attack solely by a brigade of biased Marvel loyalists. Quite frankly, that argument is reductive at best and played-out-as-fuck at worst. 

At the very most, I’m a Zack Snyder neutralist who has enjoyed and been turned off by his oeuvre in equal measure. I never thought I would go to the mat over the merits of Zack Snyder, but here we are. Snyder has made three great movies (Dawn of the Dead, Sucker Punch, and Batman v Superman), one good one (300), and three mystifyingly repellent ones (Watchmen, Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole, and Man of Steel). I don’t mind the guy, but I can totally see why some people do. 

So, after wading through countless reviews, the saddest of Sad Affleck memes, and what seemed like a spit wad fight from both DC and Marvel fans, I tried to figure out, as diplomatically possible, why there is so much Snyder shade—and why we should tone it down a bit.

The Rise of the Alpha Nerd

As a comic book agnostic, I have no cape in the fight between DC and Marvel for cinematic universe supremacy. I also wouldn’t dare to front like I am fluent in any comic mythos either. But my outsider-looking-in purview affords me the ability to observe a strange sort of class eugenics amongst nerds (a term that has now been reclaimed and redeemed). Being a nerd now has cultural currency and a heightened cool factor. Seemingly overnight, there was an overcorrection of the market. Crossfit replaced the Cheetos and the beta bros became alpha assholes. 

This can be linked directly to Snyder’s rise. With his disheveled handsomeness, his tatted-up, cut-up frame, and his hyper-muscular direction, he became the badass auteur who tilted the axis of comic book/graphic novel franchise filmmaking. In a post-Blade world, Snyder’s brand of cinema felt like tough guy theater. Just peep the machismo behind the dirt-caked abs and bulging biceps executing each gleeful decapitation in 300. Even Watchmen employed the same speed-ramping visual grammar to stylize and eroticize the hard-hitting brutality within each frame. 

And under Snyder’s watch, Superman went from the relatively scrawny Abercrombie and Fitch physique of Brandon Routh to the Crossfit lumberjack frame of Henry Cavill. There’s a reason why so many of Snyder’s movies spawn work-out trends. He glorifies violence and physicality and masculine muscularity while trying—to varying degrees of success—to condemn it thematically, ultimately making traumatic imagery look “cool.”

But we shouldn’t solely blame Zack Snyder for the inevitable rise of these posturing alpha nerds. That’s akin to hating Bernie Sanders for enabling the toxic behavior of Bernie Bros. These douchebags already existed and functioned like this far before the mainstreaming of their idols.

Snyder Lacks Trust in His Audience

Zack Snyder is a classical filmmaker in the truest sense of the word, and people tend to forget that amidst the big budget piles of ash, rubble, and holocaustic destruction his stories leave behind. He still shoots on film despite the immediacy that digital effectively provides for genre set pieces. The composition of his films are labored over down to the smallest detail, from the oneiric color gradation of Planet Krypton in Man of Steel to the warehouse fight between Batman and Lex’s thugs in BvS, which was shot with such stunning clarity, ferocity, and fluid editing, it redefined visceral PG-13 violence.

But let’s not gloss over Snyder’s attempts at thematically elevating story through action. He has a lot to say in his movies. There was some smart meditation on Western xenophobia and capitalism in Dawn of the Dead; Watchmen put fascism under its lens; BvS tackles mortality in the presence of immortal power. But, Jesus Christ (no pun intended), does he always have to be so heavy handed? Snyder loves allegory so much that he calls attention to it, like he doesn’t trust us to get something as clear as Superman being a messiah figure.

Also—and this is my biggest complaint about BvS—Snyder’s love for flashbacks cross into distracting territory. Zack, I promise you we all remember the opening scene where Bruce Wayne’s parents were murdered in the ally. It happened merely an hour ago. We don’t need to see it again to understand the tangled Martha connection.

You Merely Adopted the Dark—Snyder Was Born in It

I’ll come clean: My favorite part of Zack Snyder’s approach is how dark he takes things, both tonally and aesthetically. Supes snapping General Zod’s neck in a demolished foyer in front of children? Count me in! Bleak 9/11 imagery? Bring it on! Zack revels in dark, dour themes in order to visualize a dark, dour world. I mean, one of my favorite sequences this year has to be that Cronenberg-ian, horror movie of a nightmare Bruce Wayne has before having visions of Flash, complete with petrifying winged mutant soldiers swooping in and violently taking out mercenaries like a war scene from Starship Troopers. Absolutely sick, totally twisted, and utterly batshit crazy. 

It’s high time we stop waving fingers at Zack Snyder for “going dark.” It’s what he does, and he does it well. There are plenty of color-soaked, bubbly Marvel movies to balance the scale, and they are absolutely vital to enjoying this glut of superhero movies currently destroying the movie making economy  

So, are we still cool? Now that you’ve made me defend Zack Snyder, can you all please apologize to Ben Affleck too? Thanks.