Zack Snyder, Optimist

May 23, 2013

Yesterday, the New York Times profiled Zack Snyder and Man of Steel, his forthcoming Superman film. The whole thing is worth reading; I want to hone in on one point Snyder makes:

Mr. Snyder recognized that "Man of Steel" did not fit neatly into his oeuvre of stylized B-movies like his "Dawn of the Dead" remake and "300," a retelling of the battle of Thermopylae, but he said he saw overarching connections.

"I feel like my movies have always been very subversive, even when people haven’t perceived how subversive they really are," he said confidently. "For me, what’s subversive about Superman is that it’s not subversive."

I find this comment interesting, if only because I've recently been thinking about how perfectly the idea of Superman fits into the worldview of Snyder's oeuvre. He is, in his own weird way, a filmmaker who is relentlessly optimistic about the human condition.

Consider his remake of Dawn of the Dead. In George Romero's original, the film's protagonists are holed up in a mall; as the film progresses the group splinters, torn by jealousy and resentment, before being overrun by a marauding band of looters who break in and flood the shopping center with zombies. In Snyder's film, the opposite happens: the group in the mall pulls together and the mall is only overrun when they make an attempt to rescue a man stranded in a building across the street who has no food. Yes, everything goes wrong and many people die—but it goes wrong because members of society managed to hold onto their humanity, not because they succumbed to inhumanity.

300, meanwhile, is sometimes described as nihilistic, showy violence porn. But it contains a real lesson about society and community: It is a film about martial sacrifice, the need for civilized people to band together and defeat the forces of barbarism, and the importance of doing what's right, regardless of the cost. It is also an indictment of the corrupt ruling class, those who would betray their people's ideals for filthy lucre. It is an intensely moral, intensely optimistic film.

His adaptation of Watchmen inverts the message of Alan Moore's original comic. Whereas Moore wanted us to look upon Ozymandias' (and Rorschach's) works and despair, Snyder is more open to the good that can come from the horrific actions the film's heroes have taken. He respects both Rorschach's hard-boiled morality and Ozymandias' deadly vision for a brave new world free of war and fear. Snyder sees all the costumes (with the possible exception of The Comedian) as heroes, whereas Moore saw them as insanely villainous.*

I'm one of the few critics to strongly defend Sucker Punch, which does remarkably interesting things with narrative conventions and point of view (and is extremely entertaining, to boot). While it may be muddled, it ends on a broadly hopeful note: our heroine sacrifices herself in order to save the film's true protagonist. Sacrifice, shared humanity, the power of community: all of the morals of Snyder's other works are present here.

Consider all of that in the context of this voiceover from an early Man of Steel teaser trailer:

You will give the people an ideal to strive towards. They’ll race behind you. They’ll stumble, they will fall. But in time they will join you in the sun. In time you will help them accomplish wonders.

Jor-el's words to his son constitute an extremely hopeful, extremely optimistic vision of the character and the role he will play in helping humanity fulfill its potential. It is not only a fine summation of the character we know and love, it also fits perfectly within Snyder's worldview. That synchronicity is one of the reasons I have high hopes for Man of Steel.

*I have a feeling Snyder would strongly disagree with this interpretation of his film. But that is an argument for another day.

Published under: Movies