Zack Snyder is possibly the most polarizing mainstream filmmaker of the 21st century. His name alone is enough to launch a thousand angry tweets, and the most passionate writing about his work is exclusively found in the comment sections of websites like this one. Snyder’s critics really seem to hate him, and Snyder’s fans really seem to hate his critics. At this point, a Marvel / DC movie crossover might be a lot more plausible than finding any sort of common ground between those two camps. Is Snyder a master or a hack? A misunderstood myth-maker, or a meathead with a movie camera?
One thing we can say for sure is that no contemporary auteur has more awesomely investigated what it means to be a hero in a fallen world. The Pasadena native has leveraged a remarkable music video portfolio into a big screen career filled by obsessions with power and its corruption.
From the lowly security guards in his “Dawn of the Dead” remake to the almighty Superman in “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice,” his films investigate our relationship with authority, the most extreme of these baroque pop spectacles even exploring man’s desire to destroy God. On the other hand, Snyder hasn’t proven himself to be entirely unsympathetic towards God — he knows what it feels like to create worlds from his whims, and he knows what it feels like for people to curse him for it.
“Justice League” may not be a culmination for the writer-director-producer, but it’s something he’s been building towards for a few years, and provides a good opportunity to take stock of his work so far. With that in mind, here are all eight of Zack Snyder’s movies, ranked from worst to best.
8. “300” (2006)
What hell hath “Sin City” wrought?
The year was 2005, and Zack Snyder was fresh off the success of his invigorating “Dawn of the Dead.” Inspired by how fluidly Robert Rodriguez had brought Frank Miller’s “Sin City” to the big screen, and eager to put his own hyper-muscular flex on the technique, our hero decided to pursue a project that would somehow be even less original than the remake that had launched his directing career. The result is a film that’s somehow both groundbreaking and derivative in equal measure, a lifeless, horridly anti-cinematic spectacle that established Snyder’s visionary gift for showing us what comic books might look like if you didn’t have to turn the pages yourself.
Adapted from Miller’s graphic novel series of the same name (though adapted feels like a generous description for a film that was essentially just transposed off the page), “300” found Snyder tapping into his background as a painter to create a blockbuster that feels like it was entirely cut together from its own concept art. Whereas “Sin City” was split across several different stories that managed to skate by on the beauty of their monochrome noir atmosphere, “300” chronicles a suicide mission in such painful slow-motion that we might as well be watching it in real-time.
Animating Miller’s panels into blue-screened tableaux may have made for some incredible trailers, but the approach can’t sustain an entire feature. Even if the jaundiced artificial environments don’t make you want to look away, the constant speed-ramping makes the whole thing feel as though it were shot underwater, the drama inherent to the Battle of Thermopylae just washing away in an interminable swell of fight scenes so boring that the narrator eventually just starts talking over them. Really, “300” was doomed from the moment that Snyder first confused strength for substance, as the movie doesn’t give you much to hold onto aside from the ridges of Gerard Butler’s genuinely insane eight-pack. We’re supposed to see this as a rousing story of heroism expressed through self-sacrifice, but it resolves as a senseless tragedy — 2,400 of the most perfectly sculpted abs in history were lost on that battlefield, and for what?
7. “Legends of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole” (2010)
As much fun as it would be to argue that the kids movie where Helen Mirren voices a Nazi owl is secretly Zack Snyder’s masterpiece, that wouldn’t be very — what’s the word — true. Best remembered as the punchline of Matt Damon’s best “30 Rock” joke, “Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole” is not one of the better animated films of recent years. In fact, it’s not even one of the better semi-forgotten animated films of recent years (I’ll take “Meet the Robinsons” over this any day of the week).
Cramming the first three books of Kathryn Lasky’s winged adventure series into a lifeless 88 minutes, LGOGH is an anguished reminder of why “The Fellowship of the Ring” opens wth 10 minutes of table-setting. The “epic” story of some visually indistinguishable young owls who escape an Owl Concentration Camp in order to find the Owl Avengers so they can defeat Owl Hitler and dance to a song by Owl City, the film never gives viewers much of a reason to care about its parliament or their plight, nor even a real opportunity to understand it.
On the other hand, it’s easy enough to understand why Snyder wanted to make this thing. It wasn’t really even that much of a change of pace for him, considering that “Dawn of the Dead” is the only one of his movies that feels right to think of as “live-action.” Maybe “Watchmen” if you’re feeling nice. The only difference between “Legend of the Guardians” and “300” is that the characters here are as fake as their environments; like Wes Anderson dabbling in stop-motion, perhaps Snyder was just eager to play in a world that he could control completely. Or maybe he just couldn’t resist the idea of speed-ramping a fight between two angry birds. Who knows, the world is full of mysteries. But one thing is crystal clear: “Through our gizzards, the voices of the ages whisper to us and tell us what’s right.”
6. “Man of Steel” (2013)
“Man of Steel” was inevitably decried for being too dark, but in the wake of “Watchmen,” it would have seemed disingenuous for Snyder to invest in an innocent Superman. “Man of Steel” is a pretty dreadful movie, the collateral damage of which extended far beyond the millions of lives lost during its climactic battle, but the truth of the matter is that Snyder’s brooding approach to the character was probably the right one for the time. It still is. We live in a dark age, and Kal-El unfortunately has to reflect that — if he’s to be thought of a Christ figure, that burden is his cross to bear. Superman is a character forged by the moral crucible of life on Earth, and life on Earth isn’t getting any easier.
Snyder knows Superman far better than this critic (and most critics) ever will, but the filmmaker made one fatal miscalculation that threatened to undo the DCEU before it even got off the ground. In the comic books, it makes sense for Kal-El to be a genuine protagonist. On the screen, however, he works better as a lens than a subject. Snyder wanted to complicate Superman, but Superman isn’t necessarily a complicated guy. It’s the humans who are complicated, and Superman is compelling for how he responds to that.
His steady goodness is the most alien part about him, and the drama of the character can be found in his struggle to save us without scaring us away, to fight for us only so far as we’re willing to fight for ourselves. When you’re only working with 143 of the longest minutes ever recorded, it’s a lot more interesting to focus on what the world thinks of Superman than it is to focus on what Superman thinks of the world. He should be as much of a symbol as the thing stitched across his chest. Maybe people wouldn’t have been put off by Metropolis’ death toll if it felt like the film was critical of Superman’s existence (more on this later).
But no, Snyder is hung up on the Hero’s Journey, so we have to follow Kal-El’s every step through the labyrinth and “come to the center of his own existence.” We have to deal with the goofy opening sequence where Russell Crowe rides a space fly, we have to deal with unmotivated flashbacks of Clark as a kid, and we have to deal with a little too much Pa Kent. All of it is chopped up for maximum boredom and seasoned with a little half-baked Malick flavor for extra gravitas — and it comes at the expense of a single interesting female character (we see Martha and Lois from Clark’s POV, and he’s too enamored with both for either to come alive). It’s a shame, too, because Snyder’s eye for casting has never been sharper. Michael Shannon is a great Zod in a franchise that would soon move away from human-looking bad guys, and Henry Cavill has the kind of jaw that can’t be faked with CG. If only Snyder could divine the difference between what’s cool and what’s compelling, maybe all the action could have saved this. It only makes things worse.