5. “Justice League” (2017)
Throughout his entire feature directing career, Zack Snyder has never really had to compromise. Of course, there are surely countless incidents where he acquiesced to one small thing or another behind the scenes, none of which his viewing public would ever be able to discern for themselves, but — on a macro level — he’s always gotten his way. Alas, making the Superman movie he wanted to put him in a bit of a hole, and making the Batman versus Superman movie he wanted to made that hole considerably deeper. By the time “Justice League” rolled around, the DC Extended Universe was in peril of collapse, and a blockbuster intended to galvanize the franchise into something great became a rescue mission intended to redeem the franchise into something sustainable. Whatever Snyder wanted the film to be was suddenly less important than whatever Warner Bros needed the film to be. In other words, “Justice League” was compromised by its very existence, even before personal tragedy compelled Snyder to hand over the reins to Joss Whedon earlier this year.
The result is a movie that is purely functional in a way that Snyder’s work has never been; five years of world-building have culminated in the least ambitious film of his career. “Justice League” exists for no other reason than to gather the DCEU’s heroes together, allow the saga to regroup, and prove its potential to a world that would sooner watch 10 “Wonder Woman” sequels than suffer through so much as a gif of Ben Affleck’s Batman. Sure, there’s a little lip service given to the value of unity in a world that’s literally lost its hope, and it’s interesting to see Earth grieve Superman’s death, but Snyder’s usual interest in the Hero’s Journey is sidelined in favor of assembling a team and forcing you to love them.
However, in true superhero fashion, the film’s greatest weakness is also its greatest strength. The same functionality that limits “Justice League” from deepening the DCEU on a thematic level also gives it a purpose that has been missing from Snyder’s previous two installments in the series. This is a movie that knows what it has to do, and it does exactly that. The storytelling is scattershot, the villain is a straight up disaster, and Cyborg isn’t anywhere close to being able to support his own movie, but “Justice League” effectively proves — maybe for the first time — that the DCEU has a future. That future may be a watered-down version of Marvel’s present, but it’s a future all the same. If they can earn some buy-in from audiences, better movies will follow, and Wonder Woman won’t have to carry this whole thing on her shoulders. It now seems possible. There’s some hope for these heroes yet.
4. “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” (2016)
So this one didn’t go over so well. Martha, and all that. It wasn’t Snyder’s finest moment, but it also wasn’t that part early in “300” when the Persian messenger hurls himself into the bottomless pit of death just because Snyder thought it would look cool, so let’s keep everything in perspective. “Dawn of Justice” isn’t a good movie, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t get a bad rap. There are things about this film that work, and work well — if it were Superman’s first impression of cinema, he might deem the art form worth saving.
For one thing, the prologue is one of the best things Snyder has ever shot; it’s as urgent and red-blooded as any set piece the superhero genre has ever produced. What’s more, it offers the best possible rebuttal to the people who were so ticked off by the callousness of the destruction in “Man of Steel,” as Snyder simply returns to the scene of the carnage and shows it to us from ground-level. We don’t need to see a guy praying to Jesus as a building caves in on him to understand that lives are at stake. If there’s one thing Snyder has never had trouble with, it’s opening a film.
For another thing, “Dawn of Justice” introduces Wonder Woman, savior of the DCEU. It also introduces Hans Zimmer’s Wonder Woman guitar lick, which has come in pretty clutch ever since.
…And that’s about it. It should work. It’s full of Snyder’s favorite stuff. Not only does the movie literally burnish superheroes into legend (Lex Luthor tells Holly Hunter that the myths we know all stem from metahumans), it also tasks both Lex and Bruce Wayne with trying to find a deterrent against Superman’s power. In short, “Dawn of Justice” allows Snyder to craft a version of “Watchmen” in his own image. Unfortunately, that image includes Granny’s peach tea, a lot of straining to level the playing field between its two eponymous heroes, and the first of the DCEU’s ruinously stupid CG villains. It’s as though Snyder finally set up the story he wanted to tell, and then couldn’t get out of his own way.
3. “Sucker Punch” (2011)
Snyder’s one true blank check movie, “Sucker Punch” is clogged with every contradictory idea that’s ever popped into its director’s brain. More than just “‘Alice in Wonderland’ with machine guns,” it’s an unabashedly fetishistic pop spectacle that distills several generations of teenage boy awesomeness into a film so inert and detached that it makes you wonder how awesome those things really were in the first place. And that’s just one counterintuitive aspect of a three-tiered fantasy that is always trying to have its cake and eat it, too (often in speed-ramped bites against a green-screened kitchen).
This is a movie that objectifies women in order to critique nerd culture’s objectification of women, a movie that empowers women by locking them inside a mental institution. The most fun thing about watching it is is trying to figure out how much of it is deliberate, and how much of it is just Snyder bumping around in all of his blind spots.
Either way, the film’s unbridled ambition makes it one of his best films by default, and arguably his most intriguing. It’s also a showcase for his flaws, presenting them with the clarity of a diorama. “Sucker Punch” is COOL in all caps, serving up a style that only makes sense in the context of its own emptiness. The set pieces hinge on geek touchstones (the steampunk WWI soldiers, the samurai in the snow, etc.) because Emily Browning’s heroine is reaching through time and using these shared images as a refuge from her grim reality, but Snyder’s dream-within-a-dream plotting removes any semblance of real stakes.
But the more fundamental problem for Snyder is that he doesn’t know how to stage real action in digital environments. At all. Yeah, after “300” that was supposed to be the guy’s strength, but people got it wrong. Snyder’s movies slow to a halt as soon as the fight scenes start because they have no weight to them. He goes nuts with the CG, amplifying every movement with the overwrought enthusiasm of a teenage boy whose only concept of sex comes from watching lots of bad pornography. The combat never speaks for itself, it’s always in quotation marks and underlined to the point where it becomes illegible. All of his fight scenes feel like you’re watching a 90-pound schoolgirl jumping over a 25-foot samurai who has a chain gun for some reason — all of them feel like you’re watching the Comic Con version of a cheap cabaret. At least this one has a baby-faced Oscar Isaac, Emily Browning singing, and Björk. The DCEU could desperately use any of those things.