I’m going to throw this curveball out there before we even begin. I didn’t hate Batman vs Superman, nor did I dislike it as much or as venomously as many fans and critics. For me, BvS was a classic example of a hot mess, a pizza with all the toppings but with no particular order or sense to them. I attended a screening of BvS with three other people, one of whom shared my particular opinion, another thought it was atrocious, another thought it was great. Whichever way you look at it, for DC and Warner Brothers, BvS has been a little bit of a wet fart. Yes, it started strongly, churning out best ever numbers for a March opener and the opening weekend numbers were ludicrously high, but bad word of mouth and a critical mauling (lower than Paul Blart: Mall Cop would you believe) has seen the second week numbers plummet by a startling 68% in the US, and similar drops can be seen in the international markets (bare in mind here that with marketing costs included, BvS needs to make at least $800million just to break even). It’s all looking a little bit shaky for this beast of a tentpole film, designed in part to usher in the Justice League films from 2017 onwards, and start the mythological DC ball rolling. Zack Snyder is also set, at the moment anyway, to return to the helm for the first Justice League film and therein lies the problem.
Zack Snyder is directoral marmite. He frustrates and enthralls in equal measure. Just looking at his filmography you’ll be lucky to find a film that didn’t cause some sort of agitated grumbling, Legend of The Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole aside. Dawn of The Dead irritated zombie purists, Watchmen irritated the beardy comic book guys, Sucker Punch irritated everyone I knew, Man of Steel irritated many Superman fans, 300 irritated the sober and over 30s. And now BvS has caused the kind of constipated consternation amongst the general populace that can end careers. But alas, Snyder is one lucky man, as he has a massive fat contract with DC/WB to have his sinewy finger in pretty much all of their important comic book film production pies until the next start of the next decade, if not beyond.
Before you spit out your rice/pasta/carb-based dinner option and accuse me of being a Snyder hater, I will mutter ‘au contraire’. I enjoyed Watchmen (I also like the graphic novel). I was even young enough to revel gleefully in the stupid macho noise that was 300, and I will boldly admit to enjoying parts of Man of Steel (the first 25 minutes mainly). Snyder’s films all show us his eye for a particular aesthetic, that slightly saturated, dark and brooding look, layers of slow motion on action sequences, wide shots morphing into extreme close up, heavy use of shadow and silhouette. There is never any doubt that his films look good and that he has made that aesthetic very much his, however, what Snyder frequently fails to transfer to the screen is the emotional heft or complexity to elevate his films from merely eye catching diversions to something affecting and impassioned.
Watchmen is a perfect example of Snyder getting so close yet so far. There are shots and scenes in Watchmen that are pretty much lifted from the graphic novel itself but in concentrating on the form and presentation, and how good Silk Spectre looked, Snyder muddled the genuinely interesting ‘Who’s Watching The Watchmen’?’ theme under a waves of slo-mo violence and bombastic noise. The whole point in a comic book adaptation is just that, to adapt, to mold the inherent plot and themes into a moving visual form. Snyder had the tools there, the cast were spot on, by goodness he was given a big enough budget to do it with, the screenplay was pretty decent, even if a little heavy handed in parts, but in the end we were left with something that was enjoyable and pleasing to look at but emotionally and thematically hollow. Watchmen the graphic novel had everything to say about twisted motivations of the powerful, the motivations of the superhero and how they fit into a ‘real’ society while Watchmen the film told us that The Comedian fought well for an old man and Patrick Wilson was still a stud even after packing on some beef and wearing Deirdre Barlow glasses.
This method of extensive visual lifting from comic books onto the big screen can on very rare occasions work, 300 being a decent example. Thematically speaking 300 is about as deep as a paddling pool. It’s basically some buff men with large biceps and even larger swords heading off to fight some pierced fellows from the other side of the fence. There’s some eyebrow furrowing, much shouting and excessive violence. The graphic novel has no deep seated political leanings nor anything to say about the history of the Persians or the Spartans, it’s just good old Frank Miller violence. And that’s why Snyder’s film presentation of 300 worked. There was nothing deeper to project than what was on the surface on the screen, so Snyder could go the whole hog visually with the violence, with Gerard Butler’s beard, with the ripped muscular physiques.
With BvS we find Snyder struggling again to find that balance between the aesthetic (though he made me fancy Affleck so one point to him there) and the emotional. The resonance just isn’t there. The only time he comes close to managing to portray something emotively is the opening sequence in which we see the close of Man of Steel from Bruce Wayne’s perspective. It was mildly refreshing to see an attempt to show the actual human cost from all that destruction, and if Snyder had continued that theme and stayed true to it throughout the film we may have had an actual thread to cling on to for the next 140 minutes, but alas he dropped it all in favour of more wanton destruction later, crowbarring in an embarrassingly turgid line about the Gotham port being abandoned so NO INNOCENTS CAN DIE (CAN YOU HEAR ME IN THE BACK?!).
DC/WB need to take a step back here and look at what they have. In terms of actual characters DC have a roster of delightfully peculiar and wonderfully dark oddballs to choose from. They have made some cracking casting choices for their future films (Will Smith as Deadshot and Jason Momoa as Aquaman spring to mind), and have enough money to get the writers they need and to market the royal shit out of anything they release from their sandbox. Snyder is a producer on most of these future projects (Suicide Squad included) so he is going to be involved in some capacity, but DC/WB needs to make a decision about what kind of superhero films they want to make.
To stick with Snyder as director is to stick with director slavish to the visual replication of a comic book without much concern for narrative integrity or cohesion. DC/WB have to be bold and plump for another option if they want their universe to come together as beautifully as Marvel’s has done so far. They need someone who can bring the visuals and the narrative otherwise they are going to be left with a lot more to be concerned about than just second weekend number drops.