I’m about to voice an unpopular opinion, but hear me out: sometimes I feel sorry for Zack Snyder.
With Michael Bay sinking further into toy-franchise irrelevancy, Snyder has arguably taken his place as mainstream cinema’s most universally agreed-upon whipping boy. “Real” critics distrust him because he’s too much of a geek; geek critics loathe him because he looks like a bro and has a, shall we say, selective grasp of the genre comics he loves. He’s been called a nihilist, a misogynist, and even a fascist; most recently, his stated desire to adapt Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead for the screen has gotten him branded (possibly accurately) as an Objectivist. And if all that wasn’t enough, his most recent film, Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, is currently sitting at an abysmal 29% on Rotten Tomatoes, making it the worst-reviewed Batman movie since the dark days of Joel Schumacher.
I’ll be honest, though: I kinda liked Batman v Superman. Partly, that’s because I set my expectations appropriately low; but partly, it’s because I have something of a history of kinda liking Zack Snyder films. Perhaps most of all, I kinda liked Batman v Superman because it reminded me of a Snyder movie I legitimately loved: his 2009 adaptation of Alan Moore’s and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen.
Watchmen, like all Snyder films, has a complicated critical history. Its initial reviews ranged mostly from distaste to bemusement, as critics–many of whom had never read the 1986-1987 comic book series on which it was based–puzzled over its languorous, portentous pace and brutally cynical worldview. I, personally, saw it as an analogue of sorts to Warner’s Harry Potter films: a slavishly faithful motion picture companion to the book that was probably impenetrable on its own merits, but hugely enjoyable for me as a fan. In the seven years since its theatrical release, however, a backlash has been steadily building–as they so often do in geek culture–branding Snyder’s Watchmen a willful, obnoxious misreading of Moore’s original story and themes. Robbie Collin of The Telegraph, for example, recently claimed that Snyder’s adaptation “guzzles down the fascistic Kool-Aid Moore’s original work set out to critique”–this, by the way, in an otherwise mostly positive “defense” of the director’s oeuvre.
I revisited Watchmen yesterday, after coming home from Batman v Superman (yes, folks, this is how much of a Snyder apologist I am–I watched two long-ass, self-important Zack Snyder superhero movies essentially back to back). And, while I can absolutely see why Moore and his acolytes disavow the film, like most things Snyder, I still can’t bring myself to dislike it. I feel, as I often do, that the director has gotten a raw deal. Of course, Snyder lacks Moore’s aesthetic and ideological nuance, but that much is a given; Snyder and screenwriters David Hayter and Alex Tse are mere mortals, while Moore is a bona fide genius who writes with the magickal aid of a Roman snake god. What I take issue with, however, is the idea that Snyder is so stupid that he made a painstaking shot-for-shot remake of a comic book he supposedly did not at any level understand. This line of reasoning feels less like a legitimate artistic grievance, and more like an exaggerated, ad hominem takedown of the type enthusiast critics in particular seem to favor.
In fact, the majority of latter-day Watchmen critiques commit the (admittedly tempting) critical sin of assuming specific psychological and political intent on the part of the director. They are, at least, absolutely right about one thing: Zack Snyder is nothing if not a fetishist. From its opening moments, his Watchmen takes even the relatively understated parts of Moore’s and Gibbons’ book and blows them up to the level of absurdity. The book famously begins on a kind of deconstructed crane shot, pulling away from the blood of recently-killed ex-vigilante the Comedian (he of the iconic “smiley face” pin) as it’s hosed away into a gutter; readers only catch the actual murder in fleeting, single-panel glimpses, while a pair of cops try to piece together the events that led to the the crime. In the movie, however, we see the whole thing, in explicit, excruciating detail: we watch as the Comedian, played by burly television actor Jeffrey Dean Morgan, is hurled around his apartment like a rag doll, punching through walls and smashing through glass coffee tables, all in slow motion–this is a Zack Snyder film, remember–and set to the strains of Nat “King” Cole‘s “Unforgettable.”
That scene sets the tone for the rest of the film, with numerous fight scenes–and, more problematically, a flashback to the Comedian’s attempted rape of his fellow costumed “hero” Silk Spectre (Carla Gugino) –shot with an eye for obsessive, borderline pornographic detail. My issue, however, comes when Snyder’s detractors assign specific values to these choices–values that tend to be in astonishingly bad faith. Irony is a tricky thing to nail down in cinema, of course, but Snyder is as unsubtle with his irony as he is with everything else; when he uses Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” to score a Vietnam War scene of super-powered search and destroy by the Comedian and Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup), it should be clear that we’re not supposed to be revelling in the mayhem, even to viewers who didn’t catch the all-too-obvious allusion to Apocalypse Now. Then again, considering the amount of people on the Internet who seem to think the film’s deliberately ludicrous costumed sex scene between the second Silk Spectre (Malin Åkerman) and Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson) was an earnest attempt at romance, maybe I’m overestimating the average viewer’s sensitivity to irony.
Perhaps the single most frequently-discussed criticism of Snyder’s Watchmen is the director’s supposedly uncritical portrayal of Rorschach: an especially brutal vigilante, played in the film by Jackie Earle Haley and based heavily on comic book artist Steve Ditko’s explicitly Randian anti-hero “Mr. A.” In the book, the argument goes, Rorschach was clearly a figure to be feared and despised, while in the movie his actions are glorified. This, however, ignores the fact that Rorschach was a fan-favorite character long before the film version: even Moore has admitted that his critique of the character was incomplete, recounting to LeJorne Pindling of Street Law Productions, “I meant him to be a bad example, but I have people come up to me in the street saying, ‘I am Rorschach! That is my story!'” Whether or not his creator intended him as such, Rorschach is an undeniably seductive character, playing on readers’ baser instincts with his guileless violence, while also impressing us with his warped brand of moral purity; it’s worth noting that in both the comic and the film, Rorschach is the only character who refuses to justify the atrocity committed by the film’s villain, ostensibly for the greater good.
Snyder, to his credit, seems to understand that fascism holds an inherent, if pernicious appeal: that it is, at its heart, a power fantasy for the alienated and disaffected, not unlike superhero comics. And so his aesthetic–like most superhero comics and films–can come uncomfortably close to the aesthetic of fascism: all great men, clashing for blood and glory. But acknowledging and even indulging that fantasy does not necessarily align his Watchmen with fascism. The film’s Rorschach succeeds in large part because he is at once repulsive and magnetic. Portraying him as a mere right-wing crank would have made him too easy to dismiss; instead, he’s an embodiment of the alluringly righteous anger and black-and-white morality that makes such ideologies so resilient, and that, to some degree, dwell in every dramatic representation of power.
Which brings us back to Batman v Superman. Like Watchmen, Snyder’s second film in the mainstream DC Comics universe has been accused of fundamentally missing the point of its source material; also like Watchmen, it’s been branded with the dreaded “F-word” for its portrayal of an uncomfortably Rorschach-like Batman and a Superman who at times more closely resembles the proto-fascist Nietzchean Übermensch ideal than the “Big Blue Boy Scout” of comic book fame. If Snyder himself is to be believed, however, that’s kind of the point. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, the director described his new film as “a little bit” of a continuation of Watchmen, with the actual characters of Superman and Batman replacing Moore’s rough analogues of Dr. Manhattan and Rorschach/Nite Owl.
Seen from the perspective of Watchmen, Batman v Superman actually makes a lot more sense. There are the literal allusions, of course. Both films, for example, begin with the assassination of Jeffrey Dean Morgan (who makes a cameo appearance here as Thomas Wayne, the father of Batman alter-ego Bruce). In one scene from Batman v Superman, a group of protesters burn an effigy of Superman that looks pretty much identical to the one from the anti-superhero riot in Watchmen (see above). Even Lex Luthor’s bizarrely convoluted plan to turn Ben Affleck‘s Batman and Henry Cavill‘s Superman against each other bears a passing resemblance to Ozymandias’ plot to frame Dr. Manhattan for an attack on New York–just pretend that Ozymandias is a coke-addled Jesse Eisenberg instead of the “smartest man in the world.”
More fundamentally, however, Batman v Superman picks up on Watchmen‘s obsession with the misuse of power, as well as its fascination with that power’s appeal. Many critics have observed that Affleck’s is one of the most satisfying portrayals of Batman on film, despite the fact that his methods are astonishingly savage: blowing up criminals’ cars with impunity, branding his victims with a bat symbol, and even using a gun in a few scenes (the ultimate no-no for that character, as any Bat-fan will tell you). These critics take for granted, however, that we’re supposed to be unproblematically endorsing Batfleck’s actions, when the film explicitly tells us that he’s lost control: describing himself as a “criminal” to Jeremy Irons’ Alfred and even quoting Dick Cheney’s “one-percent doctrine” in his assessment of Superman’s potential threat. Cavill’s Superman, meanwhile, is directly shown grappling with (to mix superhero metaphors) the great responsibility that comes with his great power. Snyder doesn’t “hate” the character, as he’s been accused, so much as he can’t ignore the undertones of existential dread implicit to the notion of an alien demigod who appoints himself as mankind’s protector: as one character in Watchmen said of Dr. Manhattan, “A feeling of intense and crushing religious terror at the concept indicates only that you are still sane.”
There is, of course, an argument to be made that the all-pervading cynicism of Watchmen has little place in a mainstream movie about two of DC’s biggest marquee characters. But what even fewer critics have observed is that Batman v Superman also moves beyond Watchmen, to a much more optimistic conclusion than either Snyder’s film or the original book left us. While we certainly see Superman chafe against his responsibilities, in the end he accepts them wholeheartedly, sacrificing himself (until the next movie, at least) to save the world from the Kryptonian diábolos ex machina Doomsday. Even Batman is chastened, albeit through kind of ridiculous means; no longer suspicious of anyone’s authority except his own, he ends his role in the film with a vow to assemble the Justice League. These character arcs are far from perfect, of course: even the most revisionist criticism of Batman v Superman must acknowledge that it’s a deeply flawed film. But they demonstrate that Snyder isn’t just about wallowing in the muck; that, whether you liked his version of Watchmen or not, he at least took something away from the text.
I don’t know if I’ll always be on the Zack Snyder defense force. If that Fountainhead adaptation ever comes to fruition, for example, it will certainly put my tolerance to the test; hell, my goodwill might even run out if I ever get around to watching Sucker Punch. But I will always have a soft spot for his Watchmen movie: a beautiful, ridiculous, misunderstood meat cleaver to the head of ostensible good taste. And if next year’s Justice League film is another thinly-veiled Watchmen analogue, I, at least, won’t be disappointed.