Of Gods and Men: Zack Snyder's Vision for the DCEU
Speaking practically, Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice is not a good film. It’s already clunky and somewhat overbearing script is made worse by a poor to dreadful editing job.. Key scenes and points are often glossed-over or rushed while the moments and images they’re meant to support are lingered over with something akin to religious fervor and dedication. These moments are presented as iconic and deep but, since the story leading up to them is somewhat muddled, they can instead feel self-congratulatory and excessive. Drastic actions that would seem to require significant thought and complex motivations are often treated like fast-twitch reflexes. Lex seems to hate Superman the way a person pulls their hand away from a hot stove, that is, because of course that’s what you do. Worlds aren’t built, characters aren’t developed, and emotions aren’t earned. Instead, director Zack Snyder and company seem to rely on the audience to fill-in-the-blanks based on their respective familiarities with the characters and worlds he represents on the screen. The result is a film that lurches wildly between incomprehensibility and grandeur as it pines to be an American mythology of epic proportions but behaves like a shallow ode to a world it can’t understand. But the underneath the damage done by missteps and poor decisions is a film that is unique for more than the pairing of its titular heroes. It stands apart from the crowd by approaching superheroes as an American mythology rather than as pop culture icons. And while the result was muddled, the approach is worthwhile.
Understanding that Snyder’s films are superheroes as mythology is important to giving his DC films a fair viewing. Snyder isn’t transposing to film the long-suffering god-among-men that lived in Grant Morrison’s All-Star Superman run. Similarly, he is not interested in Batman as the “one unbreakable rule” vigilante who does violence galore but will not kill. Snyder’s made no secret about the fact that the Batman that lives in his head is the hulking, bloody brute that Frank Miller created in The Dark Knight Returns and so that’s the version that shows up. His Superman does not so much represent the best of humanity as he does a normal man who happens to be a god and, as could be expected, struggles with its ramifications. The result is a creation of an American pantheon; a collection of gods and demigods which either, at best, draws inspiration from and pays homage to over 60 years of comic books or, at worst, bastardizes those stories and turns their characters into lifeless marionettes in Snyder’s macabre 21st-century operatic tragedy. Make no mistake; these are not your typical comic-book movie fare. These are swords-and-sandals epics updated for the 21st-century gods of the DC pantheon.
This particular approach to the superhero genre was present, though not necessarily apparent, in Man of Steel, Snyder’s Superman reboot. The director understood that he was dealing with a being of great power, a god, essentially, but largely failed to depict the moral code that had earned Superman’s nickname as “the big blue boy scout.” Snyder’s version was much less sure of morality, coming across as someone who could be manipulated by emotion and who possessed a much more malleable moral core. Snyder’s protestations to the contrary aside, his version of Superman then has more in common with the gods of ancient mythologies than he does the stereotypical “S”-adorned character that haunts America’s collective memory and conscience. This is not say that his version was necessarily in conflict with that which was printed in red, blue, and yellow ink every month for the past half-century, but it was certainly not the second-coming of Christopher Reeve’s 1978 version for which many seemed to pine.
This is why the approach to the characters might best be thought of as a creative re-rendering rather than strict adaptation from page to screen. That which would have been assumed as a non-negotiable aspect of the character may not be as readily valued or as stalwartly held in such a universe. After all, the gods that populate ancient myths are often fickle and possessing very human emotions and flaws. Few, if any, possess the absolute morality that many attribute to Superman. And while Batman’s refusal to kill is a noble resolve, it is not one that can be assumed or kept as simply in a world such as that of BvS. To Snyder, Batman’s commitment to non-lethal force is not what defines him as a character. This doesn’t mean Snyder sees it as completely expendable, but rather that it must be explored, deconstructed, and even broken so that it might later be made truly whole. In fact, this seems to sum-up Snyder’s attitude towards many of the characters and their respective quirks and intricacies. They are not absolute; they are flexible as needed in the face of his universe’s particular rules and laws.
It is little wonder that such an approach would be divisive. Not everyone will embrace this heightened universe, especially if expectations are that it fall in line with the tone and timbre of Marvel’s rival cinematic universe which has been ticking like a clock for going on ten years now. It has, for all intents and purposes, written the book on how this kind of thing is to be done.
To call Marvel’s films “formulaic” might seem more insulting that it is meant, but it is a moniker that largely applies nonetheless. Despite featuring a plethora of directors and screenwriters, the movies often look and feel incredibly similar. The plot-beats sound matching rhythms from film to film and phase to phase. This somewhat generic quality is perhaps most evidenced in those films’ respective soundtracks which are often bland and immediately forgettable. Say what you will about the enormous critical and commercial success Marvel has rightly enjoyed, their vision of a massive interconnected cinematic universe was bold, but their films largely are not. It would not be fair to accuse of critics of being hypnotized by Marvel’s sway – these are, after all, individual humans with individual tastes and preferences – but when that universe has dominated the superhero cinematic landscape for eight years and a dozen films it certainly serves to tilt expectations.
Another sticking point in Snyder’s creation of the DCEU is that while he attempts to create a somewhat unique subtext, he does so using as strict an interpretation of the text as possible. He frames shots and crafts scenes in such a way that they are often rendered as near duplicates of iconic panels and pages from popular books and novels. There is nothing strictly wrong with this. Snyder is quite the visual artisan and creates stunning and memorable images with this approach, but it does create a very real dissonance within his films. The visuals tell us that the films are page-to-screen adaptations of the DC characters that have persevered through the ages, but the story behind them tells something very, very different. On the one hand Snyder is inviting his audience to project their expectations and memories of Superman and Batman by evoking common visuals, but on the other, he is presenting these characters in way that is not typical. He wants to have his cake and eat it, too.
Adding to this dilemma is the fact that the poor storycraft in BvS does not lend itself to an emotional connection being established and nurtured between the audience and the characters. Nor does it thoroughly or satisfyingly flesh out the world which they inhabit. And there is just enough dissonance between the public’s perception of the characters and Snyder’s representation of them to frustrate any attempt to connect to their on-screen iterations. His world of Kryptonian gods and cowled demi-gods is neither ours nor that of the comics, and so it requires more world-building and character development than the script and editing provides.
The end result is a film and story cast in the tradition of old Hollywood and even older myths and legends. It’s an epic. Or at least, that’s what it aspires to be. And in some places this aim is met and the results are tremendous. But too often the execution of the vision falters and the dissonance buzzing in the heads of many critics and fans is amplified by missteps and plot-holes and so hums too loud for even Hans Zimmer’s score to drown-out. Dark, brooding, and self-serious requires a greater degree of excellence in execution that does light-hearted romp, and BvS is nothing if not a sincere stab at a serious film. And while the ambition of the scope and vision are bold and admirable, it serves as its own worst enemy in those moments where the execution doesn’t measure up.
The box office has been both successful and disappointing as a record-breaking opening weekend gave way to a record-breaking fall in earnings the next. Because of this, it leaves the DCEU in a somewhat tenuous place going forward. The die has already been cast in regards to the direction of the universe. There’s no going back. But neither can it go forward unless the character and their world are more firmly established. Fortunately, despite himself, it would seem, Snyder ended BvS on a note that absolutely allows the DCEU to stay true to its bold vision while also defining its characters with surer, more hopeful strokes and colors.
(Next: Justice League's Bright Hope)