Hero Complex: Zack Snyder’s Simple, Flawed Film Formula


In the world of film, some people tend to have certain predominant traits that show up in most of their work. Think of it as signatures to help you easily identify their projects even without knowing who is part of it. With Quentin Tarantino, you notice the gratuitous amounts of blood and insightful conversations. With Adam Sandler, you have a noticeable feeling of regret early into the film and see Rob Schneider as some secondary character. Whether you’ve noticed them or not, Zack Snyder also has a very recognizable approach to his films, and once you see it, you can’t unsee it no matter how much you want to.

The release of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is here, so I thought we should examine what you’re likely to encounter in it. Aside from having seen it a few days ago, I was not surprised by anything I saw. You’re probably wondering how I knew what to expect. Unfortunately, if you’ve seen one Snyder film, you’ve seen them all. Coincidentally, if you’ve seen his early films, then you’ve also already seen his best work to date.


His storytelling style is all visual flair, which only works on a superficial level. Imagine you have the best looking car in the world. The sleek aesthetic is visually appealing. You drink in every attractive feature on its surface, building up the anticipation of finally getting inside the car and taking it out for a drive. You open the door and step inside, only to find out that the car has no engine or battery. It’s even missing the steering wheel because good directing isn’t necessary when all you have is a pretty husk. Obviously, the “car” is every film Snyder has made post-Watchmen.

Snyder started off his career as a director of music videos. Every single film he has subsequently made has some heavy element of that shining through, especially Watchmen and Sucker Punch. When the music is playing in a scene, it usually overpowers it, making dialogue obsolete until the song is done. This works well to accentuate the established emotional tone the story had set up at that point, but Snyder tends to forego the story and try to create that tone using visual elements and music choice alone. The solid, coherent story behind Watchmen did a good job at developing the characters and situations enough so that there was a layer of emotional depth to be complimented by the right choice of soundtracking. The lack of all of that in Sucker Punch turned the musical cues into transitions for action sequences that played out more like loosely connected music videos than a coherent explanation of a characters escapist fantasy within a fantasy.

As a director of music videos, this approach is all but necessary and easier to do since your “story” is the song, and any visuals play off of it. When you try to hide a weak, or lack of, story inside the visual aesthetic of a film, you create a cheap experience. The cinematography just becomes empty calories that make you feel dissatisfied after you’ve consumed them. These Snyder snacks are nothing but guilty pleasures with little lasting effect beyond the immediate. 300 is his most notable contribution to the film world because it introduced a visual style that had yet to become mainstream. Say what you will about the story, but the film’s visual style was revolutionary for the time, and it helped establish Snyder as a visionary with range, considering how different his previous film (Dawn of the Dead) was to 300.

300_ Zack Snyder

The problem with keeping the same filming style is that it needs to evolve with the artist or else they will be stuck in a permanent state of uninspired arrested development. This is where Snyder currently finds himself, a slave to conventions and predictability. You’ll notice a trend in the video below, but his most obvious trick is time manipulation. In every single one of his films, including Dawn of the Dead, you’ll notice that time tends to slow down during action sequences. This frames every action sequence making it seem like a gorgeous moving portrait. Where most directors speed up, Snyder slows down his motion shots, especially if they involve high impact actions like punching or gunfire. You can only imagine how often it was used when the superheroes were exchanging hits with each other and the villain in BvS.

Also in the realm of using slow-mo, Snyder loves playing with the elements, small debris and visible particles. The one you will see in every single one of his films, even in the animated Legend of the Guardians, is a slow-motion scene involving rain or falling water. Yes, even the owls are subject to slow motion action shots. Rain isn’t the only element, just the predominant one. He also uses embers and fire, explosions, shattered glass, and in the case of BvS, scattered pearls. Obviously not pearls of wisdom because that would mean something was learned, but the only lesson to be had is that repeating the same actions and expecting different results isn’t working. In fact, Einstein defines that very action as insanity.

There are many revisited themes in Snyder’s short filmography. Since the only original work that Snyder wrote and directed was Sucker Punch, it is hard to tell whether it is a coincidence that his previous films contain these themes, or if Snyder specifically chose them because they represent his personal views. One such theme is the trope of The White Savior. For those of you unfamiliar with the white savior narrative, that’s when the film’s hero ends up saving the minorities in the film. In Dawn of the Dead, that would be the character of Ana leading the way in the group of survivors. In 300, it would be King Leonidas fighting against the enslaving Persians. Watchman doesn’t have a white savior problem as it has a too-many-white-saviors one, making every single hero, villain and blue entity a white male. It’s hard to quantify race issues with owls, even if Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole deals with “Pure Ones”, but like Watchman, the voice cast also has a big diversity problem. Sucker Punch, the only original concept Snyder created, has the most obvious white savior and that is the character of Babydoll. The diversity problem and white saviors in Man of Steel and Batman v Superman are only one of the many issues with the film. Superman personifying America’s stance on illegal aliens, while keeping his white privilege intact. Then there’s Batman, whose greatest power is arguably his white privilege.


Another element of many of a Snyder film is hyper-sexualization, more often of women, but also sometimes men. In 300, it is obviously focused on the Spartan physique with painted abs for days. Watchman has the few female characters being seen (and sometimes used) as nothing but sex objects with a completely impractical suit to boot. Some of that is source material, but the devil behind the details is all Snyder. The most blatant example is of course Sucker Punch, where Snyder takes it one step further and oversexualizes these questionably underage girls. His intent is obvious considering his main character wears a monochromatic version of a traditional Japanese school girl outfit in the fantasy scenes. I think we all know whose fantasy that really is.

Whether you’re pro- or anti-heels on the Wonder Woman, you have to realize that the source material does support it. That’s not my issue with Snyder’s interpretation of her in Batman v Superman. I realize that her name isn’t in the title and the movie is less than marginally about her, but Snyder’s lack of even the basic character development involving Wonder Woman is in trend with his style. You see Diana Prince several times before she dons her armor, and each time she is treated like eye candy. Her dialogue is minimal, with more thought being put into her elegant outfits than her character. Like I said, Snyder’s treatment of Wonder Woman as nothing but ornamental isn’t surprising, but it doesn’t stop being infuriating.

The Damsel in Distress trope runs rampant in all of his films. In every one of his films, the female characters require saving, and it’s usually a big, strong man who does it. It happens in Dawn of the Dead, but during the zombie apocalypse it feels balanced with men saving women as often as the women save the men. 300 also has one of the reasons for the war starting is over an insult to the honor of Queen Gorgo. Luckily, this is the only film where he subverts that trope and creates a powerful female character ruling a country after her husband leaves for war. Sucker Punch, on the other hand, pretends to try to subvert the trope also, but ultimately gives into in at the end of the film, where the handsome Jon Hamm “saves” our  tortured lead female by giving her a lobotomy. In Watchmen, even the female heroes are victims more often than they are heroes. Man of Steel does the same, but BatmanSuperman escalates it. Of the three main women in BvS, two of them are used only as damsels in distress, and of those two, one of them needs saving several times. The problem with the trope, aside from the sexist connotations, is that it essentially sacrifices female characters to increase the development of the male heroes. Lois Lane is a powerful woman ready to take on any supervillain in the comic books, but in the films, she is reduced to a plot device by making her forced victimization into a means of furthering Superman’s story.

Now this is where we get specific to only Batman v Superman. As Biggie said, “Mo money, mo problems,” and it seems to have driven Snyder over the picturesque ledge he has constantly been courting. Batman v Superman is the biggest budget to date that he’s had to play with, and he went all out. Not in beefing up the story or creating live set pieces, but in computer generated graphics. It makes sense that the same writer (David S. Goyer) that wrote the screenplay for Freddie vs Jason took part in this equally horrific mash-up. Regardless of the outcome of their grudge match (which comic book readers probably already know), the real losers of the fight are the audience members that were excited to see it.


Now, it’s time for a disclaimer. No, there is not a Marvel-based conspiracy with all film critics. There is a lot hate against this film already, but it’s obviously not a DC vs Marvel thing. Sure, there will be people drawing inevitable comparisons to their cinematic universes, but ultimately it’s all apples and oranges. It would be unfair to compare this film, to say, Captain America: Civil War, which comes out in a few months. They are each their own thing and deserve to be judged individually. That being said, you should still compare the film to standard set by the director’s previous work. With Batman v Superman, Snyder has shown yet another escalation in his style but in the worst possible way. It’s a simple question of quality, not whether I like one comic book universe or another.

Remember that car I mentioned earlier? Well this one is Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Snyder is in the driver’s seat coasting, but ultimately going nowhere and being left behind as progress passes him by. The most unfortunate part is that this vehicle still has at least two more DC financed stops to make (The Justice League: Part OneThe Justice League: Part Two) before they either replace the driver, or the entire thing goes bust. Let’s hope for the former.

Jon would say that as a writer, he is a self-proclaimed film snob and a pop culture junkie. Always gives his honest, critical, and maybe a little bit snarky opinion on everything. He's very detail oriented and loves anything involving creativity and innovation. You're better off asking him who his favorite director is rather than his favorite film. So beware and get ready to be entertained. You can contact him at jon@theyoungfolks.com or follow him on twitter @DystopianHero. (Also, he doesn't always refer to himself in the third person, but sometimes he just has to).
  • David Schroeder

    The Watchman is actually one of my favorite comic book movies mainly because it was so gritty and dark. I didnt know it was Zack that directed it. If I would have I probably would have hated it. The Dawn of the Dead remake was a disappointment and the filtering in Man of Steel gave me headaches. Let me concentrate on what I want to look at and don’t force my perspective. All of his movies have focused on forced perspective and for that I hate his work. I dont care that the nose guard is off-set in the Spartan helmet for side shots and I don’t care the amount of hours wasted on Supermans suit! Give me a story and give me depth. I didn’t pay for flat, repetitive, blurry, CGI riddled, over filtered crap. What also blows is the masses are going to over rule the facts its over played because the bandwagon is so damn big. That’s why I rely on the original critic reviews. It will get washed out by the masses.

  • Pedro Saez Williams

    Critics are being way to harsh with this movie. And I do think there is a perfectly good explanation for this. It is not a “conspiracy” and, no, Marvel/Disney is not paying them off. The reason I think this is so, is because the historical reaction to Zach Snider films from audiences vis a vis film critics serves as a very clear example of the threat that the availability of constant polls of aggregate general opinion such as IMDB and Trip Advisor present to the traditional role of the aesthetic commentator (i.e. the critic).

    This is, consumers do not have the time and money to sample everything offered by the market and therefore rely on the opinion of their peers and experts to aid their economic decision-making. Before the advent of the Internet and the presence of polls, movie goers had only two sources of information to inform their choices on the matter: word of mouth and film critics, and only film critics had access to mass media (as polling that would be necessary to accurately capture a clear sense of the aggregate opinion of the general public that already seen the film was a material impossibility). Now, not unlike all sorts of stake holders in the arts or creative industries, film critics are particularly apt at judging the quality of products that follow and/or adhere to familiar and established standards. The thing is that aesthetic standards are always changing, and are very much determined by the times. As anyone familiar with the music industry will tell you, having a sense of these changing standards and the precise direction they are taking is extremely hard. Music professionals for example, have historically only been able to identify a “movement” until this is already well underway: rock, punk and grunge serve as particular examples. In this sense, it is not unusual for film critique (in aggregate terms) to completely fail to predict what the audience response to a particular movie, style of film maker will be. Before social media, however, it was easier for them to influence the market. Today, if they fail to tap into the collective unconscious and thereby fail to predict the aesthetic standards upon which a film (or any other sort of cultural product for that matter), a style or the work of a particular film maker will be evaluated by the general public, it becomes clearly evident. The aggregate opinion of film goers will always triumph in the end, as this is what ultimately determines the aesthetic standards of the time, and thereby the standard of the critics themselves. Today you can choose between informing yourself with both, and critics lose power as result. Snyder films make this painful evident for critics as a class.

    In the past, if they could not predict, they have always then tried to direct or influence. It is imperative for them to have impact or reaction, as their texts become redundant otherwise. In this case, they have failed to predict on various occasions, and so, they are now trying (possibly not even consciously) to direct and influence public opinion with reviews that may be a harsher than “usual”. Every time Snyder, or any other film maker, creates a film that is successful for the same reasons critics did not like it, it becomes a threat to livelihood of film criticism in non-specialist mass media.

    If film critics have not relation whatsoever to the behavior of mass consumers their space in media directed towards general audiences is challenged. This is not to say that they stop serving a purpose as film experts, but they do not longer serve the purpose of aiding consumption choices, which is the prime reason non-specialist publications such as newspapers (or other mass media outlets) hire them.