The Films of Zack Snyder Ranked from Worst to Best
Director Zack Snyder makes polarizing films. His hyper-aggressive visual style can be a wonder to behold or it can overload the senses. His work is fascinating because he has such immense control over how he wants things to look, and yet his talent as a storyteller is somewhat lacking. The politics of his films can be murky because he seems to value visuals above all else, and has translated seminal comic books into cinema rather than making the hard changes required by adaptation. For some he’s a visual craftsman who works at the top of his game, and for others he’s out of his depth with the rich material he’s chosen to pursue.
With his latest, sure-to-be-controversial film Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice set to release this Friday, I’ve looked back at Snyder’s filmography and ranked his films from worst to best. Along the way, I discuss what makes him such an exciting yet frustrating visionary.
6.) Sucker Punch
Sucker Punch is, at best, a woefully misguided feminist treatise. At worst, it’s an unbearable slog of total hypocrisy drenched in empty machismo.
The movie has an interesting set-up: A young girl (Emily Browning) wants to escape a mental institution before she’s lobotomized, and recruits her fellow inmates to steal a list of items to aid in their jail break. The problem comes in the way it’s structured—the girl, Babydoll, is doomed before the film really even begins, and we’re witnessing fantasies layered on fantasies. The asylum is the reality, the brothel is the fantasy, and the action set-pieces that come when Babydoll dances are the double-fantasy.
Some see this as a rich critique on the masculine gaze, but the problem with Sucker Punch (among the fact that the action scenes are tedious and have no stakes because they’re not real) is that it wants to have it both ways. It wants to hit you with the “sucker punch” of feeling guilty of having relished those dull set pieces and young women in skimpy outfits, but in truth, Snyder loves those things too. You can’t put that much effort into design and execution and then feign indifference or subversion. We don’t know what Babydoll loves because we never know her as a character. Why does she care about clockwork zombie Nazis? Did she have a grandfather figure who doled out fortune cookie wisdom? Those elements are Snyder stepping out from behind the camera intending to chastise but instead coming off as complicit.
The “shared fantasy” really only belongs to Snyder, and I can’t believe that Warner Bros. gave him so much money to execute his lavish vision. On one level, I do admire the film’s bonkers ambition, but Snyder, who values visuals above all else, doesn’t understand how to best tell his own story. The sucker punch results in a miss and a faceplant.
5.) Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole
Did you forget this film existed? Did you forget that Zack Snyder directed it? I did! A friend had to remind me in the middle of my re-watch project about Legend of the Guardians, a film that has been lost to time, and, after watching it, I can understand why.
Snyder is such a bizarre choice for a family film about talking owls who are kidnapped by evil owls (the “Pure Ones”) to work in the mines and get a special metal that can defeat the guardian owls of legend. In this larger story, we get the more personal tale of the hero Soren (Jim Sturgess), a young owl who earns the jealousy of his brother Kludd (Ryan Kwanten). When they’re both kidnapped by the Pure Ones, Kludd ultimately sides with his captors to become a soldier in their ranks while Soren and fellow captive Gylfie (Emily Barclay) find their way to the Guardians, the good owls who will help save the day.
While it’s not a particularly audacious story—although the brother vs. brother subplot is a nice, mature touch for a children’s movie—it’s charming enough. If Legend of the Guardians, which is based on the book series Guardians of Ga’Hoole by Kathryn Lasky, had been made by some independent animation studio and done with an eye towards a unique artistic style, it may have been celebrated as an indie achievement despite the small scale of the story.
In Snyder’s hands, he chokes the charm out of the narrative and smothers on his own visuals, so there’s plenty of speed-ramping, sumptuous production design when it comes to the owls’ armor and weapons, and big, meaty action scenes, but it doesn’t fit the tone of the story. Guardians cries out for an artistic vision that may not require realistic-looking birds and feather physics, but it would at least have more heart than a glossy looking action film that keeps spouting “trust your gizzard!”
4.) Man of Steel
For a moment, let’s set aside the controversial climax of Man of Steel. We can even set aside preconceived notions of Superman. Let us address the core flaw of the film, which is that it doesn’t mean its own goal for its protagonist.
Man of Steel sets Kal-El/Clark/Superman (Henry Cavill) as the son of two fathers and two worlds. On Earth, his father, Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner), is so pessimistic about human nature and so overprotective that he thinks A) it would be acceptable if a bunch of schoolkids drown if it meant protecting his son’s secret identity; and B) it would be better to die in a tornado rather than let a handful of frightened people see his son’s superpowers. There’s being a protective father, and then there’s being irrational, and Jonathan Kent, who prizes his son’s anonymity above human life, is irrational.
Then there’s Superman’s Kryptonian birth father, Jor-El (Russell Crowe), who cares more about humans than Jonathan Kent. Jor-El believes that Kal-El will be a beacon of hope to the human race. The sigil of their house means “hope”. Jor-El is the ultimate optimist, and believes that when Superman makes himself known, he will lead the people of Earth to a better tomorrow (whatever that may be).
The quintessential problem of Man of Steel is that it forgets the people in a story that’s supposed to be about guiding people—including Clark Kent—to their better selves. Clark is a muddled character who shouldn’t have a moral compass thanks to his dad’s teachings. Even after his dad was willing to die to teach the lesson “Don’t expose yourself,” Clark later goes and rescues people from a burning oilrig. So his dad’s death is meaningless and Clark picked up his moral compass from…somewhere.
Clark also doesn’t really interact with people. The climax of the film isn’t saving people, but saving the world in the abstract. The three major set pieces–fight in Smallville, defeating the World Engine, and fight with Zod (Michael Shannon)–are removed from humanity. Any humans are as meaningless as the buildings in the background. Saving people is done in an impersonal way, and without that personal connection, Clark can’t fulfill Jor-El’s/the movie’s promise.
To Snyder’s credit, Man of Steel at least sticks as a film we want to talk about. Although some of the action scenes go on too long (during my most recent viewing, I almost fell asleep during the World Engine battle, which is Superman versus a tentacle and a laser beam), visually the movie is a big step forward for Snyder. He ditches the speed-ramping and goes for something more handheld and organic. He wants to shed the artificiality of the mythology to bring us down to the “reality” of the Superman story, and no one has ever capture the character quite like this.
That being said, Snyder still faces his persistent problem, which is he has a poor grasp of character and storytelling, so while he may be able to nail gorgeous visuals like the stuff on Krypton or destroy countless buildings, the deeper subtext comes out muddled.
3.) Watchmen (Director's Cut)
When Watchmen came out in 2009, I was a pretty big fan. Not only do I adore Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ classic graphic novel, but I also thought Snyder brought it to the screen with incredible faithfulness and undeniable passion.
Watching the Director’s Cut for the first time a few days ago, I can see that not only is the theatrical cut superior, but I also question if Watchmen should have ever been adapted so faithfully in the first place. Watchmen isn’t just a story about superheroes. It’s a story about superhero comic books, and trying to adapt that into a cinematic medium loses something along the way. The fidelity of the images may be unimpeachable, but Watchmen is a film that’s ahead of its time because it’s speaking the wrong language, cinema instead of comics.
The graphic novel was having a conversation with other superhero comics at the time. It’s having a conversation with Batman in Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley). It’s having a conversation with Superman in Doctor Manhattan (Billy Crudup). It’s pointing out how deeply flawed these heroes would be if they really existed, but it’s doing so within the context of comic books. By making a Watchmen movie, Snyder removed that context but kept the visuals to himself.
And when it comes to Snyder adapting comics, we’re left to wonder how much credit he deserves for visuals he didn’t entirely create. He may be providing some animation and music, but when you use a graphic novel as a storyboard, a large amount of credit has to go to Dave Gibbons. These 3D recreations may be stunning, but they’re still recreations of another artist’s work.
Nevertheless, Snyder still manages to capture the electricity of Moore and Gibbons’ story, and he even manages to capture the human side of it. Sometimes, Snyder’s adoration for visual landscapes dwarfs his characters, but here he finds the beating heart of every one of his Watchmen thanks to excellent casting and performances (some people take umbrage with Malin Akerman’s Laurie Jupiter, but I think she does well). Watchmen is a story about a lot of things, and one of them is about broken humans trying to save humanity. Thankfully, the movie gets to the heart of these imperfect souls, and while the Director’s Cut may be longer and more violent, watching Hollis Mason (Stephen McHattie) get beat to death doesn’t make Watchmen a better movie. Rorschach pleading for death rather than compromise on his principles does, and that’s in every cut of the film.
2.) Dawn of the Dead (2004)
This film is far better than it has any right to be. A remake of George A. Romero’s classic 1978 zombie film should have been left well enough alone, but working from a script by James Gunn, Snyder created a film that was a solid blend of action and horror that’s difficult to pull off. Tilt too far to the action side and the movie is no longer scary; it’s just a video game where you kill a bunch of undead. Tilt too far to the horror side and all you feel is just dread without the fun.
The big sacrifice is that the movie has no interest in any subtext whatsoever. While Romero’s movie was a scathing critique of consumer culture, the mall in Dawn of the Dead is just a mall and a fun place for the characters to hang out in between zombie fights. In fact, rather than try to follow in Romero’s socially conscious footsteps, Dawn of the Dead 2004 is happier when it’s aping 28 Days Later, although Snyder brings a style that’s different than what Danny Boyle attempted.
Credit also goes to Snyder for his willingness to embrace the weirder elements of Gunn’s script, most notably the zombie newborn, which feels like something that could have wandered out of the Troma movies Gunn worked on in the early days of his career. Snyder handles it completely straight-faced, which is the smart approach because Dawn of the Dead 2004 isn’t about taking apart the genre as much as it’s just doing competently moving through a mix of intense action and horror.
Snyder’s debut feature also showed his gift for casting as the cast is stacked with strong actors from top to bottom. This is a terrific “everyman” group where we buy these people as real people (with maybe the exception of Ty Burrell’s cartoonishly evil rich prick), who are likely to bungle their way through the apocalypse. It’s a movie that’s merciless and yet oddly compassionate. While it would have been nice to see a little more subtext, especially when you consider the U.S. was preparing to go back to war in Iraq, it’s still far better than what a Dawn of the Dead remake could have been.
300 is Snyder’s best film and yet it also suffers from the same issue as Watchmen where we’re left to wonder how much credit goes to him as a visual stylist and how much goes to the people behind the book he’s so faithfully adapting, in this case Frank Miller and Lynn Varley. 300 is recreated so faithfully that page after page looks like it’s been picked up and dropped on screen, and yet Snyder’s gift is that he can add so much energy and vibrancy to make it his own.
Additionally, while the speed-ramping that would become Snyder’s signature had been done before in other action films, 300 is where it truly left its mark on action cinema. The set pieces in 300 are thrilling, painfully earnest, and absolutely drenched in pitiless bloodshed. He’s encouraging the audience to have a good time with the violence as gallons of CGI blood fly but never touch the ground.
And yet when it comes to subtext, Snyder is unquestioning with his source material. The neoconservative politics are all Miller’s and the script just builds on them with lines like “Freedom isn’t free at all, that it comes with the highest of costs. The cost of blood.” This is the kind of movie that rallies the unthinking troops, and yet Spartan society is no more free than Persian. The Spartans may not set out to conquer the world, but this is a movie that opens on a pile of baby skulls and says that Spartan law requires families to kill babies that are sickly or weak. These are the heroes of the movie.
To Snyder’s credit, he’s able to have his cake and eat it too by opening with such a weird moment and then make you forget it in favor of cool moments like King Leonidas (Gerard Butler, who still hasn’t come close to topping this performance) shouting, “THIS! IS! SPARTA!” before kicking a messenger down into a bottomless pit. 300 drowns us in machismo and even some homoeroticism, but it gets to come out looking like it’s a noble statement about the value of freedom fighters standing up against the forces of oppression.
For a director who can be clumsy and overbearing, 300 is his surest sleight of hand, and a movie that manages to have it all even if you don’t agree with its subtext. It’s vibrant, bizarre, captivating, and while it has spawned many imitators, no one has come close to what Snyder achieved with this earnest translation of the graphic novel.