Wednesday 13 July 2016

Unpopular Opinion: Zack Snyder is a Whiner

Not too long ago, this article appeared in The Atlantic. In it, the author explains how the upcoming Justice League movie will be much lighter than Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. I never saw BvS, but I (as is my right, being a wag on the Internet) still have an opinion about it and its maker, Zack Snyder. The Atlantic article states that Snyder will endeavour to make Justice League more fun:
...Snyder seems to be directly responding to cricism by promising audiences more fun... [T]he Snyders are trying to sell the sense that Justice League will learn from its predecessors' mistakes, tapping more into the joyful spirit of the hugely successful Marvel movies.
That's all well and good, but let's take a moment to read a bit deeper into the narrative. On the surface, we see a man forced to come to terms with the fact that no one likes his version of the DC universe.
[I]n interviews about Batman v Superman, [Snynder] described that film's summary execution of its Jimmy Olsen character as the movie "having fun," which sums up both the film's oppressive bleakness and its creator's total misread of its audience. [...] "When [Batman v Superman] came out, it was like, 'Wow, off.' It did catch me off guard." Of the film's sequel, he told Vulture, "I have had to, in my mind, make an adjustment. I do think the tone of Justice League has changed because of what the fans have said."
This is a perfect example of how powerful are the meek. DC's fanbase was so outraged by BvS and the critical reviews were so overwhelmingly negative, that Snyder is now forced to do something about it. But are his efforts sincere? Does he even understand why his movie failed? Reading between the lines, it almost seems like Snyder is whining about having to cowtow to fan (and studio) pressure.

And if it's true, if Snyder is little more than a whiny brat, can we really blame him for getting upset about people getting upset at his movie? Of course we can. But he's in the unenviable position of having to account for his mistakes--no one likes to hear they've done a bad job--and it's largely Hollywood's fault that he's in this mess to begin with.

Zack Snyder is, more or less, an auteur. He's the primary (or only) creative force driving the movie, calling the shots on the film's look and feel and theme so that his movie reflects his personal creative vision. But here's the thing, Hollywood doesn't really like auteurs, not anymore. It wasn't always this way, of course. In the 1970s, the "new" Hollywood courted auteurs and these filmmakers were a driving force behind the Hollywood Renaissance. The love affair with auteurs petered out toward the end of the decade, although guys who'd made their bones in the latter half of the '70s were still doted upon in the '80s. The turn away from auteurship resulted in a new "theory" of collaboration, that film is a product of cooperative teamwork, the unspoken truth being that studios were getting ever more involved in different parts of the process.

There's an inherent hypocrisy in the way Hollywood today deals name brand filmmakers. On the one hand, studios rally against auteurs by meddling, manipulating, or micromanaging their projects, while on the other hand, they court certain directors specifically because their movies have a particular stylistic appeal.

In an interview with Movieline, John Woo spoke about the challenge of working in the American studio system:
In Hollywood it takes a much longer time [than in China] to set up a project. You have to take so many notes and so many meetings! But in China, they all want to make a good movie. I just walk into their offices and let them know I want to make a movie [...] I never need to take new meetings or notes from anyone. I just do what I want. So that's a little more simple. That's a big difference from Hollywood.
Of course, John Woo might experience more creative freedom than others, but his words nevertheless describe a system that's obsessed with control and in which everyone wants a piece of the pie. And still Hollywood pursues directors who've made a name for themselves as auteurs, hoping to strike gold. When they produce successful films, these auteurs are celebrated. When their movie flops, they're reigned in and locked down. There's no middle ground.

Snyder was hired on to "set the tone" for DC's new franchise and Man of Steel was reasonably well received, so he kept at it with, it appears, little oversight from Warner Bros or DC. What everyone failed to realize is that Snyder's "visionary" director status was meant to be taken literally. Look at Sucker Punch and 300: all spectacle with just enough story to tie all those dazzling set-pieces together. BvS is what happens when you hire a guy who doesn't fully understand narrative to make you a movie that relies heavily on story in order to drive the action that appears on screen. Never mind the fact that one of the writers, David Goyer, once dismissed the idea of a Batman vs Superman movie as "where you go when you admit to yourself you've exhausted all possibilities."

DC is chasing after Marvel, desperate to create its own cinematic juggernaut, but they just can't seem to get that ship to sail. What they don't understand--and what appears perfectly clear to everyone else--is that the MCU isn't unified through visuals or even tone. What holds the MCU together are the characters who populate that vast universe, and the b and c plots that run through the films. Put another way, Marvel's producing a serial while DC's making bottle episodes.

Christopher Nolan's Batman proved that audiences are open to a gritty and bleak re-imagining of the comic book superhero, but Batman lends himself well to that kind of thing, thanks in large part to the darkly sophisticated Batman; The Animated Series (itself inspired by Tim Burton's Batman). Superman, by contrast, is a godlike alien who's taken guardianship of Earth, and WB's Superman cartoon was brighter and shinier than BTAS, although it still dealt with some heavy issues (including one episode in which they hold a funeral for a supporting character). As such, a new Superman for a new millennium would do better if he were built upon the strong foundation laid by WB's DC cartoon, rather than trying to appropriate the look and feel of an entirely different character.

Snyder's complaints about having "to make an adjustment" and "change the tone" because the audience didn't like his movie are more than him whining. It speaks to a fundamental aspect of his character: he can't take criticism. It's one thing to make changes because you're being told to do so, it's quite another to understand why, and I don't believe Snyder fully appreciates what's happening. He's making his adjustments and changing the tone but without any self-conscious effort to learn from his mistakes and better himself because he doesn't believe that he's erred. 

Will Justice League be a better movie all-round than BvS? Probably, but only because Snyder's auteurship is now under scrutiny. Still, WB would probably do better to just keep making animated features and one-offs for now, giving other filmmakers a chance to breathe new life into their heroes.

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