Critic's Notebook: 5 Lessons for Zack Snyder After 'Batman v Superman'
THR film critic Stephen Dalton offers some friendly advice to help prevent the director from single-handedly destroying the comic book action movie genre.
The first rule of Superhero Fight Club, of course, is that everybody is talking about Superhero Fight Club. And they seem to be saying only negative things about Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Starring Ben Affleck and Henry Cavill, director Zack Snyder's heavily hyped, hotly anticipated, budget-busting celebrity death match is shaping up as the Gigli of comic book blockbusters.
Intended as the launchpad for a multi-character spandex ballet of DC Comics adaptations, Snyder's long, incoherent, joyless superhero smackdown enjoyed a record-breaking opening weekend at the global box office. But it may not prove quite so critic-proof over the long haul after the near-universal panning it has received from sympathetic genre fans and highbrow culture vultures alike. Some industry commentators are even predicting this toxic backlash could jeopardize the Justice League franchise's entire future.
As a qualified fan of Snyder's sense-blitzing, self-aware, postmodern take on action movie conventions, I sympathize with his current whipping-boy status. Given that he is currently attached as director of two further Justice League movies and producer of several more, here are five friendly suggestions for him to avoid repeating the mistakes of Batman v Superman on future superhero chapters, and maybe even claw back a little bit of critical love. Think of it as free advice from a friend, Zack. You're welcome.
1. Leave the Christopher Nolan movies to Christopher Nolan.
OK, Zack, we get it. Nolan casts a long shadow. He transformed the Batman franchise with three of the most critically and commercially acclaimed comic book reboots ever made. Personally I found them bloated and overpraised, but there is no question he had a strong artistic vision. However, he did not create an off-the-shelf template that any hack filmmaker can reproduce. Batman v Superman feels like a shallow copy of the Dark Knight aesthetic: the somber look, the self-serious tone, the thuddingly humorless script, not to mention Batman's ridiculous sub-bass growl. But if I wanted an inferior Nolan movie, I could just watch Interstellar. Next time, why not make a great Zack Snyder movie instead? More slow-motion massacres! More meaningless but erotically charged dream sequences! More scantily dressed babes wearing Nazi-style uniforms. … Sorry, I mean more empowered uber-feminist action heroines! Play to your strengths, Zack.
2. Make your political messages slightly more coherent.
Like most superhero movies of the past 15 years, Batman v Superman inescapably is full of War on Terror echoes. The spectacular opening scenes purposely evoke the 9/11 attacks on New York, while later subplots touch on ultraviolent guerrilla groups, suicide bombers and the anti-immigrant sentiments currently being whipped up by Donald Trump. The warmest review of the movie I have read so far has been from a Muslim writer who appreciated this tacit criticism of race-baiting bigotry, especially given that extraterrestrial Superman is branded a potentially hostile enemy agent by cynical politicians. Good work, Zack. And yet … maybe it's just me, but is the endless recycling of 9/11 as flashy Hollywood spectacle becoming a little ghoulish and exploitative? Also, when the two most evil villains in your movie are the son of an East German immigrant and a monstrous CGI alien who resembles a giant Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle, maybe you have not fully worked out your glib message about the dangers of demonizing outsiders? Otherwise it is just morally vacant posturing, and surely that is not your style, Zack? In future films, you might also want to dial down the labored religious symbolism, allusions to Greek mythology, misquotes from Nietzsche and all that other clumsy stuff that makes Batman v Superman sound like a bunch of stoned college kids trying to impress each other.
3. Try having female characters who are more like actual human women.
Zack, I have seen Sucker Punch, so I know your feminist credentials are deep and sincere. And sure, of course I realize Batman v Superman is a manly story about testosterone-pumped dudes doing hypermasculine guy stuff that no mere woman could understand. The clue is in the title. But next time, is there any chance you could make the female characters more than just helpless victims and pretty window dressing? OK, Gal Gadot's Wonder Woman gets to kick some supervillain ass in the final showdown. But let's be honest, her flimsy and incongruous cameo is just product placement for her own future spinoff films. And how many times does ditzy damsel in distress Lois Lane (Amy Adams) need to be rescued by Superman? And why is Clark Kent's mom, Martha (Diane Lane), still working as a waitress in a low-rent Midwestern diner? This is a superhero movie, not a Tom Waits album. Zack, I realize you have been busy so you may have missed a couple of obscure little action films released last year. They were called Mad Max: Fury Road and Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Both featured fantastic female leads. Both got rave reviews, did great box office and won awards. That could be you next time, Zack.
4. Bring Batman and Superman fully out of the closet.
Zack, I salute you for the steamy gay bromance at the heart of Batman v Superman. I enjoyed Alfred's audience-nudging hints that Bruce Wayne is a confirmed bachelor who will never marry. Ha! And Clark Kent as a super-buff gym bunny whose tormented double life could wreck his relationship with Lois? Great stuff, pure Douglas Sirk. Bruce's feverish dreams about being chained up and manhandled in Superman's sex dungeon? Fifty Shades of Gotham, bro. And as for that crackle of sexual tension when Batman and Superman finally square up for their big wrestling match — come on guys, get a room! But here's the problem, Zack. This is not a criticism you will have heard much before, but you are being too subtle here. Maximum respect for smuggling so many shots of sweaty, shirtless, ripped male torsos into a mainstream action movie, but next time how about more of that Tom of Finland-style pumped-up homo-fascistic porn-o-rama that you used to such superb effect in 300? Batman and Superman sharing a sauna maybe, or oiling each other up on a Fire Island beach? It is 2016. The world is ready for the Brokeback Mountain of superhero movies. Be bold. Make it happen. Just imagine the Oscar potential!
5. Bring back the F-word.
This is the crucial point, Zack. Feel free to ignore all my other helpful hints, but if I can offer just a single take-home suggestion for the next movie, can you please try to make it a bit more FUN than Batman v Superman? A radical suggestion, I know, but remember when comic book films were enjoyable escapist fantasies, back in the innocent pre-Nolan era? You have a huge guaranteed global audience, after all. The Justice League franchise is Too Big to Fail; we both know the Warners marketing machine simply will not allow that. You basically have a huge amount of creative freedom. So instead of straining to be dark and deep, and failing epically, how about indulging your true genius for gloriously shallow sex-and-violence spectacle? Like Dirty Harry says at the end of Magnum Force, a man's got to know his limitations.