Who Sucker Punched The Watchmen? The Brilliant Excess of Zack SnyderPosted: August 13, 2014
A few months ago, I wrote a devil’s-advocate article on Michael Bay. At the time, I wanted to provide some slight counterpoint to the endless criticism of Bay’s style-first approach, while considering what the root of his flaws really was. But that was ultimately a fool’s errand, and one that I shouldn’t have bothered with; while I do believe that Bay’s filmmaking approach is not an inherently wrong one, I’m still not a fan in the slightest. It was also foolish of me to squander potential reader goodwill on such a useless and impersonal debate, when there are much more relevant fish to fry. Namely, I’m thinking of Zack Snyder, a filmmaker who has caught more than his fair share of flack from the same kinds of critics (cinephiles, fanboys, etc). But unlike Bay, I flat-out believe, full-stop, that Snyder is a great filmmaker, and one that has already accomplished far more than many give him credit for.
Unlike Bay, who at best I’d describe as a decent filmmaker with a complete disinterest in anything approaching narrative structure, Snyder has a good sense of story, and a much better and more exacting visual sensibility to go with it. More to the point, in addition to having an uncanny ability to make things look cool, Snyder’s visual sensibility is completely tied into the narrative/thematic elements of his stories, serving to emphasize rather than obfuscate or replace. In the title, I’ve referred to Snyder’s “excess”, by which I mean he leaves absolutely everything up there on the screen for us to see. He is unafraid to fully commit himself to the worlds of his films, and uses every possible option to depict them as completely as possible. These strengths of Snyder’s are most noticeable in his three most definitive films: 300, Watchmen, and Sucker Punch.
300 has a solid story, and one where Snyder takes full advantage of an unreliable narrator to contextualize the stylized action. While many might dismiss such flourishes as absurd, it’s wholly earned within the script by the fact that the entire story is being presented to us by Dilios, a Spartan himself, who is using the story to rouse his troops for battle. Clearly, his is a biased account, and clearly his goal would be to tell the most macho and celebratory version of the story possible. This is why the characters are depicted in such epically overblown fashion, and why the Persians are depicted as surreal monsters instead of men.
Even the conservative/fascistic elements of the story (which in reality can be traced back to Frank Miller going off the deep end) can be justified from the militaristic background of Dilios and the other Spartans. Snyder wisely embraces the stylistic freedom that comes with such a framing device and mixes it with good-ol-fashioned Conan-style swordplay and gives us a bombastic and bloody movie. This is also where Snyder shows his willingness to embrace the sexuality of his characters, in a way that many other genre/action filmmakers rarely do. He puts as much care and composition into sex scenes as he does into his action scenes, unafraid to show his heroes be sexual as much as he shows them be violent.
Watchmen is a modern masterpiece, without a doubt, and certainly Snyder’s best film to date. Here, Snyder (after arguing to return the story to its alt-1980s setting, it should be noted) makes clever use of his stylistic impulses, using them to both emphasize important moments from the comic and externalize the characters’ inner emotions, without drowning out the nuance of the classic story. This is noticeable in particular with the scenes between Laurie and Dan, from the first fight with the Knot Tops (where the fight is depicted as something ugly, to coincide with their fear to return to that life) to their sex scenes (the first being an awkward/uncomfortable moment in their civilian guises, the other being a passionate and unrestrained moment between superheroes) to their rescue of Rorschach (where the fight is played fast and badass with rock guitar, to showcase their own excitement and elation at being where they want to be).
Once again, Snyder also has no qualms about showing his protagonists as sexual beings, be it Dr. Manhattan’s detached attempts at kinkiness or the much-mocked (but to me fully earned) sexual liasion between Dan and Laurie. This is all especially important in Watchmen, as the sexual dynamics between Laurie and the men in her life are a vital externalization of her character arc. And he also recognizes the time to let his heroes look pathetic instead, as Dan’s bout of impotence demands. These are the sorts of moments that needed to be carried over from the comic, along with just enough of its structure. Snyder’s sense of style reminds him to reenact particular panels but prevent him from trying to replicate everything.
There’s also, in the director’s cut, the final conversation between Hollis and Sally, where the characters are kept completely out of focus while we catch glimpses of their photos, trophies and newspaper clippings, as they lose themselves in the past and forget about their present. That great moment then segues to Hollis’ murder, where he fights off Knot Tops that he imagines as his old foes; it’s a gorgeous sequence that demonstrates a man living in the past, more comfortable dreaming about his former self than living (or even dying) as his current one… which is a decent summation of most of Watchmen itself.
Sucker Punch is almost certainly the most-maligned movie in Snyder’s filmography (and understandably so). When planning to rewatch it for the first time since the theatrical release, I was fully expecting to again be frustrated by the wasted potential, but actually wound up fully appreciating it. In my mind the dislike of this film stems from an unfortunate- but again, understandable- misreading of what it is about. At its core, Sucker Punch is about women who have been victimized and objectified to the point that it completely skews their worldview, and how they fight back using the very thing they are subjugated over.
This is the driving motivation of the entire film: it’s what causes Baby Doll to replace an asylum with a brothel, and to imagine all of the patients as prostitutes. Furthermore it’s what drives the depiction of what would be sexual seduction into absurd action sequences. And while some people have questioned why a young girl in the 1960s would imagine robots and mechs and clockwork soldiers, I believe that these sequences are not meant to be Baby Doll’s imagination, but rather Snyder stepping into the story and externalizing the fight-or-die nature of these “dances” by showing them as action scenes instead. It’s a very brazen move that works pretty well for me, and mirrors the Scott-Pilgrim-style “fight musical” structure (ie, emotional extremes result in fights instead of musical numbers).
This is probably where Snyder’s penchant for putting everything up on the screen has gotten him into the most trouble, particularly given the fetishistic nature of the girls’ costumes. And while I think that it makes sense as an extension of their circumstances- they’re being degraded and presumably abused in the asylum, which translates to them wearing lingerie and putting on shows in the brothel, so the idea that they have to fight for their survival in awful outfits makes sense thematically- considering that these fight scenes are essentially Zack Snyder applying his own id to the themes of the movie I do understand how people might be put off by it. For me personally I don’t find the depiction of these girls to be really “erotic” in any way, so it’s hard for me to see it as exploitative or objectifying… but then, role-playing isn’t my bag anyway. And as we’ve established before, Snyder is unafraid to embrace his characters’ sexuality, so if titillation was his goal I’m quite sure you’d notice. There’s something ballsy about trying to use the visual identifiers of sexual exploitation to deliver a message denouncing them, and while I appreciate the final result I also recognize that this is where Snyder’s all-out approach can backfire for those not on the same wavelength.
Of course these aren’t all Snyder has done: Legend of the Guardians was fine and Snyder-y, but it doesn’t even register with me when I think of his work; Dawn of the Dead is an undeniably good movie, but is also least representative of Snyder’s voice; and Man of Steel sees Snyder’s sense for epic action and impactful iconography being dragged down by a clunky and thematically incomplete script. Coming up he has Batman vs Superman (I’m not calling it by that other awful title) and Justice League, and while I’ve previously expressed confidence in Snyder’s involvement I really can’t wait for him to get back to doing HIS movies. Batman vs Superman will probably fall into the Iron Man 2/Amazing Spider-Man 2 trap of setting up the franchise more than telling its own story, which is a shame, but hopefully with Justice League we can see Snyder really cut loose and go all-out in the way only Snyder can. And once he’s done with DC he can go out there and do something totally insane and ballsy in the way only Zack Snyder can.