Zack Snyder Has Comic-Book Fatigue, Too

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Written By Pinang Driod

One July morning, at a cavernous soundstage on Sunset Boulevard, amplified sound effects boomed so loudly that the walls trembled. On a massive projection screen, futuristic vehicles zipped across alien skies; laser blasts reduced strange architecture to rubble; knives sliced through flesh; an authoritarian army celebrated an unknown triumph. An android with the majestic voice of Anthony Hopkins asked, “Who among you is willing to die for what you believe?”

The footage had been spliced together to create a teaser trailer for Rebel Moon, a science-fiction epic directed by Zack Snyder. Snyder smiled with satisfaction, though he also had notes. “You know what would be cool?” he said to colleagues who were sitting behind an elaborate audio-mixing console. “Is there a way to have it go BOOOOOOOOM and then vroom, have this kind of shock wave?” He watched a giant spaceship drift through the cosmos. Affecting the British accent of the Spinal Tap guitarist Nigel Tufnel, Snyder said proudly, “These trailers go to 11.”

Snyder likes his movies loud and unambiguous. He naturally speaks the language of the big-budget blockbuster: pugnacious, macho, in-your-face. A film critic once described him as “an adrenaline junkie forever jonesing for a fix.” In fact, he’s one reason so many blockbusters look and sound the way they do: Snyder helped establish the template for comic-book movies as they evolved from summertime popcorn fare into ubiquitous year-round spectacles.

“There’s no superhero science-fiction film coming out these days where I don’t see some influence of Zack,” Christopher Nolan, the Oppenheimer director who has worked with Snyder as a producer, told me. “When you watch a Zack Snyder film, you see and feel his love for the potential of cinema. The potential of it to be fantastical, to be heightened in its reality, but to move you and to excite you.”

Snyder first found success as a director with his 2004 remake of George A. Romero’s classic zombie movie Dawn of the Dead, and with adaptations of the graphic novels 300 (2006) and Watchmen (2009). He then spent several years at Warner Bros. bringing the DC comic-book universe to the screen. His DC movies, including Man of Steel and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, worshipped their spandexed protagonists like deities. They were full of gleaming surfaces, sharp edges, and operatic fight sequences.

Snyder’s fans appreciate the director’s reverence for their comic-book heroes, and the merciless, often bloody worlds he creates for those heroes to inhabit. But Snyder is an unusually divisive filmmaker. His detractors accuse him of making visually bleak, narratively muddled movies. Unlike Nolan, whose brooding Batman trilogy was praised by critics, Snyder has grown accustomed to tough reviews. “Snyder is an overkill director,” Wesley Morris wrote in his review of Man of Steel. “He does bloated masculinist spectacle: Baz Luhrmann with ankle weights.” Reed Tucker, the author of Slugfest: Inside the Epic 50-Year Battle Between Marvel and DC, told me that claiming to be a Snyder fan has become a “sort of political statement, almost. It’s like you’re a Trump fan or something.”

Snyder’s reputation as the bard of heroic manhood is by now so established that he’s become a cultural punch line. In Greta Gerwig’s Barbie, Snyder is the butt of a joke about the dude-bro obliviousness of the Kens: When one Barbie snaps out of the stupor that spread through Barbieland after it was overtaken by Kens, she says, “It’s like I’ve been in a dream where I was somehow really invested in the Zack Snyder cut of Justice League.”

If Snyder himself has some stereotypically dude-bro traits, he’s unapologetic about them. A set for Rebel Moon, which he directed and co-wrote, was decorated with a motivational sign that read Feeling Very Zacktivated. When I met him this past summer, he was refurbishing a vintage Land Rover. Yet Snyder doesn’t see his movies as particularly ideological or political, and he’s mystified by how controversial he’s become. “Everyone’s like, You’re a polarizing figure,” he told me. “You know, Love him or hate him … I’m like, Love him or hate him? What did I do? How did I get hate him?”

One answer is that the movie business has changed considerably in recent years, as have moviegoers’ tastes. Disney’s Marvel unit is experiencing an identity crisis amid declining box-office numbers. DC movies such as The Flash and Black Adam—direct descendants of Snyder’s films, in both their aesthetic and their casting choices—have likewise flopped. Audiences seem burned out on the turbocharged adventures of comic-book crime fighters; the movies they left their homes to see this year told the stories of a Mattel doll and a nuclear physicist.

“I have the same fatigue,” Snyder told me. Comic-book adaptations, he said, are “a cul-de-sac now,” no longer interested in, or capable of, telling self-contained stories. “No one thinks they’re going to a one-off superhero movie.”

This may seem, then, like an inauspicious moment to give Zack Snyder a $166 million budget. Yet that’s what Netflix has done with Rebel Moon. It’s a bet that there is still a market for his bombastic style of storytelling. A big bet: The movie is sufficiently sprawling that it is being released in two parts. The first, subtitled A Child of Fire, will start streaming on December 21; the second, The Scargiver, is planned for next April.

Rebel Moon is a space opera about a lunar colony defying an oppressive intergalactic empire and the band of adventurers who aid the colonists in their fight. Unlike most of Snyder’s previous projects, it’s not an adaptation of someone else’s intellectual property; it emerged from his own imagination. That might help free the project from comic-book fatigue, though it also presents new challenges: Rebel Moon has no built-in fan base in the way Watchmen and Man of Steel did. “We’re a new studio, so we don’t have 100 years of library titles,” Ori Marmur, Netflix’s vice president of original studio film, told me. “And if we’re going to build our own, we really have to be willing to lean into some risk.”

Snyder, for one, is confident that he can create a fan base. His professed franchise-fatigue notwithstanding, he is already thinking about a Rebel Moon sequel and preparing a video-game spin-off, along with, yes, a graphic novel. But does the world want more Zack Snyder?

Snyder on the set of his new Netflix sci-fi epic, Rebel Moon (Clay Enos / Netflix)

Snyder has a trim, muscular build and a stubbly salt-and-pepper beard. He was born in Green Bay, Wisconsin, but moved around a lot as a kid; his father worked in human resources for a series of big companies. Along the way, he developed a love of fantasy and science-fiction. He was 11 when the original Star Wars came out, and it captivated him. He was also fascinated by The Twilight Zone, with its forthright morality tales; the illicit, adult exploits chronicled in Heavy Metal magazine; and the stylized violence of Akira Kurosawa. When he was in junior high in Dallas, Snyder remembers going alone to see a Kurosawa retrospective. “My parents just dropped me off at the theater,” he said. “And I can remember going in there and coming out feeling like, You’re a weirdo. No one had an interest in coming in with me.” At school, Snyder never fit neatly into a single group or category; he was the film geek who made his own movies but also an athlete who struggled in the classroom.

Then, in 1980, his 19-year-old brother, Sam, was in a car accident and died from his injuries. Zack was 13. He attended the same school and summer camp that Sam had gone to, and felt Sam’s shadow looming. His brother “almost had a cult status in these places,” Snyder said. When it came to Sam, “everything had mythological consequences.”

After high school, Snyder spent a year studying painting in London, then moved to Los Angeles and got a degree in film. He started directing music videos and commercials, which benefited, in the eyes of his clients, from his unsubtle style: In a post-9/11 Super Bowl spot, for instance, Budweiser’s Clydesdales bend down in homage at the sight of the New York skyline. He met his wife, Deborah, then an advertising producer, when she hired him to direct a Reebok commercial. She’s been a producer on all his films since 300. Zack has her name tattooed on his right forearm.

When he began pitching himself as a feature-film director, Snyder quickly found his angle. “My tactic in a meeting was, I would say to whatever studio I was at, ‘Do you guys own any IP that you can’t crack? That you can’t figure out how to reboot or make work? Let me try,’” he told me. He brought a marketer’s approach to filmmaking. “I wasn’t afraid to sell the thing that needed to be sold,” he said. “It’s the movie business. It’s not the movie charity.”

In 2004, the same year he and Deborah were married, Snyder released his remake of Dawn of the Dead. Directed by Snyder and written by James Gunn, Dawn of the Dead is an unrelenting bloodbath with manic pacing, zombies that move at breakneck speed, and—unlike the original, which Romero intended as a dark riff on American consumerism—little interest in broader social commentary. Even so, its vision of global apocalypse clearly landed with audiences. The movie was a $100 million hit. One reviewer wrote that “it combines a video-game sensibility with cartoonish, whacked-out violence.” Its success helped reawaken a cultural appetite for zombie carnage.

Snyder proved to have a knack for asserting his own creative vision within the bounds of someone else’s mythological world. Eric Newman, the producer who brought Snyder on to make Dawn of the Dead, once heard Snyder compare populist moviemaking to an article of clothing you might buy at Urban Outfitters—say, a reproduction of a vintage Rolling Stones concert T-shirt. As Newman explained, “It’s frayed here and it’s distressed there and it’s been sort of aged … and there’s a pretense that you were there. You were a part of this thing, and you don’t even consider, let alone mind, that there’s a warehouse somewhere with thousands of these exact same shirts.” Not every director would be so comfortable making the cinematic equivalent of a faux-vintage concert tee. Snyder embraced it.

Picture of Zack Snyder at the set of Dawn of the Dead in 2004
Snyder on the set of Dawn of the Dead, released in 2004 (Universal / Everett Collection)

In 2009, Snyder made Watchmen, a superhero adventure adapted from the groundbreaking graphic novel set in a grimy, fallen world far less cartoonish than Metropolis or Gotham. Its inhabitants, even the superheroic ones, experience angst and impotence, they bleed and die, and in the end they largely fail to stop the machinations of the story’s villain. Released one year after the cheeky Iron Man kicked off the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Snyder’s Watchmen established him as a kind of antithesis to the Marvel sensibility: violent and unironic where Marvel was light on its feet and winkingly self-aware.

In 2010, Warner Bros. hired Snyder to direct Man of Steel, its reboot of the Superman franchise. Greg Silverman, a former Warner Bros. executive who helped select Snyder for Man of Steel, said he saw an alignment between the director and the material. Snyder, with his earnestness and his fixation on the dueling forces of good and evil, was “the closest we had to Superman on the lot in the form of a director,” Silverman told me.

Man of Steel, which starred the square-jawed British actor Henry Cavill as Superman, was indeed earnest: In one scene, he tells Lois Lane that the unmistakable letter S emblazoned on his suit is actually a Kryptonian symbol meaning “hope.” Nor was the film particularly subtle in presenting its hero as a savior of mankind—one shot foregrounded Superman in front of a stained-glass-window depiction of Jesus. In typical Snyder fashion, the movie was also extremely gory.

For many viewers, Snyder’s faith in superheroes, and macho brutality, felt like an odd match for the cultural mood; that same year, Marvel’s sly, quippy Iron Man 3 ended its run in theaters as one of the highest-grossing films of all time. Some accused Snyder of forgetting the central pillar of the genre’s appeal: fun.

The movie was harshly reviewed, and made about half as much as Iron Man 3. Still, the studio decided to push ahead with the Snyder aesthetic. A 2016 sequel, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, featured Ben Affleck as a burned-out, vengeful Bruce Wayne. Even for audiences that had embraced the dour modernism of Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, it was hard to stomach Snyder’s movie, in which the two title heroes spent much of the movie’s runtime disliking and punching each other. BvS reportedly fell short of Warner Bros.’ lofty box-office expectations.

Still, if Snyder had misread the mainstream appetite for a certain kind of superhero fare, he’d found an unusually loyal and ardent group of supporters. On Twitter and Reddit, they raved about his DC movies and clamored for more. Man of Steel and BvS offered just the sort of broken-down, morally paralyzed, hypermasculine portrayals of their characters that hard-core Snyder fans had come to crave.

Still of Henry Cavill in 'Man of Steel' (2013)
Henry Cavill as Superman in Man of Steel (Warner Bros / Alamy)

Snyder’s next project, Justice League, might have been the apotheosis of his approach to the superhero genre. Intended as DC’s answer to The Avengers, Marvel’s 2012 blockbuster, it united Superman (resurrected after an untimely demise in BvS) with Batman, Wonder Woman, and Aquaman. But Snyder was forced to stop his work on Justice League after a personal tragedy. His daughter Autumn, then 20 years old, died by suicide in March 2017. Snyder withdrew from the film to grieve with his family. During this period, he and Deborah spent time traveling and thinking deeply about how to return to filmmaking. Autumn, who’d also been a writer, had a habit of signing correspondence with a quote from the novelist Chuck Palahniuk: “The goal isn’t to live forever. The goal is to create something that will.” With that in mind, Snyder decided to press on. “Because my life isn’t separated from the work, it’s cathartic,” he told me.

Joss Whedon, the writer-director of The Avengers, ended up finishing Justice League. The version that hit theaters was criticized for its uneasy mix of Snyder’s stark seriousness and Whedon’s more tongue-in-cheek tone, and the movie was ultimately a commercial failure. (To this day, Snyder maintains that he has never watched this cut of the film, for which he still received directorial credit.)

Snyder diehards were also unhappy with the pastiche of styles that hit theaters. On social media, they began pushing to see Snyder’s full, unaltered version of the film. One fan commissioned a plane with a banner that read WB #ReleasetheSnyderCut of Justice League to fly over Comic-Con in San Diego. Warner Bros. asked Snyder if he would indeed be interested in releasing his own cut of the movie on the fledgling HBO Max streaming service. Because many elements of his film, including the score and special effects, were still incomplete, the studio reportedly spent an estimated $20 million to $30 million to let Snyder finish the movie as he intended. After what he and Deborah had been through, Snyder told me, getting the chance to complete Justice League was a “soul-mending exercise.” The 2021 film, officially titled Zack Snyder’s Justice League, was four hours long, more than two hours longer than the previous version.

Many critics experienced that scale as an assault on their sensibilities. “It is a grind, it is a slog, it is a bore,” wrote The New Yorker’s Richard Brody. “It’s a mental toothache of a movie, whose ending grants not so much resolution as relief.” But Snyder’s fans thrilled to the movie’s elaborate new battle scenes, its grandiosity. As one wrote in a review on Metacritic: “Was 4 years too long a time to see our favorite superhero team rightfully done on the cinematic screen? Maybe for some, but for me and many others it was well worth the wait, for proving all the doubters wrong.”

When we first met, Snyder had recently weaned himself off the multiplayer combat video game Fortnite. He’d started playing to bond with his youngest son, Cash, who is 11. Soon, he found himself playing even after Cash clocked out. Eventually his gaming became obsessive. “I’d get up, it would be 5:30, 6 in the morning and he’d be there on the game,” Deborah told me. So he quit and took up pottery instead. He wasn’t very good at making coffee mugs, but with pottery, he said, “at least you get something at the end.”

Snyder owes his filmmaking career to his ability to stay in touch with the Fortnite side of himself: the part that loves the visceral, schoolboy thrills of big explosions and grisly battle scenes; the part that likes his storylines to have life-and-death stakes and black-and-white morality.

The Snyders’ home offices, in the hills of Southern California, are a sleek complex of intersecting boxes, with clean, white interiors and floor-to-ceiling windows. When I visited, Zack took a phone call while Deborah showed me the private screening room where their children had recently started watching all the Star Wars movies. Outside was a shipping container that Zack had turned into his private gym, filled with complicated exercise equipment I didn’t recognize and a poster for John Boorman’s Arthurian fantasy film Excalibur.

When Zack finished his call, we settled into his personal workspace. Here, Snyder became a somewhat different man. He put a Philip Glass record on an expensive-looking turntable and rhapsodized about his love for the architecture of Greene and Greene, the California design firm whose work includes the early-20th-century American Craftsman landmark Gamble House, in Pasadena. “There was a moment where I thought I could be a docent at the Gamble House and give tours, because I do have very fair working knowledge of their architectural style,” Snyder said. “I very much am a frustrated architect. I hate to say that I would have been an architect, because I have too much respect for the field.”

An enthusiastic “camera dork,” Snyder pulled out some of his Polaroid gear and sifted through boxes of photos he’d taken, a mixture of portraits of his film actors in their superhero costumes and candid pictures of his children. “I would take a picture of Ben Affleck or my 8-year-old son with the same sort of drama,” he said. “The truth is, my son represents, for me, a much more intensely mythological place.” In conversation, Snyder returns again and again to that word, mythological; it seems tied to his general obsession with origins, with the foundational stories behind personal greatness and strength. I asked Snyder if his origins as a filmmaker might be traced to his brother Sam’s death, and a formative need to measure up to him. “I think that would be a fair assessment,” he said.

Is there still an appetite for the kind of stories Snyder likes to tell? Mythic tales in which men—Snyder’s heroes are almost exclusively men—do cosmic battle with the forces of darkness? When we spoke over the summer, he had recently watched Barbie, a blockbuster as un-Snyder-like as one could imagine. “It’s good. It’s fine—by the way, even with its mention of Zack Snyder,” he said. “I have no issue being that deep in the zeitgeist.” (I reached out to Gerwig to ask about the origin story of the Snyder line, but a publicist told me, “I’m not sure it makes sense for her to participate in a profile on Zack.”)

Snyder insists that he has moved on from making comic-book films. James Gunn, Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead collaborator, has since made the hit Guardians of the Galaxy movies for Marvel. He’s now writing and directing a new Superman movie for DC, planned for 2025, and helping to shape DC Studios’ overall strategy as a co-chief executive. “I’m not knocking on James Gunn’s door, going, like, ‘Bro, shoot me one of those sweet movies,’” Snyder said. “The holy grail is some original IP that you create, that has resonance and is cool.”

Snyder had been sitting on the concept for Rebel Moon for decades. It’s a personal project for him, both because it pays tribute to cultural artifacts he loves—movies such as The Dirty Dozen and The Magnificent Seven—and in its themes. It’s about trying to come back from loss; about the ultimate triumph of misunderstood good guys over evil.

Yet even this new project has roots in old IP. If Rebel Moon sounds like it could be a Star Wars movie, that’s because Snyder tried several years ago to pitch it to Lucasfilm as a potential R-rated entry in that franchise. As he explained, “The Star Wars audience, they’ve grown up. They’re adults now. And it would be cool to make movies for them.” Snyder said there was some interest in his idea until Lucasfilm was purchased by Disney. “When the acquisition happened, there were discussions of, like, ‘Oh, maybe we’ll make your movie, like down the liiiiiiiine,’” he said. “And I was like, ‘Okay, whatever.’”

Netflix proved more amenable. “When we asked him to really think big,” said Marmur, the Netflix executive, “that’s when Rebel Moon showed up.” The hope, he said, is for Netflix to continue attracting filmmakers who want to start their own franchise, showing them that “you can come here and you can make the first installment of something, as opposed to the fourth, fifth, sixth installment.”

Snyder’s commercial instincts—that willingness to sell the thing that needs to be sold—has always led some to dismiss him as a cynical filmmaker. But part of what makes Snyder unique in Hollywood is that his passion for swashbuckling mass entertainment is totally sincere. Even certain critics who have never fully endorsed Snyder’s work have pushed back on the notion that it is soulless. In his review of Snyder’s Justice League cut, New York’s Bilge Ebiri wrote:

Snyder wholeheartedly embraces this stuff, and there’s nothing cynical about his indulgence: He believes that superheroes directly tie into our ancient myths and religious symbols, and he wants to make the rest of us believe, too. He repeatedly goes overboard with the ritual and the portent and the stone-faced gravity, but it’s hard not to respect the guy; nobody has bought into the superhero ethos more than he has. These are not paycheck gigs for him. This is about as personal as it gets.

Ebiri saw in the movie’s stories of parents trying to save their children, and children trying to save their parents, a powerful account of sacrifice and tragedy: “The Snyder Cut has its share of problems—when you get the best of Snyder, you also get the worst—but it’s an undeniably passionate and moving work. It earns its self-importance,” he wrote. I recently asked Ebiri for his sense of Snyder’s place in contemporary Hollywood. “I actually want there to be more Zack Snyders than fewer Zack Snyders,” he told me. “That sounds crazy to say that. I’m probably going to get arrested for saying that. I think the world of blockbuster filmmaking would benefit from more people like Zack Snyder, who take this stuff really seriously.”

One afternoon, I joined Snyder in the office where he was editing Rebel Moon. In the center of the table where we sat were statuettes of Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman. Feeling, perhaps, the rush of his new project nearing completion, Snyder wondered whether the movie industry’s obsession with strip-mining old source material might be approaching an end. “I mean, like, how much IP is there?” he said.

Quickly, though, he thought of another enduring intellectual property he might like to tackle one day, and his eyes lit up: James Bond. “It’d be cool to see, like, 20-year-old James Bond,” he told me. “The humble roots that he comes from. Whatever trauma of youth that makes you be able to be James Bond,” he said. His voice rose with excitement: “There has to be something there.”

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