The weekend belonged to “Black Panther,” the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s latest offering, and rightly so: Ryan Coogler’s solid introduction to the kingdom of Wakanda wowed critics (97 percent fresh on Rotten Tomatoes) and audiences (A-plus CinemaScore) alike, racking up an estimated $235 million in its first four days of release. As some wags noted, this was more money than “Justice League” earned in its entire domestic run.
And while “Justice League” was certainly bad — a product that reeked of overbearing corporate meddling; a movie that reportedly cost upward of $300 million to make and yet somehow looked cheap and shoddy — I’m still sad that it (reportedly) marks the end of Zack Snyder’s efforts with the DC Extended Universe. He brought a unity of vision, both ideological and aesthetic, to Warner Bros.’ effort at countering Disney’s MCU.
There was some sniggering when DC announced that Snyder, hot off the heels of “Watchmen” (2009), would direct “Man of Steel.” Indeed, the auteur was forced to assure audiences that there would be no slow-motion action sequences, his signature artistic affectation. But this was always a mistake. The reason Snyder’s previous comic-book adaptations, “300” and “Watchmen,” had worked was that the speed-ramping effect he so loved — in which he slowed down the action and sped it back up as the camera drifted along, a spectator to carnage — perfectly mimicked the experience of reading a comic book. You see a frame and then another frame, but not what happens between them. Speeding up, then slowing down, suggests how the eye flits across the page, going from one act of violence to another.
The effect reappears in “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice,” a film more comfortable with the mythopoeic ideal of alien gods and men who dress like bats doing battle for the soul of society. Snyder dispenses with Batman’s origin story briefly, capping off a slo-mo killing of Martha and Thomas Wayne with a shot of Bruce, a child, enveloped by bats, rising out of a hole in which he has fallen, drifting out of a cave and into the sky as if accepting his destiny to simultaneously live both below and above the people.
This aesthetic carried into other movies overseen by Snyder during his tenure atop the DCEU. The early action sequences in “Wonder Woman” felt very much like outtakes from “300,” filled as they were with statuesque individuals leaping into the air in slow motion, firing arrows and hurling spears at invading savages. Wonder Woman’s (Gal Gadot) charge through the German offices echoed Batman’s (Ben Affleck) rescue of Ma Kent (Diane Lane) in “Batman v. Superman.” And it’s not surprising that the single best moment in “Justice League” toys with the use of slow motion to demonstrate exactly how powerful Superman (Henry Cavill) is.
This aesthetic vision may have triggered sniggers — aggressively unique artistry often does — but it’s far superior to the MCU’s house anti-style, that cautiously competent CGI mishmash that defines the adventures of the Avengers and their friends.
More than a house style, however, Snyder oversaw a house ethos. And it’s here that the recent spate of DC films — as wildly uneven as they were, as messy as they could be purely in terms of storytelling — has always been more consistent, and more interesting, than their counterparts at Marvel. Consider Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), the key to the MCU’s success. He is wildly erratic as a character, swinging from libertarian privatizer of peacekeeping to statist global governance proponent to mad genius tinkering with godhood to father figure aiding a kid in need, depending on what the movie he happens to be in needs him to do to keep the action moving. He’s a plot device, not a person.
There’s no idea behind the Marvel films writ large, no overarching thought. One of the reasons “Black Panther” is so interesting is that there’s a philosophical struggle at its core, a messy tussle between security and safety on the one hand and the duties we have to the weaker amongst us on the other. And some of the other Marvel films have tinkered with notions larger than “heroes good, villains bad.” “Winter Soldier” was about the iniquities of drone warfare and the dangers to civil liberties posed by a too-powerful government while “Civil War” is about the hazards of occupational licensing. Too often, however, some all-powerful thingamajig is controlled by a hulking, forgettable, oddly colored bad guy who wants to either take over or destroy the world.
But there’s a unity of vision to the Snyder-led DC movies that is simply lacking over at Marvel. The idea, beginning with “Man of Steel,” was a simple one: What would happen if gods appeared on Earth? Snyder’s reboot of Superman asked us to consider what responsibilities a man with godlike power would be willing to accept. “Batman v. Superman” asked how the world’s most powerful men — batty billionaires and tech giants alike — would react to instantly finding themselves lower on the food chain. How would they protect humanity from the new monsters in their midst? “Suicide Squad,” meanwhile, asked how the government might respond to such an invasion, while “Wonder Woman” was all about the need for gods (or, at least, a demigod) to understand that free will sometimes leads to death and destruction.
These questions were often lost or muddied in the course of corporate tampering. While Marvel honcho Kevin Feige has hired a series of directors who will conform to the house style and has built up a universe slowly but surely, Snyder always seemed to be pushing for more and was saddled with a corporate giant that demanded an Avenger-style cinematic universe created in half the time. As Armond White put it in his review of “Black Panther,” “Coogler’s attempt at genre revision is part of Marvel indoctrination, so it’s less interesting than Snyder’s battle with Warner Bros. over artistic expression in the D.C. Comics Universe. Snyder turns moral conflicts into sensual kinetics.”*
Perhaps “Justice League,” which asks how the world would respond to losing its newfound god, is a logical endpoint to the question first raised in “Man of Steel.” It’s too bad that we’ll likely never get to see what Snyder truly wanted to do with the movie; he was reportedly fired last year and was definitely replaced in the director’s chair by Joss Whedon for reshoots. Fans thirsting online for the #SnyderCut will likely go unsated. We’ll just have to wait and see what Snyder has in store for us next.
*As an aside, I would pay a great deal of money for a “Hitchcock/Truffaut”-style book in which White interviewed Snyder. The iconoclastic critic has long been one of Snyder’s most devoted defenders, and I think it would be a fascinating glimpse into critic and filmmaker alike.