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Zombies, Spartans, And Owls: The Strange Journey Of Zack Snyder

November 9th, 2011 3:15pm EST

Zack Snyder and Gerard Butler You awaken to a rabid 8 year old viciously chewing on your husband’s neck. A dark army, more than a million strong, bears down upon you and your kingdom. A masked man breaks in during the night and throws you out a window. A giant samurai statue engages you in battle, all the while feathery, cartoon owls fly around you. You are in the strange and violent world of Zack Snyder. Hang on; you’re in for a wild ride.

Zack Snyder, the director of the upcoming Superman reboot Man of Steel, has had the strangest start to a career of any director in recent memory. Dawn of the Dead, 300, Watchmen, Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole, and Sucker Punch are all unique and interesting films, but from one to the next, it is mind boggling that they were directed by the same man. On the surface, each film seems to have nothing in common with the rest, but when we dig a little deeper, we can find themes that connect them all to each other.

Adaptation

Much of Zack Snyder’s success can be attributed to being in the right place at the right time. Dawn of the Dead came out during America’s obsession with zombie movies. For every 28 Days Later, there seemed to be 30 Resident Evil's Dawn of the Dead, a remake of George A. Romero’s classic film of the same name, was one of the great ones though. It showed Hollywood that Snyder, a relative unknown at the time, could be trusted with strong source material and deliver a quality picture. In his second film 300, Zack was again part of a movie boom. This time is was the graphic novel. 300, adapted from the limited comic book series of the same name by Frank Miller, hit theatres on the heels of 2005’s Sin City. While Sin City managed only $75 million in domestic grosses, 300 did nearly that amount in its opening weekend, and grossed more than $450 million world wide. This film launched Snyder into mainstream culture as 300 was not only an immensely entertaining movie, but the style in which it was shot was genre-defining. This success brought him the daunting challenge of bringing the critically acclaimed graphic novel Watchmen, to the big screen. Alan Moore’s seminal work, proved an unwieldy piece of material and the movie premiered to a mixed reception. Ultimately, Snyder was not blamed for the film’s lack of success as most critics and fans of the novel believed the story didn’t translate well to the screen to begin with. Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole was an obvious departure from Snyder’s previous films. The impetus for doing the film more than likely came down to the fact that it was an adaptation of the most successful British children’s novel series not named Harry Potter or Hunger Games. The film earned a respectable $140 million worldwide. Snyder was a strong choice to direct this children’s movie because he gave the film a grit and emotional pain that is sorely lacking in most animated films. It was definitely not The Land Before Time.

Violence

Snyder uses violence the way a composer uses forte. A symphony would be nothing if all notes were played at the same volume. In the same way, no violence at all or wall to wall violence do not make a good film. While the violence may be what you remember about any of Snyder’s movies, upon re-watching you may be shocked at how little screen time is given to it. In each film, Snyder finds ways to contrast violence with the everyday, or the idyllic. The suburban setting in Dawn of the Dead, is the perfect backdrop for the gore and terror of the story. The mall where the characters seek refuge, gives the audience a sense of normalcy, even as the zombie apocalypse is happening. The green screen backdrop throughout 300 and the slow-motion, artful way in which each battle scene is depicted allows the viewer to take in each bloody moment without feeling overwhelmed. In Legend of the Guardian and Sucker Punch the characters, fluffy, cute owls and beautiful, skinny women, are themselves the contrast for the violence they commit. Yes, the owls kick ass.

Strong Female Characters

While the most memorable characters from Sndyer’s movies may be Leonidas, The Comedian, and Ving Rhames, each movie has a formidable female character who helps the audience connect through the sea of violence and macho, and serves as the soul of the film. The protagonist of Dawn of the Dead, Ana (Played by Sarah Polley) is a perfect example. The audience sees the story through her eyes, and feels what she feels. In 300 and Watchmen, women get in on the ass-kicking. Lena Headey as the Queen of Sparta and Malin Ackerman as Silk Spectre hold their own as far as the violence is concerned, but they also serve as the emotional counterpart to their emotionless better halves, thus allowing the larger than life characters of Leonidas and Dr. Manhattan to seem more human. Snyder’s ultimate homage to female empowerment is obviously Sucker Punch. The cast of feisty and beautiful women battle their way through multiple violent fantasies as they try to shed the chains that imprison them. While this film was not the most critically acclaimed, the strength of characters in it is undeniable, and that strength is one of the hallmarks of Zack Snyder’s work.

Cast of Unknowns

Each of the four live-action films Snyder has directed had casts of relative unknowns. Don’t get me wrong it’s not like Ty Burrell, Gerard Butler, Michael Fassbender, Billy Crudup, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, and Carla Gugino hadn’t been in movies before. They had. But their roles in Snyder’s films undoubtedly propelled them to bigger and better things. Especially in the case of Gerard Butler who before 300 was best known as the third male lead in Reign of Fire.

Self Sacrifice

This is the true trademark of Snyder’s work. The protagonist who sacrifices his life for the benefit of others. Michael from Dawn of the Dead, played by Jake Weber, forgoes his burgeoning love for Ana in the interest of allowing her to live the zombie-free life on a boat. Leonidas, famously refuses to retreat in the face of certain death, so can he rip out some of Xerxes bizarre face jewelry with a sweet spear throw. Rorschach forces Dr. Manhattan to end his life. The case can be made his motives were selfish, but his death allowed the world to ostensibly live in peace, so it qualifies. Baby Doll, allows the ridiculously handsome Jon Hamm to lobotomize her, allowing her friend to escape to freedom. Even Soren the owl, chooses to remain a slave instead of joining the evil over class. In the end, it is these characters’ selflessness that endears them to us. That connection allows these films to truly hit home and resonate with all of us. Amidst the violence, the blood, and the breasts, these movies which could so easily be salutes to action and machismo, instead have real soul and depth. This is what makes Zack Snyder unique among our current class of burgeoning Directors and binds his diverse filmography together.

So why do we care? Because we’re trusting him with Superman! The Superman story has been difficult to execute, even in the accomplished and capable hand of Brian Singer. But I, for one, think Snyder is going to knock it out of the park. If we look at the themes discussed above, and imagine them as part of a Superman story, I think we get a great movie. We’ve already got a relatively unknown actor playing Superman. Add to that a strong Lois Lane, a role right in the wheelhouse of Amy Adams, a bunch of well executed violence, and a self sacrificing superhero, and you’ve got a slam dunk. Too bad we’ll have to wait til 2013 to find out. If his first five pictures are any indication, Man of Steel will be well worth the wait.

Related: 300, Abbie Cornish, Amy Adams, Billy Crudup, Bryan Singer, Carla Gugino, Dawn of the Dead, Frank Miller, George A Romero, Gerard Butler, Henry Cavill, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole, Lena Headey, Malin Akerman, Man of Steel, Michael Fassbender, Sarah Polley, Sin City, Sucker Punch, Superman: Man of Steel, Ty Burrell, Ving Rhames, Watchmen, Zack Snyder, Starpulse Exclusives, Movies

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Photo Credits: Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.; PR Photos

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