Comic Book Visuals, CGI, and Violence

King Leonidas (Gerald Butler) and his 300 warriors prepare for battle.

There are many people out there in movie land who don’t like Zack Snyder or the types of films he makes. In the hallowed halls of art theatres or along the cafes of the Left Bank in Paris, his name will be mentioned in disgusted tones.

This is because Snyder is truly a Hollywood filmmaker, one who works well within the LA machine and makes movies that studio executives love. Namely they are over-the-top matters targeted at teenage males and dominated by CGI special effects and choreographed fight sequences. It’s often the visual style of Snyder’s film that’s talked about most fervently. And this makes sense because Snyder is a graphically driven movie director who has carefully cultivated a distinct style that is unique to him.

 Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) howls with pain as the battle goes ill. 300 soldiers, movie
Top: Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) howls with pain as the battle goes ill. Bottom: Spartans get ready.

300

Snyder’s visual style is heavily influenced by graphic novels and comic book art, first emerged in his sophomore outing as a director “300” (2006). Adapted from the graphic novel of the same name by Frank Miller, it’s a bold re-imagining of the Battle of Thermopylae in ancient Greece. A huge hit upon release, the film had many admirers for its comic imagery that appeared as if ripped from the pages of Miller’s novel, and plastered up on the silver screen. “300” set the tone and visual style that Snyder would build upon in later films. Dominated by an alluring colour palate of gold, red and blue, the film is a sea of jaw-dropping fantasy set pieces: thousands of ships crashing upon the rocks in a storm, a giant God-king advancing towards our Spartan troops on a golden pyramid. The visuals in “300” are linked to the action set pieces; everything is heightened and taken to the extreme so as to make the film a sensory experience. “300” is a beautifully illustrated coffee table book: the audience becomes lost in the pretty pictures, digitized photography and action sequences. In a good way.

The Watchmen practise their melancholy superhero posing.
 The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) takes a fall.
Top: The Watchmen practise their melancholy superhero posing. Bottom: The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) takes a fall.

Watchmen

For his follow up, Snyder stuck to what he does best: adapting graphic novels. This time it was “Watchmen” (2009), a work that many hold to be the pinnacle in achievement for the genre. Graphic novels work so well for Snyder because of his strong graphical sense, he is able to bring the stories and characters to life in a faithful and stylish manner. A gorgeous neon-noir look is cultivated in this motion-picture, one dominated by black, dark blue and purple to effectively re-create the spirit of the graphic novel. The photography and production design in the film are extraordinary. From Ozymandias’ arctic palace to Dr Manhattan’s journey to the surface of Mars, Snyder pushes his skills as a visual filmmaker to the limits.

The violence, like the source material, is brutal, but Snyder coats the action in a hyper-stylised exterior to make sure it stays in the realm of the comic book and doesn’t become the everyday violence of the real world. “Watchmen” is in many ways the most adult and mature graphic novel ever written, and this is reflected in Snyder’s faithful version from the production design to the cinematography.

Baby Doll (Emily Browning), Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens) and Amber (Jamie Chung) face the apocalypse. The girls of Sucker Punch head off to virtual war.
Top: Baby Doll (Emily Browning), Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens) and Amber (Jamie Chung) face the apocalypse. Bottom: The girls of Sucker Punch head off to virtual war.

Sucker Punch

Back in 2011, Snyder made “Sucker Punch” (2011), an ultra trashy, super-stylised movie that could accurately be described as a teenage boy’s wet dream, being dominated by actresses dressed up as a strippers firing bazookas into dragons and robots. It’s a fairly horrible film and easily Snyder’s least mature outing, but there is something to be said in the look of the film (the only part that’s worth talking about). It comes across as a cheap video game come to life, with Snyder moving away from the artistry of the graphic novel into something more juvenile in tone and style. In “Sucker Punch,” Snyder has given up the adult themes of “Watchmen,” and allows his work be over intoxicated with CGI effects and 3D visuals.

In many ways, Zack Snyder movies are living breathing action cartoons, using a heady visual appeal of strong colours and digital effects to draw the audience in. He has merit as a filmmaker because of this, and while his dialogue or character development may not be up to much at times, this cannot diminish his skills as a graphically driven director of (mostly) quality blockbuster fare.

All photos © respective film studios
Cover Image: King Leonidas (Gerald Butler) and his 300 warriors prepare for battle.
Christopher Smail

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Christopher is based in the UK, the former assistant editor of Illusion magazine.

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