This week’s edition of the New York Times Magazine features a profile on director Zack Snyder, who, as the profile’s author, Alex Pappademas, would have it, “may be the purest geek-auteur of the geek-film era.”

I’m actually not terribly impressed by Pappademas’ chronology of the “geek film” per se. As he puts it,

What actually, technically happened was that in 2001, the first of Peter Jackson’s three “Lord of the Rings” movies brought in more than $66 million over its opening weekend. Jackson wasn’t just some clock-punching get-the-thing-shot movie director; he was a serious J.R.R. Tolkien fan who made the “Rings” movies with a fan’s attention to detail and a fan’s unwillingness to mess with Tolkien’s text. So he crammed as much of the books on the screen as humanly possible. (All those orcs, all that walking.) Fans noticed. Fans appreciated it. And studios began to see that the geeks were out there, eager to spend money on movie tickets, feeling underserved and ready to be wooed. So the studios followed the geeks to Comic-Con.

And maybe that’s how Comic-Con went from being Nerd Prom to a prime hunting for the Next Big Thing in Hollywood, but that seems a rather anemic account of the rise of the geek film.

If by “geek film” Pappademas means movies that succeeded by appealing to geeks, I think we could start a bit further back than Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies. Even a year earlier we could look at M. Knight Shyamalan’s dreadful bait-and-switch Unbreakable as making an appeal to geekdom everywhere, and a year before that, the Wachowski Brothers using The Matrix to bridge the gap between cyberpunk and comic book superheroes (and, of course, leather business wear). If Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) strikes you as too mainstream to fit the bill, well… you may be forgetting just how uncool Batman had gotten with audiences that were mostly familiar with the 1960s television incarnation. But even if we assume that Batman had, by the late-80s, shaken those kitschy overtones, what about Blade (1998), which successfully updated a horror/blacksploitation comic crossover for end of the century audiences? Better yet (or worse yet, depending on your point of view), what about The Crow (1994), which brought not only independent comics but also goth posturing into the mainstream?

Once we start considering the broader geek movie pantheon, Jackson seems less the catalyst of geek chic than someone like David Goyer, who was writing Crow sequels and Blade screenplays back when Jackson was making more respectable movie geek fare like Heavenly Creatures, Forgotten Silver, and The Frighteners. And if geek crew is where the new geek chic starts, then we might as well throw in luminaries like Quentin Tarantino, who was throwing in references to the Silver Surfer and Star Trek not only into his own movies, but also into big budget blockbuster fare like Crimson Tide.

So what does Zack Snyder bring to the mix? According to Pappademas,

Snyder is a native son of the geekverse. He’s a consummate action stylist who fills his frames with beautifully orchestrated mayhem — blood splatter, flying glass and billowing flames, often photographed in the kind of slow motion people associate with the moments immediately before and after a car wreck. But his clout really stems from his ability to speak geek culture’s language, both aesthetically and promotionally, and his fearlessness about working on that culture’s holiest ground, whether he’s remaking a zombie movie that geeks believe to be George Romero’s finest hour (“Dawn of the Dead,” 2004) or adapting graphic novels by comicdom’s most esteemed creators (“300” in 2006, and “ Watchmen” in 2009.)

Um, right.

Actually, and maybe this is where my geek credentials come into question, Snyder’s purported fearlessness seems to me more like the (apparently warranted) confidence that enough style will get you past all but the most thoughtful of geek audiences. Maybe that’s not entirely apparent with a movie like 300, since Frank Miller himself had, by that time, long since parted ways with nuance, but with a movie like Watchmen, there’s more grounds for comparison. Whatever you may think of its themes or tone, Alan Moore‘s comic book was about as densely packed a use of the mainstream comic form as one could imagine when it came out between 1986 and 1987. Snyder’s movie version may be appropriately dark and bloody, but next to its source text, it’s strangely slick and airy as well.

And, at least in principle, I’m fine with the differences. I’m not an adaptation purist. I’d rather see a movie adaptation take chances with its source material, in hope that those chances will lead to great cinema, rather than the adequate representation of a book (however great) on screen. Snyder’s adaptation so far haven’t been very daring. The slickness he’s brought to those projects could even be seen as the opposite of daring.

And perhaps that’s what’s called for if the point is to take comics to the mainstream, but it must be said that there’s something perverse about taking a politically and aesthetically subversive limited series like Watchmen and turning it into blockbuster fare. So when Snyder explains that,

“I like to think I have an evolved aesthetic [...] Except in certain areas of my life.”

I’m inclined to interpret it a bit differently. Pappademas thinks Snyder “means the movies,” but it looks to me like the movies are actually where Snyder takes those “certain areas” of his life to clean them up for public display. That goes even (or maybe especially) for Watchmen, despite Snyder’s claim to have retained the “controversy” of the books. In fact, you could go so far as to say that the translation of Moore’s complicated play of ideas into a brandable controversy is part and parcel of how Snyder cleaned up Watchmen for the movie-going public.

The fact is, Snyder does have an evolved aesthetic, and has used it to open previously geeked-out strongholds to the $12-dollar opening night box office public. It’s somewhat mystifying that Pappademas would bother to

… suggest to Snyder that by making movies aimed so squarely at the geek universe, he has basically staked his career on pleasing an audience that is notoriously never happy with anything.

By now it should be clear that Snyder’s movies don’t strive to catch a geek audience. Rather, they thrive on a broad, largely non-geek audience (assuming, pace Patton Oswald, that there is any such thing now). To suppose that Snyder aims for the former and catches the latter misses the point. The inverse is truer: that Snyder aims for the broader audience, and has incidentally avoided the ire of the geeks. And to the extent that he’s managed to pull that off, he’s done so by the application of the very style that does so much to undermine the content of his source material.

In particular, I have one trick in mind. It’s a clever one, mind you. We get a glimpse of it when Pappademas mentions Snyder’s

… beautifully orchestrated mayhem — blood splatter, flying glass and billowing flames, often photographed in the kind of slow motion people associate with the moments immediately before and after a car wreck.

Wait, you say. That’s it? Slow motion? True, cinematographers and directors have been using slow motion since the beginning of cinema. Some of the earliest experiments in motion photography were attempts to slow down real actions in order to study them. So what we’re talking about is nothing new, right?

Right, except that Snyder uses slow motion compositionally. He is, as Pappademas rightfully points out, meticulous in those compositions. He’s doing not so much to slow down the action as to allow the viewer’s eyes to linger on the way elements of the shot are arranged within the frame. To put a finer point on it, Snyder’s use of slow motion and ramping emulates the classic super hero comic action spread.

Thus, almost invariably, when the action ramps down in a Snyder movie, it’s to nearly freeze the action on the sort of composition that makes most sense in a still image: mid-action, on iconic poses, and with the sort of distressed detail typical of the 80s and 90s heyday of comics artists like Jim Lee and Todd McFarlane. That use of ramping encourages comic book fans to read the movie frame much the way they’d read a comic book panel, and ramping up to the next “spread” emulates the same sort of interstitial closure achieved by a comic book reader in the gutter between panels. It’s a tricky balance, and to Snyder’s credit, it does suggest the feel of a comic book better than most of the artifice used in comic book movies, and without losing inherent cinematic form.

It’s also a gimmick, and apart from winning over some potential geek skeptics, I can’t see that it really adds anything to his movies. But then, dousing the ire of geeks may be all its intended to achieve.

is the founder and editor-in-chief of Culture Ramp.
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