Really, why does Zack Snyder still get work?
The knee-jerk reaction is along the lines of "his movies make money". But the thing is, I'd argue that most of those movies would have made money regardless.
Let's have a look at his movies to date:
- Dawn of the Dead
- Legend of Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole
- Sucker Punch
- Man of Steel
- 300: Rise of an Empire
- Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice
- Suicide Squad
Of these, I would say that really only Dawn of the Dead and 300 could be classed as average to good movies (based on aggregates), and 300 is shaky at best in that category.
Having not seen the owl movie, I can't personally comment on it, but it has been described as having a "dark tone and dazzling visuals" but "let down by a story that never lives up to its full potential". And that's really it, isn't it? Looking through Snyder's movies, you could slap those labels onto just about any one of them and they would be entirely accurate.
Now, let's break his movies (on the whole) down a little.
The one thing to Snyder's credit is that he does create good visuals, if a little overdone and with a bit too much beat-you-over-the-head symbolism at times. However, the usual idea with having good visuals is to create the desired aesthetic for the movie in question, which he arguably does not do well. He has great individual visuals, but they are often not cohesive.
Since this is UG, let's bring in a music production analogy here. One of what I would regard as a golden rule of producing and mixing an album or EP is that the aesthetic should be cohesive across its entirety. Even if an individual song may sound slightly better as a standalone if mixed differently, many would argue that it would serve the overall album better to retain a degree of homogeneity between songs to serve the aesthetic of the album.
It would not surprise me if Snyder's production process involved coming up with a series of cool visuals, and then trying to write the story around how to transition from one visual to the next. This may be all well and good to some, but I don't think I am in the minority in saying that this would probably result in an extremely disjointed and choppy product without some incredible storytelling - and this brings me to my next point.
Zack Snyder is a good storyboarder, but he is anything but a good storyteller. Visuals are a component of storyboarding, but without the correct pacing between visuals, a movie will not come across as a good story, no matter the calibre material you are working with. Pacing is incredibly important in storytelling and it is perhaps the thing that Snyder is up there in contention for "worst at pacing" in all of big movie history.
None of Snyder's movies this decade have felt well-paced, and they all try to arrive at a point without the adequate prefacing and development of ideas. Primarily, I am looking at Sucker Punch and Man of Steel. Both of these movies have excellent visuals, but they all also fall victim to messy, and ultimately, poor, pacing and storytelling.
Both Sucker Punch and Man of Steel tackle (or at least attempt to) issues of inner conflict at some point in their stories. However, in both cases, the viewer is really only made to be acutely aware of this in the last 15 minutes or so of the movie. In particular, the opening and closing lines from Sweet Pea in Sucker Punch:
--- Opening: "Everyone has an Angel. A Guardian who watches over us. We can't know what form they'll take. One day, old man. Next day, little girl. But don't let appearances fool you, they can be as fierce as any dragon. Yet they're not here to fight our battles, but to whisper from our heart. Reminding that it's us. It's every one of us who holds power over the world we create"
--- Closing: "And finally this question, the mystery of whose story it will be. Of who draws the curtain. Who is it that chooses out steps in the dance? Who drives us mad? Lashes us with whips and crowns us with victory when we survive the impossible? Who is it, that does all of these things? Who honors those we love for the very life we live? Who sends monsters to kill us, and at the same time sings that we will never die? Who teaches us what's real and how to laugh at lies? Who decides why we live and what we'll do to defend? Who chains us? And who holds the key that can set us free... It's you. You have all the weapons you need. Now fight!"
The opening was good - it foreshadowed what was to come, essentially as any movie should in some way or another. The problem was the ending - it tried to tack on a message about choice and self-determination over adversity that makes some vague sense if you read the monologues back to back like this, but it certainly did not in the continuity of the movie. We spent an hour or two looking at young, scantily clad women in action sequences with a very, very loose adjoining storyline about how Sweet Pea needed to collect a few things to reach a stage where an escape was possible. But then we get told "oh she already actually had all the stuff she needed" and were presented to it as if it was a profound idea at the last minute.
Man of Steel falls into a similar trap in the scene where Clark kills Zod. At no point leading up to this do we see Clark's hesitation to harm or kill Zod, not that he'd really had the chance anyway. However, suddenly he becomes conflicted about not wanting to do harm (despite the carnage he had just created over the last however long of the movie) to anyone. As viewers, unless we were already greatly familiar with Superman, we would have had zero knowledge of the idea that Clark wanted to not kill anything at all and just lock away what needed locking up. Man of Steel gives us none of that, and we just see gigantic action sequences with Superman fighting his opponents with a complete disregard for his surroundings, doing whatever it took to stop them. Then suddenly, we are sprung with the idea that he doesn't want to hurt/kill anyone despite all the evidence to the contrary. On top of that, he exhibits self-doubt and remorse, and a shabby message about the preservation of life or something... that we get none of until it happens. This made no sense in the continuity of the movie and is a big part of why it was received so poorly.
There are two ways of looking at these:
1. The messages needed to be more overtly brought in at an earlier stage of the movie to properly serve its desired aesthetic in relating to self-determination
--- This is a symptom of poor storytelling in the face of what is meant to be good storytelling material
2. The messages should have been scrapped entirely because it presented the movie as something it very clearly was not up until that point
--- This is an inability to view a movie in its entirety, and arguably that he never looked at the movie with fresh eyes in order to understand its continuity and flow
These are common problems here. Snyder's movies often feel like they are trying to be something that they are not and feel like they are squandering what could have been good material.
A movie like Avatar, for example, is another that has great visuals. By no means is it a good movie from a story standpoint, but there is no stage in the movie where the viewer is made to feel confused about what they are meant to be watching. It is a movie of aliens, colours and explosions and does not deviate from that path. A movie like the Expendables (and 2) is similar in that it is a movie of guns, gratuitous violence and action hero cameos. It never tries to be something that it is not and never pretends that it will be a good story, but it is cohesive in its own space.
Nolan's Batman works with its subversive dark and brooding nature, the Lord of the Rings really makes itself feel arduous and large, the Pirates of the Carribean uses its Disney flair and remains (mostly) lighthearted, even the Star Wars prequels demonstrate cohesion and a trueness to themselves (I have purposefully only cited blockbuster movies since that is what Snyder's repertoire is essentially exclusive to).
These movies all vary in the calibre of their source material, but they never try to do something that they are not. Their endings satisfy the expectations and boundaries of their preceding stories. The main exception to this type of thing is in movies with twist endings such as the Sixth Sense, the Usual Suspects, Primal Fear or Fight Club. However, these movies all sit within their boundaries and provide endings that are consistent. Also, questionably bar Watchmen (very, very questionably), none of Snyder's movies are meant to have twists anyway.
In contrast, Dawn of the Dead never tried to be something it wasn't and that is a big part of why it has been more well received.
Many die-hard Snyder fans say that people just misunderstand the depth that movies like Sucker Punch/(insert other Snyder movie) present. Let's step back and look at the work of Tommy Wiseau. For those of you who don't know who Tommy Wiseau is, he made a movie called "The Room" which has been panned as (just about) the worst movie of all time, and has a cult following because of how bad it is.
Much of the problem that The Room had was that it simply made random statements through out the movie and assumed the viewer would understand how those statements permeate through the movie, both in terms of plot and feel. The storytelling in the movie did absolutely nothing to sell these ideas to the viewer and make them understand. This is exactly the same thing that Snyder does - he makes a statement and expects the viewer to be moved by the statement without actually trying to sell it to them. Character and plot depth do not come simply from just having a few lines in dialogue - the people with input into the production of the movie must really sell those ideas to the viewer so that there is some part of them invested in the movie.
Now, I don't mean to insult these viewers, but let's swap Wiseau into Snyder's position. Even with the worst director of all time, I would think that many Snyder movies could have done equivalently at the Box Office and critically as what they have. 300 - maybe. Sucker Punch - probably. Watchmen, Man of Steel, BvS, Suicide Squad - absolutely yes. Dawn of the Dead - sure, probably not.
Now let's do something similar with the other movies I listed above: Avatar - maybe. The Expendables - probably. Star Wars prequels - maybe. Nolan's Batman, the Sixth Sense, the Usual Suspects, Primal Fear, Fight Club - absolutely not. Pirates - they wouldn't have made the second or third ones because it would have died after the first (they only decided to make them after the first did so well).
Masses of people would have seen some of Snyder's movies irrespective of his input or how good/bad they were. I realise that much of the Box Office results are speculation, but I think many would be hard pressed to disagree. But given all of this, to me, I really wonder why he still gets work. In my eyes, he does not bring anything to the table that other directors who are significantly better in other areas than him do. James Cameron and Michael Bay are two names who spring to mind who, whilst they have slightly different direction visually, are on par with Snyder - but very importantly have far better storytelling and cohesion in their movies than Snyder does. Yes, I just said that Michael Bay is a better storyteller in terms of flow and pacing than Zack Snyder. Don't get me wrong, Michael Bay is far from great, but at least he has the Rock, Armageddon, and to a lesser extent the first Transformers movie (note: I am just saying that it was paced correctly, not that the movie was good) as evidence to the contrary, as compared to, really only Dawn of the Dead.
tl;dr Zack Snyder is very replaceable and does not offer anything particularly significant over others in his line of work. Without him, the movies that he has been involved in would garner largely the same response from a monetary standpoint because the people who like and are excited by his movies will see them irrespective of his input.