After “Justice League,” Zack Snyder’s “Last Photograph” Is Worth More Than a Thousand Words to His Career

Justice LeagueMondo/WB

So I saw Justice League over the weekend and as I was watching the film, it became pretty clear to me that was in a no-win situation here. If people liked it, then replacement director Joss Whedon was going to get a lot of the kudos, and if they didn’t, Zacky Boy was going to get most of the blame. He is, in the end, the only director credited on the film, and it was always his baby, this being the third DCEU movie he has helmed for Warner Bros. — and the fifth the studio has released. The final recognized cost of the film, I am told by Someone Who Knows These Things, is $275 million, with another $150 million spent on marketing, which means it has to do around $750 million worldwide to break even, and that’s counting $100 million or so in ancillary revenue.

Now, from a business perspective, this means little to Warner Bros., because the merchandising profits alone will be in the nine figures, and will more than make up for any losses the film might incur. Or didn’t you notice all the little Wonder Women ringing your doorbell this past Halloween? Still, for the pure optics of it, if the movie doesn’t surpass Wonder Woman’s $821 million worldwide, much less its $412M domestic gross (and with its $96 million opening, it sure won’t), it has to be seen as something of a failure.

More specifically, ’s failure, because his inability to shoot a coherent film is what led to Whedon’s involvement in the first place. Yes, I know Snyder suffered a horrible family tragedy, but we must recognize the enormous amount of reshoots that occurred over the summer, reshoots that were required because the movie Snyder originally shot was, according to the same Someone as above, frankly unwatchable.

The finished product is not. It is, ultimately, not nearly as awful as I expected it to be. This appears to be a fairly common reaction to the movie, which should tell you a great deal about Snyder’s recent DCEU work and the low expectation that has set. How often do you go into a film made by an “elite” director with that kind of negative attitude? Your answer should echo mine: never.

That same Someone told me a story from the reshoots that should provide some insight as to why this is a phenomenon specific to Snyder. During a scene, Whedon gave one of the actors a bit of direction and told him to say his line as written. As the actor was walking toward his mark, he said absently, “It’ll be something like that, yeah.” It was at this point that Whedon stopped him in his tracks, called the entire cast over to him, and sternly reprimanded them about this practice they had apparently developed wherein they just say whatever they want, rather than what was written. He made it clear to them that this practice was to come to an immediate end, and it did. Afterward, it was pointed out to Whedon that, essentially, Snyder’s attitude towards the script was… indifferent, to say the least.

Lack of respect for the written word is precisely the problem with Snyder’s work, and the main reason why he is at something of an odd crossroads in his career. Snyder simply does not care a whit about telling a coherent story, and is only concerned about how the thing looks. He makes very pretty pictures, and even if he has a baffling affection for color desaturation, there is little doubt that the movies he directs often feature some stunning visuals, from 300 to Watchmen. But look at his oeuvre, and you’d also be hard-pressed to find much in the way of actual storytelling.

I will recognize that he has made three movies that more people like than dislike, though I can only claim true appreciation for his first, a remake of George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. His next two movies were 300 and Watchmen, and I generally choose to agree to disagree with people about the quality of those movies. I happen to think the first is a triumph of visual effects in service of a ridiculous story, and that the second is a disappointing adaptation of the greatest graphic novel ever written. It is, essentially, a panel-for-panel film version of Alan Moore’s epic, which makes it coherent, even if there is nothing terribly imaginative, cinematic, or dynamic about it.

After the animated Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole — which I have not seen and, therefore, cannot judge — came the completely incomprehensible Sucker Punch, and then the three DCEU films — Man of SteelBatman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and now, Justice League. The first two can charitably be referred to as movies that some people found somewhat entertaining, and combined, they grossed about $1.5 billion worldwide — which is what is so strange about the crossroads at which Snyder finds himself.

I think it’s safe to say that most directors who have achieved the same level of financial success that Snyder has achieved wouldn’t find themselves in so much professional trouble at this stage of their career, especially without a scandal to jeopardize his standing in the industry. And yet, that’s exactly where Snyder sits, especially after Justice League’s weak opening. Some have insisted that his partnership with Warner Bros. is over, and that the studio has no further interest in working with him, though at the moment, the studio is slated to make his next film, The Last Photograph, in March… though the studio isn’t listed on the film’s IMDb page. I suppose we’ll see how that shakes out, but it’s sort of besides the point.

No matter who releases The Last Photograph, a drama about two men and the picture that inspires them to travel to war-torn Afghanistanthe movie now serves as something of a referendum on Snyder’s career. The man who let his actors say pretty much whatever they wanted while shooting this enormous superhero movie, and paid the consequences for that laissez-faire attitude, now has to show that the written word actually has value to him as a storyteller. Snyder co-wrote the script with his 300 collaborator Kurt Johnstad, and as I mentioned above, I wasn’t terribly impressed with that film, so my expectations aren’t terribly high for this one. But then again, I’m not the one Snyder needs to impress with his next at-bat, as I’m not empowered to hire him for whatever might come after this one, which has a lot riding on it.

It’s important to note that each of the three movies he made after 300 and before Man of Steel lost money, and The Last Photograph will be just the second film he has made that isn’t based on some form of IP. The other was Sucker Punch, which is hardly a great precedent, being as it is his biggest flop, forcing Warners to take a write-down of about $50 million on the fantasy project. I don’t know what the budget on this next one is going to be, but my bet is it’ll be a fraction of the $82 million he got to make that flick. Meanwhile, if The Last Photograph suffers the same fate at the box office, alarm bells are going to be sounding all over town, if they aren’t already.

You might chide me for being especially bearish on Snyder’s prospects moving forward, but the thing is, just as I can’t think of any directors of his stature whose work engenders such low expectations, nor can I think of any who made a bunch of high-profile movies, and only then became a strong, assured, and skilled filmmaker. Usually, someone shows signs of improvement on their way to such revered status, and doesn’t, y’know, all of a sudden figure things out. It’s possible Snyder will become the first, but, come on, that doesn’t seem terribly likely…


Neil Turitz 2 is a filmmaker and journalist who has spent close to two decades working in and writing about Hollywood. Feel free to send him a tweet at @neilturitz. He’ll more than likely respond.

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4 Responses to After “Justice League,” Zack Snyder’s “Last Photograph” Is Worth More Than a Thousand Words to His Career

  1. I think there are several notes of truth here – but have to disagree with you that a filmmaker like Snyder’s biggest flaw is lack of adherence to a script as written.
    Case in point: Thor Ragnarak, and another director – Taika Waititi’s – strict adherence to Improv, among all his actors, on set.
    What’s the difference between the two?
    Imrov is an art form. It takes an improv actor, usually, to direct a troupe or cast of improv actors – or at least, a seasoned improv / method actor to take a scripted character and further develop a wider “coverage” of possible lines, based on their grasp of that character’s inner motives & desires.
    I think you’re spot on when highlighting Snyder’s predisposition towards the visual, over the sensible.
    I teach a class on Character Design for kids, and explained to them the difference between “structured storytelling” and “non-linear” video-making. Many music video directors do not require story-telling skills to make compelling visuals for 5 minute songs. Their response was “but Taylor Swift’s got a story in her video”.
    And that’s the difference. Snyder is not a seasoned filmmaker who was brought in to direct music videos as short stories/ films. He is a non-linear visual stylist who – to date – has not demonstrated once his ability to tell a coherent, fully structured beginning, middle, end story of his own, on film (that wasn’t already fully written by a different writer, in a fully visualized medium as a film or graphic novel.)

    I think the big “money” question here is – how much of the time most directors use towards getting coverage of shots and dialogue is spent, on Snyder’s sets – planning how to fix it in “post”?

    Whedon essentially finished an unfinished film, by in-filling story beats and character beats – not just humor & whit (although in superhero films, as we’ve seen w/ Avengers & Ragnarok, sometimes those go hand in hand) where they did not exist – and this has become painfully clear.

    So the jury is out:
    Can Snyder tell a coherent story, direct a cast of actors, and guide a compelling, clear character arc – that has not already been told before?

    Seems like an important question, to consider giving him another $300 million

    to figure out on his own, with no one else telling him, frankly,
    that he needs to go back to film school & learn some basics of his professional craft.

  2. Snyder is a genius. You don’t connect with his work. Plenty of us do. He doesn’t do a lot of talking heads exposition dumps because he prefers the story to be teased out in the visuals. Maybe this is your problem with his work?

    I can explain Sucker Punch to you if you want? It’s far from incomprehensible. MoS & BvS are 2 of the best comic movies ever made. I’ve heard this “unwatchable” quote thrown around a fair bit. I can’t find a valid source other than “Batman on Film” who “heard it from someone”. Justice League was gutted as soon as Snyder had his back turned while Warner Brothers assured the fans they were “following through on Snyder’s vision”… Lies. It was all to appeal to the DC haters. Nevermind the fans that have supported them over the last 5 years.

    Thing about Snyder’s movies… If you connect with them they REALLY hold up to re-watching. His work has layers, not the watch once and forget dopamine hit a lot of cinema has devolved into nowadays. Oh, and FYI… the directors cut of Watchmen is a masterpiece. I can’t think of another director EVER that has garnered such consistent, unwarranted hate while at the same time nearly all his movies have been cut for theatrical release by the studio and restored later in far superior directors cuts.

    • I’m not a Snyder diehard like you, but I do enjoy his movies for the most part. I don’t think he is totally incompetent, but I also wouldn’t call him a genius. I wanted to piggyback on something you said and possibly hear how you respond to it.

      “He doesn’t do a lot of talking heads exposition dumps because he prefers the story to be teased out in the visuals.”

      Saying that his stories are “teased out in the visuals” is, in a way, acknowledging that plot takes a backseat in Snyder’s movies. Firstly, he does have exposition dialog dumps in his movies, they just tend to come in between action scenes. The story isn’t told *in* his visuals, the story is what happens in between them. SUCKER PUNCH is probably the clearest example of this because the narrative serves almost the exclusive purpose of setting up another action scene.

      Take a movie like Peter Jackson’s KING KONG. You could watch that film on mute and understand the plot and character motivations. That is what actual visual storytelling is. Images can tell a story, obviously, but Snyder seems to see them only as separate entities.

      Neil points out in his article that Snyder doesn’t care to adhere to any written word. I agree, but also don’t know if it would make much of a difference if he did. Snyder’s visuals aren’t narratively compelling, so it is hard to imagine a strong script would have much effect.

      I’ll admit that I really like the director’s cut of WATCHMEN, but Snyder’s style and visuals don’t elevate the material, it just echos it. It is so slavishly faithful it’s like a copy and paste. I think I enjoy that film because I like the story and themes of WATCHMEN and there are some compelling performances. It isn’t necessarily because Zach Snyder brought something interesting to it. My point is: even given the great source material of WATCHMEN, and remaining nearly frame-to-frame faithful, the end result still wasn’t that beyond expectations.

      • I’ll try to answer everything you ask to the best of my ability. I quote you for my own benefit not to be argumentative fyi.

        Saying that his stories are “teased out in the visuals” is, in a way, acknowledging that plot takes a backseat in Snyder’s movies.
        – 100% disagree. I feel the visuals compliment the plot. The dialogue and plot beats are worked into the scenes in natural ways that convey meaning integral to the plot itself. A lot of people are conditioned to roll their eyes or not fully take in a scene once they percieve a switch to green screen or detect CGI. This is likely due to over a decade of Hollywood executing techniques poorly, coupled with the technology getting better over time. Many of Snyders shots rely more on angles and camera trickery than CGI but his style still gets equated to “bad video game visuals with no depth” which couldn’t be further from the truth. There are layers in his movies. They’re like a puzzle you piece together. They generate discussion. There’s subtext and allegory. Depth of emotion. They attempt to say something about the human condition. Given all that I don’t think your “plot takes a backseat” statement stands.

        “Firstly, he does have exposition dialog dumps in his movies, they just tend to come in between action scenes.”
        – The only real exposition dumps that come to mind from Snyder’s work are a couple scenes in 300 and the scene in Man of Steel where Jor-El describes Krypton’s history and societal collapse. Both of these scenes have something in common… There is a voice-over narrating amazing visuals, each giving the other more context and depth. TRUE exposition dumps, like Whedon’s in Justice League, are just talking heads standing around describing the plot with a few wide camera angles thrown in… like a soap opera. Unimaginative, uninteresting… Think about Man of Steel. Remember the bit where they go over the plan that was given to Lois by Jor-El? That’s kind of a quick exposition dump. “Get the thing activated and crash it into the other thing? Sounds like a viable plan. Let’s do it guys”. That is filmed and acted in such a way to make it feel URGENT. Everybody needs to understand this and get on board because time is of the essence. They only had days in Justice League to stop the threat but I didn’t feel any time constraints or sense of urgency partly because they’re all spending so much time walking by the lake or standing around chatting on obvious studio sets.

        “The story isn’t told *in* his visuals, the story is what happens in between them. SUCKER PUNCH is probably the clearest example of this because the narrative serves almost the exclusive purpose of setting up another action scene.”
        – I’m sorry but you’re wrong. This is probably a big reason why Sucker Punch goes over many heads. The visuals ARE the story in many instances. I also really don’t think you can accuse Sucker Punch of having exposition dumps.

        “Take a movie like Peter Jackson’s KING KONG. You could watch that film on mute and understand the plot and character motivations.”
        – Yes, I didn’t like it. It was “fine”. I turned off mentally at the bit with all the Brontosaurus’ falling over everyone but crushing no one. “Oh, it’s that type of movie”. Ironically, this is the type of movie people constantly (incorrectly) accuse Snyder of making. Jackson is a big fan of strategic videogame aesthetics in CGI. The Hobbit was guilty of this. Let me explain: There was a scene where the Hobbits fell down a large cliff on a wooden gantry. It somehow held together and they had a little carnival ride… stupid and pulls me out of the movie. There was also a comparable sequence towards the end of one of the Hobbit movies where the tree’s knocked into each other like dominoes… silly. The barrel ride in the river… dumb.

        “Snyder’s visuals aren’t narratively compelling”
        – I mean… agree to disagree dude.

        “WATCHMEN… the end result still wasn’t that beyond expectations.”
        – Uh huh… I challenge you to think of another director that would have gotten those results. Watchmen would have been a mess in anyone elses hands and you know it.

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