Zack Snyder has always presented some magisterial images in cinema: movie making that demands to be taken at the scale of breathless mythos and heavy-handed awe. And hey, I’m not trying to knock it. True it’s not for me, but shockingly in this world, not everything is made to conform to my tastes. And besides, plenty of dudes out there seem to enjoy it. I mean, storytelling on the scale of mythology, miracles, and wonders seems pretty fitting for telling the literal myths of 300 or the origin story of Superman. But his movies don’t belong to the realm of realism any more than Superman does.
There’s a tremendous mismatch that always gets me in Snyder’s work: when he does try to get you to believe his grandiose characters exist in a realistic setting. Man of Steel took aim at a level of grounded realism and swung wide, landing in the same arena of slow-mo melodrama and magic that characterizes everything that comes out of Snyder’s head. More pointedly, Watchmen takes a famously gritty, tangible alternative reality and turns it slick and bloated with deep-focus movie magic.
This is all to say: Snyder has an unfortunate history with the mash-up of god-tier beings in a human world—not so much in realizing his god-tier beings, but more in realizing his human-world setting.
This has been pretty frustrating for me as a comics fan, where grounded moments like Tom King’s Mister Miracle sitting-on-the-couch-watching-TV sequences or Batman ordering fast food or a superhero winding down for bed in N.K. Jemisin’s Far Sector make the sense of the story feel present, tangible, and alive. I can imagine Snyder trying to execute those scenes. I can’t imagine him capturing the grounded side of comic-book storytelling.
Then, I had a pleasant surprise. In the opening sequence of The Boys, the thinly-veiled Justice League parallels make their heroic entrance—namely, Queen Maeve appears out of nowhere as an armored truck splinters in slow motion around her body. Extremely Snyder, as introductions go.
That’s when the shift happens. After the impressively staged action sequence in which
Wonder Woman and Superman Queen Maeve and Homelander save the day and the lives of hapless bystanding children, the energy changes. Suddenly it’s just selfies and photo-ops—just two beautiful people in impressive costumers on the sidewalk, like celebrity spotting in Manhattan and seeing your go-to talk show host in their mortal, non-televised form.
There’s a parallel moment in the opening portion of Justice League, where a bunch of kids are filming a benevolent Superman in a moment of calm. I think the contrast does a decent job encapsulating the difference between The Boys’ realism and Snyder’s: in Snyder’s filmmaking, the superheroes take you out of the ordinary world, and realism’s claim on the heroes is just a smokescreen for their otherworldly tremendousness. In The Boys, the superheroes don’t get to be distinct from their more-mortal backdrop; the pretentions of some deep exceptionalism is where true evil rears its head.
I also think it’s a pretty fitting comparison especially in the context of Watchmen: both Watchmen and The Boys are adaptations of that genre of gritty, grounded comics that take the tropes of superheroics and punctures them, lets the air out, and dangles the un-amazing and flatly depressing remains in each panel. From the starting point of cerebral, high-concept, anti-superhero superhero comics, The Boys’ achievement of superhero grandeur in the messy realism of our world stands as a pretty tremendous success … versus Watchmen, which sure tried.
The Boys seems to have a much more coherent grip on the complexity of the failures of heroism, of the price of an image versus dealing in terms of purity and absolute truth. It’s the kind of realism that I feel Snyder continually reaching for—these powerful, grandiose, beloved figures packaged into a flawed mortal world. It’s the kind of touch where Starlight visits the superhero bathroom in the superhero headquarters to puke. Or where disaster strikes without awe or grandeur—just a mess and a subsequent horrifying realization that there’s no such thing as accountability for superhumans.
This isn’t to bash on Snyder, like I said: his vision is his vision and we’re all living in a world where that is a very, very well-funded and widely consumed vision. It’s not like he’s going anywhere. That said, The Boys has done on the small screen what Snyder has gestured toward again and again in decades of high-budget movie-making.
Header Image Source: Amazon Prime