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Every Zack Snyder Movie, Ranked

Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photos by Warner Bros and Netflix

Nobody has a measured opinion about Zack Snyder. You either love his hyperintense, hypermasculine aesthetic or you absolutely despise it. There’s no filmmaker who better represents Fanboy Cinema than Snyder, a guy who loved comic books and genre movies as a kid and has parlayed those passions into a very successful career. Starting with 2004’s Dawn of the Dead, a nervy remake of the beloved George A. Romero classic, he has been the poster boy for a form of sensation-driven movie that far outdoes the previous extremes that somebody like Michael Bay made his calling card. No one has ever translated comic books’ vividness of feeling and immediacy to the big screen so emphatically as Snyder — which is either a compliment or an insult depending on how you feel about comic books. But there’s no disputing that films like 300 and Watchmen are graphic novels brought to life. He digs this shit on a profound, molecular level.

Of course, it is very hard to separate the baggage of Snyder’s rabid internet fan base from the movies themselves. The idea of a “Snyder cut” of Justice League seemed laughable … until it happened, and the toxicity of some of his online followers would understandably make you want to write off someone who inspires such shameless defensive devotion. But it’s not entirely fair to conflate his fans’ demeanor with his own: By all accounts, Snyder is apparently a pretty lovely guy, even if his movies do brandish a not fully developed sense of feminism, despite his protests to the contrary. (“I’ve always been a super-strong advocate of women’s rights and a woman’s right to choose,” he said recently, “and I’ve always been surrounded by powerful women.”)

Sadly, Snyder hasn’t made headlines just because of his divisive films. The 2017 suicide of his daughter Autumn prompted him to step away from Justice League, but this year has seen him return to the limelight, releasing his four-hour cut of that superhero saga and the recent Army of the Dead in quick succession while talking poignantly about the shock of her death. Clearly, Snyder has gone through enormous anguish. But even so, how you felt about his work before that tragedy probably has not changed. Each one of his films wants to be the biggest, boldest, most epic thing you’ve ever seen — his only mission is to flatten you into submission. Below, we rank them from worst to best.

9. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)

Before you ask: No, we have not seen the director’s cut, which people assure us is better. We cannot fathom its being any worse. Batman v Superman was a dorm-room argument brought to the big screen — Hey, which superhero do you think would win in a fight?! — then puffed up with such tortured gravitas that it made it nearly impossible to root for either combatant. Ben Affleck’s debut as Batman was intentionally different from the previous actors’ incarnations — this Bruce Wayne is older, more embittered — but he’s nonetheless joyless, while Henry Cavill’s grim Superman felt weighed down by the script’s ponderous trappings. (Thank God The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and Mission: Impossible — Fallout clued the world in to what a sly, funny actor he could be — you’d never know it from watching him in Snyder’s films.) The “Martha/Martha” jokes write themselves, and the film’s lumbering attempt to pave the way for Justice League — hence the awkward subtitle — created the opposite of buzz for the next installment in this franchise. Sure, Batman v Superman looked cool — all Snyder’s films fulfill that basic requirement. But his bro-tastic excesses never seemed so painful. (Available to stream on HBO Max.)

8. Sucker Punch (2011)

Snyder has insisted that the sexy baby-doll outfits that the female characters wear in Sucker Punch was a form of commentary. “It’s funny because someone asked me about why I dressed the girls like that and I said, ‘Do you not get the metaphor there?’” he said. “The girls are in a brothel performing for men in the dark. In the fantasy sequences, the men in the dark are us. The men in the dark are basically me: dorky sci-fi kids.” Even if Sucker Punch is Snyder both indulging and critiquing fanboy ickiness, the film’s fatal flaw is that its Cuisinart of influences — action flicks, zombie movies, video games, samurai films, war pictures, moody hard rock — results in an indigestible stew that tries to be about female empowerment but, y’know, not really. The brazenness of his unfiltered vision has its appeal — this came from an original story by Snyder — but Sucker Punch deservedly bombed. Just please don’t tell us that there’s a director’s cut of this one, too. (Available to stream on Tubi.)

7. Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole (2010)

Most famous for a terrific ongoing 30 Rock joke — “You have to stay awake, Eglantine, or the pure ones will moon-blink us!” — Legend of the Guardians is Snyder’s one foray into family entertainment. Theoretically, this should work for Snyder: It’s not like his sensibility has ever been pitched as one centered around mature, nuanced thematic subtleties. But for all Snyder’s visual flair, the problem here is that, well, this is a movie about owls. It’s too serious to be silly and too silly to be taken seriously, and Snyder ends up adrift. This isn’t as brain-piercingly stupid as some of his other, worse movies, but it is weirdly distant and boring. It’s like his heart isn’t in it. Whatever Snyder was trying to prove here, it didn’t take. (Available to stream on HBO Max.)

6. Army of the Dead (2021)

Sorry, but weren’t we promised “fun” Snyder? After the years in the DC Universe morass, the whole notion of Army of the Dead was supposed to revolve around Snyder relaxing, kicking back, and blowing up some zombies in Vegas, old-school style. So why is this so dull? The zombie-fighting scenes have some kick, we guess, and he once again proves that if feature films don’t pan out for him, Snyder could become a brilliant work-for-hire craftsman of opening-credit sequences. But Snyder the writer does Snyder the director no favors. His characters are nothing burgers, the plot makes every obvious choice it could (and occasionally does so twice), and everyone talks like they forgot to go back to put in the real dialogue. Also this movie is at least 40 percent longer than it needs to be. This is definitive proof: There is no stripped-down, “fun” Snyder. Not anymore. (Available to stream on Netflix.)

5. 300 (2006)

300 highlights Snyder’s signature insight, such as it was. Basically, you could just dial up the comic book over-the-top-ness, inflate a story so far into the stratosphere that you can turn every character into a superhuman, and wring every ounce of wrenched-up drama out of every frame … and somehow get a four-quadrant megahit out of it. 300 is a movie that every professional athlete and professional wrestler worships, even though at times it does resemble PG-13 erotica. (Which may have been another insight.) The movie is ridiculous in every way, but it is sincere in its ridiculousness. Watching it will kill millions of brain cells at once, but it will also, like whippets, still get you high. (Available to stream on Peacock.)

4. Zack Snyder’s Justice League (2021)

How times change: When Joss Whedon came on to complete this Avengers-style epic, he was viewed as a genius with a golden touch, sure to bring some heart and humor to Snyder’s soggy, dire dirge. Well, just a few years later, Whedon has become a disgraced auteur accused of bullying the Justice League cast while Snyder, reeling from his daughter’s suicide, was embraced as a man who’d withstood tragedy and wanted to bring his bold cinematic vision to life. Indeed, the backstory to Zack Snyder’s Justice League is nearly as detailed as what goes on within the movie — which is, never forget, four hours long. This isn’t his best film, but it is most certainly his biggest swing, amping up all the drama, grandeur, pretentiousness, and self-important slo-mo into a comic-book extravaganza like no one has ever seen. This version is clearly better than the cobbled-together one Whedon unleashed on the world, especially in how it bolsters Ray Fisher’s Cyborg story line. And its ambitions can be thrilling, along with its graphic-novel solemnity and dark-hued visuals. But at any length, the story is still dopey — Mother Boxes, they’re called Mother Boxes — and the protracted epilogue makes you glad that he will probably never be allowed to make more of these. (Available to stream on HBO Max.)

3. Man of Steel (2013)

This was how the post-Nolan era of the DC universe began, with the Dark Knight director serving as a producer and overseeing Zack Snyder’s vision of Superman as a more somber version of the superhero than we knew back during the Christopher Reeve days. Snyder leaned hard on Kal-El’s abandonment issues — first, he loses his home planet, then his adoptive father (Kevin Costner) gets sucked up by a tornado — and the anguish of being a god among men. The reverent way in which he shot Henry Cavill was nearly mythic, but the self-seriousness is both striking and a little exhausting, setting the stage for every DCEU movie he’d make subsequently. Nonetheless, Man of Steel was the best of those attempts because, here, it still felt fresh, even revelatory. Plus, it didn’t hurt that he cast Michael Shannon as a maniacal General Zod and Amy Adams as a no-nonsense Lois Lane — even though Snyder’s inability to give her enough to do would soon be one of the gnawing frustrations with this franchise. (Available to stream on HBO Max.)

2. Watchmen (2009)

Filmmakers had been trying to figure out how to turn Alan Moore’s masterpiece into a film for so long, but the mistake they made, Snyder discovered, was trying to adapt it in the first place. Snyder turns the term “faithful adherence” into new dimensions, with swaths of the film constructed to mimic, exactly, what the comic was doing. The irony of this is that it makes you less likely to want to read the graphic novel: If anything, the movie feels like a CliffsNotes spoiler. Moore’s work is still so subversive and ingenious that some of it can’t help but rub off, and the first ten minutes briefly feels revolutionary, like Snyder had really cracked it. He hadn’t, and his additions (including the changing of the ending and that groaner of a Leonard Cohen moment) just make things worse. But still: Many, many terrific directors had tried and failed to make a movie version of Watchman. Snyder deserves credit just for getting the thing to stick together at all. (Available to stream on HBO Max.)

1. Dawn of the Dead (2004)

Snyder’s remake of George A. Romero’s anti-capitalist classic doesn’t have any of Romero’s subversive spirit: Snyder, at the end of the day, always wants to sell you something. But here, in his first feature-length film, Snyder is, at his core, simply selling himself: his style, his energy, his willingness to go a little nuts. Watching it today is a reminder that Snyder, for all his excesses, is undeniably talented, and the best parts of Dawn of the Dead are perfect little short films, indicators of a director just desperate to bust out and show you what he can do. (It also helps that, for a guy who has built movies around Superman, King Leonidas and Dave Bautista, he’s never had a more kick-ass lead character than Sarah Polley.) The movie is pitched solely at the level of fun, and therefore works better than anything he has done since. Is there any returning to this guy again? Does Snyder even remember him? (Available to rent on iTunes, Amazon, YouTube, Vudu and Google Play.)

Grierson & Leitch write about the movies regularly and host a podcast on film. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site.

Every Zack Snyder Movie, Ranked