Auteur theory is one of the most hotly debated topics on the Internet. Now, a new, unlikely movie has entered the fold, and it seems to unintentionally prove that there's merit to a director's authorial intent.
Remember just a little over a year ago, when the hottest debate on the Internet was whether or not Marvel movies were part of the cinematic landscape or just cookie-cutter amusement park rides? At the time, Martin Scorsese longed for comic book movies to embrace a unique director's vision and become more than themselves.
Well, this past week, The Snyder Cut dropped on HBO Max, and it seems to be the comic book movie Scorsese has longed for—but don't take my word for it.
Check out what brilliant critic Matt Zoller Seitz had to say about the film: "This four-hour cut is the kind of brazen auteurist vision that Martin Scorsese was calling for when he complained (rightly) that most modern superhero movies don't resemble cinema as he's always understood and valued it."
So today I wanted to dissect whether or not the existence of Snyder's Justice League actually does an incredible amount of work proving auteur theory.
Let's dig into the topic.
What Is Auteur Theory and What Does "Auteur" Mean?
An "auteur" is a specific kind of director who has such a strong signature sensibility that you know his or her film without seeing their name on it. The director's fingerprints are on everything, from the cinematography to the score, to the sound, to even the screenplay.
Auteur theory argues that a film is a reflection of the director’s artistic vision; so, a movie directed by a given filmmaker will have recognizable, recurring themes and visual queues that inform the audience who the director is (think a Scorsese or Tarantino film). This can be tracked consistently throughout that director’s filmography.
The term “auteur theory” is credited to the critics of the French film journal Cahiers du cinéma, many of which became the directors of the French New Wave.
So let's ask a big question here... is Zack Snyder an auteur?
Zack Snyder: The Auteur
Snyder's career echoes many directors who came into prominence in the 1990s. He was doing commercials and music videos for major bands and advertisers when he got the call into feature films. His first work, Dawn of the Dead, was a remake of a George Romero classic that he effectively remixed into a more modern aesthetic.
Gone was the subtlety of the original, but out of its ashes rose a movie that showed speed-ramped zombies tearing the flesh off survivors inside a mall. From there, he became a household name by adapting Frank Miller's 300 to the big screen, creating a surprise blockbuster in the process. His use of green and blue screen technology became a signature. He's carried this over to his adaptation of Watchmen, his original work on Sucker Punch, and into the DC Comics universe with Man of Steel.
As you've read, to be an auteur, you have to have a consistent visual style that's easily tracked across the landscape of your work. Snyder has that in spades. Snyder's pop influences, from his slow-motion camera work to his snap-zooms to his color palette have been consistent.
Without discussing the quality of some of the films, Snyder brought an uncanny ability to inject his own voice and perspective to his characters and the visuals. You can tell a Zack Snyder film when you look at it.
He has a clear worldview on display. It's sort of a beautiful nihilism. We see hope often wrestle with reality. Characters often wax whimsically or are nostalgic for a past that might not have been that sunny.
This all carried over to his most recent film... his four-hour opus, Justice League.
Does The Snyder Cut Prove Auteur Theory?
I have to admit that I am an auteur theory skeptic. Even though I think directors like Spike Lee, Paul Thomas Anderson, Jane Campion, and Martin Scorsese have individual stories, tones, and styles that differentiate them from all others, it's hard for me to ignore that a lot of their vision is brought to the screen via collaboration.
Is Spielberg the same without Janusz Kaminski? Does Scorsese become Scorsese without Thelma Schoonmaker or even Paul Schrader?
A lot of times I like to think about what a movie would look like if someone else made it. Did a director bring so much of themselves to it that it could not be made by anyone else?
Well, with The Snyder Cut, I don't have to theorize about that. I can see it in action. Joss Whedon's Justice League is vastly different than the one presented by Zack Snyder. Using a lot of the same footage Snyder had available, Joss Whedon assembled something many critics found to be banal and soulless. Sure, this might have been because of studio interference or just not having control of the movie from the start, but there is no denying that when given the chance, Snyder delivered his opus.
It was a bold and long movie, but it was a Zack Snyder one through and through. Sure, many people worked on it, and there were a ton of reshoots and tweaking, but what we got was undeniably one person's vision at the end.
This is auteurism. And we have to talk about it that way. Even if it feels... vulgar.
'The Snyder Cut'Credit: Warner Bros.
Let's have a vulgar conversation
One of my favorite things to do on this site is to learn about new theories and movements within film criticism that we can explore. And in researching for this piece, I came across something called "vulgar auteurism."
The term was first used by critic Calum Marsh in an article for The Village Voice where he explained that it covered “unfairly maligned or under-discussed filmmakers working exclusively in a popular mode.”
The example he gave was of Justin Lin, who made the Fast and Furious franchise what it is today.
According to Wikipedia, "Vulgar auteurism is a movement in latter-day cinephilia and film criticism associated with championing or reappraising filmmakers, mostly those working in the horror and action genres and whose work has supposedly been overlooked or unfairly maligned by the critical mainstream."
I ask you, "Is there a more vulgar auteur than Zack Snyder?"
While many of the directors cited earlier have played with narrative form and limits, Snyder has worked exclusively in the studio system, delivering entertainment for the masses. He is constantly creating and honing his vision within this system to deliver action and genre set pieces that do not resemble anyone else in the business.
I put it to you that Snyder represents the ultimate democratization of auteur theory, and probably should be celebrated as such.
But this being an open forum, let's take the discussion to the comments to see what everyone else thinks.